The Grammarphobia Blog

A ‘post-’ post

Q: I’ve been struck by how often the prefix “post-“ has been used lately: “post-religion,” “post-truth,” “post-contemporary,” and of course “postmodern” as well as “post postmodern.” What do you think?

A: Yes, the prefix “post-” gets a workout these days, but it’s been a workhorse for centuries. A lot of the early uses are now obsolete, though, and we wouldn’t be surprised if many of the new ones joined them.

English borrowed the prefix in the late 14th century from Latin, where post- was attached to verbs, participles, and other verbal derivatives, as in postpōnere (to put off), postpartor (heir), and postgenitus (begotten).

The earliest English example for the prefix in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a manuscript, written in the middle to late 1300s, about the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

“God … enspired him of an orisoun, / To seyn at his post-comoun” (“God … inspired a prayer for him to say at his post-communion”). The post-communion is a prayer that follows communion.

The use of “post-” is apparently more popular with English speakers than it was with ancient Romans.

“In English,” the OED says, “the prefix is used more generally than in Latin, especially in the prepositional relation” (that is, as used in terms like “post-puberty,” “post-Elizabethan,” and “post-Chomskyan”).

Originally, “post-” was used with words of Latin origin, such as “post-communion” (from commūnio, sharing), but the prefix broke away from its classical roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the appearance of such terms as “post-talmudical” (1659), “post-law” (1663), “post-noon” (1686), and “post-breakfast” (1791).

The usage grew in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to OED citations, with hundreds of the prefixed terms showing up. Here’s a small sample:

“post-Kantian” (1812), “post-resurrection (1839), “post-election” (1851), “post-Hegelian” (1865), “post-Christmas” (1871), “post-Renaissance” (1874), “post-conquest” (1880), “post-flu” (1918), “post-surrealist” (1938), “post-crash” (1930), “post-game” (1934),  “post-bop” (1955), “post-cold war” (1962), “post-partisan” (1962), “post-pill” (1968), “post-orgasm” (1973),  “post-everything” (1976), and “post-glasnost” (1987).

Is “post-” used more now than in the past? Not according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks n-grams (character sequences that represent words or strings of words) in material printed from 1500 to 2008.

A search for the term “post” used as a prefix suggests that it’s being used notably less now than in the middle and late 1800s, though more than a few decades ago.

In fact, the examples you cite aren’t all that new either, with the oldest dating back to the mid-19th century: “post-modern” (1865), “post-contemporary” (1917), “post-religion” (1972), “post-truth” (1989), and “post-postmodern” (1991).

in case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2012 that mentions the recency illusion, which the linguist Arnold Zwicky defines as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

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Fifty shades of ‘they’

Q: I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Pat defending the singular use of “they” on the radio. Say it ain’t so.

A: “They” is a legitimate way of referring back to an unknown person or persons, neither singular nor plural, masculine nor feminine.

So there’s nothing wrong with this kind of sentence: “Nobody eats kale because they like it.” There’s no need to use “he or she” instead (“Nobody eats kale because he or she likes it”).

Although some people object to the usage, the most respected modern grammarians now say this use of “they” with indefinite pronouns—“everybody,” “nobody,” “anyone,” and so on—is grammatically correct.

Why? Because indefinite pronouns are plural in meaning, even though they’re technically singular.

The argument is that “they” can refer back to “everybody” and the rest on grounds of notional agreement, by which a word’s real meaning outweighs its strict grammatical form. (We’ve discussed notional agreement several times on the blog, most recently in a post last month.)

By this reasoning, “everybody” and “nobody” and “anyone” are notionally plural, even though they’re used with singular verbs.

They don’t mean just one person, because when we use them we mean “all people,” “no people,” “any people.” That’s why there’s no conflict in referring back to them with “they.”

Here’s what language authorities are saying about the use of “they” (and its other forms, “them,” “their,” and “themselves”) in reference to indefinite nouns and pronouns.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Notional agreement is in control, and its dictates must be followed.”

The usage guide says great writers have used “they” with indefinite nouns and pronouns since Chaucer’s time and such uses “are not lapses.” Rather, they “are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established” in the Middle Ages.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, written by Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston: “The view taken here is that they, like you, can be either plural or singular.”

In another of their books, A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, Pullum and Huddleston write: “Semantically singular they is well established in fine literature and completely natural in both conversation and writing.”

Pullum has written elsewhere that “like almost everyone else who uses English normally,” he would not hesitate to write a sentence like “Nobody ever thinks traffic congestion problems are their fault.”

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk and others: Indefinite pronouns “can refer to more than one entity, and be notionally plural.”

Although “they” in such references was once regarded as informal, the authors say, it’s now “increasingly accepted even in formal usage.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.): In cases where “they” and “them” refer back to indefinite pronouns, “synesis trumps the strict rules of grammar.” (“Synesis” is another term for notional agreement.)

The author, Bryan A. Garner, uses the example “Everybody was crouched behind furniture to surprise me, and they tried to. But I already knew they were there.” A rewording with “he,” Garner says, would result in “deranged writing.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “The process [using forms of “they” with indefinite pronouns] now seems irreversible.”

Standard dictionaries, too, now regard this use of “they” as standard English. Here’s Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example:

“The use of they, them, their, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.”

The dictionary gives this example: “Everyone tries to make the person they love just like themselves.”

For convenience, many linguists and usage writers refer to this construction as “the singular they.” But that phrase is somewhat misleading.

“They” always has a plural verb—as in “they are”—and when it refers to a singular antecedent, that antecedent is meant in a plural sense. (The “antecedent” is what the later pronoun refers to.)

But whatever you choose to call it, this use of “they” and its other forms is so natural that even people who condemn it use it unconsciously themselves.

For instance, The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk Jr., denounces the usage. But as Pullum has remarked, “when E. B. White got back to his own excellent writing he wrote lines like ‘But somebody taught you, didn’t they?’ ” (In White’s novel Charlotte’s Web, the very articulate Dr. Dorian speaks the line to Mrs. Arable.)

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has also written that “Everyone uses singular ‘they,’ whether they realize it or not.” He gives this example:

“In an engaging recent book called Between You & Me, the New Yorker‘s self-designated comma queen Mary Norris says that that use of ‘they’ is ‘just wrong.’ But flip back a few pages and you find her writing ‘Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.’ ”

The truth is that English has no better alternative—no generic, unisex singular pronoun. Nothing has ever filled the bill as satisfactorily as “they,” which no doubt explains its long and distinguished history.

For some 700 years, almost as long as “they” has been part of English, people have used it this way—even great writers. You can find it in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Byron, Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, and too many others to mention.

The usage was considered normal until 18th-century grammarians decided that the use of “they,” a plural, was wrong with a technically singular antecedent.

Their solution was to use the singular “he” instead. They apparently felt it was better to be illogical with gender than with number.

But there was never any reason to avoid “they” in the first place. Those 18th-century fusspots should have left well enough alone.

Perhaps if they’d known more about the history of “they,” the pedants might have reconsidered.

This word is not native to English, which is unusual for a pronoun. “They” entered the language around 1200 or so, and most authorities trace it to early Scandinavian influences, probably Old Norse.

It may have been adopted, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, because the previous third-person plural pronoun, the Old English hi or hie, was easily confused with the singular forms he (“he”) and heo (the early form of “she”).

In earliest uses, “they” was clearly plural. The first written usage on record is from the Ormolum, a religious work written around 1200 or earlier by a monk named Orm or Ormin. Here’s the OED citation:

“& swa þeȝȝ leddenn heore lif Till þatt teȝȝ wærenn alde” (“And so they led their lives until they were old”). Oxford notes that the various spellings of “they” in early Middle English included both þeȝȝ and teȝȝ.

In the early 1300s, singular uses of “they” began showing up in what are called anaphoric references (that is, pointing to an antecedent). The OED explains that “they” in this sense meant the same thing as “he or she.”

Oxford defines the usage this way: “In anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: he or she. Especially in relation to a noun phrase involving one of the indefinite determiners or pronouns any, each, every, no, some, anybody, anyone, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a use of the possessive form, “their,” in the sense of “his or her.” It’s from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325. Here “their” refers to the singular antecedent “either”:

“Bath ware made sun and mon, / Aiþer wit þer ouen light” (“Both were made sun and moon, / Either with their own light”).

The first OED example using “they” with a singular antecedent is from a Middle English poem, The Romance of William of Palerne (also known as William and the Werwolf), translated from French sometime between 1350 and 1375. Here “they” refers back to “each man”:

“þan hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt on hors & on fote, / huntyng wiȝt houndes alle heie wodes, / til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh to nymphe þe soþe, / þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere” (“Then quickly hastened each man on horse & on foot, / hunting with hounds all the high woods, / till they came nearly, to tell the truth, / to where William and his worthy dear friend were hiding together”). We’ve expanded the citation to include more of the context.

Soon afterward Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, used “they” in reference to the singular “whoso” (whatever person). This is from the “Prologue of the Pardoner’s Tale” (circa 1380s):

“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre a Goddés name” (“And whoso findeth him out of such blame, / They will come up and offer in God’s name”).

Since then, there’s been no looking back. As OED citations show, the singular use of “they” and “their” has been routine in written English—whether elevated or commonplace—since the late 1300s, and the singular use of “them” and “themselves” since the mid-1500s.

OED examples with indefinite pronouns are too numerous to mention. But there are also citations in which forms of “they” refer to indefinite nouns. We’ll quote just two:

“If … a psalme scape any person, or a lesson, or els yt they omyt one verse or twayne” (“If a psalm or a lesson escape any person, or else that they omit one or two verses”). This is from a religious treatise, William Bonde’s The Pylgrimage of Perfection, 1526.

“If a person is born of a … gloomy temper … they cannot help it.” The passage is from a letter written by Lord Chesterfield in 1759.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, notes that this use of “they” has “sometimes been considered erroneous,” though it doesn’t label the usage nonstandard.

The misguided objections of those 18th-century grammarians are still with us. But over the last five years, several news organizations, magazines, and book publishers have become more tolerant of the singular “they.”

Both the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, announced new policies on “they” in March 2017. Both now allow “they” in reference to singular antecedents if a rewording would be awkward or clumsy.

One final point should be made. As many modern grammarians have noted, the singular use of “they” is not unprecedented in the history of English pronouns.

The second-person pronoun once had four principal forms in English—“thou” (singular subject), “thee” (singular object), “ye” (plural subject), and “you” (plural object). Yes, the pronoun “you” was originally a plural object, parallel to “them” in the third person.

Beginning in the mid-1200s, according to OED citations, the “you” form began to replace the others. By the late 1500s, “you” was serving all four purposes (though the old singulars live on in religious language).

The evolution of the singular “you” only slightly preceded that of the singular “they,” and nobody noticed at the time.

When the 18th century rolled along, no grammarians suggested that we return to “ye,” “thou,” and “thee,” because those words were no longer in common use.

It was the singular “they” that the pedants jumped on, because the singular “he” (later “he or she”) was available.

In summary, whatever you think of the singular “they” it’s here to stay, so our advice is to make peace with it.

If you can’t bring yourself to use “they” in this way, nobody’s forcing you. And it’s easy enough to avoid.

Simply use a plural noun with “they” instead of an indefinite pronoun. Instead of “Nobody eats kale because they like it,” you can write “People don’t eat kale because they like it.”

Just don’t think you must resort to clunky singular substitutes to avoid “they” and its sidekicks “them,” “their,” and “themselves.”

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What’s the matter?

Q: I was listening to an Oliver Sacks book on my commute and was struck by his repeated use of “the matter,” as in “What seems to be the matter?” and “There’s nothing the matter.” I’m curious as to the history of this usage.

A: Let’s begin with the word “matter,” which comes via Anglo-Norman and Old French from the classical Latin noun māteria.

In Latin, the word originally referred to building material, especially wood, but Roman writers later used it figuratively to mean material for discussion or consideration.

When “matter” showed up in English in the Middle Ages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “an event, circumstance, fact, question, state or course of things, etc., which is or may be an object of consideration or practical concern; a subject, an affair, a business.”

The earliest example of “matter” in the OED is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Of þis ilke Materie ich spec Muchel þer uppe” (“I spoke much of this same matter above”).

The dictionary says this sense of “matter” inspired several idiomatic expressions (“there is something the matter,” “what is the matter?” and so on) in which “the matter” refers to “the condition of or state of things regarding a person or thing, esp. as a subject of concern or wonder.”

The first OED example for the usage comes from Andria, an English translation, dated around 1520, of a Roman comedy adapted by Terence from a Greek play by Menander: “What is the matter now.”

Oxford also cites Shakespeare’s Othello (circa 1603): “What is the matter here?” And this citation is from Daniel Defoe’s The Family Instructor (1715), a guide to good conduct: “I beseech you what is the Matter with you!”

The OED says “what is the matter with—?” can mean “what is wrong with—?” or “what is the objection to—?” or “what is there to complain of in—?”

“In recent colloquial use,” the dictionary explains, the noun “matter” is “sometimes interpreted as a predicative adjective in the sense ‘wrong, amiss.’ ”

Interestingly, the word “matter” can be traced to māter-, the same reconstructed prehistoric base as “mother,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The dictionary adds that māter- is “based ultimately on the baby-talk form -, with the kinship term suffix -ter-.”

How, you may be wondering, did that ancient Indo-European root give Latin both māter (“mother”) and māteria (“wood”)?

The OED says the “wood” sense of māteria is “usually explained as originally denoting the trunk of a tree regarded as the ‘mother’ of its offshoots.”

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Believe you me

Q: This headline was on a book review in the New Yorker: “Believe You Me.” I’ve heard the expression many times, but the construction is really odd. Where does it come from?

A: The verb “believe” has been seen since the 1500s in various expressions used to strengthen an assertion. These parenthetical expressions are usually set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses.

The earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary (a “you”-less version) is from “The Steele Glas,” a 1576 poem by George Gascoigne:

“This is the cause (beleue me now my Lorde) / That Realmes do rewe, from high prosperity. / That Kings decline, from princely gouernment.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In the simple imperative construction “believe me,” the subject “you” is not stated, but understood. In the version you’re asking about, “believe you me,” the subject makes an appearance.

The earliest example in the OED for the longer version is from the Oct. 27, 1808, issue of Eye, a Philadelphia magazine: “Now this was wrong, believe you me.”

