The Grammarphobia Blog

Phobias, inside and out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A risky preposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Strove Monday

Q: A recent editorial in the Washington Post says many of Donald Trump’s “rivals have strove to mimic him.” Shouldn’t that be “have striven”?

A: “Strove” or “strived” is the past tense of the verb “strive.” The past participle (used with forms of “have”) is “striven” or “strived.”

So the Post’s editorial writers should have said Trump’s rivals “have striven” or “have strived” to mimic him.

Although the use of “strove” as a past participle has been around for several hundred years, it’s not considered standard English today.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “strove” appeared as a past participle “in the 17th cent., and remained somewhat common down to the middle of the 19th cent., but is now confined to illiterate use.”

The OED compares this use of “strove” to “stroven,” which appeared as a past participle in the 16th and 17th centuries. (The dictionary’s last citation for “stroven” is from the early 1600s.)

When the verb “strive” showed up in Middle English in the 13th century, it meant to be in a state of hostility.

The English word was adapted from the Old French estriver (to quarrel or contend). The OED says the French verb is “of disputed origin,” but it’s “commonly believed to be of Germanic etymology.”

The OED has a questionable citation for the verb from the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women. The earliest definite example is a 1297 entry in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester: “he striuede wiþ his wiue” (“he strived with his wife”).

Meanwhile, “strive” took on the sense of to contend or carry on a conflict. The OED’s earliest example, dated around 1290, is from The South English Legendary, a Middle English collection of writings about biblical and other religious figures:

“And striuede for holi churche aȝen þe kinge and his” (“And strived for holy church against the king and his”).

The verb took on its usual modern sense (to endeavor or exert much energy) in the 14th century. The earliest Oxford example is from the the Wycliffe Bible of 1384, an English translation from Latin:

“And therfore we stryuen [L. contendimus] whether absent, whether present, for to plese him.”

As for those two past tenses, “strove” appeared somewhat earlier than “strived,” according to the OED, but “strived” would “be normal for a verb adopted < French, and has always been more frequent of the two.”

In Google searches, however, “he strove” appears three times as often as “he strived.” The six standard dictionaries we’ve checked include  both past tenses, though “strove” is always listed first.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When “less” is “minus”

Q: Is it OK to use the phrase “less than” when teaching numeracy in elementary school? Example: “What is one less than five?” I suspect that many children confuse “less than” (meaning “smaller than”) with “less” (meaning “minus”).

A: We’ve written several times on the blog about “less” vs. “fewer,” including posts in 2014 and 2010, but there’s more to be said about “less.”

The word “less” has had many meanings since it showed up in Old English in the ninth century, and one of the oldest, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, involves its use as “minus” in subtraction.

However, an even older meaning—the oldest example for “less” in the Oxford English Dictionary—is “fewer,” a usage that was acceptable for hundreds of years but is frowned on today.

The “fewer” sense of “less,” which the OED observes is “freq. found but generally regarded as incorrect,” first showed up in writing in King Ælfred’s Old English translation (circa 888) of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae:

“Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit gereccan magon” (“So we may prove it with less words as with more, whichever of the two”).

Over the years, as we’ve said, “less” took on other senses, including “to a smaller extent” (c. 900), as in “none the less”; “inferior” (c. 950), as in “no less a person”; “not so great an extent” (c. 1000), as in “less time to eat”;  and “a smaller amount” (c. 1330), as in “less money.”

The use of “less” to mean “minus,” the OED explains, indicates “that the number or quantity indicated is to be subtracted from a larger one mentioned or implied.”

This sense of “less” first showed up in writing in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an Old English work believed to have been updated regularly from the late 9th to the mid-12th centuries.

Here’s the citation, which the OED says was written sometime before 1160: “He rixode twa læs .xxx. geara” (“He ruled for 30 years less two”).

In early writing, “less” followed the number being subtracted (as in “twa læs” above), but it now precedes the number (as in “less two”), according to the OED.

All the modern examples in the dictionary show the unsubtracted quantity (the “minuend”) followed by “less” and then the amount to be subtracted (the “subtrahend”).

This modern example is from the March 25, 1930, issue of the Times (London): “A full year’s dividend on the Preference Shares, less tax, absorbing £16,800.”

The latest OED example of the usage is from  the Sept. 2, 1972, issue of the Times (London): “Cost of paint … Less VAT input tax … £500.”

We also checked six standard dictionaries and all their examples show “less” by itself following the minuend and preceding the subtrahend. Here’s an example from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.): “Five less two is three.”

Getting back to your question, is it OK for a teacher in primary school to ask pupils, “What is one less than five?”

When we were learning subtraction in elementary school many moons ago, our teachers would have said “What is five less one?” (or “five minus one” or perhaps even “five take way one”).

We think “five less one” or “five minus one” is the simplest and clearest way of expressing “5 – 1” in words, because the words follow the order of the numerals and the minus sign. And the use of “less than” here might lead to confusion between the minus sign (–) and the “less than” sign (<).

A perfect example of such confusion can be seen in an Aug. 19, 2001, question to the Math Forum, a website sponsored by Drexel University in Philadelphia:

“Why is this expression driving me crazy when at first it seems so simple: ‘three less than a number’? I believe it is x – 3 but I am being challenged that it is 3 – x.”

The response by the Math Forum’s staff includes this comment: “Many people get confused by this sort of expression, because they expect to translate directly from English to Mathish, word for word. Then ‘three (3) less than (–) a number (x)’ would seem to be ‘3 – x.’ But it isn’t. What’s even more confusing is that ‘3 less a number’ does mean ‘3 – x’ because ‘less’ as a preposition means the same as ‘minus.’ ”

We’d be wary of using “less than” in teaching subtraction to young children. But our online searches suggest that elementary school teachers generally distinguish between the use of “less” and “less than.”

From looking at educational websites that discuss basic subtraction, our sense is that the traditional wording (“five minus one” or “five less one”) is used in speaking about actual subtraction. The “less than” wording is used to compare two numbers, rather than to subtract one from the other (“four is one less than five” or “one less than five is four”).

Despite the possible confusion between “less” and “less than” in teaching subtraction, educators have been using “less than” for comparisons for nearly two centuries, according to our searches of online databases.

Here’s an example from A Manual of Instruction for Infants’ Schools, an 1829 book by William Wilson, the vicar of Walthamstow in northeast London: “Four are one less than five; four are two less than six; four are three less than seven, &c.”

And this example is from A Manual of Elementary Instruction for Schools and Normal Classes (1862), by Edward Austin Sheldon, M. E. M. Jones, and Hermann Krüsi: “The class may repeat, ‘Five is one more than four; four is one less than five.’ ”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Apostrophic illnesses

Q: I’m a physician who’s irritated by the increasing tendency for writers to omit the apostrophe in a disease named for a person, as in “Parkinson disease.” I resist this, and write “Parkinson’s disease,” which I think is correct.

A: You’re in an unfortunate position here. As a doctor, you’re caught between the recommended usage in the medical profession and standard usage everywhere else.

The AMA Manual of Style (10th ed.), for example, recommends dropping the ’s in such diseases, as does the 27th edition of Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.

Although Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (30th ed.) says the ’s “is becoming increasingly less common,” it includes some diseases with the ending and some without to “reflect this ongoing change in usage.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, which is intended for a broader audience, generally considers the ’s versions the usual forms, though it sometimes includes the stripped-down forms as acceptable variants.

As for common usage, the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked usually list only the ’s versions for these terms, though bare versions are sometimes given as acceptable or equal variants.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, lists only “Parkinson’s” while The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives “Parkinson’s” as more common, but includes “Parkinson” as an acceptable variant.

The American Medical Association’s style guide acknowledges that the issue is still somewhat controversial, but says that the use of the ’s in medical eponyms, the technical term for things named after people, is a thing of the past.

“There is some continuing debate over the use of the possessive form for eponyms, but a transition toward the nonpossessive form has taken place,” the AMA guide says.

The AMA editors recommend dropping the ’s to represent “the adjectival and descriptive, rather than possessive, sense of eponyms” and to “promote clarity and consistence in scientific writing.”

We take issue here with the AMA editors. Technically, the ’s here is not possessive but genitive. As we’ve written before on our blog, genitives show associations and relationships much broader than ownership.

In a genitive construction like “last night’s mashed potatoes,” we’re not talking about ownership. The ’s here means “associated with” or “related to,” not “possessed by.”

Nevertheless, the misconception persists. The National Down Syndrome Society, in its Preferred Language Guide, gives this explanation for opposing the ’s:

“Down syndrome is named for the English physician John Langdon Down, who characterized the condition, but did not have it. An ‘apostrophe s’ connotes ownership or possession.”

In fact, the AMA stylebook cites the Down Syndrome Society’s language guide in support of its belief that a transition toward non-genitive eponyms has taken place:

“A major step toward preference for the nonpossessive form occurred when the National Down Syndrome Society advocated the use of Down syndrome, rather than Down’s syndrome, arguing that the syndrome does not actually belong to anyone.”

Other critics argue against medical eponyms whether they have apostrophes or not, saying the names may credit the wrong people or are out of date.

Victor A. McKusick, for example, says in Mendelian Inheritance in Man (11th ed.) that “often the person whose name is used was not the first to describe the condition … or did not describe the full syndrome as it has subsequently become known.”

Although “Down syndrome” is now more common than “Down’s syndrome” and standard dictionaries prefer the shorter form, most other medical eponyms still have the ’s in dictionary entries.

Of the 11 eponyms we’ve checked, “Alzheimer’s,” “Addison’s,” “Parkinson’s,” “Bright’s,” “Crohn’s,” “Hansen’s,” “Hodgkin’s,” and “Raynaud’s” diseases usually have the ’s. Only “Down,” “Munchhausen,” and “Tourette” syndromes are usually bare.

In fact, searches with Google’s Ngram viewer indicate that medical eponyms with ’s are overwhelmingly more popular in books than the stripped-down versions.

However, medical toponyms (diseases named after a place) don’t have apostrophes. For example, “Rocky Mountain spotted fever” or “Lyme disease” (named for Lyme, CT).

Note that the capitalized name in a medical eponym or toponym is traditionally followed by a lowercase generic term, as in “Lou Gehrig’s disease” or “West Nile virus.”

The old tradition of naming diseases or parts of the body for their discoverers dates back to the use of Latin medical terms.

An example is tuba Fallopii for the structures first described by the 16th-century anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, also known by his Latin name, Fallopius. Today we say “fallopian tubes,” which many standard dictionaries give with a lowercase “f.”

Since you are a physician, you may be interested in an excellent article we came across on the history of medical eponyms.

John H. Dirckx, a doctor who has written frequently about the language of medicine, says such terms “are cherished by most physicians who have a sense of history.”

Besides, he writes in a 2001 issue of the journal Panace@, they “are often embraced as a pleasant relief from polysyllabic terms derived from classical languages.”

They also have a “value as euphemisms,” he adds. A term like “Hansen’s disease,” for example, is a welcome replacement for “leprosy” and all that it conveys.

As for the ’s, he writes, “Some of the arguments offered by editors and others to justify exclusion of the genitive from eponyms are simply ludicrous.” (He mentions the objections we noted above, that the person didn’t have the disease or possess it.)

Such critics, Dr. Dirckx writes, “display ignorance of linguistics, a superficial and mechanistic view of language, disdain for tradition, and, sometimes, the arrogance of authority.”

He concludes, probably with tongue in cheek: “Will even the homely lay term Adam’s apple (nuez, prominentia laryngea) eventually come under the universal ban?”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Quite frankly

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “quite Frankly,” and why do I brace myself when somebody begins a sentence with it?

A: Why do you brace yourself? Because “quite frankly,” which means “in an honest, open, or candid manner,” is often used to introduce an opinion that might not be welcome.

The phrase itself is relatively new, showing up in the 19th century, but the words “quite” and “frankly” are quite old, dating back to the Middle Ages.

Before going on, we should mention that there’s no reason to capitalize the “f” of “frankly” (as you’ve done), though it’s ultimately derived from a proper noun in medieval Latin.

“Frankly” is an adverbial form of the adjective “frank,” which Middle English got from franc in Old French around 1300. At that time, both the English and French adjectives meant free.

The French in turn got the word franc from francus, a medieval Latin word used as an adjective for free and as a noun for a member of the Frankish tribes that conquered Roman Gaul and gave France its name.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “usually believed that the Franks were named from their national weapon,” the javelin, which is frankon in reconstructed prehistoric Germanic.

So how did the Latin word for a member of a Germanic tribe come to mean free in French and English?

After the Franks conquered Gaul in the fifth century, “full political freedom was granted only to ethnic Franks or those of the subjugated Celts who were specifically brought under their protection,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“Hence, franc came to be used as an adjective meaning ‘free’—a sense it retained when English acquired it from Old French,” Ayto writes.

The OED notes confusion as far back as the Middle Ages over which came first, the use of the Latin francus for an ethnic Frank or in the sense of free:

“The notion that the ethnic name is derived from the adjective meaning ‘free’ was already current in the 10th century; but the real relation between the words seems to be the reverse of this.”

Ayto explains that the “free” sense of the adjective “frank” in English “gradually progressed semantically via ‘liberal, generous’ and ‘open’ to ‘candid.’ ”

The “candid” sense of “frank” and “frankly” showed up in the 1500s, according to citations in the OED.

We’ve already discussed the adverb “quite” on the blog, noting that it was an intensifier (meaning completely or to the utmost degree) when it showed up in Middle English around 1300 or perhaps earlier.

In the early 19th century, English speakers began using it as a “moderating adverb” as well, meaning somewhat, rather, relatively, and so on.

In the phrase “quite frankly,” the word “quite” is being used as an intensifier to emphasize “frankly.”

So while the adverb “frankly” by itself means “honestly, openly, or candidly,” the adverbial phrase “quite frankly” says the same thing more emphatically.

Like “quite frankly,” the word “frankly” is often “used for emphasizing that what you are about to say is your honest opinion, even though the person you are talking to might not like it,” according to the online Macmillan Dictionary.

The phrase “quite frankly” can be used adverbially in two different ways:

(1) It can modify a particular verb, as in “He spoke quite frankly about his past” or “The doctors said quite frankly that it was hopeless.”

(2) It can modify the entire sentence or clause that follows, as in “Quite frankly, I was happy to see them go,” or “I returned the dress because, quite frankly, it was too expensive.”

Generally, when “quite frankly” appears at the beginning of a sentence or clause as in #2, it’s being used as what’s called a sentence adverb. (We wrote about sentence adverbs in a 2011 post.)

The OED doesn’t have an entry for “quite frankly,” but we’ve found examples of the phrase dating back to the early 1800s.

