The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s in a word?

Q: Why aren’t these words, and can they be: “vigorance” or “vigorence” (instead of “vigorousness”) and “analgesity” (meaning pain resistance)?

A: Put simply, a word is a unit of language that has meaning, can be written or spoken, and is used to form sentences. By that definition, the terms you’re asking about are already words, though they’re barely on the lexical radar and can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

A bit of googling will give you examples for “vigorance,” “vigorence,” and “analgesity,” terms that clearly have meaning to the people who use them, but not to many others.

Vigorance,” for example, is the brand name for a series of hair-care products, “Vigorence” is the name of a program to revive stressed-out executives, and the developers of an analgesic derived from snake venom tested the antidote for its “analgesity.”

Can those terms take on the meanings you want them to have, and find acceptance in standard dictionaries?

Lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, examine the various media—Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, Fox News, Amazon bestsellers, Wikipedia, and so on—in search of new words to add.

If enough people use a new term, it will eventually make it into dictionaries. But we wouldn’t bet on “vigorance,” “vigorence,” or “analgesity.”

We’ve written over the years about words we’d like to save—and a lot of good it’s done! The people who speak a language, not language mavens, decide which words live and which die.

For what it’s worth, we don’t see any need for “vigorance” or “vigorence.” If you want a shorter, punchier word than “vigorousness,” how about “vigor”? It seems vigorous enough to us.

As for a word to describe resistance to pain, one might use “analgesia,” which means the reduction or absence of pain. Or perhaps “analgesic,” which is a noun or an adjective for a substance that reduces pain. And if you’d prefer a less technical term, “painkilling” and “painkiller” are possibilities.

The word “analgesic” (as well as the variant “analgetic”) is derived from the noun “analgesia,” which meant the absence of pain when it showed up in the late 17th century. All three terms are ultimately derived from the classical Greek analgesiaan (without) plus algesis (sense of pain).

The first citation for “analgesia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1684 English translation of a medical dictionary compiled by the Dutch physician Steven Blankaart. The definition of “analgesia” includes “absence of pain and grief.”

By the early 20th century, the word was being used in the modern sense of “the relief or reduction of pain, by the use of drugs or other treatments,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the new sense is from the June 2, 1900, issue of the Lancet: “The first operation was done under local (eucaine) analgesia and the second under chloroform anæsthesia.”

The word “analgesic” first showed up in the mid-19th century as an adjective meaning “insensitive to pain; exhibiting loss or reduction of the ability to feel pain,” according to the OED.

The earliest Oxford citation is from an 1852 issue of the North American Homœopathic Journal: “There are sensitive spots or even points in the midst of analgesic surfaces.”

In a couple of decades, the adjective took on its modern sense of relieving or reducing pain. The earliest OED example is from an 1868 issue of the American Journal of the Medical Sciences:

“Thus we clearly separate anæsthetics from soporifics, or rather the analgesic influence from the hypnotic.”

The noun “analgesic” soon showed up with the sense of “a drug or other treatment that relieves or reduces pain.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A Treatise on Therapeutics (1874), by the American physician Horatio C. Wood Jr.:

“In the class Analgesics, are placed those drugs whose chief clinical use is in the relief of pain.”

The words “vigor,” “vigorous,” and “vigorousness” are much older, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. English adopted them from Anglo-Norman, but the ultimate source is the Latin vigor, which refers to physical and mental energy.

The first to show up, the adjective “vigorous,” meant strong, healthy, and active when it appeared in Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Herui, þat was vigrous & liȝt, / On þe scheld him hit a dint hard” (“Hervi, who was vigorous and quick, / Struck a hard blow against his shield”).

The noun “vigor” referred to active physical strength, power, and energy when it appeared a half-century later. The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Man of Law’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386):

“That right as god spirit of vigour sente / To hem, and saued hem out of meschance, / So sente he myght and vigour to Custance” (“That just as God sent to them the spirit of vigor to save them from disaster, so he sent might and vigor to Constance”).

Finally, “vigorousness,” a longer and perhaps clunkier version of “vigor,” showed up in Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary written around 1440 and attributed to a medieval monk known as Galfredus Grammaticus, or Geoffrey the Grammarian: “Vigorowsnesse, vigorositas, ferocitas.”

We’re not feeling much vigorositas or ferocitas right now, so we’ll call it a day.

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Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu?

A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price meal of several courses. In French, however, prix fixe is a more general term that refers to products sold at a fixed price, such as ball bearings, petroleum, taxi rides, and food.

Here’s an example from a French energy website: Avantages et inconvénients des offres de gaz à prix fixes” (“Advantages and disadvantages of gas offers at fixed prices”).

Although a bill of fare that includes several courses at a fixed price can be referred to as a menu à prix fixe in France, it usually appears on a restaurant’s list of offerings as simply a menu or a formule at a specific price

For example (as of this writing), Restaurant La Marée at the port of Grandcamp Maisy in the Calvados region has a  three-course Menu à 27 euros. And Le Petit Prince de Paris has a two-course Formule à 18 euros.

Similarly, Les Toqués du Coin in Strasbourg has a two-course, 15.50-euro special called Menu de la semaine, while Les Ombres, the restaurant at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, calls its three-course lunch Formule Déjeuner un Billet > 51,00 € TTC (the price includes taxes and a ticket to the museum).

So how should we spell and pronounce a term like “prix fixe” that’s borrowed from French but has a life of its own in English? Just the way English speakers generally spell it and pronounce it.

It’s the job of lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, to determine standard spellings and pronunciations. All the dictionaries we regularly consult use the French spelling for the term, and all but one of them use only the French pronunciation: PREE-FEEKS (with equal stresses on the syllables).

The exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which also includes the Anglicized PREE-FIKS as a standard pronunciation.

We suspect that many English speakers prefer the French pronunciation because they mistakenly believe that “prix fixe” is the usual term for a meal at a fixed price on menus in France.

It’s not surprising, though, that various Anglicized spellings and pronunciations have shown up. We wouldn’t be shocked to see the PREE-FIKS pronunciation included in more dictionaries, but we don’t expect “prefix” or any of the other variant spellings to become standard in the near future.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to find “prefix” menus online and off, such as the “3 Course Prefix Menu” at Bistro Milano in Manhattan.

In a March 16, 2005, contribution to the Eggcorn Database, a collection of misconstrued word or phrase substitutes, the linguist Arnold Zwicky lists such “prix fixe” spelling variants as “pre-fix,” “pre-fixe,” “prefixe,” “pre-fixed,” and “prefixed.”

Zwicky drily describes “pre-fixe” as a “slightly Frenchier” version of “pre-fix.”

And an April 29, 2013, contribution to the related Eggcorn Forum cites this Facebook comment:  “A neighborhood restaurant advertises a ‘prefix’ dinner. Would that include ante-pasto, sub-sandwiches, and semi-cola?”

If you’d like to see some of the variant spellings in the wild, check out these photos in a July 16, 2015, posting to Tumblr.

The English writer Jeanette Winterson once asked a man working at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York why the signboard in front offered a “Pre Fix Menu.”

In a July 11, 2006, entry on her website, she gives his explanation: “ ‘We fix the Specials of the Day every morning,’ he explained, ‘but before we fix those, we fix the set menu of the day, so that’s why it’s called a Pre Fix.’ ”

“So now you know,” Winterson adds with a wink.

We’ll leave it at that, and go on to the etymology of “prix fixe.”

When English borrowed it a century and a half ago, the French phrase meant “fixed-price meal in a restaurant,” according to the OED. That’s still the meaning in English, though the term now has a wider meaning in French.

The dictionary defines “prix fixe” in English today as “a meal served in a hotel or restaurant at a fixed price, typically including several courses” and occasionally “the selection of dishes available for a fixed price.”

At first, “prix fixe” was italicized in English to show its foreign origins, and it’s sometimes still written that way.

The earliest Oxford citation is from the September 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “We had experienced dinners both princely and penurious … and even with unparalleled hardihood had ventured into the regions of the prix-fixe.”

The dictionary’s next example is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of San Francisco in an 1883 issue of the Magazine of Art, an illustrated British periodical:

“You taste the food of all nations in the various restaurants; passing from a French prix-fixe, where every one is French, to a roaring German ordinary where every one is German.”

The OED describes “prix fixe” as a noun that’s frequently used attributively—that is, adjectivally. The dictionary says it’s the same as “a table d’hôte meal” and the opposite of a meal that’s “à la carte.”

We’d add that “table d’hôte” (like “prix fixe”) has different meanings in French and English. In English, “table d’hôte” refers to a restaurant meal at a fixed price, while in French it usually refers to shared dining at a guest house or bed and breakfast.

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Why verb a noun? Why not?

Q: A few aspects of verbing puzzle me. Why does “Bowdler” give rise to “bowdlerize,” but “Boycott” to “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this? And is it verbing if there’s a suffix? To “Shanghai,” yes, but what about “Londonize” and “New Yorkify”? Finally, is verbing peculiar to English?

A: As you know, some language commentators have complained over the years about turning nouns into verbs, arguing that it erodes the distinction between the two parts of speech.

Other commentators (we’re among them) have defended the process, noting that the verbing of nouns is as old as the English language.

The linguist Steven Pinker (another defender), says, “I have estimated that about a fifth of all English verbs were originally nouns.” (The Language Instinct, 1994.)

“Easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries,” Pinker writes; “it is one of the processes that makes English English.”

In fact, the process began in Anglo-Saxon times with the conversion of the Old English versions of nouns such as “love” “rain,” and “shield” into verbs, and it continues today with newbies like “email,” “medal,” “bookmark,” “tweet,” and “blog.”

The OxfordWords blog estimates that 40 percent of the new verbs in the 20th century came from nouns.

There are several ways to convert nouns to verbs in English, a process often referred to as “verbing,” “verbifying,” or “denominalization.”

(Although “verbing” usually refers to turning nouns into verbs, it can also mean converting adjectives or other terms into verbs.)

The simplest method of verbing a noun, sometimes referred to as “zero derivation,” uses the noun, with its original spelling and pronunciation, as a verb: “I hate rain, but I fear it will rain soon.”

Another method, referred to as “affix derivation,” involves adding a prefix or suffix: “She’s my idol. I idolize her” … “The witch wants to bewitch me.”

A third form is “consonant modification”: “I’m waiting for the bath to fill, so I can bathe” … “It’s my belief; I really believe it.” And a fourth is “stress modification”: “Is that the contract? When did you contract it?”

The first of these methods of converting a noun to a verb seems to bug traditionalists the most, but we can’t see much difference between using the noun as is or altering it slightly with an affix or a change in pronunciation, similar to what happens in more inflected languages.

Why, you ask, did the name “Bowdler” gives us the verb “bowdlerize,” while the name “Boycott” gave us the identical noun and verb “boycott”? Is there some logic behind this?

Yes, there does seem to be some logic—or at least a pattern—behind whether a verb derived from the name of a person has a suffix or not. Here are two features that we’ve observed:

(1) If the person’s name is the source of an identical common noun, the accompanying verb generally doesn’t have a suffix. Some suffix-less noun/verb examples: “boycott,” “guillotine,” “sandwich,” and “silhouette.”

(2) If the name of the person didn’t give rise to an identical common noun, the verb derived from the name usually has a suffix. Some examples: “bowdlerize,” “galvanize,” “mesmerize,” “pasteurize,” and “vulcanize.”

However, there are exceptions to number 1, such as “bogart” (a verb but not a common noun) and “gerrymander” (from “Gerry” + “salamander”), as well as exceptions to number 2, such as “bork” and “lynch.”

Also, our sense is that a suffix isn’t generally used today when coining a nonce word (one made up on the fly) from somebody’s name, as in “She Taylor Swifted him on her new album.”

Verbs derived from the names of products generally don’t have affixes. Examples: “bubble-wrap,” “facebook,” “google,” “rollerblade,” “scotch-tape,” “skype,” “taser,” “velcro,” and “xerox.” (Though companies disapprove, we generally lowercase product names that are routinely used as verbs or common nouns.)

As for turning geographic names into verbs, we don’t see much logic there, though many of these verbs in the Oxford English Dictionary come from adjectives rather than nouns: “Americanize,” “Frenchify,” “Germanify,” “Russianize,” and so on.

Fanny Burney, in her novel Evelina (1778), coined the word “Londonize” (“to make like London or its inhabitants”), according to this OED citation: “Her chief objection was to our dress, for we have had no time to Londonize ourselves.”

When the verb “shanghai” first showed up in the 19th century, Oxford says, it was nautical slang for to “drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands.” Now, it also means to coerce or trick someone into doing something.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past participle, is from the March 1, 1871, issue of the New York Tribune: “And before that time they would have been drugged, shanghaied, and taken away from all means of making complaint.”

“Is verbing peculiar to English?” you ask. No, though “zero derivation” conversions (with the words unchanged) occur more often in English. Other languages generally add an affix to turn a noun into a verb.

We came across a guide to verbing in Costa Rican Spanish that includes many affixed examples, like these: café (coffee) to cafetear (drink coffee); galleta (cookie) to galletar (eat cookies), mujer (woman) to mujerear (chase after women—we might say “womanize”).

The OxfordWords blog, in the post mentioned earlier, says the conversion of nouns with their original spelling is “much more common in English than in other Indo-European languages.” It cites a 2010 article by the Irish writer Anthony Gardner in the Economist.

“What makes these leaps so easy is that English, unlike other Indo-European languages, uses few inflections,” Gardner writes. “The infinitive does not take a separate ending.”

So English can have a noun “act” and a verb “act,” while in French the noun action has to become the verb actionner.

Gardner says such noun/verb words are virtually unknown in German and Chinese, and not found at all in Arabic. However, he notes a couple of exceptions: essen means “food” and “eat” in German, and the Chinese noun meaning “thunder” can be used as the verb “shock.”

You mentioned the suffixes “-ize” and “-ify” in your question. Both have many uses in English, according to the OED, but we’ll mention only a few of them.

The suffix “-ize” is used, for example, to form verbs derived from Greek (like “idolize”) or Latin (“civilize”), as well as to make verbs from the names of people (“Calvinize”) and from ethnic adjectives (“Romanize”).

The suffix “-fy” or “-ify” is used to form verbs from Latin (“pacify”), jocular verbs (“speechify”), verbs that characterize something (“countrify”), verbs that describe attributes (“Frenchify”), and nonce verbs like your example “New Yorkify.”

We’ve written several posts that deal with verbing, including one in 2010 that mentions many common verbs derived from nouns, like “cook,” “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm.”

Here are brief descriptions of the people who gave English the eponymous verbs mentioned above:

  • Thomas Bowdler published an 1818 edition of Shakespeare “in which those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
  • Captain Charles Boycott was ostracized in the autumn of 1880 when he tried to evict protesting tenants from the estate he was managing in County Mayo, Ireland.
  • Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a partisan redistricting bill in 1812 that created a district shaped like a salamander, hence “gerrymander.”
  • Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, proposed in 1789 that capital punishment should be by mechanical decapitation.
  • Étienne de Silhouette was the French Controller-general in 1759. The most common of several theories is that his petty economies were compared to the cheap outline portraits that were popular in France at the time.
  • Luigi Aloisio Galvani, the source of “galvanize,” was an 18th-century Italian scientist and a pioneer in the field of bioelectricity.
  • Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) was an Austrian physician whose research in animal magnetism was a forerunner of hypnosis.
  • Louis Pasteur, a 19th-century French chemist, discovered the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.
  • Vulcan, the mythological Roman god of fire and metalworking, is the source for the name of a process for hardening rubber.
  • Capt. William Lynch and Justice of the Peace Charles Lynch, who both lived in Virginia in the 1780s, have been cited as sources for the term “Lynch law,” which led to the verb “lynch.” The OED considers Captain Lynch the most likely source.
  • Judge Robert Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987 after a heated Senate debate.
  • Humphrey Bogart, who often smoked in films, gave us a slang verb for monopolizing something, especially a marijuana cigarette.
  • John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–92) is said to have spent 24 hours at the gaming table, eating only some slices of cold beef placed between pieces of toast.
  • John Calvin (1509-64) was a French theologian during the Protestant Reformation.

We’ll end by letting the critics of verbing have the last word. In a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 1993, Calvin tells Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, that “verbing weirds language.”

