The Grammarphobia Blog

An extended meaning?

Q: I’m not much of a stickler. I believe that language is (and should be) a bottom-up rather than a top-down thing. But I’m bothered by a malapropism that I hear all the time: the use of “to the extent that” to mean “to the effect that,” as in “He said something to the extent that he did not accept her point of view.” Do you agree?

A: Yes, I’m with you. It’s definitely incorrect to use “to the extent that” in place of “to the effect that.” But this may not precisely be a malapropism, which is mixing up two similar-sounding words with an unintentionally comic result.

An example of a malapropism (from The Sopranos) is saying someone is “prostate with grief” instead of “prostrate with grief.” For more on malapropisms, check out my Jan. 2, 2007, blog item.

The noun “extent” dates back to the late 13th century. For the first few hundred years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to the value of land, taxes on that land, rent from it, or the seizure of land to pay debts.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1600) in which Duke Frederick uses the word “extent” for the seizure of land:

More villain thou. Well, push him out of doors;
And let my officers of such a nature
Make an extent upon his house and lands.
Do this expediently and turn him going.

By the 16th century, though, we find the word also being used to mean the degree to which something happens, exists, occupies space, or is understood, according to various citations in the OED.

Here’s an example from a 1533 medical book: “An appetite to eate or drynke mylke, to the extent that it shal not arise or abraied in the stomake.”

The expression “to the effect that” has been used since the late 14th century to refer to a result or purpose or meaning.

In The Canterbury Tales, for example, Chaucer writes: “Wherfore I pray yow, lat mercy been in youre herte, to th’ effect and entente that God almighty have mercy on yow in his laste juggement.”

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Subprime time

Q: We’ve been seeing the word “subprime” a lot lately because of the mortgage and banking crisis. Can you tell me anything about it?

A: It’s interesting that you should ask. The Oxford English Dictionary added a draft entry last month on this very subject.

Although the adjective “subprime” has been in the news lately, as you point out, it’s been around in one sense or another for the good part of a century, according to the OED.

The word, which initially meant inferior or below the highest quality, appeared in a 1920 Federal Trade Commission report about the pricing of products that “arrived at market in subprime condition.”

It wasn’t used in a banking sense until the mid-1970s. At first, “subprime” was a positive term that referred to a low lending rate (one below the prime rate) offered to the most desirable borrowers.

In 1976, for example, an article in the Times of London reported a rise in “the volume of big loans granted at sub-prime rate levels” as US banks competed for “the most credit-worthy clients.”

By the 1990s, though, the adjective was being used negatively to refer to a high interest rate for borrowers with poor credit histories. Here’s a 1998 example from Time magazine: “As a so-called subprime lender, Green Tree makes high-interest loans to people with damaged credit.”

Similarly, “subprime” has been a noun since the mid-1970s, at first referring to a low-interest loan for a desirable borrower, and later to a high-interest loan for a questionable borrower.

The most recent published reference in the OED, from the October, 2007, issue of Vanity Fair, uses the term for high-interest debt of dubious value: “Smart investors began wondering how many other institutions held worthless subprime, too.”

And those smart investors are still wondering, no doubt.

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Pound for pound

Q: I love pound cake, but I’ve never come across one that weighed exactly one pound. Why then is a pound cake called a pound cake?

A: In the early 1700s, when the pound cake was born, recipes generally called for a pound each of the principal ingredients – butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published recipe that I could find comes from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse, one of the most successful British cookbook writers of the 18th century. Here it is (note that the recipe calls for a dozen eggs, not a pound of them):

“Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way, till it is like a fine thick cream; then have ready twelve eggs, but half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, a pound of flour beat in it, a pound of sugar, and a few caraways. Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon, butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven. For change you may put in a pound of currants, clean washed and picked.”

Yikes! All that hand beating? Nowadays, we use baking soda and electric mixers to give our hands a break. And we improvise on the proportions. As a result, our pound cakes are usually much lighter and a lot less rich.

Why a pound of each ingredient in the original recipes? At a time when many people couldn’t read, according to the What’s Cooking America website, “this simple convention made it simple to remember recipes.”

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Writing in style

Q: I was having a very pleasant brunch with two friends when the subject turned to the rules for using numbers. Friend One, a medical transcriptionist, complained that the style manual for her profession insisted that all numbers be expressed as numerals. Friend Two, a college librarian, offered that style manuals differed about numbers but one should follow the style for one’s profession despite objections. My contribution was that consistency should be the rule. I’d like to hear what you think. Do manuals of style rule in ordinary usage? How about manuscripts, novels, short stories? Help!

A: I do recommend using a style guide for ordinary usage as well as anything you write for a publisher. As far as the writing of numbers goes, the guidelines in Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, make sense to me.

In general, unless you’re writing something technical, Garner suggests spelling out all numbers of ten and below, and using digits for 11 and above. But he gives several exceptions (“$9 million,” “9 inches,” “4 p.m.,” “8 percent,” etc.) and recommends spelling out any number that begins a sentence.