This later citation is from the July 1877 issue of Catholic World: “We’ve not come to the worst yet, believe you me.”

And this one is from Late and Soon, a 1943 novel by E. M. Delafield: “Believe you me, in all the years, and all the adventures I’ve deliberately sought out—God forgive me—it’s never been like this.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Another version of the usage showed up in the mid-18th century. The first citation in the OED is from Tobias Smollett’s 1749 translation of Gil Blas, a  picaresque novel by the French writer Alain René Le Sage:

“Meanwhile, (would you believe it?) this ferocious disposition, this haughty woman, is, within these two months, entirely changed.”

Still another variation appeared in these lines from a June 27, 1792, letter written by the English poet William Cowper:

“Believe it or not, as you chuse, / The doctrine is certainly true, / That the future is known to the Muse / And poets are oracles too.”

This version showed up in the Nov. 17, 1844, issue of the New York Herald: “We beg permission to call the attention of our readers to the following … You better believe it.”

And here’s an 1856 example from the Yale Literary Magazine of that expression at work in a sentence: “You’d better believe, I’ll live in the clover.”

In looking into these expressions, we came across an entry in John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins that says “Believing and loving are closely related,” an idea noted in the OED, though with less certainty.

Ayto says the verb “believe,” which evolved in Old English from “gelēfan” to “belēfan,” comes from the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic word galaubjan, which “meant ‘hold dear, love,’ and hence ‘trust in, believe.’ ” He says galaubjan in turn comes from the prehistoric base laub-, which he describes as the source for the English word “love.”

By the way, the headline that got your attention was later changed in the May 8, 2017, issue of the New Yorker to “The Art and Activism of Grace Paley.” An editor’s note at the end of the review doesn’t give a reason for the change.

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On digesting food and fact

Q: How did the digestion of food come to mean a digest of information?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the two senses showed up in English about the same time, and the Latin source for both referred to the digesting of information, not food.

When the word “digest” appeared in Middle English in the late 1300s, it was a noun for “a summary of Roman laws better known as the Justinian Code,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In Latin, Chambers says, a dīgesta was “a collection of writings arranged under headings.” The ultimate source is the Latin verb dīgerĕre (to separate, divide, distribute, arrange).

The earliest citation for the noun “digest” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon: “Iustinianus [Justinian] … made and restored þe [the] lawes of digest.”

The noun “digestion” showed up around the same time in the food sense. The first OED example is from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386). In “The Squire’s Tale,” sleep is described as “the Norice [nurse] of digestioun.”

How did a Latin term for arranging information give English a word for digesting food?

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says that the “divide” and “distribute” meanings of the Latin verb evolved in English into the sense of “dissolve,” as in “dissolve and obtain nutrients from food in the body.”

When the verb “digest” first appeared in the late 1400s, it meant to classify things, usually by condensing them, or to “prepare (food) in the stomach and intestines for assimilation,” according to the OED.

The first Oxford citation for the verb’s classification sense is from The Revelation to the Monk of Evesham (1482): “He told thees thynges the whiche here after be digestyd and wreten.”

The dictionary’s first example for the verb’s nutritional sense is from the Catholicon Anglicum (c. 1483), an English-Latin wordbook: “To Digeste, digerere.” We checked the original text, but those are the only three words in the entry.

Here’s a clearer example from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a religious treatise by William Bonde written sometime before 1530: “Baskettes of breedes [breads], that they coude not eate & digest.”

In the mid-1500s, the noun “digest” took on its modern sense of a “digested collection of statements or information; a methodically arranged compendium or summary of literary, historical, legal, scientific, or other written matter.”

The earliest OED example is from Lydgate’s Auncient Historie (1555), edited by John Braham: “The verye trouthe therof is not to be had in theyr dygestes.”

Braham’s version is the second edition of Troy Book, a Middle English poem written by John Lydgate in the early 1400s and first printed in 1513.

Finally, here’s an example from a March 24, 1789, letter in which Thomas Jefferson gives his opinion on Voyage du Jeune Anarcharsis en Grèce (Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece), by the French writer and antiquarian Jean-Jacques Barthélemy:

“This is a very elegant digest of whatever is known of the Greeks.”

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Is it a fray or an affray?

Q: Is there a difference between “fray” and “affray”?

A: “Fray” and “affray” are about as closely related as two words can be, but like human relatives they’ve grown apart over the years

The story begins in the 1300s when Middle English adopted “affray” from Anglo-Norman, first as a verb and later as a noun.

In Anglo-Norman, affrayer meant to frighten or disturb, and an affray meant a fright or disturbance. (We’ve omitted several variant Anglo-Norman spellings.)

When the verb showed up in English, spelled “affraie,” it meant to frighten. Although that sense is now archaic, the medieval past tense and past participle, “afreyd,” gave us the adjective “afraid.”

The earliest example for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330:

“Now goþ Gij sore desmaid, / His woundes him han iuel afreyd” (“Now goeth Guy sorely dismayed / His evil wounds have him afraid”). A literal translation of the second line would be “His evil wounds have terrified him,” but we wanted to preserve the rhyme.

The first OED example for the noun is from Sir Ferumbras, a Middle English romance written around 1380: “Þan was þe Sarsyn in gret affray & niste wat was to donde” (“Then the Saracen was in great fright and bewildered by what to do”).

When the noun “fray” showed up at the end of the 1300s, it also referred to a fright, but that sense is now obsolete.

The OED describes the evolution of “fray” from “affray” as aphetic—that is, by the loss of an unstressed initial vowel. We suspect that the first vowel of “affray” may have been mistaken for an indefinite article, so the term was misunderstood as “a fray.”

The earliest citation in the OED for “fray” is from John Trevisa’s 1398 English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a Latin encyclopedia compiled by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman).

The quotation refers to the mystical power of a chrysolite stone that “helpeþ nyȝte frayes and dredes” (“helps with the frights and dreads of the night”).

Meanwhile, the longer noun “affray” took on the sense of a “disturbance, a commotion; an outburst,” according to the dictionary, apparently influenced by its Anglo-Norman meaning.

The first Oxford example for the new sense is from John Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis (written sometime before 1393):

“Sche began to crien … / And with that noise of hire affray / Hir wommen sterten up.” (The citation describes how Alceone cries out as she dreams that her husband, Ceyx, is dead, and how the affray, or outburst, awakens her servants.)

A few decades later, the shorter noun “fray” took on a similar sense that the OED describes as a “disturbance, esp. one caused by fighting; a noisy quarrel, a brawl; a fight, skirmish, conflict.”

The dictionary’s first written example is from Chronicon Vilodunense (circa 1420), a chronicle of events concerning Wilton Abbey, a Benedictine convent in Wiltshire, England:

“And all þe ladyes … Of þis grete fraye þe wheche þye sie and herden, weren Sore agast” (“And all the ladies … were sorely aghast at this great fray which they saw and heard”).

The words “affray” and “fray” have had several other meanings over the years, but the one that sets them apart showed up in the 1400s, when “affray” became a legal term for a “breach of the peace caused by fighting or rioting in a public place,” or “the offence of taking part in such a disturbance,” according to the OED.

The dictionary has an earlier questionable citation, but its first clear-cut record of the usage is from the Chronicles of England (1480), a legendary and historical account produced by the English printer and writer William Caxton:

“Also this yere was a grete affraye in fletstrete by nyghtes tyme bitwene men of court & men of london.” The citation apparently refers to the 1441 rioting in Fleet Street between law students at the Inns of Court and residents of the area.

In England and Wales, the OED notes, the common-law offense of “affray” became a statutory offense under the Public Order Act of 1986, which defined it as “the use or threat of unlawful violence towards another, such as would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety.”

Under the statute, the dictionary says, the offense “need not be committed in a public place, and is distinguished from riot and violent disorder in that only one person need be involved.”

But in general use, Oxford adds, “an affray is still considered to be a disturbance as defined above”—that is, fighting or rioting in public.

How are “fray” and “affray” used today?

Standard dictionaries define “fray” as a commotion, quarrel, brawl, or dispute, and “affray” as a noisy quarrel or brawl, especially in a public place.

As you can see, the two words overlap quite a bit, but “fray” is the broader term, and it’s usually used for nonviolent conflicts, while “affray” is most often seen in reference to quarrels or brawls that involve the police.

The legal use of “affray” is especially common in Britain and its former colonies, according to our searches in the NOW Corpus, a database of  4.3 billion words published in web-based newspapers and magazines since 2010.

Here are a few examples from the UK:

“On Thursday, McKenzie received five-month prison sentences on each affray, to run consecutively, after pleading guilty.” (From the May 4, 2017, issue of the Nottingham Post.)

“Moss, of Pilots Way, Victoria Dock, pleaded guilty to affray in Hull Magistrates Court after turning up late to the first day of trial.” (From the April 29, 2017, issue of the Hull Daily Mail.)

“Dempsey was locked up for nine years for affray and robbery offences.” (From the April 23, 2017, issue of the Grimsby Telegraph.)

Although the legal usage is more common in the UK, it also shows up in the US, as in these examples:

“City Commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance that will make it possible for the Alamogordo Municipal Court to hear public affray citation cases.” (From the April 12, 2017, issue of the Alamogordo [NM] Daily News.)

“His second arrest was on March 14 on a charge of simple affray.” (From the May 5, 2017, issue of the Shelby [NC] Star.)

“Two juveniles were cited into juvenile court on suspicion of affray at 205 Caruthers Ave.” (From an April 21, 2017, police report in the Southeastern Missourian.)

When “fray” is seen in print, whether in the US or the UK, the conflicts are generally not physical. Here are a few examples from recent headlines:

“Can American Express Stay Above The Fray In The Credit-Card Wars?” (Forbes, April 6, 2017.)

“PM sticks to script as Boris Johnson enters election fray.” (BBC News, April, 27, 2017.)

“Justice Neil Gorsuch dives into the fray at first Supreme Court arguments.” (The Altus [OK] Times, April 20, 2017.)

Of the two words, we’d use “fray” unless we were referring to the specific legal offense of “affray.”

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How ‘Mrs.’ became ‘missus’

Q: Your recent post about “Mr.” and “mister” aroused my curiosity about “Mrs.” and “missus.”

A: The story begins with the word “mistress,” which English adopted in the 1300s from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, as we noted in 2013.

The courtesy title “Mrs.” showed up in the late 1400s as a shortening of “mistress,” which meant a woman in authority or a female head of a household.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “Mrs.” as a “title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a married woman having no higher or professional title, often with her first name, or that of her husband.”

The first example in the OED is from a 1485 entry in the churchwardens’ accounts for the London parish of St. Mary at Hill:

“Item, a pyx [box] clothe of sipers [Cyprus] frenged with grene sylke and red … of Mres. Sucklyng’s gyfte.” (The bracketed definitions are ours.)

From the 15th to the 18th century, the abbreviation was variously spelled “Mres.,” “Mris.,” and “Mrs.” (Like “Mr.,” it sometimes appeared with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.)

At first, writers used either the abbreviation or the full courtesy title, as in a 1463 will cited by the OED in which the testator bequeaths to “maistresse Clopton a spoon of berell” (beryl).

As with “Mr.,” the title “Mrs.” was originally a “graphic abbreviation” and later developed “a distinct spoken realization,” according to the OED.

It’s unclear when “Mrs.” began being pronounced, though the pronunciation apparently evolved proclitically (from “mistress” to “missis”), similar to that of “Mr.” (from “master” to “mister”). A proclitic is a word that changes as it attaches itself to the following word.

By the end of the 18th century, “Mrs.” was being pronounced much the way it is today.

In his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, John Walker writes that “Mrs.” as “a title of civility” should be pronounced “missis,” and that to pronounce the word as “mistress” would “appear quaint and pedantick.”

At the end of the 19th century, the predominant pronunciations were “misis” and “misiz,” as Joseph Wright notes in The English Dialect Dictionary, published from 1898 to 1905.

“The contracted pronunciation became, for the prefixed title, first a permitted colloquial licence, and ultimately the only allowable pronunciation,” the OED explains. “When this stage was reached, Mrs. became a distinct word from mistress. As to the chronology of these changes evidence is lacking.”

Although the pronunciation of “Mrs.” as MISS-uz or MISS-us has been standard since the late 18th century, the use of “missis” or “missus” as spelled-out words for a married woman is considered regional or colloquial, according to Oxford.

When the spoken form first appeared in writing in the late 1700s, it was spelled “missess.”

In the 1800s, it appeared variously as “mizzes,” “mis’ess,” “mis’s,” “misses,” “missis,” and finally “missus.”

C. T. Onions, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, describes “missis” or “missus” as a “slurred pronunc.” of “mistress” and the “oral equivalent” of “Mrs.”

The earliest written example in the OED  is from Manners and Customs in the West India Islands (1790), by J. B. Moreton: “Then missess fum me wid long switch.” (The citation is from a Jamaican song about slavery.)

The next example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “The servant of all work, who, under the plea of sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded ‘Missis’s’ ringing for half an hour.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Finally, you didn’t ask, but we should mention that the title “Miss” (prefixed to the name of a girl or unmarried woman) is also a shortened form of “mistress.”

The first Oxford example is from a March 7, 1667, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Little Mis Davis did dance a Jigg after the end of the play.”

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Fits and starts

Q: My pet peeve is “in fits and starts.” Both “fits” and “starts” denote motion, while my choice, “in spurts and stops,” really conveys what should be said, with the added advantage of alliteration.

A: We rather like “in fits and starts.” It has a jerky quality that seems to capture its meaning very neatly. And as we’ll show, English speakers generally agree with us.

The expression has an interesting history. In fact, it evolved by fits and starts. The story begins back in the 1500s when a “fit” was a paroxysm and a “start” was a sudden burst of activity.

By the late 1500s, the words showed up in two separate adverbial phrases, “by fits” (irregularly or fitfully) and “by starts” (intermittently).

The earliest example of “by fits” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1583 English translation of a sermon by the French theologian John Calvin:

“He doth not thinges by fittes as Creatures doe but he continueth alwayes in one will.”

The first appearance of “by starts” in the OED is from a 1587 edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The authors—Raphael Holinshed, William Harrison, Richard Stanyhurst, and John Hooker—write that the Scottish and Irish “performed by starts (as their manner is) the dutie of good subiects.”