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“Shoulder,” a term with legs

Q: What is the purpose of the “-er” suffix in “shoulder”? Is it a comparative (as in “stronger”) or an agent (as in “farmer”). And is “shoulder” related to “shield,” as some suggest?

A: The “-er” in “shoulder” is not a suffix. It’s merely part of the word. And while “shoulder” may have some distant connection with “shield,” there’s no evidence to prove it.

“Shoulder” was recorded as far back as the 600s in early Old English, where it was spelled variously as sculdur, sculdor, sculder, and scyldur.

The word came into English by way of old West Germanic languages, in which it had two syllables and ended in –er or –ra (the modern German is schulter), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest known use of “shoulder” in English writing, the OED says, comes from The Epinal Glossary, a book of Latin terms translated into Old English.

The glossary, which dates from sometime before 700, has this entry: “Scapula, sculdur.” (In Late Latin, scapula meant shoulder; in English “scapula” has always meant shoulder blade.)

Another word from Germanic, “shield,” first appeared in English writing more than a century later, about 825, in a passage from The Vespasian Psalter:

“Ðer gebrec hornas bogan sceld sweord & gefeht” (“The clamor of horns, bows, shield, sword, and fighting”).

Now for their etymologies.

The OED traces “shoulder” to a prehistoric West Germanic term reconstructed as skuldr-, and it traces “shield” to another prehistoric Germanic root, skelduz-.

These may sound similar, but the OED doesn’t connect them. As the editors say, “the affinities of the West Germanic word [skuldr-] are disputed.”

But John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins does mention a possible link: “One suggestion is that it [skuldr-] is distantly related to English shield, and originally denoted ‘shoulder blade’ (the underlying meaning being ‘flat piece’).”

This is plausible but difficult to prove, since even before prehistoric Germanic, “shoulder” and “shield” were represented by different roots.

Language scholars have identified the source of “shoulder” as an ancient Indo-European root, skep– (to cut or scrape), and the primitive ancestor of “shield” as skel– (to cut).

(These roots, from before written language, are rendered differently by some scholars. We’ve used spellings from The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.) 

What do shoulders have to do with cutting and scraping?

Some etymologists suggest that shoulder blades, perhaps from animals, were used as tools for scraping.

Others speculate that the anatomical term may have originally referred to spades or shovels, and that shoulders were named for their resemblance to those flat, sharp implements.

What does a shield have to do with cutting? In Germanic the original sense, as Ayto writes, may have been “a flat piece of wood produced by splitting a log, board.”

If there is a link connecting “shoulder” and “shield,” some common ancestor beginning with ske-, perhaps new evidence will eventually come to light and etymologists will connect the dots.

One thing is certain about these very old words. They’ve kept their original literal meanings since they entered English some 1,500 years ago—“shoulder” as the anatomical part and “shield” as the defensive weapon.

They’ve become verbs and adjectives as well as nouns, and over the centuries they’ve developed scores of figurative and extended meanings, both alone and in phrases.

To choose just one example, would you believe that “cold shoulder,” in the sense of coldness or indifference, is 200 years old?

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Antiquary (1816), a novel by Sir Water Scott: “The Countess’s dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther.”

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On dentists and dontists

Q: Why is a regular tooth doctor called a “dentist” while a specialist is a “dontist,” as in “periodontist” or “orthodontist”?

A: To begin at the beginning, the “dent“ (in “dentist”) and the “odont” (in “orthodontist”) are ultimately derived from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European term meaning “biting,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This ancient term, which the American Heritage guide renders as əd-ent-, may have been pronounced something like uh-dent. It was the source of the words for “tooth” in Greek (odous, odont-) and in Latin (dens, dent-).

Now let’s fast-forward to the mid-18th century, when English adopted the word “dentist” from the French dentiste, a derivative of dent (French for “tooth”) and its Latin ancestors.

What, you may ask, were dentists called before the 18th century? The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “dentist” has the answer:

Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer; but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer.” (From the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle.)

Yes, for hundreds of years the term was “tooth-drawer.” The OED’s oldest example is from Piers Plowman (1393), an allegorical poem by William Langland:

“Of portours and of pyke~porses and pylede toþ-drawers” (“Of porters and of pick-purses and bald-headed tooth-drawers”).

As for those people you call “dontists,” the story begins in the early 19th century with the scientific term odontia.

The OED traces the term to John Mason Good’s book A Physiological System of Nosology, which he began writing in 1808 and published in 1820.

(No, the book isn’t about noses; “nosology” is the classification of diseases.)

Although Oxford doesn’t have a citation from the work, a search of the text online finds Good’s description of odontia as “pain or derangement” of teeth or their sockets.

Good explains that he chose a classical Greek source for his terminology because compounds based on odous (“tooth”) were “common to the Greek writers” in referring to toothaches.

Here are the OED’s dates for the earliest appearances of some words derived from odontia:

“orthodontia” (1849), “orthodontist” (1903),  “periodontia” (1914), “periodontist” (1920), “periodontics” (1948), “endodontia” (1946), “endodontics” (1946), and “endodontist” (1946).

So why do practitioners of general dentistry refer to themselves with the Latin-derived “dent,” while dental specialists use the Greek-derived “odont”?

Well, the word “dentist,” borrowed from a Romance language with roots in Latin, showed up first, and it had become firmly established in English by the time Good used a Greek term to classify dental diseases almost a century later.

However, we can’t tell you why Good’s terminology rather than the earlier Latinate usage gave us the names for dental specialties and specialists that showed up later. Not all developments in English have clear-cut explanations.

One possibility is that the usage may have been influenced by the writings of the Scottish author John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s magazine in the early 1800s.

Shortly before Good’s book on diseases was published, Lockhart used “odontist” as a humorous term for a dentist.

Lockhart published a series of highly popular comic poems and songs purportedly written by James Scott, The Odontist, a semi-fictional character based on a real dentist of the same name who practiced in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Lockhart put so many of the real doctor’s phrases and friends into the poems and songs that Dr. Scott started behaving like a literary figure himself and perhaps even believed he was one, according to James Hogg, another Blackwood’s writer.

In Poetry as an Occupation and an Art in Britain, 1760-1830, a 1993 book of literary criticism, Peter T. Murphy includes this comment from Hogg about the real Dr. Scott:

“Lockhart sucked his brains so cleverly, and crammed ’The Odontist’s’ songs with so many of the creature’s own peculiar phrases, and names and histories of his obscure associates, that, though I believe the man could scarce spell a note of three lines, even his intimate acquaintances were obliged to swallow the hoax, and by degrees ‘The Odontist’ passed for a first-rate convivial bard.”

With the political conventions behind us, here’s an applicable excerpt from “Clydesdale Yeoman’s Return,” an 1819 poem by The Odontist that offers a farmer’s thoughts about a noisy political meeting;

For ’tis idle hand makes busy tongue, and troubles all the land
With noisy fools, that prate of things they do not understand.

PS: If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2014 on “dent,” “indent,” “dentist,” and their relatives.

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To be or not to be a question

Q: Often, when I write emails to finalize appointments, I end as follows, “Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you.” Although this would seem to be a question, I am not clear as to whether it really is one and needs a question mark.

A: No question mark is necessary.

Although that sentence is worded as a question, it’s not intended as one. It’s intended as a polite imperative—that is, a courteous command or directive. The speaker (or writer) softens the imperative by framing it as a question.

This is a very common way of expressing a command in a mannerly way.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) calls sentences like this “requests as questions,” and says they don’t need question marks: “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this form of expression an “indirect speech act,” one in which meaning is conveyed indirectly.

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, use as an example the sentence “Would you like to close the window.” As they explain:

“Syntactically, this is a closed interrogative, and in its literal interpretation it has the force of an inquiry (with Yes and No as answers).” But in practice, they say, it’s “most likely” a directive, a request to close the window.

“Indirect speech acts,” the authors write, “are particularly common in the case of directives: in many circumstances it is considered more polite to issue indirect directives than direct ones (such as imperative Close the window).”

Clearly, a sentence like yours—”Could you please confirm that this appointment will work for you”—is neither a question nor a demand. It lies somewhere in between, which is why a question mark (and certainly an exclamation point) might seem inappropriate.

Still, we would not call a question mark incorrect here—just unnecessary. The use of a question mark instead of a period would make the request sound even more tentative, an effect you might not want.

If you wanted to make the request firmer but still polite, you could use a straight imperative, refined with a “please,” as in “Please confirm that this appointment will work for you.”

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And, voilà, “wallah”!

Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling  for foreign-sourced words.

A: None of the standard US and UK dictionaries we usually consult include the “wallah” (or “walla”) spelling or pronunciation for the interjection.

The dictionaries spell it only two ways, “voilà” or “voila.” Some list the accented version first and some list it second. The pronunciation given is roughly vwa-LA, with an audible “v.”

We also couldn’t find a reference to the use of “wallah” for “voilà” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary with extensive etymologies.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes “wallah” as an “informal” alternative form for “voila” and “voilà,” though it doesn’t give any examples.

Of course, standard dictionaries do have entries for “wallah,” a word of Hindi origin for someone involved in a particular occupation or activity, such as an “ice-cream wallah” or a “kitchen wallah.” That word is pronounced WAH-la.

The use of “wallah” for “voilà” seems to have shown up in the late 1990s. In the earliest written example that we’ve found, the writer is clearly aware of at least one standard spelling, and he is using “wallah” humorously,

Here’s the quotation, from an Aug. 6, 1997, comment on a woodworking website about how to calculate the weight of hard maple from its specific gravity:

“The ‘specific gravity’ of materials is their weight divided by the weight of 1 cubic foot of water (which weighs 62.4 lbs/cubic foot). Voila (that’s ‘wallah’)!, so 0.63 X 62.4 = 39.3.”

And here’s an example, from a comment on a Dodge discussion group, followed by a correction from another commenter:

“Pull the cummins and install a powerstroke…Wallah!!!”

“thats ‘Voila’ to most of us.”

In early 2006, the use of “wallah” for “voilà” came to the attention of the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The forum’s first of several “wallah”-vs.-“voila” threads began with this Jan. 5, 2006, comment: “As in, ‘be sure to beat the eggs thoroughly before you add them to the pan, and wallah! Your omelette will be perfect!’ ”

And here’s a Dec. 21, 2006, comment: “My best guess on the v > w change is that the w in the French (vwala) weakens the v to the point where it may be more like a beta, and then the process continues to drop the v entirely.”

In other words, some English speakers are Anglicizing the French word by dropping the “v” sound at the beginning of the usual vwa-LA pronunciation.

If that explanation is true, then “wallah” and wa-LA would be spelling and pronunciation variants rather than true eggcorns (word phrase substitutions).

In an Oct. 23, 2007, posting on the Language Log, the linguist Arnold Zwicky offers a “reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.”

“If you’ve heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven’t seen it in print (or don’t remember having seen it in print, or didn’t realize that the spelling ‘voilà’ represented this particular word), you’re in trouble,” Zwicky writes.

You’re supposed to look up words if you don’t know their spellings, he says, “but where do you look in this case?”

“If you don’t know French, or don’t recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/?”

Zwicky adds parenthetically that he thinks wa-LA “is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren’t ‘putting on,’ or at least approximating, French.”

Over the years, contributors to the Eggcorn Forum have suggested several other theories about the source of the “wallah” spelling and wa-LA pronunciation. Perhaps the most interesting (and we think least likely) is that “wallah” comes from a similar-sounding modern Hebrew exclamation of surprise or delight. [A reader writes on Aug. 10, 2016, that in Arabic it means “I swear to God” or “Really!”]

As for the etymology of “voilà” itself, English borrowed it in the 18th century from French (the imperative of voir, to see, plus , there).

The earliest example in the OED is from an April 12, 1739, letter by the English poet Thomas Gray: “The minute we came, voila Milors Holdernesse, Conway, and his brother.”


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An old usage risen from the dead

Q: In a usage that I hope is not becoming common, my 21-year-old grandson said he had “deaded” a former friend he had argued with. Are others using dead as a verb?

A: Well, the usage is out there, and it occasionally shows up in print.

Here’s an example from a brief item in the Sept. 1, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone about Kanye West’s performance at the Budweiser Made in America Festival in Philadelphia:

“At one point, he deaded rumors that he and Jay Z were on less-than-good terms.”

In fact, you can find written examples of the usage dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, but it’s not common today and it’s not considered standard English.

Only one of the eight standard dictionaries that we regularly check, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, includes the use of “dead” as a verb, and it describes the usage as obsolete.

When used today, the verb “dead” often means to put an end to something, such as those rumors that Kanye West deaded, rather than to kill someone.

However, to “dead” is also used in hip-hop lyrics in reference to an actual killing, and in video games to a virtual killing.

Here’s an example from “Kingdom Come,” a track on a 2006 album of the same name by the American rapper Jay Z:

“I’m so indebted, I should have been deaded / Selling blow in the park, this I know in my heart.”

And this is a Feb. 9, 2013, comment on a discussion board for the multiplayer video game League of Legends:

“I deaded him and won the game and btw – he was countering my spin with…counterstrike.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary that chronicles the evolution of words, traces the usage back to Old English, where déadian or adéadian meant to become dead, and díędan or dýdan meant to kill.

The OED says the use of “dead” as a verb is now obsolete, but it has literal and figurative examples for the usage from the mid-10th to the late 19th centuries.

The dictionary’s sources include the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950), the Wycliffe Bible (sometime before 1382), Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum; or, A Naturall Historie (1626), and the August 1884 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

In the latest citation, from Harper’s, the verb is college slang meaning to stump a student with a difficult question: “Whose … enquiry, ‘What is ethics?’ had deaded so many a promising … student.”

Although standard dictionaries generally list “dead” as an adjective, adverb, or noun, the Dictionary of American Regional English has examples from the early 1600s to the mid-1900s for the verb “dead” used to mean to die or to kill.

The earliest DARE example is from a 1638 entry in the Watertown, MA, records: “Ordered yt whosoever shall dead any Trees up ye Commons … shall pay for every Tree so killed.”

And here’s an example from Negro Myths From the Georgia Coast (1988): “You guine dead a po man. [You’ll die a poor man.]”

Finally, this one is from Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Julia Mood Peterkin: “Sometimes, it [a charm] works backwards as well as forwards, you might be de one to dead.”

We never suspected that the verb “dead” had such a life. Will this old usage become common? We don’t see signs of a significant revival, but only time will tell.

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On dysphemism and euphemism

Q: I know that a euphemism is an inoffensive substitute for an expression considered offensive. But is there a term that refers to an offensive substitute for an inoffensive expression, such as using “death tax” for “estate tax”?

A: Yes, there is such a term—“dysphemism,” a word that’s about 150 years old.

A “dysphemism” is an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression that’s used in place of a pleasant or inoffensive one.

So “dysphemism” is the opposite of “euphemism” and in fact was modeled after the earlier word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was formed in the 19th century, the OED explains, “dysphemism” was a combination of the negative prefix “dys-” plus the “-phemism” portion of “euphemism.”

The earlier word, which has been part of English since the mid-17th century, is from the Greek rhetorical term euphemismos (for speaking well, or speaking with good words). The elements are eu- (good, well) plus pheme (speech).

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says euphemismos was first used by the Greeks to denote “the avoidance of words of ill omen at religious ceremonies, but it was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

“Its opposite, dysphemism,” Ayto continues, means “use of a more offensive word,” and was a modern coinage using the Greek prefix dus– (bad, difficult).

The noun “dysphemism” was first recorded, as far as we can tell, in the April 1873 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine, in an article by Lionel A. Tollemache:

“The great system which Comte, and other assailants, call by the euphemism, or dysphemism, of Catholicism.”

(Tollemache’s article was reprinted in the digest Every Saturday in May 1873. In addition, it appeared in the 1884 book Safe Studies, a collection of essays and poems by him and his wife, Beatrix L. Tollemache, a citation that’s listed in the OED.)

We also found this example from the other side of the Atlantic, in an 1876 issue of Transactions of the American Philological Association:

“The accuser, even when driven into the last corner, can still say: ‘Oh, I am quite sure that he was angry, though he did not show it’; then this is confessed to be a mere adventurous dysphemism for what, when strictly defined, is only a ‘dissatisfaction at not being answered.’ ” (From an article by William Dwight Whitney, a professor of linguistics at Yale.)

