The Grammarphobia Blog

She’s so unusual

Q: On a recent radio show, you discussed “thrown under the bus.” I first heard it on “Top Chef.” It’s used on almost every episode to mean telling the judges something negative about a competitor to better one’s chances of winning.

A: Thanks for sharing the information about “thrown under the bus,” but the expression has been around a lot longer than the reality show “Top Chef,” which began airing on the Bravo cable network in 2006.

The slang lexicographer Grant Barrett has collected published references for various versions of the expression dating back to 1984. The first citation listed on his website, the Double-Tongued Dictionary, is from Cyndi Lauper.

In a Sept. 7, 1984, article in the Washington Post, she’s quoted as saying: “In the rock ’n’ roll business, you are either on the bus or under it. Playing ‘Feelings’ with Eddie and the Condos in a buffet bar in Butte is under the bus. Peter Frampton is under the bus. God willing, so are the Bee Gees.”

Barrett’s first citation for the full expression (with “thrown” thrown in) is from a Dec. 12, 1991, article in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph: “Dees said he talked to Hood after he bonded out of the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center on Sept. 26, 1990, and warned him ‘that he was being thrown under the bus by Jennifer Reali.’ But he said Hood believed Reali ‘was going to tell the truth.’ ”

The ultimate origin of the expression, which means to sacrifice or betray or treat like a scapegoat, is uncertain

The language maven and baseball guru Paul Dickson (quoted by William Safire in the New York Times) has suggested that it might come from minor-league baseball, where players are told, “The bus is leaving, get on it or under it.”

But Evan Morris, on his Word Detective website, speculates that the phrase may have its origin in “the classic urban nightmare” of being pushed in front of a bus.

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Talking hands

Q: I enjoy your segments on Leonard Lopate but I can never get through on the phone! Here’s my question: Do you know the meaning behind the phrase “talk to the hand”?

A: “Talk to the hand” is a rude way of saying, in effect, “shut up.”

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as a dismissive American teen-age expression dating from the 1990s.

The phrase is actually a short version of a slang expression usually seen in full as “”talk to the hand, ’cause the face [or ear] ain’t listening.” It’s often accompanied by a hand signal: a palm held toward the offending talker, arm extended, in a “Stop!” gesture.

The language sleuth Gary Martin has traced the expression to an October 1996 advertisement in a Wyoming newspaper, The Pinedale Roundup.

In the ad, a cartoon cowboy in a ten-gallon hat appears to be encouraging people to vote. He’s pictured holding a hand out with the palm facing the reader. “If you don’t vote,” he says, “talk to the hand because the face does not understand.”

Martin, writing on the Phrase Finder website, says the expression showed up in Britain a year and a half later in a May 1998 issue of the Times.

In an account of a trip to San Francisco, a traveler describes the idioms encountered: “A contemporary favourite, if you don’t like what somebody is saying (a traffic warden, say) is to turn a palm forward and yell: ‘Talk to the hand.’ ”


Martin also mentions a 1998 article in which a writer in the Syracuse (NY) Herald Journal groans about the phrase: “I don’t know about you, but if I hear someone say ‘talk to the hand’ again I will strangle them with their own shoelaces.”

The expression hasn’t made it yet into the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, but two draft additions are “to talk the talk” and “to talk trash.”

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Screwball etymologies

Q: I wanted to call WNYC while you were discussing “off the wall,” but I was driving and couldn’t stop. I think this expression (like “screwball”) must come from baseball. Why “off the wall”? Because it’s hard to tell what direction a fly ball will take off a stadium wall.

A: I’m glad you didn’t try to call while driving!

You’re right, of course, that “screwball” is a baseball term, for a pitch that breaks in the opposite direction to a curve ball. The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, by Paul Dickson, says it’s also been called a “corkscrew,” “fadeaway,” “incurve,” “reverse curve,” “screwgie,” and “scroogie.”

But the term (or an early version of it) apparently originated in cricket, not baseball, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and referred to a “ball bowled with ‘screw’ or spin.”

The first published reference in the OED is from an 1866 book on cricket: “A ‘screw’ ball, which in slow bowling would describe the arc of a circle from the pitch to the wicket, becomes in fast bowling a sharp angle.”

The cricket term is now obsolete, according to the OED, and as far as I can tell it didn’t influence the baseball usage.

The earliest OED citation for the term used in a baseball sense is from a 1928 article in the New York Times: “Haines is a large, healthy individual with … a ‘screw ball’ that ducks under many a well-meant swing with a hickory bludgeon.”

The pitch, called a fadeway when Christy Mathewson used it in the early 1900s, became known as a screwball after Carl Hubbell revived it in the late 1920s, according to Dickson’s dictionary.

Where did the name “screwball” come from? A minor league catcher, Hubbell told the New York Times, helped give the pitch its name by saying, ”That’s the screwiest thing I ever saw.”

The adjective “screwy,” by the way, has meant tipsy since 1820, and crazy or foolish since 1877, according to the OED. The word “screwed” has been used since 1697 to mean twisted or awry, and since 1837 to mean intoxicated.

The use of “screwball” to mean an eccentric or a nutty person originated in the US in the early 1930s and does indeed seem to be derived from baseball, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. The earlier meanings of “screwy” and “screwed” probably played a role, too.

The first published reference for this usage in the OED is from a 1933 work by Paul Gallico in the Saturday Evening Post: “McKabe was already heading for the door. He heard Billers say: ‘Who is that screwball?’ “

Dickson’s baseball dictionary also has an entry for the expression “play it off the wall,” which means “To field a fly ball just before it hits an outfield wall or to field the ball after it bounces off the wall and before it hits the ground.”

I doubt, however, that this baseball usage is the derivation of our common phrase “off the wall.” Unfortunately, its origins are uncertain.

The current meaning of the phrase (odd, eccentric, crazy; or obnoxious, offensive, pointless) was not recorded before 1953, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. (The meaning of a 1937 reference is unclear.)

And while Random House cites dozens of published references to the expression, none of them come from baseball. Similarly, the OED lists eight published references to “off the wall,” none having to do with baseball.

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To haff and haff not

Q: I tried to call you during your last appearance on WNYC, but I couldn’t get through. My question is that I constantly hear people pronouncing the word “have” as “haff,” such as “I haff to go to the store.” What is that all about?

