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Dude the obscure

Q: A few of my friends and I wondered if you could address this question: Where did the word “dude” come from? When did people start using it in everyday language to refer to either a woman or a man? Thanks!

A: “Dude,” meaning a swell or a fop or a dandy (in other words, an overdressed, showy person), originated in the US in the latter part of the 19th century.

Its first appearance in writing, as far as we know, was in an 1877 letter by the artist Frederick Remington: “Don’t send me any more [drawings of] women or any more dudes.” This is according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

“The etymology is a mystery,” according to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. But Partridge suggests it may be from the word “dud” (a weakling or a useless person), with some influence by the word “attitude.”

It’s also been suggested that “dude” may have come from “Yankee Doodle.” Or perhaps the use of “duds” to mean clothes could play a part. After all, to “dude up” was to dress up. A “dude wrangler” was a cowboy on a “dude ranch” who entertained the “dude” tourists.

At any rate, “dude” has changed a lot over the years, and in more modern times has shed its pejorative beginnings.

A 1993 addition to the Oxford English Dictionary has nine citations since 1918 for “dude” in the sense of “any man who catches the attention in some way; a fellow or chap, a guy. Hence also approvingly, esp. (through Black English) applied to a member of one’s own circle or group.”

These days the word is generally used to refer to a male person, though the plural “dudes” has been used on college campuses to refer to people of both sexes, much the way “guys” is sometimes used today.

I hope this sheds a little light, dude!

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Is Manhattan full of schist?

Q: I was on a hike in Manhattan with the Urban Rangers and had a dispute about the word “amphibian.” I said “amphi” means both, so an amphibian is comfortable on land and water. Another hiker insisted “ambi” (as in “ambidextrous”) means both, so “amphi” couldn’t. I dropped the subject, since I wanted to hear the guide discuss the geology of Inwood Hill Park. An interesting note: Fordham in the Bronx has a lot of gneiss and Inwood Hill a lot of schist. Or, as the guide put it, “Fordham is gneiss, but Manhattan is full of schist.”

A: Thanks for the interesting geology lesson.

As for “ambi” and “amphi,” the two of them are Latin prefixes meaning both, around (that is, both sides), or about. They’re derived from the Greek prefix amphi, which has the same meanings.

So, for example, “amphibian” means having two kinds existence, and “ambidextrous” means able to use both hands with equal ease.

Interestingly, the first citation for “amphibian” in the OED, from 1637, uses the term in a figurative way to refer to some doubtful characters in ancient Rome: “A certaine Amphibian brood, sprung out of the stem of the Neronian tyranny.” The term wasn’t used for cold-blooded vertebrates like frogs, toads, or salamanders until the mid-19th century.

The first published reference for “ambidextrous,” from 1646, is a comment about “ambi-dextrous and left handed men.”

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Talking the talk

Q: If you give a talk with no audience participation, are you giving a monologue or a discourse?

A: I wouldn’t use either word.

“Monologue,” according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), would imply a dramatic soliloquy, a series of comic stories or jokes delivered by a comedian, a performance by a single actor, or a long speech given by a windbag who’s monopolizing a conversation.

And “discourse” doesn’t have to mean a talk by one person. It can be a conversation, a long discussion, or simply verbal expression in speech or writing.

How about a “lecture” or perhaps even a “talk”?

The noun “talk,” by the way, comes from talu, the Old English word for “tale.” That, in turn, comes from an even older Old English word, tellan, which gave us the verb “tell.”

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Meet Pat today at the NY Public Library

She’ll be at the Mid-Manhattan branch, 40th St. and Fifth Ave., just down Fifth from the main library, at 6:30 PM. She’s speaking about the myths and mysteries of English.

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Grotty or grotesque?

Q: Perhaps this is a shot in the dark, but I wonder if you have any information on the use of the word “grotesque” in the mid-19th century in reference to a costume or a “fancy dress.” I’m doing research on a series of masquerades in Brooklyn during the Civil War, and newspapers of the day often use the term “grotesque.” Does it just mean elaborate, strange, and operatic? Or might there be a more specific connotation? Any thoughts would be very welcome.

A: The word “grotesque” (as both a noun and an adjective) got its start in the 16th century. It literally meant “grotto style” (as in “grotto-esque”), and comes from the style of painting on the walls of grottoes (once a popular term for the ruins of ancient Roman buildings that had been excavated).

That sense of the word is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers.”

Works of art done in this style were called “grotesques,” and were sometimes referred to in the Italian form, grottesco (singular) or grotteschi (plural).

The Restoration poet Sir William Davenant wrote many court masques. In his Works (about 1668) is a piece called simply “Masque” that has the line: “And in the midst was placed a large compartiment composed of Groteske work.”

A little later, the meaning was widened to include representations that were so elaborate as to be distorted or unnatural. And eventually the word came to be used not just for artworks, but also for anything fantastical or wildly ornamental.

One of the later meanings common in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the OED, was “ludicrous from incongruity; fantastically absurd.”

I can’t find any 19th-century citations in the OED for “grotesque” that specifically mention costume or fancy-dress balls.

