The Grammarphobia Blog

A conspiracy or an intrigue?

Q: In a New Yorker story, Isaac Bashevis Singer writes, “Morris Krakower is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here.” I’ve googled and thesaurused, but I’m apparently too dense to get the distinction. I’m hoping you will clarify it for me.

A: The story, “Inventions,” describes a visit by Krakower, a representative of the Communist International, to Warsaw in the 1930s to address a leftist conference on world peace.

In his speech, Krakower defends Stalinism and “proclaims that only the dictatorship of the proletariat can insure peace.”

Although the Polish police have spies in the audience, Krakower isn’t concerned about secrecy. “A few weeks of prison,” he thinks, “can only enhance the prestige of a Party worker.”

So what does Singer mean when he writes that Comrade Krakower “is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here”?

We suspect he means that Krakower doesn’t have to resort to convoluted skullduggery to keep his work for the Communist Party secret.

Of course Singer, who died in 1991, was writing in Yiddish, not English. The translator of his story, Aliza Shevrin, is responsible for the English wording.

But is there really a distinction between “conspiracy” and “intrigue”? Not much, as far as we can see, at least not when the two words are used in the cloak-and-dagger sense.

Standard dictionaries generally define “conspiracy” as a secret plan by two or more people to do something illegal or harmful. And the dictionaries define “intrigue” as a secret plot or scheme.

About the only difference we can see is that it takes at least two people to conspire, but only one to intrigue.

When English adapted “conspiracy” from the Latin conspiratio in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word meant pretty much what it does today—a “combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose.”

The OED’s earliest citation, from “The Monk’s Tale” (circa 1386) by Chaucer, says Brutus and Cassius “Ful privately hath made conspiracie / Agains this Julius in subtil wise.”

When English borrowed “intrigue” from French in the mid-17th century, it referred to “intricacy, complexity; a complicated contrivance; a maze, a labyrinth,” according to Oxford, though that sense is now obsolete.

Before the century was over, the dictionary says, the English term took on the contemporary sense of “underhand plotting or scheming.”

Here’s an early example from The Usurper, a 1668 play by Edward Howard: “Intregue (the true Soul and Genius of the Stage).”

And here’s another, from a 1692 English translation of an essay by the French writer Charles de Saint-Évremond: “He was made Cardinal by Intrigues, Factions, and Tumults.”

Around the same time, “intrigue” took on its sense of “clandestine illicit intimacy between a man and a woman; a liaison,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage is from The Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons (1668), by Walter Charleton: “She in like manner falls into an Intrigue (as they nowadays call it).”

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If only …

Q: I’m confused about the tense of verbs in “if only” sentences. For example: “The world would be better if only people would understand each other.” Does this sound OK to you?

A: The phrase “if only” is used in this hypothetical way “to express a strong wish that things could be different,” according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

When used to discuss a wish about the present, Cambridge says, the “if only” part of the sentence should be in the past tense.

So your example, according to the dictionary, should read: “The world would be better if only people understood each other.”

When used to discuss a wish about the past, Cambridge says, the “if only” part should be in the past perfect.

Example: “The world would have been better if only people had understood each other.”

And to discuss a wish about the future or to contrast how things are with how we’d like them to be, the “if only” part should be in the conditional.

Example: “The world could be a better place if only people would understand each other.”

We’ll add that in the US, “if only” is used with the subjunctive to express a wish about the present. However, this is obvious only when the verb is “be.”

Example: “If only the world were better, people would understand each other.” (In Britain, where the subjunctive is on the decline, “was” would generally be used.)

The Cambridge entry for “if only” is borrowed from English Grammar Today, a Cambridge University Press guide written by Ronald Carter, Michael McCarthy, Geraldine Mark, and Anne O’Keeffe.

The online Oxford Dictionaries defines this wishful use of “if only” somewhat differently (the example expresses a wish about the past): “Used to express a wish, especially regretfully: if only I had listened to you.”

Oxford gives this example of “if only” used in a more complex construction: “Most salmon anglers have a wish list of places they would love to fish if only they could afford it.”

Oxford notes that the phrase “if only” has an additional meaning: “Even if for no other reason than: Willy would have to tell George more, if only to keep him from pestering.”

The dictionary has several other examples of the usage, including this one about Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and the poet Philip Larkin:

“It has also prompted me to get Lucky Jim out of the library if only for the shallow reason that Larkin is the dedicatee.”

Finally, an “if” sentence never needs more than one “would,” as in this common error: “If I would have shown him, he would have believed me.” We wrote a post a few years ago about how to juggle two different tenses in one “if” sentence.

In short, here’s the drill:

(1) When the first verb is in the simple present, the second is in the simple future: “If I show him, he will believe me.”

(2) When the first verb is in the simple past, the second is in the simple conditional: “If I showed him, he would believe me.”

(3) When the first verb is in the past perfect, the second is in the conditional perfect: “If I had shown him, he would have believed me.”

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“Accede” vs. “concede”

Q: We have been thinking about the difference between “accede” and “concede.” Can you concede something without acceding to it? Or vice versa? Thanks for any help/guidance you can provide.

A: Both of these verbs express a kind of giving in or acquiescence. The difference is that “concede” has an element of defeat, while “accede” implies a more ready acceptance.

Standard dictionaries define “concede” as to yield, surrender, or admit defeat, or to acknowledge—perhaps grudgingly—that something is true.

And they define “accede” as to give consent or approval, or to agree to a request or demand.

(We’re summarizing the modern definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)

So yes, it’s possible to “concede” without “acceding,” because the verbs represent different levels of acquiescence. You might reluctantly agree to something without approving of it.

The truth is that few people use “accede” in ordinary English. “Concede” is much more common. Instead of “accede,” a speaker or writer is more likely to use a common synonym—agree with, approve of, or consent to.

On the surface, it would appear that the two words were derived from “cede,” but in fact neither of them were.

It’s true that at the heart of all three English words is the Latin cedere, a verb that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to go away, give way, yield.”

But “accede” predated “cede” by a couple of centuries, while “concede” appeared on the scene around the same time as “cede” or a bit earlier.

What’s more, the prefixes (“con-” and “ac-”) are no help in figuring out the different meanings of “accede” and “concede,” so the words are easy to confuse.

“Accede” came into English from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French verb acceder, meaning to approach, accept, or agree to.

That verb’s counterpart in classical Latin, accedere, had several meanings, Oxford explains, including “to go or come (to), draw near, approach, to enter, to resort (to), to attach oneself, join, to agree, assent.”

The Latin suffix ac- (“to” or “toward”) was a variant of ad- that was used before certain letters.

It’s difficult to say just how old “accede” is in English writing. The OED says it could date back to 1425 or even earlier.

But the first definite citation, Oxford says, was recorded in 1465, when the verb meant “to come forward, approach, or arrive (at a place or state).”

Another early meaning of “accede” was to join with or give support. But those early senses of the word are long dead.

The meaning of “accede” that’s still with us, a sense first recorded in 1534, is “to assent, agree, give way,” according to Oxford.

A later meaning, to come into office or assume a position, came along in the mid-1700s and is often used in reference to royalty, as when a monarch “accedes” to the throne. (We also refer to a king or queen’s “accession.”)

Now for the latecomers, “cede” and “concede,” which came into English in the 17th century.

“Cede” first appeared in 1633, the OED says, a borrowing either from French or (more directly) from Latin.

Originally, “cede” meant “to give way, give place, yield to”—as in “a servant cedes to his master.”

But that early meaning is now obsolete, Oxford says, and since the 1750s to “cede” has meant “to give up, grant; to yield, surrender: esp. to give up a portion of territory.”

The modern sense of the word first appeared in the travel writings of Alexander Drummond in 1754: “That honour was entirely ceded to the Parthian royal race.”

“Concede” was first recorded in 1632, so it and “cede” showed up at virtually the same time.

“Concede” came either from the French conceder or directly from the Latin concedere, which Oxford defines as “to withdraw, give way, yield, grant, etc.”

The essential meaning of “concede” was—and still is—“to grant, yield, or surrender” something like a right or a privilege, Oxford explains. (Here the prefix “con-” means “altogether.”)

In the 1640s, according to the OED, a new sense of “concede” was recorded: “to admit, allow, grant (a proposition), to acknowledge the truth, justice, or propriety of (a statement, claim, etc.).”

For example, in an argument a speaker might “concede” a point or “concede” that a statement is true.

The “concede” that means to admit defeat in an election was first recorded in 1824, when a Kentucky newspaper, the Commentator, reported:  “This state is generally conceded to General Jackson.”

And of course when a candidate  “concedes,” a “concession” speech is not far behind.

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Beside yourself? Where’s that?

Q: I’ve been wondering about the origin of the phrase “beside myself.” Any idea where it comes from? And where am I when I’m beside myself?

A: The earliest example of “beside oneself” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1490 translation by William Caxton of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Mad and beside herself.”

The OED defines the phrase as “out of one’s wits, out of one’s senses,” and compares it to expressions in French (hors de soi) and German (ausser sich) that mean the same thing.

Here’s a 1611 example from Acts 26:24 in the King James Bible: “Festus saide with a lowd voyce, Paul, thou art beside thy selfe, much learning doeth make thee mad.”

And this example is in More Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, an 1884 collection from Queen Victoria’s journals: “I felt quite beside myself for joy and gratitude.”

The preposition “beside” literally meant “by the side of” when it showed up in Middle English in the late 1200s. By the late 1300s, it had taken on the sense of “outside of.”

So someone who’s “beside himself” is “outside himself”—that is, “out of his mind.”

In fact, the expression “beside oneself” showed up around the same time as “out of one’s mind,” which the OED defines as “having lost control of one’s mental faculties; insane, deranged, delirious.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “out of one’s mind” is from Polychronicon (c. 1342), a chronicle of history and theology written in Latin by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden and posthumously translated into Middle English in 1387: “And fil anon out of his mynde.”