A: You’ve noticed a common pattern in English pronunciation. Some linguists call it “voicing assimilation,” and here’s how it affects the pronunciation of the letters “v “and “f.”

These letters are nearly twins, as you can see when you pronounce “very” and “ferry,” or “have” and “half.” If you look in the mirror, you’ll notice that the lips and teeth are positioned identically for both “v” and “f.”

The only difference here is that “v” is voiced (pronounced with the vocal cords vibrating) and “f” is “voiceless” (the vocal cords aren’t involved, only a rush of air).

When these letters appear at the end of a word (as in “have” and “half”) and just before a vowel, they’ve pronounced normally: “have a cookie” … “half a cookie.”

But before the letter “t,” the “v” becomes “voiceless” – that is, it’s pronounced as “f”: “I haff to go.”

This shouldn’t be regarded as a mispronunciation. Think of it this way. The “v” is there all right; it’s just undergone a little shift.

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It’s OK to squeeze the preposition!

Q: I’ve tried many times to call you on the air, but I couldn’t get through. So, here’s a question for the blog. I’ve noticed that almost everyone says fir when he or she really means to say “for” – people of all ages. I’ve even heard it from news broadcasters! Very strange. What’s up with this?

A: The word “for” when it’s unstressed tends to get squeezed into something clipped that sounds like f’r, especially when we speak rapidly. This is a common phenomenon.

In fact, both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list the two pronunciations as standard English.

The same thing happens with the word “to,” which gets shortened to t’. When in a hurry, we’re likely to say “time t’ go” instead of pronouncing the full word “to.”

Speakers of other languages also commonly elide (run together) prepositions with the words that follow. In short, not to worry!

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Out in left field

Q: Do you know the derivation of the phrase “out in left field”? I’ve looked in various references – my favorite, Cultural Literacy, doesn’t have it – and I’ve been unable to find its origin. Any answer would be greatly appreciated.

A: The phrase you mention, “out [or off] in left field,” originated in baseball lingo, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. It was first recorded in the 1930s, and means nonsensical, absurd, unreasonable, far from the mark – in short, out of it.

A related phrase, “from [or out of] left field,” meaning out of the blue or without warning, came along in the 1940s, also via baseball.

Random House says the “semantic development” of these “left field” expressions is uncertain, but they may have been influenced “by the fact that, owing to the distance involved, a putout throw from left field to first base is extremely difficult.”

But why left field instead of right? As Paul Dickson points out in The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, right field is just as remote as left field. We may never know, but some theories have been put forward.

One is that in Babe Ruth’s day, nobody was likely to want left-field seats in Yankee Stadium, because the Babe was a right-fielder and fans in the left-field seats didn’t have a good view of him.

Another theory is that “out in left field” was a reference to a mental hospital (the Neuropsychiatric Institute) located behind left field in the old West Side Park in Chicago. So someone “out in left field” was acting like a nut case.

So far, all these are just theories, and they may be out in left field.

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No comment?

Q: I’m a web editor and I was wondering why you don’t allow comments on your blog. I would be curious to see what other readers have to say about some of your posts.

A: The reason Stewart and I do our blog as we do – a simple Q&A – is because this allows us to carefully edit and research each answer that’s published. (And, yes, it’s OK to put an adverb like “carefully” between the prepositional marker “to” and an infinitive like “edit.” If you disagree, check out this blog item.)

Our principal goal is absolute accuracy, though we occasionally fall short. Every once in a while, a reader points out the error of our ways, and we fix the offending blog item.

If we allowed free access and let everyone comment at will, the blog would be full of inaccuracies. Or we would be spending an inordinate amount of time correcting comments.

Too many language blogs are mere collections of misinformation. We want ours to be authoritative, and not a rumor mill.

While we’re on the subject of comments (or, rather, no comments), you may be interested in the early history of the verb “comment.”

When it entered English in the 15th century, the verb had a negative connotation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This early meaning, now considered obsolete, was to “devise, contrive, invent (especially something false or bad).”

The OED says we got the word from the medieval Latin commentare, meaning “to devise, excogitate (usually in a bad sense, of fraud or mischief).”

Although Stewart and I don’t let readers comment at will, we like to hear your comments. If you spot any errors, let us know. Keep us on our toes!

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An itsy bitsy teenie weenie question

Q: I recently came across the expression “sleight of hand” in connection with the magician’s art. It occurred to me that the word “sleight” is almost always accompanied by the appendage. Is there a name for this kind of word or usage, and what are some other examples?

A: Some words always seem to appear in pairs (as in the old saying about nuns!). H. W. Fowler called words like these “Siamese twins,” and he used examples like “alas and alack,” “betwixt and between,” “gall and wormwood,” “leaps and bounds,” and “lo and behold.”

I might add “sackcloth and ashes” and “wrack and ruin” (see my blog entry touching on that one).

If the pair rhymes (or almost does), it can be called a “rhyming compound.” A few examples: “flotsam and jetsam”; “boogie-woogie”; “dilly dally”; “itsy bitsy,” and so on.


Something is never just itsy or bitsy. It’s an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini.

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The chamber of commas

Q: I have been struggling of late with the ideology of commas and conjunctions. Here is a quote from an MSN article: “There have been instances in the past where the Pakistanis arrested extremists after terrorist attacks on India but released them several months later, after the international pressure eased up.” I would have placed a comma before the clause beginning with “but.”

A: In some cases, comma use is governed by taste and rhythm, not by any formal rule of punctuation. And there’s no rule that a clause introduced with a conjunction must be preceded by a comma.

I don’t think that passage from the MSN article requires an additional comma. However, an author with somewhat different tastes in comma use might have placed the comma differently, like so:

“There have been instances in the past where the Pakistanis arrested extremists after terrorist attacks on India, but released them several months later after the international pressure eased up.”

And someone with your tastes in the matter would have used two commas: “There have been instances in the past where the Pakistanis arrested extremists after terrorist attacks on India, but released them several months later, after the international pressure eased up.”

Now here’s an author with a completely different take on commas. This passage, from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, is quoted in my book Words Fail Me (pp. 89-90): Just listen as the protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, shoots a basket on a playground, watched by a group of schoolboys:

“As they stare hushed he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky, setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper.”