The earliest example we found in searches of online databases uses the phrase simply to modify an individual verb.

In the citation, from Rebuilding a Lost Faith (1826), John L. Stoddard writes that some Anglican clergymen take oaths to accept the faith’s doctrines, and then reject their literal meaning:

“Such clergymen, however, say quite frankly: — ‘The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Prayer-Book do not mean what you think they mean.’ ”

The use of “quite frankly” as a sentence adverb didn’t emerge until many decades later.

The earliest example we found is from an anonymous poem, “To Maud,” published in Punch on Feb. 17, 1894:

“Here’s a Valentine for you—lace, tinsel, and satin,
With Cupids all over it up to such tricks;
There’s gauze in profusion, and, oh, it is pat in
The language of love!—for it cost three-and-six.
Quite frankly I wouldn’t be thought to defend it
(Though I swear that I bought it as perfectly new);
And the reason, in fact, why I happen to send it,
Is to have an excuse for a letter—to you.”

And here’s a less romantic example, from “My Methods in Breeding Poultry,” a 1900 pamphlet by Henry P. McKean: “Quite frankly, I am a great believer in Mr. Darwin’s little phrase, ‘Like begets like.’ ”

We’ve also found several examples dating from the 1860s of sentences and clauses beginning “to speak quite frankly.” The writers used the longer phrase much like a sentence adverb, to modify everything that followed.

Was this the forerunner of the sentence adverb “quite frankly”? Perhaps. Quite frankly, we can’t say for sure.

We should mention that “quite” is used to modify many sentence adverbs besides “frankly.” The OED has a citation for “quite seriously” used this way as early as 1872, and we found one for “quite honestly” from 1893.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “wussy” milder than “pussy”?

Q: You might have mentioned in your recent “pussy” post that “wuss” and “wussy” are common substitutions to make the sense of a weak person more acceptable.

A: We didn’t mention “wuss” and “wussy” in our post about “pussy,” but etymologists think these words may be related.

The noun “wuss” is perhaps a blend of “wimp” and “puss,” and the noun and adjective “wussy” could be a combination of “wimp” and “pussy.”

Here “wimp,” first recorded in American slang in 1920, means “a feeble or ineffectual person,” or “one who is spineless or ‘wet,’ ” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

And, as we discussed in our earlier post, the popular slang senses of “puss” and “pussy” convey, among other things, notions of cowardice, weakness, and effeminacy.

Both the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang propose these senses of “pussy” as the possible sources of “wuss” and “wussy.” But while Green’s is more positive, the OED says the exact etymology remains uncertain.

It appears that “wuss” and “wussy” were products of 1970s American college slang. Oxford labels them “colloquial”—that is, found more often in speech than in formal writing.

The two words are defined similarly in the OED, but with a slight (or not so slight) difference.

“Wuss” means simply “a  weak or ineffectual person,” the OED says. But “wussy” has an extra component.

The adjective “wussy” can mean either “weak, ineffectual” or “effeminate,” according to the dictionary, while the noun “wussy” can mean “a weak or ineffectual person” or “an effeminate man.”

It strikes us that “wuss” or “wussy” is milder, and less offensive, than “pussy” because it doesn’t seem to convey the genital association of “pussy.”

The OED’s earliest citations for “wuss” are dated November 1976. They were recorded in a typescript entitled “Campus Slang,” compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.”

Later American citations include these:

“You ought to meet her first, you wuss” (from Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High).

“Everybody thinks I’m a wuss. And I don’t impress any of the stunt women at all” (from the Washington Post, August 1984).

But the usage is exclusively American no longer. The OED includes this Australian example: “Give us y’lunch, Hooper, you great wuss!” (a caption in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, January 1996).

The OED’s citations for “wussy” begin at around roughly the same time as “wuss,” and in college slang. We’ll begin with the adjective:

“Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” (from the Harvard Crimson, September 1977).

“They [New Zealanders] really don’t have any sense of what American football is. They think it’s a wussy sport because you put on helmets and pads. They say real men play rugby” (Washington Post, January 1985).

And here are some citations for the noun, beginning with the earliest:

“Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 1981).

“Those pampered, effete, ungrateful, deodorant-averse European wussies” (Vanity Fair, March 2003).

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

PEE-a-nist or pee-A-nist?

Q: When I was growing up, almost everyone pronounced “pianist” as PEE-a-nist. But these days, even on classical music stations, it’s pee-A-nist. Is this a misguided attempt to avoid saying something that sounds slightly rude?

A: The word “pianist” has been pronounced both PEE-a-nist and pee-A-nist since the 19th century.

Today, American dictionaries include both pee-A-nist and PEE-a-nist as standard pronunciations, while British dictionaries list only PEE-a-nist.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Jan. 5, 1820, issue of the Times (London): An accomplished Theorist, emphatic Pianist, and elegantly chaste Articulative Vocalist.”

The oldest dictionary we’ve found that includes the term is Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which gives PEE-a-nist as the only pronunciation.

However, most of the other dictionaries we’ve seen from the 19th and early 20th centuries give pee-A-nist as the only pronunciation.

For example, A Dictionary of the English Language Exhibiting Orthography, Pronunciation and Definition of Words (1861), by Arnold J. Cooley, gives the pronunciation as pee-A-nist.

Similarly, the Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (1874), by James Stormonth and P. H. Phelp, has pee-A-nist.

A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1881), by John Walker, with a 5,000 word supplement by Edward Smith, gives the pronunciation as pee-A-nist.

And a 1904 edition of the Stormonth-Phelp dictionary, updated by William Bayne, also offers only the pee-A-nist pronunciation.

Two of the most important standard dictionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—The Century Dictionary (1889-91) and Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)—also pronounce “pianist” as pee-A-nist.

However, James Murray’s early version of the Oxford English Dictionary lists PEE-a-nist as the only pronunciation.

Murray included the pronunciation in his June 1906 “Ph-Piper” fascicle, or installment, of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which became the first edition of the OED. (Volume VII of the NED, covering the letters O and P, was published in 1909.)

Interestingly, the “pianist” entry in the online OED, which was updated in 2006, still accents the first syllable, PEE-a-nist, though the vowels are slightly different in the US and UK versions.

Finally, we’ve seen no evidence that prudery has had anything to do with the pee-A-nist pronunciation. A more likely influence may have been the pronunciation of the instrument itself, pee-A-no.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is there evil in Eve?

Q: Could there POSSIBLY be a linguistic connection between “Eve” and “evil”? Or is it just too slick an idea?

A: Nope, there’s no connection between “evil,” which comes from old Germanic sources, and the name “Eve,” which is derived from Hebrew. The similarity in sound is purely coincidental.

“Evil,” written as yfel in Old English, was definitively recorded as a noun around the year 825 and as an adjective in 897, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But it could be even older, since the plural form ylfa occurs in Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as 725.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500), the word was written as iuele, uvel, üvel, and finally evel, predecessor of the modern spelling.

It appears that in English, “evil” acquired a worse reputation than it had in the Germanic languages it came from.

The word has been traced to an Indo-European root, reconstructed as upo-, one of whose meanings was “over.” In prehistoric Proto-Germanic, this root developed into ubilaz, or “excessive.”

“Considering these original usages, as meaning ‘over’ and ‘excessive,’ ” Hajime Nakamura writes in A Comparative History of Ideas (1992), “it is not too surprising that some of the world’s greatest traditions developed concepts of a ‘mean’ (nothing to excess) as the absence of evil.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the ancient ancestors of “evil” conveyed notions of  “either ‘exceeding due measure’ or ‘overstepping proper limits.’ ”

Originally, the English word “seems to have signified nothing more sinister than ‘uppity,’ ” John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto notes that “in the Old and Middle English period it meant simply ‘bad’; it is only in modern English that its connotations of ‘extreme moral wickedness’ came to the fore.”

The name “Eve,” on the other hand, is derived from biblical Hebrew, where the name of the first woman is given in Genesis 3:20 as hawwa. This name became “Eva” in Latin and Greek translations of the Bible, and “Eve” in later French and English translations.

As for what the original Hebrew name means, that’s been the subject of much scholarly debate over the years.

A common suggestion is that hawwa means “life” or “living” or “life giver,” assuming a connection with the Hebrew haya (to live) or hay (living).

However, biblical scholars have questioned such a connection, saying there’s no direct linguistic link between hawwa and the other two words.

Some scholars say hawwa may have been a play on those other Hebrew words, or perhaps the words were indirectly connected through other Semitic languages.

“In sound but not derivation, the name Eve in Hebrew resembles the Hebrew word for ‘life,’ ” Leila Leah Bronner writes in her book From Eve to Esther (1994).

But etymologies relying on only sound, she writes, “are popular rather than scientific. Instead of attempting to derive its linguistic root, they create puns around it, relying on its sound to invent its sense.”

Some commentators seeking etymological explanations for hawwa have noted resemblances with an Aramaic word for “serpent,” an Arabic verb meaning to “be empty” or “fail,” and hivi, Hebrew for the Hivites, a Canaanite tribe.

The scholar Victor P. Hamilton, in his biblical commentary The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, says that as many as 10 etymological explanations have been offered.

Another scholar, Scott C. Layton, an authority on ancient Semitic languages, says some names in the Hebrew Bible are grounded in symbolism rather than etymology (“On the Canaanite Origin of Eve,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, January 1997).

“Symbolic names form part of the rich fabric of biblical narrative by expressing their bearers’ fate, character, or role in the story,” Layton writes.

Sometimes biblical texts themselves, he says, “provide popular or folk etymologies, on the basis of Hebrew, for names whose original meanings lie at the margins of the Hebrew lexicon, or even outside it.”

“Certainly hawwa falls into this category,” Layton says, “and it occasions no surprise that modern scholars have offered several different interpretations of this name.”

That’s all about “Eve.” However, we should mention the other “eve,” the noun for the close of day. It’s short for “even,” an Old English word that meant the same thing—the day’s end.

In ordinary usage, both “eve” and “even” have been replaced by “evening,” which etymologically means the coming on of the eve, the OED says.

The noun “eve,” like “even” in times past, means not only the end of a day, but also the night (often the day as well) before a particular event—as in Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallows Eve, and so on.

All these words can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European base with the general meaning of “lateness,” according to Ayto.

Speaking of which, it’s time for us to get to the next question in our inbox.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Hats off to the boggins

Q: I’m from upstate NY, but I’ve lived in NC for almost 20 years. When native North Carolinians use the word “toboggan,” they’re talking about a hat. When I use it, I’m talking about a sled. Who’s right?

A: You’re right, but so are your North Carolina neighbors. In American usage, a “toboggan” can be either a sled or a snug knitted cap—one suitable for a chilly toboggan ride.

“Toboggan” is a word with roots deep in the North American wilderness, from a time before Europeans arrived on the continent.

The word comes from “a North American Indian name in Canada of a sleigh or sledge,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED mentions two principal Native American languages with the name: Micmac (tobakun) and Abenaki (udabagan).

Similar words in “other allied Algonquian languages,” the OED says, are the Montaignais word utapan, the Cree otabanask, and the Ojibwa odaban-ak.

The French in Canada adopted the word in the late 1600s, spelling it tabaganne, and it appeared in English writing in the early 1800s.

In English, according to the OED, the word originally meant “a light sledge consisting of a thin strip of wood turned up in front, used by the Canadian Indians for transport over snow.”

Today, the dictionary adds, “toboggan” can mean “a similar vehicle, sometimes with low runners, used in the sport of coasting (esp. down prepared slopes of snow or ice).”

The OED’s earliest English version, spelled “tobogin,” was recorded in Sir George Head’s Forest Scenes and Incidents in the Wilds of North America (1829):

“After leaving Fredericton there was no town nor village at which the required articles could be procured: namely, a couple of tobogins, a tobogin bag, a canteen … two pairs of snow shoes.”

The “toboggan” spelling didn’t arrive until half a century later, in the 1870s. Here’s one example, cited in the OED:

“The little hand-sledge … which the English have christened by the Canadian term ‘toboggan.’ ” (From John Addington Symonds’s Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece, 1874.)

In the mid-1800s, soon after the noun “toboggan” came into English, people began using it as a verb. So to “toboggan” meant to ride a toboggan. And what did one wear while tobogganing? Read on.

By the late 19th century, people were using the term “toboggan cap” (and slightly later “toboggan hat”) to mean a stocking cap, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

DARE’s examples begin with “toboggan cap” in 1870 (from Minnesota), “toboggan cap” in 1886 (Ohio), and “toboggan hat” in 1908 (Ohio).

As the OED reports, the former item was even offered for sale in a 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog, which advertised “Toboggan Caps or Toques.”

In the 1920s term for the cap was shortened to “toboggan,” which the OED defines as an American term for “a long woollen cap.”

The OED’s earliest citation for “toboggan,” meaning the cap, is from a 1929 issue of the journal American Speech: “Toboggan, a woolen cap.” The journal gives the example “Take off your toboggan.”

Oxford’s most recent example is from a 1975 issue of the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, in a description of a burglar: “He was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants, police said.”

While the OED doesn’t say the term for a cap is chiefly used in the South, that seems to be the case.

DARE describes this use of “toboggan” (along with “toboggan cap” and “toboggan hat,” plus the shorter “boggan” and “boggin”) as “chiefly South, South Midland; also Inland North.”

We’ll close with another quote from the Raleigh News & Observer, this one from 1995 and cited in DARE:

“What once were tobogganing caps became, over the years, simply ‘toboggans.’ Except we pronounce them, in our own uniquely Southern way, ‘toe-boggins’ or sometimes, in the privacy of our own homes, merely ‘boggins.’ ”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

¿Why isn’t English like Spanish?

Q: Why does the question mark and exclamation point appear at the end of a sentence in English? To my mind, it would make more sense if they were at the beginning. Or at the beginning and end, as in Spanish, though I’ve read that this convention is falling out of favour, no doubt under the influence of that mongrel language from perfidious Albion.

A: Your question requires a brief look back at medieval English, where the earliest punctuation marks were intended as verbal cues for one reading to an audience.

In the medieval church, reading was something done aloud, and punctuation showed the lector where to pause for breath and how to modulate his voice to convey the meaning of the words.

The first marks seen in English writing indicated pauses in a sentence: brief pauses in mid-sentence (voiced with a rising intonation), versus a longer, final pause at the end (a falling intonation).

In Beowulf, an Old English poem written as early as 725, the basic mark of punctuation is a simple point, according to A Critical Companion to Beowulf (2003), by Andy Orchard, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

The English marks identifying a sentence as a question or an exclamation developed later, the linguist David Crystal writes in Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (2015).

