The Grammarphobia Blog

Who’s the “Indian giver”?

Q: An old history professor of mine once said American Indians were erroneously offended by the term “Indian giver.” He said the term applied not to Indians, but to the white government that granted Indians territory only to break its word and take the land back. My professor is now dead and I have no idea where he learned this. Do you know?

A: None of the sources I’ve checked support your old professor’s definition of “Indian giver”; unfortunately, all I find is the offensive meaning that Native Americans have every right to resent.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the related phrase “Indian gift” to Massachusetts in 1765, when it was defined as “signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.”

The OED‘s earliest citation for “Indian giver” is John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1860): “Indian giver. When an Indian gives any thing, he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned.”

But a posting on the Linguist List, a forum for linguists, offers this 1848 entry from a previous edition of Bartlett’s dictionary: “INDIAN GIVER. When an Indian gives anything, he expects an equivalent in return, or that the same thing may be given back to him. This term is applied by children in New York and the vicinity to a child who, after having given away a thing, wishes to have it back again.”

An article in the New-York Mirror in June 1838 also defined “Indian giver” as meaning “One who gives a present and demands it back again.”

Too bad. I like your professor’s definition better.

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Out of sight!

Q: In a recent New York Times column, Dan Barry referred to the buying of property “sight unseen.” Shouldn’t he have said “site unseen,” since he was clearly referring to a piece of property? In fact, I’ve long wondered why we say “sight unseen” when the clear meaning is usually “site unseen.”

A: I have to disagree with you. A “site” is a location while a “sight” is a view. What this idiomatic usage means is that a “sight” (a view) has not been “seen.” When you buy something “sight unseen,” whether it’s a four-acre lot or a four-pound Chihuahua, you haven’t laid eyes on it.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “sight unseen” is an American expression for “without inspection” and dates from the 1890s. The OED’s earliest citation, from 1892, is in Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society: “To trade knives sight unseen is to swap without seeing each other’s knife.”

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Possessed by possessives

Q: I work in a dental office and I have a possessive problem. Which of these sentences is correct? “The following is a brief description of our mutual patient, So and So’s, dentition and treatment plan.” Or: “The following is a brief description of our mutual patient’s, So and So, dentition and treatment plan.” I hope you can help me!

A: Neither one is right. In fact, there’s no smooth way to write that sentence correctly without a little surgery.

A case could be made for adding apostrophes to both “patient” and “So and So,” but you’d end up with a clunky sentence. A better solution is to reorganize the sentence.

Here’s one possibility: “The following is a brief description of the dentition and treatment plan of our mutual patient, So and So.”

Here’s another possibility: “I’ve prepared a dentition and treatment plan for our mutual patient, So and So. A brief description follows.”

One more: “Here is a brief description of the dentition and treatment plan that I have prepared for our mutual patient, So and So.”

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Easier than a root canal, anyway.

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What’s with the “et” in “et cetera”?

Q: Would you care to comment on the more and more frequent mispronunciation of “et cetera” as “ek cetera”? Is this a lost cause? Or is there time to draw the line?

A: I don’t think it’s a lost cause, but the mispronunciation you mention, often heard as “exetra” or “ek cetera,” has become so commonplace that it’s no longer “eksentric.” It’s still not “akceptable,” though.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only two pronunciations: et-SET-uh-ruh and et-SET-ruh. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) adds “ek” and “ik” versions, but says they’re less common and considered unacceptable by some.

Why do so many people pronounce “et cetera” as though the first syllable were “ek” or “ex”? I can’t answer that, but Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, lists it as one of the 50 most commonly mispronounced words in American English. It’s right up there with “ast” and “aksd” (for “asked”).

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Is “overage” over the line?

Q: Here’s something that has been driving me crazy: the term “overage,” which the cell-phone companies have invented. It’s not really a word, is it?

A: The noun “overage,” meaning a surplus, is legitimate, according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Merriam-Webster’s dates it from 1909, so it’s been around a lot longer than cell phones.

In fact, “overage” was a word back in the early 15th century, when it meant work or a piece of workmanship, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the work angle comes from the Old French ovre or oeuvre.

So, you could say that “overage” is not only OK, but also a piece of work!

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Did Roger Clemens throw a wild pitch?