Updike uses (and doesn’t use) commas here because of a rhythmic effect he’s employing to build suspense. It would be a crime to interrupt and separate some of those breathless clauses.

Nonfiction is different, of course. But when no rules are being broken, writers have a lot of latitude in comma use.

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Constructive advice

Q: Please help me identify the rule that requires the singular verb in this construction: “The source of the funding is the contributions made by shareholders.” I’m trying to convince an ESL student of mine that he can’t say the source “are” the contributions. I’ve scoured all known sources and found nothing!

A: The rule here is that the verb agrees with the subject, not its complement (a word or phrase that follows a linking verb like “is” and describes the subject). So it’s correct to say “The source of the funding is the contributions made by shareholders.”

Turned around, the sentence could also read: “The contributions made by shareholders are the source of the funding.” In this case, “contributions” is the subject and “the source of the funding” is the complement.

If you want to cite another source for your student, look under “agreement” in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., edited by R. W. Burchfield (p. 35):

“When a subject and a complement of different number are separated by the verb to be, the verb should agree with the number of the subject.”

Burchfield uses the example “the only traffic is oxcarts and bicycles.”

The same advice is given in the earlier, 2nd edition of Fowler, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers (p. 401): “The verb follows the number of the subject, whatever that of the complement may be.”

I hope this helps. And good luck with your student.

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Pat on WNYC

If you missed hearing Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show today, you can listen to her by clicking here.

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Pnonsense

Q: Why do the words “pneumonia” and “pneumatic” start with a “p” even though we don’t pronounce the “p”?

A: The noun “pneumonia” and the adjective “pneumatic” are spelled that way because the Greek and Latin originals started with “p.”

The first is from the Greek word pneumonia, which was adopted into medieval Latin and then into English in 1603.

The second is from the Greek word pneumatikos, which became pneumaticus (having to do with wind or breath) in Latin and finally “pneumatic” in English in the 1600s.

The “p” is silent in English, though it is pronounced in modern Greek and probably was in classical Greek as well.

All this reminds me of a 1965 interview in which Vladimir Nabokov was asked how to pronounce the last name of the title character of his novel Pnin. Here’s Nabokov’s answer:

“The ‘p’ is sounded, that’s all. But since the ‘p’ is mute in English words starting with ‘pn,’ one is prone to insert a supporting ‘uh’ sound – ‘Puh-nin’ – which is wrong. To get the ‘pn’ right, try the combination ‘Up North’ or still better ‘Up, Nina!’ – leaving out the initial ‘u.’ “

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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 discuss the English language and to take questions from callers.

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Why don’t “laughter” and “daughter” rhyme?

Q: Why do words like “caught,” “ought,” “thought,” “bought,” “naught,” “laugh,” and “should” have endings with no bearing on the way the words sound?

A: I think you’ve asked a much larger and more complicated question than you realize!

Our spelling system began as an attempt to reproduce speech. But because most spellings became fixed centuries ago, they no longer reflect exact pronunciations.

As a result, spelling is about more than pronunciation; it also reflects a word’s meaning and etymology and history. And in the case of English words, their spellings often have very idiosyncratic histories hidden within.

You mention “caught,” “ought” and others. The appearance of “gh” in words like these is annoying to people who’d like to reform English spelling. Many wonder, for example, why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme. Well, they once did.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter’”) and DAW-ter. We know which one survived.

The Middle English letter combination “gh” is now pronounced either as “f” (as in “cough/trough/laugh/enough”) or not at all (“slaughter/daughter/ought/through,” etc.).

The word “night,” to use another example, went through dozens of spellings over 600 years, from nact and nigt and niht, and so on, eventually to “night” around 1300. It’s a cousin not only to the German nacht but probably to the Greek nyktos and the Old Irish innocht, among many others.

The odd-looking consonants in the middle of “night” (as well as “right” and “bright”) were once pronounced with a guttural sound somewhere between the modern “g” and “k.” But though the pronunciation moved on, the spelling remained frozen in time.

You also mention “should,” a word in which the letter “l” looks entirely superfluous. But the “l” in “should” and “would” was once pronounced (as it was in “walk,” “chalk,” “talk,” and other words).

Same goes for the “w” in “sword” and the “b” in “climb.” They were once pronounced. Similarly, the “k” in words like “knife,” “knee,” and “knave” was not originally silent. It was once softly pronounced. But while pronunciation changed, spelling did not.

There are several reasons that English spellings and pronunciations differ so markedly.

Much of our modern spelling had its foundation in the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500). But in the late Middle English and early Modern English period (roughly 1350 to 1550), the pronunciation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval.

Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift, and it’s too complicated to go into in much detail here. To use one example, before the Great Vowel Shift the word “food” sounded like FODE (rhymes with “road”).

Melinda J. Menzer’s Furman University website can tell you more about the Great Vowel Shift. I’ve also touched on it briefly in a blog item.

While the pronunciations of many words changed dramatically, their spellings remained largely the same. Why? Because printing, which was introduced into England in the late 1400s, helped retain and standardize those older spellings.

Complicating matters even further, the first English printer, William Caxton, employed typesetters from Holland who introduced their own oddities (the “h” in “ghost” is an example, borrowed from Flemish).

In addition, silent letters were introduced into some English words as afterthoughts to underscore their classical origins. This is why “debt” and “doubt” have a “b” (inserted to reflect their Latin ancestors debitum and dubitare).

Sometimes, a letter was erroneously added to reflect an imagined classical root. This is why “island” has an “s” (a mistaken connection to the Latin isola). I’ve written a blog entry about this.

Still other English spellings came about in the Middle Ages when scribes found that the letters “m,” “n,” “u,” and “i” caused readers difficulty because of all those vertical downstrokes of the pen (“m” + “I” was hard to tell from “n” + “u”). So “o” was substituted for “u” in words like “come,” “some,” “monk,” son,” and “wolf.”

Apart from ease of reading, “o” was sometimes swapped for “u” because, as Dennis Freeborn writes in his book From Old English to Standard English, “u was an overused letter. It represented the sound v as well as u, and uu was used for w.”

Another authority, David Crystal, has pointed out that England’s “civil service of French scribes” following the Norman Conquest in the 11th century also influenced the spelling of English words.