The interrogative mark, according to Crystal, was recorded in Old English around the year 1000, and the mark of exclamation or admiration appeared in the 1500s in early Modern English. (Versions of both were recorded earlier in medieval Latin.)

The early interrogative and exclamation marks in English were the precursors of our modern question mark and exclamation point, though they looked nothing like today’s versions and didn’t get their modern names until centuries later.

From the beginning, however, they were always found at the end of an English sentence. Yes, they offered vocal cues (if a bit late in the sentence). But like the period, they  showed stopping points—almost as if they were variations on the period.

In fact, during the late 19th and early 20th century, these marks were sometimes called “question stop” and “exclamation stop,” just as today the British call the period a “full stop.”

In his book, Crystal says that “the question mark, like the exclamation mark and the period, acts unambiguously as a sign of separation—to show where one sentence ends and the next begins. That’s why a period was included within the symbol (and reflected in the term question-stop).”

In Spanish, too, the question mark and exclamation point originally came at the end of a sentence, not the beginning.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the Spanish Academy suggested adding them, upside down, at the front too, as in ¿Quien sabe? (“Who knows?”).

As the Academy explains in a treatise published in 1754, “one can use the same sign of interrogation, inverting it before the word that has the first interrogative intonation, in addition to using the regular question mark to signal the end of the clause.” The exclamation mark was treated the same way.

Why the change? Because, as you suggest, placing a mark at the beginning is a cue to the reader that a question or exclamation is coming.

To some Spaniards, a solitary mark at the end “was felt to be inadequate for the requirements of Spanish pronunciation,” Alexander and Nicholas Humez write in their book On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World (2008).

“It did not provide a reader with enough information to enable him to express adequately the full significance of a question in long sentences,” they add.

“Following its own prescription,” the Humez brothers write, “the Adademia put this into practice in the books published under its auspices, and other publishers eventually followed suit.”

Interestingly, the 16th-century English educator John Hart suggested in An Orthographie (1569) that the interrogation mark (he called it “the asker”) and the exclamation mark (“the wonderer”) should be used at the beginning and end of a sentence.

And at least one 18th-century commentator made a similar suggestion. In a letter to Noah Webster, dated Dec. 26, 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

“We are sensible that when a question is met with in reading, there is a proper variation to be used in the management of the voice. We have therefore a point called an interrogation, affixed to the question in order to distinguish it. But this is absurdly placed at its end; so that the reader does not discover it, till he finds he has wrongly modulated his voice, and is therefore obliged to begin again the sentence. To prevent this the Spanish printers, more sensibly, place an interrogation at the beginning as well as at the end of a question.” (From The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1809.)

The practice never took hold in English. And as you’ve noted, some Spanish-language writers (notably the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda) have abandoned such marks. However, we doubt that Neruda, an ardent Communist, was influenced much by perfidious Albion.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

The light and dark of language

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on the blog on Dec. 16, 2009.)

Q: I teach cultural anthropology at the City University of New York. Some of my students have asked when the negative association with the color black first arose, as in “black sheep” or “black day” or “Black Death.” In other words, why is “angel food cake” white and “devil’s food cake” black? HELP!

A: This is a tall order!

It’s easy enough to say when some of the phrases you mention came into English. But it’s harder to tackle the notion of blackness or darkness as negative. This idea predated English and probably predated written language.

The word “black” has been in English since the earliest days of the language. In Old English in the eighth century it was written as blaec or blec, a word that was often confused with blac (white or shining).

The two words were even pronounced similarly at times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Middle English (spoken roughly between 1100 and 1500), they were “often distinguishable only by the context, and sometimes not by that.”

The etymological history of “black” is difficult to trace, according to the OED, but it may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. We can only speculate here. A prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bhleg meant “burn.”

The oldest definition of “black” cited in the OED is the optical one: “the total absence of colour, due to the absence or total absorption of light, as its opposite white arises from the reflection of all the rays of light.” This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in Beowulf in the 700s.

In the 1300s “black” was first used to mean soiled or stained with dirt, which the OED describes as a literal usage.

It wasn’t until the late 1580s that “black” was used figuratively to mean “having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister,” according to the OED.

The published usages include “black curse” (1583); “black name” and “black Prince” (1599, Shakespeare); “blacke edict” and “blacke victory” (1640); “black moment” (1713); “black enemy” (1758); and “black augury” (1821, Byron).

Around the same time, “black” took on other negative meanings, including horribly wicked or atrocious, as in “blacke soule” (1581); “blacke works” (1592); “blackest criminals” (1692); “blackest Calumnies” (1713); “black ingratitude” (1738, Macaulay); “the blackest dye” (1749, Fielding); and “black lie” (1839).

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, “black” also became identified with sorrow, melancholy, gloom, and dire predictions; a “black” outlook was pessimistic, whereas “bright” meant hopeful.

The word “blackguard” originally referred to dirtiness rather than to evildoing. It originated about 1535, and according to the OED it was first used first to refer to a scullery or kitchen worker, someone who had charge of pots and pans.

“Blackguard” was later used to describe a street urchin who worked as a shoe-black. In 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote of “The little black-guard / Who gets very hard / His halfpence for cleaning your shoes.”

And a 1785 slang dictionary described a “black guard” as “a shabby dirty fellow; a term said to be derived from a number of dirty tattered and roguish boys, who attended at the horse guards … to black the boots and shoes of the soldiers, or to do any other dirty offices.”

Boys who picked up odd jobs in the streets were also called “blackguards,” and in 1736 the term was first used to mean a scoundrel.

“Blackmail,” first recorded in 1552, originally meant protection money.

The OED defines its first meaning as “tribute formerly exacted from farmers and small owners in the border counties of England and Scotland, and along the Highland border, by freebooting chiefs, in return for protection or immunity from plunder.”

In those days, “mail” meant rent or tribute (its ancestor, the Old English mal, meant payment extorted by threats). But we can’t find any explanation for the “black” in the term, aside from the term’s earlier sense of soiled or dirty.

The phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 1790s; according to legend, there was one in every flock.

The term “blacklisted” was recorded as far back as 1437. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the name indicated “edged with black.” The OED says the “black” in the term is from the negative sense of the word and means disgrace or censure.

However, the OED notes elsewhere that such a list was “often accompanied by some symbol actually black,” as in this 1840 citation from Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge: “Write Curzon down, Denounced. … Put a black cross against the name of Curzon.”

Similarly, a “black mark” (meaning a mark of censure) was originally “a black cross or other mark made against the name of a person who has incurred censure, penalty, etc.,” the OED says. The first published use is from a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845): “Won’t there be a black mark against you?”

As for the great plague of the 1300s, it wasn’t called the “Black Death” at the time. In the 14th century it was called “the pestilence,” “the plague,” “the great pestilence,” “the great death,” etc.

In English, the “black” wasn’t added until the early half of the 1800s, though it appeared in Swedish and Danish in the 1500s and in German in the 1700s.

The OED says it’s not known why the plague was called “black,” but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it was because the disease caused dark splotches on the victims’ skin.

We can’t find anything in standard etymologies about “devil’s food,” but it may get its name either from its original color (red), or from its heaviness and density as opposed to “angel food,” which is weightless and feathery. A website called The Straight Dope has a good entry on the subject.

The metaphors in question aren’t Western notions, either. From what we’ve been able to find out, they’ve been around since the beginning of time, when people first became aware of the division of their world into day and night, light and dark.

From the point of view of primitive people, day brought with it light, sun, warmth, and of course visibility. Night was colder and darker; it was threatening and fearful, full of unseen dangers and hidden threats.

This ancient opposition between day and night, light and dark, became a common motif in mythology. It’s unfortunate that dark-skinned people, merely by the accident of skin color, have become victims of the mythology.

We’ve found an article that might have some ideas for you to share with your students. In it, the psychiatrist Eric Berne explores the folklore of our conceptions of light and dark, black and white, good and evil, clean and dirty, and so on.

The article is “The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore,” published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 72, No. 283 (Jan.-Mar., 1959), pp. 1-13. You can get it through JSTOR, assuming CUNY subscribes to its digital archive. Skip the first page and go to the history, which begins on page 2.

Berne notes that the ideas of light=goodness and dark=badness existed in ancient cultures (including Egyptian and Greek), and can be found in Asia and around the globe.

Joseph Campbell, writing in the journal Daedalus in 1959, says it was the Persian philosopher Zoroaster (circa 600 BC) who put the seal on the concept of darkness being evil.

Zoroaster, Campbell writes, saw a “radical separation of light and darkness, together with his assignment to each of an ethical value, the light being pure and good, the darkness foul and evil.”

The Old and New Testaments are full of such dichotomies. In later Christian writings, the bright angel Lucifer transgresses and is thrown out of heaven (which is, of course, flooded with light), to become the dark lord of night.

In Paradise Lost, Milton writes that the flames of hell produce “No light, but rather darkness visible.”

For what it’s worth, we don’t believe that metaphors identifying lightness as positive and darkness as negative are inherently racist. They certainly didn’t begin that way, though these negative connotations have certainly fed into and reinforced racism over the centuries.

Your students may also be interested in a recent item on The Grammarphobia Blog about the word “nigger” and its evolution (for some African-Americans) into a positive term through a process that has been called semantic bleaching.

The blog entry cites a paper by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at CUNY. We’ll bet he could direct you to other sources of information about the mythology of blackness.

We hope some of this is useful to you.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Here’s how!

Q: Why is the expression “Here’s how!” used as a toast? Nobody I know has an answer, including my martini-loving 94-year-old mom.

A: The expression is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a formula used in drinking healths,” but there’s no clue about what it means.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the late 19th century, when the toast appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s poetry collection The Seven Seas (1896):

“Yes, a health to ourselves ere we scatter. … Here’s how!”

But Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an older example, from The City of the Saints (1861), by the explorer Richard F. Burton:

“We acknowledged his civility with a ‘here’s how,’ and drank Kentucky-fashion.”

Our own searches turned up an example in an 1895 volume of poetry by Richard Henry Savage. His poem “Going Out” is a soldiers’ drinking song with “Here’s ‘how!’ ” as the refrain:

Fill up with merry hearts, dear friends,
And mock the hours too fleeting,
This night for parting makes amends—
I give my final greeting;
May memories of the olden times
Be ever dear as now—
Stand up and drink it every one—
The old times, boys: Here’s “how!”

We’re sorry that we can’t suggest what the toast means—if anything. Perhaps an examination of the following OED citations, plus a few drinks, may help:

“They now say ‘Bungo!’ instead of ‘Here’s how!’ over cocktails.” (From a Massachusetts newspaper, the Springfield Union, Nov. 20, 1925.)

“ ‘Well,’ said Mr. Hull, holding up his glass … ‘here’s how!’” (From J. B. Priestley’s novel Festival at Farbridge, 1951.)

“Martin was clasping a tumbler half filled with whisky. ‘Here’s how,’ said the fat man.” (From Eric Burgess’s murder mystery Divided We Fall, 1959.)

Elsewhere, the OED has an entry for “here’s” as a way of introducing “formulas used in drinking health.”

Among them, in addition to “here’s how,” are “here’s hoping,” “here’s looking (at you),” “here’s luck,” and “here’s to,” which the dictionary says is “elliptical for here’s a health to).” (We’ve discussed a few of the formulas on our blog.)

The earliest of these cited in the OED is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597): “Heers to my loue.”

As the dictionary notes, two such expressions are found in Ernest Hemingway’s only full-length play, The Fifth Column (1938): “Here’s looking at you” and “Here’s how.”

But Hemingway outdid himself in one of his short stories, “Up in Michigan,” in which we found a litany of boozy toasts:

“Well, here’s looking at you” … “Here’s all the ones we missed” … “Here’s how” … “Down the creek, boys” … “Here’s to next year.”

In its entry for “mud,” the OED mentions another such expression, “here’s mud in your eye” (or “here’s mud” for short).

It’s described as “an informal salutation before drinking,” along the lines of “Here’s to you!” or “Good health!” or simply “Cheers!”

Why “mud”? Some slang lexicographers have suggested the phrase could have originated in military usage, perhaps as a reference to the muddy trenches of World War I.

But there’s no evidence to support this. Oxford’s earliest citation is from Henry Vollam Morton’s In Search of England (1927): “ ‘Here’s mud in your eye!’ said one of the modern pilgrims, tossing down his martini.”

In fact, most of these bibulous expressions don’t seem to have any deeper meaning. By their very nature, they’re humorous and a bit silly—like “Here’s to the skin off your nose,”  which Green’s Dictionary of Slang has traced to 1914.

That last one—or a version of it—was a favorite of P. G. Wodehouse, whom we like to quote whenever possible, so here goes:

“ ‘Skin off your nose, Jeeves.’ ‘Mud in your eye, sir, if I may use the expression.’ ” (The Mating Season, 1949.)

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Does that bikini still fit?

Q: Is there a term for the overly familiar and presumptuous use of “that” and “those” in advertising? For example, “Organize that messy closet” or “Get rid of those unsightly stains in your sink.” It’s as if the ad writers have peered into our homes.

A: You’ve raised an interesting question, one that highlights something most of us are all too aware of: Advertisers use language in ways that ordinary people don’t.

“That” and “those” are good examples.

In your examples, “that” and its plural, “those,” are demonstrative adjectives (some prefer the term “demonstrative determiners”). They modify a  noun, in effect pointing at it, demonstrating which one (or ones) the speaker is referring to.

In ordinary sentences like “Sam misses that dog” and “Those sneakers belong to Janet,” the demonstrative adjectives point to the nouns, as if to demonstrate which dog Sam misses, which sneakers belong to Janet.

But in the ad slogans you mention, “that” and “those” aren’t used as in ordinary English.

Normally, “that” and “those” (like “this” and “these”) refer to nouns that actually exist—“that dog,” “those sneakers.” Their existence is a fact, something the speaker and the audience take for granted.

But an anonymous, impersonal voice telling you to “organize that messy closet” or “get rid of those unsightly stains” isn’t pointing to an actual condition in your house.

Instead, the speaker is presupposing its existence and treating it as a fact. So the slogans are examples of what a linguist would call “presupposition.”

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “The information contained in a presupposition is backgrounded, taken for granted, presented as something that is not currently at issue.”

In these ad slogans, the presupposed information is that you have a messy closet and a sink with unsightly stains.

In a study entitled “Presupposition, Persuasion and Mag Food Advertising” (2012), Tamara Bouso uses the example “Do you expect to fit into that beach bikini in the New Year?”

This sales pitch presupposes not only that the consumer has such a bikini but that she’s probably too fat to wear it.