But I did find this reference from an 1860 book or publication (don’t know which) called Heads & Hats: “The women wore absurdly high coiffures; and the men vied with them in their height, if not in their grotesqueness.”

And here’s one from Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (published in 1863): “You can conceive nothing more grotesque than the Sunday trim of the poor people.” She probably meant something like “absurdly overdone.”

And the OED has a couple of 19th-century references to the use of “grotesque” as a noun meaning a clown or buffoon.

Oxford didn’t pick up many of its early citations from popular sources like newspapers and broadsides, unfortunately. So it may have missed this sense of “grotesque” as applied to exaggeratedly fanciful or elaborate costumes.

The big Webster’s New International Dictionary (unabridged 2d ed.), from the 1950s, has some interesting comments on the meaning of “grotesque.” An excerpt:

“The grotesque is distinguished from the ugly in that it affords a positive aesthetic satisfaction. The ugly is the opposite of the beautiful; the grotesque is the complement of physical beauty representing in the material world a distortion of aesthetic relations.”

Things changed a lot in the following 10 years. During the Beatlemania era, “grotty” (formed from “grotesque”) became a slang word meaning disgusting, ugly, or just plain bad.

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Catcher in the wry

Q: I’m curious about an expression that’s recently caught my eye: “a rye wit.” I can’t find anything in my dictionary on the word “rye” beyond its use as a noun for a grain, a whiskey, or a male gypsy. Am I misspelling it?

A: The adjective you want is spelled “wry.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as meaning “dryly or obliquely humorous; sardonic, ironic.”

Oddly, though, the word wasn’t used in precisely this way until the 20th century. The OED‘s first citation for this meaning is from Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1928): “He smiles with a wry amusement for a second.”

Previously, a “wry” smile was one made with a facial expression of distaste or dislike. But the adjective was used in different senses when it first entered English in the 16th century. It originally meant bent or twisted or distorted from the straight and narrow.

The adjective can be traced to a very old and mostly obsolete verb from old Germanic sources: “wry,” first used in the 800s. It originally meant to turn or wend, and later to swerve or turn aside or twist. This is where we get the adjective and adverb “awry,” as in “Everything went awry.”

Some other words believed to be related are “writhe,” “wrist,” “wrench,” and “wriggle.”

The word “rye” (the food grain) has been traced all the way back to the year 725! We get it from Old Norse.

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Noodling around

Q: My mother and I have a running bet ($50 is at stake). Which is correct: “much” noodles or “many” noodles? I say “many” and she says “much.” I hope you can settle this.

A: An interesting question! And a lot depends on whether “noodles” is singular or plural.

If you think of it as a pasta dish, the word is singular. So you can say, “Noodles is my favorite dish,” though I’d prefer “My favorite dish is noodles.”

If you think of “noodles” as ribbon-shaped pieces of pasta, the word is plural. So you can say, “The noodles are going to be ready in six minutes.”

Now on to the specifics of your question. The adjective “much” refers to a lot of something (singular) while the adjective “many” refers to a lot of things (plural).

If you think of “noodles” as a bunch of those ribbon-shaped things, you can say, “My diet won’t let me eat many noodles.” On the other hand, if you think of “noodles” as a pasta dish, you can say, “I left over much of the noodles.”

If you use “much” with a plural word (like “noodles”) that’s acting in a singular way, you have to put “of the” between them. But you don’t need “of the” if you use “much” with a singular collective noun that acts in a plural way: “I left over much pasta.”

So, you win, but your mom comes in a close second. Maybe you should split the $50 and take each other out to dinner!

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Leaf stricken

Q: Excuse me for inflicting my current bugbears – “robust” and “leafy.” Everything is “robust”: speeches, economies, food, campaign itineraries, etc. Very tired! As for “leafy,” every time someone is murdered in the suburbs, the news media mention the “leafy streets.” In the city, the victim is just murdered. I see this as a putdown – a suggestion that suburbanites are rubes for thinking they’re safe.

A: Where did this infatuation with “robust” come from? I wish I knew. But you’re right – it’s everywhere. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it comes from (or has a nose of) the world of wine reviewing.

It’s sad to see a sturdy old word like “robust” become wimpy from overuse. When it entered English in the 16th century, it meant (as it does today) strong and hardy.

The adjective began taking on figurative meanings in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, with published references for a “robust title of occupancy,” a “robust language,” and so on.

The first OED citation for the word used in a culinary sense is from a 1961 magazine article that refers to (you guessed it) wine: “There are also Spanish and Portuguese wines that go well with strongly flavoured food. The robust Spanish Chablis, the Rioja Burgundy, and the Portuguese Vila Real are examples.”

We got the word “robust” from the Latin robustus, meaning strong, hardy, or made of oak, which brings us to your second bugbear.

I’m sad to hear that you feel “leafy” is now being used as a slap at the suburbs. The word “leaf” itself is very, very old, dating from around the year 850, according to the OED. In fact the Old English of the first citation is so old that it would look like gibberish to most readers of this blog.

The adjective “leafy” first appeared in the mid-1500s. Here’s a 1697 citation from Dryden: “Soft Whispers run along the leafy Woods.” Nothing pejorative about that! What’s not to like about leaves (aside from having to rake them in the autumn)?