Crystal writes in his book The Fight for English that not only did consonants change (the French “qu” replaced the Old English “cw” in words like “queen,” to use just one example), but vowels “were written in a great number of ways.”

“Much of the irregularity of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages,” he says.

As you can see, this is a vast subject. In summary, spellings eventually settle into place and become standardized, but pronunciations are more mercurial and likely to change.

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So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye

Q: How did the phrase “so long” get to mean goodbye?

A: The colloquial expression “so long” (meaning goodbye) has been around since the mid-19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Many etymologists have tried to pin down the origin of the expression, but it’s still in doubt. The phrase apparently first appeared in print in the mid-19th century in a poem by Walt Whitman, aptly titled “So Long!”

The poem is about death and leave-taking, and was first published as the final poem in an 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. The expression “so long” appears several times, as in these examples:

“While my pleasure is yet at the full, I whisper, So long! / And take the young woman’s hand, and the young man’s hand, for the last time.” And later: “So long! / Remember my words.” (The italics are the poet’s.)

Where did Whitman get the phrase? A friend of his, William Sloane Kennedy, has written that Whitman said he’d heard it “greatly used among sailors, sports, & prostitutes.” (The source of this is an article on a linguistic website, Onomasiology Online.)

Interestingly, there are similar-sounding salutations in other languages, including German (so lange), Hebrew (shalom), Norwegian (så lenge), Swedish (så länge), Arabic (salaam), and Irish Gaelic (slan), and even Malay (selang).

To make a long story short, we don’t know where the phrase originally came from, but my money is on the German or Scandinavian connections.

It seems likely that German or Scandinavian immigrants brought the expression with them and that it became working-class vernacular before spreading.

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A singular attitude

Q: In Woe Is I – recommended by folks from the Mount Hermon Writers Conference – you give this example: “The cops’ attitude was surly.” Shouldn’t it be the “cop’s attitude” or the “cops’ attitudes”? Please, where am I going wrong? Love the book!

A: I’m glad you’re enjoying the book.

The word “cop,” as you know, is singular, and “cops” is plural.

The possessive form of “cop” (singular) is cop’s, and the possessive of “cops” (plural) is cops’.

I used the plural possessive cops’ with the singular “attitude” here because the cops in question shared a single attitude – a surly one!

I hope this clears things up!

All this “cop” talk reminds me of a writing tip from Mark Twain about using short words: “I never write ‘policeman,’ because I can get the same price for ‘cop.’”

In case you’re interested, I had a blog item a couple of years ago about the origin of the noun “cop.” (No, it doesn’t come from the copper buttons on a police officer’s uniform. Or from the acronym “constable on patrol.”)

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Love amongst the ruins?

Q: In one of your postings, you said it was OK for young people to use less-than-perfect idiomatic English “among themselves.” It struck me that “amongst themselves” would be better, but after researching the subject, I’m not sure. What are your thoughts regarding the usage of “amongst”?

A: “Amongst” is common in British English, while “among” is preferred in American English. I’ve written a blog entry that touches on the subject. But in case you’d like a little more history, here’s the story.

“Amongst,” “amidst,” and “whilst” are rarely used in the United States, and for good reason. They mean exactly the same thing as “among,” “amid,” and “while,” which have been around longer.

Although the “st” versions may have an air of antiquity about them, the unadorned American preferences – “among,” “amid,” and “while” – are actually the older words.

“Among” dates from about 1000, and “amongst” from 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Amid” is from circa 975, and “amidst” from about 1300. “While” goes back to about the year 1000 (spelled “hwile”), according to the OED, and “whilst” dates from the late 1300s.

My preference, which is universal in American English, is for the three older, simpler words.

“Among” and “amid” are prepositions, and “while” is a conjunction. It’s been suggested that perhaps the “st” endings were added in error, on a mistaken analogy with superlative adjectives, which end in “st” and “est” (like “biggest,” “most,” and so on).

For whatever reason, an “st” ending was tacked on a now-obscure preposition, “again,” which dates back to 993 and originally meant “in the opposite direction” or “back.” In this case, the old usage disappeared and the later formation, “against,” which showed up in the late 1300s, was the preposition that survived. The old “again” exists now only as an adverb.

Although “amongst” is common in Britain, it by no means has a monopoly there. In fact, several British writers, including Robert Browning, Angela Thirkell, and Evelyn Waugh, have written works entitled Love Among the Ruins.

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Defused, diffused, and confused

Q: Once again, someone I consider a fairly good writer has “diffused” an explosive situation. I’m pretty sure it should be “defused.” Is there any leeway on this? Also, I pronounce the two verbs differently. Can they be pronounced the same?

A: “Defuse” and “diffuse” are unrelated and have no overlapping meanings, though they are widely confused. To “defuse” is to inactivate or render harmless. “Diffuse” is both a verb (meaning to spread out) and an adjective (meaning widespread).

The word that writers ought to use when they mean neutralize a volatile situation is “defuse,” a verb that developed during World War II and means literally to remove the fuse from a bomb.

The first published reference for “defuse” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1943: “A group of fliers defused a 1,000-pound bomb that had jammed in the racks when their plane was flying … over an Italian target.”

If ever a verb was a good candidate for figurative usage, this was one. Here’s a figurative example from 1958: “Thought has to be given now, without delay, to the means of reducing the risks involved in this inevitable act of disengagement – of defusing it, in effect.”

As you suspect, the word has no relation at all to “diffuse,” which entered the English language around 1400 as a now-obscure adjective meaning “confused, distracted, perplexed; indistinct, vague, obscure, doubtful, uncertain,” according to the OED.

The verb “diffuse,” meaning to pour out or spread widely, showed up in the late 1500s. It was derived from the Latin diffundere, to pour out or away.

In the early 1700s, according to the OED, the adjective came to mean “spread through or over a wide area; widespread, scattered, dispersed: the reverse of confined or concentrated.”

The pronunciations of “defuse” and “diffuse” do overlap somewhat, perhaps contributing to the confusion between the two words.

“Defuse” is pronounced dee-FYOOZ. But “diffuse” has two pronunciations. The verb is dih-FYOOZ and the adjective is dih-FYOOCE (the “i” in each sounds like the one in “pit”).

