The Grammarphobia Blog

How dim is dimunition?

Q: Just now, the chairman of the board of a financial institution with several hundred billion dollars of assets under management used “dimunition” where he  meant “diminution.” I don’t often hear either word, but I hear “dimunition” about as often as “diminution.” Do you OK this usage?

A: No, we don’t recommend using “dimunition” to mean a decrease or the act of decreasing. Although Google searches indicate that thousands of people use “dimunition” that way, many thousands more prefer “diminution.”

More important, we haven’t found “dimunition” in a single standard dictionary, either as an entry or as a variant of “diminution,” the accepted spelling of the word.

Although the spelling of “diminution” has varied a bit since it entered English in the 1300s, none of the forms have included “dimunition” or something pronounced like it, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English borrowed the word from the Anglo-Norman term diminuciun, but the ultimate source is deminutio, classical Latin for a decrease.

The earliest example in the OED is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “To encrece or maken dyminucioun / Of my langage.”

Here’s an example, with the modern spelling, from an article by Joseph Addison in the Sept. 23, 1712, issue of the Spectator: “I shall give my reader a Copy of his Letter, without any Alteration or Diminution.”

The usage you’ve noted seems to be relatively new. The earliest example we could find in a search of Google Books was from Communicating Ideas: The Politics of Scholarly Publishing (1991), by Irving Louis Horowitz:

“Less speculative is that the new information technology represents not a dimunition but an addition to what now exists in the way of publishing potential.”

For what it’s worth, most of the early examples were from academic, scientific, or political writing. And, no, we didn’t find a military example of “dimunition” in the sense of a weapon with a double whammy.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Because and effect

Q: I was on the Web a while ago and saw that the American Dialect Society chose “because” as its 2013 Word of the Year (not “selfie” like some others). This is “because,” as in “I’m so happy today because in love.” Yeccccch! Does this seem likely to transfer into standard English?

A: Traditionally, “because” is followed by a phrase beginning with “of” (“because of his age”) or by an entire clause (“because he was so young”).

But lately “because” has been used in a new way—followed by only an adjective, a noun, or an interjection. Examples: “She ate the leftovers because hungry” … “We’re convinced because facts” … “I bought this bikini because wow!”

This usage, which isn’t widespread enough yet to make it into standard dictionaries, represents a new grammatical function for an age-old word.

So far, this new use of “because” is mostly a youth thing, not found in mainstream writing. The people who use it in their writing—for the most part informally and online—tend to be trendy young sprouts.

We’ve never actually heard it with our own ears (possibly because we move in somewhat creakier circles than those aforementioned young sprouts).

The reason the American Dialect Society found this usage interesting is that it represents not just a new piece of vocabulary (like “selfie” or “twerk”), but a change in an existing word’s grammatical function.

Ben Zimmer, chairman of the society’s New Words Committee, explained in January on the ADS website why the group chose “because” as its word of the year.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’ ”

Later, in his Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus website, Zimmer explained that “despite the competition, because won on the first ballot, the clear favorite of word-watchers who get excited to see a trusty old word used in novel ways. And with that, I bid you adieu, because tired.”

You ask whether this “because” will make its way into standard English. Well, the fact that it’s mostly used by the young—and online—doesn’t meant it’s necessarily a temporary fad and that it won’t become a permanent part of the language.

Many standard usages start out as slang or youthful expressions. As with all language change, this one will be adopted by people who find it useful. And if enough people adopt it, the new “because” will have staying power.

But even if this “because” does become mainstream, our guess is that it won’t happen overnight.

It’s worth noting that “because” hasn’t always existed in its modern form. It evolved for centuries before arriving at what we now consider its “traditional” usage.

When it entered Middle English around 1305, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, our word “because” was an adverbial phrase consisting of a preposition and a noun, “by cause.”

Chaucer, for example, wrote in The Franklin’s Tale (circa 1395): “By cause that he was hir neghebour.”

It was “directly modeled on the French par cause,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

In English, this phrase was often preceded by “for,” and was followed by “of,” or by an infinitive, or by a clause introduced by “that” or “why.”

This OED citation, with an introductory “for,” is from the writings of Robert Copland (c. 1541): “For bycause that the sayde indication is nat taken of the same cause ….”

In these usages, as we said above, “because” functioned as an adverb.

But as John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, “already by the end of the 14th century, that and why were beginning to be omitted, leaving because to function as a conjunction, a move which would perhaps have exercised contemporary linguistic purists as much as ‘The reason is because …’ does today.”

Chaucer was an early perpetrator. In The Franklin’s Tale, mentioned above,  he wrote a line omitting “that” in the poem’s prologue: “By cause I am a burel [unlearned] man … Haue me excused of my rude speche.”

The construction with “of” dates to the mid-14th century. The OED’s earliest example is from John Wycliffe’s The Last Age of the Church (1356): “Þe synnes bi cause of whiche suche persecucioun schal be in Goddis Chirche” (“The sins because of which such persecutions shall be in God’s Church”).

Here again, the OED notes, “for” was sometimes tacked on before, as in this 1578 translation from the works of John Calvin: “Man ought to have excelled all other Creatures, for because of the mind wherewith he was indued.”

The use of “because” followed by a “to” infinitive died out in the 16th century, but we can show you what it looked like.

This is from Thomas Langley’s 1546 translation of the works of the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil: “Arithmetike was imagyned by the Phenicians, because to vtter [sell] theyr Merchaundyse.” Here “because to” meant “in order to.”

The point of all this is that “because” has changed before, and it could change again. Only time will tell.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

“Rather than” is rather puzzling

Q: I have a question about the following sentence: “My mind still worships the idol of specialness rather than love God.” Is the word “love” correct, or should it be “loves”? The phrase “rather than” seems to be the decisive factor.

A: The word “love” in that sentence is an infinitive, so it doesn’t have to agree with the singular subject.

Although the wording is grammatically correct the way it is, we’d rearrange the sentence to make it a bit easier to understand:

“Rather than love God, my mind still worships the idol of specialness.”

Are you wondering how “love” can be an infinitive if it isn’t preceded by “to”? We’ve discussed bare (or “to”-less) infinitives several times on our blog, including in a post last year.

If you want to keep the current word order, we think readers would find a participle (“loving”) clearer than an infinitive (“love”):

“My mind still worships the idol of specialness rather than loving God.”

You’re right that “rather than” is the decisive factor here. This will take a bit of explaining, because “rather than” constructions can be confusing.

People commonly use “rather than” in comparisons, and generally the terms being compared are grammatically parallel.

For example, the two are both nouns (“adopted a dog rather than a cat”), adjectives (“orange rather than red tomatoes”), prepositions (“up the hill rather than down”), similar verb forms (“he floats rather than swims”), and so on.

But where verb forms are concerned, the terms being compared in a “rather than” construction aren’t always alike. This can happen when one of the verbs is an “-ing” form (a participle, like “loving”) or an infinitive (like “love”).

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language puts it (page 1,317), the terms in a “rather than” sentence are sometimes “clearly non-coordinative”—that is, they’re not parallel.

The book gives this example: “They obeyed the order rather than suffer torture or death.” The first verb (“obeyed”) is in the past tense; the second (“suffer”) is an infinitive.

As the Cambridge Grammar points out, when the terms aren’t parallel—or the “constituents are not syntactically alike”—you can easily move the “rather than” part to the front: “Rather than suffer torture or death they obeyed the order.”

In general, as Robert W. Burchfield says in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), “matching forms are best” in “rather than” constructions.

“The only snag,” adds Burchfield, “is that many kinds of English, including literary English, are more complex, and call for greater subtlety.”

Burchfield cites instances from published sources in which the terms don’t match—one of the verbs is either an “-ing” form or an infinitive (we’ll underline them in his examples):

● “the subject reveals its limitations, rather than providing a springboard for the author”;

● “Rather than dwell on this shortcoming he went off into half-baked musings.”

“Rather than” has long been in use in the kinds of comparative constructions we mentioned above—parallel and otherwise.

Here “rather” is a comparative adverb (meaning more properly, more readily or willingly), and “than” is a conjunction.

Since Old English, “rather” has had meanings associated with priority of some sort—that is, a sense of one thing coming ahead of another, whether in preference, in time, in importance, or for purposes of contrast.

One of its meanings was “earlier, sooner, previously,” the Oxford English Dictionary says (so “rather than” meant sooner or earlier than).

That old sense of “rather” is long gone, but interestingly the expression “sooner than” still carries the meaning “rather than,” as in “I’d sooner have this one than that.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

The original martinet

Q: Bill O’Reilly said on Fox News the other day that a man who’s a strong leader in America today can expect to be called a bully, a tyrant, a martinet, and other negative terms. Where does ”martinet” come from?

A: John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins traces the usage back to “the name of Jean Martinet, a 17th-century French army officer who invented a system of drill.”

Ayto notes that the first appearance of the term in English—in The Plain-Dealer, a 1677 play by William Wycherley—was a reference to the drill system devised by Martinet, a lieutenant colonel:

“What, d’ye find fault with Martinet? Let me tell you, sir, ’tis the best exercise in the world; the most ready, most easy, most graceful exercise that ever was us’d.”

By the 1700s, the term meant a military drillmaster as well as “a rigid, inflexible, or merciless disciplinarian,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example of the more general sense, from Tancred; or The New Crusade, an 1847 novel by Benjamin Disraeli:

“She knew that the fine ladies … were moral martinets with respect to any one not born among themselves.”

The most recent OED example is from The White Dove, a 1986 novel by Rosie Thomas (pen name of the British romance writer Janey King):

“The grey, starched martinet in her office lined with bound copies of nursing journals.”

As you may be aware, the word “martinet” has had many other meanings since it showed up in English in the early 1400s.

It has meant a bird (a martin or swift), a student at the University of Paris, a watermill, a siege engine, a demon, and a cat-o’-nine-tails once used in French schools.

Why a cat-o’-nine-tails?

