The Grammarphobia Blog

The “basket case” myth

Q: I found a photo online, apparently from the early 20th century, of a disabled man in a basket chair. Could this be a clue to the origin of “basket case”?

A: The man pictured in the basket chair (a three-wheeled woven rattan wheelchair) is nowhere near as disabled as the original basket case—that is, if the original basket case ever existed.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial term “basket case” originated in the United States shortly after World War I, and meant “a person, esp. a soldier, who has lost all four limbs.”

However, the phrase, which initially referred to American soldiers supposedly left limbless by the war, was a product of the postwar rumor mill in the US.

There’s not a shred of evidence that a single American or other Allied soldier survived the war after losing all four limbs. Or, for that matter, that any head-and-torso survivors were carried around in baskets.

As word spread that limbless soldiers were being warehoused in one place or another in the US, the Surgeon General of the Army, Maj. Gen. Merritte W. Ireland, said in 1919 that the rumor had absolutely no foundation in fact.

“I have personally examined the records and am able to say that there is not a single basket case either on this side of the water or among the soldiers of the A. E. F. [Allied Expeditionary Force],” he explained.

Furthermore, the general said in his March 28, 1919, statement, “I wish to emphasize that there has been no instance of an American soldier so wounded during the whole period of the war.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the phrase “basket case” dates from January 1919, two months after the war ended. It’s from Oak Leaves, a local newspaper in Oak Park, Ill.: “There were seven ‘basket cases,’ men without arms or legs.”

The term “basket case” isn’t used anymore in that original sense, but it refers now to an emotionally disturbed person or an ineffective organization, nation, business, and so on.

The dictionary’s first citation for the phrase used in its ineffective sense is from the Feb. 16, 1948, issue of Life:

“The U.N. may become a more pathetic basket case than the old League of Nations after the Japanese nullified the decision on Manchuria.”

In the early 1950s, the phrase came to mean “a person who is emotionally or mentally unable to cope, esp. because of overwhelming stress or anxiety,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example of this usage is from Polly Adler’s 1953 autobiography, A House Is Not a Home:

“By New Year’s, 1935, after three months in the new house, I realized I’d wind up a basket case if I didn’t take a vacation.”

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How to shorten a child

Q: I recently found an old diary in which my grandmother wrote this about my uncle: “today the baby was shortened.” What in heaven’s name could she have been referring to? She was born in 1913 and grew up around Philadelphia. She was Catholic so it couldn’t have had anything to do with circumcision.

A: We were stumped too, until we found this definition of “shorten” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “To put (a child) into short clothes.”

The dictionary defines “short clothes” as “an infant’s short-coats,” which wasn’t much help. Nor was this definition of “short-coats” in the OED: “The garments in which an infant is clothed when the long clothes are laid aside.”

It turns out that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both male and female newborns were clothed in dresses (long clothes) that came down below their feet.

When the babies were a few months old and beginning to crawl, they were “shortened”—that is, clothed in ankle-length or calf-length dresses (short clothes or short coats) so they could move around.

In the May 1913 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, a doctor answers a question from a young mother about baby clothes. Here’s an excerpt from “The Young Mothers’ Class,” by Emelyn L. Coolidge, MD:

“This time I have some questions to ask you about the baby’s clothes,” said the young mother to her doctor. “First I want to know at what age you think a baby should be changed from long clothes to short ones, and how long these first short clothes should be.”

“Usually in these days it is considered best to put the baby in short clothes when he is three months old,” replied the doctor. “He is not then hampered by long skirts when he needs to kick and develop his legs; but if he happens to reach this age in the coldest weather you had better wait until it is a little warmer before making the change from long to short clothes, which should be of ankle length.”

[Update, Aug. 20, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that the most often-heard reference to short clothes these days is
probably in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. Marco and Giuseppe, in their introductory song, describe themselves as "For gallantry noted / Since we were short-coated."]

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A half-dollar vs. 50 cents

Q: Has the use of the term “half-dollar” to mean fifty cents fallen out of favor? I never hear it anymore.

A: Standard dictionaries generally define the term “half-dollar” as a coin worth 50 cents, not as an amount of money valued at 50 cents.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines it as “a US coin worth 50 cents” while the online Collins English Dictionary defines it as “(in the US) a 50-cent piece.”