Q: Many people say “I don’t know that” at the beginning of a statement. In my opinion, “I don’t think that” makes more sense. For example, in a recent interview Roger Clemens said, “I don’t know that I have anything left to prove.” It sounds like he’s stating a fact while claiming not to know it. Is this usage correct?

A: Roger Clemens’s use of “know” isn’t unusual. In fact, you might say it’s been known for quite some time. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes similar usages dating back to the year 1000.

From then until now, according to the OED, one definition of “know” has been “to be cognizant, conscious, or aware of (a fact); to be informed of, to have learned; to apprehend (with the mind), to understand.” The dictionary notes that the usage is seen in “various constructions,” including “with dependent statement, usually introduced by that.”

So a sentence like “I don’t know that I have anything left to prove” can be read as “I’m not aware that I have anything left to prove.”

One other point. An obscure definition of “know,” dating back to the year 1200, is to acknowledge. This cobwebbed usage sounds very similar to the sense in which modern speakers say things like “I don’t know that I agree with you.”

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Textual criticism

Q: What’s the proper word for sending a text via the phone? The statement “he texted me” sounds funny. I usually say “he sent me a text message.” Can you clear this up?

A: As of now, the current editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) don’t recognize “text” as a verb. But I’ll bet it won’t be long before they do. [Note: See the update at the end of this post.]

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, in their online draft additions to the dictionary, include “text” as a verb meaning to send a text message. The earliest citation is from an Internet newsgroup (alt.cellular.gsm) posting in 1998: “We still keep in touch…‘texting’ each other jokes, quotes, stories, questions, etc.”

Interestingly, the word “text” was used as a verb back in the 16th and 17th centuries. In those days it meant to write in text-hand (the large, formal handwriting used in books) or to cite texts. One of the earliest published references in the OED is from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: “Yea, and text underneath, ‘Here dwells Benedick the married man!’”

The expression “he was texting me” somehow sounds better to my ears than “he texted me,” but I’d hold off using “text” as a verb until it actually shows up in dictionaries or is more commonly used. Your best choice for now is to continue saying what you’re saying: “He sent me a text message.”

Update, July 8, 2013:

In the six years since this post was written, the verb “text” has become a household word, along with the past tense “texted.” The most recent editions of American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s both recognize the verb.

American Heritage (5th ed.) has two definitions for the transitive use: “(1) To send a text message to: She texted me when she arrived at the airport. (2) To communicate by text message: He texted that he would be late.”

And AH has one definition for the intransitive use: “To key or send text messages: She was texting in class and missed what was said.”

The dictionary lists the past tense as “texted” and the present participle as “texting.”

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Is it worth the “efforting”?

Q: I recently said somebody was “efforting” (that is, working hard) to accomplish something. The people who were with me looked at me as if I had three heads, insisting that this was not a word. Is “to effort” a legitimate verb, and if so, did I use it properly?


A: I can’t find the verb “effort” in the two dictionaries I consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Both have “effort” only as a noun, with related adjectives and adverbs.

I did, however, discover a single published reference for “effort” as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary, the 20-volume mother of all dictionaries. Thomas Fuller, a 17th-century scholar and clergyman, used the term in History of the Worthies of England: “He efforted his spirits with the remembrance…of what formerly he had been.”

That was then. What about now?

I got nearly 20,000 hits when I Googled “efforting,” but many were complaints about the usage. As Barbara Wallraff puts it in her Word Court column in The Atlantic, “There’s no point in inventing ‘efforting’ when so many familiar verbs are available to do its job.”

Amen!

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A hairy thought

Q: What’s the origin of the word “sideburns”? I’ve heard that a Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside, made them stylish and well known. Can this be true?

A: General Ambrose Everett Burnside, who commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac during its defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, is indeed responsible for the word “sideburns.”

He wasn’t much of a general, according to the historian Bruce Catton, but he had “what was probably the most artistic and awe-inspiring set of whiskers in all that bewhiskered Army.”

The general’s cheek whiskers became known as “Burnside’s,” then “burnsides,” and finally “sideburns” in a linguistic flip-flop, according to Evan Morris’s Word Detective website. Before then, Morris tells us, cheek whiskers had been referred to as “mutton chops” because of their resemblance to the cuts of meat.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first published reference to sideburns is in an 1887 item in the Chicago Journal: “McGarigle has his mustache and small sideburns still on.”