Oxford notes that the expression is now used in the “weakened” slang sense of “stoned (also bombed, pissed, etc.),” as well as “stupefied, extremely intoxicated, or incapacitated by drink or drugs,” and “bored out of one’s mind.”

Here are a few OED citations for the newer senses:

“He was bombed out of his mind,” New York Times Magazine, Aug. 23, 1964.

“He would only be taken in charge if he was drunk: were he to spend his ten shillings on getting stoned out of his mind the police would happily accommodate him,” the Listener, Nov. 28, 1968.

“She was bored out of her mind, she said, by winter in Glengarriff,” from Round Ireland in Low Gear (1987), by Eric Newby.

“Not when I’m pissed out of my mind,” from “Summer Girl,” a short story by John MacKenna  in The Fallen and Other Stories (1992).

Finally, we shouldn’t overlook “out of it,” an expression that meant “not involved” when it showed up in the early 1800s, the OED says, but that evolved into a 20th-century slang term meaning “confused, stupefied, or unconscious, esp. after consuming drink or drugs.”

Here’s a 1963 example from the journal American Speech: “Drunk: soused, out of it, stoned, bombed.”

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Bragging rights

Q: I often use the phrase “brag on” when I speak of praising or boasting about my friends. One of those friends feels “brag on” is too slangy. What are your thoughts?

A: Your use of “brag on” as a verb phrase meaning to praise or to boast about isn’t slang, but it’s considered an American regionalism.

In standard usage, “brag” is paired with a different preposition—“about” or “of”—and it’s usually used in the sense of boasting, not praising.

The Dictionary of American Regional English combines both senses in its definition of “brag on” as “to praise or boast about someone or something.”

Today the usage is chiefly heard in midland America, according to DARE, but in the 19th century it was also heard on the East Coast.

The dictionary has examples ranging as far back as this one from Massachusetts in 1850: “It would have been somethin’ to brag on, I know.” In that citation, “brag on” clearly means the same as “brag about” or “boast about.”

DARE also has examples from other parts of the Eastern United States, including New York, Baltimore, and South Carolina.

But most of the examples recorded since the 1940s are from farther west: Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana. All these speakers use “brag on” the way you do, meaning either to boast about or to praise.

Here are a few of the examples: “(He) brags on himself” … “He bragged on how big and how pretty my horses were” … “I bragged on all the kids and dogs and he invited me in.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “brag” as “to vaunt, talk boastfully, boast oneself,” a usage first recorded in 1377.

When “brag” is followed by a preposition, the OED says, it’s generally “about” or “of.” In earlier times, though, the prepositions “in” and “on” were occasionally used with “brag,” according to the dictionary.

The OED, which describes the use of “brag in” and “brag on” as obsolete, doesn’t mention the regional American usage.

A sense of “brag” that arose in the 17th century—meaning “to declare or assert boastfully, to boast”—doesn’t need a preposition. It’s often followed by a clause introduced by “that,” according to Oxford citations.

Here’s an early example: “The verie meanest … bragged that they had bathed their hands in the bloud of a Lutheran” (from a 1631 edition of John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments).

Before we close, we can’t resist mentioning an etymological curiosity. No one has ever figured out the origin of “brag,” which dates back to around 1300 in one form or another (it’s been an adjective, an adverb, a noun, and a verb).

French has some similar words but they weren’t recorded until the 1500s, so French probably got braguer (to brag) from English rather than vice versa.

However, as the OED notes, a couple of 16th-century English derivatives, “braggart” and “braggery,” may have been borrowed from the French bragard  and braguerie.

In case you’re tempted to suggest that the Italians got there first with braggadocio, that’s a great suggestion but it’s not true. “Braggadocio” is an English word, a mock-Italian invention of the poet Edmund Spenser.

The story, as described in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is that in The Faerie Queene (1590), Spenser combined “brag” with the Italian suffix -occhio to form the name of a character who personified boastfulness.

Spenser spelled the name “Braggadocchio,” and no doubt intended the end to be pronounced as in Italian—“kyo.” Today “braggadocio” is spelled, and pronounced, as if  it ended in “sheeo” or “sho.”

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Let there be light

Q: After reading your post about the imperative use of “let,” I have a question. What is the function of “let” in the biblical command “Let there be light”? God can’t be addressing the light, since it doesn’t exist yet. So who or what is being addressed? And what purpose does “let” serve here?

A: The English expression “Let there be light” isn’t a literal translation of the Hebrew wording in Genesis: יהי אור. A word for word translation would be “exist light” or “light will be” or some variation.

So a literal translation of the full Hebrew text of Genesis 1:3, ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי־אור, could be “And God said, ‘Light will be,’ and light was.” (We’ve added capitalization and punctuation.)

However, let’s not get too literal. The usual English translation (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”) accurately and elegantly reflects the sense of the Hebrew.

Although the Hebrew phrase יהי אור may literally mean “light will be,” it’s in the jussive mood, which in Semitic languages expresses a weak or an indirect command.

Biblical translators have generally felt that “Let there be light” is the best wording to represent the jussive mood of יהי אור in Genesis 1:3. And we can’t think of a better one.

The biblical scholar Nahum M. Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, discusses the use of יהי (“be” or “exist”) in Verse 3: “The directive yehi, found again in Verses 6 and 14, is reserved for the creation of celestial phenomena.”

In our opinion, you’re right that God isn’t addressing the light. He’s not addressing anyone or anything here. He’s simply creating light—that is, ordering that light exist.

In fact, it’s not clear that God is even speaking. The Hebrew verb אמר may mean “intend” as well as “say.” In this case, it may simply be a way to express divine will in human language.

(We won’t get into the old question of where the light came from, since the sun hadn’t been created yet. Biblical scholars have spent a lot of time on this already.)

What purpose, you ask, does “let” serve in the expression “Let there be light”?

When the imperative “let” is used in the sense of “allow” or “permit” or “cause,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can function as an auxiliary to the infinitive that follows—“be,” “bring forth,” and so on.

The OED gives several examples of the usage, including this one from The Mariner’s Magazine, a 1669 book by Samuel Sturmy about nautical navigation: “Let there be an hole about an Inch deep, which shall serve to Prime it with Powder-dust.”

The English scholar and clergyman William Tyndale is credited with introducing the expression “Let there be light” in his 1525 translation of the Bible.

His Bible was the first to appear in print in English, though John Wycliffe and others translated full or partial versions in English before the advent of printing.

Tyndale’s poetic biblical writing has given us such familiar phrases as “flowing with milk and honey,” “the apple of his eye,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” “the salt of the earth,” “the powers that be,” and “my brother’s keeper.”

And his translation heavily influenced the King James Version. In The Social Universe of the English Bible (2010), Naomi Tadmor writes that “about 83 per cent of the New Testament is deemed to be based on Tyndale and 76 per cent of the Old.”

But Tyndale ran afoul of Henry VIII by opposing the king’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. As a result, Tyndale met a grisly end.

On Oct. 6, 1536, he was convicted of heresy and put to death at Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels by being strangled and burned at the stake.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.
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Pat on writing

Pat discusses the writing life in an interview with the novelist Jenna Leigh Evans.

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Is “redouble” to quadruple?

Q: I hear many politicians vow to “redouble” their efforts. When did this become an acceptable term and what does it literally mean—to quadruple one’s efforts?

A: The verb “redouble” has been an acceptable term since the mid-1400s, when it did indeed mean to quadruple.

But today “redouble” generally means to double or increase greatly, or to double an opponent’s double in bridge.

When English borrowed the term from Middle French in the mid-15th century, it meant to double for the second time or to double repeatedly.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Reule of Crysten Religioun (circa 1443), in which the English prelate Reginald Pecock writes that one should “double þis and ȝitt redouble it” (double this and still redouble it).

Although this sense of “redouble” isn’t seen much now, the OED does have a citation for the usage from the January 2003 issue of Wired magazine:

“Even worse are the dupers–counterfeiters who look for software bugs that let them double and redouble their gold on command, turning a single piece into into billions with just a few mouseclicks.” (We’ve expanded the Oxford citation.)

By the late 15th century, “redouble” was being used in the looser sense of “to increase, multiply; to intensify,” according to the OED.

The dictionary has a questionable 1473 citation from the writer-printer William Caxton as well as this definite example from Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Redoublen her sorowes and her trystesses enforce more vpon her.”

The looser sense of “redouble” is similar to the usage in Middle French and Old French, where redoubler could mean “to continue with greater intensity” or “to multiply (something) by two,” according to Oxford.

Although “re-” often has the sense in English of doing something for a second time, the OED notes a “loss of distinct meaning” for the prefix in some English words and even earlier in some Latin terms.

(In a recent post, we discussed a question about a similar subject, the apparently unnecessary  “re-” in the word “reduplicative.”)

In other words, it’s not at all surprising that a politician would now use the verb “redouble” to mean merely to double or to increase greatly.

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Pay attention!

Q: Have you done a piece on the blog about why we “pay attention” rather than “give attention” or, as the French say, “do attention”?

A: No, we haven’t explored this yet, so thanks for the suggestion.

You’re right that the verb phrase “pay attention” is more common and idiomatic than “give attention” when the speaker means “be attentive.” However, we can “give” someone our attention as well as “pay” attention to someone.

But getting back to your question, “paying” doesn’t always imply money changing hands.

The verb “pay,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has long meant “to render, bestow, or give,” and what’s bestowed can be attention, a compliment, even one’s allegiance or homage, to mention just a few examples.

For instance, you can “pay your respects,” “pay a compliment,” “pay heed” to advice, and “pay a visit.” In times gone by, a suitor would “pay his addresses” to a young lady. And she might either “pay attention” or “pay him no mind.”

These citations from the OED illustrate how “pay” has been used in this way over the centuries.