The word is not part of everyday English (when found, it’s usually alongside “euphemism”), but the OED does have these later examples:

“A minor species of dysphemism is the pejorative suffix, as in ‘robustious.’ ” (From a piece by Eric H. Partridge, published in 1940 by the Society for Pure English.)

“ ‘Robber’ may also be one of those political dysphemisms used to discredit a nationalist rebel.” (From a June 1962 issue of the British weekly John O’London’s.)

Although the term “dysphemism” isn’t common (most of the examples we’ve found are in lexical discussions about it), the use of dysphemisms is not all that uncommon.

Some examples that readily come to mind are “death panels” for “end-of-life counseling,” “tree hugger” for “environmentalist,” “partial-birth abortion” for “late-term abortion,” “reactionary” for “conservative,” “bleeding heart” for “liberal,” “bureaucrat” for “official,” “do-gooder” for “altruist,” “regime” for “administration,” and “big brother” for “government.”

As for euphemisms, we’ve discussed examples of them many times over the years, but we haven’t written much about the development of the word itself. So what better time?

“Euphemism” was first recorded in English, according to OED citations, in the mid-1600s.

Originally it was a term for a rhetorical device, the method of substituting a favorable word or expression for a harsher or more offensive one that might be more precise.

In this sense, the OED says, the word was first recorded in 1656 in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia: “Euphemism, a good or favourable interpretation of a bad word.”

In the following century, the meaning of “euphemism” evolved from a rhetorical device to the word itself, the modern sense of the term. These 19th-century citations in the OED are good illustrations:

“A shorn crown … a euphemism for decapitation.” (From James Anthony Froude’s History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 2nd ed., 1860.)

“The Skunk yields a handsome fur, lately become fashionable, under the euphemism of ‘Alaska Sable.’ ” (From Elliott Coues’s monograph Fur-bearing Animals, 1877.)

After those headless and furless examples, we’re wordless.

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We can’t help but change

Q: It bothers me to hear actors or see writers (who should know better) say things like “I couldn’t help but cry over that.” I thought “help” should be followed by a gerund.  I can’t help wondering where those “professionals” learned English. If I’m wrong, would you be so kind as to straighten me out?

A: We used to regard “can’t help but” as a casual usage, not appropriate for formal occasions. But on closer examination, we can’t help but ask why we saw anything wrong with it at all.

The truth is that “cannot [or can’t] help but” has had a long life in literary and scholarly English as well as in common usage.

It’s a firmly established idiom, and we can’t see any reason to restrict a usage that’s at least 200 years old and is still found in every variety of educated writing.

Yet since the late 19th century, many language commentators have condemned the usage in a sentence like “I can’t help but ask.”

The correct phrases, or so the story goes, are “I can’t help asking” and two equivalent old-fashioned expressions—“I can but ask” and “I cannot but ask.” In those last two idioms, “can but” means “can only,” and “cannot but” means “cannot do otherwise than.”

Apparently nobody was bothered by the fact that “can but” and “cannot but”—complete opposites—were accepted as idioms with identical meanings.  Probably they sounded normal to 19th-century ears because they’d been in use steadily since the mid-1500s.

The “cannot help but” version was a relative newcomer; it did not become common until the early 1800s. Where did it come from?

We suspect that “cannot help but” emerged as a variant of an earlier and very popular idiom, “cannot choose but,” which had been in written use since the 1540s.

In fact, “cannot choose but” was once used in exactly the same way that “can’t help but” is used today.

So let’s start by looking into the history of “cannot choose but.”

Within its entries for the verb “choose” and the conjunction “but,” the Oxford English Dictionary has examples of “cannot choose but” spanning three centuries—the 1540s to the 1880s.

As the OED explains, an obsolete meaning of the verb phrase “cannot chose,” which dates from the 1300s, was “have no alternative, cannot do otherwise, cannot help.”

“But” was added to the construction in the mid-1500s to yield “cannot choose but,” a usage that the dictionary says is now archaic.

“I cannot choose but speak,” according to Oxford, means “I cannot help speaking.”

However, the construction “cannot help” plus a gerund, as in “cannot help speaking,” wasn’t common until the early 1700s, so a contemporary equivalent would be “cannot do otherwise than speak.”

Here are a three early examples from the OED:

“Suche … crueltee … as could not choose afterwarde but redound to his … confusion.” (From Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus, 1542.)

“He cannot chose but he must fall downe flat to the grounde.” (From Sir Thomas North’s 1557 translation of Antonio de Guevara’s The Diall of Princes.)

“He cannot choose but breake.” (From Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, 1600.)

By Elizabethan times, the usage had become extremely common. It was popular enough to be used in a comic play performed before Queen Elizabeth on Dec. 27, 1599.

Here are the lines:

“Whether is it more torment to loue a Lady and neuer enioy her, or alwaies to enioy a Lady, whome you cannot choose but hate?” (From The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus, by Thomas Dekker.)

From the early 1600s to the early 1900s, “cannot choose but” was ubiquitous in all kinds of writing, according to searches of Early English Books Online and other databases. It was used in ordinary English as well as in works by prominent dramatists, novelists, and poets.

But by the latter half of the 19th century, “cannot choose but” had fallen out of favor in ordinary, everyday English, though it survived well into the 20th century as a literary or poetic usage.

Meanwhile, as “cannot choose but” fell out use in everyday English, “cannot help but” took its place.

In searches of various databases, the earliest definite example of “cannot help but” that we’ve found is from 1809.

(Three earlier findings—from 1646, 1650, and 1776—are too ambiguous to count. The first two, “The hands of men cannot help but hinder this Work” and “Nature and art … cannot help but hinder one another,” could be interpreted in two different ways. The third, “They cannot help but feel the responsibilities,” is from a letter written from France dated 1776, but it’s unclear whether it was originally written in English or French.)

The first clear example is from an anonymous letter to the editor dated Oct. 23, 1809, published in an English newspaper, the Chester Courant:

“When I reflect on the local advantages this city possesses, and look at the flourishing towns of Liverpool and Manchester … I cannot help but fix upon the shackles of the select junta as the cause that this ancient city is less prosperous.”

The expression quickly gained ground in the 1820s and ’30s. These lines by an anonymous poet appeared in the Oriental Herald, published in London, February 1825:

“In truth, she cannot help but think / That bolder hearts than hers would pause.”

This comes from another British source, an 1829 issue of the Odd Fellows’ Magazine, Manchester chapter: “Sympathy is an impulse which we cannot help but experience for one another, it is a feeling that is interwoven in our very nature.”

The earliest American example we’ve found is from a poem by Henry Mason, delivered before the Franklin Debating Society in Boston in January 1830:

“Blame not the heart that cannot help but feel / Its pulses quicken at the soft appeal.” (The poem was published by the society in March 1830.)

Americans seem to have liked the construction. Here’s an example from Pelayo (1838), an adventure tale by the Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms: “We cannot help but weep when we survey it.”

Yet another American example is this one from the January 1840 issue of the New Genesee Farmer, published in Rochester, NY:

“The  immense number and beauty of the articles there exhibited, are truly surprising, and cannot help but excite a spirit of improvement in the mind of every farmer, who views them.”

By the 1840s, “can’t help but” had become firmly entrenched in both common and literary British and American usage.

Here, for instance, is a cluster of sightings from a book published in London in 1841: “they cannot help but be uncharitable” … “he cannot help but see” … “we cannot help but love it.” (From Christianity Triumphant, attributed to Joseph Barker.)

And this flurry of examples is from sermons preached during a Christian convention in Chicago in 1883 by the evangelist D. L. Moody: “God cannot help but trust” … “we cannot help but blame” … “I cannot help but think” … “we cannot help but remember” … “you cannot help but love” … “you cannot help but preach” … “he cannot help but work” … and (five times) “I cannot help but believe.” We might have missed a couple.

Even in the most formal academic writing, authors have used “can’t help but” over the years as if it were irreproachable English. Today it’s found in scholarly writing of all kinds, in fiction, in journalism, and in ordinary, everyday English, both written and spoken.

Examples are so plentiful that it seems superfluous to cite any. But take a look at this one, from Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (2012), by Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell:

“Moreover, in so packaging the past through our choice of periodization points and rubrics, we cannot help but draw deep lines of inclusion and exclusion, of identity and difference.”

And this one, from The African Stakes of the Congo War (2002), by John F. Clark:

“As ordinary observers of human frailties, cruelties, and heroism, we cannot help but be fascinated by Congo and its travails; as moral beings, we cannot help but be gravely concerned with the unspeakable human suffering that has resulted….”

The point here is not that scholarly writing is the norm. The point is that “can’t help but” is considered respectable even in the most formal (we might even say stuffiest) writing.

So what do the critics of “can’t help but” find wrong with it? Some have objected without giving a reason, but others have complained on these grounds:

(1) “help” is unnecessary, since we already have “cannot but”;

(2) “cannot + help + but” has too many negative elements, since “help” is used in the sense of “prevent” or “avoid.”

(3) “cannot help but” is the result of confusing “cannot but” with “cannot help” plus a gerund. (As we’ve explained, we think it developed otherwise—as a variant of  “cannot choose but.”)

As far as we know, the earliest critic was Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric and oratory. In The Foundations of Rhetoric (1892), Hill objected for reason #1:

“ ‘He could not but speak’ is equivalet to ‘He could not help speaking.’ Help in ‘He could not help but speak’ is tautological.”

Another critic was an English professor at Columbia University, George Philip Krapp, who wrote this in A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927):

“The construction I can not help but think, believe, etc., is crude and unidiomatic English for I can not help thinking, believing, etc.” No explanation was offered. (It should be noted that Krapp also promoted the spelling “Shakspere.”)

Various other commentators have chimed in over the years, like Wilson Follett in his Modern American Usage (1966), who called the usage “grammarless” for reason #3 above.

The first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Fowler, has no mention of “help but.” However, the revised second edition (1965), edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, condemns it for reason #3.

The two of us, former editors at the New York Times, remember “help but” as one of the paper’s no-nos. Here’s The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (revised ed., 2013), under an entry for the verb “help”:

“Use the construction help wondering, as in He cannot help wondering. Not He cannot help but wonder.”

We even promoted this view ourselves in the past (but no longer). Pat’s book Woe Is (3rd ed.), last updated in 2010, has this advice:

“In formal writing, avoid using help but, as in: Huck can’t help but look silly in those pants. Unless you’re speaking or writing casually, drop the but and use the ing form: Huck can’t help looking silly in those pants.” (That entry will change if the publisher authorizes a fourth edition.)

On reflection, we wonder whether the Times’s prohibition prejudiced us against a usage that has nothing wrong with it. Yes, even in formal English.

The fact is that the feeling against “help but” was never unanimous.

In 1954 the grammarian Otto Jespersen commented on “cannot help but” and seemed to have no reservations about it:

“A frequent combination,” he wrote, “is cannot choose but with a bare infinitive.” And he added: “In the same sense, we have cannot help but with infinitive,” a usage that he said “is not confined to U.S., but is also found in British writers.”

He went on to quote some 20th-century British novelists who have used the phrase.

Theodore Bernstein, writing about “can’t help but” in The Careful Writer (1965), argued against grammarians who “contend that it is ‘crude and unidiomatic English.’ ” He called it “usual and acceptable.”

So did Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957): “Grammatically, the construction is as irreproachable as I cannot choose but think.”

Today, the more thoughtful usage guides have no problem with “can’t help but.”

Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage regards “can’t help but” as standard English (“logic cannot measure idioms,” it says), and so does The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Both guides say the only consideration as to formality is whether you use the phrase with “cannot” or “can’t.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rates the idiom as “fully accepted” and says it “should no longer be stigmatized on either side of the Atlantic.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has little to say about the “help but” construction one way or another.

In fact, the editors use it themselves. In explaining the use of “have” to mean “must,” the OED says that in statements like “I have to say, you have to admit, it has to be said, etc.,” the meaning is “I cannot help but say, etc.”

The OED’s entry for “help” includes a section on the use of the verb with “can” or “cannot” to mean “to prevent oneself from, avoid, refrain from, forbear; to do otherwise than.” Two of the later examples are of the “help but” variety:

“She could not help but plague the lad.” (From Hall Caine’s novel Manxman, 1894.)

“If clairvoyants are to be attached to police stations they can hardly help but become officials.” (From the Manchester Guardian Weekly, 1928.)

Those examples are cited without remark—that is, with no hint that “help but” is anything less than acceptable English.

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Q: When I was growing up in New Haven, CT, my mother told me that saying “rabbits” as the first word of the month brings good luck. I’ve lived elsewhere since then and many people haven’t heard of the word’s lucky powers. Where does this belief comes from?

A: The custom has been around for more than a century, but we can’t find any authoritative information on its origin. Our guess is that it may have been  influenced by the much older practice of keeping a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.

The earliest written example we’ve found for the usage is from the March 13, 1909, issue of Notes and Queries, a scholarly journal devoted to English language, literature, and history. A contributor, identified only by initials, submitted this query:

“ ‘RABBITS’ FOR LUCK.—My two daughters are in the habit of saying ‘Rabbits’ on the first day of each month. The word must be spoken aloud, and be the first word said in the month. It brings luck for that month. Other children, I find, use the same formula. I shall be glad to know if this is a common and old custom, and what is the meaning of the word ‘rabbits.’ A. M.”

Two readers of Notes and Queries responded in the March 27, 1909, issue.

One (identified as Jas. Platt, Jun.) merely offered advice on the best way to use the term: “The word to be most efficacious must be spoken up the chimney, and be the first word said in the month. I am told that if this is done the performer will receive a present.”

The other reader (W. B. Gerish) noted that The English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) had “numerous references to the use of the term ‘rabbit’ as an expletive,” but none of them used it in “the formula specified” by A. M. (As an expletive, “rabbit” has meant something like “drat.”)

However, Gerish speculated that “the employment of the term by children is evidently a survival of the ancient superstitious belief in the efficacy of this or similar expressions as charms to avert evil.”

Our theory, as we’ve said, is that the tradition may have been influenced by the earlier association of rabbits with good luck. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from the late 1600s for the carrying of a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.

When the word “rabbit” first appeared in English in the late 1300s, according to the OED, it referred to a young rabbit.

An adult was called a “coney” (or “cony”), a usage that’s now considered regional. English borrowed both words from French. The ultimate source of “coney” is cuniculus, Latin for rabbit, while rabotte may have been French dialect for a rabbit or rabbit hole.

The OED’s earliest “rabbit” citation, which also refers to “coney,” is from John Trevisa’s translation (sometime before 1398) of De Proprietatibus Rerum [On the Property of Things], an early encyclopedia, by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus:

“Conynges … bringen forþ [forth] many rabettes & multiplien ful swiþe [exceedingly].”

The first Oxford reference to the carrying of a rabbit’s foot for good luck is from The Wits Paraphras’d, Matthew Stevenson’s irreverent, 1680 translation of Ovid: “But now too late, I’ve one to do’t, / And you may kiss the Rabits foot.”

In the 20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, the plural “rabbits” (as well as the phrase “white rabbits”) came to be “uttered for good luck, esp. on the first day of the month.” (We’ve found several other variations, including “rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit,” “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” and even “bunny, bunny.”)

The OED, which doesn’t offer an explanation for the usage, has these examples:

“On the first day of the month you have to say ‘Rabbits.’ If you say it to me first, I have to give you a present, and if I say it to you first, you have to give me a present.” (From Courts of Idleness, a 1920 collection of short stories by Dornford Yates, a pseudonym of the English writer Cecil William Mercer.)

“I hear the clock strike midnight and say ‘rabbits’ …. That is the end of 1949.” (From a 1949 entry in the diary of the English diplomat Harold Nicolson.)

“ ‘On the first morning of the month,’ notes a typical informant, ‘before speaking to anyone else, one must say “White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits” for luck.’ ” (From The  Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, a 1959 book by Iona and Peter Opie, a married team of British folklorists.)

“Besides, behind her back, rabbits rabbits, she’s crossing her treacherous fingers.” (From The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a 1999 novel by Salman Rushdie.)

“I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother … told me to do it, to bring good fortune.” (From an article by the British author Simon Winchester in the Nov. 2, 2006, issue of the International Herald Tribune.)