In the early 1600s, the two adverbial phrases came together as “by fits and starts,” which the OED defines as “by irregular impulses or periods of action, at varying intervals, fitfully, spasmodically.”

The earliest example in the dictionary is from an Oct. 3, 1620, sermon by the English theologian Robert Sanderson, who says that if one lives a godly life “only by fits and starts,” one can save one’s soul through prayer and repentance.

The OED cites several rare, obsolete, dialectal, or uncommon variations of the expression, including “fits and girds,” “fits and spasms,” “fits and turns,” and “halves and fits.”

Oxford says the expression “fits and starts” has at times begun with “by,” “at,” and “upon,” but it doesn’t mention “in.”

Our own searches in databases of recent English usage indicate that “in fits and starts” is overwhelmingly more popular today than “by fits and starts.” Expressions with the other two prepositions drew a blank.

As for “in spurts and stops,” it’s not in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, or in any of the standard dictionaries we usually consult.

The earliest mention we’ve seen of “in spurts and stops” is from the Nov. 18, 1922, issue of the American Gas Journal:

“Nothing more has been said relative to starting work on the extension of the pipe line, but that is hardly practicable before spring, except in spurts and stops, a very costly method.”

This later example, from the winter 1972 issue of Dissent, describes the operation of computers:

“Reels of tape activating the takes, in spurts and stops, rock back and forth; small squares of light — red, yellow, green, blue — have their own character, some gleam, some brood, others flicker off and on.”

“In spurts and stops” isn’t very popular today. It barely registers in a search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present time. Your pet peeve is preferred more than 700 to 1.

Why is “fits and starts” so much more popular? Because English speakers generally find it more fitting. It has appeared in writing steadily for nearly four centuries—not at all in fits and starts. But if you don’t like it, by all means don’t use it.

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A decadent chocolate cake

Q: I’ve always thought “decadent” describes the careless and cavalier waste of resources.  But a friend of mine says the root of the word is decay, as in drugs, tattoos, piercings, and angry music. Tell me he’s wrong and I’m right!

A: You’re both right.

The adjective “decadent” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb decadēre (to decay). However, it’s generally used now to describe the moral decay that leads to self-indulgence and cultural decline.

One sign of our own moral decay, for example, is an unrestrained fondness for buttercream frosting.

When the adjective showed up in English in the early 19th century, it referred to “a state of decay or decline; falling off or deteriorating from a prior condition of excellence, vitality, prosperity, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The French Revolution: A History (1837), by Thomas Carlyle: “Those decadent ages in which no Ideal either grows or blossoms?”

However, the noun “decadence” showed up much earlier in The Complaynt of Scotlande, a 1549 book by Robert Wedderburn that argues against the uniting of Scotland and England: “My triumphant stait is succumbit in decadens.”

This later example of the noun is from The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith’s 1762 collection of letters ostensibly written by a Chinese traveler commenting on British society:

“Every day produces some pathetic exclamation upon the decadence of taste and genius.”

The adjective “decadent” is a back formation from the noun “decadence.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

English borrowed the noun from the French décadence, which in turn was derived from the medieval Latin decadentia. The original classical Latin verb, decadēre, is made up of de- (down) plus cadēre (to fall).

In looking into the history of “decadent” and “decadence,” we came across an interesting usage note at Merriam-Webster Online. We’ll break it up into several paragraphs to make it easier to read on our website:

“To be decadent is to be in the process of decay, so a powerful nation may be said to be in a decadent stage if its power is fading. But the word is more often used to speak of moral decay.

“Ever since the Roman empire, we’ve tended to link Rome’s fall to the moral decay of its ruling class, who indulged in extreme luxuries and unwholesome pleasures while providing the public with cruel spectacles such as the slaughter of the gladiators.

“But not everyone agrees on what moral decadence looks like (or even how it might have hastened the fall of Rome), though most people think it involves too many sensual pleasures—as, for instance, among the French and English poets and artists of the 1880s and ’90s called the Decadents.

“These days, for some reason, people have decided decadent is the way to describe rich chocolate cakes.”

The use of “decadent” for a chocolate cake seems to be relatively new. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a 1978 item in Cue magazine about the “Decadent Chocolate Cake ($1.25 a slice) that’s appropriately named” at the Silver Palate food store in Manhattan.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: the singularity of “they.”


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A saboteuse? A chanteur?

Q: Some English words of foreign origin are gender specific, such as “executor”/“executrix,” “masseur”/“masseuse.” I’m wondering about two French words: Do we have “saboteuse” and “chanteur” in English?

A: Yes, “saboteuse” and “chanteur” are words in English, though they’re rarely used and barely register in dictionaries.

Of the eight standard English dictionaries we examined, none include “saboteuse” and only one has “chanteur.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, mentions “saboteuse” but not “chanteur.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a unisex definition of “chanteur” as a “singer,” especially “a singer of ballads.”

In a separate entry, it defines “chanteuse” as “a woman who is a singer,” especially “a woman who sings in concert halls or nightclubs.”

M-W has a unisex definition for “saboteur” as “one that engages in sabotage,” but it doesn’t mention “saboteuse,” either within its “saboteur” entry or in a separate entry.

The OED, though, defines “saboteur” as “one who commits sabotage,” and adds: “Also fem. saboteuse.”

Among the citations in its “saboteur” entry is this one from The Glimpses of the Moon, a 1977 mystery by the English crime writer Edmund Crispin, a pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery:

“ ‘My God, it’s the pigs,’ said the hunt saboteuse disgustedly.” (The saboteuse here is a woman trying to stop a fox hunt.)

As we’ve said, Oxford doesn’t include the English word “chanteur,” though the French Faucon chanteur occurs in a citation for the “chanting falcon” (also called the “chanting goshawk”).

While “chanteur” and “saboteuse” don’t show up often in English writing, they do occur occasionally, according to our searches of Newsbank and other databases.

Here’s an example from the April 15, 2016, issue of the Denver Post: “Perhaps no artist’s passing has hit as hard—or inspired more tributes—than that of British chanteur David Bowie.”

And this one is from a Sept. 7, 2015, item on “In many ways, honey-voiced chanteur Sam Smith is the male answer to Adele.”

Another example comes from a gossip column in the July 23, 2014, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“According to no less an authority than the Library of Congress, pop chanteur Billy Joel, 65, has made a primo contribution to American culture.”

As for “saboteuse,” a review of The Florence King Reader in the April 2, 1994, issue of the Roanoke (VA) Times describes the novelist, essayist and columnist as “an equal-opportunity saboteuse” for poking fun at both men and women.

A July 16, 2014, article on the blog of the Spectator calls the British MP Harriet Harman the “Labour Party’s chief saboteuse” for accusing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown of sexism.

And in Musical Comedy in America, a 2013 book by Cecil A. Smith and Glenn Litton, the Nanette Fabray character in Arms and the Girl, a play set in Colonial America, is described as “a would-be saboteuse.”

In our searches, “saboteuse” is often used mockingly, as in the fox-hunting and Labor Party examples above.

And “chanteur” often accompanies the name of a male French singer in English writing, as in a Dec. 10, 2010, movie review in the New York Times that refers to “the mystery man played by the French chanteur Johnny Hallyday.”

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How ‘master’ became ‘mister’

Q: I wonder how “master” became “mister,” and why “master” refers to a young man, and “mister” to an older man. Can you enlighten me?

A: We discussed the origin of “master” on the blog in 2015, but we’ll summarize it here to set the stage for the appearance of “mister” and the evolution of “master” as a term for a boy or young man.

The term “master” (spelled mægstermagester, or magister in Old English) was borrowed from Latin, where a magister was a chief, head, director, or superintendent.

The “master” spelling gradually evolved in late Old English and Middle English after the Norman Conquest, influenced by the Anglo-Norman spellings maistre and mastre.

When the word first appeared in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a person (predominantly, a man) having authority, direction or control over the action of another or others.”

The dictionary’s first written citation is from King Ælfred’s Old English translation in the late 800s of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I, commonly known in English as Pastoral Care:

“Ðonne he gemette ða scylde ðe he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecyðde ðæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn” (“When he saw the sin that he should punish, he showed that he was master and lord”).

In late Old English and early Middle English, “master” was also a title prefixed to a man’s surname or first name, initially for men in the gentry and later for men in general.

The earliest example in the OED is from the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing at the Exeter Cathedral Library.

An undated Exeter document, perhaps written in the late 10th or early 11th century, refers to “mestre Odo, & mestre Leowines.”

The next citation is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Maister nichole of guldeforde, / He is wis and war [wary] of worde.” (We inserted the bracketed definition.)

In late Middle English, people began using “Mr.,” an abbreviated version of “master,” as a title “prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title,” according to the OED.

The abbreviation sometimes appeared  with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.

The first Oxford example is from Letters and Papers of John Shillingford, Mayor of Exeter 1447-50, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore in 1871. The citation, dated sometime before 1449, uses “Maister” and “Mr.” as titles:

“Maister John Gorewyll Maister John Waryn Mr William Filham Sr Richard Kelyer and other som tyme chanons of þe [the] said churche.”

(We’ve gone to the original document to expand the citation, and we’ve added the bracketed definition.)

Initially, the OED says, “Mr.” was an unspoken “graphic abbreviation,” but it later developed “a distinct spoken realization.”

When people began speaking it, “Mr.” was pronounced like “master,” but “from the 16th cent. it was, at least in rapid or careless speech, treated proclitically, with consequent alteration of the vowel of the first syllable,” according to the dictionary.

By “proclitically,” the OED means that the pronunciation of “Mr.” gradually evolved from “master” to “mister” over the 16th and 17th centuries as the term attached itself to the following word.

“Hence at the beginning of the 18th cent. master and Mr were already regarded as distinct words,” the OED says, and “mister” was “merely an occasional rendering of the pronunciation of the word of which ‘Mr’ is the accepted spelling.”

When the word represented by “Mr.” first showed up in writing in the early 1500s, according to OED citations, it was spelled “myster,” which probably reflected the way the term was pronounced at the time.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1523 entry in the Account Book of the Hospital of St. John, Canterbury, 1510–1556:

“Paied to a carpenter by grete for mendyng of Myster Collettis house.”

The first written example in the OED for the word spelled “mister” is from a March 15, 1642, letter by the wife of the mayor of Waterford, Ireland, during the Irish Confederate Wars:

“This passadge of Mister Richard Buttler hapened the day affter the Twelve Day.”

While “mister” was developing in the 16th century as a prefixed title for a man, the dictionary says, the word “master” took on a new sense, “as a prefix to the name of a boy or young man not considered old enough to be called ‘Mr.’ ”

At first, the child’s title was often expanded to “little master” or “young master,” especially when used by servants in referring to the children of the gentry or nobility.

For example, the OED cites a reference to “yonge mayster Dauyd” in The Answere to the Fyrst Parte of the Poysened Booke, a 1533 religious tract by Thomas More.

And this example, without a modifier, is from a letter written around the same time to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII, by Henry Dowes, tutor to Cromwell’s son Gregory:

“It pleased your Maistershipp to give me in charge not onlie to give diligent attendaunce uppon Maister Gregory, but also to instructs hime w’t good letters, honeste maners, pastymes of Instruments, and such other qualities as sholde be for hime mete [fitting] and conveniente.”

(We’ve expanded the OED citation to get in more of the interesting letter, and added the bracketed definition.)

The dictionary notes that “master” took on this juvenile sense “subsequent to the phonetic separation of mister,” though apparently before the word “mister” actually appeared in writing.

Once “mister” was established as a courtesy title for a man, “master” was free to take on the new role of a courtesy title for a boy.

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Another thing (or think?) coming

Q: Which is correct: “If you think that, you have another thing/think coming”? I see “thing” more often, but “think” makes more sense to me.

A: The two expressions, which are used to express disagreement, showed up in print within a couple of months of each other in the late 19th century.

The editors at the Oxford English Dictionary say that “to have another thing coming” resulted from a “misapprehension of to have another think coming.”

We tend to agree with that explanation, but word sleuths keep coming up with earlier examples for the expressions, and the question of which one inspired the other hasn’t been conclusively answered.

We agree with you that “think” makes more sense here than “thing.” Our guess is that whoever coined the expression was apparently using the noun “think” as a play on the verb “think.”

However, the noun “think” was relatively new at the time, and many people could have heard it as “thing,” a much more common noun that dates from early Anglo-Saxon days.

In fact, the phrases “think coming” and “thing coming” are often pronounced the same way, as the linguist Mark Liberman explains in a May 3, 2008, post on the Language Log.

More important, idiomatic expressions don’t have to make sense. The original expression may indeed have used “thing coming,” not “think coming.”

Both versions are common today, though “another thing coming” is more common, especially in the US, according to our searches of contemporary English databases.

The News on the Web Corpus, for example, has more than twice as many examples for “another thing coming” as for “another think coming.”

(The NOW corpus contains 4.3 billion words from web-based newspapers and magazines published between 2010 and the present time.)

As for the etymology here, when the noun “think” showed up in the early 19th century, it meant an “act of (continued or concerted) thinking,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from an 1834 issue of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine: “We lie lown yonder … and have time for our ain think.”

The expression “to have another think coming,” which Oxford defines as “to be greatly mistaken,” showed up six decades later.

The earliest OED example is from the May 21,1898, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Standard: “Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a coming fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.”

But we’ve found an earlier example. It’s from the April 9, 1897, issue of the Daily Argus News in Crawfordsville, Indiana:

“Having elected him republicans think they have some voice in the distribution of the spoils and there is where they have another think coming to them.”

The earliest OED citation for “to have another thing coming” is from Wilshire Editorials, a 1906 collection of editorials in the various magazines published by Gaylord Wilshire:

“Now if we should try and think up some one person who is satisfied with the existing order of things … we would most likely have thought that we should find him in the editor of the Wall Street Journal. But if we did, then we have another thing coming.”

(The OED notes that the word “thing” here was “think” when the editorial originally appeared in 1904 in Wilshire’s Magazine.)

However, the language investigator Garson O’Toole has found an earlier example for the “another thing” version. It appeared in an article about bicycle racing in the June 24, 1897, issue of the Elmira (NY) Daily Gazette and Free Press:

“In witnessing these things they imagine that these battles and quarrels of the track are carried on after the races are over. The people who think this ‘have another thing coming,’ for the men travel in one of the most peaceful parties that follows any line of sport.”

