The Grammarphobia Blog

Participle physics

Q: What parts of speech are the present participles in these sentences? (1) “He saw his sister walking along the road.” (2) “I go running once a week.”

A: First, a little background. A present participle, the “-ing” form of a verb, can play many different roles in a sentence—verb, adjective, adverb, and noun.

As verbs, present participles are used in the progressive tenses: “is walking,” “were running,” “will be driving,” and so on. We ran posts about the progressive tenses in 2015 and 2016.

Present participles can also be modifiers. They’re used as adjectives (“walking stick,” “running shoes”) and as adverbs (“Weeping, she walked along,” “He injured himself running”). We wrote about participial modifiers in a post earlier this year.

Finally, these “-ing” words can function as nouns (“She prefers walking,” “Running is his passion”), in which case they’re called gerunds. We wrote a post about participles and gerunds in 2012.

Now, on to your questions.

In your first sentence, “He saw his sister walking along the road,” the “-ing” word is a participial adjective.

It introduces a participial phrase (“walking along the road”) that functions adjectivally, since it modifies “his sister.”

In a simpler sentence with no phrases, this is easier to see: “He saw Phoebe walking.”

In sentence #2, “I go running once a week,” the “-ing” word complements, or completes, the verb. But what is it?

Traditionally, many authorities would have called this a gerund; some others would have said a participle.

But linguists these days are less definite. They prefer terms like “gerund-participle” or “participle construction” or just “-ing form.”

The waffling is understandable, since these forms have something in common with both nouns and verbs.

Like a noun, “running” functions here as the object of the verb “go.” But unlike a noun, “running” can itself have an object (“he goes running his legs off,” “don’t go running the company into the ground”), which is a characteristic of verbs.

Whatever they are, these “-ing” terms are often seen with the verb “go.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say that “go” can be used transitively (that is, with an object) to mean “to engage in.” The examples given include “went skiing” and “don’t go telling everyone.”

The Oxford English Dictionary regards these “-ing” words sometimes as participles and sometimes as gerunds.

The verb “go,” the OED says, is commonly used with a “participle indicating a concomitant action or activity.”

Oxford’s examples include “go walkyng” (1493); “go begging their bread and singing” (1615); “went looking” (1658), and “went sprawling” (1988).

Elsewhere in its entry for “go,” however, the OED says the verb is complemented by gerunds, and its examples include “go listening,” “go analysing,” and “go asking too much.”

The dictionary also says that in a now archaic usage, “go” was followed by the old preposition “a” (as in “go a courting,” “goes a begging,” “went a hunting”). In those usages, the “-ing” term is a gerund or “verbal noun,” the OED says.

But in modern usages without the prepositional “a,” Oxford considers the “-ing” term a participle.

Other verbs besides “go” are commonly accompanied by “-ing” terms. They include “sit” (“sat knitting”); “stand” (“stood watching”); “lie” (“lay dying”); “stop” (“stopped working”); “continue” (“continue eating”); “come” (“came pouring”); “keep” (“keep moving”); “begin” (“begin writing”); and “start” (“start ringing”).

The OED mentions the use of “-ing” terms with only four of those verbs. It says that in the phrases “came pouring” and “keep moving,” the “-ing” terms are present participles. But in the phrases “begin writing” and “start ringing” it says that the “-ing” words are “verbal nouns”—that is, gerunds.

It’s true that in those examples “writing” and “ringing” are noun-like because they could be replaced by nouns. But they’re also verb-like because, like verbs, they can have objects themselves: “begin writing a novel,” “start ringing the bell.”

We can see why many linguists believe that in some usages it’s impossible to make a clear or useful distinction between a gerund and a participle.

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Sex, gender, and rock ’n’ roll

Q: When I was a law student at Columbia, Prof. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she used “gender” in Supreme Court briefs because the (all male) justices might be uncomfortable hearing a woman lawyer use “sex.” Is she responsible for this usage shift?

A: No, she’s not responsible for the shift from “sex” to “gender” in referring to someone’s sexual identity, though she may have helped it along.

As we noted in a 2007 post, both “sex” and “gender” have been used for hundreds of years in reference to maleness and femaleness.

Interestingly, the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse is a relatively recent phenomenon that didn’t show up until the 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the increasing use of “sex” for intercourse over the last century has led many to prefer the use of “gender” for maleness and femaleness. We’ll have more on this later.

Although Ginsburg isn’t responsible for the shift, she may have helped popularize this use of “gender” when she was a law professor and argued cases before the Supreme Court.

In 1993, a few months after becoming an associate justice on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg spoke about the usage on a visit to Columbia Law School to receive an award and take part in a panel discussion.

During the discussion, she said her decision to use “gender” for “sex” in Supreme Court briefs was the result of advice from her secretary at Columbia, where she taught from 1972 to 1980.

“I owe it all to my secretary at Columbia Law School, who said, ‘I’m typing all these briefs and articles for you and the word sex, sex, sex is on every page. Don’t you know that those nine men—they hear that word, and their first association is not the way you want them to be thinking? Why don’t you use the word gender? It is a grammatical term and it will ward off distracting associations.’ ”

It’s true that “gender” began life as a grammatical term, but it’s been used since as far back as the 15th century in reference to sexual identity.

The earliest example in the OED is from the 1474 will of Thomas Stonor: “His heyres of the masculine gender of his body lawfully begoten.”

Oxford defines this sense of “gender” as “males or females viewed as a group” as well as “the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.”

The dictionary says it means the same as the word “sex” used for “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.”

The earliest OED example for “sex” used this way is from the Wycliffe Bible, written sometime before 1382:

“Of all þingez hauyng soule of eny flesch: two þou schalt brynge in to þe ark, þat male sex & female: lyuen with þe.” (“Of all things having soul of any flesh, you shall bring into the ark that of the male sex and female living with that male.”)

As we’ve said, the noun “sex” (from the Latin sexus) wasn’t used in the sense of sexual intercourse until the early 20th century. The first example in the OED is from Love and Mr. Lewisham, a 1900 novel by H. G. Wells:

“We marry in fear and trembling, sex for a home is the woman’s traffic, and the man comes to his heart’s desire when his heart’s desire is dead.”