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says it’s “a coin worth 50 cents,” and the unabridged Random House Dictionary says it’s either a US or Canadian coin “equal to 50 cents.”

We’ve found only two standard dictionaries that define a “half-dollar” as both a coin and an amount of money, and those two references are published by the same company:

● Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it can be “a coin that is worth 50 cents” or “the sum of 50 cents.”

● The online Merriam Webster’s Unabridged says it’s either “a coin representing one half of a dollar” or “the sum of fifty cents or one half of a dollar.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry for “half-dollar” first appeared in 1898 and hasn’t been fully updated, defines the term as “a silver coin of the United States and other countries, equal to 50 cents.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 8, 1786, resolution published in the Journals of Congress: “Resolved … that the silver coins shall be as follows: One coin containing 187  82-100 grains of fine silver, to be called a Half-Dollar.”

The 1964 John F. Kennedy half-dollars were the last to contain silver (the percentage of silver was reduced from 90 percent to 40 percent from 1965 to 1970).

You seldom see a half-dollar today, except in coin collections. That may be another reason why the term “half-dollar” is rarely used now to mean 50 cents.

As “the popularity of the Kennedy half dollar began to fade,” production fell from a high of over 429 million in 1964 to just over 3 million in 2011,  according to the numismatic writer James Bucki.

“The workhorse coin of the US economy,” Bucki says on, “was, and still is, the Washington quarter dollar.”

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Are “loath” and “loathe” related?

Q: I assume the adjective “loath” (meaning reluctant) and the verb “loathe” (meaning to dislike) are relations of one sort or another. Which of these came first? And where did it come from?

A: Yes, the two words are related. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the verb “loathe” is derived from the adjective “loath,” which was láð in Old English. (The letter ð, or eth, was pronounced like “th.”)

The adjective, according to Ayto, “originally meant ‘hostile’ or ‘loathsome,’ and goes back to a prehistoric Germanic laithaz,” which gave German leid (sorrow) and French laid (ugly or disgusting).

Two of the earliest examples of the adjective “loath” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the 700s.

Early in the poem, the monster Grendel kills dozens of warriors, leaving King Hrothgar grief-stricken from a feud described as to strang, lað ond longsum (“too cruel, loathsome, and long”).

Later, during Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, she clutches him, but her laþan fingrum (“hostile talons”) fail to pierce his chain-mail shirt. (The letter þ, or thorn, was also pronounced like “th.”)

It wasn’t until the 1300s that the adjective “loath” took on the modern sense of reluctant or unwilling, according to examples in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Chaucer’s 14th-century Middle English translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius: “She lyueth loþ of this lyf.”

Here’s an example in modern English from a Feb. 7, 1667, entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary: “I … would be loath he should not do well.”

As for the verb “loathe,” it meant to be hateful, displeasing, or offensive when it first showed up in Old English in the late 800s, but the OED says that sense is now obsolete.

“Loathe” went through several other senses now considered obsolete before the modern meaning of “to feel aversion or dislike” showed up in the 12th century, according  to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Poema Morale, an anonymous early Middle English work from sometime before 1200.

However, the Middle English is easier to read in this example from A Paraphrase on the Seven Penitential Psalms (1414), by Thomas Brampton: “Good werk he lothith to bigynne.”

Now, let’s skip ahead to a couple of 19th-century poetic examples in modern English:

“To breathe and loathe, to live and sigh, / Than once from dread of pain to die,” from Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” (1842).

“Man who, as man conceiving, hopes and fears, / And craves and deprecates, and loves, and loathes,” from Robert Brownings’s “The Family” (1884).

Although careful writers are now careful to spell the verb “loathe” with an “e” at the end, the OED has many literary examples from the past of the “e”-less verb.

Here’s an example from Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Georgica: “The Swarms … loath their empty Hives, and idly stray.”

The OED even has a 14th-century citation for the adjective spelled with an “e” at the end, but you’ll have to trust us on this. We’re loath to give one more example.

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When the future is present

Q: I’ve noticed that people who write Dear Abby often say something like “I am being married in the fall” where I would say “I am getting married in the fall.” Is “being married” correct here?

A: The short answer is yes, but expressing the future in English can get (or be) as complicated as trying to predict it.