(O’Toole, a k a  Gregory F. Sullivan, points out that “another thing” in that example may be referring to the phrase “these things” rather than to the verb “think.”)

Additional examples may turn up as more written English is digitized. And preferences about “think coming” vs. “thing coming” may change.

From what we know now, the “another think” version was the first to show up, but English speakers today prefer “another thing.”

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Hello, Minnie!

Q: We saw Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and noticed that the Italian libretto makes generous use of “hello,” notably with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” at the saloon. I don’t see anything about “hello” on your blog. Would you like to correct this oversight?

A: We’ve discussed “goodbye” in several posts (most recently, in 2011), but we haven’t written about “hello.” What better time than now?

Despite its ubiquity today, the use of “hello” as a greeting is relatively new, dating back only to the mid-1800s, at least in writing. However, “hello” was used to attract attention or express surprise as far back as the 1820s, and its ancestors date from the 16th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “hello” used to attract attention is from the Oct. 4, 1826, issue of the Norwich (CT) Courier: “Hello, Jim! I’ll tell you what: I’ve a sharp knife and feel as if I’d like to cut up something or other.”

The first OED citation for the term used to express surprise is from a letter in the Sept. 23, 1827, issue of the U.S. Telegraph, a Washington, DC, daily: “Hello, sez Joe Laughton, wher’s Bil Perry un Olla Parsons?”

And the earliest example in the dictionary for “hello” used as a greeting is from the May 28, 1853, issue of the New York Clipper, an entertainment weekly: “Hello ole feller, how are yer?”

The first Oxford citation for “hello” used in the telephone sense is from an Aug. 15, 1877, letter by Thomas Alva Edison to T. B. A. David, president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company in Pittsburgh:

“Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think? Edison — P.S. first cost of sender & receiver to manufacture is only $7.00.” (We’ve expanded the citation by going to the dictionary’s source, the October 1987 issue of Antique Phonograph Monthly.)

The OED notes that Edison “is popularly credited with instigating the practice of saying hello when answering the telephone” and “for the word’s subsequent popularity as a greeting. His rival, Alexander Graham Bell, preferred ahoy to be used.”

Etymologically, “hello” is the last in a line of similarly spelled words that can be traced back to the 1500s.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “hello” is ultimately derived from “holla” or “hollo” (1588), a shout to attract attention, and perhaps from “holla!” (1523), an exclamation meaning “stop!” or “cease!”

Chambers seems to dismiss suggestions that the usage may have been borrowed from, or influenced by, similar terms to attract attention in Middle French (holà) and German (halloholla).

“The more probable explanation,” the dictionary says, “is that hello, hallo, holla and hollo are all natural formations in English and that they are parallel to natural formations in German, French and other, if not all, languages.”

By the time Puccini’s opera about the California Gold Rush had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, with shouts of “Hello, Minnie!” ringing out, the use of “hello” as a greeting was an everyday occurrence.

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The poop about pooped

Q: After separating the recyclables into three bins and dragging them out to the street, my hubby turned to me and said he was pooped. Speaking of which, where does “pooped” come from?

A: The adjective “pooped” (or “pooped out”), meaning exhausted or worn out, showed up in the early 20th century in American English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Sergeant Eadie (1928), Leonard H. Nason’s fictional account of an artilleryman in World War: “I haven’t had any sleep in two nights, and I’m a little poobed [sic].”

The OED inserted the bracketed “sic.” Nason, a sergeant in World War I and a lieutenant colonel in World War II, used “poobed” two other times in the book, so that’s probably what the word sounded like to him.

The next Oxford citation, from Soldiers March! (1930), a World War I novel by Theodore Fredenburgh, uses the usual spelling: “The whole outfit is too pooped to have any goldbricking.”

The OED says the adjective is derived from the somewhat earlier verb “poop” (or “poop out”), meaning to break down, stop working, or give out.

The dictionary’s earliest example for this colloquial verb is from a 1927 issue of the journal American Speech: “Poop out, fizzle.”

The OED says the origin of the verb is uncertain, but it points the reader to the verb “poof” (1915), meaning to appear or disappear like a puff of air, and the interjection “poof” (1868), an expression of such appearing or disappearing.

In case you’re curious, the adjective “pooped” is not related to the “poop” having to do with defecation.

When the verb “poop” showed up in the Middle Ages, it had nothing to do with defecating. Rather it meant, Oxford says, “to produce a short blast of sound, as with a horn; to blow, toot.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, with the past tense “pooped” spelled “powped,” is from “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer (circa 1390):

“Of bras they broghten bemes, and of box, / Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped” (“They brought out trumpets of brass and boxwood, / Of horn and bone, on which they blew and tooted”).

In the late 1600s, the OED says, this now-obsolete musical sense of “poop” evolved to mean, in nursery slang, to “break wind.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the farting sense of “poop” is from Richard Hogarth’s Gazophylacium Anglicanum, a 1689 etymological dictionary: “To poop, from the Belg. Poepen, to fart softly: both from the sound.”

Oxford notes that the verb “now usually” means “to defecate.” The first example is from an 1882 book by Frederick William P. Jago about the Cornish dialect: “Poop, or Poopy, to go to stool. (Said by children.)”

Since we used the noun “poop” in the title of this post to mean the latest information or the inside story, we should discuss the origin of this sense too.

The OED says this colloquial usage apparently evolved from its use in the early 1900s as cadet lingo at the US Military Academy at West Point.

The dictionary’s first citation is from the 1911 issue of Howitzer, the military academy’s yearbook: “Poop, a speech; a thing to be memorized.”

The Oxford entry for the noun includes 1904 and 1908 citations from the yearbook in which “poop” is used as a verb meaning “to memorize completely” or “to be able to quote verbatim.”

The first citation for “poop” used to mean the inside story is from the Jan, 6, 1945, issue of the New Yorker: “That’s pretty confidential poop, and it wouldn’t have done for us to tip off the Japs about our course.”

The earliest example for its use as up-to-date information is from a 1947 issue of American Speech: “The word poop, which indicated the latest information, whether official or unofficial, was also incorporated into poop sheet, denoting the latest bulletin or directive.”

In explaining the origin of the usage, the OED cites this passage from Military Customs and Traditions (1956), by Mark Mayo Boatner:

Poop, information of any sort, usually written (on a ‘poop sheet’). Of West Point origin, probably from the fact that the cadet adjutant makes important announcements in the mess hall from a balcony known as the ‘poop deck’ (from its resemblance to a ship’s poop deck).”

When “poop” showed up as a nautical term in the late 15th century, it referred to the stern, or rear end, of a ship.

English borrowed the term from Middle French, where the stern was referred to as la poupe. The ultimate source is puppis, classical Latin for the rear or afterdeck of a ship.

The earliest example in the OED is from The Book of Fayttes [Feats] of Armes and of Chyualrye, a 1489 translation of a French work written by Christine de Pisan in 1410: “The pouppe whiche is the hindermost partye of the shippe.”

Today, the “poop” (or “poop deck”) refers to the superstructure at the stern of a ship, as in this OED example from The Agüero Sisters, a 1997 novel by Cristina García:

“The nebulous lights Christopher Columbus saw from the poop deck of the Santa María were probably Bermuda fireworms.”

Finally, here’s an example from the July 7, 2016, issue of the New York Post that combines the nautical and excretory usages:

“New Yorkers who want to sail across the pond with Fido on the Queen Mary 2 will now be able to make their pooches feel right at home, thanks to the British cruise ship’s new kennel lounge and refurbished poop deck — which has been fitted with an authentic city fire hydrant.”

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Compounding the problem

Q: In your “Compound fractures” post from 2012, you discuss hyphenating “potentially confusing compounds.” Shouldn’t that be “potentially-confusing”? I’m not being snarky, mind you, just trying to understand.

A: The use of hyphens in compounds is pretty straightforward—except when it isn’t.

One of the many exceptions to the conventions of hyphenation is that when an adjective is modified by an “-ly” adverb, the compound doesn’t get a hyphen.

Pat uses these examples in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I: “That’s a radically different haircut. It gives you an entirely new look.”

We’ve written before about when to hyphenate compound modifiers, but a little repetition never hurts.

You’re probably familiar with the general practice.

Two-word descriptions are hyphenated before a noun (“powder-blue suit,” “dark-haired toddler,” “well-done steak”). But if the description comes after the noun, no hyphen is used (“a suit of powder blue,” “a toddler who’s dark haired,” “a steak well done”).

The hyphenation of longer adjectival phrases before a noun is similar: “an up-and-coming playwright,” “run-of-the-mill special effects,” “a business-as-usual attitude,” “a ruthless, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners corporate policy.” (Some of these may be hyphenated even after the noun: “The special effects were run-of-the-mill.” Check your dictionary.)

Now for some more exceptions.

Compound modifiers in which one of the words is “very,” “most,” “least,” or “less” (as in “most pleasing tune”) don’t have hyphens.

Some prefixes usually take hyphens (as in “self-effacing manner,” “quasi-official position”). Others sometimes do and sometimes don’t (“pre-,” “re-,” “ultra-,” “anti-”).

However, the hyphenation of prefixes is very fluid, and authorities may differ. A prefix that’s hyphenated in one dictionary or style guide may not be in another. If in doubt, check your dictionary or style manual.

In case you’d like a short refresher course on hyphens, we wrote in April 2013 about omitting part of a hyphenated term (as in “full- and part-time job”); in July 2012 about hyphens in dimensions (like “five-foot-six woman”); and in January 2012 about when to hyphenate a term like “African American.”

You can find others by putting “hyphen” in the search box on our  blog.

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Batten down the hatches

Q: We’re having a big storm in Grand Rapids and I’ve battened down the hatches. I assume this originated as a nautical expression. When did it come ashore?

A: Yes, “batten down the hatches” does indeed come from seafaring lingo. The nautical expression showed up at the turn of the 19th century, and took on a figurative sense for landlubbers in the mid-20th century.

However, the story begins on land with the noun “baton,” which meant a staff or stick used as a weapon when English borrowed the term from the French bâton around 1550.

A century later, an offshoot of “baton” showed up in writing as the carpentry term “batten,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When “batten” appeared in 1658, it meant a small beam or piece of wood used to strengthen, support, or fasten. And to “batten” (1675) was to strengthen or fasten with battens.

In the 18th century, to “batten down” took on the nautical sense of to nail strips of wood (“battens”) around the edges of a tarp placed over the hatch to keep water out.

The noun appeared first. The earliest written example in the OED is from An Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1769), by William Falconer:

“The battens serve to confine the edges of the tarpaulings close down to the sides of the hatches.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “batten down the hatches” is from Vocabulaire des Termes de Marine, a 1799 French-English dictionary of sailing terms published in Paris.

The dictionary translates “to batten down the hatches” as “mettre des listeaux aux panneaux des écoutilles.”

The identical translation appeared soon afterward in a general French-English dictionary published in London, Abel Boyer’s Royal College Dictionary (20th ed., 1802).

In a few decades, the expression was appearing regularly in accounts of storms at sea.

Here’s an example from A Brief Narrative of an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reach Repulse Bay, an 1824 account of the voyage by Capt. George F. Lyon of the Royal Navy:

“These soon wetted every one thoroughly, and the lower deck was flooded before we could batten down the hatches.”

The OED hasn’t yet updated its entry for “batten down the hatches.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from One False, Both Fair, an 1883 novel by John B. Harwood:

“Batten down the hatches—quick, men.” (Serialized in Chambers’s Journal, London. The quotation appeared in the Jan. 13, 1883, issue.)

We haven’t discussed “hatch,” a very old word that the OED says was “inherited from Germanic.” In Old English, it meant a half-door or gate, or part of a divided door.  Since then, “hatch” has had many meanings associated with openings or entries.

The first nautical use came along in the middle to late 1300s, when “hatches” were movable planks forming the floor of a ship, above the hold.

Soon afterward, the OED says, a “hatch” in a ship came to mean “a trapdoor or grated framework covering an opening on a deck.”

The earliest OED citation is “brystis the hetches” (the Middle English can be translated as “break open the hatches”). It’s found in a translation, dated around 1440 and perhaps earlier, of the poem Morte Arthure.

The noun “hatch” has been used this way on boats ever since. And that nautical meaning, used figuratively, gave us the 20th-century drinking expression “down the hatch” (that is, down the throat).

Getting back to your question, the OED doesn’t discuss the figurative use of “batten down the hatches,” though it has one recent example in a discussion of “lock up your daughters,” a humorous reference to the arrival of a sexy man:

“Batten down the hatches, lock up your daughters, tie down the bassbins: this is a monster of a drum’n’bass affair” (from the Aug. 25, 2004, issue of Time Out).

The earliest figurative example we’ve found is from an article about hurricane forecasts, in the February 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the General Contractors Association, published in New York:

“ ‘Batten down the hatches!’ will be a general cry next summer and many summers to come, and it will be only a part of the new verbiage that contractors will add to their vocabulary.”

And here’s an example from Woman in Levi’s, a 1967 memoir by Eulalia Bourne, a rancher and schoolteacher in Arizona:

“I hurried my horse in an effort to get home, batten down the hatches, and give welcome to the rain. It outraced us.”

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Was Elizabeth Bennet blowsy?

Q: I just finished reading your dispatch about whether a “blown rose” is in bloom or has finished blooming. I’m surmising the adjective “blowsy” is related to the “past-its-prime” meaning of “blown.” Yes?

A: Etymological bloodhounds have tracked the adjective “blowsy” (sometimes spelled “blowzy”) to the noun “blowze,” but the scent ends there. Here’s what little we know—and what else we suspect—about these two words.

Let’s begin with “blowze,” which originally meant a farmer’s wife when it showed up in the 1500s, but later came to mean a beggar woman or a prostitute, as well as a woman who’s pudgy, red-faced, or scruffy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun (spelled “blouse”) is from Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry Vnited to as Many of Good Huswiferie, a 1573 book by Thomas Tusser:

“Whiles Gillet his blouse, is a milking thy kow: sir Hew, is a rigging, thy gate or the plow.”

The OED says “blowze” is “of unknown origin,” but adds, “Perhaps originally a cant term”—that is, insider dialect. The dictionary also notes similar “Dutch and Low German words with the sense of ‘red’ or ‘flushed.’ ”

Oxford goes on to say that “some of the uses appear to be influenced” by the verb “blow” used in the sense of moving air. It doesn’t give any details, but this may refer to the inflated face of a chubby woman or the wind-blown hair of one who’s disheveled.