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Jacques in the beanstalk

Q: I was reading your recent blog entry on nicknames and got to wondering where mine comes from. Did “Jack” evolve from “Jacques”?

A: “Jack,” a nickname for “John,” first appeared in tax rolls and other official documents in England in the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For the first couple of hundred years, the spelling was all over the place: “Iakke,” “Iacke,” Jakke,” “Jacce,” “Jacke,” and so on. “Jack” began showing up in the 16th century, especially when linked with the female name “Jill.” By the 18th century, the modern spelling was firmly established.

The origin of “Jack” is in dispute. Although it’s been “generally assumed” that the nickname comes from “Jaques,” the Old French version of the modern “Jacques,” it might actually have originated in England, according to the OED.

The dictionary says “a strong case has been made” by E.W.B. Nicholson, a former librarian of the Bodleian at Oxford, “for its actual origination as a pet-form” of “Johan,” “Jan,” or “John.”

I should mention that early on the familiar nickname was used (as a proper noun, capitalized) in a generic way to refer to any common man of the people. For example, Shakespeare, in The Taming of the Shrew (1596), refers to a “mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Iacke.”

This usage has survived into modern times. Even now, some people (primarily men, I notice) will address a stranger as “Jack.” A related usage is the expression “every man jack” to mean every individual.

In the 1400s, the word “jack” was used to refer to the little mechanical man that periodically emerged from a clock and struck the hour or half-hour or whatever. It was sometimes called the “jack of the clock” and sometimes just the “jack.”

This use of “jack” as a mechanical contrivance, the OED says, led to another meaning: a device that takes the place of a man or saves labor.

From the 1500s on, all kinds of labor-saving tools were called “jacks”: things for turning spits to roast meats, tools with rollers and winches, rack-and-pinion devices for lifting weights, a “bootjack” for pulling off one’s footwear, a “jack” for raising the chassis of a carriage, and finally the “jack” found in every car trunk.

As for Jack cheese (uh-oh, I’m thinking about food again), it’s full name is Monterey Jack. The OED says the cheese is named for David Jacks (who was born David Jack and lived from 1822 to 1909). He was a Scottish-born dairyman who first produced the cheese in Monterey County, California, in the 1880s.

I’ll bet the Gold Rush prospectors loved it, every man jack of them.

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End games

Q: In the “Living Dead” chapter of your grammar book Woe Is I, you say it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition and you mention that Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton all did it. Could you back that up with some examples from their texts?

A: Here are a few:

Chaucer:

“But yit to this thing ther is yit another thing y-ioigned, more to ben wondred upon.” (From his translation of Boethius, Book IV.1)

Shakespeare:

“And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on.” (Hamlet)

“… the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” (Hamlet)

“And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” (Hamlet)

” … those eyes / Which thou dost glare with.” (Macbeth)

” … some life / Which action’s self was tongue to.” (Henry VIII)

Milton:

“…ever held allowable to deal so by a tyrant that could no otherwise be dealt with.” (The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates)

” …what a fine conformity would it starch us all into!” (Areopagitica)

There are many more examples, but these are the closest I have at hand for the three authors you asked about.

You can find such “terminal prepositions” in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, as well as in the works of other great writers: Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Spenser, Congreve, Fielding, Defoe, Austen, Tennyson, Thackeray, Swift, Carroll, James, Kipling, Twain, Joyce, and many others.

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Lame and basted

Q: Have you read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester? I’m finding it fascinating, but it doesn’t answer this language question: how do you pronounce the word “lambaste”? My dictionary has two pronunciations.

A: You’re right. The Professor and the Madman, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, is a wonderful book. As for “lambaste,” I can’t remember using it lately. On the infrequent occasions that I used it in the past, I accented the second syllable and rhymed it with “fast.”

This is fine, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which says standard English allows four pronunciations. Either syllable can be accented, and the second “a” can be either short (as in “fast”) or long (as in “haste”).

M-W even allows a variant spelling: “lambast.” (Kipling, for example, spelled it “lambast” in The Light That Failed, according to the OED.)

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) takes a narrower view. Only one spelling: “lambaste.” And only one pronunciation: the second syllable gets an accent and a long “a” (lam-BAIST).

In case you’re interested, the OED says the word may be a combination of two 16th-century verbs: “lam” (to beat, literally to “lame” someone), and “baste” (to thrash or cudgel).

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A piece of work

Q: When did the phrase “a piece of work” begin to have negative connotations? The original meaning seems to have been entirely positive, but now dictionaries say it can refer to somebody or something outstanding as well as unpleasant. I would very much welcome your insights about this, as would the other poor souls who were discussing it at a recent get-together.

A: When your question popped into my in-box, I happened to be reading a book by the British novelist Angela Thirkell, written in the early 1950s. One of the characters, an admirer of powerful cars, is looking under the hood (or rather the “bonnet”) of a big gorgeous automobile, and when he emerges he says: “By Jove! it is a piece of work.”

Obviously, a rave review!

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the noun phrase “piece of work” dates back to 1473, when it simply meant a product or something manufactured.

