The Grammarphobia Blog

Dribs and drabs

Q: In your recent post about dribbling, you talk about the long-dead verb “drib,” the source of “dribble.” Is that also the source of “dribs and drabs”?

A: Yes, that old verb “drib” gave us “dribs and drabs” as well as “dribble.”

As we noted in our post, the “dribble” we associate with basketball and drinking fountains comes from a defunct 16th-century verb, “drib.”

This old verb originally meant  “to fall in drops,” “to go on little by little,” and “to let fall or utter as in driblets,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A noun form showed up in Scottish and dialectal English in the early 18th century. This “drib” meant a “drop” or a “petty or inconsiderable quantity,” the OED says. In other words, it meant the same thing as the earlier “driblet.”

The noun “drib” was first recorded in the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay’s Ode From Horace (circa 1730): “That mutchkin-stoup it hauds but dribs” (“That small flagon it holds only dribs”).

Soon afterward, Jonathan Swift used the word in his satirical poem On Dr. Gibbs’s Psalms. (1745): “Thy heavy hand restrain; / Have mercy Dr. Gibbs; / Do not, I pray thee, paper stain / With rhymes retail’d in dribbs.” (We’ve expanded to citation to get in more of the poem.)

The usage eventually migrated to America, where Abraham Lincoln used it in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan on May 25, 1862: “We are sending such regiments and dribs from here and Baltimore as we can spare to Harper’s Ferry.”

But before Lincoln’s time, people were already using the expression “dribs and drabs” to mean bits and pieces (or, as the OED says, “small and intermittent sums or amounts”).

The earliest example in Oxford is from a letter written by an English governess named Ellen Weeton on March 17, 1809:

“Whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine…. You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.” (From Miss Weeton’s Journal of a Governess, Vol. 1, 1807-11.)

So what is a “drab”? Interestingly, the noun “drab” made its first appearance (pluralized) in that very expression. Before “dribs and drabs,” it had no independent existence—at least in that sense of the word.

Two earlier senses of “drab,” which the OED says are probably unrelated to this one, were first recorded in the early 1500s: (1) “a dirty or untidy woman,” as in a “slattern”; and (2) a “harlot, prostitute, strumpet.”

Apparently the expression “dribs and drabs” later inspired a separate use of “drab” to mean a small amount of money, a usage first recorded, the OED says, in the late 1820s.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from William Carr’s book The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (2nd ed., 1828): “Drab, a small debt. ‘He’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.’ ”

An entirely different “drab,” the adjective meaning dull, plain, or light brown, took on its various senses in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s believed to have evolved from a noun for plain, undyed cloth, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

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Druggist or chemist?

Q: In a pharmacy in the US, the person filling the prescriptions is often called a druggist. In England, that person is often called a chemist. How did this come about?

A: “Druggist” is one of many old words that Americans have preserved and the English have generally lost. Others include “skillet,” “sidewalk,” “apartment” (now a “flat” in the UK), “merry-go-round,” and “fall” (the season), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 17th century, English speakers in both America and England used the word “druggist” for someone who prepares and dispenses medicine (the Scots still do), but the English began switching to “chemist” in the 18th century. (A somewhat older term, “drugger,” is rarely seen now.)

English borrowed the word “druggist” from the French droguiste in the early 1600s. The first example in the OED is from Lanthorne and Candle-Light, a 1608 pamphlet by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Dekker about the tricks of London confidence men:

“Tongues had rather Spit venome on thy lines, then from thy labours (As Druggists doe from poison) medicines gather.”

In the 1600s, according to the OED, a “chemist” was someone who practiced chemistry or alchemy. Here’s an example using both “chemist” and “druggist,” from The Magicall-Astrologicall-Diviner, a 1652 attack on magic by the English Puritan cleric John Gaul:

“Two Chymists had agreed upon a cheat, that one of them should turn druggist and sell strange roots and powders: the other to follow still his gold finding trade” (we’ve expanded the OED citation to add context).

In the mid-1700s, the English began referring to pharmacists as “chemists.” The earliest example in Oxford is from A New Improvement in the Art of Making the True Volatile Spirit of Sulphur (1744), by Ephraim Rinhold Seehl: “The Shops of the Druggists, Chemists, and Apothecaries.”

And here’s an example from Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend (1865): “She arrived in the drug-flavoured region of Mincing Lane, with the sensation of having just opened a drawer in a chemist’s shop.”

By the way, the word “pharmacist,” which is used on both sides of the Atlantic, comes from pharmacia, classical Latin for the preparation of drugs.

The first OED citation is from Dr. Radcliffe’s Practical Dispensatory, a 1721 work by the English medical writer Edward  Strother:

“Who knows these, save the Philosopher, the Anatomist, the Chymist, the Mathematician, the Pharmacist, and the learned Observer?”

As for those other words, we’ve written about them (and many others) in “Stiff Upper Lips,” the chapter on US and UK English in Origins of the Specious, our book about language.

Since the Middle Ages, English speakers have used both “skillet” (1403) and “frying pan” (1382). Americans have kept both, but the British generally threw out the “skillet.” Both used to walk on a “sidewalk” (1739) or a “pavement” (1743), but Americans now use the former and the British the latter. (The dates are from OED citations.)

An “apartment” was the usual word for a suite of rooms in 17th-century England. The British didn’t start using “flat” for such a dwelling until the early 1820s.

Children generally ride on a “merry-go-round” in the US and a “roundabout” in the UK. Which is older? “Roundabout” (1763) is a roundabout way of saying “merry-go-round” (1729).

Finally, the season between summer and winter was once called “autumn” and “fall” on each side of the Atlantic. Americans kept both terms, but “fall” generally fell out of favor in the UK. If you’d like to read more, we’ve written about the subject on our blog.

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Color us plural

Q: Some friends from work were wondering if it’s correct to use colors in the plural when they’re nouns. We have a team called “Amber,” and we’re usually referred to as the “Ambers,” like my neighbors, the “Greens.”

A: There’s nothing wrong with that terminology. Words for colors aren’t just adjectives, as in “a pink dress.” They’re nouns, too, and even verbs.

As nouns, they can refer to the colors themselves (“Mix blue and yellow to get green”) or to things of that color (“If I bring wine, do you want a white or a red?”).

Such nouns can of course be pluralized, as in “There are so many different greens in the landscape,” or “The carriage was drawn by two dappled grays.”

And groups of people are commonly referred to this way as well: “The Reds meet the Phillies tomorrow at 4 p.m.” … “Participants re-enacted battle scenes between the Blues and the Grays.”

So members of a team known as “Amber” would naturally call themselves the “Ambers.”

We also use some color words as verbs meaning to turn that color: “First, brown the chicken” … “The sun may yellow the drapes” … “The lawn has greened up nicely.”

As for those neighbors, the “Greens,” this is simply a pluralization of a surname, like “the Smiths” or “the MacGregors.”

Many surnames happen to be the names of colors: “Black,” “White,” “Gray,” “Green,” and “Brown” are probably the most common.

A reader once asked why people have those color words as surnames, but almost no one is “Mr. Yellow” or “Ms. Purple.” As you can see from our reply, there’s no black-and-white answer.

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Page references

Q: I cannot help feeling that the word “page,” meaning a manservant, has something to do with the word “pageant,” which you discussed recently. Surely it was worth a mention.

A: Despite the similarity in appearance, the word “page,” in its servant sense, isn’t etymologically related to “pageant.” In fact, this “page” isn’t ultimately related to the “page” in a book either, though English borrowed both from the same French term.

The noun “page,” used in the sense you’re asking about, was adopted from French in the late 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle French, page meant a servant as well as one side of a sheet of paper.

The French acquired the servant sense of page (perhaps by way of Italian) from pagius, medieval Latin for a servant, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Here the trail turns lukewarm.

Chamber’s says pagius “perhaps ultimately” comes from paidós, classical Greek for a child. The OED says only that such an etymology has been “proposed.”

But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says pagius is “generally assumed”  to come from paidós, source of such English words as “encyclopedia,” “pediatric,” “pedagogue,” “pedophile,” and “pederast.”

The paper sense of the French word page showed up in English around 1485 as page references in the correspondence of the Celys, an English merchant family.

The OED says this sense of the French page is derived from pāgina, classical Latin for a written page or a piece of writing.

The word “pageant,” as we wrote on our blog, referred to a mystery play, a drama depicting biblical events, when it showed up in the late 1300s or early 1400s. It comes from multiple sources in French and Latin, none of them related to the servant sense of “page.”

The OED’s earliest example for “page” used in its servant sense is from The Lay of Havelock the Dane (circa 1280): “Was þer-inne no page so lite Þat euere wolde ale bite” (“Was therein no page so little that ever would ale bite”).

In the late 1300s, it came to mean a servant in a royal or noble household. And around 1400, it came to mean a youth in training for knighthood, ranking just below a squire.

The OED’s earliest citation for a knight’s “page” is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance: “Fyue hundreþ þousynde Kniȝttes to armes … Wiþouten pages and squyers” (“Five hundred thousand knights in arms … not counting pages and squires”).

Finally, the American sense of a “page” as a young person who runs errands in a court or a legislative body showed up in the mid-19th century.

The first OED example is from the Feb. 18, 1840, issue of the Boston Evening Transcript: “A page took them to the Clerk—the Clerk handed them to the Speaker.”

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The well-tempered reply

Q: I once asked you about the epidemic of people on radio and TV who respond to a question by beginning the answer with “so.” You sent me to a post that says this use of “so” goes back to Shakespeare. You guys have everything so nailed, but whatever happened to the well-established, reply-greasing introductory word “well”?

A: Well, people still use it, and we suspect that they’ll use it even more when they get tired of beginning statements with “so.” In fact, this use of “well” has an even longer history than the introductory “so.”

Since early Old English, more than a thousand years ago, people have begun statements with a “well” that’s unconnected with anything else in the sentence.

The earliest example in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is from King Ælfred’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ (circa 888):

“Wella wisan men, wel, gað ealle on þone weg … ” (“Well oh wise men, well, go all of you on the way …”).

(As we wrote on the blog last year, the Old English interjection wella was a combination of the adverb well and lo, a vague interjection similar to the modern “oh.”)

The OED describes “well” here as a “disjunctive use,” in which the word is sometimes “a simple interjection.”

This “well,” the dictionary explains, is “used to introduce a remark or statement, sometimes implying that the speaker or writer accepts a situation, etc., already expressed or indicated, or desires to qualify this in some way.”

But frequently, the word is “used only as a preliminary or resumptive word,” the dictionary says, adding:

Well functions as a discourse marker, often expressing an emotion such as surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief, but also used when pausing to consider one’s next words, to introduce an explanation or amplification, to mark the resumption or end of a conversation, etc., or to indicate that one is waiting for an answer or explanation from someone.”

So people who respond to a question with “Well …” are probably pausing to weigh their answer (either that or stalling for time).

Sometimes people begin a question this way if they’re asking it with an emotion like “surprise, indignation, resignation, or relief,” Oxford says.

The OED has this example from a Middle English poem, Sir Tristrem (circa 1300): “Wel, whi seistow so?” (“Well, why say you so?”)

And sometimes the entire question consists of that single word, as in this OED citation: “ ‘Well?’ said Mrs. Stanmere interrogatingly.” (From Mary Linskill’s novel The Haven Under the Hill, 1886.)

No matter how it’s used, this disconnected “well” has been extremely common from the beginnings of recorded English until the present day.

Interview subjects may use it in reply to a question, as in this OED example: “Why does he only cut short hair, I ask? ‘Well, I am good at it and short haircuts are more creative.’ ” (From a British newspaper, the Independent, 1999.)

Sometimes “well” isn’t used all by itself as a “disjunctive” beginning. Oxford has examples for “Well well” (circa 1015); “Well well well” (1563); “Well then” (before 1450); “Ah well” (1534); “Very well” (1529); “Oh well” (1582); and “Well now” (1550).

And as John Lennon sang, “Well, well, well. Oh, well. Well, well, well. Oh, well.” And so on.

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Don’t sweat it

Q: As someone who ranks high on the perspiration index, I was wondering when the phrase “don’t sweat it” came about.

A: “Don’t sweat it” first showed up in print about 50 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ve found a similar expression that appeared in writing 50 years before that.

The OED describes “don’t sweat it” as American slang for “don’t worry.” The dictionary says a positive colloquial version, “to sweat,” means “to experience discomfort through anxiety or unease.”

The earliest example for “don’t sweat it” in Oxford is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “Don’t sweat it means ‘don’t worry about it.’ ”

However, we’ve found this similar usage in the Dec. 12, 1914, issue of Happy Days, a New York weekly newspaper:

“ ‘What’s the meeting for, anyway?’ said Paul Braddon. ‘Keep your shirt on, and don’t sweat it off,’ said Deacon Small.”

The first positive citation (grammatically speaking) in the OED is from The Hungarian Game, a 1973 espionage thriller by Roy Hayes:

“ ‘Hold off for a moment. I want to watch him sweat.’ ‘The guy’s about to faint from pain.’ ”

As you can imagine, the verb “sweat” in its literal sense is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. The infinitive was swætan in Old English and meant (as it does today) to emit perspiration through the pores of the skin.

The first example in the OED is from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 900):

He swa swiðe swætte swa in swole middes sumeres (“He so sweated strongly in the mid-summer heat”).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says that “sweat” is ultimately derived from the proto-Germanic root swaita-, and that it has given us such words and phrases as “sweater” (1882, the garment), “sweatshop” (1889), and “sweatshirt” (1929).

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Snacks and refreshments

Q: To me, “refreshments” can refer to food or drink. But in the last 10 years, at least in Cincinnati, I’ve seen it used exclusively for beverages. Often an event will mention “snacks and refreshments” or something similar, implying that the snacks are solid and the refreshments liquid. Have you noticed this, and what can you say about it?