1600: “Not paying mee a welcome” (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

1667: “You deserve wonder, and they pay but praise” (from a poem by the Earl of Orrery).

1711: “After having paid their Respects to Sir Roger” (Joseph Addison in the Spectator).

1711: “Let us pay Visits, but never see one another” (Richard Steele in the Spectator).

1724: “many Honours were paid to the worst of Princes” (from a translation of an epistle by Pliny the Younger).

1766: “Farmer Williams … had paid her his addresses” (Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield).

1792: “the privileges of friendship, or the momentary homage which the heart pays to virtue.” (Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

1796: “The Gentlemen paid her many compliments” (Eliza Parsons’s novel The Mysterious Warning).

1847: “Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls” (Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey).

1866: “Too little attention being paid to the progress of opinion” (The Reign of Law, by the Duke of Argyll).

1882: “They paid little heed to the sermon” (The Revolt of Man, by Walter Besant).

1939: “ ‘Pay her no mind, Moses,’ Jethro said, dropping into the vernacular” (Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Moses, Man of the Mountain).

English acquired the verb “pay” in the early 1200s by way of Anglo-Norman and Old French (it was paiier or paier in Old French), according to the OED.

The Old French verb meant, among other things, “to be reconciled to someone,” Oxford says, reflecting its classical Latin ancestor pacare (to appease or pacify), derived from pax (peace).

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, “The meaning in Latin of pacify or satisfy developed through Medieval Latin into that of pay a creditor, and so to pay, generally, in the Romance languages.”

Some of the earliest meanings of “pay” in English are obsolete today—including to pacify, or to be pleasing or satisfactory to someone.

But senses relating to handing over money—or whatever is figuratively owed to someone—are just as old, and of course they’re still with us.

In modern English, “pay” is also used with adverbs in such phrasal verbs as “pay up,” “pay over,” “pay down,” “pay in,” and “pay out” (in speaking of a line or rope as well as money).

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Cultural learnings of America?

Q: The word “learnings” is popular in scientific settings, but to some of us it’s just bad grammar. Your thoughts please?

A: The word “learnings” is popular not only in science, but also in academia, business, finance—in fact, it’s common with all the usual suspects when the subject of unidiomatic English comes up.

Perhaps the most popular use of the term is in the broken English of Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

We’ve found hundreds of other examples of the usage online, including the “Best Practices & Key Learnings” page about diversity on the University of Cincinnati’s website.

Here’s one from the website of the Center for Sustainable Energy: “Learnings from California’s Market Transformation Programs.”

And this example is from Worldreader, a site that encourages literacy around the world: “Learnings From Libraries.”

The word “learnings” is being used here as a synonym for plural nouns such as “findings,” “conclusions,” and “results” as well as singulars like “upshot” and “takeaway.”

We wouldn’t describe this as bad grammar. Rather we’d say it’s an unidiomatic usage, or perhaps a possible new usage in its infancy, or even the revival of an old usage from the 17th century.

In Cymbeline, Shakespeare uses the word “learnings” in the sense of “lessons” or “instructions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the play, written around 1611, the King takes an orphaned baby into his protection and “Puts to him all the learnings that his time / Could make him the receiver of.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

Francis Bacon, in The Elements of the Common Lawes of England (1630), uses the term in the sense of teachings or doctrines: “Particular and positive learnings of lawes doe easily decline from a good temper of iustice.”

The OED also has examples from the 1600s of “learnings” used to mean a branch of learning or a science, but the dictionary doesn’t have any citations for the plural word after the 17th century.

Yes, “learnings” has a history, but it sounds to contemporary ears (at least to our contemporary ears) as bureaucratese, academese, or corporatese.

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By Jove, here comes the coroner

Q: In your “by George” article, you fail to mention that the expression “by Jove” was probably a precursor to “by George.” Just thought I’d point that out.

A: Yes, you’re right that “by Jove” was a precursor to “by George”—chronologically speaking, if not etymologically.

We’ve written several times about mild oaths that use euphemistic substitutes for the name of God (“gosh darn it,” “for Pete’s sake,” “by George,” “good golly,” and others), including posts in 2008, 2011, and 2012.

However, we haven’t discussed “by Jove,” which wasn’t a euphemism when it first showed up in English. Here’s the story.

The phrases “by Jove” and “by Jupiter” were originally Latin oaths, pro Iovem and pro Iuppiter. These were used quite literally—not euphemistically—by the Romans to mean something like “my God!” or “good God!”

The supreme deity of the Romans was Jove or Jupiter, wielder of thunderbolts (he was Zeus to the Greeks).

In classical times, the name was written as Iovis or Iuppiter (Iuppiter was a compound of the archaic Latin Iovis and pater). There was no “j” in classical Latin. The letter “i” was both a consonant and a vowel; as a consonant, it sounded like the English letter “y.”

The Roman playwright Terence used the exclamation pro Iuppiter! several times in his plays.

In The Interjections of Terence (1899), Walter Russell Newton writes, “Pro generally indicates pain or grief, but sometimes anger, and less frequently joy.” In English, he says, it should be translated as “O.”

The exclamations “by Jove” and “by Jupiter” eventually filtered into poetic and literary English, but they were not euphemisms at first, since they invoked the name of an actual Roman deity.

The earliest English example for “by Jupiter” in the Oxford English Dictionary (spelled “Iuppiter” in Middle English) clearly uses the term in reference to the Roman god. Here’s the passage, from Chaucer’s poem Troilus & Criseyde (circa 1374):

“By þe goddesse Mynerue And Iuppiter þat maketh þe þonder rynge … ye be the womman … That I best loue.” (“By the goddess Minerva and Jupiter that maketh the thunder ring … you be the woman … that I best love.”)

The OED’s earliest example for “by Jove” also uses the term in reference to the Roman deity. Here’s the citation, from Apius and Virginia, an anonymous 1575 play set in classical times:

“By Ioue master Marchant, by sea or by land / Would get but smale argent if I did not stand, / His very good master, I may say to you.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In Elizabethan times, the exclamation “by Jove” was being used both as a mild euphemistic oath and as a reference to the Roman god. Shakespeare used it in eight of his plays, sometimes literally and sometimes euphemistically.

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Lord Berowne, an attendant to the King of Navarre, uses “Jove” euphemistically when he jokes about arithmetic with Costard, a country bumpkin: ”By Ioue, I all wayes tooke three threes for nine.”

And in Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1607), Antony refers to the actual Roman god when he addresses Thyreus, a messenger from Caesar to Cleopatra: “Favours, by Jove that thunders!  / What art thou, fellow?”

As for “by George” (a mild oath with “George” as a euphemism for God), the phrase began life in the late 1500s in a slightly different form. It was originally “for (or fore) George,” and later appeared as “before George,” according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humor: “I, Well! he knowes what to trust to, for George.”

The next Oxford citation is from John Dryden’s 1680 comedy The Kind Keeper: “Before George, ’tis so!”

The OED’s first “by George” quotation is from a 1694 translation of Rudens, a comedy by Plautus: “By George, you shan’t be a Sowce the better for what’s in it.”

Did the phrase “by Jove” influence “by George”?

Well, the use of “by Jove” as a euphemistic oath showed up about the same time as the euphemistic use of “for George.” But it took almost a century more for the “by George” version to show up.

We’ll skip ahead a bit now and give a couple of OED citations for “by Jove” from 19th-century novels:

“ ‘Venus and the Graces, by Jove!’ exclaimed Sir Sampson.” (From Marriage, 1818, by Susan Edmonstone Ferrier.)

And this one, from Wyllard’s Weird (1885), by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “By Jove! here comes the Coroner.”

Since we can hardly improve on that, we’ll stop.

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Comma relief

Q: Do I need a comma after the word “expert” in this sentence: “I spoke with an expert and if I were a betting man, I would pick the Cowboys.” The few “experts” I have consulted seem unsure of the rule for punctuating a complex sentence like that.

A: Sometimes commas are optional, and your sentence is a good example. There’s no specific “rule” for punctuating a sentence like that.

If it were up to us, here’s what we would suggest: “I spoke with an expert, and if I were a betting man I would pick the Cowboys.”

Why? Because of the three clauses, the last two are more closely connected than the first two. We would separate the first clause from the rest, because we sense a natural division there.

However, other writers might disagree; they might prefer a differently placed comma, or two commas, or none at all.

Even when only two clauses of this type are involved, the use of commas is a matter of preference rather than correctness.

You might choose this, for example: “If I were a betting man I would pick the Cowboys.” But this would be equally correct: “If I were a betting man, I would pick the Cowboys.”

There’s a certain amount of flexibility in the use of commas to separate clauses. As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “punctuation practice is by no means entirely uniform.”

For example, the Cambridge Grammar notes the “distinction between light and heavy punctuation styles.” It gives these examples:

light or “open” style: “On Sundays they like to have a picnic lunch in the park if it’s fine.”

heavy or “closed” style: “On Sundays, they like to have a picnic lunch in the park, if it’s fine.”

“This distinction,” the authors explain, “has to do with optional punctuation, especially commas: a light style puts in relatively few commas (or other marks) in those places where they are optional rather than obligatory.”

When in doubt, let your ear decide. If you feel a pause is in order, exercise your option and stick in a comma.

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Do you party hardy or hearty?

Q: Throughout my life, I have thought that “hardy” meant being able to withstand hard things, while “hearty” referred to doing things heartily. Why do so many people say “party hardy” when I would say “party hearty”?

A: Well, “party hearty” is the older of the two phrases, but both of them have been around for dozens of years, and “party hardy” is slightly more popular on the Web.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial verb phrases “party hearty” and “party hardy” mean the same thing: “go to parties, celebrate, drink, etc., esp. unrestrainedly.”