The next example is from “Pansies,” a satirical 1929 poem by D. H. Lawrence: “If you want to have sex, you’ve got to trust / At the core of your heart, the other creature.”

And this more recent example is from the Oct. 16, 1971, issue of the Spectator: “Not for nothing is the youth culture characterized by sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”

Getting back to “gender,” the OED says its sense of sexual identity comes from its grammatical use to describe how some languages categorize words (masculine, feminine, neuter, common).

The noun “gender” in its original, grammatical sense dates from the late 1300s, according to the dictionary, and is ultimately derived from genus, classical Latin for race, kind, or grammatical gender.

The dictionary notes that the use of “gender” for sexual identity grew in popularity over the last century as the use of “sex” for sexual intercourse became more common.

“In the 20th cent.,” the OED says, “as sex came increasingly to mean sexual intercourse, gender began to replace it (in early use euphemistically) as the usual word for the biological grouping of males and females.”

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“Word” is a word is a word

Q:  “Word” is a word, so it’s an instance of itself. And “noun” is a noun. Since “noun phrase” is itself a noun phrase, it’s a third example. Can you think of any other terms like these? And is there a name for the phenomenon?

A: You’re talking about terms that describe themselves. Like the word “short,” which itself is short. And “unhyphenated,” which has no hyphen. Also “adjectival,” an adjective that’s accordingly adjectival. And “prefixed,” with “pre-” as its own prefix.

Words like these are called “autological” or, less commonly, “homological.”

Most words aren’t, as you put it, instances of themselves. The word “fat,” for instance, isn’t fat; as words go, it’s on the lean side. The word “big” isn’t big; it’s small. And the word “shrinking” isn’t shrinking; it’s the same size as always.

So, to use your examples, “word” is autological because it’s a word; “noun” is autological because it’s a noun; and “noun phrase” is autological because it’s a noun phrase.

The adjective “autological” originally had to do with self-knowledge when it entered English in the 18th century. It came from the rare 17th-century noun “autology” (self-knowledge or the study of oneself), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a new meaning emerged in the early 20th century, the OED says, when “autological” was used to describe a word, especially an adjective, “having or representing the property it denotes.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of the word is from a paper by F. P. Ramsey published in 1926 in Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society: “Let us call adjectives whose meanings are predicates of them, like ‘short,’ autological; others heterological.”

As we suggested above, most words are heterological—their meanings don’t apply to them. As Bertrand Russell wrote in 1940: “‘Long’ is heterological because it is not a long word.”

Because autological words are rarer, they’re more interesting, and it follows that they have a devoted fan base. Just google “autological words” and you’ll find lots of websites devoted to them.

The linguist Arika Okrent has written about them on the Mental Floss website. In an article published on Sept. 27, 2013, she notes that most words “have a rather abstract connection to the things they describe. The word ‘yellow’ is not actually yellow. The word ‘square’ is not a square.”

“But some words do embody the properties they denote,” she writes. “We call them autological words, and they are a self-centered, self-referential bunch.” (We’ve used many of her examples here.)

For some reason, it’s difficult to come up with many autological nouns. The noun “buzzword” is sometimes called autological, since it’s an instance of a buzzword—but we aren’t hearing it much lately, so perhaps it’s losing its buzz and someday will no longer qualify.

Autological adjectives are more plentiful. For example, the word “terse” is terse, “erudite” (scholarly) is erudite, and “twee” (sickeningly sweet) has itself become twee.

Along these same lines, “magniloquent” (highfalutin) is magniloquent, “readable” is readable, “recherché” (affected) is recherché.

Similarly, “sesquipedalian” (which describes a long word) is sesquipedalian; “polysyllabic” is polysyllabic; “descriptive” is descriptive, and “common” is common.

Finally, “useful” is useful, which is how we hope you find this post.

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A slave named Smith

Q: Why is “Smith” more common than “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and other names derived from occupations?

A: “Smith” is the most common family name in the US, according to the 2010 census. Why is it more common than some other surnames derived from occupations, such as “Cooper,” “Potter,”  “Weaver,” and so on?

Well, the word “smith” has been used in the occupational sense since Anglo-Saxon days, far longer than “cooper” (circa 1415), “potter” (c.1200), and “weaver” (1362) have been used in that sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several Old English citations for the word “smith,” including this one from the epic poem Beowulf, which scholars say may have been written as early as the 700s:

“Swa hine fyrndagum worhte wæpna smið” (“As it was made for him by a weapon smith in days of old”).

In addition to being old, “smith” has referred to a wider variety of jobs than those other terms.

When it showed up in Old English, the OED says, a “smith” was someone who worked “in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier; a forger, hammerman.” It was also used in compounds like “coopersmith,” “goldsmith,” “gunsmith,” “locksmith,” and “silversmith.”

“Smith” may have been used as a family name before any of those other occupational words even showed up in English.

A document from the late 900s granting freedom to a slave named “Ecceard smith” may be the earliest example.

A slave? Yes, there was slavery in medieval Britain.

In Cartularium Saxonicum (Vol. 3, 1887), a collection of charters relating to Anglo-Saxon history, the British historian Walter de Gray Birch includes a section on manumissions, documents granting formal release from slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from a manumission that the author dates from the late 10th century:

“Geatfleda geaf freols for Godes lufa & for heora sæpla,  þæt is Ecceard smið, & Ælstan  & his wíf & eall heora of sprinc boren & unboren. & Arcil, & Cole, & Ecferð,  Aldhunes dohter, & ealle þa men þe heo nam heora heafod for hyra mete on þam yflum dagum.”

(“For the love of God and for the need of her soul, Geatfleda has granted freedom to Ecceard smith, and AElfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter, and all those people whose heads she took for their food in the evil days [and all those people she bought in the evil days].”)

In transcribing the Old English above, we’ve replaced the Anglo-Saxon symbol for “and” (it looks like a 7) with an ampersand, and modified some of the punctuation to make the Old English more readable.

Some scholars have translated the Old English “Ecceard smið” as “Ecceard smith,” treating “smith” as a surname, while others have translated it as “Ecceard the smith,” treating “smith” as an appositive that refers to Ecceard by his occupation.