In fact, some linguists maintain that English doesn’t have a future tense per se. They argue that the word “will” in “We will marry in the fall” is an auxiliary of mood, rather than tense. But let’s not get sidetracked.

Whether English technically has a future tense or not, it certainly has a lot of ways to express the future.

One of them is what grammarians call the futurate, a usage in which the future is referred to without using a traditional future construction. The usual way to do this is with a multi-word form of the present tense.

The two sentences you ask about (“I am being married in the fall” and “I am getting married in the fall”) are examples of the present progressive futurate.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the futurate “is subject to severe pragmatic constraints” and “must involve something that can be assumed to be known already in the present.”

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, authors of the Cambridge Grammar, say the most common uses of the futurate “involve cyclic events in nature, scheduled events, and conditionals.” Cambridge offers these examples:

Cyclic events of nature. “It’s going to rain soon.”

Scheduled events. “Australia meets Sweden in the Davis Cup final in December.”

Conditionals. “What happens if there is a power failure?”

As for your question, both “I am getting married in the fall” and “I am being married in the fall” are perfectly legitimate sentences.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “get” indicates that “getting” in a sentence like the first one means causing a “specified action to be performed upon (a person or thing).”

And the dictionary’s entry for “be” indicates that “being” in a sentence like the second is an “auxiliary, forming the progressive passive.”

The OED has examples of this use of “being” dating back to the 1700s. Here’s one from a 1795 letter by the English poet Robert Southey: “A fellow … whose grinder is being torn out by the roots.” (A grinder is a molar.)

Although the OED lists the “being” usage as standard English, it notes that some 19th-century commentators criticized it.

For example, David Booth, author of An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language (1830), is quoted as saying the usage “pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

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Does “daresay” have a past?

Q: My dictionary doesn’t have a past tense for “daresay.” Is it “daresaid”? Or “daresayed”? Or perhaps even “daredsay”? I daresay you’ll have an answer.

A: We haven’t found any standard dictionaries that list a past tense for “daresay,” a compound verb that means to think very likely or to suppose.

In fact, many dictionaries specifically say that “daresay” is generally used in the first-person singular present tense (“I daresay”).

However, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “some dialects make the past daresaid, darsayed, dessayed.” The term is “durst say” in the OED’s only past-tense example:

“La Fleur … told me he had a letter in his pocket … which, he durst say, would suit the occasion” (from A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, a 1768 novel by Laurence Sterne).

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cites a more recent example of the past tense—using “daresayed”—from a Sylvia Townsend Warner story published in the New Yorker in 1954:

“Philip, a courteous guest, daresayed that the hourglass was timed to town eggs—puny specimens.”

Despite that example and the one in the OED, the usage guide says, “This compound verb is used in the first person singular of the present tense. It has hardly ever  been used otherwise.”

We’ve written before on our blog about the first part in the compound verb, “dare,” including posts in 2008 and 2009 on the regional or dialectal usages “durst,” “dast,” and “dasn’t.”

As for the verb “daresay,” the editors of the M-W manual say the term can be written as either “daresay” or “dare say,” but they add that “our evidence shows the one-word styling slightly more common.”

The OED says “dare say” (it uses two words) can mean to venture to assert or to assume as probable. The dictionary has examples of the first usage dating from the 1300s and of the second from the 1700s.

The verb is in the present tense in the dictionary’s earliest citation, from a Middle English translation (circa 1350)of Guillaume de Palerme, a French poem written around 1200:

I dar seie & soþliche do proue, sche schal weld at wille more gold þan ȝe siluer” (“I dare say and truly do prove she shall wield at will more gold than silver”).

We’ll end with a more recent example, from an essay by the author Daniel Mendelsohn in the Oct. 8, 2013, issue of the New York Times Book Review:

“Tone is everything. A novel in which characters say ‘I daresay’ is galaxies apart from one in which characters say ‘I kinda think.’ ”

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Q: Any thoughts why the “.com” in a Web address is referred to as “dot com” and not “period com” or perhaps the more suitable “point com”?

A: Our feeling is that “dot” is preferred because it’s snappier than “period” or “point.” It has fewer syllables than “period,” and it’s clearer and more emphatic than “point.”

While journalists and editors often use “point” to mean “period,” we suspect that most people think of “point” in the punctuation or notation sense as short for “decimal point”—something used with numbers, not letters.

