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Can’t win for losing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No problem at all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that, we’re all done.

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In our humble opinion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On brooch, broach, and broccoli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why wine drinks well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goody goody

Q: I’m fascinated by reduplicatives, especially those whose segments have no particular meaning on their own: “bow-wow,” “choo-choo,” “flim-flam,” “helter-skelter,” etc. I’ve often wondered why we refer to them as “reduplicatives” rather than “duplicatives.”

A: We once wrote a post on the reduplicative copula (“the thing is … is”), a usage that bugs a lot of people. But we haven’t written about the kind of reduplicatives you’re talking about.

In their Dictionary of Linguistics (1954), Mario Pei and Frank Gaynor define “reduplication” as “the complete or partial repetition of an element or elements.” And “reduplicative words” are “words of recurring sound and meaning (e.g., chit-chat).”  

In the 60 years since then, other linguists have defined “reduplication” in other ways. Some, for example, have drawn a distinction between repeated sounds and repeated meanings. But we won’t get into that.

Suffice it to say that “reduplication” is a technical term in linguistics, and that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions for “reduplication” and “reduplicative” used in the linguistic sense are similar to those of Pei and Gaynor. 

But as the OED says, “reduplication” in a more general, nonlinguistic sense simply means a doubling, repetition, or duplication.

So you ask a very good question—why do linguists use the “re-” prefix? If “duplication” means copying something once, then “reduplication” would imply copying something more than once, wouldn’t it?

Well, not necessarily, because “re-” doesn’t always mean “again” or “once more.” Sometimes it implies “back” or “backward,” as in words like “respect” (whose Latin roots mean to look back at), “revoke” (call back), “repay” (pay back), “remit” (send back), “remove” (move back), and others. 

It could be that the “re-” of “reduplication” in the linguistic sense originally had this same meaning, implying “back” instead of “again.” Unfortunately, we can’t say for sure that this is the case; we can only suggest it.

The word ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb reduplicare, meaning to double. (The Latin verb duplicare also meant to double.)

In the Latin of the third century and later, reduplication- or reduplicatio came to be used as a rhetorical term for the repetition of a word, according to the OED.

But it’s difficult to tell how the Romans—classical or later—viewed the “re-” in these words, and whether it originally meant “back” or “again.”

As the OED explains, “The original sense of re- in Latin is ‘back’ or ‘backwards,’ but in the large number of words in which it occurs it shows various shades of meaning.”

“Even in Latin,” the dictionary continues, “the precise sense of re- is not always clear, and in many words the development of secondary meanings tends greatly to obscure its original force. This loss of distinct meaning is naturally increased in English, where a word has often been adopted in a sense more or less remote from its original sense.”

In English, “reduplication” has had several meanings since it first entered the language, perhaps as long ago as the early 1400s. Early on, it was used in anatomy and zoology, for instance, to mean a doubling over or folding.

The “reduplication” we’re talking about, the name we now use for words like “mishmash” and “namby-pamby,” came into English in the 16th century. It’s defined in the OED as the “exact or partial repetition of a word, phrase, etc.”

But in some early uses of “reduplication” in this linguistic sense, it meant something similar to “epanalepsis,” a rhetorical device in which a an earlier word or phrase is repeated at some later point. This might be interpreted as a looking backward. Here are two OED citations:  

“Marke heere againe, how the Prophet resumeth his first admiration, by a Poeticall Epanalepsis or reduplication.” (From the undated Atheomastix, a posthumously published religious treatise by Martin Fotherby, 1560-1620.)

Reduplication … is a figure in Rhetoric, when the same word that ends one part of a verse or sentence, is repeated in that which follows.” (From Thomas Blount’s dictionary Glossographia, 1656.)

So it’s reasonable to suggest that “reduplication” in poetry or rhetoric originally meant something like “backward duplication” instead of “repeated duplication.”

The modern linguistics terms “reduplication” and “reduplicative” are derived from those earlier literary and rhetorical uses. But though the words have been handed down intact, today the “re-” seems far removed from the “back” sense and apparently means simple repetition.

Here, for example, is a contemporary citation, from L. J. Brinton’s Structure of Modern English (2000): “In English, reduplication is often used in children’s language (e.g., boo-boo, putt-putt) … or for humorous or ironic effect (e.g., goody-goody, rah-rah).”   

And this OED citation, for the adjective “reduplicative,” is from B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour (1959): “A fragmentary self-echoic behavior … may be shown in reduplicative forms like helter-skelter, razzle-dazzle, and willy-nilly.”

In the end, what we’re suggesting is that the “re-” in “reduplication” and “reduplicative” may have originally implied “back” or “backward.” And the modern terms in linguistics have preserved the “re-” prefix even though the meaning of it has changed. That would explain why today the prefix looks redundant.

In our readings about reduplication, we came across an interesting use of the term in art criticism to refer to a visual doubling.

In an essay on photography, the art critic Craig Owens uses the word “reduplication” to characterize a mid-19th-century “double portrait” of a woman who is seen alongside her reflection in a mirror:

“If we speak of this image, and of others like it, as reduplicative, it is because reduplication signifies ‘to reproduce in reflection,’ ” he says in his book Beyond Recognition (1994).

Owens seems to be using the term in the going-back sense to refer to an image seen in reflection. In fact, he draws a parallel to rhetorical reduplication.

“In classical rhetoric,” he writes, “reduplication was a species of repetition, distinguished by the reiteration of a word or phrase within the same part of a sentence or clause.”

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REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

Q: You say in your post about the American term for a curriculum vitae that it can be spelled “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.” But how is it pronounced? If one uses two accents, for example, is it pronounced REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

A: British dictionaries (which define the term as a summary, not a list of accomplishments) use two accents.  But American dictionaries (which accept both definitions) are all over the place.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), as we noted in our earlier post, lists the spellings in this order: “résumé” or “resume,” also “resumé.” (The wording indicates that the first two are equal in popularity, and the third is somewhat less common.)

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) lists the spellings this way: “resumé” or “resume” or “résumé.” (The wording indicates that the three are equally popular.)

In spite of differences in spelling, all the dictionaries we’ve consulted (three British and three American) list REZ as either the only or the primary pronunciation of the first syllable.

When English borrowed the word from French in the early 19th century, it meant only a summary of something.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Feb. 21, 1782, letter from Samuel Andrews to Benjamin Franklin: “I have taken the Liberty to send your Exellency two of my Résumé memoirs.”

The next example, from an 1804 issue of the Edinburgh Review, is clearer: “After a short resumé of his observations on coffee-houses and prisons, Mr. Holcroft leaves Paris.”

The word wasn’t used for a career summary until the 20th century, when this sense began appearing in the US and Canada.

The OED’s first citation is from an advertisement in the Jan. 10, 1926, issue of the Lincoln (Neb.) Sunday Star: “Send resume of previous business connections in letter of application.”

However, the dictionary encloses the entire citation in brackets, which “indicates a quotation is relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it.”

The first unequivocal example is from an April 3, 1938, ad in the Hartford Courant: “Recent insurance company experience. $1800-$2000. Send full resume with snapshot.”

In Britain and France, a “résumé” is a summary while a list of accomplishments is a “curriculum vitae.”

Although some Americans also use the term “curriculum vitae” for a list of accomplishments, most refer to it as a “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.”

We prefer “resume.” Since the word is usually pronounced REZ-oo-may in English, it seems silly to keep the first accent and even sillier to leave only the second.

Yes, the noun and the verb would then be spelled the same, but it seems unlikely that anyone would confuse them in an actual sentence.

When English borrows words from other languages, they typically become anglicized over time, losing their accents and taking on new pronunciations. We think the time has come for “résumé” to be naturalized as “resume.”

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When “inept” is inapt or unapt

Q: I recently wrote a criticism of a certain individual, calling him “incompetent,” then escalating to “inept.” Or so I thought. Are those two terms in fact synonyms, as some on the Internet claim? I thought ineptitude was a step further than incompetence.

A: When “inept” and “incompetent” took on their usual modern meanings in the 1600s, “inept” was the more negative term, but the two words have grown closer over the years, and a few standard dictionaries now define “inept” as “incompetent.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, says one of the senses of “inept” is “generally incompetent” while the online Collins English Dictionary gives one meaning as “awkward, clumsy, or incompetent.”

In the 17th century, both “inept” and “incompetent” meant incapable of doing something, but “inept” had the additional sense of silly or foolish.

Some standard dictionaries still include the silly or foolish sense in their definitions of “inept,” so you’re right to think that “inept” is “a step further,” as you put it, than “incompetent.”

A complication is that “inept” is sometimes confused with “inapt” (not suitable or appropriate) and “unapt” (not likely or inclined)—three words that overlap somewhat.

An “inept” job seeker, for example, may be “inapt” for a certain position or “unapt” to be hired for it.

Some usage guides say “inept” is the more negative of the three terms, and consider its use rude or insulting.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) describes “inept” as an “impolite use” while “inapt” and “unapt” are “reasonably polite.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says “inept” is “usually intended as an insult” and “it’s an inapt choice in other contexts.”

When “inept” first showed up in English in 1603, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “not adapted or adaptable; not suited [for or to] a purpose; without aptitude; unsuitable, unfit.”

The OED’s first citation is from John Florio’s 1603  translation of a Montaigne essay: “A maner peculiar vnto my selfe, inept to all publike Negotiations.”

A year later, “inept” was recorded in the sense of “absurd; wanting in reason or judgement; silly, foolish,” according to the dictionary.

The first example is from A Counterblaste to Tobacco, a 1604 treatise by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), expressing his distaste for tobacco:

“As to the Proposition, That because the braines are colde and moist, therefore things that are hote and drie are best for them, it is an inept consequence.”

Later in the 1600s, “inept” came to mean “not suited to the occasion; not adapted to circumstances; out of place, inappropriate.”

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1675 religious treatise by Richard Baxter: “If they mean Negative Propositions, it’s true, but inept.”

We’ll skip the legal senses of “incompetent” (not qualified as testimony or lacking the mental ability to stand trial), which showed up in English in the late 1500s.

In the mid-1600s, “incompetent” took on its modern sense of “inadequate ability or fitness; not having the requisite capacity or qualification; incapable.”