After the war, Burnside became Governor of Rhode Island, a U.S. Senator, and the first president of the National Rifle Association. But his most famous contribution to history may very well be his awe-inspiring mutton chops.

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Why do New Yorkers stand “on line”?

Q: I clearly have too much time on my hands, but I was wondering if it’s correct English for New Yorkers to stand “on line” instead of “in line.”

A: It’s an accepted idiom in New York City to stand “on line,” though it sounds odd to people from other parts of the country.

Somebody from Atlanta or Chicago or Omaha or Phoenix gets “in line” and then stands “in line”; somebody from New York gets “on line” and then stands “on line.” (Same idiom whether you’re getting in/on line or standing in/on it.) Similarly, New York shopkeepers and such will always say “next on line!” instead of “next in line!”

This is a good example of a regionalism. In Des Moines, where I come from, you get black coffee when you ask for “regular” coffee. In New York, “regular” coffee means coffee with milk. It’s a big country.

Interestingly, New Yorkers aren’t the only folks to stand on line. The Dialect Survey, which maps North American speech patterns, found that the idiom was most prevalent in the New York metropolitan area, but that it occurred in pockets around the country, especially in the East.

My old employer, the New York Times, frowns on the usage. Here’s what the Times stylebook has to say on the subject: “Few besides New Yorkers stand or wait on line. In most of the English-speaking world, people stand in line. Use that wording.”

Well, is “on line” proper English? When you’re in New York, it is (unless you work for the Times). Just relax and “enjoy” (another New Yorkism!).

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A kangaroo court

Q: What’s the origin of the expression “kangaroo court”? Does it come from Australia? And why a kangaroo of all things?

A: The expression “kangaroo court” originated not in Australia but in the American West during the 19th century. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it as an illegal, dishonest, or incompetent court.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from A Stray Yankee in Texas, an 1853 book by Philip Paxton, the pen name of Samuel Adams Hammett: “By a unanimous vote, Judge G— was elected to the bench and the ‘Mestang’ or ‘Kangaroo Court’ regularly organized.” (“Mestang” is an old spelling for that small, wild horse we now refer to as a “mustang.”)

Nobody knows for sure how the kangaroo got into the expression “kangaroo court.” But there are several theories. (Excuse me if I don’t get into the mustang angle here!)

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says the term “probably arose from some likening of the ‘jumps’ of the kangaroo to the progress of ‘justice’ in such courts.” The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang suggests that the irregular court and the odd-looking kangaroo both seem to defy the laws of nature.

Another possible explanation is that the expression describes the informal trials of accused claim jumpers during the Gold Rush. But this is all speculation. Sorry I can’t be more definite.

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Is talk cheap?

Q: I’m often irritated by hearing someone say “talk” when I think he or she means “speak,” but I’m not sure if there’s any basis for my irritation. What are your thoughts on “talk” vs. “speak”?

A: It’s interesting that you should raise this question now. I recently reread the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. There’s a recurring motif in which Lucia pretends to know Italian and tosses around a few Italian words. She is said to “talk” Italian, not “speak” it. All the characters use this term, and Benson himself as narrator uses it. I thought it odd that he didn’t use “speak.”

At any rate, both words have long been verbs meaning to use a language. But “speak” has meant this for many more centuries than “talk.”

The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for “speak” used this way dates from the late 13th century (spelled “speke”). The OED’s earliest citation for “talk” in this sense is from the mid-19th century.

It appears from the OED examples that “speak” may have once been considered somewhat more respectable than “talk.” But modern dictionaries accept both verbs as standard English. To my ears, though, “speak” sounds a bit more formal.

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For younger grammarphobes

Pat was interviewed recently by the website Slow Reads about her new grammar book for children, Woe Is I Jr. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Q: You wrote your original book, Woe Is I, in 1996 at the request of a book editor who wanted a lighthearted grammar guide. Why do you think the book became a bestseller?

A: I don’t think anyone before me had ever tried to address grammar problems without using the complicated and intimidating terminology of formal grammar. And the book was funny besides, which was a novelty for a grammar book then.

Q: What led you to write Woe Is I Jr., a similar book for middle-graders?