The OED editors apparently don’t believe that the verb “blow” used in the blooming sense influenced the noun “blowze” or the adjective “blowsy.”

However, this plump, ruddy example from Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus (1594) caught our attention: “Sweete blowse you are a beautious blossome sure.”

We’ll leave “blowze” with this example of the noun used to mean a beggar woman or prostitute:

“His bonny Blouze or dainty doxie, being commonly a collapsed Tinkers wife, or some high way commodity, taken up upon trust” (from The Whimzies, a 1631 book of character sketches by Richard Brathwait.)

When the adjective “blowsy” showed up in the 1700s, it meant “dishevelled, frowzy, slatternly,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example uses the adjective to describe a man’s messy hair: “Long his beard, and blouzy hair.” (From “The Barber,” circa 1770, a parody by Thomas Erskine in the form of an ode.)

The OED says the adjective soon took on the additional sense of “having a bloated face; red and coarse-complexioned; flushed-looking.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is in a Dec. 8, 1778, letter from Samuel Crisp to the novelist Fanny Burney:

“Thinking herself too ruddy & blowsy, it was her Custom to bleed herself.” (Crisp, a family friend, addresses Burney as “My dear Fannikin.”)

Finally, a disheveled example from Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. Here Miss Bingley is abusing Elizabeth Bennet (behind her back, naturally) for walking through muddy fields to see her ailing sister Jane at Netherfield:

“Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!”

In case you’re wondering, “blowze” and “blowsy” are not related to the “blouse” that one wears, despite similar spellings above. English borrowed “blouse” in the early 1800s from French, where it referred to a blue workman’s shirt.

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A ‘fount’ or ‘font’ of knowledge?

Q: In your recent post about “cold feet,” you refer to a character in Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus as a “font of academic gobbledygook.” Don’t you mean “fount”?

A: Both “font” and “fount” are derived from the Latin fons (a spring or fountain) and its combining form, font-. One figurative meaning of both “font” and “fount” in American dictionaries is a source of something.

That said, we didn’t intend to use “font” in our post. Although both words can mean a source in standard American English, we use “fount” for that sense and have changed it on the blog. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

“Fount” is the traditional usage for this figurative sense, and the only one considered standard in British dictionaries. The UK version of Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, considers “font” a variant when used to mean a source.

However, a page on the Oxford Dictionaries blog hints that the situation may be changing, even though a poll of its readers supports the traditional usage:

“The standard accepted form is fount of knowledge, and this was also the term chosen by the majority of voters in our poll (67%) despite the Oxford English Corpus suggesting that font of knowledge is now the more common form.”

The corpus, a database of contemporary English that includes nearly 2.1 billion words, surveys web pages and printed text in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Our own searches of the even larger NOW Corpus at Brigham Young University had similar results. NOW (for “news on the web”) contains 4.2 billion words used by web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present.

Now, let’s look at the history of these words.

“Font,” the older of the English terms, originally meant (and still does) a “receptacle, usually of stone, for the water used in the sacrament of baptism,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The ecclesiastical Latin is font-em or fontes baptismi.

The earliest OED citation for “font” (fante in Old English) is from the Canons of Ælfric, a pastoral letter written around 1000 by the English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Ne do man nænne ele to þam fante” (Ælfric here is explaining the proper use of oil, ele, with a baptismal font.)

When the word “fount” showed up nearly six centuries later, it meant a spring. It apparently developed as a shortening of “fountain,” which appeared in writing in the early 1400s as fownteyne, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. (“Fountain,” like “font,” ultimately comes from the Latin fons, for a spring or fountain.)

The OED’s earliest example of “fount” is from “The Rape of Lucrece,” a 1594 poem by Shakespeare. We’ve expanded the citation to convey the flavor of the poem:

Why should the worme intrude the maiden bud?
Or hatefull Kuckcowes hatch in Sparrows nests?
Or Todes infect faire founts with venome mud?
Or tyrant follie lurke in gentle brests?

By the early 1600s, “fount” was being used figuratively to mean a source. The first OED example is from an English translation of “Eclogue IV,” a Latin poem by Virgil:

“From this fount did all those mischiefes flow.” (In Michael Drayton’s Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall, circa 1605.)

Soon, “font” was being used to mean “fount” in the sense of a spring, as in this OED example from Coryate’s Crudities, a 1611 collection of travel writing by Thomas Coryate: “Delicate fonts and springes.”

In the 1700s and 1800s, English writers began using “font” figuratively to mean a source, though “fount” was more common in this sense, according to our database searches.

Here’s an example from “Childish Recollections,” an 1806 poem by Byron:

Friend of my heart, and foremost of the list
Of those with whom I lived supremely blest,
Oft have we drain’d the font of ancient lore;
Though drinking deeply, thirsting still the more.

We should note here that in typography, the British generally use “fount” and Americans “font” to refer to a typeface, a usage that showed up in the late 1600s.

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Does your grandma suck eggs?

Q: In your post last month about the verb “suck” and its relatives, you refer to several negative senses of “suck eggs.” But you didn’t discuss the only usage I had heard: “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

A: That old rebuke, “Don’t teach your grandmother (how) to suck eggs,” has been used for hundreds of years to put down presumptuous upstarts, though it’s not heard much now.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the proverbial expression is “said to those who presume to offer advice to others who are more experienced.”

In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge says teaching granny here is to “give advice to one’s senior; esp. to instruct an expert in his own expertise.”

The earliest example in the OED is from The Comical Works of Don Francisco de Quevedo, a 1707 translation by John Stevens of the Spanish writer’s poems and plays: “You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs.”

We haven’t found any wording like this in the original Spanish, so we assume Stevens was translating loosely and using a comparable English expression.

Jonathan Swift used the maxim a few decades later in Genteel Conversation, a 1738 satire on how to converse in society: “Go, teach your Grannam to suck Eggs.”

Many other languages have expressions about trying to teach one’s betters what they already know. These are often translated into English as “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” even though that’s not the actual wording.

Here are some of these proverbs, and their literal translations:

Latin: Ne sus Minervam doceat (“A sow does not teach Minerva [goddess of wisdom]”); Delphinum natare doces (“You’re teaching a dolphin to swim”); Aquilam volare doces (“You’re teaching an eagle to fly”); À bove majori discit arare minor (“The young ox learns to plow from the elder”).

French: Les oisons veulent mener les ois paître (“The goslings want to drive the geese to pasture”); Il ne faux pas apprendre aux poissons à nager (“One does not teach fish to swim”).

Italian: Insegnar nuotare ai pesci (“To teach fish to swim”); L’uovo ne vuol saper più della gallina (“The egg should not know more than the hen”).

German: Er will seinen Vater lernen Kinder erziehen (“He would teach his father to raise children”); Das Ei will klüger sein als die Henne (“The egg wants to be wiser than the hen”).

Spanish: Aún no ha salido del cascarón y ya tiene presunción (“He hasn’t left the shell, but he’s already being presumptuous”).

There have been many English variations on the theme, some dating back to the late 1500s, according Partridge.

The upstart has been admonished not to teach a grandmother (or granny, granddame, etc.) to spin, steal sheep, milk ducks, grope a goose (check for eggs), sup sour milk, or roast eggs, among other things.

As for the version you asked about (“Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”), we’ve never seen an authoritative explanation for what it literally means.

But we assume that “suck eggs” here simply refers to extracting the yolk and white from an eggshell. This point was made in an anonymous parody in Punch (“Pristine Proverbs Prepared for Precocious Pupils,” Jan. 25, 1873):

Teach not a parent’s mother to extract
The embryo juices of an egg by suction;
That good old lady can the feat enact
Quite irrespective of your kind instruction

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Can ‘across’ mean ‘around’?

Q: When did we change from saying “around the world” to “across the world”? Doesn’t “across” contradict our notion that the world is round?

A: “Across” doesn’t always mean in a straight line. It can also mean distributed “throughout, all over, in all or many parts,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Similarly, “around” doesn’t just mean encircling something. It can also mean in “every direction from a central point; on every side, all about.”

So we see nothing wrong with the phrase “across the world.” (We also have no quibble with “across the globe,” and “globe” implies roundness even more than “world,” since Earth isn’t a perfect sphere.)

As for actual usage, “around the world” is overwhelmingly more popular than “across the world,” according to a comparison of the two phrases in the millions of books tracked by Google’s Ngram Viewer.

As you can see, “around” leaves “across” in the dust and continues to trend upward in the latest results. Breakdowns of British and American English show much the same results.

For the bigger picture—use on the Internet up until today—simple Google searches also show “around the world” is way ahead: And for what it’s worth, “around the globe” leads “across the globe.”

So whether people are talking about the world or the globe, they prefer “around” to “across.” But as we said, there’s nothing wrong with “across” in this context.

The Ngram comparison we mentioned above shows that both “around the world” and “across the world” are found in writing published since at least as far back as 1800.

In our own searches, we haven’t found any examples of “across the world” older than 1800, but we found “around the world” in an obscure play first acted in 1680.

Here’s the rather overwrought passage, from Elkanah Settle’s tragedy Fatal Love: or, The Forc’d Inconstancy:

Nay, tho you scatter all my sprinkled Ashes
Around the World, each Atom of my Dust
Shall find a Soul, and flye into his Bosom.

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A lawyer walks into a bar

Q: My question, should you care to consider it, is which came first—the “bar” where attorneys work or the “bar” those attorneys may frequent after work?

A: We briefly mentioned the connection between one “bar” and the other in 2014, but we didn’t go into detail. To make a long story short, the “bar” at which you practice law came before the “bar” at which you drink.

Etymologically, however, they’re the same word. So here’s the longer story.

The noun “bar” (first spelled “barre”) came into Middle English in the 1100s from the Old French barre, which acquired it from the late Latin barra (“bar” or “barrier”).

In English, the word’s original meaning was “a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate, door, hatch, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. All other senses of the word are derived from that.

Today the noun “bar” has three overall meanings, roughly having to do with its physical shape, its purpose, and the area it defines.

So broadly speaking, the uses of “bar” fall into these categories: (1) something, like a rod or band, that’s longer than it is thick or wide; (2) something that obstructs or confines, like the related word “barrier”; and (3) a place defined by a rail or barrier.

That third group of meanings explains the use of “bar” in reference to the courtroom as well as the saloon. Various legal meanings date from the early 1300s, the OED says, and the drinking sense from around 250 years later.

The earliest known “bar” in the courtroom sense indicated “the barrier or wooden rail” separating the judge’s seat from the rest of the court, the dictionary says. This was where the barristers, litigants, prisoners, and others stood to address the judge.

In the reign of Edward I, when French was still spoken in English courts, the term “a la barre” was recorded in two legal documents dated 1306, according to the online Middle English Dictionary. Soon afterward the term was Anglicized, “at (or to) the bar.”

In the first recorded English use, this “bar” was “the place at which all the business of the court was transacted,” and the term soon became synonymous with “court,” according to the OED. So “at the bar” meant “in court.”

The dictionary’s earliest quotation is a reference to “countours in benche that stondeth at the barre.” (In Middle English, “countours” meant “pleaders.” The source here is a 1327 collection of political songs.)

In the sense of “bar” as the place where a prisoner stands for arraignment, trial, or sentence, Oxford‘s earliest example is from an indefinite time in the 1300s:

“Brynge forthe to the barre that arn to be dempt.” (The word “dempt” meant “condemned.” This is from a cycle of medieval mystery plays, Ludus Coventriae.)

Quite early on, the word was used figuratively to mean any kind of tribunal, as in this OED citation from the Wycliffite Sermons (circa 1375):

“Ech man mote nedis stonde at þe barre bifore Crist” (“Each man must needs stand at the bar before Christ”).

In the mid-1500s, “to be called to the bar” first meant “to be admitted a barrister,” the OED says. (A “barrister,” first spelled “barrester,” was a person called to the “barre.”)

Originally, however, this particular “bar” was in the classroom, not the courtroom. Here Oxford explains what “bar” meant to law students at the Inns of Court in the 1540s:

“A barrier or partition separating the seats of the benchers or readers from the rest of the hall, to which students, after they had attained a certain standing, were ‘called’ from the body of the hall, for the purpose of taking a principal part in the mootings or exercises of the house.”

After 1600, this was “popularly assumed to mean the bar in a court of justice.” In an OED citation from 1650, “call’d to the Barre six yeares agoe” means qualified to practice law six years ago.

“The bar” also began to mean barristers as a group in the mid-1500s, and within a century it was used for the profession itself. The term “bar association” originated in the US in 1824, the OED says; the American Bar Association was formed in 1878.

All this has made us thirsty, so let’s move on.

The “bar” meaning the place where one goes to drink came along in the late 1500s, and here again it originally implied some sort of barrier.

This is the OED‘s definition: “A barrier or counter, over which drink (or food) is served out to customers, in an inn, hotel, or tavern, and hence, in a coffee-house, at a railway-station, etc.”

This “bar” also means “the space behind this barrier, and sometimes the whole apartment containing it,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation is from Robert Greene’s “The Third and Last Part of Conny-Catching,” a 1592 pamphlet in defense of cheating and petty theft:

“He was well acquainted with one of the seruants … of whom he could haue two pennyworth of Rose-water for a peny … wherefore he would step to the barre vnto him.”

Here’s a handful of later examples:

“[I] laid down my Penny at the Barr … and made the best of my way to Cheapside.” (Joseph Addison, the Spectator, 1712.)

“He sees the girl in the bar.” (Frederick Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful, 1834.)

“A bottle of champagne quaffed at the bar.” (From the American notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1837.)

We mentioned above that “bar” can be traced to the Late Latin barra, but nobody seems to know where barra came from. The OED says it’s “of unknown origin.” And with that, unfortunately, the trail goes cold.

It may be true, as some have suggested, that the ultimate source is Aramaic, a wide family of related Semitic languages and dialects.

An Aramaic preposition pronounced “bar min” (transliterated as br mn), means “except for,”  “aside from,” or “outside of.” But we haven’t found any evidence of a connection.

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A plethora of notions

Q: I recently came across a blogger’s statement that “there is a plethora of entries” for derogatory terms in dictionaries. My ear tells me it should read “there are a plethora of entries.” Am I right?

A: You’re right—and so is the blogger.