Besides, “dot” was first on the scene in the world of computing. It’s been used for more than 30 years to refer to this punctuation mark in an Internet address.

By the way, most standard dictionaries hyphenate the term “dot-com” when it refers to a company that does business on the Internet. However, the term is often seen as “,” “dotcom,” “dot com,” or simply “.com.”

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (3rd ed.) uses “dot-com” when referring to Internet commerce and “.com” when referring to a Web address. We think that’s a good idea.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the term spells it “dotcom,” but the dictionary notes the various other spellings mentioned above.

Since at least as far back as 1981, according to the OED, “dot” has been used to mean “a full stop or point as an element of punctuation dividing the different components in an Internet address.”

And since at least as far back as 1984, the dictionary says, “com” has been used in domain names “to indicate a commercial web site, though later more broadly applied.”

The dictionary’s “dotcom” entry includes definitions for both an address (or website) and a company. We’ll quote them in full:

1. “An Internet address for a commercial site expressed in terms of the formulaic suffix .com; a web site with such an address.”

2.  “A company which uses the Internet for business, esp. one which has an Internet address ending with the suffix .com. In extended use: the Internet as a business medium.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for No. 1 is from the April 5, 1994, issue of Newsday: “If I were telling someone that address I’d say: ‘quit at newsday dot com.’ ”

And its earliest example for No. 2 is from the November 1996 issue of Internet World: “A broad discussion of what’s around the corner for dot.coms.”

No matter how it’s spelled, the term is always pronounced the same way (as a compound of “dot” and “com”).

[Update, Aug. 15, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that
RFC 882 (a Request for Comments memo issued by Internet developers in November 1983) uses the term “dot” in introducing the concept of domain names. Here’s the relevant sentence: “When domain names are printed, labels in a path are separated by dots (‘.’).”]

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Learner driver or student driver?

Q: I see driver education cars with stickers reading “Learner Driver” rather than “Student Driver.” The phrase “Learner Driver” just doesn’t seem right to me. Is it?

A: Like you, we find the phrase “student driver” more idiomatic than “learner driver.” But we may be in the minority here.

It turns out that “learner driver” is more common—at least on the Internet—than “student driver.” The phrase “learner driver” gets almost four times as many Google hits as “student driver.”

What’s more, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples for “learner driver” going back more than 80 years, but it has no examples for “student driver.”

However, some googling suggests that the term “learner driver” is more popular in the UK than in the US. It’s also popular in Canada. (In Britain, learner drivers must display a red letter “L”—for “learner”—on their license plates.)

The OED’s earliest example is from Taxi! A Book About London Taxicabs and Drivers (1930), written by Anthony Armstrong (the pseudonym of George Willis): “Conversational freedom between … taximen and private ‘learner drivers.’ ”

This later example is from Paul Barry’s novel Unwillingly to School (1961): “If you hadn’t been a learner driver … I’d have booked you for that!”

And here’s an OED citation from the June 28, 1973, issue of the Times (London): “The learner driver holding up the traffic as he or she falters down the High Street is still part of the British motoring scene.”

All those examples are in a subentry in the dictionary for the noun “learner” used to mean “one who is learning to be competent but who does not yet have formal authorization as a driver of a motor vehicle, cycle, etc.”

In the phrase “learner driver,” the OED says, the noun “learner” is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to modify the noun “driver.”

The word “student” in “student driver” is also being used attributively.

Such a noun is sometimes called an “attributive noun” because the attributes we associate with the noun (“learner” or “student”) are used to modify another noun (“driver”).

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These ones and those ones

Q: “These ones” is never OK. Not here in the US, nor in my native UK. There is no “sometimes.” It’s simply wrong. The “ones” element is redundant. It’s “these” or “those” (for plurals), and “this” or “that” for singular items.

A: We assume your remarks were inspired by our post in 2010 about whether the phrase “these ones” is ever legitimate.

As we said then, we don’t like this usage. But we could find no authoritative evidence against it, and on the contrary there was reliable evidence in its favor.

In the earlier post, we note that the linguist Arnold Zwicky says the use of “these ones” and “those ones” apparently isn’t considered odd or nonstandard in Britain.