Let’s hope these two very different words don’t become fused!

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Rule breaking

Q: Can you help me understand how an exception can prove a rule? I’ve often heard it said that this expression made sense at one time when the word “prove” meant to test rather than to confirm absolutely. Is that correct?

A: The old saying “the exception that proves the rule” does seem nonsensical. If there’s an exception, then it should disprove the rule, right? Many word lovers have turned themselves inside out in an attempt to explain this seeming contradiction.

But the word “proves” isn’t the key to the problem. (Contrary to statements in several reference books, “proves” here does indeed mean proves, not tests.) The key is the word “exception,” which English adopted from French in the 14th century.

When the word (spelled excepcioun) showed up in Chaucer’s writings in 1385, it meant a person or thing or case that’s allowed to vary from a rule that would otherwise apply.

That sense of the word led to the Medieval Latin legal doctrine exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis (exception proves the rule in cases not excepted), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the 17th century, the Latin expression was being quoted in English as “the exception proves the rule” or variations on this. And the exception, the OED tells us, was something that “comes within the terms of a rule, but to which the rule is not applicable.”

If all students in a school are required to attend gym class, for example, that’s the rule. If a kid with a sprained ankle is excused from gym, then the exception made for him proves that there’s a rule for everybody else.

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Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy

Q: I’m wondering if “feel” can be used to state an opinion, as in “He felt wearing his red shirt would be a lot of fun.” I’ve found websites that say it’s incorrect, but I think you’ve used it in your blog, which gives me hope that it’s fine. By the way, my grandfather, Jimmy Larson, knew you when you were at the Des Moines Register. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, he was the news editor. I’m sad to say he passed away in 2006. I’m now the holder of his copy of Woe Is I.

A: Great to hear from you! Of course I remember Jimmy. He was probably the most memorable person in the Register’s newsroom (and there were a lot of them)! This will sound like a terrible cliché, but they just don’t make newsmen like Jimmy any more.

But on to your question. There’s nothing wrong with using “feel” to express an opinion.

The Oxford English Dictionary has evidence dating back to about the year 1000 for the use of “feel” to refer to mental activity – that is, awareness of or thinking of something.

Here are some later, more specific usages cited by the OED, along with the dates they first appeared in print:

? To be conscious of a fact or to entertain a conviction (late 1200s).

? To be in a particular frame of mind (about 1340).

? To express a belief or judgment, or to think, feel or hold an opinion (1382).

I hope this helps. Thanks for letting me hear from you.

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Between Barack and a hard case

Q: I worked for Barack. I voted for him. I believe in him. And it hurts me when he says “for Michelle and I.” The English language needs all the help it can get. Where are the Object of the Preposition Police when we need them?

A: I’m as disappointed as you are that our soon to be 44th president – along with the 43rd and the 42nd – says things like “for Michelle [or Laura, or Hillary] and I.”

They should all follow the example set by the 41st and the 40th, who never failed to say “Barbara and me” or “Nancy and me” when appropriate!

I think there’s some kind of pronoun virus going around – perhaps it affects even highly educated people once they set foot in our nation’s capital. I’ve written about this problem before on the blog. Here’s one posting and here’s another.

Once more, this is the law of the land: The pronoun “I” is a subject and the pronoun “me” is an object. The object (“me”) is the one that goes with a preposition, a positioning word like “for” or “with” or “to.”

No one ever messes this up when a pronoun appears alone with a preposition. You never hear sentences like “He did it for I” or “She went with I” or “They promised it to I.”

But common sense isn’t so common these days when a pronoun appears in tandem with someone’s name. So we end up with monstrosities like “He did it for Michelle and I” or “She went with Laura and I” or “They promised it to Hillary and I.”

For anyone who messes this up, the solution is simple. Just mentally block out the name (“Michelle” or “Laura” or “Hillary”) and you’ll get the correct pronoun (“me”).

So the next time our future president has cause to mention himself along with his wife, he should mentally eliminate his wife (sorry about that, Michelle). Then he’ll properly say “for Michelle and me” or “with Michelle and me” or “to Michelle and me.”

Update: Since this item was written, Stewart and I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times on the subject, with more information about the complicated history of the “I”-vs.”me” phenomenon. Click here to read it.

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Fine tuning

Q: Which of these expressions is correct, “fine by me” or “fine with me”?

A: They’re both correct. “Fine with me” is perhaps a bit more formal, but “fine by me” is good colloquial English.

Of the two expressions, “fine with me” would seem to be somewhat older, at least according to the published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first citation for the phrase in the OED is in a 1917 book that defines “thumbs up” as “everything is fine with me.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the “by” version is from a Feb. 3,1968, article in the Globe & Mail of Toronto: “It’s fine by me; I quit a couple of years ago.”

After a bit of noodling in old newspaper archives, however, I found earlier examples of both expressions.

A Dec. 22, 1901, article in the Idaho Daily Statesman about Christmas shopping quoted a Boise druggist as saying, “Business has been fine with me all of the past week and Monday and Tuesday will be much better.”

And, by and by, the other version showed up in a 1937 Walter Winchell column: “Those precocious Abbye children who wrote a book are going to tour China in a trailer … That’s fine by me.”

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The repurpose driven life

Q: It seems to me that “repurpose” came onto the scene when “utilize” lost all distinction from “use.” It has been my understanding that you “use” a doorstop to keep a door open, but “utilize” a heavy book for the same purpose. I’m wondering if “repurpose” arose to fill the void left by the dilution of “utilize.” Any thoughts?

A: You may be right, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “repurpose,” which it traces back to 1984, means “to convert or adapt (esp. something holding electronic data) for use in a different format; to use for a different purpose.”

Etymologically it’s formed from “re” and the verb “purpose,” which means to have a purpose or (and this is a rare and archaic meaning) “to be designed for some purpose; to be intended to do something.”

The last part of the definition of “repurpose” (“to use for a different purpose”) is somewhat similar to the now rather obscure one you mention for “utilize.” I wrote about “use” vs. “utilize” once before on the blog, and the difference between them isn’t as large as you think.:

While most of us now regard “use” and “utilize” as identical, “utilize” has another meaning that appears in English less frequently these days. This sense of “utilize” means to put something to use in a practical or profitable way. As you suggest, you might “utilize” a heavy book as a doorstop.