The OED’s earliest citation for “party hearty” is from a headline in the Dec. 24, 1955, issue of the Washington Post: “Young set still party hearty.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “party hardy” is from the July 7, 1977, issue of the same newspaper: “ ‘Party hardy! Yeehaw!’ yelled Brenda Stephens, 14.”

Oxford says the “hardy” form “seems likely to derive from the expression party hard,” with the “-y” suffix added “for reduplicative effect.”

(We’ve written several times on the blog about reduplicatives, terms with recurring sounds. A recent post discusses examples like “goody goody,” “bow-wow,” and “choo-choo.”)

The OED also has citations for “party hearty” and “party hardy” used as adjectival phrases, including these two:

“Those party-hearty people who manage, somehow, to take in four and five debuts a day are complaining,” from the Dec. 24, 1955, issue of the Washington Post.

“The Gang cranks up one of its party-hardy grooves,” from the Jan. 14, 1985, issue of People Weekly.

And the Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.) has an entry for the noun phrase “party hearty.” The dictionary defines the noun as a “party animal” and gives this example:

“He attracted a Hollywood set of Hawaiian-shirt party hearties who sunned themselves like alligators down in Key West.”

We suspect, as you do, that “party hardy” was initially the result of an eggcorn, the misinterpretation of a word or phrase as another word or phrase. The linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman coined this term for a substitution—like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The OED suggests that the American accent may have contributed to the substitution of “hardy” for “hearty.”

“The interchangeability of hardy with hearty is likely to have arisen because their U.S. pronunciation is frequently identical,” the dictionary says. It notes that the usage originated in the US and is chiefly seen there.

The Eggcorn Database, a collaborative collection of eggcorns, has a Feb. 20, 2005, entry on “party hardy” submitted by the linguist Ben Zimmer.

Zimmer cites two songs released in 1977: “Party Hardy,” by the funk band Slave, and “We Party Hearty,” by the funk band L.T.D.

Ten years ago, when Zimmer wrote his entry for the Eggcorn Database, he said the usage was running “about 1.3:1 in favor of party hearty.”

Our Internet searches indicate that Web usage is now running slightly in favor of “party hardy,” indicating that the “hardy” version is gaining in popularity. And popularity is what ultimately determines common usage in English.

Which, you ask, makes more sense: “party hardy” or “party hearty”?

Colloquial expressions don’t always make sense, but if we’re talking about people who party hard until they drink themselves under the table (as the OED’s definition suggests), then the partyers had better be hardy.

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Is a “nor’easter” full of hot air?

Q: “Nor’easter”: A phony? I await your comment.

A: Yes, “nor’easter” has been exposed. It’s not the charming regionalism that it pretends to be.

We wrote a post to this effect back in 2007, and we’ve also written about it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“New England has given us plenty: Boston baked beans, Vermont maple syrup, the Red Sox, Robert Frost, L. L. Bean, and the image of a Maine lobsterman, his yellow slicker flapping in the wind as he braves a menacing nor’easter. The only problem with this stormy picture is that no self-respecting Penobscot Bay lobsterman would use the term ‘nor’easter.’ No, it’s not, as many TV weather people have led us to believe, a quaint New England regionalism.

“The word ‘nor’easter’ is a contraction of ‘northeaster,’ a blustery storm with northeasterly winds. The storm has long been associated with New England, but the term ‘nor’easter’ isn’t native to the land of clam chowdah, according to many linguists and a great many coastal New Englanders. The locals, they say, have always pronounced the word by dropping the two r’s, not the th, making it sound something like ‘nawtheastah.’

“As for where ‘nor’easter’ comes from, it all started in England, not New England. The earliest published reference to ‘nor’easter’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1837 translation of an Aristophanes play, The Knights: ‘Slack your sheet! A strong nor’easter’s groaning.’ ”

Hmm. Doesn’t sound very Greek, does it? At any rate, as we go on to say in Origins:

“The OED has even earlier citations for the abbreviations ‘nor’ and ‘nor’east,’ which have been used to refer to compass points since Elizabethan times.

“So how did ‘nor’easter’ cross the Atlantic and end up in the mouth of that mythical Maine lobsterman? The linguist Mark Liberman, who grew up in southern New England, says the term ‘seems faker to me than the lederhosen at the Biergarten in Walt Disney World.’ He attributes the usage to overimaginative journalists who probably embraced ‘nor’easter’ as a ‘literary affectation’ (like ‘e’en’ for ‘even’). ‘However,’ Liberman says, ‘as a linguist I have to admit that a nor’easter is what storms like this have become, in the English language at large, whether we like it or not.’”

We conclude that when a regionalism is just too charming not to exist, then it has to be invented.

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Nothing but the truth

Q: I’m editing this sentence for the publishing house where I work: “There were nothing but steep cliffs on all sides.” The verb should be “was,” no? “There” is a dummy subject, rendering the true subject “nothing,” which is singular. Can you tell me if my logic is unassailable?

A: You’re right that the verb should be singular, though we can’t say your logic is unassailable. There are exceptional cases, as we’ll explain later.

In that sentence, “there” is a dummy subject—one that’s required by syntax and merely occupies the obligatory subject position.

The true subject is “nothing.” And when used  as a subject, “nothing”—even when followed by “but”—traditionally takes a singular verb, regardless of the noun (singular or plural) that follows.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage has this to say: “According to the traditional rule, nothing is invariably treated as a singular, even when followed by an exception phrase containing a plural noun.”

The book gives these examples: “Nothing except your fears stands (not stand) in your way. Nothing but roses meets (not meet) the eye.”

When the American Heritage editors use the word “traditional,” they’re not exaggerating. We found this example in a 1772 edition of Joseph Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar:

“Nothing but the marvellous and supernatural hath any charms for them.” (Note the archaic singular “hath” for “has.”)

Constructions like “nothing but,” “nothing save,” and so on are venerable features of the language.

Since Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nothing” has been used with a “limiting particle”—like “but,” “besides,” “except,” “save”—to mean “merely” or “only.”

So you’re right about that sentence, and you can feel justified in editing it to read, “There was nothing but steep cliffs on all sides.”

But here’s a qualification to keep in mind for future use, from the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

In a usage note with its entry for “nothing,” the dictionary repeats the usual rule about using a singular verb with “nothing but,” then adds this:

“But there are certain contexts in which nothing but sounds quite natural with a plural verb and should not be considered inappropriate. In these sentences, constructions like nothing but function much like an adverb meaning ‘only,’ in a pattern similar to one seen in none but.

The usage note follows with this example: “Sometimes, for a couple of hours together, there were almost no houses; there were nothing but woods and rivers and lakes and horizons adorned with bright-looking mountains (Henry James).”

In our opinion, the Henry James example is worth remembering because it cries out for symmetry between those two clauses: “there were … there were….”

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Is it loo-TEN-ant or lef-TEN-ant?

Q: My daughter wonders why “lieutenant” is pronounced lef-TEN-ant in the UK and loo-TEN-ant in the US. Do you have any clues?

A: The word “lieutenant” came into Middle English in the 1300s from French—lieu for “place” and tenant for “holding.”

(Originally a “lieutenant” was a placeholder, a civil or military officer acting in place of a superior. Think of the phrase “in lieu of” for “in place of.” )

But since the beginning, the British have commonly pronounced the first syllable of “lieutenant” as if it had an “f” or a “v.”

In the early days, this tendency was sometimes reflected in spellings:  “leeftenaunt” (1387), “luf-tenend “ (late 1300s), “leyf tenaunt” (early 1400s),” “lyeftenaunt” (circa 1425), “luff tenande” (late 1400s), “leivetenant” (late 1500s), and so on.

But long after the spelling stabilized and “lieutenant” became the dominant form in writing, the “f” sound has survived in British speech, where the usual pronunciation today is lef-TEN-ant. Nobody knows why.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the “f” and “v” sounds “is difficult to explain,” and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says it “remains uncertain.” In other words, we can only guess.

The OED says one theory is that English readers misinterpreted the letter “u” as a “v,” since in Middle English the two letters were not distinct.

But Oxford says this can’t account for the “f” and “v” pronunciations since it “does not accord with the facts.”

The dictionary is apparently referring to the fact that in Middle English spelling, the letter “v” was generally used at the beginning of a word and “u” elsewhere, regardless of the sound, which accounts for old spellings like “vpon” (upon) and “loue” (love). However, the “u” is in the middle of “lieutenant,” not the beginning.

The OED suggests two possibilities to explain the appearance of the “f” and “v” sounds in “lieutenant.”

One is that that some of the “f” and “v” pronunciations “may be due to association” with the noun “leave” or the adjective “lief.”

A likelier theory is “that the labial glide at the end of Old French lieu as the first element of a compound was sometimes apprehended by English-speakers as a v or f.” (A labial glide is a transitional sound in which air is forced through the lips.)

Oxford also notes the existence of “the rare Old French form leuf for lieu,” which may have influenced the English pronunciation. (The language researcher Michael Quinion cites a medieval form of the word, leuftenant, in the records of what is now a Swiss canton.)

However it came about, the usual pronunciation in Britain today begins with “lef,” and seems unlikely to change.

As Oxford notes, John Walker in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1793) gives the “actual pronunciation” of the first syllable as “lef” or “liv,” though he “expresses the hope that ‘the regular sound, lewtenant’ will in time become current.” Despite Walker’s advice, that pronunciation “is almost unknown” in Britain, the OED adds.

Noah Webster, in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), recommends only one pronunciation for the word, which he renders as “lutenant.”

American dictionaries have followed Webster’s lead and give loo-TEN-ant as the pronunciation, though they usually note the lef-TEN-ant pronunciation in Britain.

Finally, an aside. Another of our correspondents once suggested that the British pronunciation arose though squeamishness: “The Brits didn’t want to refer to their officers with the term ‘loo’!”

Intriguing, but untrue. The word “loo” wasn’t recorded in the bathroom sense until the 20th century. Another theory down the drain.