If you consult his book you’ll find other exceptions. The style recommended by Garner is similar in many ways to that used in newspaper writing.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a scholarly article or book, you might be better off using The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition). Its style is very different (though it includes a chapter by Garner on grammar and usage).

The Chicago Manual generally spells out numbers one through one hundred, centuries, physical quantities and measurements, plus all round numbers in the hundreds, thousands, millions, and so on. (I wouldn’t use Chicago‘s style for numbers in personal writing, though; it’s much too cumbersome for correspondence and such.)

Different book and magazine publishers have their own styles for using numerals vs. words. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Use the publisher’s style manual if you have it. Otherwise, use your own judgment and be consistent. The publisher will change the style to suit itself.

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The travail of travel

Q: In The American Way of Birth, Jessica Mitford writes, “It is somehow reassuring to discover that the word ‘travel’ is derived from ‘travail,’ denoting the pains of childbirth.” Does “travel” really come from “travail”? And does it have anything to do with childbirth?

A: Yes, “travel” is derived from “travail,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it originally meant “Bodily or mental labour or toil, especially of a painful or oppressive nature; exertion; trouble; hardship; suffering.”

We got the word from the Old French travail, meaning suffering or trouble. The first published reference in the OED (spelled trauail) is from the Old Kentish Sermons (circa 1250), a collection of Old English sermons and proverbs.

And, yes, the word did once refer to the pain of childbirth. An OED citation from 1297 uses the phrase “in travail” pretty much the way we would use “in labor” today.

In spite of the word’s painful beginnings, the noun “travel” was being used to mean the act of traveling by the late 1300s. It was spelled all sorts of ways (“travall,” “trawaile,” ”trauaille,” “travale,” and so on) before “travel” became the dominant form in the 1600s.

The verb “travel” has a similar pedigree since entering English in the late 13th century. It has meant, among other things, to torment, to work, and to make a journey.

It’s interesting that a word for suffering or trouble in Old French has evolved over the years to mean work in modern French and travel or trouble in modern English. But I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about our two languages.

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A sneaky question

Q: Your thoughts, please, about the past tense of “sneak.” I tend to use “snuck.” I also hear “sneaked,” but it sounds wrong to my ear. (I must admit that seeing “snuck” spelled doesn’t seem so right either, but it sounds fine.)

A: In formal written English, the traditionally accepted past tense (and past participle) of “sneak” is “sneaked.”


“Snuck” cropped up in the 19th century as a nonstandard variant, first recorded in print in a New Orleans weekly in 1887.

Since then, “snuck” has become so common in the US that American dictionaries now accept it without comment (that is, without calling it slang or nonstandard or dialectical or whatever).

Usage experts, who are stricter than lexicographers, list it as nonstandard but generally say it’s now acceptable in informal speech and writing.

“Snuck” is more common in the US and Canada, but it is on the rise in British and Australian English. Currently it appears about as often as “sneaked” in North America, but “snuck” may eventually replace it.

“Snuck,” in the opinion of Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, “stands a good chance to become the dominant form.”

I don’t use “snuck” myself (simply because I’m in the habit of saying “sneaked”), but I have nothing against it.

The “sneak/snuck” pattern (though relatively new) has a familiar Anglo-Saxon ring, along the lines of “drive/drove,” “stick/stuck,” “weave/wove,” “speak/spoke,” and similar verbs from Old English.

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Verbal assistance

Q: A former boss once vehemently argued with me that the verb “assist” was used correctly in these examples: “They were asked to assist Dave learn math” and “I will need to assist you write that memo.” I had learned that “assist” followed by a noun needed either “in” or “to” before a verb. I was sure he was incorrect, but he was the boss, so I tried to find other ways to write sentences rather than write them incorrectly.

A: There are several ways to use “assist” correctly, but your former boss’s isn’t one of them. Here are the correct meanings and uses.

(1) to be present (this takes the preposition “at”), whether as a participant or supporter or just a spectator: “He will assist at the wedding.”

(2) to give assistance to (without a preposition): “Please assist that elderly woman.” … “His guide dog assisted him.”

(3) to give assistance (with a preposition): “His wife assisted in his success.”

(4) to give assistance (with the infinitive form of a verb): “She assisted to get him promoted.”

The two sentences you give are examples of the fourth kind, where “assist” should be followed by an infinitive: “They were asked to assist Dave to learn math” and “I will need to assist you to write that memo.”

I believe your former boss was using “assist” the way “help” is normally used. When “help” is followed by an infinitive, it doesn’t need “to.”

For instance, we can say either “He helped me to move,” or “He helped me move.” In both cases, “move” is in the infinitive.

But with “assist,” the infinitive must be accompanied by the preposition “to,” as in “He assisted me to move.”

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Why are the clams happy?