You ask whether “repurpose” arose to fill the gap left by that less frequently seen meaning of “utilize.” I’m doubtful. There seems to me to be a slight difference between this old sense of “utilize” and the newer “repurpose.”

I don’t think you’d “repurpose” the book you prop against the door. The book still is a book; it hasn’t been converted to anything else. It may be serving temporarily as a doorstop, but it hasn’t been changed materially. On the other hand, if you “repurpose” an old mill into condominiums, the original is lost.

Although the OED‘s definition of “repurpose” does include “to use for a different purpose,” it seems to me that most of us believe something that’s “repurposed” has changed in some manner.

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Did Muggsy’s scheme backfire?

Q: Not exactly a grammar question, but I’m curious about the verb “backfire.” I’m guessing that one of its meanings – an action that unexpectedly turns out negative – didn’t exist before cars were invented. (I’m presuming “backfire” originated with the invention of the automobile tailpipe.)

A: The verb “backfire” has two literal meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

(1) “To light a fire ahead of an advancing prairie-fire in order to deprive it of fuel.”

(2) “To ignite or explode prematurely,” a mishap that can occur with an internal-combustion engine or a firearm.

The first citation for the verb in the OED, from a Londoner’s 1886 memoir of a visit to Kansas, uses “backfire” in the fire-fighting sense:

“We all … set to work to ‘back fire’ from the stables, and were only just in time to save the whole place from destruction, by burning a sufficiently wide piece of grass off, and thus stopping the rush of fire.”

The earliest published reference in the OED for the second sense is from a 1902 story by Kipling: “That car … back-fired superbly.”

The first citation for this usage in reference to a weapon is in The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s 1938 novel: “Penny pulled the trigger. The explosion that followed had a sizzling sound, and Penny fell backward. The gun had back-fired.”

The figurative meaning you’re interested in did indeed come from the second sense of the word, the premature firing of an internal-combustion engine.

This sense first appeared in print in Pitching in a Pinch: Or, Baseball From the Inside, a 1912 memoir by the great Giants and Reds pitcher Christy Mathewson: “One of McGraw’s schemes back-fired on him.”

The schemer, of course, was John “Muggsy” McGraw, who managed the Orioles and Giants.

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Pony expressions

Q: I’m perplexed by the use of the phrase “pony up” to describe laying out money for something. What does the concept it describes have to do with ponies?

A: Since the early 19th century, “pony” has been a slang word for money in general, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

Why “pony”? The dictionary notes that the word has usually referred to “relatively small sums, as a pony is a small horse.” And to come up with the pony, or “pony up” (circa 1824), meant to pay one’s debts or dues.

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English generally agrees. It describes “pony” as a term, circa 1810, for money, and goes along with the “small horse = small sum” explanation.

Partridge says “pony up” (“to pay a sum of money”) is a variant of an earlier expression, recorded in 1823, “post the pony.” (As far back as 1780 or so, to “post” meant to pay.)

The first published use of “pony up” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1824 issue of the Atlantic Magazine: “Every man … vociferously swore that he had ponied up his ‘quarter.’ “

What happens if you don’t pony up? I suppose you “come a cropper,” another horsy expression. I had a blog item on it last November.

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An “ish” out of water?

Q: I was wondering about the usage of the suffix “ish” to mean a little bit like something, as in “He’s angryish” or “She’s friendlyish.” Most words with “ish” endings seem to mean fully something, like “British,” “snobbish,” or “Jewish,” not sort of something, like “busyish” or “prettyish.” Do you know the origin of this seemingly modernish usage?

A: You ask a very interesting question!

There are actually two “ish” suffixes in English. One comes from ancient Proto-Germanic and helps to form adjectives. The other comes to us from Latin by way of Old French and helps to form verbs.

First the verbs. Many end in “ish,” including “abolish,” “banish,” “finish,” “nourish,” “establish,” “tarnish,” and a lot of others. We adopted these verbs from Middle and Old French, where they ended in ir (abolir, banir, finir, and so on).

In French, the ir ending changes to iss to form extended verbs. (For example, “perish” is périr in French, and the ir changes to iss to form the extended verbs périssons, périssez, périssent, etc.) The French iss originated in Latin as isc, and in Middle English these adopted iss verbs were given endings of “isshe,” later to become “ish.”

Now for the adjectival “ish,” which is more to your point. We get this much older “ish” from a proto-Germanic suffix that’s been reconstructed as iskaz. Versions of it are common to many Germanic languages. In Old English, it’s recorded as isc.

In modern English, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, “ish” is added to nouns and to other adjectives to form adjectives with these meanings:

1. somewhat (as in “oldish”);

2. like a … (as in “childish”);

3. like that of a … (as in “girlish”);

4. of or having to do with … (as in “English”);

5. tending to … (as in “bookish”) or inclined to be a … (as in “thievish”);

6. near, but usually somewhat past (as in “fortyish”).

These “ish” adjectives are much more common now than they were in Old English. Writers have taken advantage of their versatility!

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in recent colloquial and journalistic use, -ish has become the favourite ending for forming adjs. for the nonce (esp. of a slighting or depreciatory nature) on proper names of persons, places, or things, and even on phrases.”

The OED gives the examples of “Micawberish, Spectator-ish, all-over-ish, at-homeish, devil-may-care-ish, jolly-good-fellowish, out-of-townish,” and others.

The use of “ish” with times of day, to indicate rough (or roughish!) times of arrival is a relatively new thing, originating less than a century ago. The first published example in the OED is from 1916, in this exchange from a collection of World War I fiction: “What time shall I come?” “Elevenish,” Sam replied.

I’m a bit busyish now, so I’ll end this here.

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When too right is too wrong

Q: Do you know if there’s a word for incorrect grammar used in a mistaken attempt to sound erudite? For example: “This esteemed group has earned the most profound gratitude of Mrs. Watson and myself.” Thanks very much for any assistance you can provide.

A: You’re looking for the word “hypercorrection.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as “A construction or pronunciation produced by mistaken analogy with standard usage out of a desire to be correct, as in the substitution of I for me in on behalf of my parents and I.”

Another example would be “The car is available to whomever wants to use it.” I had a blog item last year about still another example, involving “fewer” and “less.”