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Noseblind spot

Q: A Febreze commercial uses the apparently new word “noseblind” to describe someone who can’t smell. As far as I know, there are only two common adjectives for sensory deficiencies: “blind” and “deaf.” Aside from obscure medical terms, are there common words for the loss of the three other traditional senses?

A: Although the Febreze commercials have helped popularize “noseblind,” the term had been around for a dozen or so years before Procter & Gamble began using it last summer to promote the air freshener.

The earliest example of the usage we could find is from an Oct. 8, 2002, comment on a Mazda discussion group: “I use 89 octane from esso all the time, but haven’t noticed any smell at all. Maybe I am nose blind, but it hasn’t been a problem for me.”

And here’s an example from “The Revisionist,” a short story by Helen Schulman in a 2004 collection from the Paris Review:

“The resultant odor was strong enough to etherize an elephant, but Hershleder the rebel was nose-blind to it.”

Julia LaFeldt, a P&G spokeswoman, told us that “Febreze first started using the term ‘noseblind’ in July 2014 when we launched our current campaign.”

In a July 9, 2014, press release, P&G announced that the actor-comedian Jane Lynch would be promoting Febreze to counter “noseblindness,” a condition that “occurs naturally over time when a person becomes accustomed to surrounding smells.”

In videos featuring Ms. Lynch and others, the adjective “noseblind” is repeatedly used to describe people who are so used to their own odors that they can’t smell what their guests do.

On a web page that features videos promoting Febreze, P&G offers a mock dictionary entry that defines “noseblind” as a noun but treats it as an adjective in the accompanying example:

“noseblind [nohz-blihnd], noun; The gradual acclimation to the smells of one’s home, car, or belongings, in which the affected does not notice them (even though their guests do).

“Example: I can’t attend Book Club this week. Nancy is completely noseblind to the fact that her house smells like a feral cat shelter.

As for your question, we don’t know of any common words for the loss of the three other traditional senses: taste, smell, and touch (though “numbness” might describe an inability to feel a touch). The usual medical terms are “ageusia” (taste), “anosmia” (smell), and “analgesia” (touch—actually, the inability to feel pain).

A more general term, “sensory processing disorder,” describes a condition in which the nervous system doesn’t properly organize sensory signals into the appropriate responses. It can affect one or more of the senses, according to the SPD Foundation.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, who discussed “noseblind” recently on his blog, describes it as “a fairly clever coinage for this sensory saturation effect, treating it as similar to being temporarily blinded by bright lights or deafened by loud noises.”

“But it’s not truly similar to being blind or deaf, which are enduring and more global inabilities,” Zwicky adds.

If you’d like to read more, we’ve answered several questions on the blog about “nose” and “blind,” including a post in 2009 as well as posts in October and November of 2012.

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English via Facebook

Q: Does Facebook use “via” incorrectly when your friend A forwards a link to you from his friend B? Facebook describes this as “From A via B,” but surely it should be the other way around, “From B via A.”

A: You’re right—“via” has meant “by way of” since it came into English in the 1700s.  A newer sense of the word, “by means of” or “with the aid of,” came into use in the 1930s and is also accepted as standard English in modern dictionaries.

So Facebook has things turned around. In fact, the message is coming from friend B (the original source) by way of (or “via”) friend A, the intermediary who forwards it.

These two examples from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) illustrate the standard uses of “via”:

  • by way of: “She flew to Los Angeles via Chicago.”
  • by means of: “I’ll let her know via one of our friends.”

The English preposition “via” was taken directly from the Latin noun via, meaning “way” or “road.”

Despite its classical origins, the English word is relatively new as these things go, since it dates back only to the 18th century. This is why it’s sometimes printed in italics in older writing.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from a letter written by James Lovell, a delegate to the Continental Congress, to John Adams on June 13, 1779:

“This night is the fourteenth since we first had the news of his victory, via New Providence.” (The reference is to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln in a battle against the British.)

Here’s another example that clearly displays the original usage: “Lord Weybridge … is on his way to London viâ Paris.” (From Theodore Edward Hook’s novel The Parson’s Daughter, 1833.)

The newer sense of the word (“by means of”) is nicely illustrated by this 1977 citation from the OED:

“It would in theory be possible to provide five more services with national coverage via satellite.” (From a British government report on the future of broadcasting.)

But no matter which usage you subscribe to—and current dictionaries accept both—“via” always refers to whoever or whatever is in between, not to the origin.

Think of the word “viaduct,” a long high bridge that’s an elevated go-between.

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When words change their spots

Q: I see that the online Merriam-Webster has caved to the misuse of “peruse,” which is now apparently an antonym to itself. It means, or so the dictionary says, to examine or read “in a very careful way” (the traditional usage) as well as “in an informal or relaxed way.” Are linguists creating a new type of word?

A: Often a simple question calls for a complicated answer, and this is one of them.

Linguists and lexicographers don’t create new meanings for words. They merely catalog what they perceive as shifts in common usage—shifts that naturally occur as a language develops.

As for the verb “peruse,” it’s been used to mean “both careful and cursory reading” since the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Take a look at a post about “peruse” that we wrote in 2006 and later updated to reflect recent dictionary definitions. As you can see, the usage you object to is well established.

It’s unfortunate that a language commentator in the early 1900s took a dislike to the word’s “cursory” sense, and that other usage guides unthinkingly followed.

But in the end, the general public took no notice and continued to use “peruse” in the old familiar way.

The truth is that common usage determines what’s “correct.” This is why alterations in meaning, spelling, and pronunciation are normal as a language develops.

Even Classical Latin, when it was a living, spoken language, underwent regular shifts and changes. It only became frozen when it died.

And once Latin words were absorbed into English and the Romance languages, those words continued to shape themselves to their new surroundings and came to reflect common usage in those societies.

For example, we’ve written on our blog about the assimilation of Latin words into English and the consequent shifts in pluralization.

Many words derived from Latin plurals have become accepted over the years as singular nouns in English: “ephemera,” “erotica,” “stamina,” “agenda,” “trivia,” “insignia,” “candelabra,” and more recently “data.”

What’s more, the word “media” now has both singular and plural usages in English, as we wrote in a post four years ago.

This naturalization process is normal and expected. Similarly, we should expect words to change their meanings. As this happens, they can even take on meanings that are opposed.

Sometimes these words retain both opposing senses, as with “cleave” and “sanction.” Such words are often called “contronyms,” and the reader has to judge the writer’s intent by the context.

(Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, for example, feels that “literally” has joined this group and can be taken to mean “in effect.” However, we aren’t yet recommending that our readers adopt this looser usage.)

We’ve written about words with opposing meanings many times on our blog, including posts in 2008, 2010, and 2012.

At times a word’s earlier meaning is discarded and becomes obsolete. This process can move an originally affirmative word (like “pedant”) in a derogatory direction.

But just as often the reverse happens, and a derogatory word (like “terrific”) takes on a positive meaning.

Words change not only in meaning but in grammatical function. This kind of change, as when a noun becomes a verb, often upsets people, but it’s a natural way in which new words are formed.

As we’ve said before, this process is called conversion, and it’s given us a considerable portion of our modern English words.

Thanks for your question, and we hope we’ve shed a little light here.

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The times they are a changin’

Q: I increasingly hear sentences with two nouns competing to be the subject. Some recent examples, all from local newscasts: “Our producer, she is going to New Hampshire” … “My aunt and uncle, they died of diabetes” … “That guy, he can play on Sunday.” I was told years ago by an English professor that this was incorrect. Have the rules changed?

A: In all of those examples, the pronoun duplicates the subject: “our producer, she” … “my aunt and uncle, they” … “that guy, he.”

The pronoun in all these cases isn’t technically necessary. It’s sometimes called a “pleonastic subject pronoun” (pleonastic means redundant or superfluous).

Although such a pleonasm is sometimes used as a literary device in poems and songs, the Oxford English Dictionary says this usage is “now chiefly regional and nonstandard.”

We’d add that speakers of standard English use pleonastic subject pronouns for emphasis in casual conversation, though rarely in prose writing, especially in formal prose.

For centuries, poets and balladeers have used this device to force a pause in the meter of a line and give it a songlike air.

Consider, for example, this line from the 13th-century poem Amis and Amiloun, the Middle English version of an old French legend: “Mine hert, it breketh.” How much duller it would be without that superfluous pronoun!

Modern poets, too, have employed this usage. Here’s a line from A Shropshire Lad (1896), by A. E. Housman: “I tell the tale that I heard told. / Mithridates, he died old.”

The OED has many examples, dating back to Old English. Here’s a sampling: 

“My sister, shee the jewell is” (from an anonymous Elizabethan play, Common Conditions, 1576).

“ ‘Fair and softly,’ John he cried, / But John he cried in vain” (William Cowper, 1782).

“The worms they crept in, and the worms they crept out” (the novelist Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1795).

“The skipper he stood beside the helm” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1839).

“My wife she cries on the barrack-gate, my kid in the barrack-yard” (Rudyard Kipling, 1892).

“The times they are a changin’ ” (Bob Dylan, 1964).

We’ve found many nonstandard uses of pleonastic subject pronouns in speech or dialogue from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Here’s an example from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884): “The king he spread his arms, and Mary Jane she jumped for them.”

In recent decades, as you’ve noticed, speakers of standard English have been using the device for emphasis in conversation.

Here’s a quote from Bruce Springsteen in the Feb. 5, 1981, issue of Rolling Stone: “My mother and father, they’ve got a very deep love because they know and understand each other in a very realistic way.”

Is the usage legit? Well, the OED doesn’t consider it standard English. But we see nothing wrong with its emphatic use in casual speech.

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Is “close proximity” redundant?

Q: I would love to hear your perspective on “close proximity.” If “in proximity to” means “close to,” what does “in close proximity to” mean? Including “close” seems redundant to me, but it feels odd to leave it out.