A: All six of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree with you that the word “refreshments” refers to food or drink or both.

However, English speakers have been using the expression “food and refreshments” for nearly two centuries. Go figure!

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1816 account in the New Evangelical Magazine about the last days of Thomas Paine, the American political activist and Founding Father, who died in 1809 in Greenwich Village.

A letter forwarded to the magazine describes how a family living near Paine “had contributed to his comfort by occasionally preparing and sending him food and refreshments more adapted to his situation than he usually enjoyed.”

The phrase “food and refreshments” has been used regularly since then, according to the results of a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books.

However, the phrase you mentioned, “snacks and refreshments,” is a relative newcomer, showing up in the mid-20th century and increasing sharply in usage since then, according to an Ngram search.

The earliest example we’ve found for the new phrase is from a 1949 issue of the magazine Outdoor Indiana:

“The Division of State Parks, Lands and Waters, under whose supervision Mounds State Park is operated, maintains a service pavilion where snacks and refreshments may be obtained by park guests.”

As you’d expect, “food” is the oldest of these words, dating back to Old English, when it was spelled fóda. and meant a “nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary offers this Old English example from the abbot Ælfric’s Interrogationes Sigewulfi (The Questions of Sigewulf): “On þære oðre fleringe wæs heora nytena foda gelogod” (“On another floor was the food for cattle”).

Although the noun “snack” is fairly old too, dating back to the early 1400s, it originally meant a snap or bite, especially from a dog. It evolved over the years to mean a snappish remark, a part of something, and in the mid-1700s a bite of food or a light meal.

The OED’s earliest example for the culinary sense is from a 1757 issue of the Monitor or British Freeholder: “When once a man has got a snack of their trenchers, he too often retains a hankering after the honey-pot.”

And here’s a figurative usage from a letter by the poet John Keats: “Having taken a snack or luncheon of literary scraps.”

Finally, the word “refreshment.” When English adapted the term in the 1400s from several Gallic sources, according to the OED, it meant “refreshing a person or thing physically, by means of food, drink, rest, coolness, etc.”

The use of the plural “refreshments” in the modern sense of a light meal or drink didn’t show up until the 1600s, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1639 entry in a notebook kept by Thomas Lechford, a Boston lawyer: “You must … have some refreshments besides the ships provisions … that is, some suger and fine ruske or bisket.”

Getting back to your question, one could argue that the expression “food and refreshments” is redundant, but we’d describe it as an idiomatic usage with a long history. In other words, relax and have a canapé.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She will be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.

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Fold like a cheap X

Q: Is the expression “fold like a cheap suit” or “fold like a cheap suitcase”? Most of the people I’ve asked think it should be “suit,” but I remember it as “suitcase.”

A: The verb “fold” has been used for hundreds of years to mean “give way,” “collapse,” or “fail.” But it’s been used for only a few dozen years in expressions like the ones you’re asking about.

There are many variations on the “fold” theme, including “fold like a cheap tent,” “fold like a cheap lounge chair,” and “fold like a cheap camera” (a reference to the inexpensive folding cameras of days gone by).

These expressions, sometimes called “snowclones” by linguists, follow a verbal pattern (like “X is the new Y” or, in this case, “fold like a cheap X”) into which various words can be inserted by people too lazy to come up with new clichés.

In a 2004 post on the Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum credits the economist Glen Whitman with coining the term for “these non-sexually reproduced journalistic textual templates.”

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, in discussing the “fold like a cheap X” formula on his blog in 2009, questions the use of the word “suit” here, then suggests a possible explanation for the usage.

Suit would not have been my first choice as a filler for X, suits (even cheap ones) not being notable for ease of folding,” he writes. “But maybe the cliché ‘all over someone like a cheap suit’ promoted suit for X.”

Zwicky mentions several other choices as a filler for X, including “shirt,” “umbrella,” “cocktail umbrella,” “lawn chair,” “deck chair,” “card table,” “pocket-knife,” “wallet,” “blanket,” and “accordion.”

The earliest example in writing that we could find for any of these “fold like a cheap X” expressions is from White Rat: A Life in Baseball, a 1987 memoir by Whitey Herzog:

“The Phils, I think, were secretly rooting for the Cardinals to win the second half because they knew they could throw Steve Carlton at us in the mini-playoffs and we’d fold like a cheap tent.”

The earliest written example we’ve found for the “suitcase” version is from All Out, a 1988 novel by Judith Alguire: “She folded like a cheap suitcase.”

And the first written example we’ve found for the “suit” formula is from Another 48 Hours, Deborah Chiel’s 1990 novelization of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte film: “Wilson folded like a cheap suit to the ringing applause of everyone present.”

And now we’ll fold like a cheap laptop and call it a day.

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Why a canard?

Q: We were celebrating our 25th anniversary with confit de canard when this question came up: How did the French word for a duck come to mean a false story in English?

A: The short answer is that canard has both senses in French, and English borrowed one of them. But how did the word for a duck come to mean a false story in French?

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “the sense of a false or exaggerated story comes from a French expression of the late 1500s vendre un canard à moitié to half-sell a duck (i.e., not to sell it at all), hence to take in, deceive, make a fool of.”

The “canard” entry in Chambers echoes the work of the 19th-century French lexicographer Émile Littré and the 17th century English lexicographer Randle Cotgrave.

Littré, in the Dictionnaire de la Langue Française (1863–77), has a 1612 citation for the expression bailleur de canards (literally deliverer of ducks), used to mean a teller of absurd stories.

And Cotgrave, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), defines the French expression vendeur de canards a moitié as “a cousener, guller, cogger; foister, lyer.”

From these beginnings, Chambers says, “The sense of ‘false news spread to deceive the public’ appeared in French in 1750.”

The earliest English example of “canard” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1864 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, edited by Chauncey A. Goodrich and Noah Porter.

However, the OED quotes James Murray, the principal editor of its first edition, as saying, “I saw the word in print before 1850.”

Oxford suggests that the false sense of “canard” may have been popularized when it became the subject of a syndicated language column, “The Romance of Words,” that appeared in many American newspapers in the 1920s.

The column traced the phony sense of the French word “to an absurd fabricated story purporting to illustrate the voracity of ducks,” according to the OED.

We won’t go into details here, but the story—or, rather, the canard—concerns a scientist who supposedly got a bunch of ducks to eat each other until only one was left.

“As this account has been widely circulated,” the OED says, “it is possible that it has contributed to render the word more familiar, and thus more used, in English.”

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Dribbling, on court and on bib

Q: I was watching an NCAA game on TV after visiting a friend with a new baby. One of the players was dribbling when I had this thought. Did the “dribble” on the court and the “dribble” on the bib come from the same source?

A: Yes, the “dribble” that you use to move a ball around and the “dribble” that wets your shirt front are from the same fountain. 

The ultimate source is a long-dead verb, “drib,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says was “apparently an onomatopoeic formation” arising out of the nouns “drop” or “drip.” (An onomatopoeic word sounds like what it means.)

The defunct “drib,” which dates back to 1523 in English writing, had a number of meanings in its first couple of decades: “to fall in drops,” “to go on little by little” (a figurative usage), and “to let fall or utter as in driblets,” the OED says.

The verb may also have been used early on to mean “drool” or “slaver,” but Oxford’s example for that sense of the word, in a quotation about drunkards, appears with a question mark, indicating the meaning isn’t certain.

A sports usage emerged in the  mid-1500s, when “drib” was a term in archery meaning to shoot an arrow that falls short or wide of the mark.  But the verb “drib” in all its senses was about to die out.

In the latter half of the century, to “drib” became to “dribble,” a new verb the OED describes as a “frequentative of drib.” (A frequentative is a word, like “blabber” or “cackle,” that expresses a repetitive action.)

The first recorded example of “dribble,” in 1567, used the word in the old archery sense.   

But the common meaning of “dribble” since the later 1500s or the 1600s—whether literal or figurative—has been to let fall in drops, as in a trickle; to emit in driblets; and finally to drool or slaver, a usage probably influenced  by the verb “drivel,” the OED suggests.

Though “dribble” died out as a term in archery, other sporting senses came along in the 1700s, some of them not recorded in the OED.

For instance, we’ve found citations dating back to 1739 for “dribble” used in the game of dice, meaning to gently pour the dice from the cup or hand instead of tossing them.

This quotation is from the December 1739 issue of the Champion, a London political journal edited by Henry Fielding: “We often see a blundering Fellow, who scarce knows on which Side the Odds are, dribble out his bad Chance upon the Table, and sweep the whole Board.”

Apparently, “dribbling” at dice was a good way to cheat. This explanation is from Theophilus Swift’s annotated poem The Gamblers (1777):

“The Dribble (as the word imports) is when, with an easy but ingenious motion, the caster pours as it were the dice on the Abacus, or Black-board; when, if he chance to have been long a practitioner, he may suddenly cog with his fore-finger one of the cubes.”

We’ve also found that the verb was used in games of marbles at least as far back as a couple of centuries ago.

James Boaden, in his biography of the actor John Kemble, recounts a conversation the two men had in the fall of 1800 when they stopped to watch a group of chimneysweeps playing marbles in the street.

Kemble, according to Boaden, “suddenly called out, as he had when a boy, ‘Fain dribbling,’ and taking up a marble that lay at the greatest distance from the ring, he knuckled down, and in the real and true style struck out of it the marble he aimed at.” (From Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble Esq., published in 1825.)

And we found this example from 1831, in an article satirizing newspaper reports of the doings of the children of the aristocracy:

“The Duke of Drumstick and the Marquis of Trundlehoop knelt down to a match of marbles at a quarter-past ten on Tuesday last, the 26th ult. His grace was heard to observe it was ‘fine fun.’ Lord Trundlehoop turns up his righthand sleeve at long taw—the Duke does not, and his marbles dribble, but his Grace plays excellently nevertheless.” (From the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, August 1831.)

Besides marbles, the verb “dribble” was used in skittles, an early form of bowling. This definition is from The West Somerset Word-Book, or Glossary, published by the English Dialect Society, 1875-86:

“DRIBBLE: … To cause to move slowly. In playing at marbles, ‘to dribble up’ is to shoot the taw slowly so as to make it stop near some desired point. At skittles, ‘a dribbling ball’ is one that goes slowly up to the pins.”

And as the OED says, “dribble” has also been used in billiards, where it means “to give (a ball) a slight push.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Joseph Bennett’s book Billiards (1873): “To keep the white by the spot, and by the same stroke to dribble the red over the corner.”

But we found an older example, from 1869: “I … taught him to seek for safety, to dribble gently up to his adversary’s ball when attempting a ‘pot.’ ” (From John Roberts’s book Roberts on Billiards.)

Now we come to the more familiar sports uses of “dribble,” which have to do with ball handling in team sports. Here, to “dribble” means to propel the ball in a series of short moves.

The earliest such use involved 19th-century British football (what Americans call soccer, as we’ve written before on the blog).

As the OED explains, to “dribble” means “to keep (the ball) moving along the ground in front of and close to one by a rapid succession of short pushes, instead of sending it as far as possible by a vigorous kick.”

Here are Oxford’s two earliest citations for this sense of the word:

“The Eton game, when the ‘long-behind’ is dribbling the ball before his feet slowly forward.” (From the Sporting Gazette, 1863.)

“ ‘Dribbling,’ as the science of working the ball along the ground by means of the feet is technically termed.” (From the Football Annual, 1868.)

It was inevitable that with the American invention of basketball in the early 1890s, the verb “dribble” would make itself useful yet again.

As the OED says, the verb has two meanings in basketball: (1) “to bounce (the ball) continuously with one’s hand, esp. while moving around the court”; and (2) “to move along the court while bouncing the ball continuously with one’s hand.”

Here are the OED’s earliest recorded examples for each sense of the word:

“The ball may be dribbled along the ground with the hand.” (From an Indiana newspaper, the Daily Journal, of Logansport, April 1893.)

“ ‘Dribbling’ or bouncing the ball was a play they did not discover the excellence of until this year.” (From the publication Men, February 1898.)

And the rest is history, along with Villanova’s victory over North Carolina in the final seconds of this year’s NCAA championship game.

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Lexical pageantry

Q: While I was in Texas for the recent MLA convention, the subject of beauty pageants came up at a dinner conversation. When did this secular use of “pageant” develop from the term’s medieval religious origins?

A: The word “pageant” didn’t become associated with beauty contests until the 20th century.

In the Middle Ages, a “pageant” was a mystery play (or an act or a scene in one). Mystery plays were dramas depicting biblical events, and they were especially popular in Europe from about the 12th through 16th centuries.

In fact, modern Christmas and Easter pageants are echoes of that medieval usage, since they include tableaus and scenes representing biblical stories.

The ultimate source of the English word is a bit blurry. It has “multiple origins,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, since it’s “partly a borrowing from French” and “partly a borrowing from Latin.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives “pagyn” as the earliest English example, recorded in 1386-87 “in an Anglo-French context.” The OED’s earliest example, spelled “pagent,” is from a 1403 document—and it’s notable that the quotation is mostly in French.

The word’s cousins in French (pagin, pagant), Anglo-Norman (pagin, pagine, pagyn), and post-classical Latin (pagina, pagens, pagenda) had various meanings: a stage, a play in a cycle of mystery plays, or a tableau.

Unfortunately, the source of the late Latin pagina is unclear. As the OED says, it may or may not be the same word as the earlier, classical Latin pāgina (page):

“Perhaps, if the sense ‘scene displayed on a stage’ were the original sense, it might be developed from ‘page’ or ‘leaf’ of a manuscript play, but if so there is no evidence to support this.”