We lean toward considering “smith” a surname here, though surnames weren’t generally passed on from generation to generation until well into the Middle Ages.

Percy Hide Reaney and Richard Middlewood Wilson, authors of A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd ed., 1991), note that surnames were constantly changing in the Middle Ages.

“Today, surnames mean an inherited family name; originally it meant simply an additional name and it is used in that sense in this book,” the authors write.

In The Birth of the West (2014), Paul Collins provides additional details about the freeing of the slaves mentioned above, noting that a great famine in 975 forced some Anglo-Saxons to sell themselves into slavery to keep from dying of hunger.

“Geatfleda, a wealthy woman in Durham, heard that a group of people with children had sold themselves into slavery to survive,” Collins writes. “She then bought them and granted them freedom when the famine had ended.”

In The Old English Manor: A Study in English Economic History (1892), the historian Charles McLean Andrews says that “in cases of great poverty and distress it was not uncommon for freemen to sell themselves into slavery.”

“Frequently it might happen that violence or fraud would force a freeman into slavery, an enforcement, which, while not legally recognized, would become practically a fact, and of legal importance in relation to the posterity of the unfortunate freeman, for of course all children of slaves remained slaves,” Andrews writes.

We could speculate more about the popularity of the name “Smith,” but it would be mere conjecture.

As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990), a lot of medieval genealogy is guesswork:

“It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

You may also be interested in a post we wrote about colors used as surnames, as in “Mr. Gray” and “Ms. White.”

We’ll end with these anonymous lines that we came across in our readings for this post:

“From whence came Smith, all be he Knight or squire
But from the Smith, that forgeth at the fire?”

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A midwife’s tale

Q: As my wife was telling me about a study of midwives in the early Dutch Reform Church, it dawned on me that the term “midwife” has always seemed an odd descriptor for what a midwife does.

A: The word “midwife” is deceptive because its parts are survivals from the Middle Ages, when the word was midwif.

In Old English, mid meant “with” and wif meant “woman.” So when midwif came along in the Middle English period (1100-1400), its literal meaning was “with-woman”—someone (usually a woman, but not always) who was “with” a mother giving birth.

Today we think of “mid” as middle point. But in Old English and Middle English, “mid had approximately the same range of senses as modern English with,” says the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the end of the 1300s, the old preposition mid had been displaced by “with,” the OED says, though the old usage “probably survives as the first element of the compound midwife.”

A good example of an old use of “mid” that disappeared is the Old English mid ealle (literally “with all”), which later became “withal” (meaning “altogether” or “entirely”).

Another example is the Old English term for pregnancy, mid childe. Over the course of the 1300s, mid childe was superseded by “with child.”

The OED’s last citation for the older term is dated 1340: “Þe wyfman grat myd childe” (“The woman great with child”), from Ayenbite of Inwyt, a Middle English translation of a French treatise on morality.

In modern English, “mid” has lost its “with” sense and now is mainly used as an adjective or prefix meaning middle, halfway, and so on. The only prepositional use that survives is the poetic “mid” that’s short for “amid” or “in the midst of” (as in “mid storm and strife”).

However, the old English preposition that meant “with” is still alive in the other Germanic languages: met in Dutch, mit in German, með in Icelandic, and med in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.

As for “wife,” which we’ve written about on our blog, it meant a woman, not necessarily a married one, in Old English.

“The Old English general sense of woman,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “survives in fishwife, midwife, and old wives’ tales.”

In its etymological notes on “midwife,” the OED says “the original sense seems to have been ‘woman who is with the mother at childbirth.’ ”

While the “midwife” was usually a woman, this wasn’t always the case. Here’s the OED’s earliest definition of the word: “A woman (or, rarely, a man) who assists women in childbirth.”

In more recent times, the OED notes, the word has come to mean “a nurse trained and qualified to do this and to give antenatal and post-natal care.”

This is Oxford’s earliest citation, from a Lives of the Saints composed around 1300: “Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”).

And this much less dramatic example illustrates the modern usage: “The doctor or midwife will issue the woman with Form MATB1 at about the 26th week of pregnancy.” (From Ian Hunter’s book The Which? Guide to Employment, 1998.)

Of course we use “midwife” figuratively, too, to mean one who helps bring something into being.

The OED’s earliest example of the figurative usage is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, thought to have been written about 1595: “So Greene, thou art the midwife to my woe, / And Bullingbrooke my sorowes dismall heire.”

The most recent figurative example in Oxford is from a 1998 issue of the British music magazine Record Collector: “Brian had retired to his Hollywood mansion, only emerging sporadically when Carl acted as midwife to one of his new compositions.”

Finally, as big fans of amphibians in general, we can’t pass up a chance to mention the “midwife toad,” so named because the male carries the fertilized eggs around on his back legs.

When the eggs are ready to hatch, he enters the water and releases the new tadpoles.  This toad’s taxonomic name: Alytes obstetricans.

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Are two hoods better than one?

Q: Does the “hood” in “neighborhood,” “falsehood,” “childhood,” “hoody,” and Little Red Riding Hood come from the same source?

A: No, these words are derived from two distinctly different sources. One gave us the word for a head covering while the other gave us the suffix for a quality of being.

Two “hoods” may not be better than one, but they make for a more interesting post. Let’s begin with the “hood” that one wears.

The clothing sense of “hood” was first recorded sometime before the year 700, the Oxford English Dictionary says, when it appeared in The Epinal Glossary as a Latin translation: “Capitium, hood.”

The ultimate source is a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as kadh-, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This kadh– meant to shelter or cover, and it’s also the source of the English verb “heed” and the noun “hat,” as well as words for “hat” in other Germanic languages.

The oldest English sense of “hood” is still alive today. Here’s the OED’s earliest definition: “A covering for the head and neck (sometimes extending to the shoulders) of soft or flexible material, either forming part of a larger garment (as the hood of a cowl or cloak) or separate.”

In later years this noun took on many related senses. It came to mean the helmet for a suit of armor (before 1200); various kinds of caps (circa 1430); a leather head cover for a bird used in falconry (c.1575); and finally other kinds of protective coverings or projections, whether on plants and animals (18th to 19th centuries), or on inanimate things like chimneys (1750), baby buggies (1866), and cars (1904 to mean the roof, 1929 for the engine covering).