The first Oxford citation is from Fragmenta Regalia, Robert Naunton’s 1641 account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I: “Sir Francis Knowles was somewhat neare in the Queenes affinitie, and had likewise noe incompetent issue.”

We’ve written before on our blog about the Latin origins of “inept” (also “ept,” “adept,” and “apt”): As we wrote, there was no English word “ept” until it was deliberately created as a humorous antonym to “inept” in the 1930s.

“Inept,” as we said, can be traced to the Latin ineptus, which the OED defines as “unsuited, absurd, foolish.” The Latin word is composed of the negative prefix in- plus the noun aptus, meaning a general tendency.

“Competent,” the opposite of “incompetent,” has been part of the language since the 1400s. It comes from the Latin adjective competentem (suitable, fitting, proper, lawful), which is derived from the verb competere (from which we get “compete”).

So etymologically, the notion of  being “competent” is related to the idea of being “competitive,” and an “incompetent” person can’t “compete.”

The classical Latin competere, by the way, was formed from com- (together) and petere (aim at, fall upon, strive, reach for). To the Romans, competere originally meant to fall together, coincide, or be suitable.

But in medieval Latin competere came to mean “strive together,” as John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins. That’s the sense that gave us our word “compete.”

This is a reminder that Latin, while it was still a living language, grew and changed with the times—just as English does today.

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Is “basis” loaded?

Q: I had hoped your “ongoing” article would opine about “on an ongoing basis” and similar constructions. I see phrases like “on a going-forward basis” and “on an expedited basis” more and more (perhaps because I read a lot of documents written by government lawyers). They set my teeth on edge and seem at best wordy.

A: Yes, many of these “basis” expressions could be replaced by simpler modifiers.

Instead of “on a going-forward basis” (which to our surprise produced 90,000 hits on Google), how about “in the future” or “from now on”? And instead of “on an expedited basis” (235,000 hits), why not “quickly”?

We’re not surprised that you find “on an ongoing basis” (a whopping 6.3 million hits!) annoying. It often serves no purpose (other than to give one’s writing an air of stuffiness) and could be deleted.

Here are some recent examples from news stories. Just imagine them without the underlined phrase:

“It is the most common anti-clotting drug, and most people with heart disease are advised to take it daily in low dose on an ongoing basis” (from the New York Times).

“The Red Cross hopes to have 15 to 20 Canadians cycling through West Africa on an ongoing basis for the next six to 12 months” (from Canada’s CTV News).

“Mobile platforms have changed not only how people shop, but have also enabled them to look for deals and bargains on an ongoing basis and make the most of them on the spot” (from Retail Times online).

To be fair, we did find some examples in which “on an ongoing basis” served a legitimate purpose. But even then, it could have been replaced with something simpler. For example:

“It’s no longer about selling them a game once every year. It’s about being able to offer value on an ongoing basis” (quoted in the Washington Post). That one could be replaced with “every day.”

These “basis” constructions also serve a useful purpose when a writer or speaker wants to emphasize an underlying condition or state of affairs: “She was hired on a trial basis” or “They’re on a first-name basis.”

And the constructions are handy when used to emphasize a fixed pattern or system for doing something: “Our employees are paid on a monthly basis.” Though in normal usage, “I’m paid monthly” seems more felicitous to us.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for the phrase “ongoing basis,” but in searches of various databases we found examples dating from the late 1950s.

The earliest was from the September 1959 issue of the journal Biometrics: “providing meaningful data to the clinician on an ongoing basis as opposed to providing him with results based on mere endpoint observations.”

The expression cropped up occasionally during the 1960s, then with increased frequency throughout the 1970s and beyond. It has proved especially popular among scientific, corporate, and governmental writers.

For instance, it appeared no less than six times in a 119-page instructor’s guide, “Professional Career Systems in Housing Management,” published in 1979 for a workshop sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In each of the passages (you’ll have to trust us on this, since we’re in no mood to quote them), the phrase could have been replaced by the adverb “regularly.”

The OED has no discussion on the use of “basis” with temporal adjectives. (The last new citation in the “basis” entry is from 1958.)

But throughout the dictionary, in citations for other words, there are scores of examples in which “basis” is modified by “daily,” “hourly,” “weekly,” “monthly,” “yearly,” “annual,” “regular,” “irregular,” and “continuing.” So “ongoing basis” was probably inevitable.

A final word about “basis,” which English adopted directly from the Latin noun basis (foundation). The earlier Greek noun basis (something to step or stand on) is derived from the verb bainein (to step or go), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

When “basis” entered English in the 1500s it meant the same as “base,” a word that had come into the language through Old French in the 1200s. And for a time, “base” and “basis” had the same meaning—the foundation, pedestal, support, or foot of some material thing.

But around 1600, according to OED citations, “basis” acquired several figurative or transferred meanings in respect to immaterial things: a principal ingredient or constituent, an underlying foundation, a principle, or a fact.

The result is that today “basis” retains only its newer meanings, and it’s no longer used in its original, material sense.

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A hit and a lick

Q: I’m trying to find the origin of “a hit and a lick,” a saying I learned while living in East Texas. I found an article about “a lick and a promise” on your site. I suspect the meaning is similar, but I’d like to have your input.

A: We haven’t been able to find “a hit and a lick” in any of our slang or idiom references, and it doesn’t seem to be used much.

In searches of news and book databases, we’ve found only a couple of dozen examples of the usage, with the earliest dating back to the late 19th century.

We suspect that the usage may be a conflation of two similar expressions: the adjectival phrase  “hit-or-miss” (meaning sometimes successful and sometimes not) and the noun phrase “a lick and a promise” (a superficial effort).

Or it may be a variation on the verbal expression “hit a lick,” which Green’s Dictionary of Slang says can mean, among other things, “to make an effort; usu. in negative combs. implying laziness on behalf of the subj. of the phr. e.g. He hasn’t hit a lick all week.”

Whatever its origin, the expression “a hit and a lick” seems to be used, as you suspect, in the same sense as “a lick and a promise.”

The earliest example of the usage we could find is from the Feb. 27, 1891, issue of the biking journal Wheel and Cycling Trade Review:

“X Bones will plead that, like other members of the club, he has not seen enough of the gentleman recently to be able to tell as much about him as he would like, and so, in the homely old phrase, he will give this sketch ‘a hit and a lick’ and let it go.”

And here’s an example from a 1920 issue of the Institution Quarterly, the journal of the Illinois Department of Public Welfare:

“A hit and a lick here and there have been all it has ever received. Much improvement could be made in its typographical appearance and in the character and preparation of its contents.”

We’ll end with a comment on the Ticketmaster website about a B. B. King concert at the Horseshoe Southern Indiana Hotel on Nov. 16, 2013:

“His band started out the first 15 minutes with instrumentals. He was on stage himself 75 minutes, and only sang parts of two (2) songs with a hit and a lick on both. Most of the time he spent conversing with people on the first row and asking band members if they remembered things and asking his number one back up rhythm guitar player to take over and play some instrumentals.”

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When “George” was “Geo.”

Q: Why are certain men’s names abbreviated in old books and records? Examples: “Geo.” for George, “Thos” for Thomas, “Jos.” for Joseph, “Wm” for William, and “Chas” for Charles?

A: Men’s names aren’t the only ones. Women’s names are shortened in old writing too: “Abig.” for Abigail, “Const.” for Constance, “Lyd.” for Lydia, “My” for Mary, “Urs.” for Ursula, and so on.

Names and other words were abbreviated in old documents to save time and writing material. A census taker, tax collector, or scribe could speed up his work and cut down on paper, parchment, vellum, or papyrus.

Writing material was expensive until the introduction of steam-driven machines to mass-produce paper out of wood pulp in the 19th century.

However, the abbreviating of names and other words didn’t die out with scribes and parchment. Writers now abbreviate in email, texts, tweets, and instant messages.

And some analog types still abbreviate the old-fashioned way. We have a friend in Iowa City who writes only letters for personal correspondence, using every last inch of her stationery and abbreviating like a scribe of yore.

Paleographers, philologists, and linguists have studied  the practice of shortening names and other words over the years.

In a 2013 paper, “Manuscript Abbreviations in Latin and English,” the language researcher  Alpo Honkapohja discusses the practice in classical and medieval times.

“The two main reasons to use abbreviations are the economy of time and the economy of space,” Honkapohja writes.

He says economy of time “was the more important one in Ancient Rome, where abbreviations were needed for making quick transcriptions of spoken language.”

“In late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages,” he adds, “saving parchment became the driving principle.”

In The Handwriting of English Documents (1958), L. C. Hector writes that medieval abbreviations “saved time and space by allowing the scribe to drop letters from his writing of individual words.”

“A word of which the beginning is written and the end omitted is said to be suspended: the most extreme form of suspension is, of course, the representation of a whole word by its initial letter alone,” he says.

When a writer “omits a letter or letters from the middle of a word, so that its beginning and end remain, the word is said to be contracted,” Hector says.

When an abbreviated name is contracted, the last letter can appear in either normal type or superscript. So a contraction of the name William is seen as “Wm” or “Wm” while a contraction of Jonathan (or John) is “Jno.” or “Jno.” in old writing.

When letters are eliminated from the end of an abbreviated name, the shortened form is often followed by a colon or a dot, but the punctuation is often dropped with a contracted name. We’re using dots in this post for all abbreviated names except contractions.

Several genealogical websites include lists of names that are often shortened in old documents.  GeneologyInTime, for example, has a page of abbreviated first names, minus the dots.

And the Treasure Maps Genealogy site has a page that shows how some common abbreviated given names look in handwritten manuscripts.

We’ve had many items on our blog about abbreviations, including a posting in 2013 about the singer-songwriter Prince’s use of letters and numbers in his lyrics as shorthand for sound-alike words.

On a related subject, we wrote a post in 2012 about palimpsest and crossed (or cross) writing, two techniques used to conserve writing material in bygone days.

In crossed writing, a poor or frugal letter writer would fill a page of paper with writing, then turn it sideways and fill the page again with text running perpendicular to the original.

In palimpsest, old writing is scraped or rubbed away from parchment or vellum, so the material can be recycled. Documents made of more fragile papyrus were sometimes washed and used again.