Another author, Judy Delin, says presupposition “plays an important role in the construction of advertising messages in general” (The Language of Everyday Life, 2000). The use of demonstrative adjectives, she says, is one form of presupposition.

You ask whether there’s a name for demonstrative adjectives used in this presumptuous way. As a matter of fact, a couple of names have been proposed.

In a 2006 paper, “That’s That: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Demonstrative Noun Phrases,” the linguist Lynsey Kay Wolter calls such terms “emotive demonstratives.”

Why “emotive?” Because, Wolter writes, such terms convey a sense that both speaker and listener “share some relevant knowledge or emotion about the referent of the demonstrative”—that is, the noun it points to.

And writing on the Language Log in 2008, the linguist Mark Liberman calls these words “affective demonstratives.” Like “emotive,” the term “affective” implies an emotional element—in this case familiarity or shared experience.

“Affective demonstratives,” Liberman says, “invite the audience onto a common ground of shared knowledge (or perhaps I should say, ‘that common ground of shared knowledge’).”

In response, one Language Log contributor writes, “I’ve noticed this type of device in advertising a lot,” and provides this example:

“By earning more income through our work-at-home program, you’ll be able to afford that new car, to finally take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of!”

It’s no mystery why advertisers are so fond of demonstrative adjectives. Like the definite article “the,” these words presuppose that the accompanying nouns actually exist.

So they hint that the speaker knows you: “that messy closet” points at your closet. In this way, demonstrative adjectives can create a false sense of familiarity, of intimacy with the consumer.

It’s interesting to note that in the neutral examples we mentioned earlier (“Sam misses that dog” and “Those sneakers belong to Janet”), you could say the same thing less demonstratively by substituting “the” for “that” or “those”:

“Sam misses the dog” and “The sneakers belong to Janet.”

But “the” works only when the audience knows which dog or sneakers are referred to. “The” wouldn’t work in the advertising examples, unless the nouns had been mentioned before.

The ad writers would have to use an indefinite article (“organize a messy closet”) or nothing at all (“get rid of unsightly stains”). But then, of course, they’d lose the familiar tone they’re trying to cultivate.

This forced intimacy can strike listeners as intrusive or annoying, especially those with tidy closets and spotless sinks. A presupposition that’s wrong can backfire.

As Lynsey Wolter says in her paper, “Consider a situation in which the speaker assumes that an emotion is shared, but the addressee resists this assumption. In these circumstances an emotive demonstrative … feels intrusive or patronizing.”

As we said above, demonstrative adjectives point to things. And this isn’t always appropriate. After all, weren’t we taught that it’s not polite to point?

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Extrovert or extravert?

Q: I make a point of using “extravert,” not “extrovert,” because that’s how Myers-Briggs spells it. I did the personality test and learned I’m neither an “introvert” nor an “extravert.” I’m right on the line—I call myself an “ambivert.” Your thoughts?

A: We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and all of them list “extrovert” as the principal spelling for someone with an outgoing or gregarious personality, though five include “extravert” as an acceptable variant.

The two spellings showed up in writing at about the same time, “extravert” in 1916 and “extrovert” in 1918, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Etymologically, “extravert” is the term one would expect. In Latin, extra means outside and vertere means to turn. So an “extravert” turns outward.

So where did the “extro-” spelling come from? As the OED explains, it’s “a quasi-Latin prefix” influenced by the “intro-” suffix of the term “introvert.”

Despite the questionable etymology of “extrovert,” speakers of English overwhelming prefer it to “extravert,” which explains why “extrovert” is the principal spelling in standard dictionaries.

The term “extravert” is more at home in the literature of psychology. That’s why the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the personality questionnaire you filled out,  lists “extraversion,” not “extroversion,” as a psychological preference.

As Oxford Dictionaries online explains, “The original spelling extravert is now rare in general use but is found in technical use in psychology.”

In fact, standard dictionaries generally define the term one way in the language of psychology and another way in common usage.

In psychology, according to the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it refers to “one whose attention and interests are directed wholly or predominantly toward what is outside the self.”

In general usage, however, it simply refers to “a gregarious and unreserved person,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

However, the principal spelling in dictionaries is “extrovert,” whether the word is used in the psychological or the general sense.

As for the history of these words, let’s begin with the verb “introvert,” which appeared in the mid-1600s, when it meant to turn one’s thoughts inward in spiritual contemplation.

The first example in the OED, using the past participle, is from Abraham Woodhead’s 1671 translation of the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila: “The Soul being straight, introverted … into itself, and easily conforming to God’s will and time.”

At about the same time, the verb “extravert” showed up in chemistry in the sense of to turn outward and make visible the latent parts of a substance.

The first OED example is from Hydrologia Chymica, a 1669 book by William Simpson: “It is not the moist air that extraverts any preexistent nitrous parts from the body of the minerals.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that “introvert” and “extravert” appeared as nouns with their modern meanings in psychology and common usage. (A noun “introvert” appeared in the late 19th century as a scientific term for a body part that can turn inward.)

The nouns “introvert” and “extravert” showed up for the first time in the same sentence in Constance Ellen Long’s 1916 English translation of the papers of Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology:

“An Extravert can hardly conceive the necessity which compels the Introvert to conquer the world by means of a system.”

The adjectival use of the past participles “introverted” and “extraverted” appeared a bit earlier in a 1915 paper that Jung wrote for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology:

“An extraverted individual can hardly understand the necessity that forces the introverted to accomplish his adaptation by first formulating a general conception.”

The OED’s first citation for the “extrovert” spelling is from a paper by Phyllis Blanchard in the April 1918 issue of the American Journal of Psychology:

“Jung’s hypothesis of the two psychological types, the introvert and extrovert,—the thinking type and the feeling type.”

An Aug. 31, 2015, post on Scientific American’s Beautiful Minds blog suggests that Blanchard’s spelling of “extrovert” was “an innocent mistake.”

However, another psychologist, William McDougall, used the same spelling a few years later in An Outline of Abnormal Psychology (1926):

“The characteristic neurosis of the extrovert is hysteria, while that of the introvert is neurasthenia or psychasthenia.”

The author of the Scientific American post is bugged by “extrovert” because it doesn’t conform to Jung’s spelling and to the Latin roots of the word.

But it’s silly to expect an English word, no matter what its origin, to conform to the rules of another language. When English adopts a word from a foreign language, the word develops a life of its own.

That’s why words like “agenda,” “candelabra,” “erotica,” “insignia,” “opera,” “stamina” and “trivia” have become singular in English despite their plural foreign roots. And why we use “perfume” instead of the French parfum or the Old Italian parfumo.

Yes, some words derived from other languages (“rendezvous,” “piñata,” and “zeitgeist,” for example) look and sound pretty much the same as the originals. But we don’t tell the barista at Starbucks that we want “two cappuccini.”

Today, as we’ve said, “extrovert” is the usual spelling while “extravert” is primarily seen in psychological writing.

In fact, all the examples for “extravert” in the OED are from the world of psychology, as is this citation from Psycho-Analysis for Normal People (1926), by Geraldine Coster:

“The extravert goes out to people and things, enjoying contacts and shrinking from solitude and meditation.”

Although “extrovert” is now far more popular than “extravert” in writing, “extraversion” is more common in books than “extroversion,” according searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, perhaps because of its prevalence in technical literature.

“Extraversion” first appeared in the 1915 paper that Jung wrote for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology: “I called the hysterical type the extraversion type and the psychasthénic type the introversion type.”

The “extroversion” spelling showed up in Arthur George Tansley’s The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life (1920): “Extroversion is the thrusting out of the mind on to life, the use of the mind in practical affairs, the pouring out of the libido on external objects.”

As for “ambivert,” a person with a balance of “extrovert” and “introvert” features, the term showed up in writing not long after the other words we’ve discussed.

The earliest example in the OED is from Kimball Young’s Source Book for Social Psychology (1927).

After describing people who are introverted some of the time and extroverted at other times, Young writes: “It is these I have called ambiverts.” (We’ve gone to the original to put the Oxford citation in context.)

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Can “once” mean “when”?

Q: Many people use “when” and “once” interchangeably, as in “We can focus on polishing the text once the content is closer to being final.” I know they sort of sound alike, but is it correct to use “once” when you mean “when”?

A: The short answer is that the two words overlap somewhat and both can be used as conjunctions to mean “as soon as” or “after,” though “once” seems a bit more emphatic than “when” here. Now for the longer version.

The word “once” has worn many hats since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. It’s been an adjective, an adverb, a noun, and a conjunction.

When “once” first appeared in Old English more than a thousand years ago, it was an adverbial form of the noun “one,” and meant “at one time only.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary (with “once” spelled “ænes”) is from the Lambeth Psalter (circa 1000), a manuscript with Latin and Old English text from the Book of Psalms:

Semel iuraui in sancto meo : ænes ic swor on minum halgan” (“once have I sworn in my holiness”).

The spelling evolved gradually from “ænes” to “ones” to “once.” As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, the modern “c” spelling reflected “the fact that that once retained a voiceless s at its end, whereas in ones it had been voiced to z.”

The adjective “once” showed up in the mid-1500s, but it wasn’t until the early 1600s that it took on its modern sense of “former.”

The first example in the OED is from Swetnam the Woman-Hater (1620), an anonymous comedy about a misogynist tried by a court of women:

“Magnanimous Ladie, maruell not, / That your once Aduersary do’s submit himselfe / To your vnconquer’d beautie.”

The noun “once” showed up in writing around the same time. The first Oxford example is from A Newyears Gifte, a 1579 poetry collection by Bernard Garter: “Once is no custome.”

The conjunction “once,” the usage you’re asking about, showed up before both the adjective and the noun. The earliest citation in the OED is from Ordinal of Alchemy (circa 1477) by Thomas Norton: “Metalle ons metalle shal not more encrese.”

And here’s an example from Ludus Literarius, a 1612 book by John Brinsley about education: “Once gotten, they were easily kept by oft repetition.”

Finally, this example is from Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1747): “No peremptoriness, Clary Harlowe! Once you declare yourself inflexible, I have done.”

We won’t get into the etymology of “when” now, except to note that it’s ultimately derived from an ancient interrogative root reconstructed as qwo-, according to Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto adds that the ancient root has also given English the word “quandary,” which is the source of many of the questions that we answer on our blog.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are your socks breathing?

Q: My understanding is that the “-able” or “-ible” suffix refers to a passive condition, the ability to have something done to it. Good air is “breathable,” food is “edible,” etc. In television commercials, though, I hear “breathable” used for fabrics that “breathe.” Should I be bothered by this?

A: “Breathable” can go either way because it has both active and passive meanings—capable of breathing as well as fit to be breathed.

When first recorded in 1731, “breathable” was used passively and meant fit to be breathed or inhaled.

This 19th-century citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is a good example: “How breathable the atmosphere!” (from Blackwood’s Magazine, 1839).

In the mid-20th century, people began using “breathable” in an active sense to describe material or clothing that, in the OED’s definition, “admits air to the skin and allows sweat to evaporate.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1937 issue of the Hammond (Indiana) Times: “Breathable suede jackets. Water repellent. They’re new!”

Later on, the verb “breathe” itself was used in reference to such nonliving things as uncorked wine (1950s) and materials that let air pass through (1960s).

Naturally these things weren’t actually inhaling; they were said to “breathe” because they absorbed air or allowed it to move freely.

But returning to your question, it’s not true that adjectives ending in “-able” and “-ible” are always used in a passive sense or in reference to a passive condition.

Some denote a capacity for being subjected to something (passive), while others denote a capacity for doing something (active). Not many of these adjectives do both, like “breathable.”

Examples of passive adjectives include “credible” (said of something that can be believed), “audible” (something that can be heard), “preferable” (a thing that’s to be preferred), and “bearable” (something can be borne).

Examples of the active ones include “comfortable” (said of something that comforts), “durable” (a thing that endures), “horrible” (something that horrifies), and “possible” (a thing that can happen).

You may be wondering why some of these adjectives end in “-able” and some in “-ible.” The reasons are rooted in Latin, where verbs with different endings were given different adjectival suffixes (-abilis or -ibilis).

Both kinds of endings were passed on into Old French (-able, -ible), but the distinction became muddled when French replaced most of the –ible endings with –able.

The result is that English has both kinds of “-ble” adjectives, but as we wrote in a blog post in 2007, the “-able” words far outnumber the “-ible” words. It’s easy to see why.

For one thing, most of the “-ble” adjectives that English acquired from French end in “-able.”

So do most of those that were formed from native English words. So if a word existed in Old English and later formed one of these “-ble” adjectives, it’s probably an “-able” (like “knowable,” “walkable,” “foreseeable,” “drinkable,” “unspeakable,” “doable,” etc.).

In fact, new adjectives formed in modern English, despite their etymological roots, almost always end in “-able,” like “danceable” (first recorded in 1859), “buildable” (1927), “microwaveable” (1977).

All things considered, it’s a wonder we have as many “-ible” adjectives as we do.

Finally, a point that may surprise you. The suffix “-able” is no relation to the adjective and adverb “able.” So resist the temptation to interpret every “-able” adjective in terms of “able to,” especially the passive ones.

Strictly speaking, “unspeakable,” means unfit to be spoken of, not unable to be spoken of. “Drinkable” means “fit to drink,” not “able to be drunk.” And “eatable” means “fit to be eaten,” not “able to be eaten.”

Though both are from Latin, the word “able” and the suffix “-able” are etymologically unrelated.

The word “able” ultimately comes from the verb habere (to hold). The suffix “-able,” as we mentioned, comes from the Latin suffix –abilis, which was used to forms adjectives from verbs ending in –are.

But, as the OED says, an “early association with the adjective able” probably encouraged the notion that a word like “eatable,” with its “-able” suffix, “could be reapprehended as ‘able to be eaten.’ ”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s in a nameplate?

Q: I have often wondered about the period at the end of the Wall Street Journal’s presentation of itself on page one. Is this a pure design choice, by an artist or like person?  Or is there a usage I could learn about?

A: Periods were once common at the end of newspaper names appearing on page one, called “nameplates” or “flags” in American newspaper jargon.

The tradition-minded Wall Street Journal simply kept its period while other newspapers dropped theirs.

The New York Times, no slouch at minding traditions, kept a period at the end of its nameplate until well into the 1960s.

And the Hartford Courant, considered the oldest continuously published paper in the US, revived its old period for a while in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

We’ll have more to say later about those periods at the Journal, the Times, and the Courant, but first let’s look at the evolution of punctuation in nameplates at American newspapers.

The American colony’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which was shut down by the British after its initial issue on Sept. 25, 1690, didn’t have a period after the nameplate but it had one at the end of the subtitle, “Both Forreign and Domestick.”