Another explanation is that the post-classical pagina could have come from the classical Latin pangere (to fix), giving rise to the meaning “framework,” the OED suggests. By comparison, Oxford cites the classical Latin pēgma (a framework, movable stage, or scaffold in a theater).

However it developed, “pageant” in English originally meant a mystery play or part of one, whether we date it from the late 1300s or the early 1400s.

Some mystery plays, especially Easter pageants, have been criticized for their depiction of Jews. In “Anti-Semitism and the English Mystery Plays,” a 1979 paper in the journal Comparative Drama, Stephen Spender describes the plays as “vehemently anti-Jewish.”

By 1450, the OED says, “pageant” was recorded in a newer sense: a stage on wheels.

Here’s Oxford’s definition: “A stage or platform on which scenes were acted or tableaux represented.” Particularly in earlier usages, it meant “a movable structure consisting of stage and stage machinery, used in the open-air performance of a mystery play.”

That 15th-century usage is now seen only in historical writings. This 20th-century example is a good illustration:

“In the Middle Ages a pageant was the rough stage mounted on a cart on which the Mysteries and Miracles were played. To-day we have similar exhibitions in the tableaux arranged for the Lord Mayor’s Show, and it is easy to see how the word transferred from the moving stage to the whole procession.” (From  Volume 5 of Harold Wheeler’s  Waverley Children’s Dictionary, 1927-29.)

At around the same time, circa 1450, “pageant” was used to mean a tableau or “dumb show,” either fixed in place or erected on a movable float. This sense of “pageant” is rare today, the OED says.

The use of “pageant” widened around the beginning of the 19th century to mean “a brilliant or stately spectacle arranged for effect; esp. a procession or parade with elaborate spectacular display; a showy parade,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Robert Southey’s epic poem Madoc (1805):  “Embroidered surcoats, and emblazoned shields, / And lances whose long streamers played aloft, / Made a rare pageant, as with sound of trump, / Tambour and cittern, proudly they went on.” (We’ve expanded the citation to get in more of the pomp.)

This less celebratory example is from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), by Washington Irving: “Few pageants can be more stately and frigid than an English funeral in town.”

Later in the 19th century, “pageant” was first used in connection with historical dramas. The OED’s definition: “A commemorative play depicting scenes from history (esp. local history), usually performed outdoors in the form of a procession in elaborate, colourful costumes.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from 1883, but we like this 1970 example: “A great many pageants have been so gruesome—Merrie Englande with rain—the form has earned itself a bad reputation.” (From New Directions: Ways of Advance for the Amateur Theatre, by Peter Burton and John Lane.)

Finally, the use of “pageant” for a beauty contest originated in the US in the early 20th century and is still chiefly American, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is a pithy headline from a 1911 issue of the Syracuse (NY) Herald: “Pick blondes for beauty pageant.”

Here’s another example, from a 1929 issue of the Zanesville (Ohio) Signal: “The district winner chosen at Buckeye Lake next Thursday … is to be entered directly in the ‘Miss America’ pageant at Baltimore, Md. in September.”

In the US these days, “pageant” has almost replaced “beauty contest,” which was first recorded in 1880. As this example shows, “pageant” has become a byword in the beauty-contest biz.

“The former Little Miss Colorado’s wardrobe for 1997 was to have included half a dozen outfits for the different categories of  ‘pageants’—the term that organisers prefer to ‘beauty contests’—in which she would compete.” (From the Independent, London, 1997.)

A historical aside: Most early spellings of “pageant” (“pagyn,” “padgean,” “padgin,” “padgion,” and others) didn’t end in “t.” The “t” became established later, either for reasons of euphony or by analogy with “ancient,” which was spelled “auncien” or “auncian” in Middle English, ancien in French, and antiān in late Latin.

We’ll close with a look at “pageantry,” which Shakespeare is credited with using first in writing. Here’s the OED’s earliest citation, from Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1609):

“What pageantry, what feats, what showes, / What minstrelsie, and prettie din, / The Regent made … / To greet the King.” (We like the phrase “prettie din,” don’t you?)

Originally, “pageantry” meant what Shakespeare intended: “pageants or tableaux collectively,” or “the public performance or display of these,” says the OED.

But later in the mid-1600s, Oxford says, “pageantry” acquired the meanings it has today, both negative  and positive: (1) empty display or “show without substance,” and (2) “gorgeous, colourful, or spectacular show; pomp.”

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Sizing up YOOGE

Q: Is the Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE strictly a New York thing?

A: The usual pronunciation of “huge” is HYOOGE, according to most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked. The “hy” sound at the beginning is a consonant cluster that combines the sounds produced by the letters “h” and “y.”

In the pronunciation you’re asking about, the “hy” sound at the beginning of “huge” is reduced to a “y” sound, resulting in the variant YOOGE.

Several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), accept the YOOGE pronunciation as an equal variant alongside HYOOGE.

However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says YOOGE occurs primarily in New York City and Long Island, NY, though it’s also heard in some other parts of the East Coast.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, which linguists generally use in referring to these sounds, the “hy” cluster is written as /hj/ and the “y” sound as /j/.

Phoneticians, linguists that specialize in the sounds of speech, would say that the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the consonant cluster /hj/ is replaced by the phoneme /j/ when someone pronounces “huge” as YOOGE (judʒ in the IPA alphabet).

This process is similar to what linguists refer to as glide cluster reduction, in which the “wh” cluster (originally spelled “hw”) is reduced to “w” in words like “which,” “whether,” and “where.” We wrote about such “wh” words in our recent post about “h”-dropping.

To keep things as simple as possible here, we’ll use “hy” and “y” for the /hj/ and /j/ sounds, except when we quote linguists or lexicographers using the IPA alphabet.

The earliest evidence in DARE for the YOOGE pronunciation is from the early 1940s, but we suspect that the pronunciation is much older, perhaps dating back to the 1700s, and may have been more widespread.

The dictionary’s first citation for YOOGE is from a 1942 issue of the journal American Speech: “NYC, Long Island, Omission of initial [h] before [ju] … huge … This is a somewhat greater loss of [h] than in upstate speech.”

However, DARE has a much earlier example indicating that the word “humor” (now usually pronounced HYOO-mur) was pronounced YOO-mur in American English in the late 18th century.

In Dissertations on the English Language (1789), Noah Webster criticizes the pronunciation of “human, and about twenty other words beginning with h, as tho they were spelt yuman. This is a gross error.”

Webster doesn’t list the 20 other words, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they included “huge.”

Interestingly, Webster adds that the word “humor” should begin with a “y” sound: “The only word that begins with this sound, is humor, with its derivatives.” In other words, he considered the YOO-mur pronunciation of “humor” to be standard English.

In a footnote, Webster singles out for criticism the Scottish lexicographer William Perry, author of The Royal Standard English Dictionary (1775), which says “human” should be “pron. as if began with a y.”

“I am surprized that his pronunciation has found so many advocates in this country, as there is none more erroneous,” Webster says.

It’s apparent from Webster’s remarks that the “hy” pronunciation of “humor” and some similar words was unsettled in the late 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic, probably because of the difficulty some people had in pronouncing the cluster.

In fact, several 18th-century British language authorities agreed with Webster that “humor“ (“humour” in the British spelling) should be pronounced YOO-mur.

In An Essay Towards Establishing a Standard for an Elegant and Uniform Pronunciation of the English Language (1766), for example, James Buchanan endorses the YOO-mur pronunciation, as does John Walker in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791).

Several readers of our blog have asked if the pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (both native New Yorkers) is similar to the “h”-dropping in cockney, the working-class speech of England.

We don’t think so. In cockney, the “h” sound disappears and is not replaced by anything (as in “house” reduced to OUSE). In the New Yorkish pronunciation of “huge,” the consonant cluster “hy” is replaced by a “y” sound.

If the “h” in “huge” were a normal consonant, the word would be pronounced HOOGE, and dropping the “h” would result in the pronunciation OOGE. That’s not what is happening here.

Interestingly, people speaking the Norfolk dialect in England do change the “hy” sound in “huge” to “h,” resulting in the pronunciation HOOGE. Linguists refer to this phenomenon as yod-dropping, from the name of the Hebrew version of the letter “y.”

In fact, yod-dropping is heard on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s more common in the US and helps differentiate standard American pronunciation from Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent.

Most Americans, for example, usually pronounce “tune” and “news” as TOON and NOOZ, while someone speaking RP pronounces them TYOON and NYOOZ. (In parts of the American South, people also say TYOON and NYOOZ, as we’ve written on the blog.)

We could go on—and on and on. There’s much to be said about yod-dropping, an ongoing process that the linguist John C. Wells dates from the early 18th century, but we’ll leave that for another day.

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The truth about truism

Q: Vivian Gornick wrote this in the NY Times Book Review: “It is a truism that every great book survives the literary and cultural conventions of its time and place because the emotional intelligence in it speaks to a reader a hundred years down the road.” My dictionary says a truism is something too obvious to mention, but I found Gornick’s statement very much worth mentioning. Your thoughts?

A: We agree with you that Vivian Gornick’s comment in the Feb. 14, 2016, issue of the Times Book Review was well worth making. We’ll go further and say that it was indispensable to her essay—complete with the word “truism.”

On a literal level, a “truism” is an obvious or self-evident truth, and many standard dictionaries give that definition first. But they usually add that it “especially” means a statement so obvious as to be  unimportant.  Some other dictionaries, in fact, give that as the only definition, but we think that’s too narrow a view.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A self-evident truth, esp. one of minor importance; a statement so obviously true as not to require or deserve discussion. Also: a proposition that states nothing beyond what is implied in any of its terms.”

We think that in her “Critic’s Take” column, Gornick used “truism” in the sense of a statement that’s self-evident: A book survives the limits of its own time because it has meaning to a later time.

Such a statement is certainly obvious, but it has a special significance in Gornick’s essay, which takes a fresh look at the novel Howards End in light of what we now know of E. M. Forster.

We know that when his novel appeared in 1910, Forster, then  31, “was a closeted homosexual and a virgin who knew nothing of how erotic relations worked—with any combination of partners,” Gornick writes. His time and place “terrorized him into picking up a pen forever dipped in code.”

“It was this sense of frozen solitariness, I now realized, that had colored all of Forster’s thought and feeling, and in time supplied him his signature concern: ‘Only connect!’ Rereading Howards End, it was now easy to see that it is the writer’s own arrested development that haunts Forster’s work, and that makes it moving.”

So a truism that’s obvious may help us understand a truth that isn’t so obvious.

But let’s get back to “truism” and its origins. As the OED explains, the word was “formed within English, by derivation” from the adjective “true,” which is Germanic in origin.

The earliest written use recorded in Oxford is dated 1714: “I abhor Tyranny … and upon this Subject could vent as many Truisms as Mr. St— —le  hath done upon Liberty.” (From an anonymous political pamphlet, “Hannibal Not at Our Gates.”)

And here’s the OED’s most recent example: “It is a television truism that, when we wish to celebrate a national event, we loyally turn to the BBC.” (From the British magazine Private Eye, 2012.)

Separately, Oxford lists another use of “truism”: as a mass noun (rather than a specific example).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from sometime before 1770: “Nonsense, truism, falsehood, and absurdity, are so curiously blended in every part of the pamphlet.” (From an essay on ruptures and trusses by Timothy Sheldrake.)

And here’s a modern example: “Rather than playing down the melodrama … it heightens it, with words that hover dangerously close to truism.” (From a British newspaper, the Independent, 2009.)

We’ll conclude with the definition of “truism” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “An undoubted or self-evident truth; especially: one too obvious or unimportant for mention.”

Especially, but not always. Even truths that are self-evident are sometimes worth stating.

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A sneak peek

Q: I’ve always used “at” with “sneak peek,” as in “I had a sneak peek at episode 8.” Lately, I’ve heard people use “of” instead of “at.” That sounds wrong to my ear, perhaps only because of what I’m used to. Is there a preference?

A: There are differences of opinion here. Our research shows that most people prefer “sneak peek at,” but a sizable number would choose “sneak peek of” instead.

Our own preference is for “at.” To our ears, “Take a sneak peek at this” sounds more natural than “Take a sneak peek of this.”

But as we’ve written many times before, the use of prepositions is highly idiomatic, and common usage ultimately determines what is considered standard English.

Why, for instance, do most of us say “a glance at” but “a glimpse of”? Chalk it up to common usage. As with “sneak peek at/of,” we can only examine preferences; we can’t declare one usage right and the other wrong.

Writers of books seem to support our own preference for “sneak peek at” by a wide margin. It’s also preferred among the population as a whole, but not by as wide a margin.

The Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books, shows “sneak peek at” outnumbering “sneak peek of” by a margin of about seven to one as of 2008, the latest year available.

The graph tracks each phrase as a percentage of all three-word sequences.

It also shows that “sneak peek at” (like the narrower phrase “sneak peek”) first showed up in books in 1951, and that “sneak peek of” followed in 1988.

As you can see, by 2008 the line for “sneak peek at” was sharply higher than that for “sneak peek of.”

We also did ordinary Google searches, which are broader and more up to date but don’t include as many books as the Ngram Viewer. The result is that “sneak peek at” leads “sneak peek of” by a margin of roughly five to four.

The numbers are very fluid, changing from hour to hour, but they always show “sneak peek at” in the lead.

We wondered why the “at” version seems more idiomatic to most people, and we found a couple of hints in the Oxford English Dictionary.

While the OED has no separate entry for the noun phrase “sneak peek,” it has one for the noun “peek,” defined as “a peep, a glance; a quick or furtive look.”

And if you substitute “a peep” or “a glance” or “a furtive look,” the following preposition in the sense we’re discussing would normally be “at” and not “of.”