Zwicky cites the linguist Nicholas Widdows, who reports finding examples in the British National Corpus of “these” and “these ones” used in different senses. Here’s how Widdows explains the difference:

“Faced with an array of jelly babies I might point to a red one and say, ‘I like these ones.’  The fused head [plain these] could be misinterpreted as referring to all jelly babies; the ‘ones’ says more clearly ‘this type.’ ”

In the US, Zwicky writes on the Language Log, educated people seem to differ about the usage, and their opinions may depend on where they grew up.

”It’s possible that in North America ‘these/those ones’ is a variant in the gray area between standard and nonstandard—fully acceptable to educated middle-class speakers in some areas, but not fully acceptable, though not actually stigmatized, to such people in other areas,” he writes.

The fact that we dislike a usage doesn’t make it incorrect. Nor does the fact that some online language junkies claim it’s wrong, without offering any evidence to support their opinions.

You argue that “ones” is redundant in “these ones,” but do you really find “one” redundant in the phrases “this one” and “that one” for the same reason?

And what about if we add a modifier to “these ones” or “those ones”? Would you object to “these heavy ones,” “those black ones,” and so on?

The Cambridge History of the English Language indicates that “ones” here is an anaphoric pronoun—a pronoun that refers back to another word or phrase. In this case the pronoun is preceded by a determiner, a modifier like “these” or “those.”

Cambridge says “those ones” first showed up in the 19th century, and “these ones” in the 20th. However, we’ve found many formal and informal examples of “those ones” going back to the 1600s, and of “these ones” dating from the 1700s.

Here’s an example of “those ones” from Greenwich Park, a 1691 comedy by the English actor and playwright William Mountfort:

Reveler: “Madam, Men may divert themselves with several Women, but only one can make ’em truly happy.”

Dorinda. “And how many of those ones have you said this to?”

Reveler: “As I never was really in Love till now, I never had occasion for the Expression before.”

Here’s a more formal example from Annals of Commerce, Manufactures, Fisheries, and Navigation (1805), by David Macpherson and Adam Anderson:

“The mercantile Venetian and Genoese galleys, which formerly resorted to England, were very probably of a more solid structure than those ones which are only fit for summer expeditions within the Mediterranean.”

Another example, from The British Cyclopedia (1836), edited by Charles F. Partington, says that only in Europe and Asia have falcons been trained to help humans “and therefore those ones of which specimens are obtained from remote countries are birds of little or no interest, except to mere collectors.”

And in Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England (Vol. 2, 1807), William Cobbett and Thomas Curson Hansard write about 17th-century reforms in Britain that eased the burdens of taxation:

“The compulsion of the subject to receive the order of Knighthood against his will, paying of fines for not receiving it, and, the vexatious proceedings thereupon for levying of those ones, are, by other beneficial laws, reformed and prevented.”

As for “these ones,” here’s an example from An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (1766), by John Brown:

“Our Mediator Christ being so excellent a person, his death was so full a price, and so satisfactory unto justice, for all these ones for which it was offered up, that it needeth not to be repeated, but once for all this sacrifice was offered: He died once.

And here’s an example from “The Foreigner,” a story published in the June 1895 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine:

“It is not the colour only. It is that the whole room has neither expression nor character about it. You must surely have noticed that our English drawing-rooms were very different from these ones.”

Modern scholars, too, have used this construction. Here’s a recent example from Blooming English, a 2012 collection of observations by the British linguist Kate Burridge:

“These were just some of the nominees for the annual Doublespeak Awards—and these ones didn’t even win a prize.”

This modern example is from Emerging English Modals, a 2000 monograph on English auxiliaries by the linguist Manfred G. Krug: “Like previous maps, these ones too have to be taken with a good deal of caution.”

If you don’t trust the writing of linguists, here’s an example from The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature (Vol. 3, 2012), edited by David Hopkins and Charles Martindale:

“The effect produced by the epigrams in Rowe’s Lucan is indeed often one of dignity, but this can make them rather un-Lucanian. Take these ones, for instance, about the panic that grips Rome as Caesar approaches the city at the end of Book I.”

(The work is a study of how literary texts from the classical world were received by English writers from the Middle Ages to the present time.)

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Garage sailing, in knots or mph?

Q: A columnist for my local paper in Minnesota wrote that he and his wife went garage sailing. Now I’m wondering how large were his sails, in order to get his garage to move.

A: We’ve also noticed that some people use the term “garage sailing” to mean going to garage sales. We’ve seen “yard sailing,” “estate sailing,” and “tag sailing,” too.