A British-subsidized weekly, the Boston News-Letter, the first continuously published newspaper in the colony, had a period at the end of its nameplate when it appeared on April 24, 1704.

The next paper to appear, the Boston Gazette, had a period at the end of the nameplate when it began publishing on Dec. 21, 1719. It later changed the period to a comma and added a subtitle, then alternately used a period, a comma, or nothing after the subtitle.

The fourth paper on the scene, the American Weekly Mercury, had a comma after the nameplate when it began publishing in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1719, but a period had replaced the comma by the time it stopped publishing on May 15, 1746.

In one of the odder examples of nameplate punctuation, the Providence Gazette and Country Journal once had a semicolon after “Gazette,” a colon after “Journal,” and a period after its subtitle. But it later had a more typical 18th-century title.

As you can see, the punctuation in nameplates of American newspapers wasn’t all that consistent in the 1700s. Why a comma or a semicolon after the title? Perhaps because some editors considered the date below the title to be part of the nameplate.

But by the 1800s, most US nameplates probably had periods at the end. That’s what we’ve concluded after examining several dozen front pages in America’s Historical Newspapers, a subscription-only database.

We had similar results in examining a dozen or so front pages in databases available to the general public, including examples from the Richmond Planet, the Washingtonian (Leesburg, VA), the Wabash Express (Terre Haute, IN), and the Morning Clarion (Oxford, NC).

Our searches indicated that newspaper nameplates gradually lost the periods during the 1900s, though some periods lasted until well into the 20th century.

The Cincinnati Post’s period was gone at the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, but the Duluth News Tribune still had a period when the Titanic sank six years later.

The Chicago Daily Tribune still had its period at the start of World War I, but the Indianapolis Star had dropped its period.

The Evening Star in Washington, DC, still had a period in 1920, while the Daily News in New York didn’t in 1921.

The New York Times had a period from its founding on Sept. 18, 1851, until it dropped the punctuation mark on Feb. 21, 1967, to the consternation of some tradition-minded readers.

Although dropping the period was part of a number of design changes intended to give the newspaper a more modern look, the Times let it be known that the move saved the paper $41.28 a year in ink.

A Times history published in 2001 noted one reader’s reaction to the changes. “What has God re-wrought?” said the letter to the editor. “No period in the New York Times masthead? The weather unboxed? ‘All the News’ restyled?”

The Hartford Courant, which began publishing as the weekly Connecticut Courant on Oct. 29, 1764, brought back the period in its nameplate in 1997, and then turned it into the dot of “.com” as part of a short-lived design change in 2008.

In a Sep. 28, 2008, interview with Poynter.org, Melanie Shaffer, the design director at the Courant, discussed the decision to make the nameplate vertical and incorporate the period in “.com”:

“We already had this period sitting at the end of the Hartford Courant nameplate. Yes. It was there on the original nameplate—200 years ago. It sort of disappeared for a while, then we brought it back with the ’97 redesign. We wanted to figure out how to incorporate the dot-com. When you turn the masthead sideways and the dot-com sort of rounds the corner, it made good sense.”

As it turned out, the upside-down vertical headline, with a perpendicular “.com” at the top of the page, made sense to designers but not to readers of the Courant.

The Courant responded to the grumbling by asking its readers in June 2009 to choose from among three different nameplates. The winner was a black-and-white horizontal design with the period gone.

As you can see from the changes at the Times and the Courant, the use of a punctuation mark at the end of a newspaper’s nameplate is a style or design issue, not a matter of grammar or usage.

As for the Wall Street Journal, which began publishing on July 8, 1889, we asked Ashley Huston, the chief communications officer at Dow Jones, why the paper still had its period.

“The period is a holdover from the 1800s when other papers also had a traditional period,” she emailed us. “We have kept it while others gradually dropped it.”

She noted that the subject had come up in a 2012 article in the Journal about the period at the end of “Forward.”—an Obama campaign slogan.

In the article, she said no one at the paper knew why the Journal had kept the period in its nameplate when other papers gradually dropped theirs.

We should mention here that many newspaper headlines, as well as nameplates, used to end with periods, but the practice died out in the 20th century. If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog post on the subject in 2013.

And we ran a post in 2014 about the origins of the word “masthead,” both nautical and journalistic. The one on a ship apparently gave us the one in a newspaper.

You didn’t ask, but some British papers, including the Times (London) once had periods at the end of their nameplates, but the practice wasn’t as common in the UK as in the US.

In the UK, a “nameplate” is referred to as a “masthead,” a term that in the US is generally used for the interior box that lists the publisher, senior editors, and address. This box is known as an “imprint” in the UK.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

New Year’s daze

(We’re repeating this post for New Year’s Day. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2013.)

Q: I have a customer who gives out T-shirts at a New Years party. The back of the shirts has the year. Should the date for the next party be 2013 or 2014? I think it should be 2013 because the party starts on New Years Eve. Is there a grammar rule that would apply here?

A: No, we can’t think of any grammar, usage, or style rule that would apply.

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says only that the terms “New Year’s Eve” and “New Year’s Day” should be capitalized (don’t forget the apostrophes).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “New Year’s Day” as the first day of the year and “New Year’s Eve” as the last day of the year.

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked have similar definitions.

What do we think? Well, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but we think the year on the back of those T-shirts should reflect the new year, not the old one.

From our experience, the main point of a New Year’s party is to celebrate the new year, not the old one, though we imagine that some people would disagree with us.

To the extent that New Year partyers do any serious thinking, it’s to make New Year’s resolutions, which the OED describes as resolutions “to do or to refrain from doing a specified thing from that time onwards, or to attempt to achieve a particular goal, usually during the coming year.”

The earliest written example of “New Year” in the OED is from the Ormulum (circa 1200), a book of biblical commentary that refers to “New Year’s Day” (spelled newyeress dayy in Middle English—we’ve replaced the letter yogh with “y”).

Yes, we know what you’re thinking—where’s the apostrophe?

Although “New Year’s Day” now takes an apostrophe, the use of the punctuation mark here is relatively new.

The earliest OED example of an apostrophe in “New Year’s” is from The New Mirror for Travellers, an 1828 travel guide: “It was new year’s eve, and Douw was invited to see out the old year at Judge Vander Spiegle’s.”

The apostrophe showed up in English in the 1500s, but it was originally used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters in a word (as in a contraction like “can’t”).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “apostrophe” is ultimately derived from prosoidia apostrophos, the classical Greek term for an omission mark—the Greek phrase literally means “accent of turning away.”

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post a few years ago about how the apostrophe became possessive.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When “bad” means “good”

Q: I understand the difference between “feel bad” and “feel badly,” but “love so bad”? Wouldn’t that be best stated as “love so badly”? Perhaps I hear the wrong phrase so often that my mind is muddled.

A: In slang usage, the adjective “bad” means “good,” as we mentioned in a post we wrote some time ago about the influence of African-American slang on English.

The surprising thing about this use of “bad”—apart from the reversed meaning—is that it’s not recent. It dates back to the 19th century, as we’ll explain later.

But in an expression like “love so bad,” the word is an adverb, not an adjective. It’s being used as an intensifier—that is, to intensify the verb it modifies—with the result that “so bad” means “so greatly” or “so much.”

We know what you’re thinking—“bad” as an adverb? Is that legal?

Well, here’s another surprise. The adverb “bad” isn’t new either. It’s been around since the 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the earliest adverbial uses, “bad” wasn’t an intensifier. It was used more literally and meant “badly” or “not well.”

The OED’s earliest example is from George Turberville’s The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking (1575): “He … frames his moode, according as his hawke doth well or bad.”

But by the latter half of the 1600s, “bad” was being used intensively, to emphasize the preceding verb, in the same way that we use “much.”

This 17th-century example is from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus, a book on witches and apparitions that was written sometime before 1680: “Haunted almost as bad as Mr. Mompesson’s house.”

In the 18th century, Joseph Bellamy wrote in True Religion Delineated (1750): “We hate him so bad, that we cannot find it in our Hearts to love him.”

And in the 19th century, John Russell Bartlett included in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1859) the expression “I want to see him bad.”

The OED also includes a citation from a British novel, Under the Chilterns (1895), written under the pen name Rosemary: “Las’ week there was a job doin’ up at the squire’s, an’ I wanted to go bad.”

Today, in the OED’s estimation, this sense of “bad” as an intensifier is colloquial and nonstandard, and it appears “chiefly” in North American usage. American language authorities, however, aren’t as critical.

As we’ve written before on the blog, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage maintains that the adverb “bad” is interchangeable with “badly” after the verbs “want” and “need.”

Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an entry for the adverb “bad” defined as “badly,” and includes the example “doesn’t want it bad enough.” This dictionary treats the usage as standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t go quite that far. It says the adverbial use of “bad” as in “his tooth ached so bad” is “common in informal speech but is widely regarded as unacceptable in formal writing.”

Although the OED considers it nonstandard to use “bad” as an intensifier meaning “greatly” or “very much,” it accepts without reservation the use of “badly” in this way.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the slang use of the adjective “bad.” As we mentioned above, the use of “bad” to mean “good” dates back to the 19th century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that, especially in African-American English, “bad” is used to mean “wonderful; deeply satisfying; stunningly attractive or stylish; sexy.”

The dictionary’s earliest reference is from George Ade’s Pink Marsh (1897): “She sutny fix up a pohk chop ’at’s bad to eat.” (The book is a collection of sketches about a fictional black shoe-shine man named William Pinckney Marsh, a k a Pink.)

Random House also cites this line from a 1927 review in Variety: “In Duke Ellington’s dance band Harlem has reclaimed its own. … Ellington’s jazzique is just too bad.”

The OED also includes this usage, which it labels as slang. Here “bad” is used, the dictionary says, “as a general term of approbation” and means “good, excellent, impressive; esp. stylish or attractive.”

Oxford’s citations begin with George Ade in 1897 and continue into the present day.

Among them are this definition of “bad” in Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1955): “Bad, adj. Good. (This reverse adjectival procedure is commonly used to describe a performance.)”

The OED also includes this 1980 example, from an article in Time magazine: “Bad as the best and as cool as they come, Smokey is remarkably low key for a soul master.”

But “bad” was used further back in a slightly different and possibly unrelated slang sense.

Both Oxford and Random House have entries for “bad” meaning “formidable” and hence “formidably skilled,” with examples dating from the 1840s and ’50s.

We find some of these early citations ambiguous; the speaker’s meaning isn’t always clear-cut. As far as we can tell, the first example in which this “badness” is clearly viewed with admiration appeared in the 1870s.

Random House gives an example from The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878), an autobiography by Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.

In this passage, Flipper quotes from a newspaper article that mocked his post-graduation homecoming in 1877:

“A darkey would approach the young man, cautiously, feel of his buttons and clothes, and enthusiastically remark: ‘Bad man wid de gub-ment strops on!’ ” (The newspaper article included this among “expressions of admiration.”)

American Heritage has an interesting note on the positive uses of “bad,” which the dictionary says “illustrate a favorite creative device of informal and slang language—using a word to mean the opposite of what it ‘really’ means.”

“This is by no means uncommon; people use words sarcastically to mean the opposite of their actual meanings on a daily basis,” the dictionary says.

“What is more unusual is for such a usage to be generally accepted within a larger community,” the note continues. “Perhaps when the concepts are as basic as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ this general acceptance is made easier.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “pussy” a dirty word?

Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.” Why can’t we use this word?

A: To recap, on Dec. 7, 2015, Ralph Peters, a Fox Business analyst, called President Obama “a total pussy,” and Stacey Dash, a Fox News cultural commentator, said, “I felt like he could give a shit” about terrorism.

Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox, then suspended Peters and Dash for two weeks, saying “the comments were completely inappropriate and unacceptable for our air.”

As to your question, get serious. Unless you’re emailing from Alpha Centauri, you must know that the noun “pussy” can refer to a woman’s genitals as well as a coward or a sissy.

Did Fox overreact about the use of “pussy”? In our opinion, no. Dictionaries generally label the the first of these slang senses as vulgar and the second as offensive.

We’d describe the Fox decision to suspend the two contributors for using “shit” and “pussy” on the air as a matter of prudence rather than etymology.

Etymologically, the noun “pussy” has referred to a woman’s genitals for hundreds of years. And it probably comes from Germanic sources, not from pusillanimis, the Latin source of “pusillanimous.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a naughty reference in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by the English writer Thomas D’Urfey:

As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.”

The noun “pussy” has also referred to a sweet man, or to an effeminate one, for more than a hundred years. The OED’s first citation is from God’s Good Man, a 1904 novel by the British writer Marie Corelli: “I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”

And this example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith: “You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, this sense of “pussy” evolved to mean a coward or a weakling, according to examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new sense is from Pimp: The Story of My Life, a 1969 memoir by Iceberg Slim, the street name of Robert Beck:

“Look Preston, I got lots of heart. I’m not a pussy. I been to the joint twice. I did tough bits, but I didn’t fall apart.”

And here’s an example from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a 1973 memoir by Tim O’Brien about his experiences in Vietnam: “You afraid to be in the war, a goddamn pussy?”

As “pussy” came to mean a coward, its sexual sense changed. Before then, the word had appeared in family publications and (in the words of the OED) referred to “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man.”

Since around 1970, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter says in an Aug. 17, 2005, posting on the Linguist List, there’s “little doubt of its misogynistic genital origin.”

That explains why The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “pussy” as “informal” if it refers to a cat, “vulgar” if it means the vulva, and “offensive” if it refers to man regarded as weak, timid, or unmanly.

When the noun “pussy” showed up in writing in the 1500s, it referred to “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), an attack against the customs of the times, by the social reformer Philip Stubbes:

“You shall haue euery sawcy boy of x, xiiij, xvi, or xx yeres of age, to catch vp a woman & marie her … so he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not, for that is the only thing he desireth.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

The dictionary says “pussy” is derived from a somewhat earlier noun “puss,” which it defines as “a conventional proper or pet name for a cat” that’s often “used as a call to attract its attention.”

The OED’s first citation is from a 1533 comedy by the English playwright John Heywood: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.”

The feline meaning of “puss” is somewhat of a mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“It appears to have been borrowed from Middle Low German pus, but there the trail goes cold,” Ayto says. “Since it is basically used for calling cats, it may have originated simply in an exclamation (like pss) used for gaining their attention.”

He suggests that “pussy the slang term for ‘cunt’ may be of Low German or Scandinavian origin (Low German had puse ‘vulva’ and Old Norse puss ‘pocket, pouch.’ ”

As for the other unfortunate remark on Fox, we’ve discussed “shit” several times on our blog, including posts in 2009 and 2007. We’ve also written about “cunt” and “twat,” but not about the naughty senses of “pussy.” We did, though, discuss the feline sense of the word in 2009.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

(We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 26, 2006.)