Furthermore, none of the OED’s citations for the noun “peek,” which was first recorded in 1636, show it accompanied by “of.” When there’s a preposition at all, the noun appears with “at,” “in,” “into,” “through,” or the compound preposition “out of.”

Here are the relevant citations: “one peeke into heaven” (1636); “I jest give a peak in for a minit” (1844); “frequent ‘peeks’ through the slide” (1869); “a peek into the … brooding-room” (1884); “take an occasional peek at these other guys’ hands” (1938); “a sneak peek out of the window” (1969); “get a peek at the land register” (1993).

Similarly, the OED’s entry for the verb “peek,” which showed up in the 14th century, suggests that “at” is the preferred adverb.

Here’s the verb’s definition: “to look through a narrow opening; to look into or out of an enclosed or concealed space; (also) to glance or look furtively at, to pry.” (Note the “at” in italics.)

None of the dictionary’s examples show the verb followed immediately by “of.” The citations, which date back to 1390, show it used with “about,” “at,” “in,” “into,” “in at,” “inside,” “on” (Middle English), “out,” “out of,” “out from beneath,” “over,” “up,” “up in,” and “upward.”

In summary, we’re not surprised that people sometimes take sneak peeks “of” things like movies and games and apps. But for our part, we’ll stick with the “at” version.

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When an omen isn’t ominous

Q: An “omen” can be “auspicious,” but something that’s “ominous” can’t be. Any insight about this surprising divergence?

A: An “omen” has always been neutral—it can be good news or bad—but something that’s “ominous” is a bummer. In fact, by definition “ominous” means inauspicious.

How did this come to be? Blame the Romans.

In classical Latin, an ōmen was “something that foreshadows an event or the outcome of an event,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And ōminōsus meant “inauspicious, portentous.”

When adopted into English in the late 16th century, the two words retained their Latin meanings—one neutral, the other negative.

“Omen,” first recorded in 1582, was (and still is) a neutral word for a prophetic sign. Here’s the OED’s definition: “An event or phenomenon regarded as a portent of good or evil; a prophetic sign, an augury.”

Oxford’s most recent example is positive: “Unlike lots of people I like spiders. They have always been an omen of luck to me.” (From the Weekly News, Glasgow, 1989.)

Yet “ominous,” first recorded in 1589, has always been unequivocally negative. There’s nothing good in the OED’s earliest definition: “Of ill omen, inauspicious; indicative or suggestive of future misfortune.”

This is still among its meanings, as shown in a modern OED example: “The ominous prospects of war could not dampen the enthusiasm of Karen Horney and her group for their new undertaking.” (From Susan Quinn’s A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney, 1988.)

Within a few years of its first appearance, “ominous” took on wider negative senses unrelated to prophecy.

Oxford has citations beginning in 1593 for the word used to mean “menacing,” “awful,” or “unsettling” in reference to an appearance, a sound, an atmosphere, and so on.

The word is used this way even now, as in this OED citation: “There was an ominous, slow-motion replay of McVeigh’s ‘perp walk’ intercut with victims in agony.” (From the New York Times Magazine, June 2001.)

Only rarely (and briefly, from the 1590s to the 1670s) was “ominous” ever used in a positive sense, a usage the OED says is now obsolete.

We can’t explain why “omen” can be good or bad but “ominous” is only bad.

There’s no clue in Latin, according to the OED, which says the etymology of ōmen is unknown.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the ō- of ōmen comes from a prehistoric Indo-European root meaning “to believe, hold as true.” But this doesn’t explain the different characters of “omen” and “ominous.”

We do know how “auspice” and “auspicious” developed. It all started with a word from Roman history, auspex, a contraction of avispex (a watcher of birds, from avis, bird, and –spex, an observer).

In Roman times, the OED says, an auspex was “one who observed the flight of birds, to take omens thence for the guidance of affairs.” Consequently, it also meant “a director, protector; and esp. the person who superintended marriage ceremonies.”

(The word “auspex” has been used in English only in reference to ancient Rome. In ordinary English, such a person is an “augur,” a word also derived from the Latin avis and one that we wrote about in 2011.)

In Latin, the word for what the auspex did—the divination or foretelling—was auspicium. And auspicium, the OED explains, gave French the noun auspice in the 14th century.

“Auspice” came into English from French in the 1530s, when it was used in the old Roman way. Here’s the OED’s earliest sense of the word: “An observation of birds for the purpose of obtaining omens; a sign or token given by birds.”

By the mid-17th century “auspice” was used in a more general and more positive way: “Any divine or prophetic token; prognostic, premonition; esp. indication of a happy future.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is a reference to “happy auspices” (1660), and the latest is to “fairest auspices” (1885).

The sense in which we use the word today—usually in the plural—came along in the early 1600s.

This meaning, which is entirely positive, is defined in the OED as a “propitious influence” or “patronage,” especially in the phrase “under the auspices of.”

So it’s no surprise that since its beginnings in the early 1600s the adjective, “auspicious,” has almost always meant of good omen, propitious, or favored by fortune.

We’ll close with a couple of quotes from Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about portents.

“Thou ominous and fearful owl of death, / Our nation’s terror and their bloody scourge!” (King Henry VI, Part 1, circa 1591.)

“Then go thou forth; / And fortune play upon thy prosperous helm, / As thy auspicious mistress!” (All’s Well That Ends Well, c. 1605.)

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A progressive future

Q: I’m an American living in London. When I take the tube and approach a station closed for repairs, a message over the PA says: “This train will not be stopping at the next station.” It makes me wince. Is this passive usage British?

A: The usage you’ve noticed is common to both British and American English. It’s quite ordinary, not remarkable at all.

Here the speaker uses the future progressive tense, “will not be stopping,” instead of the simple future tense, “will not stop.” And it’s not a passive construction, as we’ll explain later.

The progressive tenses emphasize that an action is, was, or will be continuous and ongoing for a period of time in the present, past, or future.

The usage in that announcement in London refers to an action (in this case, a nonaction) that will be taking place during a period of time in the future.

The future progressive is often heard in travel announcements. Airplane pilots, for example, may say, “We will be landing at …” instead of “We will land at ….”

And we can recall hearing this tense routinely in the New York City subway system: “This train will be making all express stops” … “This train will not be stopping at 14th Street.”

The progressive tenses all include a form of the verb “be” plus (in the active voice) a present participle. Here are the progressive tenses in the active voice (we’ll put the negative in brackets):

present progressive: “This train is [not] stopping.”

past progressive: “This train was [not] stopping.”

future progressive: “This train will [not] be stopping.”

present perfect progressive: “The train has [not] been stopping.”

past perfect progressive: “The train had [not] been stopping.”

future perfect progressive: “The train will [not] have been stopping.”

As we’ve mentioned, none of those are passive constructions. Here, finally, are some passive examples (which use the past participle):

simple future: “This train will not be stopped.”

present progressive: “This train is not being stopped.”

past progressive: “This train was not being stopped.”

There’s no idiomatic way of using the future progressive, the tense that made you wince, in the passive voice.

The result would be a train wreck: “This train will not be being stopped at the next station.”

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Paying your dues

Q: How did the expression “pay your dues” come to mean overcome difficulties to achieve success?

A: To begin at the beginning, the word “due” has referred to a financial or moral debt since it first showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, originally as an adjective, later as a noun, and eventually as an adverb.

English borrowed “due” from the Old French deü, but the ultimate source is the Latin verb dēbēre (to owe), which has also given us the words “debt,” “debit,” and “duty.”

The earliest example for “due” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325, which uses the phrase “dew dett” for a financial debt that is owed.

And the earliest example for “due” used in the moral sense is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a poem by John Gower about the confessions of an ageing lover, which uses the phrase “due love” in reference to something that deserves to be loved.

The noun “due,” which referred to a financial or moral debt when it appeared in the 15th century, has been used in various expressions since then.

Two of them—“give someone his due” (treat him fairly or acknowledge his merits) and “give the devil his due” (acknowledge the good qualities in a bad person)—are in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 1 (1598):

“No, ile giue thee thy due, thou hast paid all there” … “He was neuer yet a breaker of prouerbes: he will giue the diuell his due.”

The earliest examples that we could find for “pay one’s dues” date from the 1600s, when paying dues meant meeting one’s financial or moral obligations.

In The Anatomie of Melancholy (1632), Robert Burton’s advice for coping with depression includes “Give chearfully. Pay thy dues willingly. Be not a slave to thy mony.”

And here’s an example from a 1685 religious tract by John Norris: “For if even when the Laws enforce men to pay their dues to their Ministers, they yet continue so backward in the discharge of them.”

The expression was used in its literal financial or moral sense until the 20th century, when a pair of figurative meanings developed in the US: (1) to suffer the consequences of an act; (2) to undergo hardships before achieving success.

The OED labels these usages slang, but the American version of Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity from the OED) lists them without comment—that is, as standard English.

Oxford Dictionaries has several examples for each of the new usages, including (1): “he had paid his dues to society for his previous convictions” and (2) “this drummer has paid his dues with the best.”

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online agrees with Oxford Dictionaries and includes the two new senses without comment.

Finally, the use of “due” in referring to points of the compass (the only surviving adverbial sense) showed up in the early 1600s, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (circa 1601): “There lies your way, due West.” We can’t sign off without mentioning another “due” or two.

There’s the adjective meaning expected (“the baby is due in September”), which showed up in the 19th century, and the one meaning proper or adequate (“driving with due care”), which appeared in the 14th century.

Then there’s “due to,” often used to mean “because of.” As we wrote in a 2012 post, it’s widely used but frowned upon by sticklers (who might even say it’s “not due form”).

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Neat and tidyish

Q: When Matthew Goode said “neat and tidy-ish” on Downton Abbey, I thought it unlikely that this phrase could be THAT old. Can you tell me anything about it?

A: As far as we can tell, the phrase “neat and tidy-ish” (with or without the hyphen) is relatively new, showing up less than 10 years ago. However, the expression “neat and tidy” dates from the late 1700s, and the word “tidyish” has been around almost as long.

So Henry Talbot, the character played by Matthew Goode in the TV series Downton Abbey, could conceivably have used the phrase “neat and tidy-ish” with his wife-to-be, Lady Mary Crawley, in a scene set in London on May 18, 1925:

Mary (referring to her son’s well-ordered prospects): “So it’s very neat and tidy.”

Henry: “Neat and tidy-ish.”

As for the etymology here, the adjective “neat” meant elegant and simple when it showed up in in the 15th century. “Tidy” meant in good condition, attractive, or timely when it appeared in the 14th century.

“Neat” is ultimately derived from nitidus, Latin for elegant or shiny, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, while “tidy” is a derivative of “tide,” which referred to time in Old English, where it was spelled tid.

(An unrelated Old English noun of Germanic origin, neat, meant a cow, ox, or other bovine, but the usage is rarely seen today except in neat’s-foot oil, made from the feet and shin bones of cattle.)

The adjective “neat” came to mean orderly and clean in the late 16th century, while “tidy” took on those senses in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The earliest example that we could find for “tidy-ish” or “tidyish” is from an 1825 article in the American Farmer that refers to “tidyish meat” (that is, meat in good condition).

And here’s an example that uses “tidyish” to mean attractive, from a comedy by Delia Caroline Swarbreck, Who Could Believe It? (1830): “Oh a tidyish looking young woman, my lady.”

In “The War Correspondent,” a short story from the June 16, 1877, issue of the English literary magazine Once a Week, “tidyish” is used in the orderly sense.

Here the narrator is interviewing an English soldier-of-fortune working for the Turkish Sultan: “ ‘But you’ve got your army in pretty good order, have you not?’ I said. ‘Tidyish—tidyish, my son. They haven’t much stomach for fighting, unless there’s something to be got by it.’ ”

The word “tidyish” is used in this case to mean sort of tidy—a qualified tidy. That’s the way it’s generally used in the examples we’ve found in searches of online databases. And that’s the way  Henry Talbot seems to be using it in Downton Abbey.

The suffix “-ish” has been added to adjectives since sometime before 1400 to mean “of the nature of, approaching the quality of, somewhat,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest example that we’ve seen for “neat and tidy” is from The Sunday-School Catechist, a 1788 book by Sarah Trimmer about how to run a Sunday School for poor children.

A girl should be encouraged to do housekeeping, Trimmer writes, so her mother will be comforted “when she returns home from a hard day’s work to find her own little place neat and tidy.”

And the earliest written example we’ve seen for “neat and tidyish” (hyphenated or hyphenless) is from a Nov. 12, 2007, comment on Zoids Evolution, a fansite based on the Zoid animated series and collectibles:

“Because I was actually curious as to what my collection consisted of, I compiled a list with some help and made it all neat and tidy-ish.”

A linguist would refer to “neat and tidy” or “neat and tidyish,” two words paired together in an idiomatic expression, as a binomial pair or an irreversible binomial.

Sir Ernest Gowers, who edited the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has referred to these pairs, joined by the conjunctions “and” or “or,” as Siamese twins.

The pairs can be made up of nouns (“fish and chips”), adjectives (“quick and dirty”), verbs (“win or lose”). Some pairs consist of synonyms (“cease and desist”) while others consist of antonyms (“back and forth”).

Gowers writes that the abundance of synonymous pairs in English “is perhaps partly attributable to legal language, where the multiplication of near-synonyms is a normal precaution against too narrow an interpretation.”

He adds that the wording in the Book of Common Prayer, “seldom content with one word if two can be used, may also have had something to do with it.”

Gowers recommends breaking up or rephrasing pairs of synonyms that are merely redundant. Is “neat and tidy” redundant? We don’t think so. “Neat and tidy” strikes us as more conversational, more friendly, than either “neat” or “tidy.”