Q: What’s the origin of the phrase “happy as a clam”? I don’t see what clams have to be happy about. If ever an expression doesn’t make sense, this is the one.

A: The expression makes sense, according to my 1970 edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, if we think of it as a shortened version of “happy as a clam at high tide.”

“In America especially, clams are esteemed a delicacy and are gathered only when the tide is out,” the dictionary explains.

Many language sleuths who’ve looked into the subject agree with Brewer’s, and I have no reason to doubt this explanation. But the earliest published reference for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is the clipped version.

Here’s the citation from an 1834 issue of the short-lived undergraduate literary journal Harvardiana: That peculiar degree of satisfaction, usually denoted by the phrase “as happy as a clam.”

A fuller phrase (though not the exact one cited by Brewer’s) shows up 10 years later in a book of fictional essays by Ann Sophia Stephens: They seemed as happy as clams in high water.

Another near-miss appears in John R. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848): “As happy as a clam at high water,” is a very common expression in those parts of the coast of New England where clams are found.

In fact, the exact phrase mentioned by Brewer’s doesn’t show up in print as far as I know until an 1873 book by John Hanson Beadle that describes a visit to Galveston, Texas: A thousand or more negroes thronged the streets “happy as clams at high tide.”

An 1898 edition of E. Cobham Brewer’s dictionary, though, does include an entry for “happy as a clam at high tide” with the following comment: The clam is a bivalve mollusc, dug from its bed of sand only at low tide; at high tide it is quite safe from molestation.

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Group therapy

Q: A friend emailed me about a Canadian New Wave group from the 1980s. Should he have said Martha & The Muffins’s [or Muffinses’] record “Metro Music”? In my reply, I want to mention another Canadian New Wave group. Should it be The Spoons’s [or Spoonses’] “Arias & Symphonies”?

A: Whether a musical group is singular or plural depends on whether its name is singular or plural. The Arrows are plural. Platinum Blonde is singular. The Spoons are plural. Martha & the Muffins are too.

If the band’s name is already a plural word ending in “s,” then just add an apostrophe to the end to make it possessive: Martha & the Muffins’ record “Metro Music”The Spoons’ “Arias & Symphonies” (many fans drop the article and refer to the band simply as Spoons).

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Welcoming committee

Q: When someone says “thank you” in Spanish or French, the usual reply is “it’s nothing.” Why do we say “you’re welcome” in English?

A: Let’s begin with some history. The word “welcome” is a very old word, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. The first published references in the Oxford English Dictionary are from Beowulf.

The word was originally wilcuma in Old English, a combination of wil (pleasure) plus cuma (guest). At first, it could be a noun for a desirable guest, an adjective describing such a guest, or an interjection greeting the guest. The verb form, wilcumian, meant to receive someone with pleasure.

By about 1300, however, “welcome” was being used more loosely to describe something acceptable, pleasurable, freely permitted, or cordially invited.

So when did we begin using the word in response to “thank you”? The language sleuth Barry Popik has traced the usage back at least to Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an exchange from Othello (circa 1603):

Lodovico: Madam, good night; I humbly thank your ladyship.
Desdemona: Your honour is most welcome.

I don’t know when the exact phrase “you’re welcome” was first used in response to “thank you,” but I can attest from personal experience (and a few reminders from Mom) that it was before the OED’s first citation.

The earliest reference in the OED is from a 1960 newspaper article, though the dictionary has one from a 1907 short story that’s quite close: “Thank you,” said the girl, with a pleasant smile. “You’re quite welcome,” said the skipper.

Why “you’re welcome”? I can’t give you a definitive answer. But I suspect that it’s simply another way of saying “it’s a pleasure” or “the pleasure is mine.” Remember, one of the early uses of “welcome” was to describe something pleasurable.

As for the Spanish de nada and the French de rien, we too sometimes say “it’s nothing” in response to “thank you.” Also, Spanish and French speakers sometimes say “the pleasure is mine” (el gusto es mío and le plaisir est pour moi).

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Two index fingers pointing

Q: Can you write about “such that”? I assume you’ve seen this recent-seeming locution (at least to me) used in the following way: “She knew the English language very well, such that she wrote a whole book about it.”

A: We often use “such,” followed by a clause starting with “that,” to say something about one thing by referring to something else. As in, “His height was such that he had to have his clothes custom-made.”

Sentences like this sound a bit redundant to the modern ear. Why not “He was so tall that he had to have his clothes custom-made”?

This “such that” construction, according to the grammarian George O. Curme, is evidence of an “older English fondness for double expression,” with “such and that pointing as with two index fingers to the following explanatory clause.”

The word “such” in sentences like these can have either of two meanings:

(1) “of such a kind” (adjective). As in “Her illness was such that she couldn’t work.”

(2) “in such a way” (adverb). As in “She trembled such that she couldn’t work.”