A: When the original book came out, parents and teachers told me they found it helpful in explaining grammar to children, and suggested that an edition especially for kids would fill a niche. But I never acted on their suggestions until Susan Kochan, a very gifted editor at the Penguin Young Readers Group, pressed me to do an edition for fourth- through sixth-graders.

Q: You seem to get middle-school kids: their reading level, their capacity for understanding grammar, and their humor. What did you have to do to prepare for – and to adjust your writing for – what I suppose is your first children’s book?

A: I corralled the children of my friends, and I asked dozens of kids from my neighborhood school as well as young library patrons to answer questionnaires designed for ages 9 through 12. The responses were priceless! All the kids who helped are getting free copies of the book, as well as thanks in the acknowledgments.

For more of the interview, visit Slow Reads.

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Keeping up with the Joneses

Q: I believe you once told a caller on public radio that Joneses’ is the possessive of Jones. I’ve always believed that you should add an ‘s to a word that ends in s to form the possessive. Isn’t Joneses the plural while Jones’s is the possessive?

A: I don’t recall the show, but you may have misunderstood me. Also, Jones’s and Joneses’ are pronounced the same way, which may have contributed to the confusion. Here’s how to form the possessive of a name that ends in s.

You add ‘s to a singular name that ends in s: “Mr. Jones’s boss sent him a Christmas card.” But if you’re talking about more than one Jones, you add es to make the name plural and an apostrophe to make it possessive: “The Joneses’ Christmas card had a picture of the whole family, including the two yellow Labs.”

The same is true for the possessive plural of any word that ends in a hissing, shushing, or buzzing sound (s, sh, ch, x. or z). You add es to make the word plural, and then add an apostrophe to make it possessive.

I hope this clears things up.

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T ceremonies

Q: For over a year, my 7-year-old son has been dropping his t’s at the end of words (cat = ca and what = wha!). My husband and I moved from Ireland to New York City’s suburbs nine years ago. Is the dropping of t’s a regional phenomenon? Or is this the result of my son’s hearing both Irish and American accents? Maybe he’s just doing it to annoy us! Neither his teacher nor the school speech therapist has done anything about it. Should I continue my crusade to correct him or should I back down?

A: I’d bet the dropping of t’s that you refer to is a regionalism, a local accent feature that your son has picked up from people around him.

My husband, a New Yorker, pronounces the word “bottle” with a blip in the middle where the t’s should go—roughly like “bah-ul.” I’ve noticed that many Easterners do this. I grew up in the Midwest (Iowa), where many people pronounce “bottle” as “boddle.” They also skip over the t’s in words like “twenty” and “plenty,” rendering them as “twunny” and “plunny.”

As for what you should do, I’m not qualified to say. But I’m curious about why your son’s teacher doesn’t correct his pronunciation. Have you asked? You might also ask both the teacher and the speech therapist whether you ought to continue to correct him, or whether they think this is a childhood imitation of his peers that he will simply outgrow.

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The dirt on “ethnic cleansing”

Q: I am upset by the dreadful phrase “ethnic cleansing.” A “cleansing” is such a lovely sounding thing whereas “ethnic cleansing” is so horrifying. Can you suggest another phrase that would truly capture the meaning of ethnic cleansing?

A: You’re right about the horrendous euphemism “ethnic cleansing.” It suggests that a segment of a population should be considered dirty, and consequently swept away. It makes me shudder.

For an alternative, I’d recommend being as precise as possible. If you’re talking about genocide, call it genocide. If you mean mass expulsions or arrests to drive out an ethnic group, say so.

The best weapon against the slings and arrows of outrageous language is plain English.

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Waking the dead

Q: What is the origin of the word “wake,” as in “I am going to his wake tonight” or “He is going to be waked”?

A: The modern verb “wake” comes from two Old English words, “wacan” (to become awake) and “wacian” (to be or remain awake), according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology and the Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto. These two words eventually became “waken” and “wakien,” respectively, then fused into our modern verb “wake.”

This sense of “wake” (to awake or stay awake) also gave rise to related words having to do with guarding (“watch,” “vigil”). “Vigil” is related to the Old Icelandic word vaka, which is a noun meaning the eve before a feast or festival (when people often prayed all night), and also a verb meaning to be awake.