“Plethora” is a singular noun, like “plenitude” or “abundance,” so it’s quite normal to write “there is a plethora of,” no matter what comes after “of.”

However, it’s also quite normal to use “plethora” with a plural verb like “are.”

It all depends on whether the writer views the plethora as a collection of things or as the things in the collection.

This is called notional agreement—agreement based on a writer’s meaning rather than on grammatical form.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, when the subject of a verb is “a plethora of followed by a plural noun,” then “notional agreement holds sway.”

“Writers who view the plethora as a lump use a singular verb; those who view it as a collection of discrete items use a plural verb,” Merriam-Webster’s adds.

So the writer of your sentence viewed “plethora of entries” as a “lump” rather than as the “discrete items” making up the lump.

We’ve discussed notional agreement several times on the blog, including posts in 2016, 2013, and 2012.

“Plethora” has an interesting history in English. It first showed up in 16th-century medical usage, where a “plethora” meant an excess of fluid in the body, especially an accumulation of blood.

Not until the 17th century did “plethora” begin to acquire more general, nonmedical meanings.

In both medieval Latin and ancient Greek, plethora meant fullness, medically or in general, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Greek verbs meaning to fill or to be full are the ultimate source.

The French adopted the medical term (as pléthore) in the 1530s. The English “plethora” may have been influenced by French or it may have come directly from Latin or Greek.

At any rate, the earliest OED example of “plethora” in English is from John Banister’s A Needefull, New and Necessarie Treatise of Chyrurgerie (1575). We’ve inserted medical definitions in the citation:

“In curing these kyndes of Ulcers, the causes must first be diligently searched, to witte whether it be Plethora [excess of fluids], Cacochymia [diseased fluids], or Cachexia [wasting].”

The medical sense of “plethora” has lasted into our own time. Here’s a modern OED example: “patients with congestive heart failure and inferior vena cava plethora” (from the journal Clinical Cardiology, 2000).

The figurative use of “plethora” as a glut of something bad began turning up in the mid-1600s. Here’s an example from Joseph Beaumont’s drama Psyche (1648):

“Whose never-failing Virtue did displace / Griefs vast Plethora which had her opprest.”

In the early 1800s, the figurative sense began mellowing and by the end of the century “plethora” was appearing “more usually” in neutral and positive ways, according to the OED.

Now, the dictionary says, it usually conveys a “neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety.”

Here’s a positive example from a fashion article in the August 1882 issue of Ballou’s Monthly Magazine (Boston): “There is a perfect plethora of white and twine-colored thick muslin.”

In this sporting example from the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911, the word is either neutral or positive: “Of [yacht] races there was a plethora; indeed no fewer than 400 matches took place.”

Finally, here’s a clearly positive example from The Long View, a 1956 novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard: “An attractive woman will automatically collect a plethora of men.”

Some usage commentators still insist that a “plethora” is not just an abundance, but an undesirable overabundance. However, a plethora of historical evidence contradicts this.

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A blown rose, by any other name

Q: On a recent trip to London, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. Hence this question. How did the phrase “blown rose” come to mean a rose that’s bloomed?

A: Let’s set the scene for anyone who isn’t familiar with the passage in Shakespeare’s play. When Cleopatra is told that a messenger from Caesar has arrived, she remarks to her ladies-in-waiting:

What, no more ceremony? See, my women!
Against the blown rose may they stop their nose
That kneel’d unto the buds. Admit him, sir.”

The bud that once brought admirers to their knees is now a fading flower that no one stops to sniff.

The adjective “blown” has been used since Anglo-Saxon times to mean “in bloom” or “having bloomed” (the usage in Antony and Cleopatra), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the phrasal adjective “full-blown” is more common today in describing a flower at its peak, as well as anything else that’s fully developed.

When “blown” is used by itself now to describe a flower, it often refers to one that’s over the hill, according to our searches of digital databases.

How, you ask, did the adjective “blown” get its flowering sense?

We’ll have to go back to the Anglo-Saxons, when Old English had two distinct verbs “blow,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

One verb, written bláwan in Old English, meant to send out air, while the other, blówan, meant to come into flower. They had the same past tense, bléow.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the air sense to the reconstructed base bhlē- and the flowering sense to bhel-, but it says the two roots were “possibly identical” in prehistoric times.

Both verbs “blow” are now in standard dictionaries, with identical spellings and conjugations, but the “blow” that refers to the movement of air is much more common than the one that refers to flowering.

Interestingly, some people conflate the two senses, according to examples we’ve seen, and believe a “blown rose” refers to a rose whose petals are blown by the wind.

The earliest example in the OED for the verb “blow” in the flowering sense is from Old English Leechdoms, a medical work dated at around 1000: “Ðonne heo grewð & blewð” (“When they grow and blow”).

The two earliest Oxford example for the verb with the airy sense are from the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), a translation of the four Gospels from Latin into the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

Here’s an example from the Book of Luke: “Þonne ge geseoð suðan blawan” (“When the south wind blows”).

We’ll end with two lines from “The Lotos-Eaters,” an 1832 poem by Tennyson:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass.

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Is might (v.) a kin of might (n.)?

Q: I can’t recall seeing any discussion on the two usages of “might” in “It might happen if I try with all my might.” Care to discuss?

A: This may surprise you. The verb “may” and its past tense “might” ultimately come from the same prehistoric ancestor as the noun “might.”

So the two forms of “might” in your example (“It might happen if I try with all my might”) are relatives.

Etymologically, the verb “may” means to have power, while the noun “might” refers to power itself.

The common ancestor of these words is magh-, a reconstructed Proto Indo-European base meaning to “be able, have power,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That prehistoric root gave birth to the ancient Germanic ancestors of the verb “may” and the noun “might.”

The ancient Germanic magan (to be able), for example, gave Old English magan, the early infinitive form of “may,” while the ancient Germanic mah-ti (power) gave Old English miht, the early form of the noun “might,” American Heritage adds.

(The reconstructed prehistoric forms are rendered somewhat differently by different etymologists, and the early spellings in Old English manuscripts vary.)

In early Old English, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb “may” had three primary uses:

(1) as an intransitive (or object-less) verb, meaning to be strong or have power or influence, (2) as an auxiliary with a bare (or “to”-less) infinitive expressing the power or ability to do something, and (3) as an auxiliary expressing possibility.

Later in Old English, the OED says, the verb developed several other senses, including (4) as an auxiliary to ask for or grant permission to do something.

Senses 1 and 2 died out in the early 1600s, according to Oxford citations, while 3 and 4 are among the primary uses today for the verb “may.”

The earliest OED example for sense 1 (a full verb meaning to be strong) comes from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript from the 700s with the Latin Psalms and interlinear Old English translations:

Exurge domine non praeualeat homo: aris dryhten ne meg mon” (“Arise, O Lord; man should not be powerful”). We’re translating the Old English here. The King James Version translates the Latin as “Arise, O Lord, let not man prevail.”

The first Oxford example for sense 2 (an auxiliary verb used to express the power to do something) is from Rituale Ecclesiae Dunelmensis, a manuscript from the early 800s that describes the liturgical services in the Diocese of Durham in northeast England:

“Gif men færlice wyrde unsofte oððe sprecan ne maege halga him ðis wæter” (“If he has been speaking quickly and harshly, one may not bless him with this water”). Here, maege (Old English for “may”) is being used in the sense of “can” (be able, or have power, to do something.)

The earliest OED example for sense 3 (an auxiliary used to express possibility) is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s:

“On ðara Deniscena healfe wearð ofslægen Eohric hira cyng & Æðelwald æðeling … & swiðe monige eac him þe we nu genemnan ne magon” (“On the Danish side their king Eohric was killed, and the atheling Æðelwald … and many others that we may not name here”). The obsolete term “atheling” refers to a prince or other member of a noble family.

And the first Oxford citation for sense 4 (an auxiliary to ask for or grant permission) is from “Judgment Day I,” a poem in The Exeter Book (circa 940), a collection of miscellaneous Old English writing:

“Oft mæg se þe wile in his sylfes sefan soð geþencan” (“Often a wily mind may let you decide for yourself what’s right”).

As for the noun “might” (maehte in Old English), here’s an example from the Vespasian Psalter:

Potentiam tuam et iustitiam tuam deus usque in altissimus: maehte ðine & rehtwisnisse ðine god oð in heanisse” (“Thy might and thy righteousness, O God, reach to the most high”).

As for “mighty” and “mightiness,” they’re also relatives, but we’ll skip the citations, if we may.

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It’s medieval, albeit still with us

Q: I heard a radio DJ the other day, on a jazz station, using “albeit,” which is a nice word. I wonder if it’s a short form of an earlier phrase in the language.

A: We’ve mentioned “albeit” a couple of times on the blog, most recently in a 2015 post about the phrase “at all.”

As we wrote then, “all” can be an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, or an adverb. But once upon a time it was a conjunction as well.

The conjunctive use is almost unknown today, but a trace of it lives on in the word “albeit,” which is derived from the old phrase “all be it.” Today, it’s a venerable way of saying “although.”

Some language writers have dismissed “albeit” as archaic, but the word is alive and well today, according to our searches of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

In the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler includes “albeit” in a list of archaisms. But in the 1965 second edition, Sir Ernest Gowers says the term “has since been picked up and dusted and, though not to everyone’s taste, is now freely used.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the comments by Fowler, Gowers, and others as “a most curious business since albeit never seems to have gone out of use.”

The dictionary says the usage “may have faded somewhat in the later 19th century,” but it has “considerably increased in use since the 1930s, to judge by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.”

The word “albeit” began life in the early 1300s as an expression made up of the old conjunction “all,” the verb “be,” and the pronoun “it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says it originally meant “though it is true that; even though; although” (pretty much what it means now).

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Middle English entry, dated sometime before 1325, in Statutes of the Realm (2011), a compilation of English statute law:

“Also þerase man rauisez womman … mit strenkþe, albehit þat heo assente afterward, he sal habbe þilke iugement þat his iseid bifore” (“Also in that case where man ravishes woman … with violence, albeit that she assents afterward, he shall have such judgment as was said of him before”).

In “The Knight’s Tale” (circa 1385), Chaucer uses the three-word expression: “Al be it þt [that] it is agayn his kynde / Of al this stryf he kan remedie fynde.”

And here’s an OED example from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (c. 1611): A worthy Fellow, / Albeit he comes on angry purpose now.”

The Merriam-Webster’s usage manual has many 20th-century examples from well-known writers, including Robert Frost, George Santayana, Vladimir Nabokov, E. B. White, and Mary McCarthy.

Here’s an example from “Time Out,” a poem in A Witness Tree, a 1942 collection of Frost’s poetry:

It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant).

We think “albeit” is a splendid old word! It may sound old-fashioned, but it’s here to stay. This is how R. W. Burchfield describes it in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.):

“One of the most persistent archaic-sounding words in the language.”

If you use it, make sure you pronounce it right. As Bryan A. Garner explains in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “The first syllable of albeit is pronounced like all, not like your friend Al.”

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Muffs, mufflers, and muffed

Q: My wife is using a small blanket to cover her fractured hand. She can’t get a glove over her brace. The other night, she said, “Hand me my muff.” I thought of Mimi’s cold hands in La Bohème. Also “muffing” a fly ball, the “muffler” on necks and cars, and the more salacious uses. Hmm.

A: The “muff” that warms your hands is related to the “muffler” that warms your neck. And to “muff” a fly ball may also be a relative of the hand warmer, but that etymology is up in the air. As for those hot words, you can thank the hand warmer too.

The first of these words to show up in writing is the “muff” that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “covering, often of fur and usually of cylindrical shape with open ends, into which both hands may be placed for warmth.”

The OED labels the term “historical” (that is, relegated to the dustbin of history), though we remember seeing lots of them in our youth. Well, perhaps we’ve become historical ourselves.

The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from Sym and His Brudir (1568), a Middle Scots satire of church abuse: “His beird it wes als lang & blak / That it hang our his mouf.”

The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue suggests that the word “mouf” in that citation may refer to “a muffler of some kind round the neck.” It’s hard to tell from some of the early examples in the OED whether the term is being used for something to warm the hands or the neck.

However, the next Oxford citation clearly refers to a hand warmer, though we had to go to the original text to confirm it. Here’s an expanded version of the passage from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels, a 1601 satirical play by Ben Jonson:

“Mary, I will come to her, (and she alwayes weares a Muffe if you be remembred) and I will tell her: Madame your whole selfe cannot but be perfectly wise: for your hands haue witte enough to keepe themselues warme.”

The OED says English probably borrowed the word from Dutch, where mof is now a muff as well as an ethnic slur for a German, but the ultimate source is the Middle French moufle (mitten). The online version of Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française traces it back to muffala (medieval Latin for “mitten”).

The use of “muffler” for a “wrap or scarf (freq. of wool or silk) worn round the neck or throat for warmth” appeared at the end of the 1500s, according to citations in the OED.

The first example is from Mother Bombie, a 1594 comedy by the dramatist John Lyly: “Silena, I praie you looke homeward, it is a colde aire, and you want your mufler.”

Interestingly, the “muffler” that warms your neck is related to the “muffler” that deadens the sound of your car’s exhaust, a usage that showed up at the end of the 19th century.

Both senses are derived from the verb “muffle,” which comes from moufle, the same Middle French term believed to be the source of “muff.”

When “muffle” showed up in the 15th century, it meant to wrap something around the face to provide concealment or protection from the weather.

The first OED example is from Generides, an anonymous medieval romance, or adventure story, written sometime before 1450: “She mufled hir face hir to desgyse / That noon shuld know hir in noo wise.”

By the 16th century, “muffle” also meant to cover someone’s mouth to prevent speaking—for example, to gag someone.

Here’s an early definition from Manipulus Vocabulorum (1570), an English-Latin dictionary, by Peter Levens: “To Muffle ye mouth, obturare.” (In Latin, obturare is “stop up.”)

And in the 18th century, “muffle” took on the sense of wrapping something—such as a drum, a bell, or an oar—to deaden sound:

“They laid all their oars across, except two in each boat, which they muffled with baize, to prevent their being heard at a distance.” (From a 1761 issue of the British Magazine, or Monthly Repository for Gentlemen and Ladies, edited by Tobias Smollett.)