On still another related subject, we’ve discussed nicknames several times on the blog, including posts in 2008, 2011, and 2013.

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A hand in the game

Q: Do you have any idea as to the origins of the expression “a hand in the game” and how old it might be?

A: We’ve found examples of “a hand in the game” in British and American writing—fiction as well as collections of letters and so on—dating back to the early 1800s.

The word “hand” had been used for centuries before that to mean involvement, or “a part or share in doing something,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

That sense of the word is chiefly used, the OED says, in the expression “to have a hand in,” which was first recorded in the 1580s.

This 18th-century quotation from the OED is a good example: “I solemnly protest I had no hand in it,” from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).

And here’s a contemporary citation from the OED by Queen Elizabeth, quoted in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (2012):

“Prince Philip and I want to take this opportunity to offer our special thanks and appreciation to all those who have had a hand in organising these Jubilee celebrations.”

So the notion of having “a hand in” may have led to the longer expression “a hand in the game,” with “game” used literally to mean a card game or figuratively to mean some activity or project.

Since the mid-1500s, the OED says, “hand” has been used to mean the set of cards held by a player. And this sense of “hand” has been used figuratively since 1600 to mean one’s lot or fate.

So by extension, to have “a hand in the game” may refer to being a player—if not in an actual card game, then in some other enterprise, good or bad. 

This interpretation seems to make sense, considering the contexts in which 19th-century writers used the expression. Some of them also threw in metaphorical references to cards or gambling.

For instance, this passage describing the character of a miser comes from an essay written in 1815 by Conrad Speece, a newspaper columnist in Staunton, Va.:

“He is capitally skilled in the making of bargains, and makes a great many. On this subject his maxim is, ‘all the world is a cheat, and he is a fool that has no hand in the game.’ ”

And this quotation is from a letter written in 1824 by the Scottish painter Sir David Wilkie. Here he writes to a fellow artist, mentioning that the two of them had promised to do a joint drawing of a nobleman’s stately home:

“I successfully showed his Lordship that the delay did not rest with me, that you were the first hand in the game, and that it was not my turn till you had played your card.” (Notice that Wilkie also uses the image of “playing a card” to mean “making a move.”)

The expression cropped up a few years later, in 1827, when Thomas Carlyle translated a passage from the German writer Jean Paul Friedrich Richter:

“However, I could not speak to her, nor as little to the Devil, who might well be supposed to have a hand in the game.”

And later in the century, we find this example in Robert Louis Stevenson’s travelogue An Inland Voyage (1878): “In a place where you have taken some root you are provoked out of your indifference; you have a hand in the game.” 

Over the centuries, card games have given us many phrases that have acquired meanings beyond the poker or bridge table:

to “show [or declare] one’s hand”; to “lay the cards on the table”; to “be dealt a bad [or good] hand”; to “trump” someone; to play to one’s “strong [or weak] suit”: to “have a difficult hand to play,” and others.

Our guess is that “a hand in the game” is one more.

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Ruminations on chewing the cud

Q: Some sources list “cud” as an uncountable noun while others say it’s countable. What’s your opinion?

A: A countable or count noun, as you know, is one that can be modified by an indefinite article (“a” or “an”) or a number: “a book,” “three dogs,” “seven dollars,” etc.

A mass or uncountable noun represents something that can’t be counted—a substance, a quality, an abstract idea, and so on. In ordinary usage, it’s singular and not modified by indefinite articles or numbers, like “water,” “fragility,” and “happiness.”

“Cud” is a substance (partly digested food that’s chewed again), so it’s a singular mass noun in the ordinary sense: “The cow seems contented to chew its cud.”

But the plural “cuds” is sometimes used, especially by agricultural writers, when referring to more than one cow (“the Jerseys were chewing their cuds”) or to several instances of cud chewing by a single cow (“the ailing Holstein spit out three of her cuds”).

We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries, and all the examples given use “cud” as a mass noun and refer to a singular cow chewing its singular cud.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary and farming journals have examples of multiple cows chewing multiple cuds. And the journals also have examples of a single cow chewing multiple cuds.

The OED entry for “cud” has this definition: “The food which a ruminating animal brings back into its mouth from its first stomach, and chews at leisure.” The word usually appears, the OED adds, in the verbal phrase “to chew the cud.”

The word “cud” is derived from old Germanic sources meaning glue or a glutinous substance. It’s been part of our language since Old English, and was later adapted to mean anything held in the mouth and chewed repeatedly, such as chewing tobacco.

As John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the word “quid,” which means a plug of chewing tobacco, is a variant of “cud.”

The OED’s examples for written uses of “cud” date back to about the year 1000. In most of them, the noun is in the singular, “cud,” but there are plural examples too, like these:

“The whiles his flock their chawed cuds do eate.” (From a poem by Edmund Spenser, Virgil’s Gnat, 1591.)

“They … began grazing and chewing their cuds.” (From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, 1852.)

We notice that all the uses of “cuds” in the OED refer to plural animals. But in checking journals devoted to cattle raising and dairy farming, we find both “cud” and “cuds,” with the plural used to refer to multiple instances of cud chewing.

In one farm journal, a sick cow “frequently spit out her cuds”; in another, a cow “was chewing her cuds all right.”

As you know, there’s more than one way to “chew the cud.” As far back as the 14th century, the phrase has been used in a figurative sense to mean to meditate, ponder, or reflect.

We like this 18th-century example from Tobias Smollett’s novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771): “I shall for some time continue to chew the cud of reflection.”

And of course to meditate or turn something over in one’s mind is to ruminate.

As you probably suspect, the verb “ruminate” literally means to chew the cud. Its etymological ancestor is the Latin rumen (gullet), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

A “ruminant” is an animal, like a sheep or cow or goat, that gets nutrients from plant roughage by chewing it, then swallowing it so fermentation can take place, then regurgitating and chewing it again.

Chambers says we owe both “ruminate” and “ruminant,” as well as the Latin verb ruminare (to chew the cud or to think over), to a prehistoric Indo-European root, reconstructed as reu-, that had a humble meaning—to belch.

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The original tiger mother?

Q: I’m curious to know if Amy Chua originated the phrase “tiger mother” or if it’s something that was around before her book. I (a possible Tiger Mom) can’t remember if I ever used it before Ms. Chua’s book and the subsequent media blitz.

A: No, Amy Chua didn’t coin the phrase in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a 2011 memoir about her strict parenting techniques, but she did help popularize the term.

Saul Bellow, for example, used the phrase several times before Ms. Chua’s book appeared in print. Here’s an example from his 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift:

“When she was in her busy mood, domineering and protecting me, I used to think what a dolls’ generalissimo she must have been in childhood. ‘And where you’re concerned,’ she would say, ‘I’m a tiger-mother and a regular Fury.’ ”

And here’s one of two examples in his 1989 novella The Bellerosa Connection: “They were married and, thanks to him, she obtained her closure, she became the tiger wife, the tiger mother, grew into a biological monument and a victorious personality.”

In fact, the phrase “tiger mother” has been around since the 19th century, although many early examples use it in the sense of a protective mother rather than one who is strict or domineering, a meaning reinforced by Ms. Chua’s memoir.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1878 English translation of Bilder aus Oberägypten, an 1876 book about upper Egypt by the German zoologist and physician Karl Benjamin Klunzinger.

In the English translation, Klunzinger says the fear of mothers-in-law among the Bedouin of upper Egypt “perhaps naturally arises from the relationship itself, being expressed also in our proverb ‘Mother-in-law—tiger mother’ or ‘Devil’s darling.’ ”

In the original German, Klunzinger refers to the expressions as “Schwiegermutter—Tigermutter” and “Schwiegermutter—Teufelsunterfutter.”

Comrades Two, a 1907 novel by Elizabeth Fremantle (the pseudonym of Elizabeth Rockfort Covey), has an early example of the phrase used in its protective sense.

In the novel, which is set in Saskatchewan, the mother of a son suffering  from typhoid fever says “the instinct of the tiger-mother is tearing my heart to pieces.”

This more recent example of the protective usage appears in an article (“Be My Baby,” by Jane Hutchinson) published on May 8, 2005, in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine: “My sister calls us ‘tiger mothers,’ because we’re so protective.”

Interestingly, the phrase is used with the words reversed in Mother Tiger, Mother Tiger (1974), the title of Rolf Forsberg’s short film about an angry mother who struggles to accept the fact that her child is severely handicapped.

Although “tiger mother” didn’t show up in English until the 19th century, the word “tiger” itself has been used figuratively since the 1500s in reference to someone who is fierce, cruel, active, strong, or courageous.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, cites a 1585 prayer that thanks God for foiling a plot against Queen Elizabeth and saving “her from the jaws of the cruel Tigers that then sought to suck her blood.”

The OED also has citations from around the same time of the word “tiger” used adjectivally and adverbially in a similar sense.

Here’s one from The Theatre of Gods Iudgements, a 1597 book by the English clergyman Thomas Beard about divine retribution: “The poore old man thus cruelly handled … departed comfortlesse from his Tygre-minded sonne.”

And the OED also has examples from the 1500s of “tigerlike” used both adjectivally and adverbially.

In The Historie of England (1587), Raphael Holinshed writes of men who avenged the wrongs of the past with “more than tigerlike crueltie.”

And in “The Complaynt of Phylomene,” a 1576 poem about Philomena’s murder of her son in Greek mythology, George Gascoigne writes that she took the boy “Tygrelike” and stabbed him in the heart.

We’ll end with an example of “tiger mother” from a 2014 review of Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Here’s how the New York Times reviewer describes the artist’s mom:

“So there she sits, old Mrs. Whistler, in her black dress and lacy bonnet. Call her the original tiger mother. If she looks back to dour Puritans, she looks forward to an American culture of self-display, where you are only as good as your most recent publicity.”

Note: Amy Chua tells us that she used the term “tiger mother” in her memoir because she was born in Year of the Tiger. She also reminds us that Jacqueline Kennedy once used the term to refer to her father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy. In an interview with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. for a 1964 oral history, she said, “I always thought he was the tiger mother.”

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Is there a disconnect here?

Q: Is the word “disconnect” properly used as a noun?