This “guarding” and “watching” angle is what gives us the sense of “wake” as a vigil or watch kept over a dead body. By extension, the dead person is said to be “waked.” The transitive verb “wake,” meaning to hold a wake over someone (that is, to “wake” him), goes back to the 1300s.

Interestingly, the phrase “to wake the dead” now has two distinct meanings in English—to be so noisy as to wake up the dead (a modern interpretation), and to hold a wake over the deceased (the traditional sense).

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A kid-friendly grammar book?

The Junior Library Guild describes Pat’s latest book, Woe Is I Jr., as a “smart, funny guide to grammar” for children. Here’s more of what the Guild has to say about the kids’ version of Pat’s bestselling grammar book for grownups:

“Why should you be careful about cliché usage? This smart, funny guide to grammar and style has the answer to that question – ‘A little goes a long way’ – and many more. What’s the difference between which and that? What’s the correct way to pluralize? And when can you use an exclamation point? – ‘An exclamation point is like the horn on your car, something that shouts to get attention. . . . But if you shout too often, people will stop paying attention.’ Black-and-white cartoons.”

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Sound advice

Q: In Woe Is I on page 115 you give the following example: “An 1840 saxophone is a rare artifact.” Shouldn’t the first word be “a,” not “an”?

A: No. The correct article is “an.”

Here’s the story with “a” and “an”: Use “a” before a word, an abbreviation, a number, and so on if it starts with a consonant SOUND (“a unicorn,” “a BMW,” “a 19th-century novel”). Use “an” before a word, an abbreviation, a number, and so on if it starts with a vowel SOUND (“an uproar,” “an NFL coach,” “an 1840 saxophone”).

It’s not just the letter or number at the beginning that determines the article; it’s the SOUND of that letter or number.

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The octothorpe’s many tentacles

Q: I’ve read that the symbol “#” on keypad buttons is called an “octothorpe.” I believe the term has something to do with a clearing in a village. Can you tell me more about it?

A. The term (spelled “octothorpe,” “octothorp,” octalthorp,” “octotherp,” etc.) first appeared in print in 1974 in the magazine Telephony, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the quote: “A few months ago, a story traveled through the Bell System that the familiar symbol ‘#’ at long last had a name: ‘octothorp.’”

The origin of the word, which describes the symbol commonly referred to as the pound key, the number sign, or the hash mark, is uncertain. The most frequently heard explanation is that it was coined by one or more engineers at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1960s.

Several people who worked at Bell Labs have written accounts about the term, attributing it to various engineers. The wordsmith (or wordsmiths) who came up with the word, according to the stories, was trying to rename one of the two new symbols (the asterisk and the hash mark) that were added to the telephone with touchtone dialing.

Why an “octothorpe”? The various sources agree that the first part comes from the Greek or Latin word “octo,” meaning the number eight, and refers to the symbol’s eight sides or points. But the sources differ about the second half of the term. Here are some of the suggestions.

One former Bell engineer has said “thorpe” comes from the last name of the American athlete Jim Thorpe. Another has said “therp” is a whimsical ending that sounds Greek. Still another has described the choice of “therp” as a joke because the addition makes the word hard to pronounce.

The OED, meanwhile, speculates that the second half of “octothorpe” may be related to an Anglo-Saxon word (spelled “thorpe,” “throop,” or “thrupp”) that refers to a village or hamlet. (Robert Bringhurst, in The Elements of Typographic Style, notes that the symbol “#” has been used on maps to denote a village, which he describes as “eight fields around a central square.”)

Finally, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) suggests that “thorpe” may come from the last name of James Edward Oglethorpe, an English general who founded the American colony of Georgia.

Michael Quinion, who discuses “octothorpe” in detail on his website Word Wide Words, says it serves no practical purpose to have such an oddball term for a symbol that already has several perfectly acceptable names.

I agree, though “octothorpe” does have one practical purpose—in crossword puzzles!

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His mom is a stickler

Q: My mom corrects me for being redundant when I say something like “My little brother chased after the dog.” She says the word “after” isn’t necessary because you can’t chase “before” something. This makes sense to me, but I always hear newscasters say “The police chased after the subject.” I was wondering if she is just being a stickler.

A: Well, your mom is being a bit of a stickler. She’s right, though—she correctly objects to that usage because the preposition “after” is redundant. “Chased” alone would do the job.