The adjectival construction has been widely used for the last thousand years, right up to the present day. Examples date back to around 1100, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve found them in the 1200s, 1300s, and 1400s, but in most of these the only recognizable words are “such that,” so I won’t bother to quote them!

Here’s a citation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (1597): “Yea, but our valuation shall be such / That every slight and false-derived cause, / Yea, every idle, nice and wanton reason / Shall the king taste of this action.”

But the adverbial construction has been rarer, and some now consider it incorrect. In the sentence you cite – “She knew the English language very well, such that she wrote a whole book about it” – the “such that” construction is being used in an adverbial way.

In this case, “such that” answers the question “How well did she know English?” The sentence is definitely awkward. Better: “She knew the English language so well that she wrote a whole book about it.” Whether this “such that” usage is grammatically incorrect is a matter of opinion.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts the adverbial “such that,” meaning in such a way, giving as an example “related such that each excludes the other.” But the usage panel of The American-Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) rejects this sentence: “The products are packaged such that users can pick the components they need and add capabilities over time. “

I find this adverbial usage so clumsy that the issue of correctness or incorrectness is irrelevant. It puts a great big bulge in the middle of the sentence for no good reason.

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Is the lease up on “lend”?

Q: Which is better: “I’m going to loan you $500” or “I’m going to lend you $500”? Many thanks.

A: Let me begin by citing the “lend/loan” entry from my book Woe Is I:

“Only the strictest grammarians now insist that loan is the noun and lend is the verb, a distinction that is still adhered to in Britain (Lend me a pound, there’s a good chap). American usage allows that either loan or lend may be used as a verb (Loan me a few bucks till payday). To my ears, though, lend and lent do sound a bit more polished than loan and loaned.”

To this I might add that both verb forms are very old, with “loan” dating from the 1200s and “lend” from the 1400s.

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins: “Originally there was no d. The Old English verb ‘lend’ was laenan, which in Middle English became lene.”

“But gradually during the Middle English period,” Ayto adds, “the past form lende came to be reinterpreted as a present form, and by the 15th century it was established as the new infinitive.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adoption of “lend” may have been influenced by the “preponderance of analogy,” citing similar verbs like “bend,” “rend,” “send,” and “wend.”

Which word is better, “loan” or “lend”? It’s your call. But “lend” seems to be the more popular, at least in Google land. I got more than 9 million hits for “to lend” and not quite 2.9 million for “to loan.”

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What and what not

Q: I sometimes hear people use “what” where I’d expect “that.” For example, “I need to make a list of the things what I want to buy,” or “This is the book what he gave me.” Is this acceptable? It sounds horribly wrong to me.

A: No, your instincts are right and those sentences are wrong. They could correctly be written as follows:

(1) “I need to make a list of the things that I want to buy.”

Or: “I need to make a list of what I want to buy.”

(2) “This is the book that he gave me.”

Or: “This is what he gave me.”

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Heightened tension

Q: I’m a reporter at a newspaper where an argument recently erupted between a copy editor and an assignment editor over how a person’s height should be designated. Is someone “5-foot-6″ or “5-feet-6″? I would argue that it’s “5-feet-6″ on the analogy that someone doesn’t weigh “150 pound.” Thanks for your help.

A: There’s no absolute right-vs.-wrong way to state dimensions in numbers (spell them out or not? use hyphens or not? pluralize the noun or not?). It’s a style issue, and one that’s likely to vary from publisher to publisher.

The New York Times’s style, for example, is “5 feet 6 inches tall” or “5-foot-6.” The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, recommends “five feet nine,” though it accepts “more colloquially, five foot nine.”

Why does the Times (and many other publications) prefer the singular “foot” instead of the plural “feet” in a statement like “She’s 5-foot-6”? The Times stylebook doesn’t offer an explanation, but here’s my take on this.

When you say, “She’s 5-foot-6,” it’s really a clipped way of saying, more or less, “She’s a 5-foot-6 woman.” So “5-foot-6” here is actually an adjectival phrase (a group of words acting like an adjective).

Just think of the adjectival phrases “five-card” and “seven-card” in the question “Do you want to play five-card or seven-card stud?” You’d answer, “Five-card” or “Seven-card,” not “cards.”

We use singular nouns in nearly all adjectival phrases that indicate durations or amounts: “two-car garage,” “three-week vacation,” “four-bedroom house,” “five-month-old puppy,” “three-year lease,” and so on.

The only exception is with fractions, where the plural is often used in adjectival phrases: “a two-thirds turnout,” “a three-fifths margin,” etc.

Although there’s no hard-and-fast rule about the clipped forms, I think most of us commonly use singular nouns: “What size apartment are you looking for? A two-bedroom or a three bedroom?”

But back to your question about height. The Times style on this seems reasonable and natural to me. There’s nothing wrong with saying “She’s 5 feet 6 inches,” but if you drop the word “inches,” it sounds more idiomatically correct to my ear to say “She’s 5-foot-6.”