The OED suggests that tails of the whip supposedly resembled the forked tail of a swallow (a martin is a swallow). However, we wonder if the name of that 17th-century drillmaster may have influenced the usage.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

How sick is this usage?

Q: In striking down California’s teacher-tenure system, a state judge, Rolf Treu, wrote that ineffective teachers had a “negative impact on a sick number of California students.” I’ve always considered this use of “sick” to mean “excessive” (or maybe “amazing”) to be slang, but now it will be in law books. When does a word stop being slang?

A: Judge Treu didn’t use the phrase “a sick number” in his tentative decision on June 10, 2014. He clearly wrote “a significant number,” but some news organizations got it wrong.

A news outlet that got it right was BloombergBusinessWeek, which reported  on June 12, 2014, about the judge’s ruling.

The Bloomberg reporter, Karen Weise, wrote that in the trial an expert testifying for the state said that “as many as 3 percent of California teachers—8,250 in all—are ‘grossly ineffective.’ ”

“Taken together,” she added, “the judge found that ‘the number of grossly ineffective teachers has a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students now and well into the future.’ ”

A number of dictionaries recognize the use of “sick” as a slang term meaning excellent or impressive. But none of them say “sick” has ever meant numerous or excessive.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides several quotations, from the early 1980s onward, in which “sick” means excellent, impressive, or risky.

The earliest example is from a 1983 typescript on campus slang compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Sick, unbelievably good: The Fleetwood Mac concert was sick.”

This later example is from a 2002 issues of U.S. News & World Report: “ ‘That’s siiiick!’ gushes an admiring fan.”

Today, the usage is generally found in reference to skateboarding and surfing, the OED says.

Over the years, there have been many other meanings associated with “sick.” One of the better-known is the colloquial use of “sick” to describe an unpleasant brand of humor.

The earliest OED citation is from Punch in 1959: “The prototype of sick jokes is one that goes ‘But apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’ ”

“Sick” has also been used as a slang term to describe a drug addict who craves a fix or who’s suffering from withdrawal, a usage that Green’s Dictionary of Slang has traced 1938.

Another use of “sick,” to mean disgusted or mortified, dates from 1850, the OED says.

Yet another, which dates back to Old English and is still very much with us today, is described this way in the OED:

“Deeply affected by some strong feeling, as (a) sorrow, (b) longing, (c) envy, (d) repugnance or loathing, producing effects similar or comparable to those of physical ailments.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from The Fates of the Apostles, by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. (The OED dates the poem to 975, but it could have been written as far back as the 800s.)

The opening lines in Old English have been translated as “Sorrowful at the end of my journey and sick at heart, I discovered this song.”

The original and still most common meaning “sick”—that is, ill or ailing—predates that poem by a century.

The earliest known use is from King Aelfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work, The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius.

In modern English the passage reads, “As it is the custom of physicians to say, when they see a sick man.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

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. Today’s topic: how World War I changed the English language. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
The Grammarphobia Blog

In the nick of time

Q: In regard to your recent article about the criminal uses of “nick,” what about its use in the expression “nick of time”?

A: The noun “nick,” which referred to a notch or groove when it showed up in the 1500s, soon took on an additional meaning: the exact point of time when something takes place or needs to be done.

The earliest example of this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Arthur Golding’s 1565 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “there commeth in the nicke.”

The OED says this use of “nick” alone is “now somewhat rare,” but notes the longer form you’ve asked about.

When the expression “nick of time” showed up in the early 1600s, it meant the pretty much same thing as “nick”—that is, a crucial moment when something occurs or has to occur.

The OED’s first citation for the full version of the expression is from a 1610 sermon by the English clergyman John Day: Even in this nicke of time, this very, very instant.”

Another example, from a 1757 letter by George Washington, refers to a sweet-scented tobacco crop that “must if the Ship arriv’d Safe get to Market in the Nick of time.”

And here’s an example from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables: “If Mr. Andrews hadn’t caught her by her sash just in the nick of time she’d have fallen in.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

The divoon comedy

Q: My favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees song is “Kiss Them for Me,” which contains the line “It’s divoon, oh it’s serene.” Did the band coin “divoon” or is it a real word? It sounds like something Noel Coward made up so he could complete a difficult rhyme.

A: No, the English rock band Siouxsie and the Banshees didn’t coin the word “divoon.” It’s been around since at least the 1930s. And Coward apparently didn’t use the term, though he and his work have sometimes been described as divoon.

The 1991 song by the Banshees is a homage to the actress Jayne Mansfield. (“Divoon” was a Mansfield catchword and Kiss Them for Me was a 1957 film she did with Cary Grant.)

Is “divoon” a real word? Well, it’s as real as any other slang word. You won’t find it in standard dictionaries, but a lot of slang dictionaries have entries for “divoon,” defining the term as lovely, delightful, divine, or wonderful.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang describes “divoon” as an intentional alteration of “divine.”

The earliest example of the word in Random House is from Lonely Boy Blues, a 1944 novel by Alan Kapelner: “Oh, say, that soldier boy was utterly divoon!”

We’ve found an earlier example in The Happy Island, a 1938 novel by Dawn Powell: “they had both gone from mahogany toenails to a deep tearose and smoked tiny Cuban cigars and said things were ‘divoon’ one week and ‘gallicious’ the next.”

Margaret Reed discusses the intentional mangling of words in “Deliberate Mispronunciations,” a paper published in a 1932 issue of the journal American Speech.

Reed cites “anteecue” for “antique,” “genu-wine” for “genuine,” “a norange” for “an orange,” a “k-nife” for a “knife,” and many more examples.

She attributes the usage to “light-hearted youth.” But we—two not-so-tender punsters—don’t want to give youth all the credit (or discredit) for taking liberties with the language.

In a July 7, 2010, post on the Oxford Etymologist blog, Anatoly Liberman offers an explanation  of why someone would turn a word like “divine” into “divoon” (though he doesn’t actually discuss “divoon”).

“The vowel sound oo has the ability of giving a word an amusing appearance,” Liberman writes.  “Whoever hears snooze, canoodle, and nincompoop begins to smile; add boondoggle to this list.”

Liberman cites “Ooglification in American English Slang,” a 1977 article by the linguist Roger Wescott in the journal Verbatim:

“Hence the idea of the ‘ooglification of American slang,’ formulated in this form by American linguist Roger Wescott: if you want a word to sound slangy, substitute oo for its stressed vowel.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Some words about the N-word

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you say the N-word is derived from Latin. I’ve read that it comes from the area of Africa called Niger. Slavers changed “Niger” to “nigger” as a form of humiliation.

A: “Nigger” dates back to the 16th century, when a group of words beginning with the letter “n” started showing up in English in reference to Africans or African Americans.

These words included “Negro,” “nigro,” “niegro,” “neger,” “neager,” “negar,” “niger,” and “nigger.” (Some of these terms were originally capitalized, but only “Negro” is today.)

All of these words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are ultimately derived from the classical Latin word for black, niger.

The OED says the N-word was spelled “niger” when it first showed up in the late 1500s, though “it seems likely that the form niger … is intended to represent the same pronunciation” as “nigger.”

The double-g spelling first appeared in the early 1600s, according to the dictionary, but “niger” was “the preferred form up to the end of the 18th cent.”

At first, Oxford says, the word “nigger” was used by whites “as a relatively neutral (or occas. positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent.”

It didn’t become a racial slur until sometime in the first third of the 19th century, according to Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, a 2001 book by the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.

The earliest example of “nigger” in the OED (spelled “niger”) is from Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of Spanish epistles by Antonio de Guevara: “the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnesse.”

The reference to “the Nigers of Aethiop” here is simply an English translation of the original Spanish, “los negros en Ethiopia.”

The OED’s first example of the word with a double-g spelling is from a 1608 letter in the factory records of the East India Company: “The King and People [of ‘Serro Leona’] Niggers, simple and harmless.”

The dictionary says the comments in the letter, while “expressing patronizing views, reflect underlying attitudes rather than a hostile use of the word itself.”

Clearly derogatory uses began showing up in the early 1800s. Kennedy cites a comment from the abolitionist Hosea Easton about the negative usage.

In A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (1837), Easton describes “nigger” as “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.”

Interestingly, the OED says the word “nigger” was initially “used by black people (esp. African Americans) as a neutral or favourable term.”

However, this statement is open to argument, since the dictionary’s early examples come from white writers describing the speech of African Americans, often in what would now be considered heavy-handed, if not racist, attempts at humor.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “nigger” (and the earlier “niger”) is “probably an alteration” of the even earlier “neger,” a term for a black person first recorded in writing in 1568.

This word “neger,” Oxford says, was adopted from nègre, a word first recorded in Middle French in 1516 as a noun meaning “black person.” The French nègre was adopted in turn from the Spanish noun negro. It was this Spanish noun, negro, that gave English the word “Negro.”

We can understand why you might think “nigger” comes from the geographic name “Niger,” but there doesn’t seem to be any documented evidence that would support this.

The area referred to as Niger is named for the River Niger in West Africa, but the origin of the river’s name is uncertain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used similar names in referring to the River Niger, according to A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, an 1841 reference by Charles Anthon.

Ptolemy, for example, called what appeared to be the River Niger “the Nigeir,” while Pliny the Elder called it “the Nigris.” Herodotus didn’t mention a specific name, but he described what seemed like the same river.

“From all, then, that has been stated,” Anthon writes, “it will satisfactorily appear, that the great river of the Libya of Herodotus, the Nigris of Pliny, the Nigeir of Ptolemy, and the Niger of modern geography, are one and the same river.”

However, it’s uncertain whether those classical names for the Niger, the third-largest river in Africa, were references to the color black or to an African name for the river.

One theory is that the early names referred to the color of the river’s water, but the Niger’s water isn’t black (like that of the Rio Negro in Brazil), according to online images. (The 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson wrote of “Niger’s yellow stream.”)

Another theory is that the river was named for the black soil on its banks. A third hypothesis is that the classical names refer to the “river of the blacks.”