In reference to automobiles, by the way, Americans now use “hood” for the engine cover, but the British still use “hood” to mean the roof or top of the car. (For the engine covering, since 1902 the British have used another old word for a head-covering, “bonnet.”)

The clothing word “hoody,” sometimes spelled “hoodie,” has been used to mean a hooded garment like a jacket or sweatshirt since 1990, according to OED citations. Oxford says the word is derived from the adjective “hooded.”

A related word for a juvenile delinquent in colloquial British and Irish English is “hoodie,” which the OED dates from 1991, and defines as “a young person who wears a hoodie and is typically regarded as socially disruptive. Hence also: a hooligan, a thug.”

However, two similar-sounding words meaning a tough and violent criminal are entirely unrelated to the garment: “hoodlum” and its slang abbreviation, “hood.” These got their start in the US and later made their way into British English.

The OED says “hoodlum” originated “in San Francisco about 1870-2, and began to excite attention elsewhere in the U.S. about 1877, by which time its origin was lost, and many fictitious stories, concocted to account for it, were current in the newspapers.”

(Prominent slang authorities like H. L. Mencken and Peter Tamony have made a case that it comes from a Bavarian dialect of German, where a word spelled hodalum or huddellump means “hoodlum.” Germans were the largest foreign-language group in San Francisco in 1870.)

The “hood” that’s short for “hoodlum” first appeared, according to Oxford, in the December 1930 issue of the American Mercury: “None of those St. Louie hoods are going to cut in here, see?”

Another American slang use of “hood,” this time as a short form of “neighborhood,” was first recorded in the 1960s, according to the OED. The abbreviation sometimes appears with an apostrophe: “the ’hood.”

In Oxford’s words, “the ’hood” (generally used with the article) means “a neighbourhood or community, usually one’s own; esp. an inner-city area inhabited predominantly by non-whites.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, which appears complete with definition, is from the February 1969 issue of an American publication, Trans-action: Social Science and the Community: “He come back over to the hood (neighborhood).”

This slang word from the 20th century brings us to the rest of the words in your question, and to a usage that that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

In “neighborhood,” “childhood,” “falsehood,” and many other words, as we’ve said, the suffix “-hood” refers to a state or quality of being.

This suffix, the OED tells us, was –hád in Old English and –hod in Middle English, as well as –hêd in Old Saxon and –heit in Old High German.

But The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots gives an older prehistoric source, (s)kai- (“bright,” “shining”), which in ancient Germanic came to mean “bright appearance,” “quality,” or “condition.”

In English, the OED says, the suffix originally was a separate noun with the general meaning “person,” “personality,” “sex,” “condition,” “quality,” or “rank.”

This noun was “freely combined” with others, Oxford says, as in cild-hád (“child-condition”), mægð-hád (“maiden state”), and pápan hád (“papal dignity”).

Eventually it stopped being a separate noun and became a suffix, spelled “-hood.” Here are some of the more familiar formations, spelled the modern way and in the order of appearance:

“childhood” (around 715);  “widowhood” (c. 897); “priesthood” (900s); “maidenhood” (perhaps late 900s); “manhood” (c. 1225); “falsehood” (c. 1290); neighborhood” (late 1300s); “likelihood” (1398 to mean similarity, c. 1449 for probability); “womanhood” (c. 1405); “boyhood” (possibly 1577, but rare before the 1700s); “girlhood” (1748); “adulthood” (1850).

In modern English, “-hood” is what’s called a “living suffix,” meaning that people are still using it to make new words.

It can be “affixed at will to almost any word denoting a person or concrete thing,” Oxford says, as well as to “many adjectives, to express condition or state.” Consequently, “the number of these derivatives is indefinite.”

Sometimes they’re also humorous, as in this 19th-century OED citation: “Believing in the white Aylesburys … as the final expression of duckhood” (from the Daily News, London, 1883).

A historical aside: The OED notes that “-hood” once had a parallel suffix, “-head,” from the same root (Old English hád) and with the same meaning (condition, rank, person, etc.).

So we once had “childhead,” “falsehead,” “priesthead,” and “widowhead” in addition to the “-hood” versions. The “-head” in most of these old words has been displaced by “-hood,” though we’ve kept “godhead” and lost “godhood.”

We still sometimes see the archaic “maidenhead.” This originally meant the same as “maidenhood” (the condition of being a virgin), and was applied to women and occasionally to men.

But in later centuries, according to the OED, “maidenhead” was also used to mean the hymen, “esp. considered as the mark of a woman’s chastity.”

We don’t hear either “maidenhead” or “maidenhood” much these days, though you can find both in standard dictionaries.

In general, “maidenhead” now refers to either virginity or the hymen, while “maidenhood” refers to either virginity or the state of being unmarried.

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Passive resistance

Q: I’m puzzled by these two sentences: “The robbers broke into the bank” and “The bank was broken into.” In the active sentence, “bank” isn’t a direct object. Why then is it possible to make it a subject in the passive sentence?

A. Normally, a sentence in the active voice can be made passive by turning the object of the verb into the subject. So “A pickpocket stole his wallet” becomes “His wallet was stolen.” (You can add “by a pickpocket” if you want to say whodunit.)

But you’re right that “bank” in the first sentence isn’t the object of the verb. The word “bank” here is the object of a preposition. And the object of a preposition can be turned into the subject of a passive sentence.

What confuses you here is the word “into.” It’s actually a compound that combines the adverb “in” and the preposition “to.” For purposes of illustration, let’s divide it—“in” (adverb) + “to” (preposition)—to show how its parts function.

Why do this? Because the verb here is not “break.” It’s “break in,” a phrasal verb that incorporates the adverb “in.” And the following “to” introduces the prepositional phrase “to the bank.”

So, with “into” separated, our sentence now looks like this: “The robbers broke in + to the bank.”

In its felonious sense, the phrasal verb “break in” is intransitive—that is, it doesn’t need a direct object. All it needs is a subject to be complete: “Robbers broke in.”

We can’t add a direct object here, because robbers can’t “break in the bank.” If we want to mention the bank, we have to add a prepositional phrase: “break in + to the bank.”