But it was often used in a positive way, as in this well-known excerpt from Hamlet (1604): “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!”

By 1533, it was also being used to mean a difficult undertaking or task, a usage that in the 19th century was sometimes used metaphorically in a negative way (to mean a commotion or a disorderly fuss).

The expression was first used in a derogatory way to refer to an unpleasant person in 1713, according to the OED. Here’s the first published reference, from the manuscripts of the Duke of Portland:

“I believe your Lordship will have nothing to do with him he being a whidling, dangerous, piece of work and not to be trusted.” Often the phrase used in this sense appeared as “a nasty piece of work.”

So your answer is about 300 years ago.

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Game theory

Q: I was watching ESPN and a sportscaster referred to “a night of amazing game threes.” I hear that usage a lot, but this time my ears pricked up. Shouldn’t it be “games three,” like “attorneys general” or “brothers-in-law”?

A: This practice of pluralizing the adjective instead of the noun in a phrase like “game threes” seems to be a common idiom in sports writing and broadcasting. I see it quite often. Here are a few examples from the Internet (and I won’t try to make the capitalization consistent):

? The Wizards and Celtics posted wins in their Game Fives [meaning each team won its respective game five in the NBA playoffs].

? Most of the teams that win game ones are home teams.

? How many first-round game sevens will there be?

? Two of the best Series-ending Game Sixes happened within a few years of each other.

This usage makes sense to me. The phrase “games three” would not only look odd but might also be misleading, especially in a phrase like “games three and four,” which might refer to two specific playoff games.

I think a term like “game fours” (or “game twos,” and so on) in various playoff series should be considered a grammatical unit, like “plus fours” for the knickers golfers used to wear, or the “terrible twos” that parents of tots endure, or the “all-fours” that even younger kids walk on.

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Food for thought

Q: I’ve been wondering lately about what I call, for lack of a better term, “food words.” Why is someone’s behavior “cheesy?’ Or jokes “corny?” Or language “salty”?

A: The adjective “cheesy” has been used in a pejorative way (for something that’s shoddy, tasteless, cheap, and so forth) since the mid-19th century, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The dictionary’s first citation, from 1863, describes a shoddy orchestra “consisting of the fiddle – a very cheezy flageolet, played by a gentleman with one eye – a big drum, and a triangle.”

Oddly, the word has been used in the opposite sense as well (though not much lately). The Oxford English Dictionary has an 1858 citation for “cheesy” meaning showy or stylish. This comes from a sense of the noun “cheese” meaning first rate, as in our modern expression “big cheese.”

We have several other “cheese” words, and their meanings are all over the place. For instance, “cheesed” and “cheesed off” have been used as adjectives for angry since the 1940s.

But today “cheesy” is a negative. This is unfair to cheese, if you ask me. It’s one of my favorite foods!

On to “salty.” Since the 1840s, we’ve called experienced sailors “salts” or “old salts,” according to the OED. This, as you may have guessed, is a probable reference to the salt water of the sea.

Earthy or racy language has been called “salty” since the 1860s. But I haven’t been able to find out whether “salty” language was called that simply because it was spicy and tart or because it was like sailor talk. The references I’ve been able to check don’t say.

The adjective “corny” has a shorter history. It’s been a term of derision only since the 1930s, when something that was “corny” or “cornfed” or “on the cob” was rustic, countrified, old-fashioned, or behind the times – and hence trite or hackneyed.

It first was used by jazz musicians, who called a style of playing “corny” if it was outmoded or worn out. Here’s the OED‘s first citation, from 1932: “The ‘bounce’ of the brass section … has degenerated into a definitely ‘corny’ and staccato style of playing.” (Imagine a rube fresh from the cornfields trying to make a splash in the big city and you’ll get the idea.)

There’s a larger question behind all this: Why do we use so many food words metaphorically? Well, why not? After all, we say that a person who’s elegant and discerning has “good taste.”

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Sez who?

Q: I hear BBC correspondents pronounce “says” with a long “a” to rhyme with “prays.” Why do Americans pronounce it like “sez” instead of like “pays,” “lays,” and other “ays” word that come to mind. Is it just a quirk of English?

A: The third-person singular of the verb “say” should be pronounced “sez” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to American and British dictionaries. But pompous broadcasting twits, especially across the pond, have never let standard pronunciations get in the way of on-air affectations.

A lot of people, especially foreigners, have wondered why we pronounce “says” to rhyme with the candy Pez rather than with “lays” or “prays” or “stays.” In fact, I recently came across an exchange of letters on the subject in the New York Times from 1906.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a definitive explanation of the phenomenon. I think this may be one more example of, as you put it, “a quirk of English.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for the word dating back to around 971. The spellings have been all over the place since then: “seit,” “seithe,” “seythe,” “seis,” “sais,” “saise,” “sayes,” “sayis,” and “says,” among many others. I suspect that the pronunciations were all over the place too.

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The best regards

Q: Why do so many people say “in regards to” when they mean “with regard to?” Isn’t that incorrect?

A: There’s no reason to use the plural “regards” in this case.

The expression is either “in regard to” or “with regard to.” And better yet might be just “regarding.”