Now, the Chicago Manual does appear to be on your side. But this is largely irrelevant in a newsroom, since newspapers don’t follow Chicago style.

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Choices, choices

Q: What’s the scoop on “optimal” vs. “optimum”? The company I work for says its technology is designed “to maintain the optimal temperature.” To my ear “optimal” is correct, but our chief scientist, a Brit, prefers “optimum.” Are they interchangeable?

A: As adjectives, “optimum” and “optimal” mean the same thing: most favorable, advantageous, desirable.

“Optimum,” which is also a noun, is the older word. It was borrowed directly from Latin (optimum: the best), and entered English as a noun in the mid-19th century.

The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary (from 1848) describes the cultivation of mulberry to reach “its maximum of extent and its optimum of quality.”

The word was first used as an adjective in an 1885 work that discusses the “optimum point” at which plant life “is carried on with the greatest activity.”

“Optimal” was formed from “optimum” and entered English in 1890. Again, the first OED citation comes from scientific writing: “There is probably an optimal temperature, or one at which the process proceeds most rapidly or most favourably.”

Both words have been used as adjectives up to the present time. In my opinion, it’s a toss-up. Use either one.

But here’s another opinion. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, prefers “optimal” to differentiate the adjective from the noun “optimum.”

“It serves the principle of differentiation to distinguish between the two forms,” he writes. He adds, however, that the adjective “optimum” is edging out “optimal” in popularity.

In the end, public opinion will choose the winner.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 P.M. Eastern time to take your phone calls about the English language. (If you missed today’s program, you can listen to it in WNYC’s archive.)

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Erstwhile adventures

Q: I recently read on Yahoo News that Matt LeBlanc’s ex-business manager had filed a breach-of-contract suit against the former Friends star. In the article, LeBlanc is referred to as an “erstwhile” Friends star. I thought “erstwhile” was an adverb, but I see it in some references as an adjective as well. Is it common for words to do double duty as adjectives and as adverbs?

A: The word “erstwhile” began life in the 16th century as an adverb meaning formerly. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a sonnet by Edmund Spenser: “That which erstwhile so pleasaunt scent did yelde, / Of Sulphure now did breathe corrupted smel.”

But “erstwhile” has been used as an adjective meaning former since the early 1900s. Here’s a 1909 citation from the Westminster Gazette, a London newspaper that later merged with the Daily News: “A tottering pleasure-resort, whose erstwhile patrons look more longingly every year at the pretty and easily reached villages of Normandy and Brittany.”

It is indeed common for words to do double duty as adjectives and adverbs. The technical term for an adverb that has the same form as its related adjective is “flat adverb.”

Some typical examples are “slow,” “sure,” “bright,” “hard,” “right,” and of course “flat” itself (as in “you’re singing flat”).

Flat adverbs were once “more abundant and used in greater variety” than they are today, according to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage.

You might be interested in an item on The Grammarphobia Blog a year and a half ago about flat adverbs.

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When do you need “whenever”?

Q: I recently came across this line in a computer book: “Most temporary files are automatically deleted whenever you close an application.” I was wondering if “when” should have been used instead of “whenever.”

A: I don’t think “whenever” is necessary in that sentence. A simple “when” would do.

“When” means “at what time” or “at the time that.” It’s an old word, dating back to the year 1000 or so, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Whenever,” a stronger word, means “at any time when” or “every time that” or “at whatever time, no matter when.” The OED says it came along in the late 1300s.

So the two aren’t interchangeable, and often “when” is enough. However, you’d want something stronger in a sentence like this: “I’ll be happy to see you whenever you can get away.”

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Redundancy redux

Q: Isn’t the term “all throughout” redundant? Shouldn’t one say “all through” or “throughout”?

A: In most cases, you could use either “all through” or “throughout” instead of a redundant “all throughout.”

But I don’t think we should consider “all throughout” all wrong in all cases. Sometimes we use a little redundancy when emphasis is needed. Some redundancies are less redundant than others.

Take, for example, the use of “ever” in a sentence like “My roses bloomed yesterday for the first time ever.” I talked in a previous blog entry about why this might be justified.

Another example is “different” in an expression like “fourteen different countries.” The word “different” is of course optional. It’s not necessary. But it might be justified, as I argued in another blog entry.

Here’s more on the subject of redundancy, in case you’re still game. There are many 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. Here’s a blog entry that discusses usages like these.

In other words, a redundancy isn’t always (if you’ll pardon the expression) a no-no. 

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A booby prize is awarded

Q: Recently I’ve been running across “awarded” used as an adjective: for example, “the most awarded book,” meaning the book with the most awards. Is this new or am I just noticing? I don’t think it’s correct.

A: This is a new one on me, too.

The noun and verb “award” date back to the 1300s, but the only related adjective is the rarely used “awardable.” Here’s a 1622 citation from the Oxford English Dictionary: “No Processe is there awardable against the party.”