This is true of many phrasal verbs that are intransitive. They don’t have direct objects, so if there’s a complement at all it’s likely to be a prepositional phrase. A few examples of such verbs:

● “look in” (to make a short visit). We don’t “look in the baby” (direct object); we “look in on the baby” (prepositional phrase).

● “make up” (to reconcile). We don’t “make up Gerald”; we “make up with Gerald.”

● “speak out” (to talk forcefully). We don’t “speak out injustice”; we “speak out against injustice.”

● “check in” (to register at a hotel). We don’t “check in the hotel”; we “check in + to [or at] the hotel.”

Usually the adverbial part of a phrasal verb isn’t combined with the following preposition. We don’t “look inon the baby” or “make upwith Gerald.”

But when the parts are “in” and “to,” they’re often combined. (This isn’t always the case, as we’ve written on our blog: “We went in to dinner” … “They tuned in to the program.”)

Which brings us—in a roundabout way—back to your question about how an intransitive verb becomes passive.

With an intransitive verb, as we’ve said, the object of the preposition, not the object of the verb, becomes the passive subject.

You were confused by the phrasal verb “break in.” This is easier to see with an ordinary intransitive verb, like “shout.” It too needs only a subject (“They shouted”), and requires no direct object.

But if there’s a complement in the form of a prepositional phrase (“They shouted at the dog”), we can construct a passive version.

The object of the preposition (“the dog”) now becomes the subject, and the preposition is retained at the end (“The dog was shouted at”).

Sometimes passives derived from intransitive verbs are not idiomatic English: “Gerald was made up with” … “The hotel was checked in at.”

But others are normal and acceptable, like “The baby was looked in on.”

These are sometimes called  “prepositional passives.” And as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “they are not admissible in all cases.”

Cambridge gives these examples of acceptable ones: “This bed has been slept in” … “Her book was referred to” … “These matters must be seen to.”

And it gives these as unacceptable: “Boston was flown to next” … “Such principles were stood for” … “Some old letters were come across.”

This is not a new concept. Nearly two centuries ago, the American grammarian Goold Brown wrote about passive forms of intransitive verbs in his book The Institutes of English Grammar (1823):

“An active-intransitive verb, followed by a preposition and its object, will sometimes admit of being put into the passive form.” The object of the preposition becomes the subject, he wrote, and the preposition is “retained with the verb, as an adverb.”

His example: “They laughed at him” (active) becomes “He was laughed at” (passive).

As we said on our blog in 2014, a verb can be both transitive and intransitive. In fact, the phrasal verb “break in” can be both. Sometimes it’s transitive and requires an object; sometimes it’s intransitive and doesn’t.

For example, “break in” is transitive when it means to tame or train something like a horse. A direct object is required, as in “He broke in the colt.” In the passive, this becomes “The colt was broken in.”

But “break in” is intransitive when it means to forcibly intrude or to interrupt, as in “When the conversation got heated, Suzanne broke in.” No object is required.

If we add a prepositional phrase—“When things got heated, Suzanne broke in + to the conversation”—then we can make a passive sentence, though an awkward one: “When things got heated, the conversation was broken in + to.”

We’ll leave it to the reader to mentally rejoin “into.”

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He should’ve stood in bed

Q: The principal at the school where I teach disagrees with me about this sentence: “I was too sick to go to the party, so I just stood home.” I think it’s flat-out wrong. “Stood” is the past tense of “stand,” not “stay.” But she defends it as a regional usage. Does she stand corrected?

A: The verbs “stand” and “stay” have many meanings in common, and “stood,” the past tense of “stand,” is sometimes used in the same way we use “stayed,” the past tense of “stay.” (Example: “And so things stood for many years.”)

But the specific usage you’re asking about (“I just stood home”) is not considered standard English.

In fact, it’s not mentioned at all (not as standard, nonstandard, regional, or dialectal) in the Dictionary of American Regional English, the Oxford English Dictionary, the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked, or our other language resources.

Nevertheless, the usage is out there, as you’ve observed, and it’s close in meaning to several standard usages, including some that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the verb “stand” showed up in the mid-900s, according to the OED, it meant to “assume or maintain an erect attitude on one’s feet (with distinction, expressed or understood, from sit, lie, kneel, etc.).”

The first Oxford citation is from the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript that the OED dates from about 950 (some scholars date it from around 700): “gesæh ðone hælend stondende” (“Jesus Christ the Savior standing”).

The erect sense of “stand” is the most common meaning today, but over the years the verb has taken on several senses in which “stay” could replace “stand,” including these: to stand fast (circa 888), to stand still (c. 888), to  stand about (1390), to stand apart (1538), and to stand pat (1882).

Although DARE doesn’t have an entry for “stood” used as the past tense of “stay,” we suspect the usage may have originated as a New York regionalism. The earliest examples we’ve found are in New York State court transcripts from the 1920s

The first example is from testimony filed in a 1921 case before the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court: “Several times she came, and a few times she stood home.”

And this is from a 1924 appeal before the court: “The reason why she stood home a couple of days every week, you know, I told him because I have to report when the girls go in and out. He wanted to know why she was home. I says, ‘I think her knee is hurted.’ ”

Here’s an example from the transcript of a 1941 case tried before the New York State Court of Appeals: “Q. Dilla remained home doing the cleaning, isn’t that correct? A. Yes, sir. Yes, she stood home.”

Finally, this is from the questioning of a witness in a 1955 wrongful-death case tried before the New York Supreme Court: “Q. As far as you know, did he go to work steadily? A. Well, he stood home— Q. Outside of a cold, he worked steadily? A. Yes.”

The lexicographer Robert W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), cites a couple of dialectal usages in England that are somewhat similar to the one you’re interested in.

Burchfield says “stood” has been used in parts of England as a present participle to mean “standing,” but the usage “seems to have gone unrecorded in the OED.”

He cites a few examples, including this one from Yorkshire: “She was stood in front of the mantelpiece trying to think of the name for the clock.”

“Its existence in modern regional use is not in question,” Burchfield adds, “but its precise distribution has not been established.”

However, he says the distribution is presumably similar to that of “sat” used in the sense of “sitting,” a dialectical usage heard in northern and western England.