We checked eight standard dictionaries and none of them listed “sail” or “sale” as a verb meaning to go to sales.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to the early 1900s of “sale” used as a verb meaning to shop at sales.

Here’s an example from the July 3, 1901, issue of The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality: “To go ‘saleing’ in Bond Street.”

And here’s an example from the June 19, 1928, issue of the Daily Express: “Men went ‘sale-ing’ at lunch time.”

As you’ve probably noticed, the words “saleing” and “sale-ing” above were enclosed in quotes, indicating that the writers didn’t consider the usage quite up to snuff.

And if “sale” were a verb, the participle would normally be formed without the “e” (“saling,” as with “whaling” and “scaling”).

You won’t find “garage sailing,” “garage saling,” or “garage sale-ing” in standard dictionaries, but all three are in online references that let readers submit new words for consideration.

The Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary, for example, has reader contributions for both “garage sailing” and “garage saling” with these illustrations:

“Let’s go garage-sailing this weekend!” and “I’m going garage saling on Friday so I can’t go to the zoo.”

In Google searches, we’ve found several hundred examples for each of the various spellings of the participial phrase, including this exchange between a reader and the Chicago Manual of Style’s “You Could Look It Up” blog.

Q. For those who make a hobby of cruising garage sales, are they going “garage sale-ing,” “garage saling,” or “garage saleing?” Or are they not permitted this usage?

A. Oh, my. Is garage saleing anything like parasailing? The mind boggles. As you suspected, this phrase would not survive the red pencil at Chicago. (Why can’t you just go to garage sales?) I can tell you that suffixes like “ing” don’t normally take a hyphen. After that, you’re on your own.

We think the Chicago Manual’s blogger should loosen up a bit. There’s something to be said for and against all these phrases, but we’re talking here about going to garage sales, not submitting a paper to the Philological Society.

We rather like “garage sailing.” It may have begun life as a misspelling or as a substitute for the ungainly “saling,” but we imagine that most people who use the phrase now are doing so for humorous effect.

In fact, the “sailing” image has prompted humorous comments online, like “You measure the distance driven in knots, not miles.” (To be precise, knots aren’t a measure of  distance, so the joker should have said, “You figure your driving speed in knots, not miles per hour.”)

Savvy shoppers know very well that they’re going to “sales,” not “sails,” but the notion of sailing from house to house in search of treasure isn’t inappropriate.

As one woman wrote on a shopping forum, “My husband and I are avid garage ‘sailors.’ ”

We’ll end this with a tip we picked up from a garage sailor on the Web: “Bargain with the man on girly items and the woman on power tools.” (In our home, the woman usually mans the power tools.)

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Chardonnay facts and fictions

Q: My brother-in-law, who has made his home in Israel for the past 65 years, says Chardonnay wine is named for the hills of Jerusalem, not a small town in Burgundy. In his telling, crusaders returned to France with vines grown in the area, known in Hebrew as sha’har adonai (i.e., “gate of God”).

A: Your brother-in-law isn’t the first to suggest that Chardonnay—both the wine and its name—originated in ancient Israel. But we haven’t found any evidence that this is true.

It’s possible that crusaders could have brought home vine cuttings in the Middle Ages. But those cuttings couldn’t have been from Chardonnay vines and the grape couldn’t have been called anything resembling “Chardonnay.”

There are two issues here—the origin of the name and the origin of the wine grape. Let’s focus for the moment on the name “Chardonnay.”

One thing is certain. “Chardonnay” has been the name of the grape for only a century or so, though it’s been the name of a village in France since the mid-1400s.

In the centuries before the grape’s name was standardized in the 1890s, it had many names and some of them sounded similar to “Chardonnay,” but none were spelled like the village.

These names for the grape included Chardenai, Chardenay, Chardenet, Chardennet, Chardonai, Chardonnet, Chatenait, Chardonet, Chaudenay, and Chaudenet.

Yes, those names resemble the Hebrew phrase sha’har adonai, but resemblance alone doesn’t prove a word’s etymology.

More important, as far as we can tell none of these names were used in reference to wine until hundreds of years after the Crusades.

If the crusaders had brought a “Chardonnay”-sounding name home with them, we would have seen evidence of it much earlier.