I have to object to this new “awarded” usage on the grounds that it’s confusing and ambiguous.

When someone refers to “the most awarded book,” does he mean a book that’s won the most awards, or one that’s been given the most as awards – say, at graduations?

Over the centuries, for example, copies of the King James version of the Bible may have been given to more Sunday school pupils than any other book, making it the “most awarded” book among such students.

But maybe you and I are too picky. When I google “most awarded,” I get over 200,000 hits! Sigh.

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Lost in the whilst

Q: I hear often from Brits the word “whilst,” which is not used in the US. A penny for your thoughts on its usage.

A: “Whilst,” though common in British English, is rarely heard in the United States. And when it is used here, it sounds pretentious and archaic.

“While” is the common usage here, and as matter of fact it’s the older word. The word “while” goes back to about the year 1000 (spelled “hwile”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and “whilst” dates from the late 1300s.

The same is true for “amongst” and “amidst.” They’re commonly used in Britain, while Americans use “among” and “amid.”

Again, the American preference happens to be for the older word. “Among” dates to about 1000, and “amongst” to 1250; “amid” is from circa 975, and “amidst” from about 1300.

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Cotton picking

Q: My nickname is Cotton and my gamertag on Xbox Live is Qutun. I chose that handle after reading that qutun is the Arabic word for cotton. But someone who studied Arabic told me recently that qutun does not mean cotton. I have also heard that the word “cotton” is a verb, yet I doubt that anyone uses it that way today. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

A: Ultimately, the English word “cotton” comes from the Arabic qutun (also spelled qutn in our alphabet). A press official at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington confirmed to me that qutun is indeed Arabic for cotton.

The original word passed from the Middle East to Spain, and from Spanish to other European languages. English got it in the late 13th century from the Old French coton. This is the rough history of the English word, as described in several etymology books as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, says several other words of Arabic origin (“amber,” “camphor,” “lute,” “mattress,” “cipher,” “orange,” “saffron,” “sugar,” “syrup,” “zenith” and others) entered English during the same period, “most of them having to do in one way or another with science or commerce.”

As for the verb “cotton,” meaning to take a liking, it’s still being used today. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which describes it as an informal usage, gives this example: “a dog that didn’t cotton to strangers.”

This figurative meaning, which dates from the 1600s, is derived from an older sense of the verb “cotton” in textile finishing. In the 1400s, to “cotton” meant to form a nap (like the pile on a fabric).

Here’s an OED citation from 1488: “Every Yard of Cotton being fully wrought and Cottoned shall weigh one Pound at the least.” If a fabric “cottoned” properly, it was successfully finished.

I hope you find this answer properly cottoned.

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Stools, pigeons, and ducks

Q: I noticed an interesting usage while doing genealogical research in old probate records. An estate inventory from Barnegat Bay, NJ, in 1831 listed “one double barrell gun and one lot of stool (wood) ducks.” I assume from this context that a stool duck was what we would now call a duck decoy. This leads me to wonder if a stool pigeon was originally a hunting decoy too. I’d be interested in your observations.

A: The term “stool pigeon” did indeed once refer to a hunting decoy – in this case, a live pigeon fastened to a stool to attract game birds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED suggests that this meaning of “stool” may possibly be influenced by an old Anglo-French word, estale, which referred to a pigeon used to entice hawks into a net, and gave us the English noun “stale.”


The dictionary has published references dating back to the mid-1400s for “stale” used to mean a “decoy-bird, a living bird used to entice other birds of its own species, or birds of prey, into a snare or net.” (There’s no indication that the “stales” were tied to stools, however.)


By the 16th century, “stale” was being used figuratively for “a person or thing held out as a lure or bait to entrap a person,” though this meaning is now obsolete. The noun now means the urine of domestic animals, especially horses and camels.

A similar word, “stall,” was used in the 16th century to mean a decoy bird, but this usage is also obsolete. The noun “stall,” though, is still used to mean a ruse or delaying tactic.

I don’t know whether live ducks were ever tied to stools to attract birds for hunters. But John R. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1859) has this entry: “Stool, an artificial duck or other water-fowl used as a decoy.”

As for “stool pigeon,” by the early 19th century, the expression was being used figuratively, at first tongue in cheek but soon pretty much the way we use it today, according to citations in the OED.

In 1830, a Woodstock, VT, newspaper quoted a jokester who offered for sale “wildbirds domesticated and stool pigeons trained to catch voters for the next Presidency – warranted to suit either party.”

But six years later, Washington Irving wrote in a more serious vein about a man who “was used like a ‘stool pigeon,’ to decoy” others.

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On borrowed time

Q: I see “borrow” used a lot when one language adopts a word from another. I always ask myself if there are any plans to return the word. Doesn’t “borrow” mean to temporarily use with the intention of returning the item?