And a fourth is that the names are derived from a Tuareg phrase for the river: egerew nigerewen or egerew n-igerewen (“river of rivers”).

But as we’ve said, there is no evidence to support any of these theories. No matter how the classical names originated, English writers have been referring to the river as the “Niger” since around 1600, according to the OED.

The dictionary doesn’t have a citation for the usage, but here’s an example from Sylva Sylvarum or a Natural History in Ten Centuries, a posthumously published 1627 collection of scientific writings by Francis Bacon:

“And the confines of the River Niger, where the Negroes also are, are well watered.” (Was Bacon suggesting a connection between “Niger” and “Negroes”? It’s hard to say.)

Getting back to the derogatory nature of “nigger,” we wrote in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, that the word “is now the most bitterly resented racial slur a white person can utter.”

However, we noted that “young rappers now treat it as an honorific of the ’hood—repackaged as ‘nigga,’ ‘niggahz,’ etc.—to the dismay of some of their elders who have painful associations with the original.”

In a 2009 item on our blog, we mentioned that “nigger” (or “nigga”) had been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African Americans. We explained that attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are examples of semantic bleaching.

We also directed readers to an interesting paper on the subject by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York. His paper, published in the book African-American English (1998), discusses sexism in gangsta rap.

You might be interested in another post we ran a few years ago about the mythology of  blackness, and how lightness and darkness came to be identified with goodness and badness.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s no yoke—or is it?

Q: Most of us were taught that the yellow part of an egg, though pronounced like “yoke,” is spelled “yolk.” But a recent AP story called it “yoke” many times. And the Webster unabridged lists “yoke” as a variant spelling. Does that mean it’s perfectly OK?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and only two of them list “yoke” as a variant spelling of “yolk.”

Those two dictionaries—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and Webster’s Third New International, Unabridged—consider both “yolk” and “yoke” to be standard English for the yellow stuff in an egg.

The fine print in the front of those dictionaries explains what the wording within an entry means.

M-W Collegiate treats the “yoke” spelling as a “secondary variant” that “occurs appreciably less often” than “yolk.”

However, Webster’s Third treats “yolk” and “yoke” as “equal variants,” though the first one “may be slightly more common.”

No matter what the editors at those two dictionaries say, we wouldn’t recommend using “yoke” for the yellow part of an egg.

The lexicographers at most standard dictionaries online (Collins, Macmillan, Cambridge, Oxford, Webster’s New World, etc.) don’t consider “yoke” a variant of “yolk,” either standard or nonstandard. (The old Webster’s Second lists “yoke” as a dialectal variant of “yolk.”)

The Associate Press stylebook doesn’t have entries for “yolk” or “yoke,” and we suspect that the people who wrote and edited the AP story and its photo captions simply misspelled “yolk.” (We wouldn’t be surprised if the misspelling is corrected online after the appearance of this post.)

Interestingly, the word “yolk” was occasionally spelled “yoke” in the 1800s, and the word “yoke” was occasionally spelled “yolk” in the 1700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the only contemporary variant for “yolk” in the OED is “yelk,” a spelling that is found in some scientific and technical works but that “appears to have ceased to be frequent since the third quarter of the 19th century.”

Oxford  lists “yoke” as the only contemporary spelling for the device that’s used to couple oxen together for pulling a plow or wagon, as well as for the many figurative senses of the word.

Both “yolk” and “yoke” date back to Anglo-Saxon times, when “yolk” was geolca, geoloca, or gioleca in Old English, and “yoke” was geoc, gioc, ioc, or iuc.

The OED’s earliest citation for “yolk” (spelled gioleca) is from the Metres of Boethius, Old English poems based on the writings of the Roman philosopher Boethius. Some scholars think King Aelfred (849-899) was the author of the metres, or narrative poems.

The first Oxford citation for “yoke” (spelled iuc) in its oxen sense is an entry from around 1050 in Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabulary (1884), by Thomas Wright and Richard Wülcker.

A somewhat earlier entry in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon from sometime before the year 1000 uses the word (spelled geoc)  for “a similar appliance anciently placed on the neck of a captive or conquered enemy.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the word “yoke” is ultimately derived from jug-, jeug-, or joug-, an Indo-European root meaning “join” and the source of such English words as “conjugal,” “join,” “junction,” “subjugate,” and “union.”

Ayto says “yolk” is ultimately derived from ghel- or ghol-, the Indo-European root for the color yellow. A “yolk,” he writes, “is etymologically a ‘yellow’ substance.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Can a woman be testy?

Q: A headline on Politico about an exchange between Hillary Clinton and an NPR reporter said, “Hillary gets testy over gay marriage.” It strikes me as inappropriate to use a word derived from the male reproductive organs to describe a woman.

A: The word “testy” doesn’t refer to the testes. It comes from an entirely different part of the human anatomy—the head.

In the 14th century, English adopted “testy” from testif, an Anglo-French term derived from teste, the Old French word for head and the ancestor of the modern French word tête.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is testa, the classical Latin term for an earthenware pot. In the post-classical period, Ayto notes, testa “was used humorously for ‘head.’ ”

When “testy” first showed up in English in the 1300s, according to Ayto, it meant headstrong or impetuous. But by the 1500s the meaning of “testy” had evolved from impetuous to impatient to irritable.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (used in the headstrong sense) is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374), in which Diomede is described as “Hardy, testyf, strong and cheualrous.”

The first OED citation for “testy” used in the irritable sense is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by William Bonde: “Whiche wyll suffre his pacient though he be neuer so testy or angry.”

None of the Oxford citations use “testy” to describe a woman, but we’ll end with an example from Buried Alive (2011), Myra Friedman’s biography of Janis Joplin.

Dave Richards is quoted as saying he was initially terrified by Joplin when he was hired to help with the band’s equipment: “She was testy, testy about masculinity, about femininity, about everything.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Negative thoughts

Q: A colleague in the operating room where I work said to a patient: “You are allergic to no medications.” We all agree that the sentence is awkward at best, but we are debating whether it is in fact incorrect. Can you provide me with an answer (or at least your expert opinion)?

A: This use of “no” with a noun is a perfectly legitimate way to form a negative statement. “You are allergic to no medications” is simply another way of saying “you are not allergic to any medications.”

You may feel one sentence is more felicitous than the other (because of  rhythm, context, and so on), but both are grammatically acceptable.

In constructions of this kind, you have the choice of using a negative either with the noun or with the verb. One version uses “no” with the noun (“no medications”) and the other uses “not” with the verb (“are not”).

When used with a noun, “no” is an adjective, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When used with a verb, “not” (which may be contracted to ’nt) is an adverb; the OED calls it “the ordinary adverb of negation.”

The fact that the noun is plural makes no difference. It could just as well be singular, as in “There’s no milk” (another way of saying  “There isn’t any milk”).

Here are a few more examples. (Note that we sometimes add a form of “do” + “not” to a verb in making it negative.)

“He feels no pain” = “He does not feel any pain.”

“I’ve read no books this year” = “I haven’t read any books this year.”

“We see no problems ahead” = “We don’t see any problems ahead.”

“The applicant has no letters of recommendation” = “The application doesn’t have any letters of recommendation.”

We answered a similar question in 2008 about the legitimacy of “I know of no place” to mean “I don’t know of any place.”

As we wrote then, the two sentences are grammatically equivalent. One may be more graceful than the other, but they’re both correct.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

When “thanks to” is thankless

Q: A recent article in New Scientist magazine says  some people lose the ability to speak “thanks to” certain types of brain damage. I am not a native English speaker, but I seem to remember from usage guides that “due to” is used for negative reasons, while “thanks to” is for something positive. Surely damage to the brain is not a good thing.

A: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “thanks to” can refer “to negative as well as to positive and neutral causes.” M-W gives examples of all three usages.

Negative: “He wears thick telescope-lens glasses, thanks to a painful eye operation after a car crash” (from the October 1971 issue of Stereo Review).

Positive: “never got caught in ideological quicksand, thanks largely to its organizers” (from the May 1972 issue of Change magazine).

Neutral: “True, thanks to the telephone, ordinary people write less than they did” (from Occasional Prose, 1985, by Mary McCarthy).

However, the negative use of “thanks to” is often ironic, which may be why the negative usage in New Scientist caught your attention.

The few usage guides that discuss “thanks to” (or “no thanks to”) say the usage can be positive, negative, or neutral, but that the negative examples are usually ironic.

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), for example, R. W. Burchfield says the usage has appeared “positively or adversely or ironically” since the 17th century.

But Burchfield includes what he describes as an “ironical example” for the only adverse citation: “Thanks to the hurricane, millions of trees were destroyed.”

In The Careful Writer (1965), Theodore M. Bernstein says “thanks to” may be used properly in three ways:

(1) to express gratitude, as in “Thanks to you, I got the job”;

(2) to express blame, as in “Thanks to you, I lost my job”;

(3) to express causation in a neutral way, as in “Yet the sky is crowded, thanks to the tremendous speed of modern aircraft.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to the 1600s of “thanks to” used to mean “Thanks be given to, or are due to; hence, Owing to, as a result of, in consequence of.”  The OED adds that the usage is “often ironical.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Occasionall Meditations, a 1631 collection of devotional writings by Joseph Hall, an English bishop: “It is scarce any thanke to mee that hee prevailes.”

Here’s a later example from Rokeby, an 1813 narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott: “It is a sight but rarely spied, / Thanks to man’s wrath and woman’s pride.”

Getting back to your question, “thanks to” can be used to mean “caused by” in a negative sense. But we wouldn’t use it if the phrase seemed inappropriately flippant or ironical.

We haven’t read the article in New Scientist, but we think it would be unnecessarily jarring to say some people lose the ability to speak “thanks to” certain types of brain damage. We’d use “because of” instead of “thanks to.”

As for “due to,” we had a posting in 2012 about the case for or against using the phrase to mean “because of,” a usage that has a history but will raise a few eyebrows.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Speaking of dumb

Q:  When did “dumb” go from meaning “mute” to “stupid”?