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “regard” is traditionally singular in the phrase “in regard to.”

But the dictionary adds that it’s acceptable to use the plural in the phrase “as regards” when the meaning is “with reference to.”

We borrowed the noun “regard,” meaning a look or gaze or manner, from the Old French in the 14th century.

The word was soon being used in prepositional phrases.” Chaucer, for instance, used one of the early versions, “at regard of,” in 1381.

The OED’s first published reference for “in regard to” is in a 1677 sermon: “What hath occurred … to my meditation, I must at present, in regard to your patience, omit.”

The first citation for “with regard to” comes from a 1713 book by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley: “I speak with regard to sensible things only.”

Now that makes sense. Regards (couldn’t resist).

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Shake that stick

Q: Please comment on “shake a stick at.” I’ve heard that the expression comes from using a stick to count a passing flock of sheep.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as meaning “more than one can count, a considerable amount or number.” The saying originated in – and is chiefly heard in – the US, according to the dictionary.

The OED’s first published reference, from the Lancaster (Pa.) Journal in 1818, is in a slightly different form: “We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at.”

Nobody knows for sure the origin of “shake a stick” in this context, though it could be, as you say, that pointing with a stick was a means of counting. And too many things to count could be more than you can shake a stick at.

It could also be that shaking a stick was a hostile gesture. If there was a vast amount of something and it was more than someone could cope with, he might “shake his stick at” it.

I did come across a something else on the Web. The frontiersman Davy Crockett, in his Tour to North and Down East (1835), wrote about an inn: “This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a stick at.” This is quoted in Charles Earle Funk’s book Heavens to Betsy.

In short, we may never know for sure where this shaking-a-stick business comes from. But your explanation is as good as any.

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Forte knocks

Q: How is the word “forte,” meaning an area of expertise, properly pronounced. My mom says it should be like the “fort” that’s a military compound.

A: Mother is always right! The derivation of “forte” is French, and traditionally it should be pronounced like “Fort” Knox.

The other pronunciation, FOR-tay, is an Italian musical term meaning “loud.” (Perhaps we have musicians to blame for the Italian pronunciation of the nonmusical term?)

At any rate, the two-syllable mispronunciation has become so entrenched, doubtless because of the Italian influence, that it’s no longer condemned by usage experts.

Although both the FORT and FOR-tay pronunciations are now considered acceptable in American English, I still observe the traditional distinction and use the FORT version when I mean someone’s strong point.

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Drill instructor

Q: In a recent appearance on WNYC, you said the expression “drill down” meant something like “getting at an idea.” In our firm, it means going beyond general concepts or elements into a more detailed analysis, which I guess leads to getting at an idea.

A: The meaning at your firm is similar to this definition on Webopedia, an online dictionary of computer-technology terms: “to move from summary information to detailed data by focusing in on something.”

I couldn’t find the verb phrase “drill down” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), or any of the other references that I regularly consult.

I also checked out the Oxford English Dictionary to see if the verb “drill” has ever been used this way before. The closest example I could find was a 19th-century meaning: “to order or regulate exactly.” The OED gives an 1877 citation about the necessity to “regulate and drill all the doings of nature.”

Close, perhaps, but no cigar!

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Over a barrel

Q: You were discussing the expression “over a barrel” on WNYC the other day, and it got me thinking about the county fairs where a visitor can exercise his ball-throwing skills by trying to dunk someone standing on a plank over a barrel filled with water. Is this a possible explanation for the origin of the phrase?

A: Well, the person on the plank is indeed over a barrel – that is, in a precarious position. But I don’t think that’s the origin of the expression.

Since the last Leonard Lopate Show, I’ve had a chance to check out the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes it as primarily American slang meaning helpless or in someone’s power.

The phrase, according to the OED’s lexicographers, is “apparently in allusion to the state of a person placed over a barrel to clear his lungs of water after being rescued from drowning.”

The expression is relatively recent. The first published reference is from Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel, The Big Sleep: “We keep a file on unidentified bullets nowadays. Some day you might use that gun again. Then you’d be over a barrel.”

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Stormy weather

Q: Please comment on two egregious mistakes perpetrated by our less-than-literate media people: (1) Misusing “eye of the storm” to mean the thick of a chaotic situation instead of the calm in the middle. 2. The abuse of “begging the question,” a mistake in logic, to mean raising or avoiding a question. Oh, well, I guess that’s how language changes. Arggggggh!

A: I agree with you about “eye of the storm.” But a case can be made – a weak case, in my opinion – for using the expression to refer to the thick of it.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives this as one of the meanings of the noun “eye”: “The center or focal point of attention or action: right in the eye of the controversy.”

So I guess one could use “eye of the storm” loosely to describe the focal point of a storm of controversy. But I’d rather save the expression for its meteorological meaning (the relative calm at the center of a storm) or a similar figurative use.

As you say, however, language does change, and “begging the question” is a perfect example of it. I’ve discussed this before on my blog as well as on WNYC.

My conclusion? The expression has been ruined by too many years of misuse. It now doesn’t mean much of anything. If you’d like to read more, check out the blog item.