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

The first recorded use of the letter “X” for “Christ” was back in 1021, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But don’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for Christ while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

It turns out that the Greek word for Christ begins with the letter “chi,” or “X.” It’s spelled in Greek letters this way: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. In early times the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” together (“XP”) and in more recent centuries just “chi” (“X”) were used in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.” Sometimes a cross was placed before the “X” and sometimes it wasn’t.

Thus for nearly ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “XP” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.” The OED’s first recorded use of “X” in Christmas dates back to 1551.

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

One mustache or two?

Q: In John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, a colonel appears, “his waxed mustaches bristling with fury.” I often see “mustaches” in old books, but not in newer ones. Was the plural standard at one point? If so, when did the singular come along?

A: When the term showed up in English in the 1500s, both “mustache” and “mustaches” could mean the growth of hair above a man’s upper lip.

English borrowed the term from French, where moustache and moustaches were used in the same way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The French got the word from mustaccio, Naples dialect for the Italian mostaccio, but the evolutionary trail takes us back to mystax, Doric Greek for the upper lip or mustache, and menth-, a reconstructed Indo-European root for “chew.”

We should mention here that the term is usually spelled “mustache” in the US and “moustache” in the UK, though dictionaries on both sides of the Atlantic once preferred “mustache.”

As the OED explains, “earlier British dictionaries (Johnson, Walker, Smart) and most American dictionaries prefer the semi-anglicized form mustache.” (The references are to the lexicographers Samuel Johnson, John Walker, and Benjamin H. Smart.)

We haven’t found any authoritative explanation why a man’s “mustache” is often referred to as his “mustaches” in old books.

We’re only speculating here, but a mustache with long bristles is often brushed from the middle to each side to keep the hair above the mouth and out of the gumbo. That may account for the sense of duality.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “moustache” (it uses the British spelling) has two meanings:

(1) “A (cultivated) growth of hair above (and sometimes extending to either side of) a man’s upper lip.”

(2) “Either half of such a growth of hair. Freq. in pl. (esp. in pair of moustaches): = sense 1.” In other words, the plural can mean the same as the singular.

Although the use of “mustaches” for a “mustache” is more common in older writing, it’s not unknown today.

A photo caption in the Dec. 20, 2013, issue of Newsweek, for example, refers to a demonstrator in Kiev with “his mustaches painted in yellow-and-blue Ukrainian national flag colors.”

As for Dos Passos, we’ve found examples in the U.S.A. trilogy, published in the 1930s, for “mustache” and  “moustache,” as well as “mustaches” and “moustaches,” in reference to one man’s facial growth.

This lack of consistency is actually consistent with the way the word has been used since it showed up in English in the 16th century, according to citations in the OED.

The earliest two examples in the dictionary, from Thomas Washington’s 1585 translation of a book by the French geographer Nicolas de Nicolay, use both “mustaches” and “moustaches” in reference to multiple facial growths.

“[They] let their mustaches grow very long.”

“[They] suffered no haire to grow, but only the moustaches betwixt the nose & the mouth.”

The OED’s next citation, from a 1587 grammar book by the Scottish scholar James Carmichael, translates the singular Greek mystax as “moustaches” in English.

An Oxford citation from Honours Conquest, Henry Roberts’s 1598 biography of Edward of Lancaster, uses the singular “mustache”:

“For the Page they ordained Turkish attire, and him furnished very orderly, with a counterfeit mustache.”

And an example from Seeing Is Believing, an 1860 collection of essays by Charles Allston Collins, uses the singular “moustache”: “He was a little, middle-aged gentleman … with … a dyed moustache.”

The use of “mustaches” for “mustache” was common in literary writing well into the 20th century.

Here’s an example from Stamboul Train, a 1932 novel by Graham Greene: “The old fellow with the moustaches—he was ill all the time.”

And here’s one from World Enough and Time, a 1950 novel by Robert Penn Warren: “Crawford stood at the foot of the ladder, more gaunt than ever, his mustaches more frazzled and stained, his respectable black coat more threadbare.”

Although English borrowed “mustache” from French, it got “mustachio” from Italian and Spanish, according to the OED.

Interestingly, “mustachio” showed up in English a few decades earlier than “mustache.” The first citation in the OED is from William Thomas’s 1551 translation of Travels to Tana and Persia, a book by the Venetian explorer Giosafat Barbaro:

“They suffer their mostacchi to growe a quarter of a yarde longer than their beardes.” A margin note adds: “Mostacchi is the berde of the vpper lyppe.”

The first example for the word spelled the usual way is from a 1603 pamphlet written by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker: “The Souldier … had brisseld vp the quills of his stiffe Porcupine mustachio.”

The noun “mustachio,” like “mustache,” has often been used in the plural for the hair above one man’s upper lip. When used in the plural today, according to Oxford Dictionaries online, the two words refer to a large or elaborate mustache.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “me neither” legit?

Q: When someone says, “I don’t like beef,” it’s apparently incorrect to respond, “Me neither,” since “me” is an object, not a subject. But I’ve never heard, “I neither,” only “Me neither” or “Neither do I.”

A: “Me neither” is technically incorrect here, but a lot of people use it idiomatically. In fact, English speakers have been using it since the late 19th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “me neither” for “nor I” (and, we’d add, for “neither do I”) as colloquial—more suited to conversation than to formal English.

The OED says the usage originated in the US, but two of its four citations are from British sources.

The earliest example is from the Feb. 6, 1882, issue of the Marion (OH) Daily Star: “  ‘When I get out I’m not going to tamper with any more proverbs,’ remarked No. 2. ‘Me neither,’ responded No. 1.”

And this is an example from You Can’t Win, a 1926 memoir by Jack Black about his itinerant life of crime: “ ‘I wouldn’t plead guilty to anything if I were you,’ I advised him. ‘Me, neither,’ said his partner.”

The OED’s latest citation is from Sharking, a 1999 novel by the British writer Sophie Stewart: “ ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I said finally. … ‘Me neither,’ said Lucinda.”

Getting back to your question, “Me neither” is an elliptical (or incomplete) version of a longer reply.

When someone says “I don’t like beef,” you can respond with a full sentence if you like. You might say, for example, “I don’t like it either,” “Neither do I like it,” or “Nor do I like it.” But the last two sound stilted.

Then there are various elliptical versions of those responses: “I don’t either,” “Neither do I,” “Nor do I,” and the even more clipped “Nor I.” All of these are technically correct, because “I” is proper as the implied object of an elliptical sentence.

In our own usage, we prefer “I don’t either” or “Neither do I” in conversation. We find “Nor do I” and “Nor I” too formal for speech, though we might use them in writing.

As for “Me neither,” we don’t bat an eye when someone uses it in speech or casual writing. (“Me too” is commonly used in response to positive statements, as we’ve written before on the blog.)

But “I neither” is seldom (if ever) heard in response to a negative statement like “I don’t like beef.” It’s simply not idiomatic—that is, not commonly used by native speakers.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When the postman came twice

Q: In editing a book on tramways in Australia, I came across a puzzling phrase in old correspondence: “in response to yours of even date.” I finally worked out that the response was to a letter sent the same day—that is, “of today’s date.” This reminded me of when we used to have two mail deliveries a day.

A: Yes, the phrase “of even date” means “of the same date” or “of today’s date,” according to the Collins English Dictionary.

Here the sense of “even” is equal in magnitude, number, or quantity—not “even” as in divisible by two.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase as “common in U.S.; in England chiefly in legal language.”

Common in the United States? This is news to us, since we’ve never come across it before. Our guess is that it’s always been confined to legal or business language.

In fact, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (3rd ed.) would like to see “even date” less common in legal usage too.

Bryan A. Garner, a lexicographer and lawyer, writes that the usage “originated in commercialese but has affected lawyers’ writing as well. The best practice is to name the date a second time or to write the same date.”

Written examples for the usage date back at least as far as the mid-17th century. The earliest we’ve been able to find is from a legal document entitled “The Commission for Discoveries,” written by Oliver Cromwell and published in 1656:

“We have by Our Letters of Privy Seal, bearing even date with these presents, given full Warrant and Authority in that behalf, to the said Commissioners of, and for Our Treasury to allow and pay the same accordingly.”

The use of the phrase “even date” in the sense of “today’s date” or “the same date” was probably common in commercial writing during Cromwell’s time.

It was familiar enough to be included at least seven times in a clerical manual of the same era, The Clerk’s Tutor for Writing (1667), by Edward Cocker.

The manual is a collection of mock legal documents that illustrate the proper forms clerks should follow. Wherever one document refers to another of the same date, the phrase “bearing even date with these presents” is used—a formula that’s still found in legal writing today.

The OED cites only two examples of the expression “even date.” The earliest is from a document dated March 10, 1681: “Reciting an Indenture of even date therewith.”

Oxford also has this 19th-century example: “By deed of even date he covenanted to pay all calls in respect of the shares.” (From the Weekly Notes, London, 1885.)

In closing, we’ll quote a poem that appears, with many flourishes, in the front of that 17th-century clerks’ manual:

Your book, arme, pen, right forward place.
Your breast from board, yo[ur] head vpright.
Your fingers strait, minde every grace.
Move your pen freely, beare it light.
Full, small, height, depth, & distance mark.
These, with proportions, make a Clerk.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are your duds a dud?

Q: How did “duds” become slang for clothes?

A: We wouldn’t describe the use of “duds” for clothing as slang. The five standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it as informal or include it without comment—that is, as standard English.

In fact, the word has referred to clothes for hundreds of years, since the Middle Ages, when a “dudde” was “a cloak or mantle,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The earliest example we could find is from a 1307 entry in Boldon Buke, a survey ordered by Bishop Hugh Pudsey of church possessions in Durham, England:

“xxvj duddis emptis ad pauperes” (“26 duds bought for the poor”).

And here’s a felonious example from Lanthorne and Candle-Light, a 1609 pamphlet by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker:

“We will filch some duddes: we will filch some clothes.”

Chambers says the word is “of uncertain origin.” The English philologist Walter William Skeat has said it’s probably of Scandinavian origin, though preserved only in dúða, an Icelandic word for swaddling clothes.

In the early 1500s, the English plural “duds” also came to mean ragged clothing, according to the dictionary, and in the early 1900s the singular “dud” took on the sense of an inefficient or useless person or thing.

Here’s an example from the Jan. 28, 1908, issue of the Westminster Gazette for the useless sense: “A ‘dud’ car is a worthless contraption.”

In World War I, Chambers says, the word “dud” came to mean “a shell which failed to explode; hence, failure.”

The earliest example for the military sense in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Between the Lines, a 1915 book about the war by Boyd Cable, pen name of Ernest Ewart: “One of these [shells] was a dud an’ didn’t burst.”

The OED’s first example for “dud” used in reference to a human failure is from the Sept. 1, 1920, issue of Punch: “He … has … been irritated by his school-boy son derisively addressing him as an ‘old dud.’ ”

Note: Although standard dictionaries accept “duds” (used to mean clothes) as informal or standard English, the  OED describes it as slang or colloquial. However, the OED notes that its entry hasn’t been fully updated.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

As the passive progressed

Q: I’ve recently noticed a construction in Emma that doesn’t occur in modern English. When Frank Churchill and Emma entered Ford’s, “the sleek, well-tied parcels of ‘Men’s Beavers’ and ‘York Tan’ were bringing down and displaying on the counter.” Is this a common usage from Jane Austen’s era?

A: You’ve stumbled across a very interesting old usage, from a time when houses were “building” instead of “being built,” portraits were “painting” instead of “being painted,” and boots were “mending” instead of “being mended.”

People used this now-archaic construction, which grammarians call the passival, because the passive progressive tense—“was being built,” “is being painted,” and so on—hadn’t yet come into English.

Although a few examples of the passive progressive were recorded in Jane Austen’s day, the usage was rare at the time.

Austen  wrote that the gloves “were bringing down and displaying” instead of “were being brought down and displayed” because the latter construction was probably unknown to her.

Emma was published in late 1815, when only one form of the verb “be” was commonly used as an auxiliary in standard English.

It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that people began regularly combining two forms of the verb “be” (as in “is being,” “was being,” “were being”) to form the passive progressive tense.

In searches of literary databases, we’ve found many illustrations of the older construction, which uses the active voice to describe what is passive in meaning.

Austen uses it in this Feb. 8, 1807, letter to her sister Cassandra: “Our garden is putting in order, by a Man who bears a remarkably good Character, has a very fine complexion & asks something less than the first.”

She also uses it in Northanger Abbey, which was written in the late 1700s, revised several times in the early 1800s, and published after Austen’s death in 1817:

“The bustle of going was not pleasant. The clock struck ten while the trunks were carrying down, and the general had fixed to be out of Milsom Street by that hour.”

We’ve found many other examples of the usage. In this one, hymns are “singing” instead of “being sung”:

“He saw the [them] al kneele down, and whilest each Gloria Patri, &c. was singing, they al fell prostrat on their faces.” (From An Admirable Method to Love, Serve, and Honour the B. Virgin Mary, written in Italian by Alexis de Salo and published in English in 1639.)

In this humbler example, a “house of office” (that is, a privy) is “emptying” instead of “being emptied”:

“So from thence home, where my house of office was emptying, and I find they will do it with much more cleanness than I expected.” (From a July 28, 1663, entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary.)

In this passage, ships are “mending” instead of “being mended”:

“Here we found Ruy Freira with part of his Ships, of which some were mending.” (From The Travels of Sig. Pietro della Valle, a Noble Roman, Into East-India and Arabia Deserta, published in English in 1665.)

And here we find a bridge that’s “finishing” instead of “being finished”:

“For whilst the Bridge was finishing with incredible Expedition, some Soldiers for Spyes swam over to the other side.”  (From The History of the Turks, by Sir Paul Rycaut, 1700.)

In an account of a trial for seditious libel, the sentence is “reading” instead of “being read”:

“Whilst his sentence was reading he appeared sometimes to mutter against it.” (From The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transactions in and About the Low Countries, originally written in Low Dutch in 1703 and published in English in 1722.)

Finally, in a usage found often in 17th- and 18th-century writing, tea is “preparing” instead of “being prepared”:

“Tea was preparing. Sir Charles took his own seat next Lord L. whom he set into talk of Scotland.” (From Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison, 1753.)

This use of “preparing” survived until well into the 19th century: “They were seated in the coolest seats on the piazza, and melons and other fruit brought while tea was preparing.” (From an unsigned story in the January 1836 issue of a New York monthly, the Ladies Companion.)