A: To begin at the beginning, the word “dumb” has been traced back to dheubh-, a prehistoric Indo-European root indicating confusion, stupefaction, or dizziness, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“The notion underlying dumb is of sensory or mental impairment,” Ayto writes, adding that “two strands of meaning” developed when the term showed up in ancient Germanic languages: “slow-wittedness” and “the inability to speak.”

In Old English and Old Saxon, for example, dumb meant unable to speak, while in Old High German (spelled tumb or tump), it meant stupid, speechless, or deaf, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

When the word first showed up in Old English around the year 1000, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant “destitute of the faculty of speech.” The first citation is a reference to a dumbne man in the West Saxon Gospels.

The English word “dumb” didn’t develop its stupid sense until the 19th century, according to Ayto, “presumably under the influence of” the German dumm and the Dutch dom, adjectives meaning stupid.

The OED has two 18th-century citations by the English Roman Catholic priest Alban Butler for “dumb” meaning stupid. But we feel that the examples, from The Lives of the Saints (1756), are ambiguous.

The first definite Oxford example of “dumb” meaning stupid is from The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea, an 1823 novel by James Fenimore Cooper: “‘They’re a dumb race’ said the cockswain.” (A sailor is referring to a soldier here.)

And here’s a blatantly sexist example from the February 1892 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “My, but men are dumb. A woman would have caught on long ago.”

By the way, most standard dictionaries consider it offensive to use the term “dumb” for some someone unable to speak.

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) adds that the use of the terms “mute” and “deaf-mute” for people unable to speak is also “now usually considered objectionable.”

“Unlike blind and deaf, which are straightforward terms that need not be avoided out of fear of causing offense, mute and deaf-mute have fallen out of use and are likely to evoke older stereotypes of helplessness or pitiableness,” the usage note says.

American Heritage doesn’t offer an alternative, but the online Macmillan Dictionary says the “more usual” way of referring to someone unable to speak is “speech impaired.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you a wonk?

Q: American University, in its radio advertisements, uses the word “wonk” as a positive part of its mission. I should have thought it was a slangy, moderately derisive tern. It also grates. What is your view?

A: When we wrote about this subject on our blog back in 2007, the use of “wonk” or “wonkish” to refer to someone obsessed with minute points of policy was relatively recent.

We said then that the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “wonkish” in this sense was from a 1992 Washington Post article referring to “a lot of wonkish material” (targeted tax cuts, community policing, and social and educational reform).

But the OED has since come up with a much earlier usage from Steven Kelman’s Push Comes to Shove (1970), a memoir of political life at Harvard: “Harry is afraid that with you and Dave, the room is going to become too political and wonkish.”

Seven years ago, “wonk” and “wonkish” were faintly derisive, suggesting a nerdy obsession with policy details.

Since then, however, some of the negative senses have fallen away. Among many Washington insiders, “wonks” are on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the Beltway.

(Outside the Beltway, much the same thing has happened to “nerd,” a label that’s  become a badge of honor in information technology. We’ve written about that one too, in 2007.)

American University in Washington regards “wonk” as a positive—even coveted—label. As a 2010 article in the Washington Post reported, the school launched a marketing campaign branding itself the home of the “American Wonk.”

And in 2012 the university established a “Wonk of the Year” award. The school’s website says the award is intended “to recognize a well-known individual who represents the embodiment of a wonk.”

A wonk’s wonk, according to the university, is “someone smart, passionate, focused, and engaged who uses their knowledge and influence to create meaningful change in the world.”

The 2012 and 2013 honorees were Bill Clinton and CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Not everyone at American University is gung-ho about wonkism or the school’s wonkish marketing campaign.

As InTheCapital, a wonkish news site in DC, noted, some students have objected that the campaign is overdoing the “wonk” business and making a joke of their career paths.

If you’d like to read more about wonkiness, our earlier post discusses the use of the adjective “wonky” to mean shaky, unsteady, or awry—a usage that’s primarily seen in the UK.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

A method to the methodology?

Q: When we accountants write about the “methodology” for cost allocations, we are trying to make our work sound more important than if we had used “method.” How do you feel about the use of “methodology” to mean, as it often does, a fancy method; a complex method, a glorified method, rather than, based on its roots, the study of method?

A: Etymologically, “methodology” does mean the study of method, and that was the word’s original meaning in the early 19th century. But it has grown and prospered since then.

In 1800, when it was first recorded in English, “methodology” meant “the branch of knowledge that deals with method generally or with the methods of a particular discipline or field of study,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Subsequently, the OED says, the word also came to mean “the study of the direction and implications of empirical research, or of the suitability of the techniques employed in it.”

And more generally, Oxford adds, “methodology” simply means “a method or body of methods used in a particular field of study or activity.”

In our opinion, many people use “methodology” as a bigger and fancier word for a method or methods. But they’re not incorrect in doing so, as you can see from that OED definition.

Nevertheless, we’d use the word “method” if we were referring to a method. If the simpler word would do, why not use it?

The fancier word is made up of the noun “method” plus “-ology,” which the OED says is used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘the science or discipline of (what is indicated by the first element).’ ”

The word element “-ology” (like the shorter “-logy”) is Greek in origin and is used to form nouns meaning a branch of study or knowledge.

The ultimate source is the Greek logos (variously meaning word, speech, discourse, reason). Added to the end of a word, -logos means one who discourses about or deals with a certain subject, as in astrologos (astronomer).

As for “method,” the noun entered English in the early 1400s by way of French (méthode). Its classical ancestors are the Latin methodus (mode of proceeding), and the earlier Greek methodos (pursuit).

As John Ayto explains in discussing “method” in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “ ‘Pursuit’ of a particular objective gradually developed into a ‘procedure for attaining it,’ the meaning which the word had when it entered English.”

The word “method” still has that general meaning: “a procedure for attaining an object,” as the OED says, or “a way of doing anything, esp. according to a defined and regular plan.”

But Oxford also includes this: “A special form of procedure or characteristic set of procedures employed (more or less systematically) in an intellectual discipline or field of study as a mode of investigation and inquiry, or of teaching and exposition.”

Hmm. That definition of “method” sounds a lot like the general  meaning of “methodology.”

While “methodology” is a perfectly legitimate word, the OED points out that many “-ology” nouns were jokes.

“The earliest formations on purely native elements are mainly humorous and nonce words,” the dictionary says. It mentions “trickology” (trickery, first recorded in 1723); “caneology” (the doctrine of using the cane for punishment, 1837); as well as the self-explanatory “dogology” (1820), “bugology” (1843), and “noseology” (1819).

We’ll close with a quotation, given in the OED, from William John Locke’s novel The Wonderful Year (1916): “Much might be written on noses. The Great Master of Noseology, Laurence Sterne, did but broach the subject.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Business agnostic?

Q: In a recent conference call, three people described themselves as “business agnostic.” By this they meant they had skills useful in many business sectors, not just one. Is this use of “agnostic” correct? If so, will you please explain the rationale?

A: We can’t find this sense of “agnostic” in the Oxford English Dictionary or the half-dozen standard dictionaries we regularly check.

But English has taken a lot of liberties with “agnostic” since it first showed up in the mid-1800s. The usage you’ve noticed seems to be yet another extension of the many extended uses of the word.

The OED says “agnostic” first showed up as a noun for “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from the May 29, 1869, issue of the Spectator:

All these considerations, and the great controversies which suggest them, are in the highest degree cultivating, and will be admitted to be so even by those Agnostics who think them profitless of any practical result.”

The OED says the term “agnostic” was “apparently coined” by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.

The dictionary probably qualifies the attribution because the chronology is a bit fuzzy.

In “Agnosticism,” an 1889 essay, Huxley says he invented the term at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in London in 1869.

However, the society didn’t hold its first formal meeting until June 2, 1869, four days after the word “Agnostics” appeared in the Spectator.

It’s possible, though, that Huxley may have used the term at an organizational meeting of the Metaphysical Society that he attended on April 21.

In his essay, Huxley says he saw the word “agnostic” as “suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.”

The Gnostics (from gnosis, Greek for knowledge) were early Christians who used the term for people with spiritual knowledge.

Soon after “agnostic” appeared in print, the OED says, people were using the noun loosely to refer to “a person who is not persuaded by or committed to a particular point of view; a sceptic. Also: person of indeterminate ideology or conviction; an equivocator.”

The first Oxford citation for this new sense is from the Dec. 15, 1885, issue of the Western Druggist: Judge Chipman is clearly an agnostic on the subject of pills.”

When the adjective showed up in the 1870s, the dictionary says, it referred to “the belief that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (as far as can be judged) unknowable.”

The first OED citation for the adjective is from the Oct. 1, 1870, issue of the Spectator: “Are not his favourite ‘agnostic’ creeds … absolutely hostile to that enthusiasm of love to God and faith in God which are the simplest and most universal elements of a ‘religious spirit’ ”?

But like the noun, the adjective soon took on extended uses: “not committed to or persuaded by a particular point of view; sceptical. Also: politically or ideologically unaligned; non-partisan, equivocal.”

The first Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 23, 1884, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Standard: “Many worthy young persons who have been brought up on the sincere milk of agnostic politics.”

More recently, the OED says, the adjective has taken on a new sense in computing: developing, working with, or compatible with more than one type of computer system or operating system.

Is it legitimate to describe a versatile business person as “business agnostic”? It’s a bit of a stretch, but we think so.

If it’s OK to use “agnostic” to describe an open-minded politician, it’s not all that much of a leap to use it for an adaptable business type.

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post back in 2006 about the differences between an atheist and an agnostic.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Is a customer a guest?

Q: My question is about the disappearance of “customer” and the overuse of “guest,” as in “May I help the next guest?” when you’re buying your ticket at the movies. Why is this happening?

A: We agree that “guest” is being overused these days as a euphemism for a paying customer. We don’t think of ourselves as “guests” when we fork over money to a ticket-seller at a movie theater. Generally it’s the host who pays, not the guest.