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Front-seat driving

Q: Much of my light reading is detective stories, and the sleuths are often driving from place to place. It has always bothered me that when describing car seats, the front is always “front seat,” which makes sense to me, but the back is always one word: “backseat.” Why?

A: I also enjoy a detective story once in a while, and your question gives me a chance to do some detecting of my own

First, why do some noun phrases (like “front seat”) remain separate words while others (like “back seat”) eventually get mushed together?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule here, but what usually happens is that the most common of these phrases are first hyphenated (“back-seat”) and then joined into one word (“backseat”). This process is gradual and may take dozens of years or more.

In fact, the process is still going on with “backseat,” according to the two US dictionaries I consult the most.

Although Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it as one word, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has it as two words.

Neither dictionary has a separate entry for “front seat,” suggesting that this term is much less common than “backseat,” whether one word or two.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for both “front seat” and “back seat” going back to the early 19th century, when the seats were usually in vehicles powered by real horses. All of its citations are either two words or hyphenated.

The earliest reference for “back seat” is this 1834 quotation from the writings of the American humorist Robert C. Sands: “He had … ample room wherein to adjust himself and his properties, on the back-seat [of the coach].”

The earliest for “front seat” is an 1825 reference to the front seat of a gallery in a church. The next citation in the OED is from Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower’s 1883 memoir: “Le gros papa took up all the front seat of the carriage.”

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ri-PREEZ or ri-PRIZE?

Q: Frank Sinatra created the Reprise record label in the early ‘60s and pronounced it ri-PREEZ. I’ve always heard “reprise” pronounced that way until recently, when an NPR promo for a theater company said the actors would ri-PRIZE their roles. When did this second usage begin and is it correct?

A: Modern dictionaries are all over the place on the pronunciation of “reprise.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only one acceptable pronunciation for the noun and the verb: ri-PREEZ.

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists both ri-PREEZ and ri-PRIZE as standard pronunciations of the noun, though M-W says the second one is less common.

Merriam-Webster’s gives ri-PREEZ as the correct pronunciation of the verb when it’s used in the modern sense of repeating or recapitulating something.

But M-W says the verb is pronounced ri-PRIZE when used in two archaic senses: to take back or to compensate. This suggests that ri-PRIZE may be the older pronunciation.

In fact, my 50-year-old, unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) lists only ri-PRIZE as the pronunciation of both the noun and the verb, with one exception. The noun is pronounced ri-PREEZ, according to the dictionary, only when used in fencing to refer to a redoubling of an attack.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists both pronunciations for the noun, but says ri-PREEZ is now used principally in a musical sense. The OED doesn’t give a pronunciation for the verb, but the earliest spelling of the verb (from 1481) is “repryse,” suggesting that it may have originally been pronounced ri-PRIZE.

So, in answer to your questions, the ri-PRIZE pronunciation appears to be the older one, perhaps going back 500 years or more. Although it’s still acceptable, the ri-PREEZ pronunciation is more common today.

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Transient labors

Q: You mentioned on the radio the other day that some dictionaries will list just about any possible pronunciation of a word. Thanks for sharing that. I was going to call and ask about the pronunciation of “transient,” but I didn’t want my co-workers to recognize me! I can be a stickler for pronunciation.

A: In case you’re interested, “transient” has THREE pronunciations in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), FIVE in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and SIX in the Oxford English Dictionary, all of them considered standard English.

The sibilant can be pronounced as “ss” or “sh” or “zh” or “zz” or “j,” and the vowels can vary too. As for the “i,” it’s sometimes silent, sometimes not. That is, “transient” is sometimes three syllables and sometimes two. It would be hard to mispronounce it!

The adjective (meaning temporary, fleeting, or passing by) is quite old, dating from 1607, according to the OED. The noun (something passing or transitory) is old, too, going back to 1652.

The use of the noun to refer to a migrant worker, a brief guest, or another passer-by is relatively recent. The first published reference for this usage in the OED dates from 1880: “My grandmother held these transients in low esteem.”

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The imperfect storm

Q: I am REALLY tired of hearing the phrase “perfect storm.” I enjoyed the 1997 book that popularized it as a dangerous combination of weather conditions. But “perfect storm” is now used for every combination of unpleasant circumstances. It makes talking heads and politicians seem foolish (for a change).

A: I’ve noticed this too, and it never fails to make me wonder if the perpetrators know which way the wind is blowing. You may be surprised to learn, though, that the expression isn’t a new phenomenon.

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to 1718 for “perfect storm,” though the earliest citations use the phrase positively, as in a “perfect storm” of applause.

The first use of the expression in the meteorological sense comes from the March 20, 1936, issue of the Port Arthur (Texas) News: “The weather bureau describes the disturbance as ‘the perfect storm’ of its type. Seven factors were involved in the chain of circumstances that led to the flood.”

The OED defines the term as a “particularly fierce storm arising from a rare combination of adverse meteorological factors.” Sebastian Junger, in the foreword of The Perfect Storm, defines it as “a storm that could not possibly have been worse.”

No matter how you define it, the widespread metaphorical use of the phrase has gotten out of hand. Last year, the public relations department at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, said “perfect storm” led its list of words and phrases that should be banned because of their numbing overuse.