On the other hand, there are lots of redundant adverbs and prepositions in some of our most common idiomatic phrases: “meet up with,” “face up to,” “try out,” “divide up,” “hurry up,” “lose out on,” and many more.

Sometimes a redundancy adds just the right emphasis, and that’s why these expressions persist in English. Many language authorities would say “chase after” is a justifiable idiomatic redundancy. That’s another way of saying it’s so common that we should look the other way!

But there are a couple of common redundancies that you really can’t justify—”off of” (as in “it fell off of a truck”) and “where is it at?” The “of” and the “at” in those expressions are frowned on by even the most liberal grammarians.

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For medicinal purposes only!

Q: I’m dying to know the answer to this question: What is the origin of the term “bootleg”? My mom (an English teacher) says it means illegal, but I say it’s just the vertical part of a boot.

A: You’re both right.

The first published citations for “bootleg” in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from the early 17th century, refer to a noun meaning the leg of a tall boot. The most recent (fourth) edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes this meaning.

By the late 19th century, the adjective “bootleg” and the noun “bootlegger” were being used to refer to illicit trading in liquor, according to the OED. The verb “bootleg” (as in to smuggle liquor) followed in the early 20th century. I wonder, however, how much booze a smuggler could hide in his bootlegs.

The OED‘s first citation for the liquor usage, an 1889 report in the Omaha Herald, quips that the whiskey consumed in my home state, Iowa, was “for medical purposes only” and “on the boot-leg plan.” Ouch!

In the early 20th century, the term “bootleg” came to be used for other illicit products, including books and food. By the end of the century, it also referred to unauthorized records, tapes, and so on, as well as to a football play in which the quarterback pretends to hand off the ball, but continues to carry it hidden near his hip. The QB could use hip boots!

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“Woe Is I Jr.” is here!

Woe Is I Jr., the kids’ version of the bestselling grammar book for grownups, is now in bookstores. If you’re a young grammarphobe (or know one), this book is for you.

Shrek? Earwax-flavored jellybeans? Poems about meatballs? Who on earth would use all these to explain the rules of grammar? Must be Patricia T. O’Conner!

Just like Woe Is I, her national bestseller for adults, the junior version uses simple language and entertaining examples to make good English fun. Hey, grammar doesn’t have to be gruesome or gross or grim. How gratifying! This is one reference book you’ll enjoy pulling off the shelf.

To buy Woe Is I Jr., visit your local bookstore or Amazon.com.

Some Chapters

“I” Witness: When Words Need Stand-ins

Plurals Before Swine: Sometimes There’s More Than One

Yours Truly: Possessives and the Possessed

Action Figures: Words That Do the Work

Small Miracles: Incredible Shrinking Words

Casting a Spell: How to Be Letter Perfect

Endangered List: The Bruised, the Abused, and the Misused

Connecting the Dots: All About Punctuation

Laugh While You Learn

You can say “Woe is I” if you want to sound like the Queen of England. But if you want to sound normal and still be correct, this is the book for you.

Praise for the original Woe Is I

“This is, like, a cool book.” —Garrison Keillor

“Lighthearted and funny.” —Daniel Pinkwater, The New York Times Book Review

“Delightful . . . witty, economical and fun to read.” —Publishers Weekly

“Possibly the most popular book on grammar ever published.” —Writers.com

“Witty and humorous.” —Library Journal

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The Grammarphobia Blog

Loan cowpokes

Q: I often hear presumably intelligent people use the word “loan” when I think they mean “lend,” as in this sentence: “Will you loan me a dime?” Can you actually use “loan” as a verb without doing a disservice to the English language?

A: In formal English, “lend” is the verb and “loan” is the noun. But common usage has taken over in American English. It’s now considered acceptable (at least informally) in the United States to use “loan” as a verb for the lending of money or physical goods.

A Usage Note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says objections to the verb “loan” may be the result of “a provincial deference to British critics, who long ago labeled the usage a typical Americanism.”

Although American Heritage accepts the verb “loan” for physical transactions, it says only “lend” is correct for metaphorical or intangible transactions.

What this means is that Shakespeare, if he were alive today, would NOT feel free to write, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, loan me your ears.”

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Forewarning signs

Q: I’ve always been confused about the difference between “forewarn” and “warn.” Aren’t you warning someone either way? When do you use one over the other?