The earliest example we’ve found for a Chardonnay-like word used in the wine sense is a 17th-century citation in Chardonnay, Saône-et-Loire (2004), Emmanuel Nonain’s history of the village from the 10th through the 17th centuries.

Nonain writes that inspectors visiting the region reported in 1685 that Saint-Sorlin (now La Roche-Vineuse) “fait du meilleur chardonnet mais en petite quantité” (“makes the best chardonnet  but in small quantities”).

Complicating the picture is the fact that over the centuries the grape has had a great many local French names that don’t sound remotely like the current word or that even begin with the letter c: Beaunois, Aubaine, Epinette, Meroué, and scores of others—all synonyms for the same grape.

For example, in Chablis in northernmost Burgundy, where some have speculated that French vintners originally cultivated the Chardonnay vine, it’s still sometimes called Beaunois.

And true Chablis is also made from Chardonnay grapes. The local appellation (or official geographic name for the grape grown locally) became Chablis in 1938, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (1994), edited by Jancis Robinson.

You can see the difficulty here. It’s dicey to come up with a single etymological explanation for the name of a grape that has had so many names and that has been grown in so many places.

As for the small village of Chardonnay, located in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, its name is derived from a word in medieval Latin, Cardonnacum, meaning “place of thistles.” (“Thistle” is carduus in classical Latin and chardon in French.)

Nonain writes in his book about the village that it was originally known by its medieval name, Cardonacum (we’ve also found Cardoniacum and Cardenacum in old texts).

This name, Nonain says, evolved into Chardenay in the 13th century, then into Chardonay, with either one n or two, in the middle of the 15th century. From about the 18th century, it has consistently had two n’s.

While many people assume the grape was named for the village, the relationship between the names is murky at best.

Nonain says the name of the grape was standardized in 1896 at the suggestion of “certain members” of a national congress of wine authorities, meeting in Chalon-sur-Saône in southern Burgundy.

Why name it “Chardonnay”? Perhaps because some of the grape’s earlier names sounded like the village of Chardonnay, which just happened to be in southern Burgundy, the site of the wine congress.

Before 1896, Nonain says, the vine was most commonly known as Chardenet, Chaudenet, Chardonnet, or Chardenay.

“Although there are similarities between these names and the successive names of the village,” he adds, “one can hardly draw conclusions about the geographical origin of the famous grape.”

Which brings us to the origins of the famous grape itself.

In a joint study published in 1999, American and French scientists said DNA research had proved that the Chardonnay vine was a cross between two others—Pinot and Gouais blanc.

And where did the parent vines come from?

Pinot, the oldest grape variety in Burgundy, “may already have been present in the Burgundy region at the time of the Roman conquest,” the scientists said.

But Gouais blanc, according to the authors of the study, probably came from Croatia and was introduced to ancient Gaul by Romans in the third century.

“The third century Roman emperor Probus, a Dalmatian, encouraged viticulture in the provinces and is said to have given the Gauls a grape from his homeland,” the scientists said. “It is reasonable to consider that perhaps Probus’ gift to the Gauls was Gouais blanc.”

This is speculative, of course, and it leaves the question of who crossed the parent vines to create what we now call Chardonnay. The scientists suggest that the crossing happened spontaneously—that is, by natural causes.

A wine writer, Hugh Johnson, author of Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989), says Cistercian monks in Chablis in the 1100s may have been the first to cultivate the Chardonnay grape.

But now we’re entering into even more speculation. Sometimes, the more we learn about a subject, the more questions arise. This is one of those times.

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Is “so fun” ready for prime time?

Q: I often hear people say things like “We went to the circus and it was so fun.” I think the correct usage would be “it was fun” or “it was so much fun.”  I find it strange to see a noun like “fun” used as another part of speech. Help please!

A: As we’ve often said, English usage changes over time and we do our best to stay on top of it. We’re glad you asked us this, since it gives us a chance to review what we last wrote about “so fun,” back in 2008.

Six years ago we noted that “fun” is traditionally considered a noun, as in “We had fun” or  “That was fun.” (In the second example, “fun” can be called a predicate noun—a noun that follows a linking verb and renames or describes the subject).

But the use of “fun” as an adjective has long been regarded as improper (“We had a fun day” … “It was so fun”).