There are a couple of established uses of “guest” that we all accept. The word has long been used to mean someone paying to stay in a hotel, and many dictionaries say it can also mean a restaurant customer.

Those usages are reasonable, since it’s bed and board—not merchandise—that’s being provided.

For more than a thousand years, “guest” has meant “one who is entertained at the house or table of another,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the use of the term for a moviegoer is questionable in our opinion, though one could argue that the theater customer is being entertained at a movie house.

However, we think that calling a retail shopper a “guest” is clearly going too far, and lexicographers generally agree with us.

Here’s what some leading dictionaries include among their definitions of “guest”:

“Someone who is paying to stay at a hotel or eat in a restaurant,” from Macmillan Dictionaries online;

“a person who pays for the services of an establishment (as a hotel or restaurant),” Merriam-Webster‘s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.);

“one who pays for meals or accommodations at a restaurant, hotel, or other establishment; a patron,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.);

“a patron of a hotel, boarding house, restaurant, etc.” (Collins Dictionaries online);

“any paying customer of a hotel, restaurant, etc.,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

Obviously, the editors of those dictionaries didn’t have retail customers in mind. Nevertheless, Google searches show that companies—including Target, Toys “R” Us, Kwik-Trip, and 7-Eleven—all refer to their customers as “guests.”

Somehow we doubt the shoppers think of themselves that way—unless the merchandise is being given away.

The word “guest” is part of an interesting history. As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, it ultimately comes from the same source as “host,” and “their family tree diverged in ancient times.”

Their common ancestor was a prehistoric Indo-European word reconstructed as ghostis (stranger).

This is the ancestor of the Latin hostis (enemy, stranger), the Greek xenos (guest, stranger), and the old Germanic sources that gave English the word “guest.”

Thus English words including “hospitable,” “hostile,” “xenophobia,” “hotel,” and “hospital” (as well as “guest” and “host”) are all derived from the ancient notion of receiving a stranger.

The Old English “guest” (written gæst, giest, etc.) was recorded as early as 725 in Beowulf. Originally it could mean either a stranger or a guest—that is, someone who was owed hospitality.

In the 1200s, the OED says, it was used to mean “a temporary inmate of a hotel, inn, or boarding house.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The South English Legendary, a medieval collection of lives of the saints compiled around 1290 (some scholars date it to 1265).

At around the same time (1290 or thereabouts), “host” entered English by way of Old French with the sense of someone who entertains another, either in his home or at a public inn.

(Since we never pass up a chance to quote P.G. Wodehouse, here goes: “I entered the saloon bar and requested mine host to start pouring,” from Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934.)

In the early 20th century, people began using “guest” to mean something like a visiting performer, as in “guest artist,” “guest soloist,” “guest conductor,” “guest star,” “guest speaker,” and so on.

Then of course there’s “guest host,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms but is familiar to fans of Saturday Night Live.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Why villains are vilified

Q: Your article on the many uses of “nick” on British crime shows reminds me of the way cops in the UK call perps “villains.” That has to go back—to Shakespeare, at least.

A: You’re right. The word “villain” does go back a long way. It crossed the Channel with England’s Norman conquerors (in Anglo-Norman and Old French, the word was vilein, vilain, or villain).

But the specific usage you’ve mentioned (the slang use of “villain” to mean a career criminal) is relatively recent, dating back no further than the mid-20th century. Here’s the story.

When “villain” first showed up (spelled vyleyn in Middle English), it meant “a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from Handlyng Synne (1303), a long devotional poem by the medieval monk Robert Manning of Brunne:

“Goddys treytour, and ryȝt vyleyn! Hast þou no mynde of Marye Maudeleyn.” (God’s traitor, and right villain! Hast thou no mind of Mary Magdalene?)

Over the years, the OED says, the word “villain” came to mean “an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds that “the extended (and now usual) sense of an unprincipled scoundrel or knave, evil person, is implied in the earliest uses of this word.”

As for the slang use of “villain” for a career criminal (the OED uses the phrase “professional criminal”), the earliest citation in the dictionary is from the Jan. 24, 1960, issue of the Observer:

“Suppose … a bogy did get it up for a villain now and again by making sure that some gear was found in his flat?” (A “bogy” is a detective or police officer in UK criminal slang.)

And here’s an example from Horse Under Water, a 1963 spy novel by Len Deighton: “This villain is doing a nice Cabinet Minister’s home.”

In case you’re wondering, the words “villa,” “village,” and “villain” ultimately come from the same classical source, villa, Latin for a farmhouse or farmstead.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

When “Euro” met “skeptic”

Q: All the news channels reporting on the recent European Parliament elections use the term “Euroskeptic” for a voter who is, well, skeptical of the EU’s value. This is the first time I’ve heard the word. Do you know who coined the term and when?

A: “Euroskeptic” isn’t new. It’s been around since at least as far back as the early 1970s.

The term is spelled “Eurosceptic” in British English, where it originated, and it’s sometimes hyphenated.

The earliest example we’ve been able to find comes from a 1971 issue of the Spectator, which refers to “the Euro-sceptic Chiefs of Staff, and Lords Carrington and Balniel, equally sceptical.”

(It’s impossible to tell whether “Eurosceptic” was really meant to have a hyphen there, since the term comes at the end of a line break and thus requires one.)

The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition for the term:

“A person, esp. a politician, having doubts or reservations regarding the supposed benefits of increasing cooperation between the member states of the European Union (and formerly the European Economic Community).” Also, “an opponent of greater political or economic integration in Europe.”

The OED’s earliest published example is from a 1985 issue of the Times in London: “Cockfield—appointed by Thatcher, ironically, for being a Euro-sceptic—has taken to making visionary statements recently.”

Oxford has this more recent citation, from the October 2004 issue of the journal Politics: “Whatever he does to try belatedly to win them back will be ridiculed by Europhiles and meet with a wall of doubt from Eurosceptics.”

Besides being a noun for a person, the word is also an adjective (as in “a turnout of Euroskeptic voters”). The OED has citations for the adjectival usage, as well as for the noun “Euroskepticism,” dating back to 1990.

We’re seeing a lot more of these words lately in the wake of last month’s elections for the European Parliament, where Euroskeptic parties gained ground against the established parties.

For example, a May 28 editorial in the New York Times noted: “Though the Euroskeptics will be a sizable, if fragmented bloc, the parties most supportive of the union will command almost 70 percent of the 751 seats.”

The widespread use of “Euroskeptic” is really no surprise. In recent decades, “Euro-” has become a popular prefix for referring to things or people associated with or originating in Europe.

Here are a few usages from the OED, along with the dictionary’s earliest examples. (We’ll spell them as they appeared, and we’ll include only words that refer to Europe in general, not to the European Union.)

Words for people: “Euro-anatomist” (a medical scientist, 1961); “Eurobum” (a professional houseguest, 1964); “Eurotrash” (rich European socialites, 1980), and “Euro-intellectual” (2005).

Words for music: “Eurojazz” (1967); “Euro-rock” (1974); “Eurobeat” (1976); “Europop” (1976); “Euro-disco” (1979); “Euro-rap” (1983); “Euro Techno” (1991), and “Euro trance” (2002).

Also, “Europlug” (an electric plug that fits sockets in Europe, 1965); “Euro-arty” (describing a sophisticated audience, 1982); “Euro-English” (the kind spoken by continental Europeans, 1986); “Eurofashion” (1993), and “Euro-chic” (2004).

And of course we must include “Europhobia” (1967) and “Europhobe” (1978), as well as “Europhilia” (1968) and “Europhile” (1971).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Pulling one’s leg

Q: Where does the expression “to pull one’s leg” come from? Could it have anything to do with pirates or smugglers hiding things in wooden legs? I just wonder.

A: The expression, which means to deceive or tease a person humorously or playfully, first showed up in print in the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from the Feb. 20, 1883, issue of a Pennsylvania newspaper, the Wellsboro Agitator: “The Chinese giant once told me he had half a dozen wives at home, but I think he was pulling my leg.”

However, we’ve found earlier examples going back to the mid-1800s, including this one from Always Ready; or Every One in His Pride, an anonymous 1859 novel about the British Merchant Navy:

“In reply to which both brothers commenced ‘pulling his leg’ by criticising his rig, asking him ‘Who his hatter was?’ and politely wishing those present to ‘twig his heels.’ ” (The expression “twig his heels” is apparently obsolete slang for tease or criticize.)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an even earlier example, an 1821 entry from the Diary of James Gallatin, but it may be fraudulent. Historians have questioned the legitimacy of the diary and have suggested it’s a hoax.

For example, Raymond Walters Jr., writing in the July 1957 issue of The American Historical Review, says “the diary must be considered historical romance” and libraries “that own copies of it should transfer them to their fiction shelves.”

We can’t find any evidence that the expression “to pull one’s leg” ever had anything to do with pirates, smugglers, or peg legs. Nor with pulling the legs of prisoners on the gallows to speed up executions—a common theory.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says the usage “is thought to allude to tripping someone by so holding a stick or other object that one of his legs is pulled back.”

Why trip someone? The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins suggests that by tripping a person “you can throw him into a state of confusion and make him look very foolish indeed.”

We’ve also seen speculation that the usage originated with muggers who tripped their victims with a stick to make it easier to rob them, but we haven’t seen any evidence to support this idea.

Our theory? We’ll file the expression away in our “Origin Unknown” folder.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

How do you pronounce “err”?

Q: When I pronounced the verb “err” to rhyme with “hair,” a friend (a retired schoolteacher) corrected me and said it rhymes with “her.” Is she correct?

A: The word “err,” meaning to be in error or make a mistake, has two acceptable pronunciations in American English. It can rhyme with either “her” or “hair.”

If you’re British, however, you don’t have a choice—all the standard British dictionaries we’ve checked list only one pronunciation—the one that rhymes with “her.”