All the OED citations are from British sources, but the usage has had its adherents on the other side of the pond, as you’re well aware.

For example, the final volume of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (1964) has this example: “On the first day of the month, say ‘Rabbit! rabbit! rabbit!’ and the first thing you know, you will get a present from someone you like very much.”

The seven-volume collection, gathered by the Duke University folklorist from 1912 to 1943, also notes citations from other sources for similar sayings heard in Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Here’s a Wisconsin citation from Badger Folklore (1952): “Another correspondent … says that in her family it is a tradition to court Lady Luck by saying ‘Rabbit! Rabbit!’ as first words on the first day of every month. Then you climb out of bed over the foot and are bound to prosper.”

Edie Clark, a New Hampshire author, says in a Sept. 1, 2008, article in Yankee Magazine that it’s been a tradition in her family since her grandmother’s day for “rabbit” to be the first word spoken at the start of each month.

And Alan Zweibel, a former Saturday Night Live writer, notes in a 1994 radio interview that Gilda Radner had said “bunny, bunny” on the first day of each month since she was a child. In fact, the title of Zweibel’s 1994 book about his friendship with Radner is entitled Bunny Bunny.

Many American rabbiters learned of the custom from the cable channel Nickelodeon, which helped popularize it in the US in the 1990s by encouraging children to say “rabbit, rabbit” on the first day of each month.

We’ll end with an expanded (and earlier) version of that last OED citation, from an op-ed article by Simon Winchester in the Oct. 7. 2006, issue of the New York Times:

“Ever since I was 4 years old, I have said ‘White Rabbits’ at the very moment of waking on every single first day of every single month that has passed. My mother, tucking me into bed one night, told me to do it, to bring good fortune; and since I have enjoyed fair good fortune for all of my subsequent days I have assumed that the acceptance of this moderate and harmless habit has had something to do with it, and so has reinforced my need to keep up the practice.

“Besides, it is an ancient and thoroughly English conceit: old folk in Yorkshire and Cornwall speak of it having been practiced for many centuries (though the first O.E.D. citation of anything similar is 1920). Social historians assert that the monthly invocation of this most star-kissed of mammals (think rabbit’s-foot key rings, the Easter Bunny, the awesome fecundity of the Australian model of Oryctolagus) is entirely explicable. It would be pretty hard to imagine waking up and crying ‘mouse’ or ‘warthog’ or ‘mole’ and feeling quite so warmly confident of good fortune.”

[Note: On Aug. 1, 2016, a reader comments, “Dear friends told me about this delightful superstition about 25 years ago. But their version was just a hair more demanding: In order to be lucky the following month, you had to say ‘hare, hare’ the last thing before going to sleep, and ‘rabbit, rabbit’ first thing on waking. I imagine there are other variations.”]

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Old-fashion or old-fashioned?

Q: What would you say is more acceptable as a modifier, “old-fashion” or “old-fashioned”? One hears both interchangeably.

A: The usual form, and the only one accepted in standard dictionaries, is “old-fashioned.”

We did find a mention of “old-fashion” in one standard dictionary, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. But it says that “old-fashion” is an “archaic” term meaning “old-fashioned.”

Both versions are given in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The two adjectives are well established—they were first recorded in the 1590s—but “old-fashioned” is more frequent in current usage, the OED says.

The adjective “old-fashioned” is defined in the OED as “of or resembling a fashion or style belonging to an earlier time,” or “antiquated in form or character.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, the term describes an antique ship: “Out of the medyan center … did ryse vp an olde fashioned vessell, and verie beautifull.” (From a 1592 translation of Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance originally written in Latinate Italian.)

The shorter adjective “old-fashion,” the OED says, means “resembling a fashion or style belonging to an earlier time.”

The dictionary’s earliest example comes only a few years later than the one mentioned above: “I sit like an old King in an old fashion play.” (From George Chapman’s comedy An Humerous Dayes Myrth, 1599.)

The two adjectives differ in their grammatical structure.

“Old-fashioned” combines “old” with the participial adjective “fashioned,” from the verb “fashion.”

“Old-fashion” combines “old” with the noun “fashion.” However, the OED notes that “in some instances” it is “perhaps shortened” from the longer version “by loss of the final consonant.”

We haven’t found much about these terms in usage guides. But the fact that standard dictionaries don’t recognize “old-fashion” is reason enough to prefer the longer version.

In fact, “old-fashioned” seems to have been the preference even in the 19th century.

We found this in George Crabb’s English Synonymes Explained (2nd ed., London, 1818): “OLD-FASHIONED signifies after an old fashion. … The manners are old-fashioned which are gone quite out of fashion . … The old-fashioned is opposed to the fashionable.”

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Faux French: un oeuf, already?

Q: Is there a term for a word like toupee that looks and sounds as if it’s taken from a foreign language (in this case, French) but doesn’t actually exist in that language?

A: We don’t know of a technical term for such words, but many of them, if not most, are faux French, so why not call them that?

We’ve written about such words on the blog as well as in “An Oeuf Is an Oeuf,” the chapter about fractured French in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths.

One of the words we discuss in the book is toupee, which doesn’t exist in French, where a hairpiece is a moumoute or a postiche. However, toupee may have Gallic roots.

Etymologists believe it was probably inspired by toupet, French for a tuft of real hair over the forehead, like a person’s bangs or a horse’s forelock.

Perhaps the phoniest of phony French terms is nom de plume, which the British invented in the 19th century to replace the real French expression. We’ve written about this one on our blog as well as in Origins, which we’ll quote here:

“The real French expression for an assumed name is nom de guerre, which the British adopted in the late seventeenth century. But in the nineteenth century, British writers apparently thought the original French might be confusing. One can see why nom de guerre, literally ‘war name,’ could puzzle readers. The French initially used it for the fictitious name that a soldier often assumed on enlisting, but by the time the British started using the expression, it could mean any assumed name—in English as well as French.

“The faux-French nom de plume was introduced in English in the nineteenth century. An obscure Victorian novelist, Emerson Bennett, is responsible for the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (perhaps the only feather in his cap). In his 1850 novel Oliver Goldfinch, the title character is said to be ‘better known to our readers as a gifted poet, under the nom de plume of “Orion.” ’  Bennett could have used the word ‘pseudonym,’ which we had borrowed from the French around the same time nom de plume was invented. But perhaps he felt ‘pseudonym’ lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Whatever his reasons, nom de plume was a hit with the literary crowd—such a hit that it inspired an English translation, ‘pen name,’ which made its debut in 1864 in Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.

“The old French expression nom de guerre is still with us, though. It’s defined in English dictionaries as ‘pseudonym’ or ‘fictional name,’ but these days it seems to be used most often for the sobriquets of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view).”

Here are some other pseudo-French terms that we discuss in Origins of the Specious:

Double entendre. Although the expression, adopted into English in the seventeenth century, was once French for double meaning, there’s no exact equivalent in modern French. Two near misses, double entente and double sens, don’t have the suggestiveness of the English version. How should one pronounce our illegitimate offspring? Illegitimately, of course. Dictionaries are all over the place on this, but I treat ‘double’ as an English word (DUB-ul) and ‘entendre’ as if it’s French (ahn-TAN-dr).

Negligee. No, the French don’t call that frilly, come-hither nightie a négligée, though in the eighteenth century a négligé was indeed a simple, loose gown worn by a Frenchwoman at home. In France, the nightie is a peignoir or a chemise de nuit. The French verb négliger means to neglect, and a person who’s négligé is careless or sloppy or poorly dressed.

“Encore. The word we shout when we want Sam to play it again isn’t used that way in France, except by tourists. Although ‘again’ is one meaning of encore in French, a Parisian usually shouts ‘Bis!’ to call for a repeat performance. English speakers have been shouting ‘Encore!’ since at least the early 1700s, but nobody seems to know why. Perhaps we can blame the eighteenth-century vogue for all things French.

“Pièce de résistance. The French don’t use this for the main dish or the main part of something. In fact, they don’t use it at all. The closest thing to it in France is plat de résistance, meaning the main dish. But in the eighteenth century, when so many French expressions crossed the Channel, a pièce de résistance was a main dish or a dishy woman.

“Idiot savant. This invention would sound idiotic to a Frenchman, though the inventor may have been a French-born physician living in the United States, according to the OED. In ‘New Facts and Remarks Concerning Idiocy,’ an 1869 lecture to a New York medical association, Dr. Edouard Séguin used the term ‘idiot savant’ to describe someone with a ‘useless protrusion of a single faculty, accompanied by a woful general impotence.’ The actual French phrase for the condition is savant autiste, similar to the current medical term for the condition in English, ‘autistic savant.’

“Résumé. A job hunter in France doesn’t polish up her résumé. She updates her curriculum vitae, or CV. In French, a résumé is a summing up, as in a plot summary. And that’s what it meant when the word entered English in the early nineteenth century. The term wasn’t used for a career summary until the mid-twentieth century, when this sense began appearing in the United States and Canada. Maybe it was easier to pronounce than ‘curriculum vitae.’

“Affaire d’amour. This would be meaningless in France, where an affaire is a business deal, not a romance. The French for ‘love affair’ is histoire d’amour. Where did our faux French come from? It’s a froufrou version of an old English expression, ‘love affair,’ which dates from Elizabethan times, when Shakespeare used the original in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. (And by the way, it’s a myth that the term ‘love’ in tennis comes from l’oeuf, though an egg is more or less round like a zero. Mere folklore.)

“Risqué. Nope, risqué isn’t titillating or sexy in French. It’s merely ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous,’ which aptly describes the dubious practice of using these faux French expressions when you’re in France.”

We’ll end with a story from Origins of the Specious about the poet Coleridge, who used several noms de plume (“Cuddy” and “Gnome,” among others) as well as a nom de guerre.

When a young woman refused Coleridge’s hand, the rejected suitor dropped out of Cambridge and enlisted in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the assumed name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.” (He’d seen the name Comberbache over a door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London.)

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Why is “have to” so needy?

Q: I know what the phrase “have to” means, but it doesn’t make sense if you take the individual words literally. For example, “I have to wash the dishes.” It would make more sense to say “need to” or “must.” Is “have to” a vestige of Old English?

A: You’re right in suggesting that the usage has its roots in Anglo-Saxon times. In early Old English, people who intended or needed to do something would say they had something to do—a forerunner of the usage you’re asking about.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the duty or thing to be done was initially expressed as a direct object of the verb (to have something to do), then in an infinitive clause (to have to do something).”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from an early Old English translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos, a comparison of pagan and Christian times, by the theologian and historian Paulus Orosius:

“Nu ic longe spell hæbbe to secgenne” (literally, “Now I long story have to say” or, more naturally, “Now I have a long story to tell you”).

The OED says this early use of “have to” expressed “something that is to be done or needs to be done, as a duty, obligation, requirement, etc.”

That usage developed into the modern sense of “have to” as an auxiliary phrasal verb expressing necessity or, as Oxford puts it, “to be under an obligation to do something; to be required to; to need to.”

“Because word order was unfixed in early periods, it is difficult to determine precisely when this sense arose,” the OED says, adding that some Old English citations “are syntactically ambiguous, and may be transitional.”

However, the dictionary notes, “It has also been suggested that in early use the construction may occasionally approach a periphrastic or modal future” — that is, “have to” may have been used in Old English much like a modal phrasal verb in its modern sense.

(Modal auxiliaries, like “can,” “could,” “will,” “would,” and “must” express necessity or possibility. A periphrastic construction uses a combination of words, like “have to” or “need to,” in place of one.)

The OED gives an Old English example from the West Saxon Gospels that may show “have to” used in its modern sense of “must.”

The citation is from a translation of the Latin text of Matthew 20:22, where Jesus asks Zebedee’s sons if they are able to drink the cup of suffering that he will drink (bibiturus sum):

“Mage gyt drincan þone calic ðe ic to drincenne hæbbe” (literally, “Can you drink the cup that I to drink have?” or, more felicitously, “Can you drink the cup that I have to drink?”).

Does “to drincenne hæbbe” here mean “will drink” (a literal translation of the Latin) or does it mean “must drink,” a theological interpretation of the Latin passage by Anglo-Saxon scholars?

We lean toward interpreting “to drincenne hæbbe” as “must drink,” since other Old English translations of the same passage are closer to the Latin, according to Andrzej M. Łęcki, a linguist at the Pedagogical University of Cracow in Poland.

In Grammaticalisation Paths of Have in English (2010), Łęcki cites Old English translations of bibiturus sum in Matthew as “I will drink” and “I am drinking.” The Rushworth Gospels, for example, translates it as “ic drincande beom” (“I am drinking”).

Enough Old English. We’ll end with a very contemporary “have to” example in the OED from the July 22, 2012, issue of the New York Times: “You will have to enter the user name and password that corresponds to your account.”

[Update, July 26, 2016. A reader in Ireland writes: “In Yorkshire to this day people will say ‘I have it to do’ where standard English would say ‘I have to do it.’ ”]

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G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)

Q: I can’t find to whom the appellation “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest Of All Time) was first applied: Michael Jordon, Muhammad Ali, etc. I’d like to learn it was Vin Scully, whose retirement this year after his last broadcast, in late September, will be a BIG deal. Can you figure it out?

A: The word “goat” has been used in American sports since the early 1900s, first as a derisive term for a player responsible for a team’s loss, and later, often in capital letters, as an acronym for “greatest of all time.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly when the term showed up as a positive acronym and which sports figure was the first to benefit from the new usage.

One problem is that it was used in sports as an initialism (an abbreviation made up of initial letters pronounced separately) about a dozen years before it showed up in sports as an acronym (an abbreviation formed from initial letters but pronounced as a word).

We’ll get to the sports usage in a bit, but let’s first look at the original use of “goat” as the name for, as dictionaries put it, the hardy domesticated ruminant Capra hircus.

In Old English, a male goat was a “bucca” and a female a “gat” (early versions of “buck” and “goat”). In early Middle English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “goat began to encroach on the semantic territory of buck.”

By the 14th century, Ayto says, “goat” had become the dominant form for both sexes, with “she-goat” and “he-goat” used to differentiate them (“nanny-goat” showed up in the 18th century and “billy-goat” in the 19th).

Over the centuries, the noun “goat” took on several figurative senses, including the zodiacal sign Capricorn (first recorded sometime before 1387), a licentious man (before 1674), and a fool (1916).

The earliest example we’ve found for “goat” used in the sports sense is from The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), by Paul Dickson:

“Catcher [Charles] Schmidt, who had been the ‘goat’ of the first game [of the World Series], redeemed himself at this time.” (From the Oct. 10, 1909, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

Dickson notes that most explanations for the origin of the baseball usage describe it as a clipped form of “scapegoat” that refers “to a player whose error is being blamed for a team’s defeat.”

However, he points out that one language researcher, Gerald L. Cohen, challenged this theory in the Dec. 1, 1985, issue of Comments on Etymology.

“A scapegoat is innocent, whereas the goat is not; he has blundered, usually at a crucial moment,” Cohen writes. “And the standard etymology of ‘goat’ as a shortening of ‘scapegoat’ is therefore almost certainly in error.”

He suggests instead that the usage might have been influenced by a goat used to haul a peanut wagon in the late 19th century. Perhaps, but we think the erroneous-shortening hypothesis seems more likely.

Getting back to your question, the earliest example we could find for “G.O.A.T.” used to mean ”greatest of all time” is from September 1992, when Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties for commercial purposes.

Lonnie Ali served as vice president and treasurer of the corporation until it was sold in 2006. (The business is now known as Muhammad Ali Enterprises, a subsidiary of Authentic Brands Group.)

Ali often referred to himself as “the greatest” and sometimes as “the greatest of all time.” In the May 5, 1971, issue of the Harvard Crimson, for example, he’s quoted as saying: “I wanted to be the world’s greatest fighter at 11-years-old … I wanted to be the greatest of all time.”

(Many other athletes have been called the “greatest of all time.” A 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, for example, uses the expression for the British tennis player Laurence Doherty, while a 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated uses it for the Basque jai alai player Erdoza Menor.)

However, we could find no written evidence that Ali or anyone else in the 20th century used “goat,” “GOAT,” or “G.O.A.T” as an acronym (a word pronounced like “goat”) to mean “greatest of all time.”