Burchfield gives this example from Difficulties With Girls, a 1988 novel by Kingsley Amis: “I can’t help thinking of that Tim sat there juddering his leg up and down.”

He says the usage “was once standard but has gradually become regionally restricted over the centuries.”

In “English Worldwide,” a 1989 paper by the linguists Jenny Cheshire, Viv Edwards, and Pam Whittle, the authors suggest that the uses of “stood” for “standing” and “sat” for “sitting” are evolving and “are now becoming characteristic of a general non-standard or semi-standard variety of English.”

“Their occurrence in written English points once again to the difficulty of identifying clearly the features that are characteristic of non-standard English rather than standard English,” the authors add.

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Follows the subject

Q: While I was watching TV with my wife, a commercial came on for the movie When Calls the Heart. It reminded me of another corny title, Comes a Horseman. What makes an author choose this syntax?

A: Authors use unusual wording because it’s often more effective and attention-getting than the routine syntax one would expect.

The wording “when calls the heart,” with its poetic and archaic flavor, stands out more than “when the heart calls.”

And “comes a horseman” is more noticeable than “a horseman comes” or “a horseman is coming.”

But a usage that some readers find catchy may seem corny or pretentious to others.

What’s attention-getting about these constructions is the word order—verb before subject instead of the other way around.

In some English sentences, a verb-before-subject arrangement is so common that we don’t even notice it. For instance, verbs routinely come first in questions, in statements starting with “here” or “there,” and in others that we’ll mention later.

But in more straightforward declarative sentences, we expect to find the subject before the verb. Reversing them can make a sentence sound literary, even stirring (or pretentious if overdone).

For effectiveness, you can’t beat the verb-before-subject placement in these examples:

“Male and female created he them” (King James Bible) … “So have I a noble father lost” (Shakespeare) … “Into the Valley of Death / Rode the six hundred” (Tennyson) … “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’ ” (Poe).

Today we associate subject-verb inversions with poetry and with the writings of an older time, though even now we may find them used for effect: “What care I for fame and fortune?” … “Then sings my soul” … “In a hollow lived three little pigs” … “Come Sunday, you’ll be a married man.”

But as we said before, inverted word order goes unremarked in some kinds of sentences, like these (again, we’ll underline verb and subject).

● Sentences starting with “there,” “here,” and “then”: “There comes a time when one must face facts” … “Here lurked the answer we’d been waiting for” …“Then came the startling news.”

● Questions: “Am I right?” … “When is the party?” … “Finished, are you?” … “How goes it?” … “Where were you?” … “Pretty, aren’t they?”

● Questions with auxiliary verbs only: “May I?” “Do you?” “Shall we?” (We aren’t including sentences in which the subject follows the auxiliary but comes before the main verb, as in “Never have I seen such a day,”  “Had I known … ” and so on.)

● With “neither” and “nor”: “We aren’t going, nor is Sally” … “He isn’t upset and neither am I.”

● With “say” and other quoting verbs: “ ‘Holy cow!’ said Pete” … “ ‘The butler didn’t do it,’ concluded the detective” … “ ‘Call me Ishmael,’ wrote Melville.”

● With “do” as an auxiliary: “We own a dog, as do our neighbors” … “He went to the movie, as did Mom.”

● With “so”: “And so say all of us” … “She has seen Venice and so have you.”

● In lists of subjects headed by one verb (common in news reporting): “Injured were the bus driver, eight passengers, and the driver of the car” … “In the lineup were eight felons, none of whom were identified as the perpetrator.”

● After adverbs or adverbial phrases: “Steadily onward plodded the wagon train” … “Just inside the door stood a hat-rack.”

● After adjectives or adjectival phrases: “Happy was the man who won her hand” … “Great was his respect for my father” … “Gone forever was the day” … “Many were the times ….”

● After a participial phrase: “Taking home the trophy in the pie-baking contest was a seven-year-old boy” … “Lying in a pool of blood was Colonel Mustard.”

● After a prepositional phrase: “In the threatened wetland are three species of rare orchid” … “Through the mist shone an eerie light.”

Saving the subject for last can almost make it a punch line. But sometimes it’s placed at the end because it’s less urgent. This is a common practice in sports broadcasting, as we wrote on our blog a couple of years ago.

The linguist Georgia M. Green discusses this kind of inversion in her paper “Some Wherefores of English Inversions.”

“Perhaps the most striking demonstration of this pragmatic exploitation of syntax,” she writes, “is the use of inversions in the play-by-play broadcast of sports events.” (From the journal Language, September 1980.)

Some of her examples, taken from TV and radio: “Underneath the basket is Barbian” … “High in the air to get the ball was Jim Brady” … “Now way out front with the ball is Brenner” … “At the line will be Skowronski” … “Stealing it and then losing it was Dave Bonko” … “Coming back into the game for New Trier West will be Kevin Jones.”

As she notes, inversion lets the speaker mention the action first, followed by the player’s name.

Finally, a historical note about why subject-verb inversions like “comes a horseman” carry a whiff of antiquity.

The regular word order in a typical declarative sentence today is subject-verb-object, as in “I lost it.”

Old English had both patterns—verb first as well as verb second. However, verb-before-subject constructions were more common in Old English than they are today.

Placement of the object, as well as the subject and verb, added to the complexity of Old English.

“Old English had many SVO [subject-verb-object] word orders like those in Modern English, but at least as many SOV word orders, or orders that seem to be a mix” of those, according to The Syntax of Early English (2000).

The authors—Olga Fischer, Ans van Kemenade, Willem Koopman, and Wim van der Wurff—note that a number of changes in word order came about over the course of the Middle English period (about 1150-1500).

That was when the relative position of the verb and the direct object shifted in English.

More relevant to our discussion, the use of verbs before subjects in declarative clauses “rapidly declined in the course of the last part of the fourteenth and in the fifteenth century, and saw a revival in the literary language in the sixteenth century,” write the authors.

[Update, May 9, 2016: Several readers have pointed out that odd syntax is what  makes Yoda’s speech so odd. The great Jedi master of the Star Wars series favors such constructions as “Do it you must.” The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum wrote about Yoda talk on the Language Log in 2005.]