A: Yes, “disconnect” has been a noun for more than a century, though the contemporary sense of a difference or an incompatibility is relatively new.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) considers the newer sense informal, but the other six standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it without comment, indicating that it’s used in formal as well as informal English.

Although the noun “disconnect” is a relative newcomer (it dates from the early 1900s), “disconnection” has been a noun since the mid-1600s, meaning lack of connection, separation, or detachment.

The earliest example for “disconnection” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Jasper Mayne’s 1663 translation of Lucian’s Dialogues:

“He still raises the derision of the auditory by his disconnections, and tautologies, and Nonplusses.”

The shorter word “disconnect” first showed up in English in the mid-1700s as a verb meaning to destroy the logical connection between things or to cause things to become disjointed.

The verb ultimately comes from Latin: the prefix -dis (apart) and the verb conectere (to join together).

The earliest example in the OED is from Moravian Heresy, a 1751 treatise by John Roche denouncing the Moravian Church:

“And if the Text does not chance to have Words enough sufficient to make a full Answer to the Question put, then the Sense is defective; if too many Words, then do they disconnect the Tenor, and confound the Sense.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Over the years, according to OED citations, the verb took on many related senses, including to break a physical connection (1758), to detach an electrical device from its power supply (1826), to end a telephone call (1877), to withdraw from society or reality (1961), and to terminate a computer connection (1977).

When the noun showed up in the early 20th century, the dictionary says, it referred to an “act or instance of disconnecting something; esp. a break of an electrical or telephone connection.”

The OED’s earliest example of the noun is from Telephony, a 1905 book by A. V. Abbott about the design, construction, and operation of telephone exchanges: “These signals must appear as a disconnect as soon as the receivers are replaced.”

The noun took on its contemporary sense of “a lack of consistency, understanding or agreement; a discrepancy” in the early 1980s, according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1982 issue of Parameters, a journal of the US Army War College: “The result was the same: a disconnect between the security policy and the military strategy needed to achieve the political objective.”

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Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bogus origins

Q: I keep seeing “bogus” used in ways that seem too colloquial. Somehow saying Colin Powell made bogus claims about WMDs just doesn’t possess the right connotation. So is my claim of excessive informality correct or bogus?

A: We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries and none of them suggest that “bogus” is anything but standard English when used to mean counterfeit, fake, or spurious.

But one of the sources, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), considers “bogus” slang when used in two less common senses:

(1) “Not conforming with what one would hope to be the case; disappointing or unfair” and (2) when used as an interjection “to indicate disagreement or displeasure with another’s actions or a circumstance.”

American Heritage gives this example of the first slang sense: “It’s bogus that you got to go to the party, and I had to stay home.” It doesn’t have any example for the second.

Although “bogus” is considered standard English today when used in its false sense, the word did originate in the late 1700s as US slang.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the term was originally underworld argot for “counterfeit coins; counterfeit money,” and in the early 1800s it came to mean “a machine for coining counterfeit money.”

The earliest Random House citation for “bogus” is from Band of Brothers (circa 1798): “Coney means Counterfeit paper money … Bogus means spurious coins, &c.”

The slang dictionary’s first example of “bogus” used for a machine to make phony money is from the July 6, 1827, issue of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph: “He never procured the casting of a Bogus at one of our furnaces.”

The earliest Random House cite for “bogus” used as an adjective to mean fraudulent or phony is from The Banditti of the Prairies, an 1855 book by Edward Bonney about his work as a private detective to expose criminal gangs in Illinois:

“I have a little bogus gold but have been dealing mostly in horses.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several earlier citations for the adjective, including this one from A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, writing under the pen name Mrs. Mary Clavers:

“And in the course of the Tinkerville investigation the commissioners had ascertained by the aid of hammer and chisel, that the boxes of the ‘real stuff’ which had been so loudly vaunted, contained a heavy charge of broken glass and tenpenny nails, covered above and below with half-dollars, principally ‘bogus.’ ” (We’ve expanded on the citation.)

The OED says “many guesses have been made, and ‘bogus’ derivations circumstantially given” about the origin of the word.

The dictionary notes, for example, that Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painesville, Ohio, newspaper cited above, wrote in his 1878 autobiography that “bogus” might “have been short for tantrabogus, a word familiar to him from his childhood, and which in his father’s time was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object.”

We suspect, however, that Howe’s suggestion as well as several others we’ve seen (a forger named Borghese, the French word bagasse, etc.) are bogus.

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Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Q: Is the subject grammatically correct in the title “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”? That’s how it appears in our hymnal. Astonishingly, this is a practical issue, since we display the words during church services via video projection.

A: Yes, the subject is grammatically correct.

The plural subject “Angels” (part of the noun phrase “the Herald Angels”) agrees with the plural verb (“Sing”). The word “Hark!” in the title is a stand-alone imperative verb meaning “Listen!”

Although the grammar is correct, the punctuation and capitalization might seem odd to modern readers. If the title were written today, it would probably be either “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

However, we see no reason to modernize the title. In fact, we prefer the old-fashioned punctuation and capitalization. It gives the 18th-century hymn a patina of age.

Interestingly, the original hymn, written by Charles Wesley, was entitled “Hymn for Christmas-Day” and had nothing in it about “Herald Angels.”

Here are the opening lines from the earliest version of the hymn, as published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), a collection of verse compiled by Charles and John Wesley, leaders of the Methodist movement:

Hark how all the welkin rings
“Glory to the King of kings,
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d!”

George Whitefield, a preacher and friend of the Wesley brothers, rewrote the first two lines in A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1753):

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born King!”

In 1855, the English musician William H. Cummings made several other changes, including adding the refrain, when he set the hymn to music by Felix Mendelssohn.

The hymn has had other titles over the years (“On the Nativity,” “Christmas Hymn,” “An Ode,” “The Song of the Angels,” and so on), but it was often referred to simply by either its first line or a number in a hymnal.

The earliest examples we’ve found for “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” used as the title are in a list of sheet music for Christmas hymns in the Nov. 1, 1864, issue of the Musical Times.

In five different arrangements of the hymn for four voices, the title is written in all capital letters: “HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING.”

In an article that discusses the editing of Charles Wesley’s hymn, C. Michael Hawn, a sacred-music scholar, notes that changes in the texts of hymns are quite common.

“The average singer on Sunday morning would be amazed (or perhaps chagrined) to realize how few hymns before the twentieth century in our hymnals appear exactly in their original form,” Hawn writes.

He considers the replacement of the term “welkin” in the first line as “perhaps the most notable change” in the Wesley hymn.

And what, you’re probably wondering, is a welkin? As Hawn explains, it refers to “the sky or the firmament of the heavens, even the highest celestial sphere of the angels.”

Hawn cites a light-hearted comment by the Wesley scholar Ted Campbell that suggests the term may not have been a household word even in the 18th century:

“I have wondered if anybody but Charles knew what a welkin was supposed to be.”

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Bread and dripping

Q: The next time Pat appears on the Leonard Lopate Show, she should tell Leonard that here in England we don’t all eat “drippings” (“dripping” in British English) for breakfast! The last time I tasted dripping was after the Second World War when food was still rationed. I’ve certainly never heard of it for breakfast. Fried bread is still popular, though my GP wouldn’t be too pleased if I indulged.

A: We do recall that Leonard once mentioned “drippings” in a discussion of British breakfast habits. Like us, he probably enjoys vintage British fiction, stories in which kids slip away from Nanny and sneak into the kitchen, where Cook gives them a treat of “bread and dripping.”

We’re big fans of Angela Thirkell, and we recall such scenes in her Barsetshire novels, which begin in the early 1930s and end in the late ’50s. In either kitchen or nursery, children are indulged with lavish helpings of “dripping,” spread on fresh warm bread.

We always assumed “dripping” meant bacon grease, but we should have consulted the Oxford English Dictionary! We would have found it defined this way: “the melted fat that drips from roasting meat, which when cold is used like butter. Formerly often in pl.”

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says the noun is singular in the UK and plural in the US, though all the American dictionaries we’ve checked list “dripping” as the principal noun, with “drippings” as a common variant.

Gravy, as every cook knows, is made from the drippings (we prefer the variant) that come from roast meats—hot fat plus crispy morsels and bits of meat than have fallen off.

In many parts of the US, “biscuits and gravy” is a staple, and you can order it for breakfast in diners, alongside your eggs. (Tell THAT to your GP!)

So from now on, we’ll think of “dripping” as a sort of pre-gravy, before the flour and extra liquid are stirred in.

We’ve occasionally skipped the flour and used this pre-gravy with bread or mashed potatoes, but we’ve never used the cold congealed stuff like butter, as the OED suggests.

The British have used the noun “dripping” since as far back as the 15th century. The word is implied in a reference to “drepyngpannes” (dripping-pans) that was published in an Act of Parliament in 1463, according to the OED.

References to “dripping” itself began appearing in 1530 (“drepyng of rost meate”) and continued until well into modern times.

The OED’s citations conclude with this one, from Rosa Nouchette Carey’s novel Uncle Max (1887): “A piece of bread and dripping.”

However, the tradition has apparently lived on. We’ve found plenty of subsequent references to “bread and dripping,” eaten at breakfast or tea or even for supper, in the works of George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Somerset Maugham, P.D. James, Margaret Atwood, and too many others to mention.

And the online Oxford Dictionaries offers this example of the usage: “I still carry around a hankering for bread and dripping, steamed pudding, and sweet macaroni, but I know they will do me no good, so I avoid them.”

Contributors to British cooking websites often wax nostalgic about “bread and dripping.” Some recall it as a humble working-class dish, or as a byproduct of food rationing. But others still eat it with relish (that is, with enjoyment) just because they like it.

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Deconstructing “it”

Q: I’m flummoxed by the word “it” in a sentence such as “I like it when you sing.” What in the world is “it” doing there?

A: The sentence that puzzles you, “I like it when you sing,” is a familiar construction, especially in spoken English. We find nothing grammatically wrong here, as we’ll explain later.

But you’re right—on close examination, this familiar old pattern seems curiouser and curiouser.

In sentences like this a verb, often one expressing a state of mind (“like,” “love,” “hate,” “appreciate,” etc.), has as its object the pronoun “it,” followed by a clause beginning with “when.” (A clause, as you know, is a group of words that has a verb and its subject.)