The earliest example we could find for the term used as an acronym is an album by the American rapper LL Cool J entitled “G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time),” released on Sept. 12, 2000.

In “The G.O.A.T.” track on the album, LL Cool J (a k a James Todd Smith) repeatedly says, “I’m the G.O.A.T.” (pronounced “goat”) and “the greatest of all time.”

By 2003, the term was being used in the sporting sense, but it’s unclear from the early written citations whether it was pronounced like “goat” or spelled out (“G-O-A-T”).

The online Urban Dictionary, a slang reference site that relies on definitions submitted by users, has two Sept. 28, 2003, contributions:

“Greatest Of All Time: Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T.” … “anacronym for G.reatest O.f A.ll T.ime Ultimate competitor G-O-A-T etc.,etc.”

Magic Johnson was apparently using “goat” in the old negative sense when he was quoted on an NBA website on March, 3, 2003, as saying Kobe Bryant has “plenty of great years ahead of him. He’ll be one of the best clutch players in NBA history. He wants it. He has no fear about whether he’s the goat or not.”

But the term is clearly being used in a positive way in this title from a July 21, 2004, post on the Basketball Forum comparing Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon: “Wilt Chamberlain is overrated; Hakeem is the GOAT.”

And the term is positive in a July 12, 2004, article in the Los Angeles Times that describes the American sprinter Maurice Green’s victory in the 100-meter dash at Olympic trials in Sacramento:

“Maurice Greene released a shriek of joy and pointed to the tattoo on his right biceps, a stylized lion whose mane shelters the letters GOAT, for Greatest of All Time.”

Although Vin Scully has been referred to as “the goat,” most of the examples we’ve found came after an April 4, 2016, broadcast in which the sportscaster says he learned of the usage from the outfielder Jon Jay.

“Jon Jay had a big thrill,” Scully said. “He was in a shoe store buying some shoes and who came in? Michael Jordan.”

When Jay referred to Jordan as “the G.O.A.T.,” Scully was puzzled: “ ‘Goat’? Why is Michael Jordan ‘goat’? ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘G-O-A-T. Greatest of all time.’ ”

One last point: Some people believe the usage can be traced to Earl (the Goat) Manigault, a New York City playground basketball player who many thought was the greatest of all time, though his career was cut short by years of drug abuse.

However, Manigault, who died in 1998 at the age of 53, got the nickname because a teacher in junior high school pronounced his name “Mani-Goat,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

[Update, July 22, 2016: A reader notes that in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, Joelle Van Dyne is referred to as “the P.G.O.A.T., for the Prettiest Girl of All Time.]

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A guerrilla of France

Q: In A Hero of France, Alan Furst’s latest World War II thriller, one of the characters uses the phrase “guerrilla warfare.” Did the word “guerrilla” really refer to an unconventional war in the early 1940s, when most of the novel takes place?

A: Yes, “guerrilla” has been used that way for more than 200 years, well before Alan Furst put the word into the mouth of Fabien, a sabotage instructor working with the Resistance in France.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples dating from the early 1800s for “guerrilla” used as a noun or an adjective in reference to an unconventional war or someone fighting in such a war.

English borrowed the word directly from Spanish, where guerrilla is a diminutive of guerra, or war. The usual spelling in English is “guerrilla,” though some dictionaries also accept “guerilla.”

In the earliest OED citation, from an 1809 dispatch by the Duke of Wellington, the word refers to someone engaged in unconventional war: “I have recommended to the Junta to set … the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.”

An 1811 citation, from The Vision of Don Roderick, a poem by Sir Walter Scott about Wellington’s victories in the Peninsular War, uses “guerrilla” adjectivally:

“But, with the darkness, the Guerilla band / Came like night’s tempest, and avenged the land.” (We’ve gone to the original and expanded the OED citation.)

An 1819 example, from an article in the Edinburgh Review by Sydney Smith, an Anglican cleric, uses “guerrilla” as a noun for the war itself, a usage that the dictionary describes as “now somewhat rare”:

“A succession of village guerillas;—an internecive war between the gamekeepers and marauders of game.”

Finally, the word “guerrilla” has been used loosely since the late 1800s to describe almost any kind of irregular, unorthodox, or spontaneous activity: “guerrilla advertising,” “guerrilla cooking,” “guerrilla filmmaking,” and so on.

The earliest OED example for the newer usage is from the November 1888 issue of the Polyclinic, a medical journal in Philadelphia:

“The so-called pure pepsins … which, by a system of ‘guerrilla’ advertising … have been foisted upon the deceived medical profession.”

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A reactionary usage

Q: I’ve been seeing the use of the word “reactionary” for “reactive.” Have you noticed this?

A: No, we haven’t noticed it, and none of the standard dictionaries we rely on have entries for the adjective “reactionary” that include “reactive” as a meaning.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes this sense of “reactionary” as used in chemistry: “Of, pertaining to, participating in or inducing a chemical reaction.”

Wiktionary cites an April 11, 2013, article by Brandon Smith on, a website devoted to barter networking and other economic alternatives:

“Psychiatry extends the theory into biology in the belief that all human behavior is nothing more than a series of reactionary chemical processes in the brain that determine pre-coded genetic responses built up from the conditioning of one’s environment.”

Although the usage you’re asking about isn’t all that common, it isn’t all that new either.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations dating back to the mid-19th century for “reactionary” used to mean “of, or relating to, or characterized by reaction, or a reaction (in various senses); that constitutes a reaction or reversal.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for this reactive sense is from an 1847 volume of A History of Greece, a 12-volume work by George Grote:

“The intensity of the subsequent displeasure would be aggravated by this reactionary sentiment.” (The reference is to how Athenians reacted when Mitliades, a hero of the Battle of Marathon, failed in the Expedition at Paros.)

In Women in Love (1920), D. H. Lawrence describes an affair as the result of—that is, a reaction to—marriage: “A liaison was only another kind of coupling, reactionary from the legal marriage. Reaction was a greater bore than action.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation (from the Feb. 6, 2003, issue of the Charlotte Business Journal in North Carolina) with the term used in the medical sense: “We want to practice preventative health care and not just reactionary medicine.”

Well, the usage is out there, as you’ve noticed, and it has a history, but it’s not out there enough to make it into standard dictionaries. In other words, you’ll probably be misunderstood if you use it.

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The singular life of “they”

Q: I’m a 69-year-old psychotherapist who learned his grammar from a Jesuit-trained teacher obsessed with diagramming. As a stickler for good usage, I’m especially troubled by the use of “their” for “his” or “her.” Am I nuts or is the usage changing?

A: No, you aren’t nuts (as you ought to know, since you’re a psychotherapist). But yes, the usage is changing.

As close observers of the language, we are well aware that it’s a living thing, and that the prescriptive “rules” invented at various periods by well-intentioned grammarians were often groundless and misguided.

But like you, we’ve drawn the line at the use of “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to an indefinite someone—at least in formal English and at least for the time being.

We’ve resisted this usage in our own writing on the ground that a third-person plural pronoun is inappropriate in reference to a singular somebody, though some of our favorite writers have used “they” and company in just that way.

We grant that this use of “they” is acceptable in informal and colloquial English, and that it has a long history, but we think that it’s still not an acceptable formal usage in contemporary English.

Here’s what we wrote about the subject on our blog in 2013:

“The plural pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ were often used as indefinite singulars centuries ago, and are quite commonly used that way today in informal (some would say substandard) English. But in formal English, they’re restricted to the plural.

“And anyone who wants to be correct without resorting to ‘he/she’ or some variant can always recast the sentence and make the antecedent plural. Instead of ‘Every parent loves his or her (or their) child,’ make it ‘All parents love their children.’ ”

We still believe this. But ask us again in 10 years. The “formal-versus-informal” argument aside, the singular use of “they” has shown no signs of going away and has clearly become established.

Earlier this year, linguists recognized this fact in a rather emphatic way. In January, the American Dialect Society voted for “they,” used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as the “Word of the Year” for 2015.

As the organization said in a press release, “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

Although the announcement singled out a very specific use of “they” (for people who don’t consider themselves either male or female), it called attention to the more general use of “they” as a generic singular for an unknown person.

For example, “If anyone calls, tell them I’ve gone for the day.”

The press release says “they” was long used as a singular by writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

(We could add Byron, Thackeray, Goldsmith, Swift, Wharton, Orwell, Auden, as well as the King James Version of the Bible, all cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.)

In its announcement, the society noted that in 2015 the “singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide,” but we think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

The Post style guide says that it’s “usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural” and that the singular “they” should be used only in “the rare case when such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward.”

Commenting in the ADS press release, the linguist Ben Zimmer said: “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”

Recent scholarship has shown that the use of “they” in a singular sense is not just an aberration but an expected development in a language that has a hole in it.

“In truth, the English language lacks a gender-neutral (sex-indefinite) pronoun for third-person singular,” Darren K. LaScotte wrote in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech.

Since the 14th century, he wrote, “they” has been used to fill the gap. And it’s still in use, despite generations of advice to the contrary.

LaScotte conducted a study to determine “which pronouns native English speakers use when writing about a genderless person,” and found that “they” was the overwhelming choice.

In using a pronoun to refer back to a single person of no particular sex (“the ideal student”), 71 percent of the participants chose “they.” The other alternatives, including the combination “he or she” and the generic masculine “he,” trailed far behind.

Those results came from a question that did not call the participants’ attention to the pronouns they used. But the results were slightly different later in the survey, when they were specifically asked about pronoun use in reference to a single, genderless person.

When asked which pronoun was appropriate in a formal context, 55 percent chose the combination “he or she” and 25 percent chose “they.”

When asked which pronoun was appropriate for informal use, 74 percent chose “they.” Another 18 percent chose “he or she,” and 10 percent chose “he.”

We’re not surprised by these results. In informal writing or conversational English, “they” is used as a singular by even educated people today. And in such informal usages it doesn’t seem to call attention to itself.

But formal English is another matter, and here a singular “they” looks like a mistake, in our opinion. Few scholarly writers, even those who pride themselves on their descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) attitudes, would deliberately refer to a single student as “they.”

So we’ll stick with what we’ve written before. Singular “they” is fine in informal usage, but we don’t advise it in formal English.

LaScotte’s conclusion was different. He says that “writers of handbooks should be less timid in offering singular they as a strategy for solving the singular, generic antecedent problem in academic writing.”

Call us timid if you like, but we don’t think the singular “they” has fully arrived in formal use. We’d be surprised if academic writers began consciously using it any time soon, and if the editors of scholarly journals began accepting it.

One final word. The use of “they” to refer to someone clearly identified as a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is indefensible (“a man in their prime” … “a woman knows their own breasts”).

There’s certainly no point in being gender-neutral when there’s no question about gender.

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When “bourgeois” became bull

Q: I came across your site when looking up “malarkey,” a word my father used when I was growing up. He often used “bourgeois” to mean the same thing, “nonsense.” Can you explain how a word referring to the middle class could take on this sense?

A: We don’t want to shock you, but our best guess is that your father was using “bourgeois” as a euphemism for “bullshit,” a term he didn’t want to inflict on your tender ears. ­­

A ­similar-sounding word, “bushwa,” has been a euphemism for “bullshit” for more than a century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says “bushwa” was “probably” derived from the French “bourgeois, as popularized by the radical movement, esp. in the early 20th C.”

The dictionary says the word is “now taken as a euphem. for bullshit,” in the sense that one would use “nonsense” or plain “bull.”

Random House’s earliest example of “bushwa” is from a 1906 issue of the National Police Gazette: “ ‘Bushwa,’ … a term of derision used to convey the same comment as ‘hot air,’ drifted East from the plains along with other terse expletives.”

The reference may have been to language popularized by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the “Wobblies”), formed in Chicago in 1905.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that “bushwa” (also spelled “bushwah”) is “apparently a euphemism for bullshit.” But it doesn’t suggest that it was derived from “bourgeois.”

However, “bourgeois” was apparently the source. This passage from the historian Dorothy Gage’s book The Day Wall Street Exploded (2009) describes members of the “Overalls Brigade” of the IWW in 1908:

“They bellowed out revolutionary songs, scorned the niceties of ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) society, and made a point of dressing in the workingman’s garb that eventually became the Wobblies’ trademark uniform.”

And in this passage another historian, Bruce Watson, discusses popular terms used by the Wobblies in the first decade of the 20th century:

“A ‘scissor-bill’ was an unenlightened worker, some ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) who still believed in ‘Pie in the Sky,’ i.e., capitalist promises of a better life ahead.” (From Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, 2006.)

Several histories of the Wobblies were published during the 1960s, and in reviewing one of them for the Journal of Southern History in 1970, George T. Morgan Jr. wrote:

“IWW rhetoric and songs fed the myth of the Wobbly as a wild and woolly warrior, a man who contemptuously scorned the conventional morality of what he characterized as ‘bushwa’ society.”

So it seems that “bushwa” was a pronunciation—perhaps a deliberately dismissive one—of “bourgeois,” a term that was hateful to early 20th-century labor activists.

Over the years, many American authors have used the term in hard-boiled fiction. A couple of citations from the OED:

“Looks to me like it’s all bushwa.” (From a novel by John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers, 1921.)

“If you’re a detective, what was all that bushwa about Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard?” (From Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, 1960.)

As for “bourgeois,” English borrowed it from the French bourgeois in the early 1600s, when the two words had the same meaning: an inhabitant of a town or borough in France.

(In French, bourg was a walled settlement or market town. The term comes from burgus, Latin for castle or fort. But the ultimate source, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is bhergh, a prehistoric root meaning high.)

Over time, the English noun “bourgeois” broke from its original ties to France and took on three primary senses that could be applied to people or things anywhere in the world:

(1) the middle class or a member of the middle class, (2) someone or something that’s conventional, unimaginative, or materialistic, and (3) in Marxist theory, a capitalist exploiter of the working class. The adjective adopted related senses.

It’s unclear from OED citations when each of these meanings developed, but the dictionary has examples for all three dating from the 1800s.

The pejorative sense of “bourgeois” used by your father apparently evolved from the Marxist meaning of the word, which Oxford defines as “a person who upholds the interests of capitalism, or who is considered to be an exploiter of the proletariat.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the “capitalist” sense of the word is from an 1850 translation of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in German in 1848:

“Bourgeois and Proletarians. Hitherto the history of society has been the history of the battles between the classes composing it.”

(The original German: “Bourgeois und Proletarier. Die Geschichte aller bisherigen Gesellschaft ist die Geschichte von Klassenkämpfen.”)

The OED also cites this passage from a work of Engels: “It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money.” (From an 1886 translation of Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1845.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from 2010: “By forcing workers to work for money, the bourgeois transformed workers into commodities.” (From Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd. ed., edited by  Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy.)

It’s that “exploiter of the proletariat” element of “bourgeois,” built into the word by Marx and Engels, that inspired the “bullshit” sense of the word and the “bushwa” pronunciation.

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When out of your home is in it

Q: Why is it that when I say I’m working out of my home, I’m actually working at an office in my home?

A: The compound preposition “out of” usually refers to moving from, or being away from, something, and it’s had that meaning since Anglo-Saxon days.

In early Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “out of” was the opposite of “into.”

The first example in the OED is from a translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos, a comparison of pagan and Christian times, by the early medieval theologian and historian Paulus Orosius:

“Hie aforan ut of þære byrig hiora agnum willan.” (“They went out of the city of their own accord.”)

In the 20th century, according to Oxford citations, “out of” developed a new sense: working “from (a base or headquarters)” or “using (a place) as a centre of operations.”

The earliest OED example (from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run?) refers to a prostitute working out of a different kind of house than the one you’re asking about:

“ ‘She’s turned pro,’ I said. ‘She’s working out of Gladys’.”

Most of the OED citations use “out of” in the sense of using a place as headquarters but working elsewhere at least some of the time.

It’s easy to see, though, how the place in question evolved from a headquarters to a primary workplace, as in this example:

“The miscellaneous radio amateurs and visionaries who worked out of shacks and garages.” (From the June 25,1976, issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)

Here are the dictionary’s other examples:

“We were going to run away together. … I could always get work out of Miami.” (From Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, 1960, an “87th Precinct” novel by Ed McBain.)