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Unimagined and unimaginable

Q: I edit writing about crime and justice. I recently scrubbed a piece that used the word “unimagined” instead of “unimaginable” to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison. Is the former term acceptable in this case?

A: The online Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary gives “unimaginable” as one of the definitions of “unimagined,” but three other standard dictionaries that include the two terms define them somewhat differently.

The entries in the online versions of Oxford Dictionaries, Collins, and Macmillan indicate that “unimagined” refers to something that hasn’t been imagined, while “unimaginable” refers to something that’s hard or impossible to imagine.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, defines “unimaginable” as “difficult or impossible to imagine or comprehend,” and offers this example: “lives of almost unimaginable deprivation.”

The dictionary defines “unimagined” as “not having been imagined or thought of as possible,” and gives this example: “a previously unimagined degree of economic and social freedom.”

Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary (a historical dictionary and a different entity from Oxford Dictionaries) defines “unimaginable” as incapable of being imagined, and “unimagined” as not imagined.

The examples for the two words in the OED suggest that they have been used differently since “unimaginable” showed up in the early 1600s and “unimagined” in the mid-1500s.

The earliest citation for “unimaginable” is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave: “Inimaginable, vnimaginable, vnconceiuable.”

The OED’s first example for “unimagined” is from The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall: “A thyng discended from heauen, of theim vnsought, vnimagined and not deuised.”

Getting back to your question, we think either word would be acceptable to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison, but the meanings would differ.

The term “unimagined” would describe abuse that hadn’t been imagined before, while “unimaginable” would describe abuse that’s difficult or impossible to imagine.

As Angelica sings in the musical Hamilton, “We push away what we can never understand / We push away the unimaginable.”

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Scales get in your eyes

Q: When “the scales fall from one’s eyes” to suddenly reveal the truth, are they the scales of justice?

A: No, the “scales” here are etymologically related to the ones on fish, reptiles, and insects.

The Oxford English Dictionary has three major meanings for the noun “scale,” with many related senses: (1) a device for weighing things; (2) one of the thin, overlapping plates protecting the skin of animals; (3) a graduated system of measurement.

When English borrowed “scale” from Old Norse in the 1100s, it meant a bowl or cup to drink from. The Old Norse skál is also the ultimate source of the drinking toast “skoal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED’s earliest example for “scale” is from Layamon’s Brut, written sometime before 1200: “Heo fulde hir scale of wine” (“He filled her cup with wine”).

In the early 1400s, this cup-like sense of “scale” evolved to mean a device for weighing—that is, “the pan, or each of the pans, of a balance,” according to Oxford.

The earliest example in the OED for “scale” used in the weighing sense is from An Alphabet of Tales (circa 1440), a collection of moral stories:

“And when it was put In þe to skale it weyed more þan all þat evur þai cuthe put in þe toder skale” (“And when it was put into the scale, it weighed more than all that ever they could put in the other scale”). We’ve expanded the OED citation for clarity.

The dictionary’s first citation for “scales” used in the justice sense is from Christ’s Victory and Triumph (1610), an allegorical poem by Giles Fletcher: “In one hand a paire of euen scoals [even scales] she weares.”

The amphibian sense of “scale” is ultimately derived from skaljō, the ancient German source for the word “shell.” The earliest OED citation is a reference to the scales on a dragon, from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330:

“Þe smallest scale þat on him is No wepen no may atame” (“No weapon may cut into the smallest scale that’s on him”).

And here’s a piscine example from the Chaucer poem Parlement of Foules (circa 1381): “Smale fischis lite / With fynnys rede & skalis syluyr bryȝt” (“Skinny little fishes / With red fins and bright scales”).

The OED’s earliest example for the expression you’ve asked about is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “And anon ther felden from his yȝen as scalis, and he receyuede siȝt” (“And anon there fell scales from his eyes, and he received sight”).

Think of the expression as a metaphorical way of describing something akin to the sudden clearing of the cloudy layer on the lens of someone with cataracts.

The measurement sense of “scale” is derived from the classical Latin scāla (ladder) and scālae (flight of stairs). In the late 1300s and early 1400s, “scale” was used literally for a ladder and figuratively for a stair-like series of gradations for measuring things, according to OED citations.

It’s used literally in John Lydgate’s poem Troy Book (1412-20), where Diomedes says the Trojans fortified their walls while the Greeks delayed attacking “and ageyn oure skalis … made gret ordinaunce” (“and against our ladders … assembled a great defense”).

in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a 1391 how-to manual about the astrological instrument, Chaucer uses the word figuratively: “Next the forseide cercle of the A. b. c., vnder the cros-lyne, is Marked the skale, in Maner of 2 Squyres or elles in Manere of laddres.”

Over the years, the noun “scale” has taken on many other meanings derived from the “ladder” sense of the word, including a “scale” in music (1597), doing something on a large or small “scale” (1785), a wage “scale” (1921), and economies of “scale” (1944).

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Is “based off” off base?

Q: As I read the papers of college freshmen, I am often stopped by usages that seem wrong to me. The latest example is the use of “based off” for “based on,” as in “based off the research of Albert Einstein.” Your thoughts?

A: You’re not the first to notice the use of “based off” (sometimes “based off of”) in place of “based on,” though college students aren’t the only perpetrators.

Linguists have been discussing the usage for at least 10 years, and it was the subject of an online article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2013.

The author of the article, Anne Curzan, wrote: “I have mentioned the construction to a few colleagues, and it’s clear at least some of them are circling it in student writing.”

The use is also found outside routine classroom writing. Curzan, a linguist and a professor of English at the University of Michigan, passed along this example from the academic journal Exceptional Children (March 2012):

“For our study, the parameters used in the simulation were based off of values derived from a large empirical data set.”

And we’ve found other recent examples of “based off” in academic journals, both American and British.

By the way, “based off of” is just a puffed up version of “based off.” Our suspicion is that people who use “based off of” may have the phrase “on the basis of” in mind.

We’ve written on the blog about “off of,” an extremely common redundancy. So we’ll confine these remarks to “based off.”

While “based off” may have become more popular recently, it’s not unseen in older writing. It’s been used occasionally since the early 1930s, mostly in trade journals.