Here are some similar examples: “She loves it when he smiles” … “I hate it when people swear” … “Mom and dad appreciate it when you do the dishes” … “He always regrets it when he’s rude.”

All of these examples seem quite innocent on the surface. But what’s happening underneath?

As you can see, there are two clauses here. Using your original sentence as our model, the clauses are “I like it” and “when you sing.”

In the main clause, “it” is the direct object of the verb “like.” And to identify what “it” is, the speaker follows with a subordinate clause that begins with “when” and names an event or circumstance.

So the “when”-clause is an object too, in a sense. It explains what the object “it” refers to: an occasion on which someone sings. So in that sense the “when”-clause resembles a noun clause.

But it also seems to have an adverbial use, since it says when something happens. It describes the condition required for the main clause to be true. So instead of referring to a time, this “when” refers to a situation.

Often sentences like these can be reversed: “I like it when you sing” neatly corresponds to “When you sing, I like it.” In the second version, “it” refers back, instead of forward, to the explanatory “when”-clause.

But you wouldn’t want to move a “when”-clause to the front unless it’s fairly short and simple. Here’s a sentence that would sound clunky if flipped:

“I hate it when a birthday invitation says ‘No gifts, please’ and then everyone but you brings one anyway.” There’s no felicitous way to move “I hate it” to the end.

Linguists have interpreted this kind of construction in many different ways over the years. For example, they’ve used a variety of terms in discussing the role played by “it.”

In A Grammar of the English Language (1931), George O. Curme interprets this “it” as “an anticipatory object” that points forward to a fuller object clause.

In his book When-Clauses and Temporal Structure (1997), Renaat Declerck calls this a “cataphoric” or “anticipatory” pronoun, one that depends on the “when”-clause for its meaning. (A “cataphoric” pronoun is one that refers to a following word or phrase.)

Other commentators have described this “it” as an “expletive” or “pleonastic” pronoun—one with no meaning of its own, but merely a sort of placeholder required by the word order.

But we’ve also found arguments that the pronoun is not “pleonastic”: it’s not without meaning, since it refers to an event.

Linguists have also disagreed in their views of the “when”-clause in sentences like these—is it a relative clause, a noun clause, an adverbial clause, or perhaps some combination of those?

Declerck regards these clauses as adverbial. And when preceded by “it” acting as an object, he writes, they are “extraposed when-clauses.” (Essentially, an element is “extraposed” when the pronoun takes its place and shoves it aside.)

Without the “it” (as in “I don’t like when people argue”), the “when”-clause itself “fills the object position,” Declerck writes. So in that case the clause is not “extraposed.”

As we mentioned above, we find nothing grammatically wrong with sentences such as “I like it when you sing.” They seem natural and idiomatic, and they work well. But they do seem more at home in informal or spoken English.

No usage authorities, to our knowledge, have condemned the use of a “when”-clause to describe an event. And the use of “it” as an object that’s then echoed by the “real” object is also a common feature of English, as in “I like it, this movie,” and “He loathes it, that old eyesore.”

So we have no quarrel with these “when”-clauses in spoken or informal English, but if you prefer to avoid them you certainly can. Many constructions are similar, though in some cases they may be subtly different.

Declerck says, for example, that “I hate it when you talk like that” will generally be interpreted as similar to “I hate your talking like that.”

But the two don’t mean precisely the same thing. One refers to an occasion, the other to what could be habitual behavior. If the person you’re addressing always talks like that, then either construction would be appropriate.

Another kind of substitution comes to mind. You can often replace “when” by “that” and still make grammatical sense.

But again, your meaning may be changed. “I like it when you sing” isn’t the same as “I like it that you sing.” In the first sentence, the object of the liking—“it”—is not the fact that the person sings, but occasions when the person sings.

A few years ago we wrote a post on a similar subject, the use of “when”-clauses in definitions after forms of the verb “be.” (Example: “Despair is when you see no way out.”)

As we wrote then, this construction is common and has a long history, but it’s been considered colloquial since the mid-19th century. It’s common in speech and casual writing, but it’s generally avoided in formal English.

If you see “when”-clauses after the verb “be” in formal writing, it’s usually in reference to time, as in “Yesterday was when I heard the news” or “This is when you should change the oil.”

And now is when we should sign off.

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Have you got rhythm?

Q: Near the bottom of your home page, you ask, “Have you GOT rhythm?”  No, Simple Simon Babblers, I AIN’T GOT NO rhythm. I’m sick of YOU GOT. What ever happened to YOU HAVE? Correct English would be “Have you rhythm?”

A: Calm down.

The title “Have you got rhythm?” on our home page uses “got” quite correctly. “Have you got” here is the present-perfect form of the verb “get,” used in the second person.

The present-perfect of “get” has been used to denote mere possession (that is, to mean “have”) since the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1590s:

“What a beard hast thou got; thou hast got more haire on thy chinne, then Dobbin my philhorse hase on his taile.”

Merriam-Webster’s also cites examples from Jane Austen, Charles Lamb, Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, and others.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some language commentators objected to the usage, complaining that “got” was superfluous. However, contemporary usage guides accept “have got,” though some consider it informal.

There are two theories about why English speakers began using “have got” to mean “have.”

One is that the verb “have” began losing its sense of possession because of its increasing use as an auxiliary.

The other theory is that “got” was originally inserted because of the tendency to use contracted forms of the verb “have.” So a clunky sentence like “I’ve a cat” became “I’ve got a cat.”

Philip Boswood Ballard, writing in Teaching the Mother Tongue (1921), argues that the “have got” version “implies a stronger sense of possession”  than a simple “have.” We tend to agree.

In case you didn’t know, the headline on our home page was a play on words, a reference to the song “I Got Rhythm,” by George and Ira Gershwin.

Granted, the song title used “got” in a deliberately slangy, nonstandard way. The technically correct version would have been “I’ve Got Rhythm,” though as we’ve said before, song lyricists are allowed poetic license.

The title we wrote, however, is correct. In Teaching the Mother Tongue, Ballard dismisses the objection to “have got” as “a counterfeit invented by schoolmasters.”

Sir Ernest Gowers, writing in the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965), cites Ballard’s comment and adds, “Acceptance of this verdict is here recommended.”

Nobody objects, of course, to the use of “have got” to mean “have acquired,” though Americans generally use “have gotten” in this sense. The British once used “have gotten” too, as we pointed out back in 2006.

Keep in mind that “get” is an entirely separate verb from “have,” though some of its tenses use the auxiliary “have,” as we wrote on our blog in 2008 and 2010:

We’ve also examined the modern colloquial usage “I got this” (meaning something akin to “This one is mine” or “I’ll take care of this”).

And you may be interested in a comparison of two “have got” usages in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: “She has got a swimming pool” and “She has got to swim each day.”

In examples like the first, the Cambridge Grammar notes, “have got” appears “with an NP [noun phrase] object … expressing possession and similar relations.”

In examples like the second, according to Cambridge, it’s “a catenative verb with a to-infinitival complement  … where the meaning is of obligation or necessity, much like must.”

A catenative verb is one linked to another verb form—in this case, “has got” and “to swim” are linked in meaning “must swim.”

We’ll end with an example of the “have got” usage you asked about, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), by Lewis Carroll:

“Oh dear! I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve got to grow up again! Let me see—how is it to be managed?”

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Why shavers are little

Q: In respect to your article about “little shaver,” the phrase actually comes from bitti chavo (“little boy”) in Romanichal, the Romany language spoken in England. It’s ultimately derived from chavo, Romany for “youth.”

A: Yes, the English word “shaver” resembles the Romany (and Romanichal) word chavo, but resemblance alone is not sufficient evidence to prove that the two terms are related.

In serious etymology, one has to do more than show that words in one language sound or look like those in another.

We haven’t found any authoritative reference that accepts chavo as the source of “shaver,” though one questionable 19th-century book does suggest as much.

Charles G. Leland, writing in The English Gypsies and Their Language (1874), says the use of “shaver” for a child “is possibly inexplicable, unless we resort to Gipsy, where we find it used as directly as possible.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative guide to English etymology, says “shaver” is simply derived from the verb “shave” and the suffix “-er.”

When the verb “shave” first showed up around 725 in a glossary of Latin and Old English terms, it meant to scrape or pare away the surface of something by removing thin layers.

If you think of those layers, or shavings, as little pieces of the original, the figurative use of “shaver” to mean a boy makes perfect sense, much like the 17th-century expression “chip off the old block.”

The word “shaver” referred literally to someone who shaves when it showed up around 1425, according to the OED.

In the late 1500s, the term came to mean a fellow or chap or joker, but that sense is now dialectal. Today, according to Oxford, this usage generally refers to “a youth, with the epithet young, little.”

The OED’s first citation for “shaver” to mean a fellow or joker is from a conversation between Barabas and a slave in The Jew of Malta, a 1592 play by Christopher Marlowe:

Slave: “I can cut and shaue.”
Barabas: “Let me see, sirra, are you not an old shauer?”
Slave: “Alas, Sir, I am a very youth.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase “young shaver” is from Love and a Bottle, a 1699 comedy by the Irish dramatist George Farquhar: “Who wou’d imagin now that this young shaver cou’d dream of a Woman so soon?”

And the OED’s first example of “little shaver” is from The World Went Very Well Then, an 1887 novel by Walter Besant: “Forty-five years ago I was just such a little shaver as this.”

We’re sorry if this answer disappoints you, but we try to be as exacting as we can about language.

For example, a reader of the blog once wrote to suggest that hundreds of American slang words come from Irish. This isn’t so, as we wrote in a post last year.

While a phonetic similarity might provide a starting point, it shouldn’t be the conclusion.

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How educated is your English?

Q: On this morning’s news show, someone said people should “educate” themselves on the dearth of women in computer science. To my mind, people should “inform,” not “educate,” themselves on issues. Am I wrong?

A: In modern English, the verb “educate” can mean either to teach or to inform, so one can be educated in the field of computer science as well as on the issue of women in computer science.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives these two definitions: (1) “to teach (someone) especially in a school, college, or university,” and (2) “to give (someone) information about something.”

However, “educate” didn’t mean either to teach or to inform when the verb first showed up in English in the 1400s.