The OED describes the use of “muffler” for the device on a vehicle as “chiefly N. Amer.” The earliest citation is from A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1895), edited by Isaac Kaufman Funk:

Muffler, a device to render noiseless the escape of steam from a vacuum-brake, exhaust-pipe, or safety-valve.”

(With a former classmate, Adam Willis Wagnalls, Funk founded the Funk & Wagnalls Company, known for its dictionaries and other reference books.)

To answer your question about muffing a fly ball, we’ll have to back up somewhat and begin with a version of the noun “muff” that showed up in the early 19th century.

This “muff,” the OED says, means a “foolish, stupid, feeble, or incompetent person; spec. one who is clumsy or awkward in some sport or manual skill.”

Oxford says this sense of “muff” may come from the word’s original use for a hand warmer, “perhaps conveying the sense of something soft (and, by extension, something weak), or perhaps implying clumsiness commensurate with keeping one’s hands in a muff.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (1819), by James Hardy Vaux:

Mouth, a foolish silly person …. Muff, an epithet synonymous with mouth.” (Oxford defines “flash language” as the language of thieves.)

The new noun usage led to the use of the verb “muff” for bungling on the playing fields, though the earliest example in the OED is from cricket, not baseball:

“All the best of our players completely muffed their batting.” (From Cricket Sketches of the Players, an 1846 book by William Denison, a cricketer and sportswriter.)

The earliest known baseball citation is from the Aug. 12, 1882, issue of the Philadelphia Press: “That usually reliable fielder muffed the fly.”

By the 20th century, the verb “muff” was being used in the wider sense of bungling something or making a mess of it.

Here’s an example from The Hairy Ape, a 1922 play by Eugene O’Neill: “Yuh got what I was sayin’ even if yuh muffed de woids.” And here’s one from a 1941 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien: “I muffed my exams.”

We’ll end with what the OED describes as the slang use of the noun “muff” for the “female pubic hair. Hence also: the vulva, the vagina.”

The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, a 1699 slang dictionary written anonymously by “B. E. Gent”:

Muff, c. a Woman’s Secrets. To the well-wearing of your Muff Mort, c. to the happy Consummation of your Marriage Madam, a Health.” (The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford has published the book as The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699.)

Interestingly, the OED labels the pubic sense of “muff” as slang, but it labels “muff-diver,” “muff-dive,” and “muff-diving” as coarse slang. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall as the dictionary’s editors discussed the labeling of these terms.

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When “mortify” meant to kill

Q: At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley is “mortified” by Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth. I’ve read the novel umpteen times, but it just struck me that “mortify” must have something to do with death. What is the connection?

A: Yes, the verb “mortify” has a deadly history.

When English adopted it in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman mortifier, the word in both languages meant “to put to death.”

It’s ultimately derived from the classical Latin combining elements mort- (death) and -ficāre (to cause), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the years, “mortify” took on many other senses, some influenced by medieval Latin, Old French, and Middle French, and others originating in English.

The earliest example for “mortify” in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Þe lord mortefieþ & qwekeneþ, bryngeþ down to hellis & aȝeeyn bryngeþ” (“The Lord mortifieth and awakeneth, bringeth down to hell and bringeth redemption”).

Here are some obsolete, historical, or rare meanings of “mortify” and the earliest dates for them in the OED:

“Weaken” (circa 1390), “alter a metal, as with alchemy” (c. 1395), “die” (c. 1475), “donate property” (1479), “be an ascetic” (1568), “tenderize meat” (1572), and “become gangrenous” (1603).

The usual sense today (“to embarrass or humiliate”) showed up in the early 17th century. The first Oxford example is from The Ball, a 1639 comedy by the English dramatist James Shirley: “We come to mortifie you.”

The most recent citation in Oxford is from Parallel Lives, a 1985 book by Phyllis Rose about the marriages of five Victorian writers: “It mortified Effie that her husband [John Ruskin] left her constantly alone.”

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The emperor’s cold feet

Q: Professor Wadding, a minor character in The Transit of Venus, says the expression “cold feet” comes from Emperor Henry IV’s waiting in the snow at Canossa to meet Pope Gregory VII. Is this etymology too good to be true?

Yes, that’s a fictitious story, but don’t blame Shirley Hazzard, the author of the novel. Blame Professor Wadding, who is deliberately portrayed as a pompous twit and a fount of academic gobbledygook.

The use of “cold feet” to mean a lack of courage, confidence, or resolve actually appeared in writing for the first time in the late 19th century, more than 800 years after the Pope is said to have kept the Emperor waiting for three wintry days outside Canossa Castle.

The expression showed up in writing for the first time in two American works of fiction published in 1896:

“He’s one o’ them boys that never has cold feet and there’s nothin’ too good for a friend.” (From Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town, a novel by George Ade.)

“I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” (From Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novella by Stephen Crane. The citation is found in the 1896 second edition, but not the 1893 first, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.)

Word sleuths have found earlier examples of “cold feet” in fiction, but the phrase is used either literally or in a different figurative sense.

For example, the phrase shows up several times in an 1878 English translation of Seed-time and Harvest, a novel by the German writer Fritz Reuter.

In one scene, a winning card player decides to leave the table when his lucks changes: “so he rose and said his feet were getting cold, and put his winnings in his pocket.”

Other players then accused him of using “cold feet” as an excuse: “Don’t you always get cold feet at our club, when you have had good luck?” one said.

(The title of the novel is from Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”)

And in Volpone, a 1606 comedy by the English playwright Ben Jonson, the title character says: “Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate, than I accustomed: look not to it.”

Kenneth McKenzie, who was an Italian scholar at Yale University, says in a December 1912 letter in Modern Language Notes that “to be cold in the feet” in the Lombard dialect (as well as in modern Italian) means to be “hard up”—that is, “without money.”

As for Canossa, Emperor Henry IV may have had cold feet, both literally and figuratively, as he waited outside the castle in January 1077. But there’s no evidence  that the expression “cold feet” was ever used figuratively at the time to describe his submission to the will of Pope Gregory VII.

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Is “monthslong” a word?

Q: Is “monthslong” a new word or did the editors at NPR slip up? A recent story referred to “a monthslong campaign of racist bullying.”

A: Yes, “monthslong” is a word—a unit of written or spoken language—and it’s not all that new. But is it really a word, one that’s alive and well in writing and speech?

You won’t find it in standard dictionaries, but dictionaries often leave out compounds made of words that have entries of their own.

For example, we’ve seen only three standard dictionaries with entries for “monthlong” or “month-long” as a singular compound adjective. Yet all standard dictionaries have entries for “month” and “long.”

Two online references, the collaborative Wiktionary and the program-generated Wordnik, do have entries for the plural form, “monthslong” (with “months-long” as a variant).

Wiktionary describes “monthslong” as an adjective that means “Lasting for multiple months.” As an example, it cites an April 14, 2007, article in the New York Times:

“A former United States Senator, John B. Breaux, ended his monthslong flirtation with the Louisiana governor’s race Friday evening, declaring that he would not be a candidate in the election this fall.”

Our own search of the Times archive found many examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long.” The earliest is from an English translation of Adolf Hitler’s June 22, 1941, proclamation on Germany’s war with the Soviet Union:

“German people! National Socialists! Weighted down with heavy cares, condemned to months-long silence, the hour has now come when at last I can speak frankly.”

We found many earlier examples for the hyphenated “months-long” in searches of book and newspaper databases.

Here’s an example from Hearts and Creeds, a 1906 novel by Anna Chapin Ray:

“The months-long discontent with the existing order of things, increased by the passive revolt of the Conservative party and aided by their active influence, was ending, as they had hoped, in the temporary disruption of the Liberal power.”

And an article in the Feb. 19, 1911, issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram refers to “a timber cruiser, or field surveyor, for a big lumber company, who was perpetually taking months-long trips through the most inaccessible regions.”

Many early examples for “months-long,” including all three mentioned above, break at the end of a line of type, so it’s unclear whether the writer intended the adjective to be hyphenated or not.

The Associated Press and New York Times style books have entries for “monthlong,” but not “monthslong.” However, “monthslong” and “months-long” appear frequently in the online versions of the Times and other newspapers.

In fact, the Times archive has hundreds of examples for both “monthslong” and “months-long,” though the hyphen-free version seems to be more popular lately.

Interestingly, the word usually appears without a hyphen in online searches of the Times archive, even when it originally appeared with a hyphen in the print paper.

In short, it seems that “monthslong” and “months-long” are indeed words in both the technical and practical senses, but their orthography is still a work in progress.

For what it’s worth, we prefer “months-long.” It’s easier to read than “monthslong,” especially online, where everyone’s in such a hurry.

Better still, if you know the number of months, why not be precise and say “a three-month campaign”?

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“Intend on” vs. “intend to”

Q: I hear people saying things like “I intend on getting back to you” instead of “I intend to get back to you.” I wonder if they’re conflating “intend to” and “intent on.” It sounds incorrect to me. Or is “intend on” correct?  I’m intent on knowing.

A: The verb “intend” has been used in more than two dozen ways since it showed up in English in the late 1300s, but most of them are now obsolete.

Today, it’s primarily followed by a noun (“I don’t intend offense”), a gerund (“The board intends meeting”), an infinitive (“She intends to write”), a clause (“The officer intends that we wait”), or a prepositional phrase (“The money was intended for a new school”).

You ask whether it’s legit to use the phrasal verb “intend on” with a gerund (or gerund phrase) as a direct object: “I intend on getting back to you.”

Merriam-Wester’s Dictionary of English Usage has this to say: “In speech and speechlike writing, it [intend] is sometimes followed by on and a gerund.” In other words, M-W considers the usage colloquial—that is, informal or conversational.

The usage guide offers this example from a 1981 letter to the Saturday Evening Post: “I intend on protecting myself and my loved ones.”

In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), R. W. Burchfield describes the usage as an informal Americanism (“informal AME type”) and gives this example: “Don’t pick up a magazine unless you intend on buying it.”

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English suggests that the construction is more common in the US than Merriam-Webster’s suggests, while a search of the British National Corpus finds it negligible in the UK.

The usage is relatively recent, apparently showing up in the early 1970s, according to our searches of literary and news databases.

The first examples we’ve found are from a report of the Sept. 23-28, 1973, convention of the International Woodworkers of America in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The usage showed up several times at the convention, as in this comment by one speaker: “we intend on being the strongest, the most militant union anywhere on the North American continent.”

In our opinion, it’s acceptable for Americans to use “intend on” in conversation and informal writing, but we wouldn’t recommend it in formal contexts.

Is “intent on” responsible for the “intend on” usage? Our guess is that “plan on” is a more likely culprit. “I intend on sleeping late” is parallel to “I plan on sleeping late,” a standard construction.

The verb “intend” comes from the Latin intendere, which combines in- (towards) with tendere (to stretch).

As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, one of the meanings of intendere in Latin was to “ ‘direct’ or ‘stretch’ one’s thoughts toward something.”

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Little Buttercup, disassembled?

Q: While playing oboe for a D’Oyly Carte tour, I heard that Little Buttercup may really mean “disassembled” when she tells the Boatswain in Pinafore that she has “dissembled.” Have you ever come across this alternate definition?

A: Does Little Buttercup use “dissembled” to mean “disassembled” in H.M.S. Pinafore after the Boatswain describes her as “the rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead”?

Red, am I? and round—and rosy! Maybe, for I have dissembled well! But hark ye, my merry friend—hast ever thought that beneath a gay and frivolous exterior there may lurk a canker-worm which is slowly but surely eating its way into one’s very heart?

One could perhaps make a case that Buttercup is using “dissembled” here to mean “disassembled,” but we wouldn’t make it.

Although the verb “dissemble” did indeed once mean “disassemble,” the Oxford English Dictionary has only one example for the usage—from the late 1500s or early 1600s.

And in our searches of literary databases, we couldn’t find any examples for the usage from the late 19th century, when W. S. Gilbert wrote the words and Arthur Sullivan the music for the comic opera.

It seems perfectly clear to us that Little Buttercup has indeed “dissembled” in the usual way—she’s disguised her true feelings by putting a happy face on the remorse eating at her heart.

And in a duet with the Captain, she uses that sense of “dissemble” several times, as in this example: “Though to catch my drift he’s striving, / I’ll dissemble—I’ll dissemble.”

Interestingly, the verb “disassemble” was rarely seen before the 20th century, and Gilbert may not have been aware of it when he wrote the libretto for the opera, which opened in London in 1878.

Standard dictionaries didn’t have entries for “disassemble” until well into the 20th century, and the earliest modern citation for it in the OED is from the 1920s, though we’ve found some 19th-century examples in our searches.

Now, let’s assemble the history of these words.

The first to show up in English, “dissemble,” is an alteration of the earlier (and now obsolete) verb “dissimule,” which was borrowed from the Old French dissimuler (to hide one’s intentions) in the 14th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The ultimate source is the Latin dissimulāre (to disguise or conceal). The Latin verb combines dis- (completely) with simulāre (to pretend), Chambers adds.

(Dissimulāre is also the source of “dissimulate,” to conceal one’s feelings, and “dissimulation.”)

Why did “dissimule” morph into “dissemble”? The OED suggests that the transformation was “influenced perhaps by resemble.”

The first citation for the “dissemble” spelling in the OED is from Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1513-18):

“Some … not able to dissemble theyr sorow, were faine at his backe to turne their face to the wall.” More’s history was the main source for Shakespeare’s Richard III, according to scholars.

Oxford defines “dissemble” as to “alter or disguise the semblance of (one’s character, a feeling, design, or action) so as to conceal, or deceive as to, its real nature; to give a false or feigned semblance to; to cloak or disguise by a feigned appearance.”

As for the old use of “dissemble” to mean “disassemble,” the OED describes it as rare and obsolete. It defines this sense as to “separate, disperse: = disassemble,” and traces the usage to the Old French dessembler (to separate).

The only Oxford citation for this sense of “dissemble” is from a memoir by Sir Jerome Horsey, a British diplomat, about his travels in Russia during the late 1500s:

“The chieff bishops … assembled and disembled often tymes together, much perplexed and devided.” The dictionary says the citation was written sometime before 1626, and appears in a version of the memoir edited by E. A. Bond in 1856.

As to “disassemble,” Oxford has an obsolete sense from the early 1600s, but the first example for the word in its usual modern sense (“to take to pieces, to take apart”) is from a 1922 collection of short stories:

“This generating plant was partly disassembled.” The OED doesn’t cite the author or publisher of the story.