Jane Austen was among the last generation of writers to use the old verb form without the passive “being.” Later writers made greater use of “being” as they shifted to the new passive progressive tense (or “aspect,” a term many linguists prefer).

But the transition wasn’t a smooth one. As the OED notes, early 19th-century grammarians condemned the new usage.

Oxford cites criticism from David Booth’s An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language (1830): “For some time past, ‘the bridge is being built,’ ‘the tunnel is being excavated,’ and other expressions of a like kind, have pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

That passage does not appear in the original, 1805 edition of Booth’s book, so the new construction must have come to his attention sometime between then and 1830.

The linguist Mark Liberman, in a Jan. 11, 2013, post on the Language Log, notes that the new usage was still being criticized in the second half of the 19th century.

The literary critic Richard Grant White, for example, wrote in Words and Their Uses (1870) that the construction served “to affront the eye, torment the ear, and assault the common sense of the speaker of plain and idiomatic English.”

But there were good reasons why the passive progressive developed, as we’ll see.

Long before Austen’s time, in fact since the late 1300s, people had been combining the old preposition “a” with gerunds used passively to describe an action in progress.

Here’s an example from the King James Bible (1611): “In the dayes of Noah while the Arke was a preparing.”

Here, “preparing” is a gerund—essentially, a noun—rather than a present participle. The “a” preposition, the OED says, was used with a gerund in “expressing process,” and meant “in process of, in course of,” or “underdoing (some process)” such as making, building, mending, etc.

“On,” and “in” had been used the same way. So a theoretical 16th-century writer might say that court papers were “on preparing” or “in preparing” or “a preparing” and mean the same thing—the papers were in preparation.

By Austen’s time, the prepositions had mostly fallen away. But eventually these “-ing” usages led to ambiguity, since in identical constructions one “-ing” word was a participle and the other a gerund.

Someone might write, for example, that his lawyers “were preparing” papers (participle), but also that the papers themselves “were preparing” (gerund).

For an extreme example of the confusion this might cause, take a look at this OED citation from Henry More’s An Antidote Against Atheisme 1653): The shreeks of men while they are a murdering.”

The writer didn’t mean that the men shrieked as they murdered people. He meant that they shrieked as they were being murdered: “a murdering” here meant undergoing murder. But only the context would tell the reader which meaning was intended.

Obviously, English needed a new tense—one combining a form of “be” + “being” + past participle, as in “were being murdered.”

The OED’s earliest use for the new tense is dated 1772, in a letter written by the Earl of Malmesbury: “I have received the speech and address of the House of Lords; probably, that of the House of Commons was being debated when the post went out.”

Two later examples are cited from the 1790s, also from private letters. But it wasn’t until after Jane Austen’s time that the passive progressive became common.

Remnants of the old usages are still with us today. We still say “time’s a-wasting” for “time is being wasted.”

And we still say “nothing doing,” a leftover from the Middle Ages when people said that things were “doing” instead of “being done.”

As the OED says, the old passive construction “to be doing” meant “to be in the course of being done, to be happening.”

Here’s the old usage in action: “Little thought false Reyner what was doing at Canterbury, whiles hee was trotting to Rome.” (From The History of Great Britaine Under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans, by John Speed, 1614.)

And here’s one with a very modern sound, quoted in the OED: “He always says there is nothing doing.” (From a letter written by the Earl of Manchester in 1700.)

Eventually, in the 19th century, the phrase became simply “nothing doing.” The OED gives this example:

“A friend of mine hailed an outfitter the other day, ‘How is business?’ ‘Nothing doing.’” (From a Liverpool weekly, the Porcupine, 1870.)

And in the first decade of the 20th century, the meaning changed. “Nothing doing” became “an announcement of refusal of a request or offer, failure in an attempt, etc.,” Oxford says.

The dictionary gives this example from the Dec. 13, 1910, issue of the New York Evening Post: “Spottford offered the porter a dime. The negro waved it aside and said: ‘Nothing doing; my price is a quarter at least.’ ”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Whole lotta trepidatin’ goin’ on

Q: Hey, I’ve just referred to a group of workmates as “trepidated,” and I hereby record for posterity that I came up with it. Or did I?

A: Nope, you’re nearly a century late. “Trepidated” has been used adjectivally since the early 1800s to mean shaken, fearful, agitated, or disturbed.

Furthermore, several related words with a similar meaning—“trepidat,” “trepidating,” and “trepidatious”—have been around for quite some time too, with the oldest dating back to the early 1600s.

However, all these words are relatively rare or obsolete. The only one you’ll find now in standard dictionaries is “trepidatious,” and not many dictionaries have it.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Oxford Dictionaries online have entries for “trepidatious” (M-W also includes the alternative spelling “trepidacious”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t have a separate entry for “trepidatious,” but it lists the word as an adjectival form in its entry for the noun “trepidation.”

All of these words of agitation are ultimately derived from trepidare, a Latin verb meaning to hurry or bustle, as well as to be agitated or alarmed.

The first of them to appear in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an adjective spelled “trepidat” or “trepidate.” The earliest example in the OED is from John Dove’s A Confutation of Atheisme (1605):

“The celestiall spheres in continuall volubilitye … their diurnall or daylye course from the East to the West, their retrograde and vyolent motion from the West to the East, their trepidat motion from the South to the North.”

Not many years later, the verb “trepidate,” meaning to shake or tremble with fear or agitation, showed up in writing.

The first citation in the OED is from a 1623 dictionary of “hard English words” compiled by Henry Cockeram: “Trepidate, to tremble for feare.”

The noun “trepidation,” meaning tremulous agitation or alarm, appeared soon after.

The earliest OED citation is from a 1625  essay by Francis Bacon: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the present participle “trepidating” used as an adjective is from The Light of Nature Pursued, a seven-volume philosophical opus by Abraham Tucker that was published 60 years after his death in 1774:

“A calm and steady alertness … never anxious nor trepidating.”

The dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the past participle “trepidated” used as an adjective, but we’ve had no trouble finding examples in digital databases.

The earliest is from “The Fatal Prophecy,” an 1838 story by Edward Stirling in the Monthly Magazine, a British periodical that published some of Charles Dickens’s Boz sketches:

“With a voice trepidated and wavering he called off his fierce tribe, and ’spite of their discontent and mutterings, he led them away from the scene of their guilt and carnage.”

The latecomer, “trepidatious,” meaning apprehensive or nervous, showed up in the early 20th century.

The first example in the OED is from The Sirdar’s Oath: A Tale of the Northwest Frontier, a 1904 novel by Bertram Mitford:

“Hilda looked up from the papers she had been busy with as he entered—in fact, made a guilty and trepidatious attempt at sweeping them out of sight.”

We’ll end with a romantic use of the verb from The Travels of Antenor in Greece and Asia, an anonymous 1799 English version of a Greek manuscript found at Herculaneum:

“At first she attacked me by ogling me with amorous glances and languishing looks, to which I politely answered by some little strokes of gallantry, till, by insensible degrees, a kind of attachment began to be formed on both sides, and our hearts reciprocally trepidated with love.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

We are met on a great blog

Q: Watching a recent rebroadcast of “The Civil War” on PBS, I was struck by this sentence in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” Is “we are met” just a poetic usage? Or is something else going on?

A: “We are met” is a present-perfect construction, parallel to “we have met.” The usage dates back to the Middle Ages, but by Lincoln’s time it was considered archaic and poetic.

You can still hear it today, though the usage sounds unusual to modern ears because it combines “met” (the past participle of “meet”) with a form of “be” as the auxiliary verb instead of the usual “have.”

So, for instance, a speaker uses “we are met to honor him” in place of “we have met to honor him”—or, to use the simple present tense, “we meet to honor him.”

The poetic “we are met” gives the message a solemnity and gravity it wouldn’t otherwise convey.

Here “met” is used in the sense of “assembled” or “gathered” or “brought together.” And the auxiliary “be” is possible only when this sense of “met” is used intransitively—that is, without a direct object.

In its entry for “meet,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in intransitive use the perfect tenses were freq. formed with the auxiliary be in Middle English and early modern English; subsequently this became archaic and poetic.”

The OED has citations from the 14th century onward, including this Middle English example from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Complaint of Mars” (circa 1385): “The grete joye that was betwix hem two, / When they be mette.”

This one is from Thomas Starkey’s A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, written sometime before 1538: “Seying that we be now here mete … accordyng to our promys.”

And here’s a poetic 19th-century use from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Virginians (1859): “The two gentlemen, with a few more friends, were met round General Lambert’s supper-table.”

Today, we’re more likely to encounter this usage on solemn occasions, as when people gather for religious worship or funeral eulogies.

Lincoln isn’t the only American politician to use “we are met” in elevated oratory. In 1965, in a speech before Congress in support of equal voting rights, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:

“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

A somewhat similar use of “met” with the “be” auxiliary is also antiquated today. This is the expression “to be well met,” first recorded in the 15th century and meaning to be welcome or well received.

This is the source of the old expression “hail fellow well met,” which evolved in the late 16th century from the slightly earlier phrase “hail, fellow!”

“Hail, fellow!” was a friendly greeting of the 1500s that was also used adjectivally, the OED says, to mean “on such terms, or using such freedom with another, as to accost him with ‘hail, fellow!’ ”

We’ll quote 19th-century examples of the shorter as well as the longer adjectival phrases, courtesy of the OED:

“He crossed the room to her … with something of a hail-fellow bearing.” (From Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886.)

“He was popular … though not in any hail-fellow-well-met kind of way.” (From H. Rider Haggard’s novel Colonel Quaritch, V.C., 1888.)

We’ll close with a more contemporary example we found in a letter to the editor of the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 2012:

“The most exciting thing about the Republican National Convention was the hurricane. … Where is the enthusiasm, the fire they need to capture the voters? Where is the ‘Hail fellow, well met’? This convention was a snore fest.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Lexical summitry

Q: A review of the 3-D movie Everest in The New Yorker says climbers on the world’s highest peak have “an indomitable urge to use the word ‘summit’ as an intransitive verb.” When was the noun “summit” first used as a verb? Who gets the credit?

A: Believe it or not, the first person to verb the noun “summit” in writing was apparently Chaucer—back in the 1300s!

At that time, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb meant to submit or subject. This sense ultimately comes from submittere, Latin for (among other things) to lower or diminish.

Here’s one of the dictionary’s two examples of the usage from Chaucer’s Middle English translation (circa 1374) of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae:

“Þanne summytten ȝe and putten ȝoure self vndir þo fouleste þinges” (“Then to submit and put yourself under those foulest things”).

This sense of the verb is now obsolete (the last OED citation is from the 1400s), and it’s not related to the verbing of the noun “summit” in mountain climbing and diplomacy—two relatively recent usages.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the verb “summit” used in mountaineering, but it has citations dating back to the early 1970s for the verb used in the diplomatic sense.

In our searches of digital databases, the earliest example we’ve found for the verb “summit” used in the climbing sense dates from the late 1970s, but the usage has been relatively rare until the last few years.

Three of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked have entries for “summit” used as a verb in mountaineering or diplomacy, but only one dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th ed.) includes both senses.

Merriam-Webster’s describes the verb as intransitive in both senses—that is, without an object. Examples: “The foreign ministers will summit tomorrow” … “He summited solo on day 10.”

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Oxford Dictionaries online say the mountaineering verb can be used transitively (with an object) as well as intransitively.

Oxford Dictionaries gives these examples: “in 2013, 658 climbers summited Everest” … “they started climbing at 3:45 a.m. and summited at 8:45 p.m.”

All this lexical summitry began with summum, Latin for highest, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“When the Romans counted up columns of figures they worked from the bottom upwards, and put the total on top—whence the use of the expression res summa, literally ‘highest thing,’ for ‘total,’ ” Ayto writes.

He adds that the Latin phrase “was eventually shortened to summa, which reached English via Old French summe.”

When the noun “summit” (spelled “somette”) showed up in English in the 1400s, it referred to the top of something, specifically the crown of a head.

The first example in the OED is from Le Morte Darthur (1470-85), Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian legend:

“It clefte his hede fro the somette of his hede.” (The citation refers to a bloody battle in which the wounded King Arthur uses his sword Excalibur to slash Emperor Lucius from the top of the head all the way down to the chest.)

At about the same time, according to the dictionary’s citations, the noun “summit” took on the meaning of “the topmost point or ridge of a mountain or hill” as well as “the highest elevation” of a road, a canal, and so on.

The OED’s first example for this sense is from Godeffroy of Boloyne, William Caxton’s 1481 English translation of an Old French version of a Latin work about the Crusades by the 12th-century prelate William of Tyre:

“Syon is toward the weste, on the sommete or toppe theron stondeth the chirche which is named Syon.”

In the 1700s, the noun took on the figurative meaning of the highest degree of something, such as happiness or love or literary achievement.

The first Oxford example is from a letter written sometime before 1717 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “Supposing I was at the very summit of this sort of happiness.”

In the mid-20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, “summit” took on the specific meaning of the highest level “with reference to politics and international relations.”

The first example is from a comment by Winston Churchill in the Feb. 15, 1950, issue of the Times (London): “It is not easy to see how things could be worsened by a parley at the summit, if such a thing were possible.”

The earliest example for the phrase “summit meeting” is from the May 5, 1955, issue of the New York Times: “I say at this moment I see no reason for that summit meeting.”

And the first example for “summit conference” is from the June 23, 1955, issue of the Times (London): “The senator’s resolution demanding that the United States should refuse to attend the ‘summit’ conference.”

By the 1960s, according to the OED, “summit” was being used elliptically—that is, by itself—to mean a “summit conference” or a “summit meeting.”

Here’s an example from the June 30, 1967, issue of the Spectator: “The most certain result of the Glassboro summit, in fact, is no more than that Mr. Johnson’s standing at home is now rather higher.”

As for the verb “summit,” the dictionary’s first modern example (from the June 5, 1972, issue of Time magazine) uses the verb in its diplomatic sense:

”Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is willing to summit with the chap (probably at the end of the month).”

As we’ve said, the OED doesn’t have an entry for “summit” used as a verb in mountain climbing. The earliest example we’ve found is from a 1978 issue of Antarctic, a publication of the New Zealand Antarctic Society:

“It was then onto Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjero in Tanzania which stands at 5,894 m and which they summited on 17 August, prior to flying to Australia to climb the 2,230 metre high Mt. Kosciusko in New South Wales, on 26 August.”

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Holiday dressing

Q: This question is too late for Thanksgiving, but you may find it useful for Christmas or New Year’s: Is the verb “dress” (to gut a dead deer) related to the noun “dressing” (the stuffing in a turkey)?