“Goodall had now started to work out of Devon Concrete to all parts of the South West.” (From a 1993 issue of Vintage Roadscene magazine.)

Finally, here’s a recent example that we found in the June 18, 2016, issue of the New York Times: “My wife and I still work out of our home in South Portland; I’m a writer and she’s a digital strategist for a software company.”

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Shining a light on candles

Q: I have wondered how “chandler,” the word for a candle-maker, came to mean a supplier of ship’s provisions.

A: Originally, a “chandler” was someone who made or sold candles. Later on, the word was used more generally for a retailer of groceries and other goods, and eventually it came to mean a supplier specializing in grain or ships’ provisions.

That’s the short answer to your question. For the longer answer, we have go much further back and start with “candle,” one of the oldest words in the language.

“Candle” is interesting because of its great age. It’s as old as Christianity in England, making it one of the oldest Latin-derived words in English.

Candēla (from candēre, to glow or shine) is Latin for “candle” and the source of the English word.

“It probably arrived with Christianity at the end of the sixth century,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

That would mean “candle” was in use during the 500s, a century before it was recorded in English writing.

Because of its association with the new religion, “candle” had an air of sanctity to the Anglo-Saxons.

As “one of the Latin words introduced at the English Conversion,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was “long associated chiefly with religious observances.”

It first appeared in English writing in the Erfurt Glossary, believed to have been written somewhere in Southumbria during the last quarter of the 7th century.

Here the manuscript translates the Latin word for a pair of snuffers into Old English: “Emunctoria, candelthuist.” (A candlethuist was a scissor-like device for snuffing, or extinguishing, candles.)

In Beowulf, which may have been composed as early as 725, the word appears in a passage referring to the sun as “roderes candel” (“candle of the firmament”).

The OED notes that other terms for the sun in Old English poetry included “dæg candel” (“candle of the day”), “heofon-candel” (“heaven’s candle”), “woruld-candel” (“candle of the world”), and “Godes candel” (“God’s candle”).

But “chandler,” the word for a candle maker or seller, was a much humbler term. It came into English hundreds of years later than “candle” and from a different source—which explains its “ch-” spelling.

First recorded in the late 14th century, “chandler” came from the Anglo-Norman chandeler, derived from the Old French chandelier, meaning a candlemaker or a candlestick. (Yes, the Old French term gave us our word “chandelier,” but not until the 18th century.)

The ultimate source of “chandler” was Late Latin—the terms candēlārius (candlemaker) and candēlāria (candlestick), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Sometimes the word was used in a compound (“wax-chandler,” “tallow-chandler”) to specify what the candles were made of, beeswax or tallow (animal fats).

Oxford‘s earliest example is in a passage, dated 1389, from ordinances of early English craft guilds: “Yei shul bene at ye Chaundelers by pryme of ye day.” (“You shall be at the chandlers by early morning.”)

However, the word was already in use as an occupational surname, “Shaundeler,” as early as 1332, Chambers says.

The wider sense of “chandler” as a dealer in groceries and other provisions came into use in the late 16th century. The OED’s earliest citation, a snatch of dialogue by an Elizabethan pamphleteer, amply illustrates the meaning:

“Theodorus: Be there any Chandlers there? … What do they sell for the most part? / Amphilogus: Almost all things, as namelie butter, cheese, fagots, pots, pannes, candles, and a thousand other trinkets besides.” (From Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses, Part II, 1583.)

As the OED notes, use of the term was “often somewhat contemptuous,” as in this line from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by “Boz” (1839): “The neighbours stigmatized him as a chandler.”

More to the point, “chandler” was also used in combination with another term to show a tradesman’s specialty. And this explains terms like “corn-chandler” (grain dealer) and “ship-chandler,” both dating from the 17th century.

Oxford defines a “ship-chandler” as “a dealer who supplies ships with necessary stores.” It’s a term that has survived into modern times.

The dictionary’s earliest example is an order by the House of Lords in 1642, authorizing inspectors to examine “what Quantities of Gunpowder is, or shall be, in the Hands of any Merchants, Ship-chandlers, Grocers, Societies, or Companies.” (We’ve expanded the quotation to provide context.)

Sometimes, when the “ship-” designation isn’t necessary, a maritime supplier is referred to simply as a “chandler.”

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Unconsciously? Subconsciously?

Q: I’ve just read Pearl Buck’s final novel, The Eternal Wonder, which was discovered dozens of years after her death and may have been a first draft. At one point, she describes a character who scarcely listens while “storing away unconsciously” the conversations around him. Do you think she meant—and would eventually have used—“subconsciously” instead of “unconsciously”?

A: Both “unconsciously” and “subconsciously” can describe doing something without being aware of it—the way Pearl Buck is using “unconsciously” in that paragraph in The Eternal Wonder:

“People were talking again, accustomed now to her presence, but he scarcely listened, except as he always listened, saying little himself but storing away unconsciously the sound of these voices, the changing expressions of their faces, their postures, their ways of eating, all details of life while though useless, it seemed, in themselves, he could not help accumulating because it was how he lived.”

So either word is fine as far as meaning, but would Buck have eventually changed “unconsciously” to “subconsciously”? Perhaps, if she had done a lot of tinkering with the manuscript. Then again, perhaps not.

The decision would probably have depended on rhythm. If she had ultimately broken up that long paragraph or replaced one of the pronouns with a noun, “subconsciously” might have sounded better to her ear than “unconsciously.”

However, it’s silly to pick apart a single paragraph of a work by a major writer. An “improvement” or two in one paragraph might weaken the work as a whole.

As for the etymology here, “unconsciously” is the older of the two adverbs, showing up in the early 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “in an unconscious manner; without conscious action, effort, thought, or awareness; unknowingly.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Death’s Vision, a 1709 poem by the Presbyterian minister John Reynolds about the relationship between philosophy and poetry:

“But Pardon that I thus / Unconsciously Accuse! / How much more Cruel have I been to Thee?”

“Subconsciously,” which appeared in the mid-19th century, means “in a subconscious manner; without conscious perception of control; (also) by means of the subconscious,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from The Logic of Political Economy, an 1844 treatise on economics by Thomas de Quincey:

“But there is still a final evasion likely to move subconsciously in the thoughts of a student, which it is better to … strengthen until it becomes generally visible.”

The two adverbs are derived from the earlier adjectives “unconscious” and “subconscious.”

When “unconscious” first showed up in the late 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “not having knowledge or awareness of a fact or circumstance; unaware, heedless; unwitting.”

The first Oxford citation is from an anonymous 1678 translation of De Mirabilibus Pecci, a Latin poem by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes about the wonders of the Peak District in Derbyshire:

“It moves in haste … it flies. / (Unconscious of its Fault which tortur’d cries).” We’ve gone to another source and expanded the citation to give it context.

When “subconscious” appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it meant “operating or existing (just) below the level of conscious perception” or “not clearly perceived” or “instinctive, unwitting.”

The earliest example in the OED is from an essay by De Quincey in the June 1834 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine:

“The Emperor Hadrian had already taken a solitary step in the improvement of human nature; and not … without some sub-conscious influence received directly or indirectly from Christianity.”

Both words, “unconscious” and “subconscious,” showed up in 19th-century psychological terminology, first as nouns and then as adjectives.

The OED defines “the unconscious” used in the psychological sense as “that part of the mind which is inaccessible to the consciousness; spec. an aspect of the mind containing material repressed from and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from 1818 lecture notes by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “As in every work of Art the Conscious, is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it … so is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.”

The OED defines “the subconscious” as “an aspect of the mind containing material not immediately available to the consciousness,” specifically “that containing material of which a person is not currently aware, but which can readily be brought back into the consciousness” or “that containing material repressed from, and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The first clearcut Oxford citation is from a July 1878 issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “We are at each successive moment elevating one impression or group of impressions after another into clear consciousness, while the rest fall back into the dim regions of the sub-conscious.”

“Although Freud used the term subconscious (Unterbewusstsein) in his early writings, he later rejected it in favour of the less ambiguous terms preconscious (Vorbewusstsein) and unconscious (Unbewusstsein),” the OED explains.

But in 1920, the dictionary notes, Freud replaced those terms “with his system of idego, and superego,” and “subconscious is not therefore used as a technical term in psychoanalysis.”

“In Psychology more generally subconscious is sometimes used as a synonym for preconscious, but the latter term is preferred in more precise or technical writing,” the OED adds.

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Watkins, catkins, and other kin

Q: Is the “kin” in words like “pumpkin,” “catkin,” and “Watkins” related to the “kin” that are your relatives? I’m guessing it’s not.

A: You’re right. The noun “kin” that means your relatives is no relation to the suffix we see in words like “catkin.”

The noun “kin” has conveyed the same general notion—roughly, a group of connected people—for about 1,200 years. But the suffix “-kin” is a diminutive that came into English some 400 years later.

The earlier “kin” was first recorded in Old English around the year 825 in the sense of a group “descended from a common ancestor,” as well as a people, a nation, or a tribe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

By as early as 875 “kin” was used in writing to mean what it chiefly does today—“the group of persons who are related to one; one’s kindred, kinsfolk, or relatives, collectively.”

Ultimately, however, “kin” comes from an ancient prehistoric root meaning knowledge or kind.

The Indo-European root gn– or gno-, which gave Greek the word gnosis (knowledge), is also the source, through proto-Germanic, of “kin” as well as “kith” (which originally meant friends and neighbors), “kind” (the noun), “know,” “knowledge,” “ken,” “cunning,” and others.

(As we wrote in 2011, some other descendants of this prehistoric root came into English through Latin and Greek: notice, notion, cognition, recognize, ignore, noble, gnostic, diagnosis, narrate, normal, and many more.)

As for the other “-kin,” which conveys the notion of smallness, we haven’t found any etymological explanations for it.

But it does correspond to diminutive suffixes in the historical as well as modern Dutch and German languages: –kijn, –ken, kîn, chîn, and chen. Oxford mentions the modern German nouns kindchen (little child) and häuschen (little house).

This “-kin” didn’t come into English right away. As the OED remarks, “No trace of the suffix is found in Old English.”

Instead, it began cropping up in the mid-13th century in men’s nicknames, which the OED says “were either adoptions or imitations of diminutive forms current in Flanders and Holland.”

Thus first names like “Jankin” (an affectionate diminutive of John), “Watkin” (a pet name for Walter), and “Wilkin” (a familiar form of Will or William) began appearing in Middle English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Other such pet names, spelled a variety of ways, included “Perkin” (a diminutive of Per or Peter), “Filkin” (for Philip), “Simkin” (for Simon), “Timkin” (for Timothy), “Dawkin” (for David), and “Hawkin” (perhaps a diminutive of Hugh or Henry).

As first names for men, these “seem to have mostly gone out of fashion shortly after 1400,” the OED says. But most of them “survived as surnames, usually with the addition of -s or -son, as JenkinsWatkinsWilkinsonDickensDickinson, etc.”

So while the suffix hasn’t been used much to form nouns in English, it’s still alive in the names of countless people.

The few diminutive common nouns that end in “-kin” may have been influenced by the personal names, Oxford suggests.

These diminutive forms, and the dates they were first recorded, include “napkin” (1384-85), “bodkin” (a small dagger, 1386), and “firkin” (a small cask, 1423).

As for “catkin” (1578), it’s a genuine diminutive but it wasn’t formed in English. It was taken from katteken, Dutch for a little cat as well as a catkin (one of the fuzzy things hanging from willows, birches, and other trees).

However, there’s nothing diminutive about the big orange squash that we call a “pumpkin,” though the OED says the spelling was influenced by the “-kin” suffix in other words.

The spelling “pumpkin” was first recorded in 1647. Before that, the vegetable was referred to as a “pompion” (1526) or “pumpion” (1599). The word had been adopted from pompom, Middle French for a melon or squash.

Perhaps English speakers found the “pumpkin” spelling more natural, since they were already familiar with the “-kin” ending in such words as “jerkin” (the garment, 1519); “bumpkin” (1570); “pipkin” (drinking vessel, 1554), and “gherkin” (the pickle, 1661).

We can’t close without mentioning a much later, genuine diminutive—“Munchkin,” which L. Frank Baum invented for the little people in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

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Does “concertize” sound odd?

Q: In an NPR piece, the owner of a violin business in Chicago plays a Stradivarius violin worth millions and says, “Joshua Bell has concertized with it on three occasions.” Turning the noun “concert” into a really odd-sounding verb stopped me. Is this just a classic case of trying to use fewer words by inventing an unusual term?

A: Is the verb “concertize” legit?

Well, the US and UK versions of Oxford Dictionaries online describe it as a North American usage—that is, seen in the US and Canada, but not in the UK.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary (a different entity) says “concertize” first showed up in a British publication and has appeared in print in both the US and the UK for more than a century and a half.

(Oxford Dictionaries is a standard, or general, dictionary that focuses on the current meaning of words while the OED is a historical dictionary that chronicles the evolution of words.)

Despite the history, “concertize” seems to be more at home now in the US than in the UK. Only two of the four British standard dictionaries we searched include the word, while all four American dictionaries searched have entries for it.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the largest current American dictionary, describes “concertize” as an intransitive verb (one without an object) that showed up in the 1840s.

Merriam-Webster, the updated online version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, gives this contemporary example from Consumer Reports: “only 20 years old, yet he has been concertizing … for about a half a dozen years.”

The OED has citations for the word used intransitively (“to sing or play in concert; to perform in concerts”) as well as transitively (“to adapt or make suitable for concert performance”).

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which uses the verb intransitively, is from a March 1840 issue of the Theatrical Journal in London: “Which will take us into May, which month we shall very probably end by concertizing somewhere.”

And here’s an example from the Feb. 21, 1888, issue of the Pall Mall Gazette in London: “ ‘I cannot concertize any more. I am tired.’ So says little Hofmann.”

The dictionary’s most recent intransitive citation is from the September 1998 issue of the Strad, a British classical music magazine focusing on stringed instruments:

“I bought a Joseph Curtin violin in 1995 and concertized on it for two years.”

Four of the dictionary’s six intransitive examples are from British sources, but all four transitive examples are from American publications.

The OED’earliest transitive citation is from the Jan. 8, 1859, issue of the New York Musical Review and Gazette:

“A trained choir may so operatize, and dramatize, and concertize the closing hymn … as to divert the attention wholly from the hymn.”

This one is from A History of Jazz in America (1952), by Barry Ulanov: “The Rhapsody in Blue … represented the most serious attempt to concertize jazz.”

The most recent transitive example is from Zimbabwe Dance, a 2000 book by Kariamu Welsh Asante: “Newly liberated African nations began to concertize the dance.”

The verb “concertize” is derived from the much older noun “concert,” which the OED says meant “agreement or harmony between things” when it showed up in the 16th century.

The dictionary’s first citation is from The Historie of Man (1578), by John Banister: “An orderly consert of Ueynes [veins], and Arteries.”

By 1600, according to the dictionary, it was being used in the musical sense of “a harmonious combination of sounds produced by a number of performers singing or playing together.”

And in the late 1600s, “concert” took on its modern sense of “a (usually public) musical performance, typically consisting of a series of separate songs or pieces.”

The OED’s first example is from a 1689 issue of the London Gazette: “The Concerts of Musick that were held in Bow-street and in York-Buildings, are now joyn’d together.”

We’ll end with this June 8, 2016, example that we found on Vanity Fair’s website: “Beyoncé Sneezed During a Concert, and Fans Lost Their Minds.”

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When a contraction won’t do

Q: I’m a non-native English speaker from Hong Kong. I read the following online: “Had I not had you in my life, I would not be who I’m today.” Is it correct? Wouldn’t it be better to begin with “If I had not had you in my life”?

A: The problem with that sentence is at the end, not the beginning.

So let’s start with the last part of the sentence (“… I would not be who I’m today”).

The contraction here isn’t idiomatic. The author should have written “who I am today.”

A native English speaker would hear what’s wrong. Spoken aloud, the contraction “I’m” is weak in that position because the important part, the verb, is swallowed up.

A weakened verb is all right if it leads to something stronger—say, another verb, as in a construction like “that’s where I’m going.”

But a contracted verb isn’t idiomatic when it’s the star attraction, which is why we say, “that’s where I am [not I’m] now.”