A pedant would insist on a “neat” desk or a “tidy” one. Ours is “neat and tidy.” Or, rather, “neat and tidyish.”

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A “bona fide” pronunciation?

Q: A supercilious acquaintance looked down his nose at me when I pronounced “bona fide” as BOH-nuh-fied. He says the authentic pronunciation of this phrase borrowed from Latin should be boh-nuh-FEE-day. How would YOU pronounce it?

A: Like you, we say BOH-nuh-fied, as do most Americans. Your snooty friend’s pronunciation may be heard in Latin classes, but it isn’t found in English dictionaries in either the US or the UK.

The two most common English pronunciations of “bona fide,” according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, are BOH-nuh-fied (the end rhymes with “fried”), and boh-nuh-FYE-dee (the end rhymes with “tidy”).

The three-syllable version is more common in the US. In fact, it’s the default audible pronunciation given online by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

To hear it, go to their sites and click on the little loudspeaker icons.

The four-syllable pronunciation is standard in the UK, according to all the British dictionaries we’ve checked. To hear it, go to the UK English version of Oxford Dictionaries online.

Although the three-syllable pronunciation is more common in the US, American dictionaries also accept the four-syllable version, as well as some less common variations. The first vowel can also sound like the “o” in “bonnet,” for example. And the final vowel in the four-syllable version can sound like the “e” in “the.”

But while boh-nuh-FYE-dee is accepted by American dictionaries, it may not be advisable.

In the mouth of an American, Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), it’s “pedantic outside the law and precious even in legal contexts.”

Your friend’s pronunciation, boh-nuh-FEE-day, roughly corresponds to the Latin, but we’re talking about English here. (We doubt that your friend pronounces “Caesar” as KYE-zar or “vice versa” as WEE-keh WARE-sah, as the Romans once did.)

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its etymology of “bona fide,” says that even “classical scholars sometimes preserve the Latin quantity of the vowels … without the Latin vowel sounds.”

In Latin, bona fide means “with good faith.” In English, the OED says, it was originally an adverb meaning “genuinely,” “with sincerity,” or “in good faith.”

The adverb dates back to the time of Henry VIII, the dictionary says, when it was recorded in the Acts of Parliament for 1542-43: “The same to procede bona fide, without fraude.”

But “bona fide” has also become an English adjective meaning “genuine,” “sincere,” or “done in good faith.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the adjective is from John Joseph Powell’s An Essay Upon the Learning of Devises (1788): “Act not to extend to bonâ fide purchasers for a valuable consideration.”

“Bona fides,” the noun version, came into English in the mid-19th century. (The usual pronunciation, in both the US and the UK, is boh-nuh-FYE-deez. However, American dictionaries also accept a less-common, three-syllable variation whose ending rhymes with “tides.”)

The OED describes “bona fides” as a singular noun used in the law to mean “good faith” or “freedom from intent to deceive.” The dictionary’s only two examples are from 19th-century legal usage.

This one, from 1885, is a good illustration of the legal use: “It was said that this shewed bona fides on their part” (from Law Reports, Chancery Division).

In the mid-20th century, the noun “bona fides” developed a plural sense that the OED defines as “guarantees of good faith.”

The first example in the dictionary is from a 1944 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “I notice in one of our best sellers the remark ‘If Mina’s bona fides are once questioned.’ ”

The OED regards this plural usage as a mistake: “Erroneously treated as pl. form of bona fide (assumed to be n. sing.)”

However, Oxford Dictionaries (a different entity from the OED) describes the usage as informal and gives this example: “‘Now, however, the bona fides of some of those ordinations are in question.”

And most of the other standard dictionaries we’ve checked accept without reservation the use of “bona fides” as a plural noun meaning good intentions, authentic credentials, proofs of legitimacy, and so on.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate has this example: “the informant’s bona fides were ascertained.” And American Heritage has an example that describes a singer whose “operatic bona fides were prominently on display.”

In addition, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has citations that mention phrases like “the bona fides of a Soviet defector,” “social bona fides,” “literary bona fides,” and “his bona fides on this issue.”

In “this now-established new meaning,” the M-W usage guide says, the noun “very often occurs in contexts where it does not govern a verb.”

But when it is the subject of a verb, M-W adds, “the verb is usually plural,” as in this example: “Fritz Kolbe’s bona fides were unambiguously established” (from the New York Times Book Review, 1983).

OK, this use of “bona fides” is legit. But why use it at all? In our opinion, “bona fides” is a stuffy noun, and a word like “credentials” or “authenticity” or “legitimacy” would do a better job.

Bryan Garner, in his usage guide, agrees that the plural term has an “air of affectation.” And he adds: “Making bona fides singular sounds pedantic; making it plural is likely to offend those who have a smattering of Latin.”

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Is “if you will” a verbal tic?

Q: Is there any legitimate use for the phrase “if you will,” which I hear overused and abused on TV and radio? I’ve been wondering about this since hearing John Sununu repeatedly use it as filler the other day.

A: We once wrote a post in which we mentioned a few expressions that are “used to death in the media.” We included “in the final analysis,” “hit the ground running,” “on the ground,” “when all is said and done,” “at the end of the day,” and “if you will.”

We jokingly used the last one in a sentence: “First I take off my left shoe, and then, if you will, my right.”

Joking aside, “if you will” is much overused by interview subjects on the air and in print. The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum, writing on the Language Log, has compared it to the use of “like” as a filler.

In his article, Pullum plucks more than a dozen sentences from the Wall Street Journal, containing what seem to be “quotes from educated and prosperous middle-aged persons—CEOs and so on.” And in each case he replaces the speaker’s “if you will” with “like.”

For example, the statement “They are, if you will, this country’s governing body” becomes “They are, like, this country’s governing body.” You get the idea: “if you will” is to pompous baby boomers what “like” is to their kids.

As Pullum says, “The people who grouse about like are myopic old whiners who haven’t looked at their own, like, linguistic foibles, if you will.”

In fact, “if you will” isn’t always empty filler. Before it became the annoying and meaningless tic it often is today, it had a legitimate usage (and it still does, among more careful speakers).

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression is “sometimes used parenthetically to qualify a word or phrase” and can be interpreted as “if you wish it to be so called” or “if you choose or prefer to call it so.” (The OED doesn’t comment on the use of the phrase as mere throat-clearing.)

Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “if you will” as meaning “if you wish to call it that,” and gives a literary example: “a kind of preoccupation, or obsession if you will” (Louis Auchincloss).

This is not the “will” that’s an auxiliary of the future tense. This is the verb that means to desire or wish, as well as to intend or propose “that something be done or happen,” as the OED says.

This sense of “will” is a remnant of an obsolete or archaic use that dates back to the 10th century in writing, one in which “will” is used transitively—that is, with an object (as in “she willed him to speak” or “your father wills it”). However, in the case of “if you will” the object is unstated.

The OED has this late 17th-century example: “Gravity … depends entirely on the constant and efficacious, and, if you will, the supernatural and miraculous Influence of Almighty God” (from William Whiston’s The New Theory of the Earth, 1696).

This 19th-century example is from the works of John Ruskin: “Very savage! monstrous! if you will” (from St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, 1876).

Notice how the writers in those examples use “if you will” to qualify words, like “supernatural” and “monstrous,” that a reader might otherwise find startling. In effect, the meaning is “you might even say supernatural,” “you might even say monstrous.”

But “if you will” is also used in other ways, as in polite formulas like “Pass the salt, if you will,” “Imagine, if you will, a rustic cottage,” and “Tell the jury, if you will, where you were on the night of ….”

In those examples, “if you will” means something like “if you please.” (The OED’s definitions of “if you please” include “if it be your will.”)

Finally, “if you will” can be used in the sense of “if you desire” or “if you wish.”

The OED has an example from Sir Walter Scott. In a scene from the novel Kenilworth (1821), the Earl of Leicester’s wife makes a wish—that he would don the russet-brown cloak of a peasant. The Earl replies: “The sober russet shall be donned to-morrow, if you will.”

This usage is a cousin to a couple of old phrases in which the verb “will” has only an implied object: “if God will” and the later “God willing.”

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When “I don’t care” means “Yes”

Q: I came across a startling idiom while living in southern Missouri. If I asked someone a favor, the response would be “I don’t care,” but the meaning would be “I’m willing.” Can you help clarify?

A: What you heard in Missouri is an American regionalism that dates from the early 20th century, but it has roots in a usage that showed up in England in the 1500s.

To begin at the beginning, the verb “care” has meant, among other things, to be concerned about something since it appeared in Old English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may date from as early as 700: “Na ymb his lif cearað” (“Nor cares about his life”).

We still use the verb “care” that way. The latest OED example is from Play Therapy, a 1947 book by the psychologist Virginia Mae Axline: “Fall on the floor, damn you! See if I care.”

In the early 16th century, the verb in negative constructions took on a sense similar to the one you’re asking about.

“Not to care,” according to the OED, came to mean “not to mind (something proposed); to have no disinclination or objection, be disposed to.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by the English monk William Bonde: “Some for a fewe tythes, with Cayn, careth nat to lese the eternall ryches of heuen [heaven].”

The OED adds that when the usage is seen now “care” is accompanied by the preposition “if” or “though.” However, the dictionary’s most recent citation is from the mid-19th century.

Here’s an “if” example from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 (1600): “I care not if I doe become your phisitian.”

And here’s one from Clarissa, a 1748 novel by Samuel Richardson: Will you eat, or drink, friend? … I don’t care if I do.”

As for the usage you heard in Missouri, the Dictionary of American Regional English says the verb “care” is used in the negative to mean “to be willing, to be pleased,” usually “in response to an invitation.”

So in this sense, “I don’t care to” would mean “I’m willing to” or “I’d be pleased to” or simply “Yes.”

DARE identifies this as a regionalism of the Midlands section of the country. Here are the examples on record, with the locations listed first.

Southern Indiana: “People might think you were brash if you answered straight out ‘Yes’ to an offer of food or drink, so to be polite you said ‘I don’t care.’ ” (From 1980 DARE records of a usage current “as of c1900.”)

Southeast Missouri: “Care…. In negative ‘not to care’; a common expression denoting consent. ‘Will you go to dinner with me?’ ‘I don’t care.’ (Not meant to be indifferent.)”  (From the journal Dialect Notes, 1903.)

Northwest Arkansas, southeast Missouri, southeast Kentucky: “Care (with negative)…. To be willing. ‘If I had a horse and carriage I wouldn’t care to take you to Boring.’ ” (From Dialect Notes, 1907.)

Central Kentucky: “I hope to live my life out so people won’t care to look at me, and I won’t care to meet nobody…. You don’t have to be hateful. You can be kind. And people don’t care to look at you.” (From Ellesa Clay High’s Collection of Terms Recorded in the Red River Gorge, 1981, describing a usage current “as of c1930.”)

West Virginia mountains: “ ‘Come and set?’ ‘I wouldn’t keer to.’ The rising inflection of the guest’s voice indicated her willingness, so together they dropped down in the cool grass.” (From Alberta Hannum’s novel Thursday April, 1931.)

Western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee: “ ‘She don’t care to talk’ [means] she doesn’t mind talking, i.e. she is a great talker.” (From the Joseph Sargent Hall collection of dialect materials, 1937.)

West Virginia: “One of the most baffling expressions our people use … is ‘I don’t care to….’ To outlanders this seems to mean a definite ‘no,’ whereas in truth it actually means, ‘thank you so much, I’d love to.’ ” (From West Virginia History, 1969, at the state Department of Archives and History.)

And this is an example from much farther north: “Maine Circumlocutions … such as, ‘I don’t care for him’ when the meaning is, ‘I have no objection to him.’ ” (From Down East: The Magazine of Maine, 1971.)

The verb “mind” has been used similarly in negative constructions to mean “to care, trouble oneself,” according to the OED.

Here’s an example from Foreign Parts, a 1994 novel by Janine Galloway: “We can sit here for a while if you like. Whatever, Cassie said. I don’t mind. Whatever.”

Finally, we have the negative use of “mind” in the expression “I don’t mind if I do,” which the OED defines as “a humorous circumlocution accepting an invitation, esp. the offer of a (usually alcoholic) drink.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Round of Wrong, an 1847 play by William Bayle Bernard: “Reu. You’ll have some tea? / Duc. Well, I don’t mind if I do.”

And this alcoholic example is from Charlotte Brontë’s 1849 novel Shirley: “ ‘Take another glass,’ urged Moore. Mr. Sykes didn’t mind if he did.”

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In kilter or out of it?

Q: I was lying in bed last night when I started thinking about the phrase “out of kilter.” I deconstructed it mentally, wondering whether something could be in kilter as well as out of it. Do you have any insights about this one?

A: It’s nice to know that other people toss around in bed trying to decipher English phrases!

The short answer is that things can be “in kilter” or “out of kilter,” though they’re usually out of it. Here’s the longer version.

The noun has been spelled both “kilter” and “kelter” since it showed up in the early 1600s, but “kilter” is now the spelling in standard dictionaries in the US and the UK.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary whose entry for the word hasn’t been fully updated, still uses “kelter” as its principal spelling.

The OED defines the term as “good condition, order; state of health or spirits,” and says it’s used “in the phrases out of kelter, in (good, high) kelter, to get into kelter.”

Only 2 of the 15 Oxford citations use the term positively (the last positive example is from the early 1820s). And only one of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked has a positive example.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes an example that refers to efforts to bring the “country’s economy back into kilter with the Western economic system.”

Etymologists have been stumped about the origins of “kilter.” The OED says says the etymology is obscure, but adds that the usage is “widely diffused in English dialect from Northumbria and Cumberland to Cornwall.”