In fact, the title of my grammar book Woe Is I is a case in point. As I explain in the preface to the second edition, the book’s title hints that it’s even possible to be too correct:

“While ‘Woe Is I’ may appear technically correct (and that’s a matter of opinion), the expression ‘Woe is me’ has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit – or an author trying to make a point – would use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ here.”

As for mistakenly using “myself” when “I” or “me” would be correct, I had a blog item about this two and a half years ago.

The adjective “hypercorrect” is relatively new, apparently less than a century old. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922), by the grammarian and linguist Otto Jespersen.

The nouns “hypercorrection” and “hypercorrectness” made their appearances 12 years later. A 1934 citation in the OED says that “only by unceasing vigilance” can such grammatical sins be avoided by those prone to being too correct.

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Sick language

Q: I listen to you on WNYC podcasts from Bangkok, Thailand, and appreciate your knowledge and personality. Here’s my question: Is there a rule for using articles with medical conditions? For example, we use an article when we have a stomachache or a cold, but not when we have influenza or pneumonia.

A: When speaking of a specific disease, there’s no need to use an indefinite article (“a” or “an”). Examples: “She has measles and he has mumps. Henry has had both scarlet fever and pneumonia.”

Some people use the definite article (“the”) with certain diseases, which is acceptable, but not necessary: “First she had the measles and then he got the mumps, and now they both have the flu.”

When speaking of symptoms or conditions rather than diseases per se, it’s common to treat them as ordinary nouns and use indefinite articles: “She has a broken leg. We all have a stomachache and a headache. James has an infection.” This is also how we treat a cold: “She’s in bed with a cold.”

Much of the way we treat physical maladies is idiomatic, though. Jaundice is a symptom rather than a disease, yet we say “She has jaundice” (no article) or “She is jaundiced.”

I hope this helps. Thanks for your kind words, and for listening!

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Silence, please!

Q: I recently saw the phrase “vociferous reader” (instead of “voracious“) in an obituary. Encountering it for the first time as a 55-year-old, I felt it must be a rare accidental usage, but I discovered from Google that it is far more common than I had imagined. I would like to mention it on my own blog but I do not know the proper name for this particular type of incorrect usage. Can you help?

A: “Vociferous reader” is a very good example of a malapropism! When I googled the phrase, I got 964 hits, some tongue-in-cheek.

Here’s a definition of “malapropism” from the Oxford English Dictionary: “The ludicrous misuse of words, esp. in mistaking a word for another resembling it; an instance of this.”

I’ve written two blog items about malapropisms. If you’d like to read more, check out the entry for Jan 2, 2007, and the one for Oct. 24, 2008.

As for the adjective “voracious,” it ultimately comes from the Latin vorare, meaning to devour. When it first appeared in print in 1635, the English word meant greedy about food. The earliest published reference in the OED is from a poem that condemns “voracious Gluttony abus’d.”

By the early 1700s, though, “voracious” was being used figuratively to describe insatiable desires or interests that had nothing to do with food. A 1712 citation from the English essayist Joseph Addison in the Spectator refers to “a Voracious Appetite” for news.

The first (and only) published reference in the OED to literary voraciousness is from an 1883 article in an evangelical magazine: “Mr. Rowland … was a voracious reader.”

The adjective “vociferous,” which entered English around the same time as “voracious,” is ultimately derived from the Latin vociferari, meaning to shout or yell. In modern English, it refers to a noisy or vehement outcry.

So, a library with a “Silence, please!” sign would welcome a voracious, but not a vociferous reader.

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Thankful and thinkful

Q: The etymological appendix at the end of my dictionary suggests that “think” and “thank” are related. It has taken me a long time to connect my thinking and my thanking, especially to think before I thank, and thank before I think. If you have anything to share, I’d be thankful. I’m already thinkful in anticipation!

A: “Think” and “thank” are indeed etymologically related, and have as a common ancestor the ancient Indo-European root tong, meaning to feel or think.

This prehistoric root was the source of a proto-Germanic word, reconstructed as thankaz, which gave us the Old English words thencan (to think, to conceive in the mind), thoht (thought), thanc (meaning thought, good will, gratitude), thancian (to thank), and thyncan (to seem or appear).

The last word, thyncan, gave us the now-obscure “methinks” (literally, “it seems to me”). So, methinks, thinking and thanking sprang from the same thoughtful source!

By the way, our modern verb “think” was once two separate Old English verbs: thyncan (to seem or appear) and thencan, whose original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, may have been “to cause (something) to seem or appear (to oneself).” In Middle English, the two verbs merged into one.

Thanks for your thinkful question.

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If it ain’t got that “ing”

Q: I’m an actress who notices new things about accents. Lately, I hear people turning “ing” endings into “een.” So, “running,” “jumping,” and “playing” are pronounced RUN-een, JUMP-een, and PLAY-een. Two famous people who do this are Katie Couric and George Clooney. Have you noticed it?

A: Allan A. Metcalf’s book How We Talk: American Regional English Today has some interesting things to say about this “een” versus “ing” pronunciation. It seems to be a common phenomenon in California, where the pronunciation of second syllables is often different from that in the rest of the country.

For example, Metcalf writes, many Californians pronounce the word “garden” as GAR-den, with the vowel in the second syllable pronounced fully, as if it were the separate word “den.”

Normally, Metcalf says, the vowel in an unstressed syllable is reduced, so that “in most other varieties of English, the pronunciation is GAR-dun or even a vowel-less GARD-‘n.”

The same thing happens with “shouldn’t” and “didn’t,” which some Californians articulate as if the second syllable ended with the fully pronounced word “dent.”

“Another pronunciation even more widely heard among older teens and adults in California and throughout the West is ‘een’ for -ing, as in ‘I’m think-een of go-een camp-een,’ ” Metcalf writes.

This pronunciation, he says, “contrasts with the two usual pronunciations of -ing back East: the formal one that rhymes with sing and the informal one that rhymes with sin and is often spelled as ‘in, as in ‘I’m thinkin’ of goin’ campin’.’ ”

“Like the California pronunciation of garden,” Metcalf adds, “the ‘een’ for -ing gives more prominence to the vowel of an unstressed syllable at the end of a word.”