A few examples: Energy Daily, a “perfect storm” of electric competition (1997); the Economist, a “perfect storm” in the markets (1998); the New York Times, a “perfect storm” of events (2002).

I wouldn’t suggest banning “perfect storm,” but let’s give it a much-needed rest.

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Shtreet smarts

Q: In the past few years, I’ve encountered a curious pronunciation I hadn’t noticed before: when some people say words containing “str,” such as “street,” it sounds as if they’re saying “shtr,” as in “shtreet.” This sound bugs me, but no one else seems to notice. Am I hearing things? Is this a regional or cultural dialect?

A: No, you’re not hearing things. Or rather you are, but the things are real.

You’ve observed something that language experts say is a fairly common variation in the way some Americans speak: the letters “str” are pronounced as “shtr.”

So the speakers seem to be saying things like “shtreet,” “shtrong,” “shtring, “shtrategy,” and even “Aushtralia” and “indushtry.”

Many linguists and phonologists have done scholarly papers on the subject, most of which are understandable only by other linguists and phonologists.

You ask whether this is an example of “a regional or cultural dialect.” Professor Michael Shapiro of Brown University, in an article in the journal American Speech in the spring of 1995, said the phenomenon “seems to be neither dialectal nor regional,” since he’s noticed it in people from all parts of the country.

He sees a parallel in the way some (perhaps older) Americans pronounce the “s” in “Israel” not as “z” but as “zh” (like the “s” in “vision”).

The phenomenon is called “assimilation,” because it has to do with the way different sounds (in this case “s” and “tr”) affect one another when they’re combined.

Another, more familiar case of assimilation happens with the letter “n,” which often sounds like “m” when it’s found in the combinations “nb,” “np,” and “nm.”

This kind of assimilation results in pronunciations like “cramberry” (cranberry), “grampa” (granpa), and “gramma” (granma).

I hope this is helpful and leaves you more “shtreetwise.”

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Name dropping

Q: In my reading for an English literature course, I’ve been noticing nicknames like “Ned” (for “Edward”), “Dick” (for “Richard”), “Hal” (for “Harry”), etc. In The School for Scandal, the Sheridan play, I came across “Noll” – apparently a diminutive of “Oliver.” What is the story behind these nicknames?

A: “Noll” used to be a common nickname for “Oliver.” (One of Oliver Cromwell’s nicknames among the English people, when they weren’t calling him something worse, was “Old Noll.”)

In a custom dating from medieval times, people used to add an affectionate “mine” before first names starting with a vowel, and they often dropped syllables as well. Thus “mine Oliver” led to “Noll”; “mine Abel” led to “Nab”; “mine Ann” led to “Nan”; “mine Edward” led to “Ned”; and “mine Ellen” led to “Nell.”

English nicknames are a fascinating subject. The word “nickname” itself is derived from an extremely old word, “ekename” (an “eke” is an addition or a piece added on).

The first published reference to “ekename,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in 1303. The pronunciation of the expression “an ekename” was misunderstood as “a nekename,” which in turn led to the modern word “nickname,” first recorded in the 17th century.

One common way nicknames were formed was by dropping syllables from the front: “Drew” (for “Andrew”); “Beth” (“Elizabeth”); “Fred” (“Alfred”); “Tony” (“Anthony”); and “Derick” (“Theoderick” or “Roderick”).

Nicknames that use only the first syllables include “Eliza” (“Elizabeth”); “Alex” (“Alexander”); “Fred” (“Frederick”); “Sam” (“Samuel”), and dozens of others, including my own nickname, “Pat” for “Patricia.”

There are even nicknames taken from the middle: “Liz” and “Lisa” (“Elizabeth,” “Elisabeth”); “Della” (“Adelaide”), “Trish” (“Patricia”), and others.

Sometimes nicknames were formed by adding “in” to a first syllable. This is how we got “Robin” as a nickname for “Robert.” And sometimes an “r” in the middle of a name would somehow become an “l,” as in “Hal” (“Harry”), “Mol” (“Mary” or “Martha”); “Dolly” (“Dorothy”); or “Sally” (“Sarah”).

But in our time most nicknames are mere shortenings or are formed by adding “ie” or “ey” or “y” to the first syllable of a longer name. This is how we get “Chris/Christie,” “Dave/Davie,” “Jamie,” “Charlie,” “Johnny,” “Pat/Patty,” “Rosie,” “Gracie,” “Marty,” and a slew of others.

Nobody’s sure how “Margaret” gave us “Peggy,” “William” gave us “Bill,” “John” gave us “Jack,” “Robert” led to “Bob,” “Richard” ended up as “Dick,” or “Edward” led to “Ted.” (My grandfather was a “Ted” but his real name was “Theodore.”)

Thanks for a great question!

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Hear! Hear!

Q: When a toast is made and people wish to show their agreement, they say, “Here, here!” Or is it, “Hear, hear?” PS: I sampled an appearance of yours on WNYC for a mix of mine (check out the last track).

A: The correct exclamation is “hear! hear!” punctuated and capitalized in various ways: “Hear! Hear!” or “Hear, Hear!” or “Hear, hear!” and so on.