A: If using the verb “borrow” instead of “adopt” is a sin, then I’m guilty. But “borrow” has been used in this looser sense since the 13th century.

When the verb first entered English around the year 1000, it meant to take something “on pledge or security given for its safe return,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But by the 1200s, it could mean to make temporary use of a physical thing – say a neighbor’s plow – or to adopt as one’s own an immaterial thing: thoughts, expressions, words, customs, and so on.

An early published reference in the OED, for example, refers to borrowing the light of the sun. In Shakespeare’s King John (1595), Philip the Bastard tells John that “inferior eyes” shall “borrow their behaviors from the great.”

Interestingly, philologists, etymologists, and other language types often use the term “loanword” to refer to a word that one language borrows from another.

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Multiple choice

Q: Would you indulge me by discussing the overuse of “multiple”? It’s not attractive, nor does it save syllables. What’s wrong with good old “many”? I’m all for a varied vocabulary, but some of these fad words become so ubiquitous that variety doesn’t even come into the picture.

A: Not only doesn’t “multiple” save syllables, but it adds one. In my opinion, a good writer avoids words that are longer than need be. Shorter is often more beautiful, too, as in this excerpt (quoted before on the blog) from Yeats’s When You Are Old:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

While I find “multiple” a bit clunky, there’s nothing wrong with the word. It’s been used as an adjective since the mid-17th century to refer to many people or things.

But “many” is much, much older, going all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Let’s skip the Old English citations in the OED and go directly to Shakespeare for an example.

Here’s Guildenstern (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern notoriety) speaking to King Claudius in Hamlet (1604):

We will ourselves provide:
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.

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Take a listen, please!

Q: On CNN, all the anchors use the expression “take a listen” instead of just “listen” or “listen to this.” Does that sound as caustic to you as it does to me?

A: I don’t know about caustic, but it certainly sounds puffed up, condescending, and lame. I could go on, but let me quote from the entry for this “infantile phrase” in The Dimwit’s Dictionary (2d ed.), by Robert Hartwell Fiske:

“As inane as it is insulting, have (take) a listen obviously says nothing that listen alone does not. Journalists and media personalities who use this offensive phrase ought to be silenced; businesspeople, dismissed; public officials, pilloried.”

Unfortunately, this horse is out of the barn. I just googled “take a listen” and got nearly 1.3 million hits.

The expression hasn’t made it yet into modern dictionaries, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) includes a somewhat similar usage as a regionalism: “Would you like to give the CD a listen before buying it?”

The word “listen,” by the way, has been used as a noun for centuries in expressions like “to be on the listen” or “to have a proper listen.”

In fact, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “listen” as a noun dates from the 1300s. In an apparent reference to becoming deaf or hard of hearing, the writer wonders if someone “has losed the lysten.”

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It all depends on you

Q: What is the difference between “dependence” and “dependency”?

A: Traditionally, “dependence” is the state of being under the influence or control of another, while a “dependency” is something that’s under the control of something else. But modern dictionaries now give “dependence” as one meaning of “dependency.”

Here’s an example of the two words at work in the traditional way: When the Colonies were a dependency of Britain, the colonists bridled at their dependence on the mother country.

The word “dependence” is also commonly used for a drug addition: Despite evidence to the contrary, Watson denied that Holmes had a narcotic dependence.

We got both “dependence” and “dependency” in the 16th century from the French, who have given us more than a quarter of our words. You might say that English has had a dependence on French for a lot of its lexicon.

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The English patient

Q: My daughter and I are wondering if you can tell us why the word “patient” is both an adjective for waiting calmly as well as a noun for someone who sees a doctor.

A: The key to all this is the ultimate source of “patient,” the Latin patiens, meaning able to endure suffering. So, a patient is someone who’s suffering, and someone who’s patient can endure suffering.

Both the noun and the adjective entered English in the 14th century via the French spoken by the Anglo-Norman rulers of England.

The first citation for the adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from around 1350, refers to being “patient” through “tribulaciouns.” In a few decades, though, the adjective was also being used to mean able to wait calmly.

The noun “patient” showed up about the same time. Here’s a quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-95): “He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel / In houres by his magik natureel.”

Modern dictionaries define the adjective as stoical, calm, tolerant, persevering, deliberate, and so on. The noun, which still means one who receives medical treatment, has generally lost its sense of suffering (though going to the doctor still has its tribulations!).

Thanks for sending an interesting question, and for being so patient.

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A purpose-driven question

Q: A recent New York Times article said Al Gore “had purposefully stayed on the sidelines during the long Democratic primary fight.” It seems to me that the Times should have said “purposely,” which to me means on purpose, instead of “purposefully,” which I see as with a purpose. Is this an example of the corrosion/evolution of meaning? Or is the article just wrong?

A: I usually use “purposely” to mean deliberately and “purposefully” to mean with a purpose, which is pretty much the way you see them.