A: I think “forewarn” and “warn” mean about the same thing. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “forewarn” as to warn in advance. It defines “warn” as to make aware in advance of actual or potential harm, danger, or evil. If you see a significant difference between the two meanings, you have better eyes than I.

You could justify “forewarn” if you really are warning someone of some danger way, way ahead of time. Otherwise, I think the term “forewarn” appears mostly as part of the old expression “forewarned is forearmed.” Also, writers may like “forewarn” because it has a sense of menace about it. It’s spooky.

Both “warn” and “forewarn” are very old words. The earliest reference to “warn” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from around 1000 while the earliest “forewarn” citation dates from 1330. I like this quotation from a 16th-century translation of the Aeneid: “The Harpye Celaeno Forwarns much mischiefe too coom.”

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Response ability

Q: Have you ever discussed “RSVP”? It has come to be a noun meaning a reservation as well as a verb meaning to respond. As you know, it really stands for “Répondez, s’il vous plaît,” or “Please respond.” Nowadays I’m always seeing “Send your RSVP” or “Please RSVP.” This one is a lost cause, I know, but you aren’t afraid of lost causes.

A: The “Send your RSVP” and “Please RSVP” usages are so common now that I think they’re here to stay. In fact, the verb is now accepted in some dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only one definition for “RSVP”: please reply. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also defines it as a verb meaning to respond to an invitation. Merriam-Webster’s dates the verb usage to 1953.

The Oxford English Dictionary also includes the verb usage. The dictionary has two published references, one in a 1969 novel and the other in a 1978 article in the Observer newspaper.

Here’s the earlier OED citation, from Next Time I’ll Pay My Own Fare, by Raymond Vernon Beste: “The Duchess de Santine Miorna requests the pleasure of Detective-Inspector John Gage’s company to dinner tonight … R.S.V.P. … Gage R.S.V.Ped in Spanish.”

So, the verb usage isn’t all that new. I’ll keep my eyes open for more about “RSVP.” If I learn anything else (or even if I don’t), I may mention this on the radio show.

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Out of pocket

A: I’ve always thought that the phrase “out of pocket” referred to the absence of money, not the absence of people. But the expression seems to have evolved into meaning unavailable. Why? I find it annoying!

Q: There appear to be at least three distinct meanings for “out of pocket”:

(1) At a fiscal loss: In this case, “out of pocket” means out of one’s own pocket—in other words, you have to pay for something yourself. Examples: “I thought the tickets would be free, but I got stuck with paying, so I’m $150 out of pocket.” Or, “Mrs. Grosvenor refused to pay for the cabinetry, so the carpenter was out of pocket.” The Oxford English Dictionary has this usage dating from 1679.

(2) Behaving badly: According to the newest edition of Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, “out of pocket” is a variation on the phrase “out of (the) pocket,” a 1940s African-American expression referring to bad behavior or a bad situation. Cassell’s says this meaning grew out of pool jargon (a shot that was “out of pocket” or “out of the pocket” caused a player to miss a turn).

(3) Unavailable: I first came across this meaning in the early 1980s when I was a staff editor at the New York Times. Reporters who had filed stories were supposed to supply phone numbers where they could be reached in case questions arose. If a reporter was unreachable (say, on a plane to Tibet), he or she was said to be “out of pocket.” The OED cites published references for this meaning dating back to 1946, though it didn’t become common until the 1970s.

I haven’t found an answer to your question about why the third meaning evolved. I also haven’t seen an explanation of why we say out of “pocket” rather than out of “hat” or “glove” or whatever when we’re unavailable, but here’s a possibility.

There’s an expression “to have someone in your pocket,” which means to have him under your control. Perhaps by extension, if he’s “out of pocket” he’s no longer under your control or scrutiny. Again, this is just speculation on my part.

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A highfalutin word?

Q: John Edwards used “highfalutin” in the recent debate for Democratic presidential candidates. I think of it as rural and maybe Southern. Have you got anything else?

A: The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has oodles of citations for “highfalutin” (spelled variously). The first, from 1839, is a quotation in which the term means pompous or bombastic: “Them high-faluting chaps.” Random House says the origin of the term is unknown, but it’s probably influenced by “high-flown.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which defines the word as pompous or pretentious, lists three spellings: “highfalutin,” “hifalutin,” and the less common “highfaluting.” American Heritage says it has been suggested that the term may come from “flute”—so someone who thinks too highly of himself is “high-fluting.”