The earliest published references in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from 1689, use somewhat different versions, either “hear him! hear him!” or the singular “hear!”

The first published citation for the double “hear” comes from a 1769 report from the House of Commons: “Mr. Grenville called out hear! hear!”

The OED also has several references for the expression used as a noun phrase, including an 1868 comment by Disraeli about “hear-hearers” and an 1879 remark by Sir George Campbell, a Scottish MP, about “Hear, hearing!”

There are even a few citations for the expression used as a verb phrase, including an 1883 report of an MP who “hear, hears” another member.

And thanks for letting me hear the mix. Hear, hear!

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Lingua frankness

Q: What’s to be done about the poor state of English? It seems most people just don’t care if they appear uneducated. No, I don’t envision myself as a defender of English who goes about righting the wrongs perpetrated by illiterates. I merely find the butchered writing I run into annoying and frequently difficult to decipher.

A: What can you do about the poor English that you run into, or that runs into you? I can think of a few things.

(1) When you see an example of bad grammar or usage in an advertising campaign, write a letter to the CEO of the company (don’t bother with the advertising department).

A friend of mine recently wrote to Thomas J. Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Allstate, to complain about a full-page ad in the New York Times that read, “How long of a retirement should you plan for?”

She pointed out the ungrammatical “of.” Not only did she get a letter of thanks, but the FOLLOWING WEEK, the ad was run again reading “How long a retirement should you plan for?” No “of”! The lesson: Complain, and go straight to the top.

(2) Take an interest in what your local school board is doing. Are the schools teaching grammar? Are children’s mistakes being corrected – in speech as well as in written papers? If not, why not?

(3) If you get an incoherent email, send it back with a request for clarification. If you can’t make heads or tails of some garbled sentence, say it doesn’t make sense and ask for a translation!

In short, you do what you can. These may be little things, but if enough people did them, we might see a difference.

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A modest proposal

Q: I was amused by your blog item about the New York governor’s misuse of pronouns. He said the former governor had “my wife, Michelle, and I up for lunch.” I’m glad he put an “up” in there. Once you have the grammar sorted, there’s still a problem when people say things like “we’re having the children for dinner.” Well, I love children, but I couldn’t eat a whole one.

A: I agree that “having the children for dinner” sounds comical. It reminds me of Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal.” He suggests solving the dual problems of starvation and overpopulation among the poor Irish by having them eat their children.

Or, as Swift so colorfully puts it, “a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

One way of treating children that are fed up with you or, perhaps, vice versa!

I often see and hear such delectable constructions as these: “We had the couple next door for lunch,” or “We’ll have the parents for a barbecue.”

In this sense, “have” means something like “invite,” or “have over.” I agree, though, that it leaves one open to laughter, so it’s much better to stick in a preposition.

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Symbolic art

Q: Senator McCain was asked on the campaign trail whether there was an “emblematic relationship” between the Constitution and Christianity. What exactly does that mean? And how should the word “symbolic” be used in normal conversation – i.e., “symbolic dance” or “symbolic thinking”?

A: You wonder what an “emblematic relationship” between the Constitution and Christianity means. Not much!

Dictionaries define the adjective “emblematic” as symbolic or representative or typical. So I guess one could say there’s an emblematic relationship between a cross and Christianity, or between the Constitution and democracy.

Similarly, one might say a constitution is emblematic of democracy, or Christianity is emblematic of monotheism. But heaven only knows what “an emblematic relationship” between the Constitution and Christianity could refer to.

We borrowed the word “emblematic” in the 17th century from the French emblématique, which ultimately comes from the Latin emblema, which means emblem.

As for “symbolic,” it means using or characterized by symbols, but it’s probably used more often in a looser way to mean typical of, as in “His tantrum is symbolic of the terrible twos.” We borrowed “symbolic” in the 17th century from symbolicus, late Latin for symbol.

I think both “emblematic” and “symbolic” are overused these days, too often imprecisely. I wouldn’t use “emblematic” at all in normal conversation and I’d use “symbolic” sparingly.

Instead of “It’s a symbolic dance,” I’d say “The dance uses a circle as a symbol of the sun.” Instead of “symbolic thinking,” I’d say what I mean (whatever that is).

These, in my opinion, are words that allow a speaker (or writer) to blur any genuine meaning. But of course that may be the speaker’s intention!

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A royal redundancy?

Q: Whence “the Court of Saint James’s”? Aren’t both “of” and an apostrophe plus “s” redundant?

A: The British royal court is known as the Court of St. James’s because its fuller name is the Court of St. James’s Palace.

St. James’s Palace and its adjacent park, St. James’s Park, are both named for Saint James the Younger. The palace is the monarchy’s administrative headquarters, which is why foreign ambassadors are accredited to the Court of St. James’s.

And lest this answer sound too bureaucratic, here are a few lines from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe:

I heard the minx remark,
She’d meet him after dark,
Inside St James’s Park …

Many people are startled by the use of what’s sometimes called the “double possessive” – that is, using “of” along with an apostrophe and “s.” But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it. I talked about this once on the blog, and you might want to take a look at the entry.

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