That’s more or less the traditional way the two words have been used since “purposely” entered English in 1495 and “purposefully” showed up in 1854, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But entries for the two words in modern American dictionaries overlap quite a bit: “purposely” can mean with a purpose, and “purposefully” can mean deliberately. In fact, I even see some overlap in my unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) from the 1950s.

Yes, this is an example of the evolution of English. Is it for the worse? I’d say so, since it makes the language fuzzier. But I have just one vote in this. All the people who speak the language ultimately decide what’s good English and bad.

Was the article in the Times wrong? That depends. Did the writer mean that Gore stayed on the sidelines with a purpose (say to maintain party unity) or that he did it deliberately (that is, intentionally, rather than indecisively)?

I guess you’d have to ask the former Vice President for an answer.

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Pardon my French

(An updated post about “Pardon my French” ran on Jan. 31, 2014)

Q: In an old “Seinfeld” episode, George admits his willingness to say anything to impress a woman, including that he’d coined the phrase “pardon my French.” Well, who did come up with this great expression?

A: Mary McCarthy is the first writer known to have used the exact phrase “pardon my French,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel, she puts the words in the mouth of one of her characters: “ ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’ ”

But the term “French” has been used euphemistically for bad language since the early 1900s and probably even earlier. In Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), J. Redding Ware says the expression “loosing French” meant violent language, though he doesn’t give a date for its first use.

James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), uses “bad French” to mean bad language. More to the point, in All Trees Were Green (1933), Michael Harrison writes: “A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.”

The adjective “French,” of course, has been used in a negative way in English for hundreds of years.

A 1503 citation in the OED, for instance, refers to venereal disease as the “Frenche pox.” The French, naturally, referred to it as the English disease. Touché!

And “French” has been used since the mid-18th century to describe racy novels and pictures. As an example, here’s an excerpt from Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister (1842):

Or, my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.

Belial, as you probably know, is the personification of evil in the Old Testament and a fallen angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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One whiff, and a bust!

Q: Can you help me find references about historical slang? I’m working on a book set in 1932 and need to know when words and phrases came into use. I’m thinking specifically about “bust,” meaning a police raid, and “pissed off” for angry. Is there a book or website with this kind of information?

A: I’ll begin with the two terms you’re interested in.

The use of “bust” for a police raid first appeared in print in 1938. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New Yorker: “One whiff,” said Chappy, “and we get a bust.” (The “whiff,” of course, is of marijuana.)

The first citation for “pissed off” comes from Artist at War (1943), a book by George Biddle, a painter who worked for the War Department during the Second World War: “When I’m pissed off, I always get that starry look.”

Both “bust” and “pissed off” were probably in use for quite a few years before they appeared in print, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to put them in the mouths of characters living in 1932.

Now, on to those references. The best source for US slang is the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, by Jonathan E. Lighter. Unfortunately, only the first two volumes ( A-G and H-O) have been published so far.

Two other helpful reference books are Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green, and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor. If you find the Partridge too expensive, there’s a cheaper concise version.

You might also check out Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which is available online at Bartleby.com.


The OED, the granddaddy of all language references, is also available online – for a price. Here’s how to subscribe.


There are several online slang dictionaries, but they generally don’t give dates for when the words and phrases first showed up. You might, however, find the Online Etymology Dictionary helpful.


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Ghetto talk

Q: I’ve been looking into a usage issue that will be relevant to a book I’m working on. Perhaps you can help. At what point did the term “ghetto” begin to be used to describe black neighborhoods?

A: The word “ghetto,” which originally referred to the section of an Italian city where Jews had to live, first appeared in English in the early 17th century.

The origin of the word is uncertain, but it may be derived from getto, Italian for foundry, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The first “ghetto” was established in 1516 on the site of a foundry in Venice.)

The OED’s earliest published reference for “ghetto” is in a 1611 book by Thomas Coryat, an English travel writer who visited Venice: “The place where the whole fraternity of the Iews dwelleth together, which is called the Ghetto.”

Venetian Jews were required to live in the ghetto, which was surrounded by canals and linked to the rest of Venice by two bridges that were closed at night.

By the late 19th century, the term was being used in a more general way for any city slum occupied by an isolated or segregated group of people, though most of the OED citations well into the 20th century referred to Jewish sections.

The word “ghetto” began being used for African-American areas of US cities in the first half ot the 20th century.

The first published reference that I can find is from the Chicago Defender, an influential black newspaper. An Oct. 31, 1925, article says, “Baltimore, Dallas, St. Louis, Louisville, and some eight or ten other municipalities enacted ordinances designed to confine Colored people to certain restricted areas in those cities, creating Negro ghettos.”

Within a couple of decades, the term was being used by the mainstream press. An Aug. 8, 1943, article in the New York Times, for example, said Detroit had only one major park “near enough to the Negro ghetto to be of any use to its inhabitants.”

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