This is the reason why contractions of subject and verb—like “I’ve,” “he’s,” “they’ll,” “Jane’s,” and so on—generally appear toward the beginning rather the end of a sentence or clause.

We don’t say, “Yes, I’ve.” Or, “That’s what he’s.” Or, “They insist they’ll.” Or, “Bob’s not going but Jane’s.”

In those cases we use uncontracted forms: “I have” … “he is” … “they will” … “Jane is.”

There are exceptions of course, as when the final word is a strong adverb like “not” (‘Harry’s going, but I’m not.”)

And the contraction can go last if the subject isn’t part of it. This often happens with negative contractions:

“No, I haven’t” … “That’s one thing he isn’t” … “They insist they won’t” … “Bob’s going but Jane isn’t.”

Ultimately, this is a matter of phonology and how things “sound”—even when our English is written, not spoken.

Now let’s return to the first part of the sentence you asked about (“Had I not had you in my life …”).

There’s nothing wrong with that, though “If I had not had you in my life” is a more common way of saying the same thing.

The past perfect tense (as in “had had”) is often used, with or without “if,” to express a supposition, as we wrote at greater length in a post last year.

So “had I had breakfast,” for example, is comparable to “if I had had breakfast.”

This is easier to see with other verbs, since “have” uses forms of itself in the compound tenses and we get those confusing “had had” pileups.

Using the past perfect of “go” as an example, “had I gone there” is a slightly more literary way of saying “if I had gone there.”

Similarly, “had I seen him” is another way of expressing “if I had seen him,” and “had I known that” is a different version of “if I had known that.”

In the “had I gone” and “had I seen” and “had I known” forms, the subject and verb are reversed and there’s no “if.”

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Ye olde bookshoppe

Q: I assume that shopkeepers who refer to their shops as “shoppes” are trying to add a patina of Old English tradition to their establishments. But was “shop” really spelled “shoppe” in Anglo-Saxon times?

A: No, the Old English word was “sceoppa,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it was rarely used.

In fact, it showed up in writing only once, the OED says, in an Old English version of the Gospel of Luke, where the term referred to the temple treasury where visitors left their gifts.

In Middle English (roughly 1100-1400), the word was spelled many different ways, including “ssoppe,” “schopp,” “shope,” “shoppe,” “schoop,” “shoope,” and “shop.”

The earliest example in the OED is a 1297 entry from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history:

“Þe bowiares ssoppe hii breke & þe bowes nome echon” (“They broke into the bow maker’s shop and took all the bows”).

The OED defines “shop” here as a “house or building where goods are made or prepared for sale and sold.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the “shoppe” spelling is from “The Cook’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“He loued bet the Tauerne than the shoppe” (“He loved the tavern more than the shop”).

A survey of the OED’s citations suggests that “shop” has been the most popular spelling over the years, from the Middle Ages until modern times.

The use of “shoppe” that you’re asking about is a relatively recent phenomenon that the dictionary defines as “an archaic form of shop n. now used affectedly (as in the names of tea-shops, etc.) to suggest quaint, old-world charm.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say “shoppe” is pronounced th same as “shop,” but the OED, a historical dictionary, says it can also be pronounced as if it were spelled “shoppee.”

The OED’s earliest example for this quaint usage is from Ghastly Good Taste: Or, a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, a 1933 book by the poet John Betjeman, a preservationist who helped save the St Pancras railway station in London:

“Arts and Crafts. Gentle folk weaving and spinning; Modern Church Furnishing; Old Tea Shoppes.”

But the affectation had attracted comment earlier. [See the update at the end of this post.] For example, we found this anonymous plaint in a 1925 issue of the Inland Printer, an American typesetters’ journal:

“Shoppe! Radio shoppe and beauty shoppe, candy shoppe and music shoppe, barber shoppe and bobber shoppe, men’s shoppe and women’s shoppe — shoppe, shoppe, shoppe! My stars, the pain! Who started this shoppey business?”

And in 1926 the “shoppe” trend was satirized by a poet in the Saturday Evening Post:

“Ye gods! Where’er I move or stoppe / I see a sign that marks a Shoppe — / A Beautie Shoppe, a Shoppe for food, / A Booke Shoppe, for the reading mood, / A Notion Shoppe, a Shoppe for gowns, / A Mappe Shoppe — guides for roads and towns.”

As for “olde,” the OED has an entry for its modern use “as an archaism, originally commercially, later also freq. ironically, for old” and “sometimes with other words spelt archaistically, as Olde English(e).”

The first example—from the March 1852 issue of the United States Democratic Review, a political and literary journal—comments on “the character of ‘the old fogy,’ or ‘ye olde fogie,’ as he at present exists.”

The OED doesn’t have an entry for the similar use of “ye,” but Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity) defines it as a “pseudo-archaic term for the, and gives this example: Ye Olde Bookshoppe.”

“Pseudo” is right! Although “ye” was one of four old forms of the pronoun “you,” it was not an old form of the article “the” in either Old or Middle English.

As we wrote in a 2009 post, the modern use of “ye” in quaint names of businesses is the result of a mistaken interpretation of Old English writing.

The article “the” was originally “se” in Old English, but the “s” began to be replaced in the 10th century with an old Anglo-Saxon rune called the thorn (þ), which represented a “th” sound.

This þ, resembling a “p” with both an upper and a lower stem, was replaced by “th” in the 13th century.

So where did the “y” come from? Here’s how we explain it in our olde poste:

“Over the years, the thorn’s upper stem became less pronounced as it was copied by scribes, and the letter came to resemble a backward ‘y.’

“Even after the thorn was replaced by ‘th,’ the old letter was sometimes used in abbreviations. But it wasn’t available in printer’s fonts, so printers used ‘y’ instead. Thus ‘ye’ got its undeserved reputation as a defunct Old English article.”

[Update, June 26, 2016. A reader writes: “Since you are P. G. Wodehouse fans, you’ll be pleased to discover his early uses of the humorous ‘shoppe’ and ‘ye olde.’ ” He sent along two examples that appeared in serializations of Wodehouse novels.

This one is from an episode of The Adventures of Sally that was published in Collier’s Weekly, Nov. 5, 1921. Here young Sally is in search of a way to invest a legacy:

“What she had had in view, as a matter of fact, had been one of those little fancy shops which are called Ye Blue Bird or Ye Corner Shoppe, or something like that, where you sell exotic bric-à-brac to the wealthy at extortionate prices. … Ye Corner Shoppe suddenly looked very good to her.”

And this is from an installment of A Damsel in Distress that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on June 28, 1919:

“Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who know their London, is a tea shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed—which she seems to do on the slightest provocation—she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak-Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye Snug Harbor, according to personal taste.”

As the reader notes: “It’s not surprising to find Wodehouse completely on top of fads in language usage.”]

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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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What with one thing and another

Q: What’s up with “what” in the following sentence? “What with two jobs, enormous debt and an unhappy marriage, he just could not cope.” And what part of speech does it play here?

A: What with one thing and another, we haven’t written about this age-old use of “what.” So what better time?

This construction has a folksy, contemporary sound, but it’s neither. It’s been around since the Middle Ages and appears in the most elevated writing.

Here “what” is used to introduce an adverbial phrase that starts with a preposition, and the preposition is generally “with.”

The resulting “what with,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, implies “in consequence of, on account of, as a result of,” or “in view of, considering (one thing and another).”

This use of “what” has been around since the 1100s, the OED says, although in the very earliest examples the preposition was “for,” as in this quotation from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175), a collection of Old English sermons:

“Alle we beoð in monifald wawe ine þisse wreche liue, hwat for ure eldere werkes, hwat for ure aȝene gultes” (“We are all in manifold woe in this wretched life, what for our elders’ deeds, what for our own guilts”). We’ve expanded the citation.

The “what with” construction began showing up in English writing in the 15th century, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1476 letter that John Paston wrote from Calais to his family back home in Norfolk: “I ame some-whatt crased [ill], whatwyth the see [sea] and what wythe thys dyet [diet] heere.”

In earlier uses, the “what with” is repeated with each phrase, but later it appears only once, at the head of a series. Here are a few more examples:

“What with the war; what with the sweat, what with the gallowes, and what with pouerty, I am Custom-shrunke.” (From Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, possibly written in 1603 or ’04.)

“Alas the Church of England! What with Popery on one Hand, and Schismaticks on the other; how has she been Crucify’d between two Thieves.” (From Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet The Shortest-Way With the Dissenters, 1702.)

“So that what with one thing and another, when Mustapha came to review them afterwards … he found he had lost 40000 Men.” (From David Jones’s A Compleat History of the Turks, 1718.)

“What with hunting, fishing, canoe-making, and bad weather, the progress of the august travellers was so slow.” (From Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867.)

So you can see that “what with” has been a useful and natural part of English down through the centuries.

As for the role played by “what,” the OED lists it as “adv. or conj.”

But we like the explanation in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). M-W calls this “what” an adverb introducing a prepositional phrase that “expresses cause and usually has more than one object.”

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Did you vigil for Orlando?

Q: I got an email the other day from Corey Johnson that said: “I hope to see you tonight at the Stonewall Inn as we vigil for the victims of the shooting in Orlando.” Could this be the first instance of “vigil” used as a verb? Sounds terrible to me, but who am I?

A: No, the New York City Council member did not coin the usage. The word “vigil” has occasionally been used as a verb since the late 19th century.

Although standard dictionaries don’t recognize this usage (at least not yet), the Oxford English Dictionary does.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the verb as “to keep a vigil or vigils,” but adds that the usage is “rare.”

The dictionary records only a handful of published examples, all of them poetic usages. Here they are, in order of appearance.

“So I’ve claim to ask / By what right you task / My patience by vigiling there?” (From Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Poems and Other Verses, 1898.)

“Two days and two nights has he vigiled—the doctor dozes and blinks.” (From Gilbert Frankau’s 1914 novel in verse Tid’apa.)

“We vigil by the dying fire, / talk stilled for once.” (From John Montague’s book of lyric verses A Slow Dance, 1975.) 

Obviously, examples from poetry do not suggest that “vigil” is commonly used as a verb by English speakers. But it does turn up in ordinary usage as well.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, for example, the Press-Republican, a newspaper in Plattsburgh, NY, reported that several churches “planned to vigil” in honor of the victims and their families.

A local online news outlet in Ipswich, MA, quoted an organizer as saying, “We gather to vigil on Thursday night, grounded in the fundamental premise that everybody should feel safe where they live.”

In Kansas City, MO, a television reporter interviewed a transgendered man and commented: “When crime scenes like this come on the screen, he says it’s hard to keep faith. That’s why he came to vigil with his mom hoping to renew it.”

And a Topeka, KS, television reporter said, “Topeka resident and activist Mary Akerstrom says she came to vigil to help raise awareness about the need to educate today’s youth.”

We’ve also seen “vigiling,” the present participle of the verb, in news reports and on websites (“vigiling against climate change” … “vigiling for dying patients”).

Why use “vigil” as a verb? Perhaps because no other single word fits the bill, only verb phrases: “hold a vigil,” “keep vigil,” and so on.

People are often startled when nouns become “verbed,” but this is a normal characteristic of English and it’s one that has given us countless new words.

As we’ve written before on the blog, English acquired verbs like “cook,”  “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” and “farm” by adapting them from the earlier nouns.

(This works the other way, too. We’ve made nouns from the verbs “run,” “walk,” “worry,” “call,” “attack,” and others.)

The noun “vigil” has been around since the Middle Ages, though it developed its modern sense—as in a peaceful demonstration—only about 60 years ago.

The word came into English from Anglo-Norman and Old French (vigile) around the early 13th century.

But its ultimate source, as the OED says, is Latin: the noun vigilia (wakefulness, watchfulness, or a watch), derived from the adjective vigil (awake, alert).

When first used in English, “vigil” was a term in the medieval Christian Church for “a festival or holy day, as an occasion of devotional watching or religious observance,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Ancrene Riwle, a guide for female religious recluses, believed to date from the early 1200s or possibly before:

“Ȝe schulen eten … eueriche deie twie bute uridawes and umbridawes and ȝoingdawes and uigiles.” (“You shall eat … twice each day except on Fridays and ember days and procession days and vigils.”)

This religious sense of “vigil” soon evolved into a new one, says the OED: “a devotional watching, esp. the watch kept on the eve of a festival or holy day,” as well as “a nocturnal service or devotional exercise.”

The religious meanings led to a secular usage in the 18th century, when a “vigil” came to mean “an occasion or period of keeping awake for some special reason or purpose,” in addition to “a watch kept during the natural time for sleep.”

That sense had no religious overtones and merely meant staying up late, as you can see from the OED’s citations:

“There is nothing that wears out a fine Face like the Vigils of the Card-Table.” (Joseph Addision, writing in the Guardian in July 1713.)

“With Studies pale, with Midnight Vigils blind.” (From Alexander Pope’s poem The Temple of Fame, 1715.)

“Soft airs, nocturnal vigils, and day dreams … Conspire against thy peace.” (From William Cowper’s poem Retirement, 1781.)

“He hath pursued long vigils in this tower.” (From Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, 1817.)

As we mentioned, the modern sense of “vigil” as a peaceful demonstration is relatively recent.

The OED’s first example in from an April 1956 issue of the Times (London):

“When [the South African] Parliament reassembled to-day … members found 300 black-sash women lined up in the grounds of Parliament House in renewed protest against undemocratic legislation…. A vigil of four black-sash members at a time will be maintained till the end of the session.”

The latest example is from a July 1985 issue of Peace News: “On the day of the air fair, around 40 people took part in a vigil at the main gate, giving out leaflets to incoming cars.”

Here’s the OED‘s definition for this newest sense of the word: “A stationary and peaceful demonstration in support of a particular cause, often lasting several days, which is characterized by the absence of speeches or other explicit advocacy of the cause, and freq. by some suggestion of mourning.”

That definition, drafted in 1993, could use an update.

Today’s vigils sometimes include speeches and “explicit advocacy.” And they can take place at any time. They don’t necessarily involve staying up late, though they’re often held in darkness and by candlelight.

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Why is it “went,” not “goed”?

Q: Why is “went” the past tense of “go”? I don’t see the connection. Am I missing something?

A: The connection is another verb that means to move along—the old “wend,” which we don’t often hear today.

English speakers adopted “went,” the past tense of “wend,” because they apparently felt that “go” didn’t have a satisfactory past tense of its own.

In Old English the verb gān (“go”) had a past tense that didn’t come from its own stem. The past tense was completely unrelated: ēode (in Middle English, it was yode).

Even in the West Germanic languages it came from, “go” lacked a past tense based on itself. The reasons for this aren’t known, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Some authorities have suggested that the old past tense, ēode, has a prehistoric ancestor in common with the Latin ēo (go, leave). Others have speculated about a connection between ēode and iddja, the Gothic past tense of a similar verb.

But the OED is doubtful, saying only that the Old English past tense of “go” was formed from a base that is “of uncertain and disputed origin.”

No matter how it developed, English speakers apparently weren’t comfortable with ēode (later yode) as the past tense of “go,” because over the course of the 1400s they replaced it with “went.”

This was originally the past tense of wendan (to go, proceed, make one’s way), another Old English verb inherited from Germanic. By the 15th century the verb had long since been shortened to “wend.”

Through much of the 15th and 16th centuries, “go” and “wend” shared the same past tense, “went.” Eventually “wend” developed one of its own, “wended,” at the end of the 1500s.

Today “wend” is no longer used in the sense of “go.” As the OED notes, “wend” and “wended” in modern usage “often imply an indirect or meandering course.”

In this sense, “wend” today resembles another early meaning of the verb, one that’s now lost—to turn or twist. In fact, “wend” is a distant cousin of the verbs “wind” and “wander.”

“The semantic development from ‘to turn’ to ‘to go,’ ” the OED says, “was probably via a sense ‘to turn in a particular direction in order to go.’ It is clear that already in Old English the original idea of turning could sometimes be negligible or lost entirely (a prerequisite for the later use of the past tense went as a suppletive past tense of go).”

(The word “suppletive” refers to an unrelated word that’s used to replace a missing form.)

It’s interesting to note that the verbs “go” and “do” developed along similar lines: “go,” “goes,” and “gone” are parallel to “do,” “does” and “done.”