A: Well, the phrase “in close proximity” isn’t very graceful (we’d prefer “near” or “close to”), but we don’t consider it redundant, as we’ll explain.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “proximity” as “nearness” or “the fact, condition, or position of being near or close by in space.”

So theoretically the noun “proximity” should need no help from an adjective like “close.”

But theory is one thing and fact is another. In reality, there are degrees of nearness, so it’s reasonable to indicate how near with the use of an adjective like “close,” “closer,” or “closest.”

Used by itself, “proximity” sometimes seems inadequate, which may be why the naked word feels odd to you.  A statement like “There’s no restaurant in proximity to my apartment” could mean within a city block or a ten-minute drive.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Of course there are degrees of proximity, and close proximity simply emphasizes the closeness.” The usage guide gives many examples, including these:

“Swallow means porch-bird, and for centuries and centuries their nests have been placed in the closest proximity to man” (from Richard Jefferies’s book The Open Air, 1885).

“Mr. Beard and Miss Compton disagreed on the distance of meat from heat, probably because Mr. Beard had in mind a smaller fire-bed to which the steak could  be in closer proximity” (from the New York Times, 1954).

“The herb [tansy] works only on plants in very close proximity” (from the New York Times Magazine, 1980).

This OED has dozens of examples of the usage, dating back to the early 1800s. Here’s one from an 1872 travel guide to the English Lake District: “Owing to the close proximity to the sea.”

Elsewhere in the same guide, we found this example in a description of the city of Carlisle: “It dates back to the time of the Romans, and was in close proximity to the wall of Hadrian.”

The word “proximity” came into English from the French proximité (near relationship), the OED says. It was derived from the Latin noun proximitas (nearness or kinship), which came from the adjective proximus (nearest, next).    

When first recorded in English, in 1480, “proximity” referred to blood relationship or kinship (as in the phrase “proximity of blood,” first recorded in the 16th century and still occasionally used).

The noun was soon being used to refer to other kinds of nearness—time, space, distance, and so on. Today, “proximity” in relation to distance is the dominant usage.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the Latin proximus (nearest) was the superlative form of an “unrecorded” Latin word that’s been reconstructed as proque (near).

This reconstructed word, Ayto adds, was “a variant of prope, from which English gets approach and propinquity.”

Another English relative, Ayto says, is “approximate,” which ultimately comes from the Latin verb proximare (“come near”).

We’ll close with another example from the M-W usage guide. It’s from Iolanthe (1882), by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull M.P.’s in close proximity,
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.

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Paralinguistically speaking

Q: My wife and I were alone in our car and having a general discussion when she lowered her voice and said, “Everyone knows her husband is having an affair.” Has anyone studied this strange behavior in mentioning a sensitive topic?

A: Yes, language scholars have indeed looked into this behavior. The study of pitch, loudness, speed, hesitation, and similar qualities of speech is referred to as “paralinguistics,” and this aspect of communication is called “paralanguage.”

In his 1975 paper “Paralinguistics,” the linguist David Crystal says the “para-” prefix (meaning “beyond” or “outside of”) “was originally chosen to reflect a view that such features as speed and loudness of speaking were marginal to the linguistic system.”

However, Crystal writes, studies in social psychology, psychiatry, sociolinguistics, and other areas “suggest that the vocal effects called paralinguistic may be rather more central to the study of communication than was previously thought.”

“Certainly, observations of people’s everyday reactions to language suggest that paralinguistic phenomena, far from being marginal, are frequently the primary determinants of behaviour in an interaction,” he says.

Although “the most widely recognized function” of paralanguage is for emotional expression, he adds, a “far more important and pervasive” function “is the use of paralinguistic features as markers of an utterance’s grammatical structure.”

In other words, the use of paralanguage in speech replaces the punctuation and spacing that’s so important in making written language intelligible.

Crystal discusses several kinds of paralanguage. An extended low pitch, for example, may be used “as a marker of parenthesis (e.g. ‘My cousin—you know, the one who lives in Liverpool—he’s just got a new job’).”

A rise in loudness may be used “as a marker of increased emphasis (‘I want the red one, not the green one’).”

An increase is speed may indicate “that the speaker wishes to forestall an interruption, or to suggest that what he is saying need not be given careful attention.”

A sentence spoken with a noticeable metrical beat may “suggest irritation, e.g. ‘I really think that John and Mary should have asked.’ ”

The kind of voice-lowering you’re asking about could be considered a marker of parenthesis. Crystal doesn’t cite an example like yours, but other language researchers say a whispered or lowered voice may accompany confidential or embarrassing comments.

In Principles of Phonetics (1994), for example, the linguist John Laver writes that the paralinguistic use of whisper may “signal secrecy and confidentiality.”

And in Simultaneous Structure in Phonology (2014), the linguist D. Robert Ladd writes, “A speaker’s voice may be raised in anger or lowered to convey something confidential.”

The linguist Carlos Gussenhoven, writing in The Phonology of Tone and Intonation (2004), says people may raise their pitch “to express surprised indignation” and “lower it to suggest confidentiality.”

And in a study entitled “The Roles of Breathy/Whispery Voice Qualities in Dialogue Speech” (2008), Carlos Toshinori Ishi, Hiroshi Ishiguro, and Norihiro Hagita say that a “more whispered and low-powered voice quality” may reflect embarrassment.

(The three authors, who specialize in robotics, attempt to apply paralinguistics to synthesized speech.)

We can’t end this without mentioning a book that we came across while researching your question.

In Playing With My Dog Katie: An Ethnomethodological Study of Dog-Human Interaction (2007), the sociologist David Goode discusses his embarrassing “over-reliance on paralinguistic features of vocalization” in relating to his pet.

As the owners of two young golden retrievers, we know what’s he’s ethnomethodologically talking about.

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Why not “one headquarter”?

Q: To my ear, “one headquarter” sounds better than “one headquarters.” Why is the plural “headquarters” used for both the singular and the plural?

A: When the term first showed up in English in the early 1600s, it was “headquarter” (or, rather, “head quarter”), but the “s”-less singular is rarely seen now except in South Asian English.

We’ll have more to say later about the history of “headquarter”/“headquarters,” but first let’s look at how the word is generally used in contemporary English.

Today, “headquarters” is a noun that’s plural in form but can be used with either a singular or a plural verb.

As Pat writes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd. ed.), “headquarters” is one of those words, like “series” and “species,” that ends in “s” but can mean either one thing or more—a base or bases.

She gives this example: “Gizmo’s headquarters was designed by Rube Goldberg. The two rival companies’ headquarters were on opposite sides of town.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has these modern examples of “headquarters” used in each way:

singular: “Hundreds of Home Office staff should be moved out of London because a new headquarters is too small to accommodate them.” (From the Daily Telegraph, 2004.)

plural: “He set up two headquarters, one to control Japan … and the other to command U.S. forces in the Far east.” (From Richard B. Finn’s book Winners in Peace, 1992.)

Now let’s look at the history of “headquarter” and “headquarters.”

Both of these forms showed up in written English in the first half of the 17th century, with “headquarter” used in the singular sense and “headquarters” used initially in the plural sense.

But within a few years, “headquarters” was being used in both singular and plural contexts —or, as the OED puts it, the plural form “headquarters” was being used “with pl. or sing. concord.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “headquarter” used in the singular sense is from a 1622 issue of the Continental Newes that refers to military forces “about to draw away their Ordnance into their head quarter.”

The OED’s earliest example of “headquarters” used as a plural is in a 1639 issue of a newsletter, Curranto This Weeke From Holland: “This Campe is divided into 2 Head-quarters, on one side commandeth Monsieur de Lambert, and on th’other side Colonell Gassion.”

And the first example of the plural form used in a singular sense is from a 1644 issue of the Weekly Account: “The Hoptonian Forces are as yet at their head quarters at Winchester.”

In the 1500s and 1600s, the dictionary points out, other Germanic languages had singular forms for the singular sense: German Hauptquartier (1588 or earlier), Swedish huvudkvarter (1658), Dutch hoofdkwartier (1688 or earlier).

Why did the plural form “headquarters” come to be used in English for both singular and plural senses?

Perhaps because the plural “quarters” was being used around the same time for a singular place of residence, as in this example from Every Man in His Humor, a 1616 play by Ben Jonson: “Turnebull, White-chappell, Shore-ditch, which were then my quarters.”

As we’ve said earlier, the singular “headquarter” is rarely seen now except in South Asian English. Here are some recent examples from military and corporate writing:

“My headquarter was at Chandhi Mandir which is easily the best laid out military cantonment in the country.” (From S. K. Sinha’s book A Soldier Recalls, 1992.)

“Another network was established by National Informatics Centre … whose headquarter is at Delhi.” (From Computer Technology for Higher Education, 1993, by Sarla Achuthan and others.)

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When the subject is a dummy

Q: I’ve read your recent post on deconstructing “it” and I have one additional question. What does “it” refer to in sentences like “It is raining” and “It is snowing”? I’ve heard various explanations of this usage, but I’d appreciate your take on it.

A: English speakers have been using the pronoun “it” to talk about the weather since Anglo-Saxon days. The “it” that we use to denote weather conditions (“it was drizzling” … “it’s hot”) is often called a “dummy” or “empty” or “artificial” subject.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the “it” here has no semantic meaning and serves “the purely syntactic function of filling the obligatory subject position.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes this “it” as “a semantically empty or non-referential subject” that dates back to Old English, where it was frequently used in statements about the weather.

The OED’s earliest recorded usage in reference to weather is from an Old English translation, possibly written around the 10th century, of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, which he probably completed in Latin in 731.

In the relevant passage, “hit rine & sniwe & styrme ute” (“it rain & snow & storm out”), the verbs are in the subjunctive.