As it turns out, the original pronunciation was AIR. The ER pronunciation, a later development, eventually became dominant and is still regarded as the “traditional” one by many. But in the last half-century or so, AIR has made a comeback.

A note in the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary adds some perspective here. Originally, according to M-W, the initial vowel of both “err” and “error” rhymed with AIR.

But over time, the dictionary adds, “err” also developed the ER pronunciation. A similar thing happened with the words “curt,” “word,” “bird,” and “were,” which originally had distinctly different vowel sounds that are now pronounced as ER.

Why did this happen? Because of the presence of “r.” As the dictionary says, “The sound of the letter r often colors a preceding vowel in English.”

In the case of “err,” the note continues, “Commentators have expressed a visceral dislike for the original pronunciation [AIR]; perhaps they believe that once usage has established a new pronunciation for a word there can be no going back.”

But, the editors conclude, “no sound reason prevents us from accepting again the [AIR] pronunciation of err, which is today also the more common variant in American speech.”

Today, you’ll find ER and AIR accepted as equal variants in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), among others.

However, standard British dictionaries (like some older Americans who were brought up in the ER tradition) still regard ER as the only acceptable way to say “err.”

The British editions of the online Macmillan, Cambridge, Oxford, and Collins dictionaries give ER as the only pronunciation. In fact, Macmillan and Cambridge list only ER in their American editions too.

It’s been suggested that the words “error” and “errant” may have helped to reestablish the AIR pronunciation, which appears to have become acceptable to American lexicographers in the last 50 years or so.

Our 1956 printing of the unabridged Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), known as Web II, has only the ER pronunciation, with the vowel described as sounding like the one in “urn.”

But AIR began appearing in dictionaries in the 1960s, and the unabridged Web III includes both pronunciations.

In the Web III online edition, the AIR pronunciation seems to be preferred. Both pronunciations are listed in the text, but only one, AIR, is given in the audible hyperlink.

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “in current usage” (we presume this means American usage) the AIR pronunciation “preponderates.”

As for its etymology, “err” (like “error,” “erroneous,” “erratic,” “errant,” and others) can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as er-, which meant “wandering about,” according to John Atyo’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

(Remember that a “knight errant” was an itinerant or traveling knight, roaming in search of adventure.)

As Ayto notes, “the semantic progression from ‘wandering’ to ‘making mistakes’ is reproduced in several other quite unrelated word groups in the Indo-European language family.”

The prehistoric root, he says, “produced Gothic airzei ‘error,’ Old High German irri ‘astray’ (source of modern German irre ‘angry’), Old English ierre ‘astray,’ and Latin errare ‘wander, make mistakes’—from which, via Old French errer, English got err.

The word was first recorded in English at the turn of the 14th century, when it meant both to go astray and to make a mistake. Each of those meanings, according to OED citations, appears in Robert Manning of Brunne’s 1303 work Handlyng Synne.

The cousins of “err” appeared later in English writing: “error” (circa 1320), “errant” (c. 1369), “erratic” (c. 1374), and “erroneous” (c. 1400).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Tricky “nick”

Q: In British crime/court shows, “nick” is used to mean jail (“the nick”) as well as the act of being arrested (“he was nicked”). Where it gets interesting, though, is the way “nick” also means to steal. What’s the history of this great word?

A: “Nick” is a tricky word, one with a lot of colloquial or slang meanings and a questionable birth. It’s not even certain which came first, the verb or the noun, though they’re undoubtedly related.

As the Oxford English Dictionary succinctly puts it: “Origin unknown.”

Although the OED’s earliest citation is for the verb, an etymology note says “the noun may in reality have priority, and it may be accidental that the oldest recorded senses of the noun are attested slightly later than the first attestation of the verb.”

When the word first showed up in print in the 13th century, according to Oxford citations, “nick” was a verb meaning to make a denial.

The OED cites the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women, as the source of the earliest example of the usage. However, the dictionary describes this sense as rare, so let’s move on.

By the 15th century, the verb “nick” was being used in the sense of making a notch or cut in something.

Oxford‘s earliest example (with “nicked” spelled “nikit”) comes from a 1460 entry from the Ayr Burgh Court Books, records of the Royal Burgh of Ayr in Scotland.

But we’ll skip ahead to this cutting example from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (written in the 1590s):

“My Mr preaches patience to him, and the while / His man with Cizers nickes him like a foole.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The verb took on its sense of chicanery in the 16th century, when it came to mean to trick, cheat, or defraud.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Rocke of Regard, a 1576 collection of prose and verse translated from Italian by George Whetstone:

“I neuer nickt the poorest of his pay, / But if hee lackt, hee had before his day.”

By the early 1800s, this sense of the verb had evolved to mean to steal or pilfer. Here’s an example from an 1826 collection of the works of the Scottish poet David Anderson:

“Some there ha’e gotten their pouches picket, / Their siller an’ their watches nickit.”

We’ll have to back up a bit now. In the 17th century, the verb took on the colloquial sense of to catch or take unawares.

The OED’s first citation is from The Prophetess, a 1622 play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger: “We must be sometimes wittie, to nick a knave.”

The dictionary says this sense evolved into the slang use of “nick” to mean to be pinched by the constabulary.

It’s hard to tell from the OED examples exactly when people began using “nick” in this slang sense, but it was probably sometime in the 18th or 19th century.

Here’s a clear example from Japhet, in Search of a Father, Frederick Marryat’s 1836 novel about a foundling’s search for his unknown parents:

“He has come to get off his accomplice, and now we’ve just nicked them both.”

Now, let’s discuss the arrival of “nick” as a noun. Although the OED has a couple of questionable 15th-century citations for the noun, the earliest definite example is from the 16th century.

When the noun first appeared in print in the early 16th century, it referred to a notch made to keep a score, but that sense is now obsolete, according to the OED.

By the late 1600s, the noun was being used in a more general way to describe a notch, groove, or slit in something.

The first example of this new usage in the OED is from a 1578 book of anatomy by the English anatomist, surgeon, and teacher John Banister: “Departyng from this corner, or deepe nicke … there riseth a certaine sharpe Processe.”

The slang use of “nick” to mean a jail, especially one in a police station, originally showed up in Australia in the 1880s. The first Oxford citation is this entry from the Sydney Slang Dictionary (1882): “Nick (The), gaol.”

Here’s a more recent example from Martin Amis’s 1995 novel The Information: “Know how much it costs to keep a bloke in nick for a week?”

Although the various cops-and-robbers senses of “nick” are more common in the UK than the US, the usage isn’t unknown among Americans.

Robert Coover, for example, uses it in The Public Burning, his 1977 novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In commenting on Broadway’s origins as an old Indian trail, Coover writes:

“It’s said the last to use it were the Mana-hatta tribe, who departed by it after nicking gullible old Peter Minuit, first of the tourist yokels, for twenty-four dollars.”

We’ve discussed only a few of the many meanings of “nick” here. If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago that also dealt with the use of “Nick” or “Old Nick” to mean the Devil.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Translated from the …

Q: Your article about “the dead” reminded me of a recent essay in the New York Times by the novelist Jo Nesbo. There was a note at the bottom that said it was translated “from the Norwegian.” What’s with the article “the” here?

A: It used to be quite common in English to use the definite article before the name of a language, though the usage is now “obsolete except in contexts that indicate translation from an original language,” according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of the usage from the late 1500s to the mid-1960s. The earliest is from Strange Newes, a 1593 work by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe: “To borrowe some lesser quarry of elocution from the Latine.”

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1590s: “You will come into the court and sweare that I haue a poore pennie-worth in the English.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

Oxford also cites references to “the French,” “the Hebrew,” “the Arabic,” “the Spanish,” and “the Portuguese.”

The dictionary says the usage is seen “now only in consciously elliptical phrases” in which words like “language” and “original” are omitted.

For instance, these phrases show the ellipses (that is, omissions) in brackets: “the French [language]” … “the German [original].” Sometimes, the OED notes, “The degree of ellipsis is not easy to determine.”

The most recent example of the usage in the dictionary is from The Northern Fiddler, a collection of poetry by Brian Higgins that was published posthumously in 1966: “ ‘I’m corrupt’ he said to me in the French, ‘I think I live in corruption’s stench.’ ”

If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago about the idiomatic use of “the” with the names of things that don’t seem to need an article (or that could use the article “a” instead).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

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.

The Grammarphobia Blog

An etymological fiasco

Q: I’ve often heard that “fiasco,” which means bottle in Italian, got its negative meaning because Italian glassblowers used to smash bottles that weren’t up to snuff. However, it strikes me that this explanation doesn’t make sense. Why would a glassblower cry out “bottle!” when he ruined one?

A: In Italian, a fiasco is literally a bottle, especially a flask encased in a straw basket, like a traditional Chianti bottle.

However, fiasco has a figurative meaning in Italian that’s the same as its usual meaning in English: an utter failure.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this “figurative use apparently stems from the phrase far fiasco, literally ‘make a bottle.’ ”

As Ayto explains, far fiasco has been “used traditionally in Italian theatrical slang for ‘suffer a complete breakdown in performance.’ ”

How did an Italian phrase meaning “make a bottle” come to mean “have a flop”?

“The usual range of fanciful theories has been advanced for the origin of the usage, but none is particularly convincing,” Ayto concludes.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology agrees with Ayto that the linguistic evolution of fiasco in Italian is unknown.

But Chambers goes on to mention one of the theories: “the alleged practice of Venetian glassmakers setting aside imperfect glass to make a common bottle or flask.”

The Italian word fiasco is derived from flasco, a medieval Latin term that’s the source of the English word “flask.”

Interestingly, English adopted the term “fiasco” from French, not Italian. The French faire fiasco (to fail) was adopted in turn from the Italian far fiasco.

When the term “fiasco” entered English in the mid-1800s, it meant “a failure or break-down in a dramatic or musical performance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from an 1855 letter from William Lowther, second Earl of Londsale, to the Irish statesman John Wilson Croker: “Derby has made what the theatrical people call a fiasco.”