But “do” had a reasonable past tense from the start, “did” (dyde in Old English), which at least starts with the same letter as “do.”

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Bombshells, blonde & otherwise

Q: I was on a political website when up popped a hyperlink to “25-year-old blonde bombshell.” I resisted infecting my computer, but began thinking about “bombshell.” For the first time, a search on your blog did not yield a single hit!

A: Thanks for pointing out this deficiency and giving us a chance to remedy it.

Not surprisingly, “bombshell” literally meant a bomb—a container filled with explosives—when it showed up in English in the early 1700s. Today, we’d refer to such an explosive device as a “bomb” or a “shell” (as in “artillery shell”).

The earliest example of “bombshell” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1708 issue of the London Gazette: “Kill’d … by a piece of Bomb-Shell.” (The OED says “bombshell” here means “bomb,” but we think it could also mean shrapnel.)

The word “bomb” itself showed up a few decades earlier, in a 1684 issue of the London Gazette: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece.”

As you point out, the word “bombshell” is generally used figuratively today to mean a shocking or unwelcome surprise, as well as a very attractive woman, especially a blonde.

In fact, “bombshell” has been used figuratively for more than 150 years, and only one of the OED’s nine citations (the one cited above) uses it literally.

The first figurative example in the dictionary, from the American writer John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands (1860), refers to a “letter, which descended like a bombshell, in the midst of the decorous council-chamber.”

The earliest OED example for “bombshell” used in the hottie sense is from The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark: “Blonde Bombshell (as a nickname).”

However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, has an earlier citation, from the title and screenplay of the 1933 Jean Harlow movie Bombshell: “I see Lola Burns, the bombshell herself.”

And here’s a colorful OED example from We Are Public Enemies, a 1949 book by Alan Hynd about famous American criminals: “Bonnie Parker was a rootin’, tootin’, whisky-drinking blonde bombshell.”

(“Blond” or “blonde”? We discussed this in a 2014 post.)

We’ll end with a more cerebral Oxford citation, from the Nov. 25, 1965, issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “The bombshell effects … of the intellectual and social crises of late antiquity.”

[Update, June 23, 2016:  A reader suggests that we should have used “bomb fragment” instead of “shrapnel” above, since “shrapnel” wasn’t used in that sense until Word War I. As we mentioned in a 2014 post, the original “shrapnel,” named for Henry Shrapnel, was an explosive projectile filled with bullets. However, that sense is now considered historical, according to the OED, and today the word usually refers to bomb or shell fragments.]

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A lexical epidemic

Q: Why has “epidemic” become so widespread? I understand its metaphorical use (“an epidemic of Elvis impersonators in Vegas”), but now all sorts of medical “conditions” are being termed epidemics—obesity, drug abuse, even chronic pain.

A: The word “epidemic” is used so often to describe so many things that it’s lost much of its force.

The news is full of “epidemics” of football injuries, drug overdoses, mortgage fraud, accidental shootings, narcissism, loneliness, and cellphone thumb.

But to be fair, the word was never very specific, even in its medical sense. So while “epidemic”—both adjective and noun—is undoubtedly overused and suffering from exhaustion, it’s not being misused.

When “epidemic” entered English as an adjective in the early 17th century, it had a strictly medical meaning, but figurative uses soon appeared.

A disease was “epidemic,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, if it was “prevalent among a people or a community at a special time, and produced by some special causes not generally present in the affected locality.”

(The OED takes its definition from The New Sydenham Society’s Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences, 1879.)

The OED says the adjective was first recorded in 1603, as “epidemick” and “epidemich,” in A Treatise of the Plague, by Thomas Lodge, an Elizabethan physician:

Popular and Epidemich, haue one and the same signification; that is to say, a sicknesse common vnto all people, or to the moste part of them.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The adjective was borrowed from the French épidémique, which in turn was derived from the French noun form, épidémie.

English had long had a noun form “epidemy,” borrowed from French in the late 1400s, but it was replaced by the modern noun “epidemic” in the late 1700s.

The French took the noun from the late Latin word epidemia, which came from the ancient Greek epidemios, whose roots are epi– (among, upon) and demos (people).

Interestingly, the Greeks didn’t originally use epidemios in a medical sense. It first meant something like “in one’s country” or “among one’s people.”

In the Odyssey, probably composed near the end of the 8th century BC, Homer used epidemios to mean “who is back home” and “who is in his country,” according to two French scholars, Paul M. V. Martin and Estelle Martin-Granel.

In their essay “2,500-Year Evolution of the Term Epidemic,” published in 2006 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the authors note that Plato, Xenophon, Demosthenes, and Socrates later used epidemios “for almost everything (persons, rain, rumors, war), except diseases.”

The physician Hippocrates, writing in the 5th century BC, was the first to adapt it as a medical term, according to the essay. He used the adjective “to mean ‘which circulates or propagates in a country.’ This adjective gave rise to the noun in Greek, epidemia.”

Since the mid-20th century, the authors write, the English word “epidemic” has been applied to both infectious and noninfectious diseases that affect “a large number of people.”

And it’s also used by journalists, according to the essay, “to qualify anything that adversely affects a large number of persons or objects and propagates like a disease.”

But this use of “epidemic” is nothing new. The OED’s examples of figurative uses date from the mid-17th century, beginning with “the Epidemicke trouble of our age” (from Edmund Waller’s A Vindication of the King, 1642).

And here’s another early example, from Nicholas Rowe’s tragic drama The Fair Penitent (1703): “Some Foe to Man / Has breath’d on ev’ry Breast Contagious Fury, / And Epidemick Madness.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The OED also has early examples for the figurative use of the noun, including this one from Sir Benjamin Brodie’s Psychological Inquiries (1856): “There are epidemics of opinion as well as of disease.”

And as we all know, there are lexical epidemics as well.

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A hole that swallows things

Q: Soon after we had a sinkhole fixed on our street in Grand Rapids, an author friend asked for help on Facebook about the origins of the term. Some people thought it was a US version of the UK term “swallow hole.” Bring in the scholars.

A: This is a timely question for us, since we’ve just updated the sinkhole coverage in our home insurance policy.

Is “sinkhole” an Americanism? No, it dates back to an abbey in northwest England in the mid-1400s, and it’s the usual term today in both the US and the UK for that hole in the ground.

Several other terms, including “swallow hole,” “swallow pit,” and “swallow,” have shown up over the years, especially in the UK.

Why “swallow”? Because the word meant a gulf or an abyss in late Old English, where it was spelled geswelswelg, or swell.

Similar words in other old Germanic languages referred to a throat, a swallower, a devourer, a glutton, and a whirlpool—in other words, someone or something that swallows stuff.

All six of the standard American and British dictionaries we’ve checked have entries for “sinkhole,” but only one has an entry for “swallow hole,” and none include “swallow pit” or “swallow” used in this sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary, includes all four terms, and hyphenates “sink-hole.” However, none of the standard dictionaries use hyphens.

Searches of book and news databases indicate that “sinkhole” is overwhelmingly more popular than “swallow hole.” In searching the archive for the UK edition of the Guardian, for example, we got thousands of hits for “sinkhole” and only two for “swallow hole.”

When the term “sinkhole” showed up in the 15th century, according to the OED, it meant “a hole or hollow into which foul matter runs or is thrown.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1456 document in the Chartulary of Cockersand Abbey, a collection of papers about the abbey’s founding and legal rights:

“Following the said strind [stream] to the Sinkehole, and fro Sinkeholl ye water running one while aboue the Earth and other while under ye Erth, into the Black polles [pools].” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

By the late 18th century, the OED says, the term was being used in the modern sense of a “hole, cavern, or funnel-shaped cavity made in the earth by the action of water on the soil, rock, or underlying strata, and frequently forming the course of an underground stream.”

The earliest example is from a March 20, 1780, diary entry in Travels in the American Colonies, a collection of 18th-century journals edited by Newton Dennison Mereness:

“Springs … appear again either in Sink holes immediately vanishing or bursting out.”

Oxford describes the newer usage as “chiefly U.S.,” but notes that its “entry has not been fully updated (first published 1911).”

As for “swallow hole,” the OED’s first citation is from Britannia Baconica (1660), by Joshua Childrey, who used the Baconian method to study scientific curiosities in Britain:

“About Badminton also are several holes (called Swallow-holes) where the Waters … fall into the bowels of the earth, and are seen no more.”

The OED doesn’t define “swallow hole” but says it’s derived from the now-obsolete Old English use of “swallow” to mean “a deep hole or opening in the earth; a pit, gulf, abyss.”

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Mixed feelings

Q: People seem to use “ambivalent” to mean not feel strongly about something, as in “I’m ambivalent about spinach.” But I was taught that it meant having strong feelings both for and against something, as in “I’m ambivalent about riding horses—I like riding but I hate saddle sores.” Can you shed some light?

A: The adjective “ambivalent” and the noun it came from, “ambivalence,” were borrowed a century ago from German psychiatric terminology.

But over the years, as the words moved into literary and general usage, they outgrew their original meanings. So it’s no surprise that the meanings are now often less than clear.

Today, someone who’s “ambivalent” can either (1) have conflicting or uncertain feelings about a single thing; or (2) be uncertain about choosing between two conflicting things. Those, more or less, are the meanings recognized in standard dictionaries.

We’ve noticed that people occasionally use “ambivalent” when they mean they don’t care. But if they simply lack interest in a subject—say, spinach—then we would call them “indifferent,” not “ambivalent.”

Your example about horseback riding falls under meaning No. 1, since it involves conflicting attitudes toward a single subject.

An illustration of meaning No. 2 would be indecision about choosing between two opposing things—like using an English versus a Western-style saddle.

The noun “ambivalence” (or “ambivalency” in early usage), came into English before the adjective.

As a psychological term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ambivalence” originally meant “the coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (as love and hatred) towards a person or thing.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from the December 1912 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:

“ ‘Ambivalency,’ a condition which gives to the same idea two contrary feeling-tones and invests the same thought simultaneously with both a positive and a negative character.”

But “in literary and general works,” the OED says, “ambivalence” has taken on diverse meanings, including “a balance or combination or coexistence of opposites,” and “oscillation, fluctuation, variability.”

Here’s one example of these wider (and vaguer) meanings, which Oxford quotes from a 1953 issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

“What social anthropologists call ‘plural belonging,’ what literary critics call ambivalence of attitude, and what the proverb calls having your cake and eating it, is a common human phenomenon.”

The adjective “ambivalent” has had a similar evolution.

It meant “entertaining contradictory emotions (as love and hatred) towards the same person or thing” when first recorded in English in a 1916 translation from a paper on analytical psychology by Carl Jung, according to the OED.

But “ambivalent” has also came to mean “equivocal,” or “acting on or arguing for sometimes one and sometimes the other of two opposites,” Oxford says.

Here are OED citations that exemplify both uses of “ambivalent.” The first illustrates conflicting feelings about one thing, the next a hesitation between two conflicting things:

“A second case where the falsehoods were … the result of ambivalent desire for and fear of the erotic life.” (From Phyllis M. Blanchard’s book The Adolescent Girl: A Study From the Psychoanalytic Viewpoint, first published in 1920.)

“Our deeper urges are strangely ambivalent, ready to spend themselves on love or hate, altruism or destruction.” (From a 1955 issue of the Listener, the former BBC magazine.)

As we mentioned, the source of these English words is German: the noun ambivalenz. It was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and first appeared in a long essay of his, published in the journal Psychiatrisch-Neurologisch Wochenschrift in 1910-11.

Bleuler formed ambivalenz from Latin elements, the prefix ambi– (around, both, or in two ways) and valentia (power, strength).

The new word was modeled, according to the OED, after “equivalence,” which has the etymological sense “equal in value or strength.”

It was Bleuler, by the way, who redefined the mental illness “dementia praecox” and renamed it schizophrenie (“schizophrenia”) in 1908.

He also coined the term autismus (“autism”) in 1910, but early on it had a different meaning (self-absorption) than it does in modern medicine.

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When “it” isn’t fit

Q: If I start a plant indoors and then move it outside, I can say either “I will harden off the plant” or “I will harden the plant off.” But if I use a pronoun, I can only say “I will harden it off,” not “I will harden off it.” What’s going on here?

A: Your question illustrates a characteristic of many phrasal verbs. By “phrasal verbs” we mean those consisting of a verb plus an adverb (like “bring in”), a preposition (“jump over”), or both (“watch out for”).

The phrasal verb in your example, “harden off,” is one of the verb-plus-adverb kind, a very common type that includes “bring up,” “give up,” “look up,” “hand out,” “take off,” “sort out,” “put on,” “put away,” and many others.

When this kind of phrasal verb has an object, and the object is a noun, the noun can go either in the middle of the phrase (“harden the seedlings off”) or at the end (“harden off the seedlings”).

But if the object is a personal pronoun, it has to go in the middle (“harden them off”), not at the end (“harden off them”).

You can see how this works with similar phrasal verbs. The first three versions are acceptable, the fourth is not idiomatic English:

“Bring in the mail” … “Bring the mail in” … “Bring it in.” But not: “Bring in it.”

“Put out the cat” … “Put the cat out” … “Put her out.” But not: “Put out her.”

“Give up desserts” … “Give desserts up” … “Give them up.” But not: “Give up them.”

(We should add that while personal pronouns can’t go at the end, demonstrative pronouns can: “this,” “that,” “these,” “those.” Nobody blinks when we say things like “Did you harden off those?” or “Please hand out these.”)

Here you may be wondering why the little words in those phrasal verbs (“in,” “out,” “up,” and so on) are adverbs and not prepositions. (Many linguists would call them “adverb particles” or simply “particles.”) Here’s why they aren’t prepositions in these usages.

In sentences like “Bring in the mail” and “Put out the cat” and “Give up desserts,” it’s obvious that “in the mail,” “out the cat,” and “up desserts” are not prepositional phrases.

On the contrary, each of those little words modifies a verb (“bring in,” “put out,” “give up”). And the objects (“the mail,” “the cat,” “desserts”) are objects of a verb, not objects of a preposition.

However, the kind of phrasal verb that consists of a verb plus a preposition behaves differently. (Many linguists would call this construction a prepositional verb to distinguish it from the verb-plus-adverb type.)

Examples of the verb-plus-preposition variety include “look through,” “listen to,” “jump off,” “go around,” “look for,” and others.

This kind of phrasal verb can’t be split by an object. When there’s an object—whether noun or pronoun—it goes afterward.

In this case, the addition of an object (as in “Jump off the bridge” … “Go around the pothole”) creates a prepositional phrase (“off the bridge” … “around the pothole”).

Finally, the third kind of phrasal verb combines the other two—verb plus adverb plus preposition. (This one is sometimes called a “phrasal prepositional verb.”)

Examples include “sit in for,” “put up with,” “watch out for,” “look forward to,” “get on with,” and “bear down on.”

With most of these three-part phrasal verbs, the object, whether noun or pronoun, follows the entire phrase: “A guest host sat in for Dr. Phil” … “He can’t put up with her.”

But a few of these three-part constructions, like “take out on,” “let in on,” and “fix up with,” have two objects, one after the verb part and one after the preposition:

“Take it out on him” … “Fix the couple up with an apartment” … “Let Harry in on the secret.” Again, the objects can be nouns or pronouns.

So that’s the story with phrasal verbs and how they work with objects.

But getting back to “harden off,” it’s a term that dates from the early 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the OED’s definition, to “harden off” means “to acclimatize (a plant) to cold or outdoor conditions by gradually reducing the temperature of a greenhouse, cold frame, etc., or by increasing the time of exposure to wind and sunlight.”

This phrasal verb is also used without an object (that is, intransitively). Here it means “to become acclimatized through this process.”

So you can say either “I’ve hardened off the plant,” or “The plant has hardened off.”

The verb was first used in writing, the OED says, in Robert Sweet’s book The British Flower Garden (1827):

“When rooted, the glass should be removed from them altogether, to harden them off for transplanting.” Here the verb is used transitively, with the object (“them”) inserted within the phrasal verb.

In the next citation, the phrasal verb has no object. This is from Edward Sayers’s book The American Fruit Garden Companion (1839): “As the weather grows warm … the plants should be placed into a separate frame to harden off.”

Happy gardening!

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