This doesn’t explain the pronunciation of Katie Couric (born in Arlington, Virginia) or George Clooney (Lexington, Kentucky), but then I have a friend from the Midwest who pronounces “mitten” as MITT-ten, fully pronouncing the “ten” instead of saying MITT-‘n.

Maybe these people are simply California dreamin’.

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Barring fire, flood, or devious etymology

Q: I’m stumped. I recently used one of my dad’s expressions: ” barring fire, flood, or civil unrest.” A non-native asked me to explain and I said, “unless something bad happens.” But I want to know more. I’ve found plenty of versions online, but I can’t find anything to indicate the phrase’s origin. Any clues?

A: I’ve spent way too much time on this already, and I still can’t give you a definitive answer. I have a couple of guesses, though, and a few facts to share.

As you’ve already learned, a bit of googling will come up with thousands of variations on the theme, from “barring fire, flood, or acts of God” to “barring flood, fire, or alien abduction.”

Other unfortunate events commonly mentioned include earthquake, nuclear strike, pestilence, and tornado. With stuff like that, why bother to get out of bed in the morning?

Curiously, I couldn’t find a single example of these expressions in a search of published references in the Oxford English Dictionary, though the OED has various references to “barring accidents.”

(A 1797 Coleridge poem is called “Fire, Famine, Slaughter.” And an 1864 Tennyson poem refers to “flood, fire, earthquake, thunder.” But there’s no mention of any “barring” there.)

The earliest example I can find of the kind of phrase you mention appeared in an article in the Columbus (Georgia) Daily Enquirer on Sept. 28, 1892, describing a house that “is as sound as a dollar and is good for a hundred years to come, barring fire and cyclones.”

A financial article in the Boston Journal on Nov. 1, 1895, referred to “dividends of $15 a share, barring fire, flood, and strikes.” And an article in the Oregonian in Portland on March 31, 1910, mentioned the scheduled completion of a new theater “barring fire, strikes or unavoidable delay.”

Where did these phrases come from? I can only guess. Perhaps they were influenced by the Ten Plagues in the Old Testament, though the only biblical plagues that we commonly see in these expressions are pestilence and hail. I’ve never heard of any barring of frogs or locusts or boils.

Another possible inspiration might be the source for that old saying about the steadfastness of mail carriers: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

(No, that’s not the US Postal Service motto, though it’s on the Postal Service’s James A. Farley Building in Manhattan.)

The saying is derived from a nearly 2,500-year-old comment by the Greek historian Herodotus about Persian postal couriers: “These neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevents from accomplishing each one the task proposed to him, with the very utmost speed.” (The quote is from G.C. Macaulay’s translation of The History of Herodotus.)

Before I drop the subject, I’d like to mention one of my favorite “barring” expressions. It comes from an Oct. 4, 1921, article in the New York Times that mentioned the reaction of the baseball commissioner of the time, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to ticket speculation for the 1921 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants:

“The commissioner isn’t worrying, for one of his teams has got to win, barring only fire, famine, pestilence or some one of the like visitations which many people like to describe as coming from on high.”

Sorry I can’t be more definitive, but I hope this helps.

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The ironic age

Q: How did we end up with two adjectives, “ironic” and “ironical,” to describe irony? I assume the shorter version came first.

A: It may make sense that the shorter one came first, but let’s not jump to conclusions here. The suffix “-al” is a tricky little devil when it comes to word history. The longer “historical” (1561), for example, is older than “historic” (1669).

First, some background. The “-al” ending is derived from a similar Latin suffix, -alem, and lets us turn nouns into adjectives and adjectives into other adjectives.

In modern English and modern Romance languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “-al” can be added to a Latin-derived noun (like “nation,” “proportion,” “constitution”) to form an adjective (“national,” “proportional,” “constitutional”). Similarly, “-al” can be added to Greek-derived nouns to make adjectives (“baptismal,” “octagonal,” “choral”).

The suffix can also be added to other adjectives to make new adjectives, which is how we got “comical” (circa 1432) from “comic” (1387).

However, this isn’t the case with “ironical,” which came BEFORE “ironic.” The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology describes “ironic” (from 1630) as a shortened form of the earlier “ironical” (1576).

Here’s a little etymological family tree, starting with “irony,” the first of the family to make it into English.

We acquired “irony” from the Latin ironia, and ultimately from the earlier Greek eironeia, which the OED defines as meaning “dissimulation, ignorance purposely affected.”

In it’s original, classical sense, the word referred to a rhetorical method (sometimes called “Socratic irony”) in which a teacher or someone involved in a debate would feign ignorance in order to draw out a student or an opponent.

When the word was adopted into English in the early 1500s, the OED says, it meant “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.”

It was first recorded in English, spelled “yronye,” in a devotional manual (or “ordinary”) called The Ordynarye of Crystyanyte or of Crysten Men (1502). The writer gave “irony” both a religious meaning and a grammatical one.

In the religious sense, the manual says, a man who speaks about his weaknesses just to get a reputation for humility before God commits a sin and “such synne is named yronye.” It compares the religious meaning with one in “grammare, by the whiche a man sayth one & gyueth [giveth] to understande the contrarye.”

“Ironical” and “ironically” came into English at the same time and were first recorded in the same place: Abraham Fleming’s A Panoplie of Epistles (1576), a book on rhetoric. Here are the passages in which the words appear (note that his spellings follow the Greek):

“It may be spoken eironically, for familiar friends use jeasting [jesting] nowe and then, in their letters.” And: “He was (belike) some Pomilio or litle dwarfe, and that made him to use this eironical method.”

Here are the OED‘s definitions: The adverb “ironically” means “in an ironical manner; by way of irony.” The adjective “ironical” means “of the nature of irony or covert sarcasm; meaning the opposite of what is expressed.”

“Ironic,” the latecomer, didn’t appear until 1630. The OED defines it as “pertaining to irony; uttering or given to irony; of the nature of or containing irony.”

It first appeared in print in Ben Jonson’s comic play The New Inne: Or, the Light Heart, in these lines: “Most Socratick Lady! / Or, if you will Ironick! gi’ you joy / O’ your Platonick Love ….” (These are Jonson’s italics.)

It may be that Jonson chose “ironick” simply to rhyme with “Socratick” and “Platonick.” If so, the very existence of “ironic” is ironic!

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