It originally meant to bring up a child “so as to form his or her manners, behaviour, social and moral practices, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English adopted the usage from educare, Latin for to rear children or young animals.

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1445 translation in Middle English of a Late Latin elegy, Claudian’s De Consulatu Stilichonis: As grete cure also thou haddist his brothir to mayntene / To educate and to brynge forthe.

In the early 1500s, the verb took on its modern sense of to teach someone at a school, college, or university.

The first Oxford citation is from a 1536 act by King Henry VIII: “Where yowth and good wyttes be educate and norysshed.”

In the late 1700s, the verb “educate” took on its sense of to inform.

The earliest OED example is from The Quartern Loaf for Eight-Pence (1795), a pamphlet by the pseudonymous Jack Cade: “This must spur you on to the most daring exploits to educate the public mind.”

(Bread was commonly sold in the 18th and 19th centuries as a quartern loaf, which was made from 3.5 pounds of wheat flour. The author of the pamphlet apparently took his pen name from the leader of the Jack Cade Rebellion in 15th-century England.)

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An interview with Pat

She discusses books, blogs, and journalism in an interview with Grammarist.


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How pie became à la mode

Q: We had cherry pie with vanilla ice cream on Thanksgiving, which inspires this question: Who is responsible for the use of a French expression at even the most humble American diners to describe such desserts?

A: The use of the expression “à la mode” to mean “served with ice cream” first showed up in the late 19th century, but it’s uncertain who coined the usage.

Despite the uncertainty, you’ll find lots of claims online that one person or another or still another was the first to use “à la mode” in this sense.

The three alleged contenders (none of whom we accept) are John Gieriet, who briefly owned the Hotel La Perl in Duluth, MN; Charles Watson Townsend, a diner at the now-defunct Cambridge Hotel in Cambridge, NY, and Mrs. Berry Hall, another Cambridge Hotel diner.

Gieriet supposedly used the phrase “à la mode” in the 1880s to describe a dessert of blueberry pie and ice cream. Townsend reputedly used it in either the 1880s or ’90s (depending on the story) after ordering a slice of apple pie with ice cream. And Mrs. Hall is said to have suggested the phrase to Townsend.

However, the only evidence that exists for these events is a handful of poorly sourced accounts written dozens of years after the events supposedly took place.

There’s no report in writing from the 19th century showing that Gieriet actually served pie and ice cream together, or that Townsend ordered them as a dessert.

More to the point (since this is a language blog), there’s no account in print from the 19th century that either man (or Mrs. Hall) used the phrase “à la mode” in the 1880s or ’90s to mean “served with ice cream.”

Etymologists trying to track down the source of a word or phrase look for the earliest written example of the usage, not comments about the usage made years after the fact.

We’ll return later to the sources of these suspect etymologies, but let’s first look at a few facts about “à la mode.”

The expression was borrowed from French, where it means “in the fashion.” It’s been used in English since the mid-1600s as an adjective to mean fashionable and as an adverb to mean fashionably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s also been used adjectivally since the 17th century in the name of “beef à la mode,” a dish consisting of beef braised with vegetables and wine, then served in a rich sauce.

The earliest written example that we could find for the phrase “à la mode” linked to a dessert  is from an article in the April 26, 1893, issue of the St. Paul Daily News about the price of food at the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair, which opened on May 1.

The article, headlined “Chicagoans Indignant at Probable High Prices for World’s Fair Pie,” reports that the city’s residents “are inclined to kick at the impending raise in life’s necessities.”

Among the “necessities” listed, “apple pie, a la mode, was raised 20 cents—10 cents for apple pie and ten cents for a la mode.”

However, the article is unclear about what “à la mode” actually meant at the World’s Fair (officially the World’s Columbian Exposition). Did it really mean “served with ice cream” at that time? Not necessarily.

An article in the April 6, 1896, issue of the Duluth (MN) News Tribune, for example, has a recipe for “Apple pie a la mode” that’s actually an apple meringue pie, served with a dollop of whipped cream, not ice cream.

The recipe calls for stewed apples, strained through a sieve, then poured into a pie pan and baked. Here’s the rest of the recipe, picking up after the initial baking:

“Spread over the apple a thick meringue made of the whites of the eggs and tablespoonfuls of pulverized sugar beaten stiffly and not flavored. Brown slightly in the oven and serve with a large spoonful of whipped cream stirred with candied cherries and flavored with almond.”

The earliest example we could find for “à la mode” clearly used to mean “served with ice cream” is from an article in the Aug. 4, 1895, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune that describes a diner chowing down at a Windy City restaurant:

“He’s got a glass of beer and a great big piece of pie with a chunk of ice cream on top of it. Pie a la mode, I believe they call it.”

Now let’s examine those questionable etymologies about “pie à la mode.”

As we’ve said, there’s no written evidence from the 1880s or ’90s that John Gieriet, Charles Townsend, or Mrs. Berry Hall had any role in inventing or naming pie à la mode.

The belief that Townsend concocted the dessert at the Cambridge Hotel and that Mrs. Hall named it was primarily inspired by newspaper and magazine articles published in the 1930s and 1950s—many years after the alleged events.

The earliest written source of the Townsend story is an Associated Press obituary for him that appeared  in various newspapers, including the May 20, 1936, issues of the Schenectady (NY) Gazette and the Emporia (KS) Gazette as well as the May 21, 1936, issue of the New York Times.

The AP obituary in the Times, incorrectly datelined Cambridge, Mass. (it should have been Cambridge, NY), says Townsend “inadvertently originated pie a la mode here 52 years ago.”

The obituary states that Townsend “amazed waiters at a local hotel by asking for ice cream on his pie,” and that the Cambridge Hotel “here specializes in the dish and points at the table at which Townsend was dining when he created it.”

The AP article doesn’t cite any evidence beyond the hotel’s questionable claim to be the birthplace of pie à la mode.

Well, Townsend may have ordered the dish “52 years” before he died (that is, in 1884), but not at the Cambridge Hotel, which was built in 1885 and closed in 2012.

However, another account says the “blessed business” of the pie occurred in the mid-1890s.

Before it closed, the hotel used to provide each guest room with a folder of information that included a page entitled “The History of the Pie a la Mode.”

A patron who stayed at the hotel shortly before it closed posted a photo online of this dubious history. Here’s how it begins:

“With Apple Pie a la Mode holding such a special niche in the taste of the American public, it is appropriate at this time that we turn to historians long enough to record for posterity the origin of this delectable delicacy of the day.

“We have it that the late Professor Charles Watson Townsend, who lived alone in a Main Street apartment during his later years and dined regularly at the Hotel Cambridge, now known as the Cambridge Hotel, was wholly responsible for the blessed business.

“One day in the mid 1890’s, Professor Townsend was seated for dinner at a table when the late Mrs. Berry Hall observed that he was eating ice cream with his apple pie. Just like that she named it ‘Pie al a Mode’ [sic], and we often wondered why, and thereby brought enduring fame to Professor Townsend and the Hotel Cambridge.”

The “history” goes on for four more paragraphs, but does not provide any evidence to support its claims that in the 19th century Townsend ordered apple pie and ice cream, or that Mrs. Hall suggested the name “pie à la mode.”

The hotel characterized this account as a “Reprint from Sealtest Magazine.” No date was given, but the Sealtest Dairy didn’t exist until dozens of years after the events described. Sealtest began life in 1935 as a research division of National Dairy Products, which was founded in 1923.

The hotel also passed along the story to the Ice Cream Review magazine in 1951, and it was later picked up by newspapers, websites, and other news media.

In our own searches of newspaper and literary databases, we could find no written evidence from the 19th century to support the claims that Townsend ordered pie à la mode in the 1880s or ’90s, or that Mrs. Hall suggested the name “pie à la mode” at that time.

The primary source for the story that Gieriet created pie à la mode in Duluth is a local historian, Mike Flaherty, who wrote a March 1, 2012, report that’s on file with the Duluth Public Library.

Flaherty’s report was cited on Wikipedia’s “Pie a la mode” page on March 27, 2013, and the so-called inventor of the dessert was changed on the page from Townsend to Gieriet on April 2, 2013.

In his unpublished report, which the Duluth library copied for us, Flaherty says pie à la mode is believed to have been invented on March 26, 1885, at the grand opening of the Hotel La Perl on West Superior Street in Duluth.

Flaherty discussed this in a May 21, 2013, interview with the Fox News TV station in the Twin Ports area of Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis.

He based his claims primarily on a May 23, 1936, article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and an advertisement in the March 26, 1885, issue of the Duluth Daily Tribune. But neither item said John Gieriet invented or named pie à la mode.

The Pioneer Press article, headlined “An Invention in Doubt,” makes note of the AP report crediting Townsend “with having been the originator of this method of glorifying apple pie some 50 years ago.”

“However, there is some doubt as to where the distinction for this discovery really belongs, for Minnesota has a candidate,” the article says.

In the 1880s, it goes on, “the owner of a Superior Street café in Duluth introduced a delicacy which made an instant hit under a name which, in common parlance, was pronounced ‘pylie mode.’ ”

The article doesn’t identify the Duluthian, but notes that “he used blueberry pie precisely warmed to an exact degree of heat” as a “foundation for the ice cream,” as opposed to the apple pie favored by “the Townsend school.”

Like the AP article, however, the one in the Pioneer Press doesn’t offer any evidence to support the claim that  pie à la mode originated in Duluth in the 1880s or that it was pronounced “pylie mode” at the time.

And it doesn’t mention John Gieriet, who supposedly invented and named pie à la mode.

The March 26, 1885, advertisement in the Duluth Daily Tribune does mention Gieriet (it refers to him as “J. Gieriet”), but says nothing about pie à la mode. Here’s how it begins:

Hotel La Perl

The Hotel La Perl, formerly the Commercial, will be ready to receive guests Thursday, March 26th. The opening will be celebrated with a palatable dinner, from 12 o’clock till 2:30. A hearty welcome is tendered to the people of Duluth by the proprietor.

J. Gieriet, Proprietor.

The ad continues with a “Bill of Fare” that includes sections entitled “Pastry” and “Dessert.” The Pastry section includes blueberry pie and the Dessert section includes vanilla ice cream. But there’s no indication that two would be served together, and there’s no mention of “pie à la mode” or “à la mode.”