However, we’ve found several 19th-century examples for “disassemble,” including this one from an 1893 report to Congress by the Secretary of the Navy:

“The breech mechanism was disassembled and thoroughly examined immediately after this firing and found to be cool and comparatively clean, what little dirt there was having come from the leaky primer test.”

The usage must have been uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since we didn’t find entries for “disassemble” in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), The Century Dictionary (1889-91), or Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).

However, the verb “assemble,” the opposite of “disassemble,” has been around since the Middle Ages. The earliest example in the OED is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297):

“And amorwe hem lete asemly wyþ mylde herte ynou” (“And in the morning let them assemble with enough mercy in their hearts”). Oxford notes that the Middle English “asemly” was misprinted as “asely” in the manuscript.

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Coming for to carry me home

Q: I’ve come across the use of “for to” instead of “to” in a number of songs, poems, and other writing. In fact, a post of yours includes an example from Chaucer: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.” In what context is this usage correct?

A: The old phrase “for to” is now considered archaic or dialectal, but it still gets around, as you’ve noticed.

You can hear it in the Belfast dialect spoken in Northern Ireland, for example, as well as in songs by Bob Dylan.

In Belfast English and Standard English (1995), the linguist Alison Henry includes “I don’t like the children for to be out late” and “They are going home for to see their parents” among her dialectal examples.

In “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan sings, “I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade.” And in “When the Ship Comes In,” he sings, “And the words that are used / For to get the ship confused.”

Of course the usage also appears in older poetry and music, such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem “For to Admire” and the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with its line “Coming for to carry me home.”

In what context is this usage correct? Well, “for to” was once ordinary usage, but it’s not standard English today. Nevertheless, we’re not particularly bothered when poets and lyricists take liberties with English.

How did all this “for to”-ing begin? Here’s the story.

In Anglo-Saxon times, “for” was a preposition meaning “in front of,” “for the purpose of,” and “because of.” But it sometimes combined with other terms, as in forþan (therefore) and for-hwí (for why).

In the 12th century, as Old English gave way to Middle English, “for” and “to” came together to form the phrasal preposition “for to,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The new term, which meant “in order to,” was used before bare, or “to”-less, infinitives, much like the infinitive marker “to” is now used.

The earliest example of “for to” in the OED is from the Cotton Homilies, written sometime before 1175: “Forte don him understonden” (“For to [in order to] make him understand”).

A little later, “for to” appeared as a conjunction meaning “until.” The first OED example is from the Trinity Homilies (circa 1200):

For to þe time cam þat he heregede helle” (“Until the time that he harrowed hell”). Translated from the Latin descendit ad inferos (“he descended into hell”) in the Apostles’ Creed, an early medieval statement of Christian belief.

In late Middle English, the phrase “for to” was often used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense, according to the linguist Elly van Gelderen. The subordinate verb referred to an action that followed that of the main verb.

In a 1998 paper in the American Journal of Germanic Linguistics and Literatures, van Gelderen says Chaucer uses “for to” in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386) “to introduce subordinate verbs approximately 430 times.”

The Canterbury quotation in your question is a good example of “for to” used to introduce a subordinate verb with a future sense: “cometh for to axe him of mercy.”

In that excerpt from “The Parson’s Tale,” the main verb, “cometh,” is followed by “for to,” which introduces a subordinate verb, “axe,” that refers to a future action.

In her paper, “The Future of For To,” van Gelderen says the “demise of for to” began as Middle English gave way to Modern English in the 16th century, with “for” and “to” eventually going their separate ways.

However, the “for to” usage continued to be relatively common until well into the 18th century.

The OED’s two most recent examples are from prominent figures in American history: George Washington and Abigail Adams:

“You must ride round ye back of ye Mountain for to get below them.” (From a 1748 entry in Washington’s journal.)

“Having only put off its present glory for to rise finally to a more happy state.” (From a letter written in 1774 from Abigail to John Adams.)

In contemporary English, “for” is either a preposition with many senses (“She’s running for senator,” “He’s being treated for depression,” and so on) or a conjunction meaning “because” or “since” (“I asked them to leave, for I was sleepy”).

And “to” is now a preposition with multiple meanings (“I was close to tears,” “Move the cursor to the left,” etc.) or an infinitive marker (“They want to start a recycling program”).

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Suck, sucker, and sucking up

Q: How did “suck,” a verb apparently derived from an ancient root related to creating negative pressure to draw liquid into the mouth, give us the noun “sucker” for a foolish or gullible person?

A: When the verb “suck” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it usually referred to what a baby does at its mother’s breast.

All the modern uses of “suck” and its offspring—from the innocuous to the vulgar—are derived in one way or another from that innocent early usage.

When the verb came into Old English writing as súcan, it meant “to draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English verb, like the corresponding term in Latin, sūgĕre, ultimately comes from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root seuə- (to take liquid), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This root is rendered by the OED as sug-, and by John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins as seug- or seuk-.

Ayto says the word is imitative in origin: “This no doubt originated in imitation of the sound of sucking from the mother’s breast.”

The earliest Old English example in the OED (from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825) refers to drawing sustenance from things other than the breast:

“Sucun hunig of stane & ele of trumum stane” (“Suck honey from the stone and oil from the hard stone”). The passage is in Deuteronomy 32:13.

However, the next Oxford example (from the Paris Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 1050) refers to nursing babies:

“Of ðæra cild muðe, þe meolc sucað, þu byst hered” (“From the mouths of children who suck milk you are praised”). Matthew 21:16.

When the noun “suck” showed up in the Middle Ages, it similarly referred to “the action or an act of sucking milk from the breast,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the noun is from one of the two St. Gregory documents in the Vernon Manuscript (1390-1400), written in the West Midland dialect of Middle English:

“Whon heo hedde iȝiue þe child a souke” (“When she had given the child suck”).

Around the same time, the noun “sucker” appeared in the sense of “suckling” (a term that showed up in the 15th century). The first citation in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384:

“Forsothe Philip, his euen souker, transferride the body” (“Forsooth Philip, a fellow suckling [a friend from infancy], transported the body”). We’ve expanded the citation, a passage found in 2 Maccabees 9:29.

Most of the negative senses arising from “suck” showed up in the 19th and 20th centuries, though a few appeared earlier, including to “suck” money from someone (circa 1380), “suck” the blood from someone (to exhaust or drain, 1583), and “suck” someone dry (to exhaust, 1592).

The sense of “sucker” you’re asking about (a gullible person who’s easy to deceive) originated in North America in the early 19th century, according to Ayto’s etymological dictionary.

Ayto defines it as “someone as naive as an unweaned child.” And the language writer Hugh Rawson says in Wicked Words that it refers to “one who has all the smarts of an unweaned animal.”

The first example in the OED is from the May 29, 1838, issue of the Patriot, a newspaper in Toronto:

“It’s true that pigs has their troubles like humans … constables catches ’em, dogs bites ’em, and pigs is sometimes as done-over suckers as men.”

The use of “sucker” as a dupe or patsy may also have been influenced by the somewhat earlier use of the word for a sweet, such as a lollipop.

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is from Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823), by Edward Moor: “Suckers, a longish sort of a sweety.”

In the 1840s, the phrasal verb “suck in” came to mean to cheat or deceive. The dictionary’s first example is from Frontier Life, an 1842 collection of sketches by Caroline M. Kirkland:

“I a’n’t bound to drive nobody in the middle of the night … so don’t you try to suck me in there.”

Later, the expression “suck up to” came to mean curry favor with or toady to. The first Oxford example is from an 1860 slang dictionary written by John Camden Hotten:

Suck up, ‘to suck up to a person’ to insinuate oneself into his good graces.” The OED says the term originated as schoolboy slang.

A couple of decades later, “suck” showed up in writing in the cunnilingus and fellatio sense.

The Pearl, a pornographic monthly, used the word repeatedly in both senses during the 18 months that it published in 1879 and 1880.

Here’s an example from the October 1879 issue: “How nice it feels to have one’s prick sucked.”

The OED is a laggard in recording this sense. The dictionary’s earliest example is a 1928 citation in A. W. Read’s Lexical Evidence From Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (1935): “I suck cocks for fun.”

Rawson, the author of Wicked Words, says “suck” was apparently a taboo word decades before its sexual sense appeared in print in the Pearl.

As evidence, he cites the “watered-down text” of Matthew 24:19 in Noah Webster’s 1833 revision of the King James Version “for family consumption.”

Webster changed “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” to “And woe to them that are with child, and to them that nurse infants in those days!” Many modern biblical translations use a similar, “suck”-less wording.

A few other negative terms from the “suck” family showed up in the first half of the 20th century, including “to suck eggs” (to be mean or irritable, 1903), “go suck eggs!” (an exclamation of hostility or dismissal, 1906), and “to suck the hind tit or teat” (to be inferior or a loser, 1940).

Those egg-sucking expressions have roots going back to the early 1600s, when a “suck-egg” meant a thieving animal, hence a fool or a greedy person. The OED defines a “suck-egg” as “an animal that is reputed to suck eggs, e.g. a weasel, cuckoo,” and says the term figuratively meant a “silly” or “avaricious person.”

The term “suck-egg” was also used pejoratively before nouns, as in “suck-egge Weasell” (1631), “Suck-egge-fly” (1658), and, especially in American English, “suck-egg dog” (1872 or earlier).

The adjectival use of “suck-egg” survived well into the 20th century, as in this OED citation: “Hayes got up and slunk off like a suck-egg dog caught in the hen-house.” (From the Virginia Quarterly Review, January 1931.)

However, new positive senses for “suck” showed up in the 20th century, such as “suck it up” (to work up one’s courage in the face of adversity, 1967).

The use of “suck” as a slang verb meaning “to be contemptible or disgusting” appeared later in the 20th century, according to citations in the OED.

The first example in Oxford is from the June 2, 1971, issue of International Times, or IT, a counterculture newspaper:

“Polaroid sucks! For some time the Polaroid Corporation has been supplying the South African government with large photo systems … to use for photographing blacks for the passbooks … every black must carry.”

But the linguist Ronald R. Butters, writing in the Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, cites a 1964 use of “suck” in this sense to denigrate an astrologer:

“Consuela sucks and anybody who believes this crap is crazy.” (Butters says the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower acquainted him with the citation, from The Herbert Huncke Reader, 1997.)

Standard dictionaries variously label this usage “informal,” “slang,” “rude,” “impolite,” or “vulgar.” The more disapproving labels apparently reflect the word’s association with oral sex.

Etymologists and other language types have argued for years over whether the sexual “suck” begat the “suck” that means to be bad, disagreeable or disgusting—that is, to stink.

In his 2001 paper, Butters argues against a “vulgar” label for “suck” in its newer sense, saying, “Little if any lexicographical evidence exists that privileges the etymological derivation of the idiom X sucks! from phrases involving fellatio.”

“At best, the connotations of fellatio that many speakers today sometimes assign to the X sucks! idiom arise post facto, when speakers speakers are forced to speculate about the etymology of the idiom,” he writes.

(The title of the Butters paper is “ ‘We Didn’t Realize That Lite Beer Was Supposed to Suck!’: The Putative Vulgarity of ‘X Sucks’ in American English.”)

As we said at the beginning, all the usages in the “suck” family are ultimately derived from the Anglo-Saxon sense of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. However, the use of “suck” in the sexual sense clearly colors the newer usage for some English speakers.

We’d describe the “stink” sense of “suck” as slang, not vulgar. It’s clearly gaining acceptance, but we wouldn’t recommend using it in most formal writing or speech.

[Note: This post was updated on April 8, 2017.]

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Can a ‘run-on’ sentence run on?

Q: I’m puzzled by this sentence: “Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers.” Technically, it’s a run-on sentence and incorrect. But it feels so right. What are your thoughts?

A: It’s true that in general you shouldn’t use a comma alone—without a conjunction like “and” or “but”—to join two independent clauses (that is, clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences).

Supposedly, to use a comma instead of a semicolon creates a “spliced” or “run-on” sentence. Or so we’ve been taught.

But we think the example you sent is fine as it is. In our opinion, it’s not a run-on sentence.

This is a natural (and very common) way of writing everyday English. In more formal—perhaps legal or academic—writing, you might prefer a semicolon to a comma.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has a discussion of “what prescriptivists call a ‘spliced’ or ‘run-on’ comma,” and it provides this example: “The locals prefer wine to beer, the village pub resembles a city wine bar.”

Such a sentence would be “widely regarded as infelicitous,” say the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

But in certain cases, commas are accepted when used to join two independent clauses, Huddleston and Pullum write. They give these examples:

(1) “To keep a child of twelve or thirteen under the impression that nothing nasty ever happens is not merely dishonest, it is unwise.”

Here a negative clause is followed by a positive, the authors note. In such cases—especially where the negative clause has “not only,” “not simply, “not merely,” or “not just”—the positive clause often starts with “but.” The authors add that the “construction without but is also common, however, and readily allows the comma.”

(2) “Some players make good salaries, others play for the love of the game.”

Here, the Cambridge Grammar explains, “The comma is justified by the close parallelism between the clauses and their relative simplicity.”

The sentence you ask about—“Uber’s surge pricing algorithm does not reduce output, it increases the supply of transportation providers”—is like No, 1, with a negative clause followed by a positive. It also resembles No. 2 in that the two independent clauses are closely parallel.

This is why we don’t consider it a run-on sentence, and why we think the comma is fine.

In a footnote, the Cambridge Grammar mentions a third kind of sentence in which a comma is used to separate two independent clauses. The example given is “Order your furniture on Monday, take it home on Tuesday.”

Technically, the authors write, these are two separate imperative clauses. But the sentence “is interpreted as a conditional statement, ‘If you order your furniture on Monday you can take it home on Tuesday.’ ”

Using a semicolon instead of a comma (“Order your furniture on Monday; take it home on Tuesday”), the authors write, “would allow only the literal interpretation as a compound directive.”

Here’s something else to keep in mind. As the Cambridge Grammar points out, the great mass of published English that we read is edited according to “codified rules” of punctuation that are “set out in manuals specific to a particular publishing house or accepted more widely as authoritative guides.”

Despite this “codification,” the Cambridge Grammar says, “punctuation practice is by no means entirely uniform.” As we’ve written on our blog, punctuation also changes with the times.

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