A: Yes, to “dress” a deer is etymologically related to the “dressing” that’s stuffed in a holiday turkey. And both senses are related to the verb “dress” (to put on clothes) and the noun “dress” (the garment).

All those senses are ultimately derived from directus, Latin for “straight” and the source of the English word “direct,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

So how did a Latin word for straight, you may ask, twist and turn in English to give us terms for stuffing a turkey and gutting a hunted deer in the field?

When Middle English borrowed the verb “dress” from Old French in the 1300s, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant to straighten, erect, prepare, or arrange. (In Old French, dresser meant to arrange.)

The “prepare” sense of “dress” in Middle English included “preparing for use as food, by making ready to cook” as well as seasoning, according to written examples in the OED.

This example is from Richard Cœur de Lyon, a Middle English romance written sometime before 1400: “Or ye come the flesch was dressyd” (“Before your coming, the flesh was dressed”).

And here’s a 1430 citation from a Middle English cookbook: “Put yn þe Oystrys þer-to, and dresse it forth” (“Put the oysters in [the pot of broth] and dress it”).

This example is from Nicholas Lichefield’s 1582 translation of a book by the Portuguese historian Fernão Lopes de Castanheda: “To dresse their meate with salt water.”

The food sense of the verb “dress” gave us the noun “dressing,” which the OED defines as “the seasoning substance used in cooking; stuffing; the sauce, etc., used in preparing a dish, a salad, etc.”

The earliest Oxford example is a 1504 entry in the Records of the Borough of Nottingham: “For floure and peper, and dressing.”

Getting back to “dress,” all of the Oxford examples for the culinary sense of the verb refer to the kind of preparation that one would do in a kitchen, not out in the field.

However, the OED has an entry for “field-dress,” which it describes as a “chiefly N. Amer.” verb meaning “to remove the internal organs from (hunted game) soon after the kill, primarily to aid the cooling of the carcass.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the usage is from Game in the Desert, a 1939 book by Jack O’Connor about hunting in the American Southwest and northern Mexico:

“For a hunting knife the sportsman should choose a good substantial pocket knife…. With it he can field-dress his game, bore holes in leather, [etc.].”

The most recent OED example is from the Nov. 6, 2008, issue of the New York Review of Books: Another one of those cool Harvard Law Review cats who can’t field-dress a chicken, much less a moose.”

Although the verbal phrase “field-dress” may be more popular in the US than in the UK, as the OED asserts, we’ve found examples for the verb “dress” itself used in that sense on both sides of the Atlantic since the 1800s.

In Woodstock, an 1826 novel by Sir Walter Scott, for example, poachers “flayed and dressed the deer, and quartered him, and carried him off, and left the hide and horns.”

And in A Snow Storm in Humboldt, a story in the November 1892 issue of the Overland Monthly in San Francisco, a neighbor gives the narrator one of three deer he’s shot.

“He stayed but a few minutes,” the narrator says, “then I washed my dishes, dressed the deer, chopped wood, brought water from the spring, and prepared supper.”

Interestingly, the most common sense now of the verb “dress” (to put on one’s clothes) didn’t show up until the 1600s, according to citations in the OED.

We’ll skip ahead to this example from Henry Fielding’s 1749  novel Tom Jones: “He had barely Time left to dress himself.”

The use of the verb in the sense of dressing someone else, not oneself, showed up earlier. Here’s an example from the York Mystery Plays (circa 1440), a Middle English cycle of religious pageants: “Dresse vs in riche array.”

The noun “dress,” used to mean a one-piece garment worn by women and girls, showed up in the 1600s. The earliest OED citation is from The Fancies, Chast and Noble, a 1638 comedy by John Ford: “Your Dresses blab your vanities.”

Finally, here are some additional meanings for “dress” and “dressing” that evolved from the original senses of the verb in Middle English: to “dress” a wound (1471), to “dress” a garden with manure (1526), to “dress up” (1674), the “dressings” on a wound (1713), to “dress” for dinner (1741), to “dress” a shop window (1843), and to give someone a “dressing down” (1876).

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

On the Pequod, and under weigh

Q: Regarding your post about “under way,” please note that as the ship Pequod left port it was “getting under weigh.” This was a nautical metaphor that alluded to the process of pulling up anchor to begin a trip.

A: As we wrote in our 2009 post, the original term for a ship moving through the water was “under way,” not “under weigh.” Strictly speaking, a ship “weighs anchor” before getting “under way.”

The Oxford English Dictionary labels “under weigh” a common variant of “under way” that arose “from erroneous association with the phr. ‘to weigh anchor.’ ”

But a term that lexicographers label a “variant” is merely that. It’s not incorrect, just an alternative spelling.

In most dictionaries, the “variant” label means the spelling is acceptable in standard English, unless a more restrictive label, like “dialect” or “slang” or “offensive,” is also appended.

Both of these nautical expressions date from the 18th century. Oxford’s earliest example of “under way” in English writing is from 1743, and the earliest for “under weigh” is from 1777.

The dictionary describes the earlier “under way” as a nautical term from the Dutch onderweg or onderwegan.

In Dutch, a language from which English adapted many nautical terms, onder means “under, in the course of, etc.,” and weg means “way.” The phrase, the OED says, is “often spelt under weigh.”

What do standard American dictionaries say about “under weigh”?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats “under weigh” as a variant derived “by folk etymology” from “under way.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that the “weigh” here is a variant of “way” that was “influenced by weigh, as in weigh anchor.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) says much the same: in the phrase “under weigh,” the dictionary notes, the use of “weigh” for “way” is a variant spelling “modified by the notion of ‘weighing anchor.’ ”

The online Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary makes no mention at all of “under weigh.” It has only “under way,” and uses the example “The ship is under way.” Elsewhere, Random House defines “weigh anchor” as “to heave up a ship’s anchor in preparation for getting under way.”

In short, many dictionaries accept “under weigh” as a variant. And in our opinion it’s so firmly established in nautical usage that it’s no longer remarkable, though “under way” is preferable on etymological grounds.

As for your comment about Herman Melville’s use of “under weigh” in Moby-Dick, he wasn’t the only literary figure to choose the variant.

As Michael Quinion notes on his website World Wide Words, the usage “has the ghostly support of generations of writers.”

In addition to Melville, Quinion cites William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Frederick Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, and C. S. Forester.

The mistaken spelling was perhaps inevitable. As Quinion says, “Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. “

Here are the two earliest examples for each term, courtesy of the OED:

1743: “To prevent which, we do agree, that when Under-way they shall not separate.” (From A Voyage to the South-Seas in the Years 1740-1, by the shipmates John Bulkeley and John Cummins.)

1751: “We drew up the two boats, and set all hands at work to put the ship under way.” (From Robert Paltock’s novel The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins.)

1777: “I can assure you on the authority of Mr. Sullivan, that he saw him underweigh in the Bessborough and for the East Indies several Weeks ago.” (From a letter written by E. Draper, and later published in the journal Notes and Queries in 1944.)

1785: “This perverse wind has at last … come about to the east, so that we are all in high spirits getting under weigh.” (From a piece by Richard Cumberland, published in the Observer, London.)

As you can see, it didn’t take the variant long to catch on.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Yankees fleeced! Mets licked!

Q: These sentences appeared recently in a news roundup in the NY Times: “Red Sox fleece Yankees” and “Phillies lick Mets.” Are these poorly conceived puns by sportswriters?

A: Both “fleece” and “lick” are commonly used in a figurative way to describe getting the better of somebody. These usages are very common and we can’t blame baseball writers for them, since they’ve been in use for many centuries.

In fact, figurative uses of these two verbs probably preceded the literal ones—at least in written English. Here’s the story, beginning with “fleece.”

The verb was derived from the noun “fleece,” the word for an animal’s wooly pelt, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The noun descended from old Germanic terms and was first recorded in Old English sometime before the year 1000.

In its literal sense, of course, to “fleece” a sheep is to strip it of its wool, a meaning first found in writing in the 17th century—but even then it was used metaphorically.

In fact, the OED’s earliest use of “fleece” in its sheep-shearing sense uses the word in a metaphor: “A Clergy, that shall more desire to fleece, Then feed the flock” (from George Wither’s long poem Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628).

And almost a century earlier the verb was used figuratively in the sense of “to obtain by unjust or unfair means” or “to take toll of, take pickings from.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a letter sent by King Henry VIII on Feb. 25, 1537, in which he chews out his Lord Deputy and Council in Ireland:

“Good counsailors shuld, before their oune private gaynes, have respecte to their princes honor, and to the publique weale of the cuntrey whereof they have charge. A greate sorte of you (We must be plain) desire nothing ells, but to reign in estimacion, and to flece, from tyme to time, all that you may catche from Us.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

And in the late 1500s, a figurative construction that’s common today showed up in English writing.

The OED defines this use of “fleece” as “to strip (a person, city, country, etc.) of money, property, etc., as a sheep is stripped of its fleece; to make (any one) pay to the uttermost; to exact money from, or make exacting charges upon; to plunder, rob heartlessly; to victimize.”

So the verb was practically made to order for sportswriters looking for more vivid words than “defeat” or “beat” or “rob of a victory.”

Why do figurative uses of the verb “fleece” predate and outnumber the literal senses of the word?

Our guess is that “shear,” a verb that’s been in English writing since the late 800s, has always been the more common literal term for removing a sheep’s wool.

Similarly, the verb “lick,” another word from old Germanic sources, has had both literal and figurative meanings since its first appearances in 10th-century manuscripts

The principal sense of “lick,” to pass one’s tongue over something, was first recorded in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s.

But figurative uses of “lick” are even older.

To “lick the earth (or ground)” was to suffer defeat, a usage first recorded in an illuminated manuscript believed to have been created some time in the early 900s.

Here’s the citation, from the Paris Psalter: “His feondas foldan liccigeað.” (“His enemies licked the ground”).

The usage (similar to “bite the dust,” 1749) also shows up in John Wycliffe’s translations of the Psalms and Micah in the 1380s: “His enemys the erthe shul licken,” and “Thei shuln lick dust as the serpent.”

In other usages, to “lick one’s knife” (circa 1400) was to be parsimonious. To “lick one’s lips (or fingers)” (c 1500) was to display “keen relish or delighted anticipation of some dainty morsel,” the OED says.

And to “lick into shape,” meaning “to mould” or make presentable, alludes “to the alleged practice of bears with their young,” Oxford notes.

This expression could be as old as 1413, but the earliest definitive citation is from George Chapman’s comedy The Widdowes Teares (1612): “He has not lickt his Whelpe into full shape yet.”

Finally, the figurative usage we see in sports headlines, in which “lick” means to beat or punish, appeared in writing in the late 16th century.

The OED’s earliest example for this sense of the word comes from A Caueat for Commen Cursetors (1587), Thomas Harman’s pamphlet about tramps and vagabonds.

In the booklet, Harman defines the word “lycke” as meaning “to beate.”

So “lick,” like “fleece,” was a natural for sportswriters!

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Oust, ouster, oustered?

Q: I’ve read and heard the word “oustered,” but I can’t find it in dictionaries. Is this really a word? Enquiring minds want to know! (Ten bonus points if you know the reference off the top of your head.)

A: The word “oustered” isn’t in the six standard dictionaries we usually check. Nor is it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

All seven reference books have entries for the verb “oust” (whose past tense and past participle is  “ousted”) and for the noun “ouster.” But nowhere did we find an entry  for a verb “ouster,” let alone a past tense and past participle “oustered.”

Nevertheless, we’ve found examples for “ouster” used as a verb since the late 1960s and “oustered” used since the early 1970s.

A 1968 report by New York State investigators refers to getting councilmen “to ouster” an official in Troy, NY.

And a 1972 article in the journal Intellect says a university chairman “is elected, appointed, or roundly oustered, largely at the behest of his colleagues.”

Although the verbing of the noun “ouster” has increased somewhat in recent years (a Google search for “oustered” gets about 1,700 hits), the usage is still rare, which explains why you can’t find it in dictionaries.

Is “oustered” really a word? Well, it’s a word—a unit of written or spoken language—for the people who use it. But lexicographers don’t think it’s word-y enough to include in their dictionaries.

As for the etymology here, the verb “oust,” the oldest of these words, showed up in the early 1400s as a legal term meaning to eject or dispossess.

English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from obstare, Latin for to stand in the way of.

The earliest example in the OED is a 1420 entry from the records of the Court of Chancery, an equity court in England and Wales:

“We wol and charge you that … ye see and ordeyne that oure saide tenant … be not wrongfully ousted by maintenance of lordship ner other wyse.”

In the late 1700s, the verb took on its usual contemporary sense of “to expel or drive out from a place or position,” according to OED citations.

The first example in the dictionary for this sense is from an Oct. 8, 1787, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jay: “”An intrigue is already begun for ousting him from his place.”

When the noun “ouster” showed up in the early 1500s, according to the OED, it referred to “ejection from a freehold or other possession; deprivation of an inheritance.” (A freehold is a lifetime possession of an estate.)

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1531 book by Christopher St. Germain, featuring a dialogue between a clergyman and a barrister about conscience and common law: “To saue them selfe fro confessynge of an oustre.”

In the late 1700s, according to Oxford citations, the noun came to mean “dismissal or expulsion from a position.”

The first citation given is from The Biographical History of Sir William Blackstone (1782), compiled by “a gentleman of Lincoln’s-Inn,” a k a “D. Douglas”:

“Whenever the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal is removed from his high office, be the same by resignation or ouster; that he should be immediately … created a peer of the realm.”

Now, according to Oxford, the noun is chiefly used to mean removal from a place or situation.

Here’s an example of this extended use from the Dec. 20, 1973, issue of the Listener, a defunct BBC magazine:

It is the hope … that enough damning evidence would be found to force the ouster of the President overnight—to make him resign.”

As for your pop quiz, hand over those 10 bonus points. We’re well aware that “Enquiring minds want to know” was a catchphrase used by the National Enquirer in TV ads in the 1980s.

The expression itself, as we found after making a few digital inquiries, is a lot older, and uses the more common spelling of the first word.

The earliest example we’ve found in online searches is from an Aug. 16, 1856, letter by Frances Baroness Bunsen:

“I rejoice in the accounts of your meeting people, and being stimulated the more to write what inquiring minds want to know.”

Note: Although “enquiring” shows up more in the UK than the US, three of the four British dictionaries we’ve checked list “inquiring” as the primary spelling for UK English.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Turkey Day

(Note: This post originally appeared on the Grammarphobia Blog on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.)

Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?

A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.

A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)

In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.

In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.

And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”

In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:

“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”

As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.

As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.

During the 20th century, however, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.

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