Later, the term “fiasco” showed up in English in its bottle sense. The OED has only one citation for this sense, from the Nov. 12, 1887, issue of the literary journal Athenaeum: “A fiasco of good Chianti could be had for a paul.” (A “paul” is an Italian coin.)

However, several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World (4th ed.), still include the bottle sense among the definitions of “fiasco.”

Getting back to your question, the OED says that “Italian etymologists have proposed various guesses, and alleged incidents in Italian theatrical history” have been suggested,  to account for the evolution of fiasco.

However, the dictionary concludes—as do we—that the evolution of fiasco in Italian from flask to flop “is of obscure origin.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

On “football” and “soccer”

Q: I’m already tired of soccer, and the World Cup has barely started! But I’m never tired of etymology, so here’s my question. Where did the term “soccer” come from, and why do Europeans call it “football”?

A: As everybody knows by now, the game that North Americans call “soccer” is known as “football” (or a local variation on this) in most other countries.

Sports fans in England generally don’t use the word “soccer.” But interestingly, the word originated in England more than a century ago as a slang term for the older “football.” Here’s the story.

In late 19th-century England, students at the Rugby School in Warwickshire began using the  suffix “-er” to form slang words. The practice spread to other public schools, such as Harrow, and on to Oxford University.

Typically, an existing noun would be clipped and “-er” attached to the end.

Among early examples in the Oxford English Dictionary are “footer” (for football,  1863), “ekker” (exercise, 1891), “brekker” (breakfast, 1889), “bonner” (bonfire, 1898), and “cupper” (intercollegiate cup match, 1900). Perhaps more familiar to Americans is the later example “bed-sitter” (1927, short for “bed-sitting-room”).

“Soccer” was one of these schoolboy formations. It was a slang term for association football—that is, football played according to the rules of the Football Association. In this case, the “-er” suffix was combined with a clipped form of “Assoc.”

As the OED explains, “soccer” (in early use sometimes spelled “socca” or “socker”) is derived from “Assoc., short for Association.”

The dictionary’s earliest published example comes from a letter by the poet and fiction writer Ernest Dowson, written in 1889, a year after he left Oxford: “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches.” Note the apostrophe, signifying an abbreviation.

[Update, June 22, 2014: Fred Shapiro, editor of the wonderful Yale Book of Quotations, has informed us of earlier sightings. He found “soccer” in an 1888 issue of Oxford Magazine, and Evan Kirshenbaum discovered even older examples in boarding-school publications—“socker” in the Oldhallian (1885) and “soccer” in the Carthusian (1886).]

In Britain, the slang term “soccer” never replaced the original word, “football,” which has been in English use since the early 1400s for various games involving people kicking balls around on a field.

The conventions of the modern game of English “football” weren’t standardized until 1863, when the Football Association drew up its rules.

After that, there was a differentiation in English sports between “association football” and “rugby football” (nicknamed “rugger”), the variety of football played at Rugby.

So “soccer” and “rugger” originated as slang names for the two varieties of English football.

Today, North Americans use the former slang term “soccer” to differentiate their football from the rest of the world’s. In fact, the United States Soccer Federation was formerly called the US Football Association.

Although most of the world is watching “football” when cheering teams at the World Cup, Americans aren’t the only ones watching “soccer.” Australians use the term to differentiate the sport from Australian Rules Football (or “Footy”), a kind of mix between soccer and rugby.

So what does the world at large call North American “football”? Many English speakers outside North America use the terms “gridiron” or “grid.”

The OED has a couple of examples, including this one from Terry McLean’s book Kings of Rugby: The British Lions’ 1959 tour of New Zealand: “American, or gridiron, football.”

This later citation is from Charles Drummond’s novel Death and the Leaping Ladies (1968): “You can’t just walk into a team like you can, say, in gridiron or soccer.”

While we’re at it, the word “gridiron” got its start in the late 13th century as the name of a cooking apparatus, and is probably related to the earlier word “griddle.” It consists of bars made of made of iron or other metal, and supported on legs for cooking over a fire.

Later, “gridiron” was used for things of a similar pattern, like a grating or grill or—in the 19th century—the  markings on a sports field.

The OED cites this example from an 1896 issue of the Daily News in London: “The ground here is marked out by white lines … thus giving it the appearance of a gigantic gridiron—which, indeed, is the technical name applied to an American football field.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Monetizing “dough” and “bread”

Q: I was reading Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 when I ran across this comment by Doc Daneeka, the squadron physician: “I don’t want to make sacrifices. I want to make dough.” When did “dough” become a slang term for money?

A: When the word “dough” showed up in Old English more than a thousand years ago (originally spelled dag or dah), it referred to the floury concoction you knead to make bread.

The word’s slang sense of money originated in the US in the mid-1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from the February 1851 issue of the Yale Tomahawk, the magazine of the fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi: “He thinks he will pick his way out of the Society’s embarrassments, provided he can get sufficient dough.”

The slang usage was later picked up in British English. Oxford’s most recent example is from the Aug. 3, 1955, issue of the Times in London: “I’m going back to business and make myself a little dough.”

How did “dough” become monetized? Our guess is that the slang sense of “dough” reflects the earlier use of “bread” for livelihood or means of subsistence.

The word “bread” was rare in Old English, and apparently meant a bit or piece of food, according to the OED. (The Old English word for what we think of as bread was hlaf, the ancestor of our word “loaf.”)

But by the mid-900s, the dictionary adds, “bread” came to mean the “well-known article of food prepared by moistening, kneading, and baking meal or flour, generally with the addition of yeast or leaven.”

In the early 1700s, “bread” took on a new sense—livelihood or subsistence. The first Oxford citation is from Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel: “I was under no Necessity of seeking my Bread.”

Although “bread” meant livelihood or subsistence in the 18th century, it didn’t come to mean money per se until the 20th century.

Here’s an example of this slang sense from Jazzmen, a 1939 book edited by Frederick Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith: “Inside the low, smoky room, the musicians sweated for their bread.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation from the June 15, 1952, issue of DownBeat magazine: ”If I had bread (Dizzy’s basic synonym for loot) I’d certainly start a big band again.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

On dents, indents, and dentists

Q: Is the “dent” in a car related to the “indent” in writing? And is a “dentist” related to either of them? He fills cavities, doesn’t he?

A: The words “dent” and “indent” have different etymological roots, but they’ve influenced each other over the years, so an offspring like “indentation” can mean either a “dent” or an “indent.” We’ll get to “dentist” later.

The noun “dent” is a cousin of dint, an Old English term for a stroke or blow, especially one with a weapon, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English term, dating from King Aelfred’s writings in the late 800s, is similar to dyntr or dyttr, words in Old Norse with the same meaning.

The OED describes “dent” as a “phonetic variant or doublet” of dint. “Doublet” is a linguistic term for one of two words derived in different ways from the same source—in this case, perhaps, Old Norse.

The word “dent” also meant a stroke or blow when it first showed up in Middle English, but that sense is now obsolete.

The OED’s earliest example of “dent” used in this sense is from Richard Coer de Lyon (circa 1325), a Middle English romance about the life of King Richard I of England.

Although the citation (With a dente amyd the schelde) refers to a blow against a shield, it’s easy to see how the term “dent” could evolve over the next two centuries to mean the result of such a blow.

The OED’s first example of “dent” in the modern sense is from a 1565 treatise written by John Jewel, an Anglican bishop, during a heated exchange of tracts with Thomas Harding, a Roman Catholic priest: “We haue thrust our fingers into the dents of his nailes.”

When the word “indent” first showed up in the late 1300s, Oxford says, it was a verb that meant “to sever the two halves of a document, drawn up in duplicate, by a toothed, zigzag, or wavy line, so that the two parts exactly tally with each other.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from a May 15, 1385, document in a legal dispute between Robert, Earl of Fyfe, and John of Logy:

“To the wytnes of the qwylkis al and syndry in thir endentyt lettrys contenyt, tyl ilke parte of the forsayde endenturis I hafe put my Cele.” (The OED notes that the verb is implied here by the adjectival use of the past participle “endentyt.”)

You’re probably wondering why people would cut a legal document into two identical parts with a toothed line.

This was done, the OED explains, so that each party to a legal agreement would have an identical copy of the document, and “the genuineness of these could be subsequently proved by the coincidence of their indented margins.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that the verb “indent” is derived from the classical Latin noun dens (tooth) and the medieval Latin verb indentare, which refers to the creation of those two-part documents intended to be cut with a toothed line.

“A particular use of such documents,” Ayto writes, “was between master craftsmen and their trainees, who hence became known as indentured trainees.”

The noun “indentation” showed up in its printing sense in the mid-1800s, and the short form “indent” followed in the late 1800s.

The OED’s first citation for “indentation” used in this sense is from an entry for the word in the 1864 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.

Here’s a fuller description of the usage from Practical Printing, an 1884 book on typography by John Southward: “The first line of the paragraph … is shorter than the two following, there being a widespace at the beginning of it. This is called an indentation.”

No, we haven’t forgotten your question about “dentist.” As you’ve undoubtedly realized by now, it’s ultimately derived from dens, the Latin word for “tooth.”

English borrowed the word in the 1700s from the French noun dentiste, but it was “at first ridiculed as a high-falutin foreign term,” Ayto points out.

In fact, the earliest citation for “dentist” in the OED is an example of such ridicule. The cite is from the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle:

Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer; but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Missed Connections

Read Pat’s review of A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman. It will appear in print on the cover of the June 15, 2014, issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Troops, troopers, and bloopers

Q: In considering whether “troop” can refer to a single soldier, would “trooper” come into play? In my hazy understanding of things military, an individual member of a “troop” can be called a “trooper” (as in “watch your step, trooper”).

A: Where these words are concerned, we have derivations on top of derivations! It’s true that “trooper,” which entered English in 1640, was derived from the noun “troop” with the addition of “-er.”