The dictionary says “highfalutin” is characteristic of American folk speech, but it’s not a true regionalism, Southern or otherwise, because it has occurred throughout the country.

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A revolting thought

Q: The word “revulsed” reared its ugly head in the CBS response to the Don Imus flap, as in this quote from Leslie Moonves: “I believe all of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on the air.” I was certain that this usage was wrong. Off to the dictionary I went—and found it in Merriam-Webster’s. As Mr. Wagnalls said to his partner: “Funk, who woulda thunk.” What do you say?

A: For starters, the Oxford English Dictionary has never heard of “revulsed” in this sense. The only “revulsed” I can find in the OED is a 17th-century medical term meaning to pull back or tear away. Here’s a 1673 example by the English physician and anatomist William Harvey, from a book published after his death: “To take away the blood … that it might be revulsed from the lungs.”

As you point out, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes the adjective “revulsed” and defines it as affected with revulsion. It says this usage dates from 1934. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has a similar entry.

Traditionally, to feel revulsion is to be “revolted,” not “revulsed.” I don’t know about you, but I find this new word entirely unnecessary. “Revolted” is a perfectly good word and I think “revulsed” is … revolting.

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Bandwidth to spare

Q: I don’t have a question, but I thought you might like to see this novel usage of the word “bandwidth” in an article about Governor Spitzer’s plans to introduce a gay-marriage bill in New York: “That would leave Mr. Spitzer with little political bandwidth that would allow him to build support for another controversial bill.”

A: Thanks for “bandwidth” — my husband spotted the usage, too, and I’m saving it to mention on a future WNYC broadcast. He suspects, as do I, that this one will be just too irresistible to the language trendies and that it will be around for a while.

The first published citation for “bandwidth” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1930, when the word referred to the interval separating the limits of a band of electromagnetic frequencies or wave lengths.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defined it pretty much the same way until the latest edition (the fourth), which added this additional definition: “The amount of data that can be passed along a communications channel in a given period of time.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if the next American Heritage edition takes the word one step further and uses it metaphorically as a synonym for “influence” or “clout” (political, financial, romantic, and so on).

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Penal envy

Q: What has happened to “penalize” with the long “e”? I hear it more and more with the short “e.” Is it because people don’t like pronunciations that sound like body parts? Of course we still use a long “e” for “penal” colony!

A: Either pronunciation of “penalize” (with or without a long “e”) is all right. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) both list the pronunciation with the long “e” first, which means it’s more common.

If the “pen” pronunciation is gaining on the “peen,” it may be, as you suggest, because of the “peen” resemblance to “penis” and “penile.” On the other hand, it may be because the word “penalty” has a short “e” and is more common than the associated word “penalize.”

At any rate, both pronunciations of “penalize” are alive and kicking. You shouldn’t get penalized for using either one.

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A word with pizzazz!

Q: Oh, how I would love to know where the expression “full of pizzazz” comes from! The phrase itself is full of pizzazz! Is it a Boston thing? Is it a 1940s and 1950s expression?

A: The noun “pizzazz” (also spelled “pizazz” and “pazazz”) originated in the 1910s and originally meant an expert or an exemplar, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. (This was news to me too!)

In the 1920s, the meaning evolved into style, glamour, or ostentation. By the 1930s, it was being used to mean energy or zest. I’d guess this is the meaning in the expression “full of pizzazz.”

The word’s etymology is unknown, though the Oxford English Dictionary says it’s frequently attributed to Diana Vreeland, the late fashion maven. (Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins is dubious about the Vreeland attribution.)

The OED’s first published reference is from Harper’s Bazaar in 1937, the year Vreeland arrived at the magazine as a columnist. Here’s the citation: “Pizazz, to quote the editor of the Harvard Lampoon, is an indefinable dynamic quality, the je ne sais quoi of function; as for instance, adding Scotch puts pizazz in a drink.”

Although its origin is unknown, “pizzazz” has echoes in “razzle” (a spree or a good time) and “razzmatazz” (showy, high-class, or an exclamation of pleasure). I think people back then had a lot more energy than we do today.

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