The earliest example we’ve been able to confirm appeared in a May 1931 issue of National Petroleum News:

“To consumers: … discounts are based off tank wagon price, and affect purchases of 1,000 gallons or more per month” (this notation appeared several times in column listings).

Here it is again in 1952: “Based off 1951 figures, the proposed constitutional amendment would cut Federal revenues by $16,000,000,000 a year” (from the Bulletin of the Metal Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor).

And this headline appeared on a cover story in the trade journal Automotive News in January 1997: “Bigger Honda SUV will be based off Accord, minivan.”

These 20th-century appearances cropped up so seldom that nobody seems to have minded.

The use of “based off” in the sense of “based on” isn’t discussed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. And while the newest edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (4th ed., 2016) has a long discussion of “based on,” it makes no mention at all of “based off.”

Discussions of “based off” have come up periodically on the Linguist List, the online discussion group of the American Dialect Society, but only in the last 10 years.

Writing on the list in 2006, Seán Fitzpatrick commented: “My daughters were discussing a forthcoming movie, and the 21-year-old said you had to give the auteur credit for originality, since the movie was ‘not based off a book, not based off another movie, and not based off a TV show.’ ”

“ ‘Based off’ seemed to me to be a peculiar alteration of ‘based on,’ ” Fitzpatrick added. “The strange thing is that she denied having said ‘based off’ instead of ‘based on.’ ”

Another contributor, the linguist Arnold Zwicky, suggested that “based off” as a variation on “based on” or “based upon” may be relatively recent.

“In any case,” Zwicky wrote, “it’s now very widespread.” And it’s become even more widespread since 2006.

Writing on the list in 2014, the slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter reported a sighting of “based off” with another meaning: “as a result of; by reason of; from.”

The quotation, from Yahoo! news: “Hawking earned his scientific reputation back in the 1970’s based off his theory of black holes as cosmic vacuums.”

We won’t bother reporting the comparative frequency of “based off” versus “based on” in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books.

Many of the supposed examples of “based off” turn out to be misreadings of “eased off” or another phrase. And many other examples don’t represent the sense we’re talking about (e.g., “based off the coast of Cadiz”).

Though “based off” in place of “based on” sounds foreign to our ears, the usage doesn’t surprise us.

We’ve often remarked that the use of prepositions in English is highly idiomatic and subject to changing usage.

(A newcomer to English recently wrote to us in confusion about the various prepositions used in reference to copying: “print out,” “print off,” and “print up.” We explained that they’re all acceptable idioms.)

As Curzan wrote in her article: “With ‘based on’ one could argue that because things are physically built on bases, it makes more sense to say ‘based on.’ ”

“I agree: That is perfectly logical,” she added. “But language isn’t always logical, and once ‘based on’ becomes as much or more metaphorical than literal, it doesn’t seem surprising to me that the preposition might shift—especially given that one can metaphorically ‘build off’ things.”

We would add that a reinterpretation of a work is often called a “takeoff,” which may have contributed to the use of  “based off.”

“Based” here is the past participle of the verb “base,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has no examples of its use with “off.”

The OED says the verb means “to place on (also upon) a foundation, fundamental principle, or underlying basis.” (Note the prepositions in italics.)

All of the dictionary’s citations for this sense the verb and adjective, between 1776 and 2009, show the accompanying preposition as either “on” or “upon.”

As far as we can tell, people seem to use “based off” in three general ways:

● as a verb, either active (“She based her novel off Pride and Prejudice”) or passive (“Her novel is based off Pride and Prejudice”);

● as an adjective (“Figures based off speculation aren’t reliable”);

● as an adverb (“The company pays based off the hours worked”).

Now, we aren’t advocating any of these or claiming they’re standard English usage. We’re merely reporting what’s out there, so hold those indignant emails and tweets.

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School days, school days

Q: Could you tell me the origin of the compound word “schoolteacher”?  What is the reason for the redundancy?  My first thought was that the phrase distinguished schoolteachers from Sunday school teachers. I later theorized that it might’ve come from the Germanic preference for compounds.

A: We wouldn’t call “schoolteacher” redundant. We think of a schoolteacher as someone who teaches in elementary, middle, or high school. However, not all standard dictionaries make that distinction.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “schoolteacher” as we do: a “person who teaches in a school below the college level.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), defines it simply as “one who teaches school.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s define “teacher” loosely as someone who’s hired to teach. So a teacher may give piano lessons in a student’s home or lead a university seminar on literary theory (though we might use “professor” for the literary theorist).

The earliest citation for “schoolteacher” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Reliquæ Baxterianæ (1696), the autobiography of the Puritan clergyman Richard Baxter:

“The third sort is School-Teachers, which is not my Case (though I have also a License to Teach School).”

In discussing the etymology of the term, the OED points the reader to an earlier usage, “to teach school,” which showed up in a 1590 letter by the Elizabethan writer Christopher Ockland: “I teach schole at Grenewych.”

But we suspect that the term “schoolteacher” may have also been influenced by two even earlier terms, “schoolmaster” (circa 1225) and “schoolmistress” (1335). 

Two other early influences may have been the Old French tenir escoles (c. 1200) or the Middle French tenir escole (1366), verb phrases meaning to teach. In medieval Latin, according to the OED, scholam tenere meant  to run a school and scholas tenere meant to “engage in academic disputation.”

The source of all these usages is, of course, the word “school,” which ultimately comes from the classical Latin schola or scola, which referred to a teacher’s lecture on a subject or the place where the teacher lectured.

In medieval Latin, schola came to mean, among other things, a group of people of the same profession, the sense the word had when it showed up in early Old English spelled scola. (It’s also spelled scolu and scole in Old English manuscripts.)

The first OED example of the word used to mean an “institution for the formal education of children” is from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s: “Eac þær leornode on þære ylcan scole se æðela Gregorius” (“Also there learned in the same school the noble Gregory”).

The word “teacher”—derived from tǽc(e)an, to teach in Old English—first showed up in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Oon of hem, a techer of the lawe, axede Jhesus, temptynge hym.”

In case you’re curious, Wycliffe’s use of “axede” for “asked” here is an example of an old usage that’s now considered nonstandard. As we wrote on the blog back in 2008, this wasn’t always the case.

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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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