The first written use of the word, according to Oxford, is in a 1628 letter cited in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation:

“Hithertoo ye Indeans of these parts had no peeces nor other arms but their bowes & arrowes, nor of many years after; neither durst they scarce handle a gune, so much were they affraid of them; and ye very sight of one (though out of kilter) was a terrour unto them.” (We’ve gone to the original and expanded the OED citation for context.)

It’s interesting that Bradford uses “out of kilter” in reference to firearms, because some other early mentions also concern them. Here are a couple of examples, including a positive one:

“Their Gunnes they … often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter” (from Roger Williams’s Key Into the Language of America, 1643).

“Mending, cleansing and keeping in good kelter the firelocks left with his Honour” (from Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 1722).

Any association with firearms may simply be coincidental, though, since “kilter” and “out of kilter” were used early on in reference to other things as well.

An early definition reads this way:  “Kelter or Kilter, Frame, order.” It comes from John Ray’s A Collection of English Words, Not Generally Used (1674). We should note here that “in frame” was an old expression for “in order” or “in good form.”

This sampling from Oxford’s citations, which includes the last positive one, shows how widely these expressions have been used:

“If the organs of Prayer are out of kelter, or out of tune, how can we pray?” (from a sermon by the English theologian Isaac Barrow, delivered sometime before 1677).

“The seats some burned and others out of kilter” (from a 1681 quotation given in an 1898 article in New England Magazine).

“I found all of my family well excepting the poor pale Johnnie; and he is really a thing to break one’s heart by looking at—yet he is better. The rest are in high kelter” (we’ve expanded this citation from a May 20, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott).

“I must rest awhile. My brain is out of kilter” (from a letter written in 1862 by James Russell Lowell).

“Jack’s death sort of knocked you out of kilter” (from The Four of Hearts, an Ellery Queen mystery, 1938).

“There [in Northern Ireland], an allotment of 12 seats at Westminster is based upon electoral quotas wildly out of kilter with the quotas for England, Scotland, and Wales” (from the Times, London, 1973).

We’ll end with a modern example of “kilter” used positively. In Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (2008), George Vecsey describes the reaction of baseball junkies to the Yankees’ victory over the Braves in the 1996 World Series:

“Yankee fans were relieved to find the moon and stars finally back in kilter, but Yankee-haters, in their own tortured way, felt relieved to finally be oppressed again in familiar fashion.”

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Baby, it’s cold outside

Q: Greg Easterbrook recently complained in the NYT about “freezing temperatures.” In his words, “Temperature is a mathematical measure:  Numbers don’t freeze.  Temperatures can be high or low; air is what’s hot or cold.” Greg’s a smart guy, but is he right?

A: No, Greg is wrong. Sometimes people of a literal bent go to ridiculous extremes, throwing common sense out the window. Our advice to Greg: Chill out.

Writers, including scientists, have been using “freezing temperature” or “freezing temperatures” for hundreds of years to mean the degree of coldness at which something freezes.

What’s not to understand here? In weather parlance, this generally means a temperature at which water is converted to ice.

Oxford Dictionaries online defines “temperature” as the “degree or intensity of heat present in a substance or object, especially as expressed according to a comparative scale and shown by a thermometer or perceived by touch.”

In medicine, according to Oxford, the term refers to the “degree of internal heat of a person’s body,” and, informally, to a “body temperature above the normal; fever.”

The dictionary says “temperature” can also mean the “degree of excitement or tension in a discussion or confrontation.”

Oxford gives these numberless examples: “strong winds and freezing temperatures” … “I’ll take her temperature” … “he was running a temperature” … “the temperature of the debate was lower than before.”

Although “temperature” is often expressed numerically, a number isn’t necessary. One can say, “My temperature is normal” or “My temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit” … “The temperature outside is freezing” or “The temperature is 0° Celsius.”

In its entry for “freezing,” Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online says the adjective means “being at or below freezing point,” and it gives this example: “the temperature is freezing.”

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s offers a second definition in which “freezing” is used loosely to mean merely “very cold,” a usage that we found in four other standard dictionaries.

So lexicographers don’t seem to mind referring to “temperatures” as “freezing.” And they don’t have a mental picture of numbers turning to ice.

We use “boiling” in the same way: “The water in the teapot often reaches boiling temperature within five minutes.” Here the adjective “boiling” means sufficient to make something boil.

People commonly use “-ing” participles adjectivally. Every day we use perfectly normal English constructions like “frying pan,” “playing field,” “walking pace,” “crying shame,” and so on.

We don’t mean that the pan is frying, that the field is playing, that the pace is walking, or that the shame is crying.

In searches of online databases, we’ve found many examples for “freezing temperature” or “freezing temperatures” in scientific and other writing dating back to the 18th century. Here are a few early examples:

“When the air was at or near the freezing temperature, the logarithmic differences gave the real height,” from Observations Made in Savoy (1777), a treatise by Sir George Shuckburgh on measuring the height of mountains.

“When salt-water ice floats in the sea at a freezing temperature, the proportion above to that below the surface, is as 1 to 4 nearly,” from the April 11, 1818, issue of the Literary Gazette in London.

“We also know that eggs from perfectly healthy worms, if they be kept at one time in a warm place, and at another in a very cold place, sometimes in warm stove rooms, then in cold, freezing temperatures … will be very certain to produce worms subject to the yellows,” from an 1839 issue of the Journal of the American Silk Society.

By the way, the noun “temperature” had nothing to do with heat or cold, whether expressed numerically or not, when it showed up in English in the mid-1500s.

English adopted the word from Latin, where temperāre meant to moderate or mix, and temperātūra referred to moderation or a proper mixture.

That sense of moderation in temperāre and temperātūra has given English the words “temperance” and “temperate,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In English, “temperature” initially referred to mixing and moderating, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete.

The sense you’re asking about (which the OED defines as the “state of a substance or body with regard to sensible warmth or coldness”) didn’t show up until the late 17th century.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the title of a 1670 tract by the chemist and physicist Robert Boyle: Of the Temperature of the Submarine Regions as to Heat and Cold.

The use of “temperature” for a “degree of excitement or tension” showed up in this example from Arthur Penrhyn Stanley’s Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church (1863): “The temperature of the zeal of the different portions of the nation.”

And the use of the word for a fever appeared in Percy White’s 1898 novel A Millionaire’s Daughter : “Do you think I have a temperature?”

The adjective “freezing,” which ultimately comes from the Old English verb fréosan (to freeze), showed up in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (which the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare says was produced as early as 1611):

When we are old as you? when we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December, how,
In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse
The freezing hours away?

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How permission is expressed

Q: It bothers me when a form reads, “By signing this you are giving your express permission for us to use your information.” Shouldn’t that be “expressed permission”?

A: In contemporary English, one usually gives “express permission,” not “expressed permission.”

We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and not a single one includes the adjectival use of the past participle “expressed” in this sense. In fact, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) describes it as a misuse that’s “widely shunned.”

All six dictionaries have entries for the adjective “express” used in transportation (“an express train”) and mail (“an express letter”), as well as the meaning you’re asking about and a related sense.

Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, includes these two adjectival senses:

(1) “Definitely stated, not merely implied: it was his express wish that the celebration continue.”

(2) “Precisely and specifically identified to the exclusion of anything else: the schools were founded for the express purpose of teaching deaf children.”

In your example (“By signing this you are giving your express permission for us to use your information”), the word “express” is being used in sense No. 1 to mean definite or explicit.

Although “expressed” is sometimes seen in this sense, “express” is overwhelmingly preferred, according to our online searches. Here’s the Google scorecard: “express permission,” more than 3.3 million hits; “expressed permission,” 356,000.

The Oxford English Dictionary (a historical dictionary that’s a separate entity from Oxford Dictionaries online) does indeed include the adjectival use of “expressed” to mean “express,” but its most recent citation is from the early 1700s.

When the adjective “express” showed up in written English in the 1300s (two centuries before the adjectival use of “expressed”), it meant explicit or definite, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s first two examples are from “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386). Here’s one of them:

“Wher can ye seen in any maner age / That highe God defended mariage / By expresse word?”

And this is a 1765 legal example from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England: “Express contracts are where the terms of the agreement are openly uttered and avowed at the time of the making.”

Finally, here’s an 1877 example from The American Commonwealth, by James Bryce: “Sometimes by express, more often by a tacit understanding.”

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Why “children,” not “childs”?

Q: Your recent post about why “chicken” is singular has left me wondering where “-en” plurals such as “oxen,” “brethren,” “children,” “men,” “women,” and the archaic eyen come from.

A: In Old English, nouns that followed certain patterns formed their plurals with -n rather than –s.

These included the one you mention, eyen (“eyes”), as well as earan (“ears”), tungan (“tongues”), fon (“foes”), housen (“houses”), shoen (“shoes”), treen (“trees”), and oxan (the original plural of “ox”).

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1400), both the –en and the –an plurals that had come from Old English were spelled with –en.

Meanwhile, Middle English writers extended the -en spelling, applying it to words that didn’t originally have plurals ending in –n.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the termination -en came to be regarded as a formative of the plural, and its use was extended in southern Middle English to many other words of Old English and French origin.”

Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw note in The English Language: A Historical Introduction (2nd ed.) that Middle English had “forms like devlen ‘devils’ and englen ‘angels,’ where Old English had deoflas and englas.”

This -en  ending was so popular in Middle English that it was even added to existing irregular plurals, so that brethre (plural of “brother”) became brethren and childer (plural of “child”) became children.

You might say that the –en of “brethren” and “children,” added to words that were already plural, formed in each case a sort of double plural. (The modern “brothers” wasn’t commonly used until the end of the 16th century.)

For a time, –n and –s rivaled each other as the typical plural ending in English, Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write in The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.).

In general, the -n ending was favored in the south of England and the –s in the north.

But nearly all of the –n plurals eventually disappeared as the –s plurals became dominant. By around 1400, say the authors of The English Language, the –s plurals were “almost universal.”

The only original –n plural from Old English that has survived to this day is “oxen.” And even this plural had a run for its money. It competed for a time with “oxes,” which the OED says “has survived only in regional and nonstandard use.”

(The plurals “men” and “women,” by the way, don’t fall into this category. They were formed in Old English by a change of vowel, as is also true of “feet,” “geese,” “teeth,” “mice,” and “lice.”)

We should mention a couple of other points about –en endings in English.

As we wrote in our “chicken” post, the –en suffix has been used to form diminutives. This is the case with the –en of “chicken,” “kitten,” and “maiden.”

And –en has been added to nouns to form adjectives in the sense “pertaining to” or “of the nature of,” the OED says. In Germanic languages, adjectives formed this way “chiefly indicate the material of which a thing is composed,” Oxford adds.

Only a few of these adjectives survive today in English, including “golden,” “wooden,” “leaden,” “oaken,” “woolen,” “earthen,” and “wheaten.”

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Like father, like son

Q: What is the history of the phrase “like father, like son”? Does it hark back to a time when this sort of parallel construction was common?

A: The expression “like father, like son” is an old English proverb with roots in classical Latin. Like many other English proverbs, it doesn’t conform to the usual syntax, the arrangement of words and phrases into sentences.

In “Proverbs,” an essay in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences, the philologist Neal R. Norrick explains that proverbs like the one you’re asking about don’t adhere to the traditional use of noun phrases and verb phrases.

“Many proverbs such as Like father, like son and The nearer the bone, the sweeter, the meat adhere to formulas, here like X, like Y and The X-er, the Y-er, which do not conform to customary NP + VP syntactic structure,” Norrick writes. “So special interpretative rules beyond regular compositional semantic principles are necessary to assign these proverbs even literal readings.”

Such literal readings, he says, “provide the basis on which figurative interpretations are determined.”

“One interpretative rule will relate the formula like X, like Y to the reading ‘Y is like X’ to derive for Like father, like son the interpretation ‘the son is like the father’; another rule related the formula The X-er, the Y-er to ‘Y is proportional to X’ to interpret The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat as ‘the sweetness of the meat is proportional to the nearness of the bone’; and so on for other recurrent formulas.”

Norrick, who holds the chair of English philology at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, says other proverbs, like “once bitten, twice shy” and “sow the wind, reap the storm,” are “radically elliptical, rather than formulaic, as such.”

“They require expansion before they can receive grammatical analyses interpretable by regular compositional principles,” he adds. “This suggests a cognitive procedure in which a person constructs a complete paraphrase of the elliptical proverb, then assigns the interpretation derived from the paraphrase.”

Norrick’s analysis can be heavy going for lay readers, so we’ll simply say that proverbs are often idiomatic expressions that don’t necessarily conform to the traditional rules of English.

The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines the proverb “like father, like son” this way: “Fathers and sons resemble each other, and sons tend to do what their fathers did before them.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, which defines the adage as “In the same manner from generation to generation,” says, “This ancient proverb has been stated in English in slightly varying versions since the 1300s.”

American Heritage cites this 17th-century variation: “Like father, like son; like mother, like daughter,” from Bibliotheca Scholastica Instructissima (1616), a book of proverbs collected by the English theologian Thomas Draxe.

Two anonymous Latin sayings, Qualis pater, talis filius (“as the father, so the son”) and patris est filius (“he is his father’s son”), are cited as the source for the English proverb “like father, like son.”

However, a mother-daughter version appears in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (Ezekiel 16:44): “As the mother, so her daughter.”

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Why do the English drop aitches?

Q: Is there a linguistic relationship between the missing “h” sound in French and Eliza Doolittle’s aitch-dropping in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady?

A: The English have been dropping their aitches in speech and in spelling since Anglo-Saxon times, but the process accelerated as Old English gave way to Middle English in the 11th century.

Is French responsible for this “h”-dropping in English?