Gieriet sold the hotel a year later when his wife became ill, according to an article in the Aug. 13, 1886, issue of the Duluth Weekly Tribune.

If the date 1886 rings a bell, it’s because (as we mentioned earlier) the term “à la mode” was used in Duluth that year to refer to a meringue pie topped with whipped cream, not ice cream.

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How wonderful is wonderment?

Q: Which is more wonderful: “wonder” or “wonderment”? I wonder.

A: Standard dictionaries generally define the nouns “wonder” and “wonderment” much the same way: astonishment, awe, puzzlement, or something that arouses such emotions.

Is there a difference between the two words, aside from the extra syllable? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary describes the longer noun as “chiefly literary.”

Internet searches indicate that “wonder” is overwhelmingly more popular than “wonderment.” And many examples of the longer noun may seem stilted or affected to readers.

Of the two nouns, “wonder” is by far the oldest, dating back to Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Norse, and other early Germanic languages.

When the word “wonder” (wundor or uundra in Old English) first showed up, it meant “something that causes astonishment,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is a reference to uundra gihuaes  (“wonder’s things”) from a hymn written around 700 by the Northumberland poet Cædmon.

And in the epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s, many nobles travel great distances to “gaze upon the wonder” (wundor sceawian) of the monster Grendel’s tracks.

When the noun “wonderment” first appeared in the 1500s, it meant a wonder or the state of wonder.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1535 letter by William Barlow, prior of Haverfordwest Priory, to Thomas Cromwell, chief secretary of King Henry VIII.

In the letter, Barlow complains about the “most shamefull rumors raysed uppe to theyre dyffamacion, with slaunderouse wonderment of the towne.”

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Getting along famously

Q: Any idea where the “get along famously” phrase originated? I like to use it as much as I can, but sadly I have the feeling that most people don’t know what I mean when I say it these days.

A: When the adverb “famously” showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant in a famous (that is, a widely known) manner, a sense that fell out of favor in the 19th century but had a revival in the 20th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1579 religious tract by the Puritan theologian William Fulke: “Rome doeth set foorth the merites of Peter and Paule the more famously and solemnly.”

And here’s a more famous example from Shakespeare’s historical play Richard III (1597): “This land was famously enricht / With pollitike graue counsell.”

The OED doesn’t have any 20th-century examples of this sense, but here’s one from the Nov. 23, 2014, issue of the New York Times: “New Yorkers, both in lore and reality, can be hard to please, and famously outspoken about their grievances.”

The first Oxford citation for “famously” used in your sense of the word—to mean excellently or splendidly—is almost as old as the original meaning.

It comes from Coriolanus, a tragedy that Shakespeare wrote in the early 1600s: “I say vnto you what he hath done Famouslie, he did it to that end.”

The only Oxford example of “famously” used in a phrase similar to the one you’re asking about (“get along famously”) is from Edward Bannerman Ramsay’s Reminiscences of Scottish Life & Character (1858): “We get on famously.”

However, we’ve found a couple of earlier examples in Google Books, including this one from Strathern, an 1844 novel by Marguerite Blessington (the Countess of Blessington):

“The postboys get along famously. I had no notion that these cursed Italians, or their horses either, could go at such a pace.”

And, finally, here’s an example from The Watchman, an 1855 novel by James A. Maitland:

“George Hartley is getting along famously at Messrs. Wilson and Co.’s, and for two years past has been the managing clerk of the concern, with a salary of two thousand five hundred dollars a-year.”

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Craven images

Q: Standard dictionaries define “craven” as cowardly, but I can’t recall hearing or reading it used that way in the last 10 years. It’s usually used to mean brazen or shameless. Are the dictionaries just not keeping up on this one?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all of them define the adjective “craven” as meaning cowardly, though a couple include secondary senses. Collins lists mean-spirited and Random House lists dastardly.

You’re right that many people now use “craven” to mean brazen or shameless, but many others still use it in the traditional sense of cowardly.

For example, a recent column in the Portland Mercury, an alternative weekly in Oregon, uses the brazen or shameless sense when it refers to “a craven attempt” by industrialists to take over the city’s utility bureaus.

But a Nov. 10, 2013, article in the Atlantic uses the traditional meaning in commenting on the “craven decision” of Bloomberg News to curb critical stories from China to avoid angering the Chinese government.

We assume that lexicographers have the new sense on their radar. And if enough people use “craven” brazenly or shamelessly, we’ll be seeing the usage in dictionaries one of these days.

When the adjective “craven” first showed up in the 1200s (spelled crauant in early Middle English), it meant vanquished or defeated, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that sense is now obsolete.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “craven” probably comes from cravente, Old French for defeated, but the OED is doubtful and describes the etymology of the term as “obscure.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “craven” is from a West Midland manuscript, dated sometime before 1225, about the perhaps apocryphal life of St. Margaret the Maiden and Martyr:

Ich am kempe ant he is crauant þet me wende to ouercumen (“I am a warrior, and he that expected to overcome me is craven”).

The cowardly sense of “craven” apparently showed up sometime before 1400 in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, an anonymous Middle English poem about King Arthur: Haa! crauaunde knyghte! a cowarde þe semez! (“Ha, craven knight! A coward you seem!”)

The OED has a question mark in front of the citation above, apparently unsure whether “craven” here is being used in the sense of defeated or cowardly. We lean toward the cowardly sense, since earlier in the poem the “craven knight” is described as one of a group of Romans who “cowered like puppies before the King’s person.”

We’ll end with a few lines from “The Ballad of High Noon” (perhaps better known as “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ ”), as performed by Tex Ritter in the movie. It won the Oscar for best original song in 1952:

The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave.
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.

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One never knows, do one?

Q: Why do people use “one” instead of “I” or “me”? I would love to know the history of this one.

A: As you might guess, “one” is among the earliest words in recorded English.

In early Old English, it could be a noun or an adjective (expressing the simple numeral) as well as an indefinite article (an early version of “a” or “an”).

In later Old English, “one” took on various pronoun senses in which it could stand for a single person or thing.

But the usage you’re asking about represents a function of “one” that goes beyond any of these senses. In this usage, “one” is a third-person substitute for a first-person pronoun—that is, “one” stands in for the speaker.

At first, this “one” had a very broad sense and could mean anybody. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of the pronoun:

“Any person of undefined identity, esp. one considered as representative of people in general; any person at all, including (esp. in later use) the speaker himself or herself; ‘you, or I, or anyone’; a person in general.”

People have been using “one” as a generic pronoun in writing since the early 1300s, according to OED citations. But this later example, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), will be more familiar: “Why Romeo may one aske?”

And here’s a 20th-century example from a favorite author of ours, Nancy Mitford: “One is not exactly encouraged to use one’s brain over here, you know.” (From her 1931 novel Highland Fling.)

The use of “one” to mean oneself exclusively—that is, the speaker instead of just anyone—is a further refinement of the pronoun. And we use “refinement” deliberately, since the use of “one” to mean “I” or “me” strikes many people as over-refined.

This narrower use dates from the 18th century and, according to the OED, is “associated esp. with British upper-class speech, and now freq. regarded as affected.”

The earliest example cited in Oxford is a line spoken by an affected young lady in The Provok’d Husband (1728), a play by Colley Cibber and John Vanbrugh:

One has really been stufft up in a Coach so long, that—Pray Madam—could not I get a little Powder for my Hair?”

This more recent citation is from Frank Johnson’s Out of Order (1982), a collection of political sketches: “How to persuade the Telegraph that … one was a man of immense culture? (Saying ‘one’ when you mean ‘I’ would do for a start, I decided.)”

But whether you use “one” to mean “I/me” or an indefinite someone, it’s a third-person singular pronoun. So grammatically it’s treated like “he/him” or “she/her,” even when it implies “I/me.”

The possessive form of the pronoun is “one’s,” and the reflexive is “oneself.” Those forms, however, as well as “one” used as an object rather than a subject, are more characteristic of British than American speech.

As the OED explains, the forms “his, him, himself … are still usual in the U.S.; thus, ‘If one showed oneself (himself) to one’s (his) townsmen, they would know one (him).’ ”

Incidentally, we once heard from a reader who was bugged by the use of “you” as an indefinite pronoun in place of “one”, as in “You meet all kinds” instead of “One meets all kinds.” As we replied in a post, this use of “you” is standard English.

Finally, we’d like to expand on our comment at the beginning that “one” was an early version of “a” or “an.”

In addition to its numerical sense, the Old English word for “one” (written an, aan, ane, etc.) had a sense that was indistinguishable from the indefinite article (“a” or “an”) in modern English.

For example, an fugel meant both “a fowl” and “one fowl”; ane burh meant both “a fortress” and “one fortress.” The words for the indefinite article and the adjective weren’t differentiated until the Middle English period.

In fact, as we’ve written on our blog, “one” still serves as an indefinite article in some varieties of English, mainly in India, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and parts of the US South.

Oxford gives several examples, including this one from the Indian English Supplement to the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (5th ed., 1996): “I met one lady the other day.”

In the immortal words of Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

[Note, Dec. 28, 2014. A reader writes: “I always thought the use of ‘one’ as a pronoun had to be related to the French pronoun on, which means essentially the same thing.  Is this etymologically significant?” Our reply: The evolution of “one” as an indefinite generic pronoun developed in late Middle English, and some have suggested that it may have been influenced by Anglo-Norman (hom, on, un), or by Old or Middle French. But as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “this is not regarded as a necessary influence by some scholars.” In other words, the developments could have been parallel.]

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Let’s talk turkey

Q: How did our native Thanksgiving bird get named for a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia?

A: Yes, turkey, the main event at Thanksgiving dinners in the US, is native to the Americas.

The big bird came to the attention of Europeans in 1518 when the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva encountered it in Mexico. The following year, Hernán Cortés found the turkeys being domesticated by the Aztecs.

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Spanish soon transplanted the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) to Europe.

(Columbus may have come across the bird in Honduras in 1502 on his fourth voyage, but it’s unclear whether the fowl that he referred to as gallina de la tierra, or land hen, was actually a turkey.)