We’ll expand the OED citation and give a modern English translation: “as if you at feasting should sit with your lords and subjects in winter-time, and a fire be lit and your hall warmed, and it should rain and snow and storm outside.”

This Middle English example from around 1300 needs no translating: “Hor-frost cometh whan hit is cold.”

The  “it” we use in statements about the weather, according to the OED, is part of a broader category of usages in which the pronoun is “the subject of an impersonal verb or impersonal statement, expressing action or a condition of things simply, without reference to any agent.”

These usages would include statements about the time or the season (“it was about noon” … “it was winter”); about space, distance, or time (“it was long ago” … “it’s too far”); and about other kinds of conditions (“how is it going?” … “it was awkward” … “if it weren’t for the inconvenience”).

The Cambridge Grammar wouldn’t use the term “dummy subject” to describe most of these non-weather usages. In its view, a dummy subject “cannot be replaced by any other NP [noun phrase].”

So Cambridge regards the “it” in a sentence like “It is five o’clock” or “It is July 1” as a predicative complement rather than a dummy subject, because “it” could be replaced by “the time” or “the date.”

Some linguists, however, might argue that none of the “it” usages we’ve discussed are true dummy subjects, but we’ll stop here.

To quote Shakespeare (Macbeth, around 1606), “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twer well, / It were done quickly.”

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How “colonel” became KER-nel

Q: How did a “colonel” in the military come to be pronounced like a “kernel” on an ear of corn?

A: The word for the military officer once had competing spellings as well as competing pronunciations. When the dust settled, it ended up being spelled in one way and pronounced in the other.

The word was actually “coronel” when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the messy story of how a word once spelled “coronel” in English came to be spelled “colonel” and pronounced KER-nel.

English acquired the original “coronel” from the Middle French coronnel, which came from colonello, the Italian word for the commander of a regiment, the OED says.

Colonello is derived from colonna, Italian for a column, which in turn comes from columna, Latin for a pillar.

Oxford cites the English philologist Walter William Skeat as saying the colonello got his name because he led “the little column or company at the head of the regiment.”

The first company of the regiment—the colonel’s company—was called la compagnia colonnella in Italian and la compagnie colonelle in French, according to the OED.

The confusion began when the Italian colonello entered Middle French in the 16th century. The two “l” sounds apparently didn’t sit well with French speakers, so the first “l” changed to “r” and the word briefly became coronel.

The process by which two neighboring “l” sounds were “dissimulated” (or rendered dissimilar) was common in the Romance languages, the OED says.

However, the French coronel “was supplanted in literary use, late in 16th cent., by the more etymological colonnel,” according to the dictionary. (The word is now colonel in modern French.)

But meanwhile both English and Spanish had borrowed coronel, the dissimilated version of the word, from Middle French in the mid-1500s.

When it entered English, in 1548, it was spelled “coronel,” with a three-syllable pronunciation (kor-uh-NEL) similar to that of the Middle French word.

Although it’s still spelled coronel in Spanish, English speakers soon followed the French and returned to the more etymologically correct spelling.

As the OED explains, “under this influence [the French spelling change] and that of translations of Italian military treatises colonel also appeared in English c1580.”

By the mid-1600s, the OED says, “colonel” was the accepted English spelling and “coronel” had fallen by the wayside.

But the word’s pronunciation took much longer to get settled.

The two competing pronunciations (kor-uh-NEL, kol-uh-NEL) existed until the early 19th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, along with a popular variation, KER-uh-nel.

In the early 1800s, Chambers says, the KER-uh-nel pronunciation was shortened to KER-nel. (The awkward KOL-nel, a shortened version of kol-uh-NEL, was recorded in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, but it eventually fell out of use.)

Although the KER-nel pronunciation became universally accepted, Chambers says, “the familiar literary form colonel remained firmly established in printing.”

So you might say that the word’s spelling today reflects its Italian heritage while the pronunciation reflects its French side—that is, its brief period of dissimilation in French.

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A message from Pat and Stewart

Dear readers,

We could use a little help to keep the Grammarphobia Blog going, and we’re not too embarrassed to ask for it (well, Stewart is a bit).

If you read the blog regularly, you may have noticed that something is missing—advertising. This is because we find ads just as annoying as you do.

Something else we don’t have is a paywall. You don’t have to buy a subscription to read our blog and to search the thousands of posts we’ve written over the past eight years. We’re free!

The downside, of course, is that the blog makes no money. So besides spending several hours a day researching and writing for the blog, the two of us pay all the expenses.

What expenses? To begin with, there’s the technical stuff: Web hosting, domain registration, maintenance, and so on. Then there are the costs of keeping our standard dictionaries and other reference books up to date, and of paying for annual subscriptions to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of American Regional English, and other online resources.

We had hoped to cover our costs—and earn a little something for our work—with donations from readers. But unfortunately this hasn’t happened … yet.  With your help, it can happen in 2015.

Our heartfelt thanks to those of you who have contributed, especially those who donate regularly (one reader has even arranged a small monthly contribution through PayPal). Bless you all.

To the rest of you, if you like what we do and would like to pitch in, please help support the Grammarphobia Blog with a donation. No contribution is too small!

Thank you.

Pat and Stewart

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Was the storm a shoo-shoo?

Q: I woke up in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment the other day, looked out the window expecting to see a storm-wracked New York, and thought, “Well, that was a shoo-shoo.” Growing up in New Orleans, we learned that an unexploded firecracker was a shoo-shoo. I wondered if this went beyond my hometown and I found an article saying the reduplicative usage was brought home to Louisiana by doughboys returning from World War I.

A: Yes, the recent “storm of the century” was indeed a shoo-shoo in New York City as well as in our part of southern New England. And “shoo-shoo” is a fine example of reduplication—a subject we recently discussed on the blog.

However, we doubt that doughboys from Louisiana brought the usage home with them from the battlefields of World War I. Or that the usage was inspired, as the article says, by problems with the Chauchat light machine gun.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has an example of the usage in Louisiana dating from 1917, when the doughboys were still heading for Europe, not returning home.

The first members of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in June of 1917, and the force wasn’t involved in significant combat until 1918, the last year of the war.

DARE defines “shoo-shoo” as “a failed firecracker that is later broken open and lit.” The dictionary suggests that the name is probably “echoic”—an imitation of the hissing sound made when the powder from a split firecracker is ignited.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a list of Louisiana terms submitted by James Edward Routh of Tulane University to Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society:

“A fire-cracker that has failed to go off. The ‘shoo-shoo’ is broken and lighted for the flare of the loose powder.”

DARE says the usage is “chiefly” seen in Louisiana. Nearly all of its most recent reports of “shoo-shoo” (1967-68) are from Louisiana, though the dictionary does have a couple from Hawaii for “shoo-shoo baby.”

We suspect that the Hawaiian reports were inspired by “Shoo Shoo Baby,” an Andrews Sisters hit, or by a B-17 Flying Fortress named after the song. The World War II plane is now on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Ohio.

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Can’t win for losing

Q: Is the expression “You can’t win for losing” as simple as it sounds? Or is there a deeper meaning and significance?

A: We don’t see anything particularly deep about the expression. It’s just another way of saying “You can’t win if you’re losing all the time.”

The Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.) says the usage refers to someone  “entirely unable to make any sort of success” or “persistently and distressingly bested.”

The authors, Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman, give this example: “We busted our humps, but we just couldn’t win for losing.”

Kipfer and Chapman date the expression from the 1970s, but we’ve found earlier examples in Internet searches.

The earliest is from a 1955 issue of the Postal Supervisor, a journal of the National Association of Postal Supervisors:

“You can’t win for losing, it seems. Who are our friends, and who is the snake in the grass in Congress. There must always be a villain in the plot. Will it be the outer-space missile this time?”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer indicates that the use of the expression increased sharply in the 1960s, reaching a peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

We’ll end with a more recent example of the usage from Any Woman’s Blues: A Novel of Obsession (2006), by Erica Jong:

“I want to be the best man for you, but you’re never satisfied. Whatever I do, it’s not enough—I can’t win for losing!”

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’s 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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No problem at all

Q: I’m struck by the strangeness of the phraselet “at all.” It seems to pop up everywhere, with a clear connotation but not much denotation at all. Is it shorthand for “at all events”? Seems to me it’s used in cases where the full phrase wouldn’t work at all.

A: “At all” is one of those phraselets (we like your term) that defy literal interpretation.

It functions as an adverb, but taken individually the words “at” and “all” don’t seem to add up to what the idiom means. And what exactly does “at all” mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary says “at all” has been used three ways since it showed up in the mid-1300s: in negative or conditional statements, in interrogative usages, and in affirmative statements (though this sense has generally died out).

When used in negative or conditional “if” statements, according to the OED, “at all” means “in any way,” “to any degree,” “in the least,” or “whatsoever.”

Examples date back to the 15th century and include “stryve not at al” (1476); “no peace at all” (1535); “If thy father at all misse me” (1611); “not at all visible” (1664); “If he refuses to govern us at all” (1849), and “no problem at all” (1975).

When used in questions, the OED says, “at all” has somewhat similar meanings—“in the least,” “in any way,” “for any reason,” “to any extent,” and “under any circumstances.”

Interrogative usages date back to the 16th century, and among the OED’s citations are “what power can it haue on you at all?” (1566); “shall I not vse Tabacco at all?” (1600); “why should he at all regard it?” (1683), and “Why should people care about football at all?” (2008).

But before these negative, conditional, and interrogative usages came into being, “at all” was used in affirmative statements to mean “in every way,” “altogether,” “wholly,” and “solely,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example, from about 1350, is  “I þe coniure & comande att alle” (I thee conjure and command at all).

The affirmative use of the phrase has died out in common usage, however, and now survives only in some regional dialects of American and Irish English.