Well, Anglo-Norman, spoken by the Francophile upper classes in England for several hundred years after the Norman Conquest, is responsible for some of the “h” loss in Middle English, but not for Eliza’s cockney “h”-dropping.

Anglo-Norman, as well as Old French and Middle French, clearly influenced the absence of the “h” sound in some loanwords of Latin origin in Middle English, such as “honor,” “honest,” and “hour.”

But it’s uncertain whether Anglo-Norman, a Romance language formed from various French dialects, is responsible for any of the “h”-dropping in Middle English words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

One problem for linguists is determining how much of the “h”-dropping in Old English and Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech.

Some linguists have argued that the increase in “h”-dropping in Middle English texts was merely the result of errors by scribes who spoke Anglo-Norman, with its silent “h.”

But other linguists have said that the “h”-dropping in Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech, and that this was the result of the inherent weakness and instability of the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the letter “h.”

Today, “h”-dropping is associated with the cockney speech of working-class Londoners, but this loss of the “h” sound in words like “hammer,” “hat,” “house,” and “behind” is common in most regions of England, according to linguists.

In fact, “h” dropping is not unknown in Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent. In addition to dropping the “h” sound in the Gallic loanwords mentioned above, RP speakers used to drop it in “historic,” resulting in uses like “an ’istoric.”

RP speakers now pronounce all the letters of “historic,” but they’ve kept the indefinite article “an,” even though the article “a” would be standard before a word beginning with a sounded “h,” the phonetician John C. Wells writes in Accents of English (1982).

In A Course in Phonetics (1982), the phonetician Peter Ladefoged says “h” acts “like a consonant, but from an articulatory point of view is simply the voiceless counterpart of the following vowel.”

“It does not have a specific place of articulation,” he writes, “and its manner of articulation is the same as that of a vowel, only the state of the glottis is different.” (The glottis is made up of the vocal cords and the opening between them.)

As the linguist Larry Trask explains, “h” is “a very weak consonant, almost the last trace of anything we can call a consonant at all, and it disappears very easily.”

In classical times, Trask points out in a contribution to the Linguist List, the “h” sound “was completely gone in popular Latin speech by the first century BC, though it may have been retained for a while by a few pedants.”

“The Romance languages sometimes continue to write this long-lost /h/ in their orthographies,” he adds, “but this is purely for old times’ sake.”

However, the “h” sound was alive and well in Old English, according to linguists who have reconstructed Anglo-Saxon speech based on things like the rhyme in verse, the spelling of Latin loanwords, and related words in other Germanic languages.

The letter “h” had several pronunciations in Old English, which was spoken from about the 5th through the 11th centuries:

● In front of vowels, “h” sounded much as it does today.

● In front of consonants, it had a breathy sound.

● After a vowel pronounced at the front of the mouth (like “e” or “i”), “h” sounded like the “ch” in the German ich.

● After a vowel pronounced at the back of the mouth (like “a” or “o”), it sounded like the “ch” in the Scottish loch.

The use of “h” before consonants at the beginning of words began dying out in Old English and Middle English texts, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For example, the noun “ring” (the finger ornament), was hringae, hringiae, etc. in early Old English, but came to be spelled ringce, ryngc, ring, and so on in later Old English.

The noun “nut” (the seed) was originally hnut- or hnute- (in compounds) in Anglo-Saxon writing, and then nut-, nute, etc., in later Old English.

The adjective “loud” was hlúd in Old English and then lud(e), loude, lowd(e), and so on in Middle English.

The “h”-dropping in Old English texts presumably reflected the loss of the “h” sound in speech, according to phoneticians, linguists who specialize in phonetics.

However, scholars have debated the cause of the “h” loss in Middle English writing.

The 19th-century philologist Walter William Skeat attributed the loss of the letter “h” in Middle English writing to spelling errors by Anglo-Norman scribes.

But James Milroy, a 20th-century linguist, believed the scribes were representing the “h”-dropping in speech.

Milroy, who exhaustively studied “h”-dropping in England, writes in the Cambridge History of the English Language that in certain regions of medieval England “the syllable initial [h] was not present, or only variably present,” in speech.

Trask, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, raises an interesting point on the Linguist List about contemporary “h” dropping in working-class speech in England.

Although the “h” sound in words of Anglo-Saxon origin (like “hair,” “heart,” “harm,” and “hit”) is “completely gone in the vernacular speech of almost all of England,” Trask writes, there’s no sign of such “h”-dropping in North America.

(The “h”-less US pronunciation of “herb” is not an American version of cockney “h”-dropping. It’s the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the Old French loanword was usually spelled “erbe.” As the OED notes, in British speech “the h was mute until the 19th cent.”)

Why is cockney-style “h”-dropping common among the English, but unknown among Americans?

In Accents of English, Wells, a professor emeritus at University College London, suggests that the American colonists didn’t take such “h”-dropping with them to the New World because they left before its widespread appearance in England.

“The fact that H dropping is unknown in North America strongly suggests that it arose in England only well after the American colonies were founded,” he writes.

Although “h”-dropping did occur in Old English and Middle English, as we’ve said, it apparently wasn’t common enough in England to get the attention of language commentators and novelists until the latter half of the 18th century.

In Talking Proper (1995), Lynda Mugglestone, an Oxford historian of the English language, says the first language writer to complain about “h”-dropping was the actor-educator Thomas Sheridan.

In A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), Sheridan criticizes “the omission of the aspirate in many words by some, and in most by others.”

And in Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture (1786), a pronunciation and spelling guide, James Elphinston condemns the “lowliness” and “impropriety” of pronunciations like “uman,” “umor,” and “umbel” (for “human,” “humor,” and “humble”).

Later, Lindley Murray’s influential English Grammar (1795) describes the “h” sound as a requirement for “educated” speech, and blames “the negligence of tutors” and “the inattention of pupils” for its loss.

As for fiction, Winifred Jenkins, a maid in Tobias Smollett’s last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), drops her aitches on and off, referring to “heart” as “art,” and “harm” as “arm.”

By the mid-19th century, working-class characters routinely dropped their aitches in novels. As Uriah Heep says in David Copperfield (1850):  “I am well aware that I am the umblest person going.”

(Although “humble” was the standard spelling of the word in Dickens’s day, its original spelling in Middle English was “umble.”)

We can’t conclude this discussion of “h”-dropping without mentioning the many Old English words that began with “hw” but now begin with “wh,” including hwæt (“what”), hwanne (“when”), hwǽr, (“where”), hwæs (“whose”), hwā (“who”), hwí (“why”), hwelc (“which”), hwæðer (“whether”), and so on.

The OED says the “normal Old English spelling hw was generally preserved in early Middle English,” and the “modern spelling wh is found first in regular use in the Ormulum,” a 12th-century religious work in which whillc is used for “which.”

“In Old English the pronunciation symbolized by hw was probably in the earliest periods a voiced bilabial consonant preceded by a breath,” according to the dictionary. (A voiced bilabial consonant is one in which the vocal cords vibrate and the air flow is restricted by the lips.)

Interestingly, the words that began with “hw” in Old English have given us two types of “wh” words today: those in which the “w” sound predominates (“why,” “where,” “when,” etc.) and those in which the “h” sound predominates (“who,” “whole,” “whose”).

In case you’re wondering, “whore” was originally spelled hóre in Old English, and retained its “h” pronunciation when the “wh” spelling of the word arose in the 16th century.

An 1830 edition of Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary gives two pronunciations, “höör, or höre,” and adds: “If there can be a polite pronunciation of this vulgar word, it is the first of these, rhyming with poor.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several posts about “herb” and “historic,” including Herbal remedies in 2009 and Historic article in 2012.

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On chicks and chickens

Q: In a book about exotic chickens, I read that linguistic purists say “chicken” is plural for “chick,” akin to “children” and “child” or “oxen” and “ox.” What say you?

A: That book is wrong. The word “chicken” is singular and has been since Old English. As we’ll explain, the “-en” in “chicken” was originally a diminutive, not a plural ending.

Only in rural dialects, mostly in the 19th century in the southwest of England, has “chicken” ever been used as a plural for “chick.”

We found this explanation in an 1895 grammar book: “Chicken is not a plural word, though it is used as such in country districts” (from English Grammar for Beginners, by Alfred S. West).

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes this regional definition: “Chicken, in Mid-Sussex used as the plural of chick” (from William Douglas Parish’s A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect and Collection of Provincialisms, 1875).

In fact “chicken” dates from around 950 and perhaps as early as 700. But “chick” didn’t appear in writing until 1320, as an abbreviation for “chicken.”

“Chicken” (spelled cicen, ciken, and ciccen in Old English) is similar to words in other Germanic languages.

Chicken is a widespread Germanic word,” John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED notes versions in such Germanic languages as Dutch (kieken, kuiken), German (küchlein), Old Norse (kjúklingr), Swedish (kjukling), and Danish (kylling).

The ultimate source of these words, etymologists believe, is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as kiukinan (or kiukinam).

This ancient word was “imitative, like Old English cocc, of the sound of the bird,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The ancient kiukinan was formed, Ayto says, by adding a diminutive to the root keuk-. And some etymologists, according to the OED, suggest that this root was a form of kuk-, the source of  “cock.”

“If that is so,” Ayto comments, “a chicken would amount etymologically to a ‘little cock’ (and historically the term has been applied to young fowl, although nowadays it tends to be the general word, regardless of age).”

The diminutive notion makes sense, considering that the earliest meaning of “chicken” in the OED is “the young of the domestic fowl.”

This sense of the word was first recorded in the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript that the OED dates from around 950 (though some scholars trace it to as early as circa 700). 

Here’s a relatively reader-friendly 1526 citation: “He … cherissheth vs, as the egle her byrdes: the broode henne her cheykyns” (from William Bonde’s treatise The Pylgrimage of Perfection).

In the early 19th century, “chicken” came to mean “a domestic fowl of any age,” the OED says, although the abbreviation “chick” kept its older meaning: a young bird.

However, “chicken” has retained its youthful associations in some senses.

Since the early 18th century, according to the OED,  it’s been used in writing to mean “a youthful person: one young and inexperienced.” Thus “no chicken,” the dictionary says, can mean “no longer young.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from Richard Steele, writing in the Spectator in 1711: “You ought to consider you are now past a Chicken; this Humour, which was well enough in a Girl, is insufferable in one of your Motherly Character.”

This later citation shows how “no chicken” was (and sometimes still is) used: “He must have been well forward in years—or at all events, as they say, no chicken” (from Edward Walford’s Tales of Our Great Families, 1877).

In case you’re wondering, “spring chicken” referred to a young fowl when the phrase first appeared in the late 18th century.

A “spring chicken,” the OED says, simply meant “a small chicken (esp. a roasting bird)” or more specifically “one aged between eleven and fourteen weeks.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase used literally is from a 1770 entry in the diary of an English clergyman, James Woodforde: “We had for dinner … three nice Spring Chicken rosted.”

The figurative use of “spring chicken” to mean a young person—and of “no spring chicken” for someone not so young—was an American invention, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1910 issue of the National Police Gazette: “She wasn’t a Spring chicken, by any means, yet she wasn’t old.”

But we’ve found several earlier examples, and they aren’t all American. The first two are from boys’ adventure novels written by a Scot and published in London:

“I’m going on for fifty. That ain’t a spring chicken” (from Wild Life in the Land of the Giants, by Gordon Stables, 1888).

“And you wouldn’t be wrong in calling her ‘old’ either. My mither’s no’ a spring chicken, but—she’s a marvel. Ay, mither’s a marvel” (from Our Home in the Silver West, by Gordon Stables, 1891).

“He ain’t no spring chicken, Bert ain’t” (from A Little Norsk, a novel by the American writer Hamlin Garland, 1892).

“I was no spring chicken in the ways of the world and the awful abysses of human degradation” (from “The Pen,” a short story of prison life by Jack London, Cosmopolitan, 1907).

Finally, we should mention that the slang use of “chick” for a girl or young woman showed up in the US in the early 20th century, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry: He didn’t want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick.”

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When push comes to shove

Q: “When push comes to shove” does not come up in my QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. What do you have to say about the evolution of this phrase?

A: The expression “when (or if) push comes to shove” originated in 19th-century African-American usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED labels it colloquial—more likely to be found in speech than in formal writing—and says it means “when action must back up words” or “if or when one must commit oneself to an action or decision.”

People generally talk about a problem before finally doing something about it. So think of talking as the “push” and acting as the “shove.”

The expression wasn’t recorded until the 1890s, according to OED citations, but no doubt it was used conversationally for years before it ever showed up in print.

Oxford gives a hint of the reasoning behind the saying in this 1873 citation from Thomas De Witt Talmage, writing in the United Methodist Free Churches’ Magazine:

“The proposed improvement is about to fail, when Push comes up behind it and gives it a shove, and Pull goes in front and lays into the traces; and, lo! the enterprise advances, the goal is reached!”

A version of the expression that used “pinch” instead of “push” appeared in a February 1897 issue of a Georgia newspaper, the Macon Telegraph:

“But, ‘if pinch comes to shove’ as old Sol … was wont to say, will these gentlemen put on the habilaments of war and prove ‘more than a match’ for British ironclads or Spanish machetes?”

The same newspaper printed the more familiar version in February 1898: “When ‘push comes to shove’ will editors of the Yellow Kid organs enlist?”

A prominent African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, printed the expression in 1924 (“what Uncle Sam can do if push comes to shove”), and in a 1948 piece by the poet Langston Hughes:

“Civilizations, like clocks, have a way of running down—only to be replaced by new versions. One can always buy another clock, or even tell time by the sun, if push comes to shove.”

While the expression originated in the United States, it’s not unknown elsewhere. The OED’s citations include examples from Canada and Scotland:

“If push comes to shove, make good the threat.” (From an Alberta newspaper, the Calgary Herald, 1970.)