But why, you ask, is the bird called a “turkey”? The reason is that Europeans confused it with the  guinea fowl, an African species that was very briefly referred to as a “turkey” because it was thought to have been imported into Europe by way of Turkey.

The word “turkey” first began showing up in English as the name of the bird in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For example, Thomas Tusser’s book Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry Vnited to as Many of Good Huswiferie (1573) suggested that the Christmas table should include “shred pies of the best … & Turkey wel drest.”

The turkey is a noble bird, and in 19th-century North America the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

For instance, to “talk turkey,” an expression first recorded in 1824, means to speak openly or frankly.

But pejorative uses of “turkey” eventually crept in.

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The OED’s first example is from the American magazine Vanity Fair in 1927: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

The slang expression was soon extended to other kinds of failures and disappointments.

This example comes from James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce (1943): “The beach … was studded with rocks and was therefore unsuitable to swimming. For all ordinary purposes it was simply a turkey.”

Later, in the early 1950s, “turkey” became a slang word for a stupid or inept person.

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering why the leg of a turkey or chicken is called the “drumstick,” check out a blog post we wrote in 2012.

No matter which part of the turkey you prefer, we hope that you and all our other readers will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with your families tomorrow, a holiday that’s often referred to as “Turkey Day.”

The expression was first recorded, the OED says, in the Nov. 23, 1870, issue of the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

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Queues and lines

Q: I am given to understand that what is referred to as a “line” of people in the US is called a “queue” in the UK, though both Americans and British use “queue” the same way in its computer sense. How did all this come about?

A: Broadly speaking, you’re right—people ranked in an orderly sequence and waiting for something will be called a “line” in the US and a “queue” in the UK.

In Britain, violators who don’t take their turn are “jumping (or barging) the queue.” In North America, those who cheat are “cutting in line.”

However, the division between “line” and “queue” isn’t as clear as all that. The British used “line” for “queue” in the distant past, and some Americans have begun to use “queue,” probably influenced by British usage rather than by computer terminology.

But how did that broad general rule come to pass? Here’s the story.

“Line” is an extremely old word, dating back as far as the 600s in Old English. This word, like the equally ancient “linen,” has its source in the Latin linum (flax), and the earliest sense of “line” was flax—either spun into thread or woven into cloth.

So etymologically, a “line” is a linen thread. Even in Latin, the word linea (line), a derivative of linum, originally meant a linen thread, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Later senses of the word in English preserved this notion of a “line” as something stringlike—a narrow mark resembling a long string; a row of letters set into type; a string of objects or people, and so on.

The written use of “line” to mean a row of people dates to the late 16th century, the OED notes.

Shakespeare used “line” this way in Macbeth (circa 1606) in reference to a procession of ghostly kings: “What will the Line stretch out to’ th’ cracke of Doome?”

This sense of the word persists in American English, but the British replaced it in the 19th century with “queue,” a French word that originally meant “tail” and has roots in the Latin cauda (tail).

In English, “queue” didn’t originally mean a line of people. It was used in the 1400s to mean a band of parchment or vellum attached to a letter, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

And in the 1500s, as John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “queue” appeared in descriptions of heraldic shields and meant the tail of a beast.

Imaginative metaphorical uses appeared in the 1700s, etymologists say, when the word came to mean a braid (or “pigtail”), and a billiard stick (spelled “cue”).

Meanwhile, the French too were using their word queue in imaginative ways. In the 1790s, the OED says, French speakers began using queue to mean a “line or sequence of people waiting their turn to proceed or to be attended to.”

This usage leaped across the Channel in the following century. The OED’s earliest written example in English is from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (1837):

“That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People.”

Oxford says this use of “queue” is “chiefly British,” and the Dictionary of Word Origins says it “has never caught on in American English.” That explains why Chicagoans stand in a “line” while Liverpudlians form a “queue.”

The Americans, of course, are “lining” up. But how is the British participle spelled? Both “queuing” and “queueing” are correct, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.).

[Update, Dec. 16, 2014. A reader from New Zealand writes to comment: “Here in NZ, and I suspect the UK, we use both ‘queue’ and ‘line (up).’ While obviously related, there is a distinct difference between the two. We ‘queue’ as a way for many people to wait to receive service in an orderly fashion, while we ‘line up’ in order to proceed as a structured group. So we ‘queue’ to make a deposit at a bank, but we ‘line up’ to enter a classroom or to begin a parade. ‘Queue’ implies waiting your turn, while ‘line up’ implies organising prior to moving as a unit.”]

As for the computer sense of “queue,” the OED defines it as “a list of data items, commands, etc. stored so as to be retrievable in a definite order, usually the order of insertion.”

However, the earliest citation in the dictionary (from Automatic Data Processing, a 1963 book by F. P. Brooks and K. E. Iverson) refers to a queue in which the items are retrievable in the reverse order of insertion:

“The queue of components in the pool therefore obeys a so-called last-in-first-out, or LIFO discipline.”

[Update, Jan. 12, 2015. A reader notes that the Brooks and Iverson citation “was written in 1963 when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the terminology was still in a state of flux. What they describe as a ‘queue’ is what we would call a ‘stack’ in today’s jargon.”]

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How healthy is “healthcare”?

Q: Here’s a headline from an editorial in the journal Health Care Management Review: “It’s health care, not healthcare.” What are your thoughts?

A: With Ebola still in the news, we’re seeing a lot of this term, and it’s written every which way—sometimes one word and sometimes two, sometimes with a hyphen and sometimes without.

Standard dictionaries are all over the place, but in our opinion the term is well on its way to being accepted by lexicographers as a solid word.

It’s not there yet, though, so our advice is to go with whichever dictionary or style manual you usually follow.

The style guides of the New York Times and the Associated Press, for example, recommend separating “health care.” The Times adds that the phrase shouldn’t be hyphenated when used adjectivally.

However, the one-word version is the only one listed in the online Oxford Dictionaries and the Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

“Healthcare” is also the more common version given in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), with the two-worder listed as an acceptable variant.

On the other hand, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives “health care” as the more common form, with “healthcare” as a variant. When the term is used adjectivally, a third variant, “health-care,” is added.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) sticks with “health care” as the noun. It adds, though, that the term is “usually hyphenated” as an attributive adjective (as in “health-care standards”).

And here’s an oddity. The online Macmillan Dictionary, in its British and its American editions, lists “health care” as the noun and “healthcare” (no hyphen) as the adjective derived from it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the noun usage as “health care,” but the dictionary notes that its overall “health” entry “has not yet been fully updated.”

The OED says the compound noun, which it defines as “care for the general health of a person, community, etc., esp. that provided by an organized health service,” originated in the US.

The earliest Oxford  citation is from a pamphlet, Health Care for Children, published by the United States Government in 1940: “State and local agencies will need to make available to the staff information in regard to the facilities for health care.”

The attributive adjective is hyphenated in the OED examples: “health-care systems” (1973) and “health-care workers” (1985).

However, we’ve found much earlier examples of “health care” and “health-care.”

An 1883 issue of Popular Science Monthly referred to a paper entitled “The Health Care of Households, with Especial Reference to House Drainage,” presented at a conference the previous year by Dr. Ezra M. Hunt.

And in the early 20th century, the hyphenated term appeared in the titles of two books by Dr. Louis Fischer, The Health-Care of the Baby (1906) and The Health-Care of the Growing Child (1915).

The single word version, “healthcare,” seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. The earliest examples we could find in a search of Google Books date from the mid-1990s.

In Legal and Healthcare Ethics for the Elderly, a 1996 book by George Patrick Smith, for example, the author proposes a “new healthcare delivery ethic for the elderly.”

As we’ve said, our guess is that “healthcare” will one day be more widely accepted. Why? Because familiar nouns that are compounds tend to become joined over time, as with “daycare,” “childcare,” and “eldercare.”

In fact, our Google searches suggest that “healthcare” is already somewhat more popular than “health care.”

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Aunt-ing and uncle-ing

Q: When a possessive pronoun like “my” is used with a title like “aunt” or “uncle,” is the title capitalized? Example: “At 10, my uncle Bob (or my Uncle Bob) will arrive by train.” My students like concrete answers. Ha!

A: This is a matter of style rather than grammar, so we’ll go to a style guide for an answer.

In the example you give, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), “uncle” should be lowercased: “At 10, my uncle Bob will arrive by train.”

The reason for this can be confusing. Normally, a kinship word like “uncle” is capitalized if it appears just before a personal name, as in this version: “At 10, Uncle Bob will arrive by train.”

But your example is different because of the “my.” In that case, the noun phrase “my uncle” and the personal name “Bob” are in apposition—that is, they’re equivalent, with one explaining the other.

In sentences like these, the kinship word is lowercased, according to the Chicago Manual. Here’s how Chicago explains the rule:

“Kinship names are lowercased unless they immediately precede a personal name or are used alone, in place of a personal name. Used in apposition, however, such names are lowercased.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples, among others:

(1) “Let’s write to Aunt Maud.”

(2) “She adores her aunt Maud.”

(3) “I believe Grandmother’s middle name was Marie.”

(4) “Please, Dad, let’s go.”

Now let’s look at each of those examples.

In #1, the kinship name (“Aunt”) is capitalized because it comes right before the personal name.

But in #2, “aunt” is lowercased because the phrase “her aunt” is in apposition to “Maud”—it explains who she is. (The presence of a possessive pronoun like “my” or “her” is a tipoff that the kinship word is probably an appositive.)

In #3 and #4, the kinship word is used alone in place of a personal name, so it’s capitalized.

As you know, a kinship word used in a generic way is lowercased, much as we would use “child” or “brother” or “daughter.” Examples: “Fred’s uncle is a teacher” … “Tell your uncle that dinner is ready” … “My friend’s aunt and uncle moved to Ireland” … “Maud is my favorite aunt.”

In many ways, kinship names are treated much as we treat other kinds of titles. As we’ve written before on our blog, the trend is to lowercase words like “mayor” and “president” except as part of a name.

Here, too, the title is lowercased when it’s used in apposition, according to the Chicago Manual.

Chicago uses these examples: “Joe Manchin, governor of the state of West Virginia,” and “Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago.”

However, many newspaper style guides recommend capitalizing “governor” and “mayor” in those two examples.

Sorry if this answer is not concrete enough for your students. Ha!

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