A 1945 article in the journal American Speech says this affirmative use “lives on in Irish dialect and in colloquial speech in certain parts of America, especially after a superlative.”

The article, which gives “We had the best time at all” for an example, says the usage was reported in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, elsewhere in the South, and the Midwest.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has 20th-century examples of the affirmative usage from Virginia, Louisiana, West Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

In affirmative constructions in US regional English, “at all” means “of all” or “only,” according to the DARE.

The regional dictionary cites such examples as “He is the greatest man at all” (1916), “We had the best time at all” (1936), “She’s the finest girl at all” (1942), and “Use one statement at all” (1976).

As for the preposition in “at all,” the OED has this to say: “At is used to denote relations of so many kinds, and some of these so remote from its primary local sense, that a classification of its uses is very difficult.”

Well, we hope this sheds a little light on an idiomatic phrase (or phraselet) that today eludes a word-for-word interpretation.

Finally, a few words about “all,” an extremely useful word.

It functions as many parts of speech: adjective (“all day” … “we all went”); pronoun (“all you need” … “all is well”); noun (“he gave his all” … “the one versus the all”); and adverb (“all dirty” … “it’s all a dream”).

For many centuries, since the days of Old English, the adverb has been used with prepositions in interesting ways to emphasize, affirm, or otherwise modify a verb.

This is where “at all” comes in. But there are many other such phrases, too many to mention in all (there’s one now!).

For example, we use “all” with prepositions to mean “the entire way” or “fully.” The OED’s citations, dating back to early Old English, include quotations from Lord Nelson (“all round the compass,” 1795); Thomas Macaulay (“all down the Rhine,” 1849); and Bob Dylan (“all along the watchtower,” 1968).

We use both “all of” and “of all,” but for different purposes. Similarly we use “in all” and “all in” (as in “I’m all in”). And we often use “all” with “for” and “to”—as in “all to [or for] nought,” “all to hell,” “a free for all,” “all for it,” “all for one and one for all,” and many others.

“All” is also used with words that look like prepositions but are in fact adverbs: “I knew all along” … “they’re all alone” … “go all out” … “look all over” … “fall all round” … “lie all around,” hemmed all about,” and more.

“All” is such an ancient part of the language that its fossilized traces were evident in words from as far back as early Old English, when it appeared as ael- in compounds.

Remnants are seen today in words like “also,” “always,” “although,” “altogether,” “almighty,” and others.

We mentioned above that “all” can be an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, or an adverb. But once upon a time it was a conjunction as well.

The use of “all” as a conjunction is almost unknown today, but a trace of the old conjunction lives on in the word “albeit,” which is derived from the old phrase “all be it so.”

With that, we’re all done.

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In our humble opinion

Q: The new CEO of a local organization recently emailed this: “It is with humbleness and excitement that I take on this leadership role.” Why back-form a clumsy-sounding noun from an adjective when we already have a perfectly good noun—“humility”?

A: One of the blessings of English is its flexibility. We have umpteen different ways of saying something with umpteen different shadings.

That CEO could have taken on his new job with humility, humbleness, modesty, diffidence, meekness, selflessness, and so on.

Clumsiness is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. It’s not even clear whether “humility” or “humbleness” is conciser, let alone nicer. “Humility” has two fewer letters, but “humbleness” has one less syllable.

More important, both nouns showed up in English around the same time (back in the 1300s!) and writers have been choosing one or the other ever since, depending on tone, cadence, intonation, and so on.

Shakespeare, for instance, used “humbleness” in the late 1500s in The Merchant of Venice (“With bated breath, and whispring humblenes”) and he used “humility” in the early 1600s in Coriolanus (“Enter Coriolanus in a gowne of Humility, with Menenius”).

He had a way with words, didn’t he? We especially like the idea of whispering humbleness.

Both “humility” and “humbleness” have Gallic roots, though “humbleness” has more of an Anglo-Saxon flavor because of its Old English suffix.

English got “humility” from the Middle French humilité, but the ultimate source is humilis, Latin for low or humble, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

“Humbleness” comes from the Middle English adjective humble and the Old English suffix -ness. The adjective, in turn, is derived from the Old French umble or humble, which ultimately comes from humilis, the same Latin source as “humility.”

The first of these nouns to show up in English was “humility,” according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from “The Five Joys of the Virgin Mary” (circa 1315), a poem by William of Shoreham: Thorȝ clennesse and humylyte (“Her pureness and humility”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “humbleness” is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1388: “He knowynge her pride, and schewinge his owene humblenesse.”

We’ll end with these not-so-humble remarks by Uriah Heep to David Copperfield:

“Ah! But you know we’re so very umble. And having such a knowledge of our own umbleness, we must really take care that we’re not pushed to the wall by them as isn’t umble. All stratagems are fair in love, sir.”

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On brooch, broach, and broccoli

Q: How come the ornament pinned over my wife’s clavicle, a “brooch,” is pronounced like “roach” and not like “smooch”?

A: Yes, “brooch” is usually pronounced in the US and the UK to rhyme with “roach,” but some American dictionaries recognize a variant pronunciation that rhymes with “smooch.”

And some US dictionaries also recognize the variant spelling “broach” when the word for the ornamental pin is pronounced like “roach.”

In fact, the noun was spelled neither “brooch” nor “broach” when it first showed up in Middle English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The OED has a questionable citation from the 1100s.)

The word was originally spelled “broche” when Middle English adopted it from broche, Old French for a pointed weapon or instrument.

In Middle English, “broche” was pronounced with a long “o” (as in “hope”), which accounts for the pronunciation you’re asking about, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

For a few hundred years, the word “broche” referred to both the ornamental pin and a pointed implement (lance, spear, skewer, awl, and so on). However, “brooch” was occasionally used for the pin, as in the OED‘s earliest example of the ornamental usage.

In the 1500s, English speakers began routinely using the “brooch” spelling for the ornament and the “broach” spelling for the sharp implement, but the spellings weren’t consistent and were often reversed, according to Oxford.

The contemporary acceptance of “brooch” for the pin and “broach” for the tapered tool is relatively recent. As Oxford explains, “the differentiation of spelling being only recent, and hardly yet established.”

In the OED’s earliest definite example for “broche” (from Legends of the Rood, circa 1305, a collection of tales based on the Bible), the word refers to a lance or spear: “A Broche þorw-out his brest born” (“A lance borne through his breast”).

The dictionary’s earliest definite example for the ornamental usage is from The Legend of Good Women, a poem by Chaucer from around 1385: “Send hire letters, tokens, brooches, and rynges.”

The usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin broccus (pointed or projecting). In late Latin, brocca referred to a pointed tool.

The Latin and French sources have given English several other words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The verb “broach,” for example, meant “to pierce” when it entered English in the 1300s, then came to mean to tap a keg in the 1400s. And English speakers began using “broach” metaphorically in the 1500s to mean “introduce a subject.”

The French verb brocher (to stitch), Ayto adds, has given both French and English the noun “brochure” (literally “a stitched work”).

Finally, the late Latin brocca has given English (via Italian) “broccoli.” (In Italian, brocco is a shoot or stalk, and broccolo is a cabbage sprout.)

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Why wine drinks well

Q: Why does a wine critic say a Bordeaux “drinks well”? A food critic wouldn’t say the carpaccio “eats well.” Does this usage have a history or is it just recent jargon?

A: Yes, the usage has a history—a long history!

The verb “drink” has been used intransitively (that is, without an object) since the early 1600s to mean “have a specified flavour when drunk,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

All six examples of the usage in the OED refer to wine, though one of the wines is made from fermented plantains, not grapes.

The earliest Oxford citation is from A Woman Kilde With Kindnesse, a play by Thomas Heywood that was first performed in 1603 and published in 1607:

“Another sipped to give the wine his due / And saide unto the rest it drunke too flat.” (We’ve gone to the original text to expand on the dictionary’s citation.)

And here’s an 18th-century example from John Armstrong’s Sketches or Essays on Various Subjects (1758): “The Burgundy drinks as flat as Port.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation is from the May 23, 1969, issue of the Guardian: “Every one of these wines will drink well now: most of them will improve by keeping.”

This use of “drink” is often referred to as “mediopassive,” a middle voice somewhere in between active and passive. In a post last year,  we discussed mediopassives like “My new silk blouse washes beautifully” … “Your house will sell in a week” … “The car drives smoothly.” A friend recently sent us her favorite example: “That dress buttons up the back.”

Why, you ask, is this usage common among wine critics, but not other food critics?

The OED suggests that it may have been influenced by the passive use of se boire (the reflexive form of the French verb “drink”).

Other than that, we don’t know. Some questions can’t be answered. That’s one reason why etymology is so fascinating. Let’s drink to that.

The verb “drink” itself is of Germanic origin (drincan in Old English, drinkan in Old Saxon, trinkan or trinchan in Old High German, drekka, in Old Norse, and so on).

When the verb showed up in Old English around the year 1000, it was transitive (a transitive verb needs an object to make sense). It meant “to swallow down, imbibe, quaff” a liquid, according to the OED.

Oxford’s first example of the usage is from the Book of Luke in the West Saxon Gospels: He ne drinco win ne beor. (He drinks neither wine nor beer.)

We’ll end by returning to the usage you asked about. Here’s a poetic example from The Compleat Imbiber: An Entertainment (1967), by the wine and food writer Cyril Ray: “I sipped the wine, which drank like velvet.”

[Update, Feb. 13, 2015. A retired English teacher writes: “I was reminded of an old rural Alabama saying, circa 1940-’50, used by cooks who may have overcooked, over salted, or otherwise prepared food not up to their usual standards, but needed to serve said food anyway. ‘This will eat,’ or ‘It’ll eat,’ was used in those cases as a slight apology for the less than perfect dish.” We can think of another example, the advertising slogan for Campbell’s Chunky Soup: “The soup that eats like a meal.”]

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