“I can see you taking legal advice on your position so that you’ll know what to do if push comes to shove, but you’ll try to work things out first.” (From the Sunday Post, Glasgow, 1997.)

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The 3 “ch” sounds: sh, tch, k

Q: Do English words with “ch” pronounced as sh (e.g., “Chicago,” “chute”) generally have French origins?

A: The short answer is yes—but there’s more to the story.

As you know, there are three ways to pronounce the letter combination “ch” in English.

It can sound like k (as in “chasm” or “school”), like sh (as in “charade” or “brochure”), and like tch (as in “champion” and “child”).

The “ch” words with the k sound are derived from classical Greek, while the “ch” words with the sh sound come from modern French.

Most of the “ch” words with the tch sound come from Old English and are Germanic in origin (like “child,” “church,” and “each”).

However, some tch-sound words (such as “chase,” “challenge,” and “chance”) are derived from Old French, where “ch” was pronounced tch.

The “ch” letter combination didn’t exist in Old English, which used the letter “c” for both k and tch sounds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

After the Norman Conquest, Middle English scribes introduced the Gallic “ch” spelling. It was used in words from Old French that were already spelled with “ch,” as well in Old English words pronounced with tch and formerly spelled with “c.”

“French spelling habits were applied to native English vocabulary,” the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says, “and the word spelled cild in Old English, for instance, came to be spelled child in Middle and Modern English.”

Interestingly, the “ch” letter combination pronounced tch in Old French later came to be pronounced sh in modern French. But the English words with “ch” that came from Old French tended to retain the earlier tch pronunciation.

Finally, US place names in which “ch” is pronounced sh (like “Chicago” and “Michigan”) generally come from French versions of American Indian names.

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How traditional is a tradition?

Q: I recall reading that a tradition is a custom passed from one generation to the next. But I often hear people referring to customs (esp. within families) that are typically only a few years old, as in “We traditionally have pizza on Christmas Eve.”

A: How traditional is a tradition? Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say “tradition” can refer to a long-established custom as well as one passed on from generation to generation.

However, “tradition” did indeed have the generational sense when the noun showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s.

At that time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant  a “belief, statement, custom, etc., handed down by non-written means (esp. word of mouth, or practice) from generation to generation.”

By the late 1500s, the dictionary says, the word was being used for “any practice or custom which is generally accepted and has been established for some time within a society, social group, etc. (in later use not necessarily one passed down from generation to generation).”

It’s unclear from the OED citations exactly when a “tradition” came to mean any long-established custom, “not necessarily one passed down from generation to generation.”

It obviously occurred sometime between the dates for the oldest and newest examples of the word in the dictionary.

Here’s the OED’s earliest example: “Throw a way respect, / Tradition, forme, and ceremonious duetie,” from Shakespeare’s Richard II (1597).

And here’s the most recent: “The release in 1998 of The McGarrigle Hour … established an intermittent tradition of hootenanny-style get-togethers,” from the Jan. 20, 2010, issue of the Independent (London).

English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, where a tradicion or tradition referred to the handing over of an object or the transmitting of an idea.

The Latin source of the word is the verb trādere (to hand over, deliver, or entrust), but the ultimate source is the reconstructed Indo-European root dō- (to give).

Why did a verb meaning to hand over or give inspire the noun “tradition”? Because etymologically, a tradition is something passed on, given, handed down.

Interestingly, “tradition” once meant a betrayal, but that sense is now considered obsolete or archaic.

When used in this negative way, the OED explains, “tradition” referred to “the action or an act of surrendering a person into the power of another; betrayal.”

The dictionary notes that the term was also used in the early Christian church in reference to the “surrender of sacred books and vessels to the Roman authorities in times of persecution, esp. during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian in the early 4th cent. a.d.”

However, the OED doesn’t have any Old English or Middle English citations for “tradition” used in the sense of surrendering a person or a sacred book, which suggests that the dictionary is referring here to the classical Latin or late Latin ancestors of “tradition.”

In classical Latin, a trāditor is a “traitor, betrayer,” according to Oxford, and in late Latin it’s a “person who hands over sacred books to their persecutors.”

And, yes, trādere (to hand over, give, entrust) is the classical Latin source of both “tradition” and “traitor.”

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Why do we con-VICT a CON-vict?

Q: Why do words such as “refuse” and “project” have one pronunciation as a verb and another as a noun?

A: The usual pattern with these pairs is that the noun is accented on the first syllable while the verb is accented on the second, as with CON-vict (n.) and con-VICT (v.), REC-ord (n.) and re-CORD (v.).

This is a long-established convention of English pronunciation, one that 18th-century lexicographers commented on.

Samuel Johnson, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), had this to say about such two-syllable pairs:

“Of disyllables, which are at once nouns and verbs, the verb has commonly the accent on the latter, and the noun on the former syllable.”

He gave several examples, including con-TRACT (v.) and CON-tract (n.).

“This rule has many exceptions,” Johnson added. “Though verbs seldom have their accent on the former, yet nouns often have it on the latter syllable,” he said, as with de-LIGHT and per-FUME.

There are scores (we’ve seen lists with more than 150) of these two-syllable pairs in English. They’re often called heteronyms or heterophones, a subject we wrote about in a 2012 post.

Obviously, there’s an advantage in having different pronunciations. The speaker can distinguish one word from the other and avoid ambiguity, an advantage that we don’t have in written English. (A linguist would say the differing pronunciations serve to “disambiguate” the words.)

Occasionally, as with the noun “record,” the accent varied in early pronouncing dictionaries, and only later did the first-syllable stress become the norm.

Johnson, in the entry for “record” in his 1755 dictionary, was on the fence: “The accent of the noun is indifferently on either syllable; of the verb always on the last.”

Thomas Sheridan, in A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), stressed only the second syllable of the noun (re-CORD).

And John Walker, in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), stressed the first syllable of the noun (REC-ord).

Walker noted that “the noun record was anciently, as well as at present, pronounced with the accent either on the first or second syllable,” but he urged speakers to accent the first.

Accenting the second syllable, he said, “is overturning one of the most settled analogies of our language, and … it would be to the advantage of pronunciation to lean to the obvious analogy in disyllable nouns and verbs of the same form.”

The convention of accenting the nouns and verbs differently, Walker said, “seems an instinctive effort in the language … to compensate in some measure for the want of different terminations for these different parts of speech.”

In the case of “record,” Walker’s advice was somewhat slow to take hold. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Examples of stress on the second syllable can still be found in verse in the 19th cent.”

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Phobias, inside and out

Q: If people who spend all their time inside suffer from “agoraphobia,” do people who spend all (or much) of their time outside suffer from “claustrophobia”?

A: If “agoraphobia” is defined as fear of open spaces and “claustrophobia” as fear of closed spaces, then the two words would be opposites.

Those are the most common definitions in standard dictionaries, but some dictionaries have expanded on them to make the meanings overlap to a considerable degree.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, has the usual definitions, with “agoraphobia” defined as “fear of going outside and being in open spaces or public places” and “claustrophobia” as “fear of being in closed spaces.”

The online Oxford Dictionaries, however, defines “agoraphobia” as “extreme or irrational fear of crowded spaces or enclosed public places,” and “claustrophobia” as “extreme or irrational fear of confined places.”

We don’t see all that much difference between those Oxford definitions: “crowded spaces or enclosed public places” could well be described as “confined places.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (a different entity from Oxford Dictionaries online) expands the definition of “agoraphobia” further to include fear “of leaving one’s own home.”

The OED defines “agoraphobia” as “fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult.” It defines “claustrophobia” as “a morbid dread of confined places.”

So what do the two terms really mean? With dictionaries at odds, it’s your call. Pick whichever dictionary definition you’re comfortable with.

Getting back to your question, we might use those terms loosely to describe pathological fears that would keep people inside (“agoraphobia”) or outside (“claustrophobia”).

The noun “agoraphobia” was borrowed from the German agoraphobie, a term coined by Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal in 1871, according to the OED. The word appeared later that year in the British journal Clinic:

“Agorophobia [sic].—With this name Westphal denotes a neuropathetic affection which he has recently occasionally encountered. Its most essential symptom, is a most acute anxiety or fear, experienced in open places, long passages, theatres, concert saloons, etc., with no other cerebral disturbance.”

Westphal originally conceived of “agoraphobia” as simply the fear of large open spaces, though the word soon acquired wider meanings in psychiatric terminology.

The German psychiatrist formed it from the Greek agora (a public open space or marketplace) and –phobia (fear of).

“Claustrophobia” also has classical roots. It was formed from the Latin claustrum (confined space), the source of “cloister,” according to the OED.

The  noun was coined by an English-born French medical professor, Benjamin Ball, in his article “On Claustrophobia,” published in the British Medical Journal in September 1879.

It’s interesting that in his paper, which was published shortly afterward in Paris under the title “De la Claustrophobie,” Ball compared the two disorders.

He characterized “claustrophobia” as “a state of mind in which there was a morbid fear of closed spaces … apparently different from, but in reality similar to, agoraphobia or the dread of open spaces.”

One last point. The pronunciation of “agoraphobia” has evolved in recent years for many speakers, with the secondary accent moving from the first syllable (AG-or-a-PHO-bi-a) to the second (a-GOR-a-PHO-bi-a).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says in a usage note that the “variant has quickly gained acceptance” and is now accepted by almost three-quarters of its usage panel.

American Heritage now accepts both pronunciations. However, five of the other standard dictionaries we’ve checked list only the traditional pronunciation (AG-or-a-PHO-bi-a).

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A risky preposition

Q: I see both “risk of” and “risk for” regularly, particularly in the health context. “Risk for cancer,” “risk of dying prematurely,” etc. How do you know when to use “of” or “for”? Are both acceptable?

A: There’s no clear answer here. Both “risk of” and “risk for” are used by educated writers, and many of them—medical writers in particular—seem to use the two interchangeably.

In searches of scholarly databases, we found scores of books and articles in which both “risk of” and “risk for”—or “at risk of” and “at risk for”—appear in otherwise identical phrases.

Some examples: “assessing risk of violence” and “assessing risk for violence” (2010) … “at high risk of death” and “at high risk for death” (2001) … “risk for dementia” and “risk of dementia” (1999) … “at risk of falling” and “at risk for falling” (1998) … “at risk for school failure” and “at risk of school failure” (1989) … “the risk of reinfection” and “the risk for reinfection” (1986).

We have the impression that in some cases the writer (or editor) alternated the pattern merely for the sake of variety.

Scholarly usage aside, people in general tend to prefer “risk of” to “risk for,” whether or not the phrase is preceded by “at.” Google hits for “at risk of” outnumber “at risk for” by almost two to one.

If there’s a pattern here, it may have to do with the noun or noun phrase that follows “of” or “for” and whether it represents the danger itself or whatever is in danger.

We’ve concluded that both “risk of” and “risk for” are common when the object of the preposition is the noun or noun phrase for the danger—the disease or other misfortune.

But “risk of” is more popular, especially when the object is a gerund (an “-ing” word), as in “Climbers run the risk of falling” … “He spoke up at the risk of sounding foolish.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “risk” has many citations, from the 1660s to the present, in which “risk of” precedes the noun or noun phrase for the hazard or misfortune.

A sampling: “an heavy Risk of wickedness” (1660) … “the Risque of being hang’d” (1697) … “the Risque of an Insult” (1740) … “the risk of flooding” (1934) … “great risk of wildfire” (2003).

In fact, within its “risk” entry the OED has no citations at all for “risk for.” However, elsewhere in the dictionary are numerous examples of “risk for,” all from the 20th century or later and almost all from medical writing.

So it would appear that “risk for” is a relatively recent usage, at least in the sense that we’re discussing. (We’re ruling out constructions like “he ran a risk for her sake” or “he put his life at risk for his country.”)

On the other hand, when the “risk” phrase precedes the thing at risk, not the hazard or misfortune, we generally find “risk to” (sometimes “risk for”), as in “Strong chemicals are a risk to (or for) nail salon workers” … “Pollution poses risks to (or for) the environment.”

Oxford has many examples in which “risk to” precedes what’s in danger: “at great risk to himself” (1805) … “at risk to their lives” (1905) … “a risk to others” (1979) … “at grave risk to his career” (2002) … “a risk to himself and others” (2002).

In 2011 the linguist Mark Liberman wrote an article on the Language Log in rebuttal to a reader who insisted that “at risk for cancer” is grammatically incorrect.

In his article, which he filed under “Prescriptivist Poppycock,” Liberman suggested the reader’s peeve was an “individual quirk.”

A couple of comments suggested that “at risk for” became established largely because of its use in epidemiology. Another noted, “Once ‘at risk’ becomes an expression that stands on its own, it becomes quite natural to use ‘for’ to specify what they are at risk for (eh, of).”

The noun “risk” first appeared in written English in the 17th century, according to OED citations.

Its ancestors were recorded in medieval Italian (rischio) and post-classical Latin (resicum, risicum, etc.), but can’t be traced back further than the mid-1100s (as Oxford puts it, “further etymology uncertain and disputed”).

The noun came into Middle French in the 16th century as risque, meaning “danger or inconvenience, predictable or otherwise,” the OED says. And English speakers borrowed the word from French in the following century.

The first known example in writing is from The Wise Vieillard, or Old Man, an anonymous 1621 translation of a work by the French theologian Simon Goulard:

“The couetous [covetous] Marchant to runne vpon all hazards and risques for a handfull of yellow earth.”

The OED notes that the noun appears “freq. with of.” The earliest such example is from John Sadler’s mock-utopian work Olbia (1660), in a reference to “an heavy Risk of wickedness.”

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