We concluded that the use of “fun” as an adjective “isn’t acceptable, but it’s now so common that someday it just might be.”

Well, perhaps the day has arrived. Almost every dictionary that we’ve consulted now recognizes the adjectival use of “fun,” though not necessarily its use in the phrase “so fun.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, labels “fun” as an “informal” but nevertheless “standard” adjective meaning “enjoyable; amusing.”

Here’s how the dictionary puts it in a usage note:

“The use of fun as an attributive adjective, as in a fun time, a fun place, probably originated in a playful reanalysis of the use of the word in sentences such as It is fun to ski, where fun has the syntactic function of adjectives such as amusing or enjoyable. The usage has become widespread and must be considered standard, though writers may want to avoid it in more formal contexts.”

American Heritage isn’t alone by any means. Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) and Random House Webster’s College Dictionary also have entries for the adjective “fun”—and both call it “informal.”

By labeling a usage “informal,” dictionaries generally mean it’s widely found in everyday talk and casual writing, but not in formal writing or formal speech.

Two other respected and widely used sources, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Cambridge Dictionaries online, go even further.

Both have entries for “fun” as an adjective without reservations of any kind—there’s no label of “informal” or anything else.

But what about “so fun”? Is it, too, regarded as a standard usage?

None of the aforementioned dictionaries indicate as much. In all their examples, “fun” is an attributive adjective (one that precedes the noun): “a real fun guy,” “a fun party,” “a fun person,” “a fun time,” “a fun gift,” and so on.

In the phrase “so fun,” however, the word “fun” is a predicate adjective—one that follows a linking verb (like “be”) and modifies a subject previously mentioned.

It could be that the lexicographers at those dictionaries regard the word’s use after the noun (rather than before) as going too far.

In fact, American Heritage specifically uses the phrase “attributive adjective” in its note about “fun.” And two other sources, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the Macmillan Dictionary online, recognize the adjective—but say, “only before noun.”

For another perspective, we turned to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which raises this very interesting point:

“No commentator has attempted to tackle the question of whether fun is a predicate adjective as well [as an attributive adjective], and probably with good reason, for there is no sure way to prove that fun in ‘That was fun’ is either an adjective or a noun.”

Like you, and like many others, the two of us don’t use “so fun.” A sentence like “The party was so fun” doesn’t sound idiomatic to us. However, the use of “fun” as a predicate adjective isn’t as jarring to us in phrases like “rather fun” or “awfully fun.”

Well then, is “so fun” legit?

The usage is out there, but not as out there as you might think. Although a Google search for “so fun” can get more than 5 million hits, the number drops to a few hundred or a few thousand when you actually call up the results (depending on how you do your search).

We wouldn’t recommend using “so fun” until the editors at a few standard dictionaries clearly indicate that the use of “fun” as a predicate adjective is standard English.

One other problem has to be mentioned. Adjectives generally have comparative and superlative forms, so if “fun” is an adjective, should we also recognize “funner” and “funnest”?

That depends on the dictionary you consult. Most don’t comment on the extended forms, but two do.

This is from the American Heritage usage note: “The inflection of the adjective (as funner, funnest) is another matter, however. Although this practice goes back to the 1950s, the inflected forms are almost never used in edited prose aside from direct quotations, usually of children.”

And this is from the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate entry for “fun” as an adjective: “sometimes funner; sometimes funnest.”

It’s true that we “sometimes” hear people use “funner” and “funnest,” but we have to agree with American Heritage that the speakers are usually children—or adults quoting them.

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How dim is dimunition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Because and effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Rather than” is rather puzzling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The original martinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why a cat-o’-nine-tails?

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

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How sick is this usage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: how World War I changed the English language. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
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In the nick of time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The divoon comedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Update, Aug. 2, 2014: A reader of the blog writes us to point out that on a 1936 recording of “Let’s Sing Again,” Fats Waller refers to two of his sidemen, who have just played solos, as the “clarinoot” and the “tromboon.”]

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Some words about the N-word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s no yoke—or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can a woman be testy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Negative thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When “thanks to” is thankless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Speaking of dumb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are you a wonk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A method to the methodology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Business agnostic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is a customer a guest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why villains are vilified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When “Euro” met “skeptic”

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

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

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

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

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

The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition for the term:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pulling one’s leg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How do you pronounce “err”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tricky “nick”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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