Originally, in the mid-1500s, a “troop” was a body of soldiers, and the later word “trooper” meant “a soldier in a troop of cavalry” or “a horse soldier,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today a “trooper” can mean a state police officer, a paratrooper, or a soldier in a horse, armored, or air cavalry troop.

And, as you’ve noticed, the singular “troop” is sometimes used to mean one soldier—a usage perhaps influenced by “trooper”!

This is ground we’ve covered before on our blog. As we wrote in 2013, the OED says the colloquial use of “troop” to mean a single member of a troop is irregular.

The usage is derived from the use of “troop” as a collective plural, or in some cases may be an abbreviation of “trooper,” according to the Oxford lexicographers.

Is the use of “troop” for a single member of a “troop” a blooper? As we say in our post last year, it’s a colloquial usage that’s not considered standard English—at least not yet. Stay tuned!

We also wrote a post in 2006, updated in 2009, explaining (among other things) the difference between “trouper” and “trooper.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Are scare quotes scary?

Q: Is there any legitimate reason for using single quotation marks, other than when a quote appears within another quote? I often see single quotation marks used to warn readers about a questionable term or simply to highlight a term.

A: In American usage, single quotation marks are generally used in prose for one purpose only: to surround a quotation nested within a larger quotation: “Was it Linus who said, ‘Get lost’?” asked Lucy.

There are exceptions in certain kinds of specialized writing, which we’ll get to later. And single quotation marks are generally used in headlines.

But the warning quotes you’re referring to, sometimes called “scare quotes,” should always be double quotes, not singletons, in American writing.

Here’s how The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) explains the legitimate use of scare quotes:

“Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed scare quotes, they imply ‘This is not my term’ or ‘This is not how the term is usually applied.’ Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused.”

Here are the examples given (we’ll put them in italics to avoid confusing things with our own punctuation):

On a digital music player, a “track” is really just a separately encoded file in a directory.

“Child protection” sometimes fails to protect.

Another respected authority, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th ed.), has these examples:

A silver dome concealed the robot’s “brain.”

Their “friend” brought about their downfall. 

All of those are perfectly justifiable uses of quotation marks, because the term in quotes is highlighted for a good reason—to warn the reader to be wary of it.

But sometimes writers (particularly sign painters!) use quotes merely to highlight terms, as in these examples:

“Fast” and “friendly” service! … Our bread is baked “fresh” daily … Employees must “wash hands.” … “Delivery” available.

We think a writer who wants to boast about a word or merely emphasize it should find another way—italics, perhaps, or a different size type. The quote marks imply that the words aren’t meant literally.

However, the lexicographer Grant Barrett defends the use of quotes for emphasis—a usage he refers to as “shout quotes.” In a May 14, 2008, post on his blog, he argues that it’s unlikely readers would misunderstand them.

By the way, the use of the phrase “scare quotes” in this sense is relatively recent, showing up in the mid-20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1956 issue of the journal Mind: The ‘scare-quotes’ are mine; Aristotle is not overtly discussing the expression ‘whichever happens.’ ”

An earlier use of the phrase, from Southern California: An Island on the Land, a 1946 book by Carey McWilliams, refers to quotations that can be used against a political candidate.

McWilliams writes that “the best advertising brains in California were put to work culling scare-quotes” from the candidate’s writings.

But let’s get back to single quotation marks. As we’ve said above and as we’ve written before on our blog, they’re sometimes used in a couple of specialized fields.

Horticultural writing is one of them. Some publications in the field, like the magazine Horticulture, use single quotation marks around the names of cultivars, the Chicago Manual says.

And in another horticultural exception to normal American usage, Chicago adds, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” Here’s the example given (we’ll use boldface here, since the illustration includes italics):

The hybrid Agastache ‘Apricot Sunrise’, best grown in zone 6, mingles with sheaves of cape fuchsia (Phygelius ‘Salmon Leap’).

There’s another kind of specialized writing in which single quotation marks appear.

“In linguistic and phonetic studies,” the Chicago Manual says, “a definition is often enclosed in single quotation marks,” and here again, “any following punctuation is placed after the closing quotation mark.” This is the example given:

The gap is narrow between mead ‘a beverage’ and mead ‘a meadow’.

But unless you’re writing about horticulture, linguistics, or phonetics, the convention in American usage is to use double quotation marks (except for internal quotes) and to keep commas and periods inside final quote marks. The Chicago Manual gives this example of the normal usage:

“Admit it,” she said. “You haven’t read ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ ”

Keep in mind that so far we’ve been discussing American-style punctuation. In British usage, single quotation marks are  more widely used.

As the Chicago Manual says, “The practice in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is often the reverse” of that found in American usage. Single quotation marks may come first, with double marks used for quotations within quotations.

For example, if Lucy and Linus had been characters in a British novel, that quote we cited above (from Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I, 3rd ed.) might have looked like this:

‘Was it Linus who said, “Get lost”?’ asked Lucy.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

When “I’m good” is “no, thanks”

Q: I frequently hear the expression “I’m good” in the South when a server offers a refill on coffee, iced tea, water, etc. Is this use of “I’m good” to mean “No, thank you” a regionalism or is it common now?

A: You hear the expression in the South, we hear it in New England, and we’ve seen comments about it online from people in other parts of the US as well as in the UK and Australia.

It’s definitely out there, but we wouldn’t say it’s common. The usage isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary or the standard dictionaries we usually check. And we couldn’t find comments about it, pro or con, in usage guides.

The use of “I’m good” to mean “no, thanks” or “no more” is relatively new. As far as we can tell, it first showed up in the mid-1950s among poker players.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a game of five-card draw played in “The Reforming of Parlor Davis,” a short story by Peerce Platt in the May 13, 1955, issue of Collier’s magazine:

“ ‘I’m good,’ Parlor said.

“ ‘I’ll take one,’ Ed said. He took the card, put it with his other four, and shuffled them nervously. ‘Three hundred,’ Ed said, pushing in the remainder of his chips.

“ ‘I raise you one thousand dollars,’ Parlor said.”

The next example we’ve found, from Slaughter Island, a 1991 novel by Herb Fisher, uses the expression in the drinking sense:

“ ‘Nah, I’m good, Terry,’ said Manny, waving the bottle of beer as the houseboy moved toward him along the deck of the pool.”

In this more recent example, from Close Knit Killer, a 2013 mystery by Maggie Sefton, the phrase “I’m good” is used in the restaurant sense you’ve asked about:

“ ‘I bet you want a refill,’ Julie said, walking up to Hal. ‘You need any more, Kelly?’

“ ‘No, thanks, I’m good.’ Kelly held up her hand.”

Is this colloquial use of “I’m good” legit? We see nothing wrong with it in casual speech or informal writing.

And as we’ve written before on the blog, there’s nothing wrong with responding “I’m good” when someone asks you how you are or how you’re feeling.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Habitus forming

Q: The reference to the “habitus of the gluteus” in your “booty camp” article caught my eye. My girlfriend, a professor of radiology, notes that radiologists must not tell patients they are fat. The politically correct term for obesity is “increased body habitus.” Since none of the radiologists worry about  “decreased body habitus,” the phrase is often shortened to “body habitus.”

A: The expression “increased body habitus” is new to us. In fact, it appears to be a relatively new usage even among radiologists—at least in published writing.

The earliest example of the phrase we’ve found is from a June 20, 2013, opinion in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court.

In ruling that a plaintiff wasn’t seriously injured in a motor-vehicle accident, the court cited “reports of a radiologist who found that the MRIs revealed injuries that were degenerative in nature, consistent with her age and increased body habitus.”

The slimmed-down phrase “body habitus” has been around since the early 1900s, though it usually refers to just a physique or body type, not necessarily an obese physique.

For example, an April 24, 1915, article in the Medical Record, a weekly journal, says life insurance medicine deals with clinically important subjects “such as body habitus in its relationship with heredity.”

The word “habitus” was occasionally used in the late 1800s to mean a bodily condition or constitution, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example from the Jan. 22, 1886, issue of the journal Science: The disposition to the disease—the consumptive habitus.”

The Latin noun habitus (a condition or state) also gave English the more common noun “habit,” which etymologically means “what one has,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As Ayto explains, habitus was originally the past participle of the verb habere, which meant “to have” but came to be used reflexively for “to be.”

The past participle habitus, he says, “came to be used as a noun for ‘how one is’—one’s ‘state’ or ‘condition.’ ”

As habitus evolved in Latin, Ayto adds, it could refer to either an outward condition (such as clothing) or an inner condition (one’s character or way of behaving).

Those Latin senses, he says, were “taken over lock, stock, and barrel  by English, although the clothing sense now survives only in relation to monks, nuns, and horseriders.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.


The Grammarphobia Blog

Memento mori

Q: You might be able to save me from a Google failure to find a linguistic reason for the expression “brought back from the dead.” Why does it have a definite article? Wondering about this is making my arm twitch.

A: Since Anglo-Saxon times, the definite article has been used before an adjective to create a noun phrase with a plural sense, as in “the poor,” “the rich,” “the lame,” “the sick,” “the naked,” and “the dead.”

In such phrases, “the poor” means “the people who are poor” or “those who are poor,” while “the rich” means “the people who are rich” or “those who are rich.”

The earliest example of this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is a reference to ð worold-wisan (the worldly wise) from Pastoral Care (c. 897), King Aelfred’s Old English translation of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I.

Here’s a modern English example from Shelley’s 1819 poem Rosalind and Helen: “He was a coward to the strong: / He was a tyrant to the weak.”

The OED’s earliest example for “the dead,” the specific phrase you’ve asked about, is a reference to þe deade (the dead) in a document from around 1175 in the Lambeth Manuscript, a collection of late Old English sermons.

Finally, here’s an Oxford example from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (c. 1599): “I will not do them wrong; I rather choose / To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you.” (We’ve expanded Antony’s lines.)

If you’d like to read more, we had a post six years ago about the idiomatic use of “the” with the names of things that wouldn’t appear to need an article (or that could use the article “a” instead).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.