The Grammarphobia Blog

Free thinking

Q: Which is the proper form: “for free” or “for nothing”?

A: They’re both OK now, though “for free” apparently arose in the 1940s out of a confused conflation of “free” and “for nothing.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes “for free” as an informal usage, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats it simply as standard English.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the expression (in its entry for the preposition “for”) as “Chiefly U.S.” but doesn’t suggest that it’s anything other than standard English. The OED defines it as “for no charge, without payment.”

The phrase “for nothing” is much, much older, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, when it meant for no consideration, on no account, or by no means. The OED says those senses are now obsolete.

The expression took on its modern meaning of free or without charge in the 16th century. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11), for example, Stephano says, “This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing.”

If you’d like to read more about this subject, I wrote a blog item last year on the etymology of “free” and “for free.”

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Pushing the etymology

Q: I believe “push the envelope” is related to test flights. As a plane approaches Mach 1, the air envelops it and behaves denser. So, to “push the envelope” originally meant to reach the point where the plane was pushing a lot of air that was enveloping it. I’m not sure where I heard this, but I believe it’s right.

A: Thanks for sharing your recollection, but “push the envelope” appears to be derived from the term “flight envelope,” which dates back to the 1940s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED‘s first citation for “flight envelope” is from a 1944 issue of the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society: “The ‘flight envelope’ covers all probable conditions of symmetrical manoeuvring flight.”

The dictionary defines the term as “the set of limiting combinations of speed and altitude, or speed and range, etc., possible for a particular kind of aircraft or aero-engine.”

The expression “push the envelope” first appeared in print – or at least in public print cited by the OED – in a July 3, 1978, article in the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology:

“The aircraft’s altitude envelope must be expanded to permit a ferry flight across the nation. NASA pilots were to push the envelope to 10,000 ft.”

However, a WNYC listener who was a “simulator jockey” (a technician who maintained and operated a flight simulator) in the US Air Force from 1967 to ’71 remembers seeing the expression in print in internal USAF safety bulletins around 1969.

Unfortunately, he says those bulletins were classified. Too bad! If one could be found, we might be able to antedate the expression to 1969.

At any rate, the OED says “push the envelope” was popularized by its appearance in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the space program:

“One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’…. [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “push the envelope” now means to increase the capabilities of a technology, exceed existing limits, or be innovative.

By the way, some readers of the blog have suggested that “push the envelope” is derived from “performance envelope,” but that term didn’t show up in print until the late 1980s, when it was used in a more general sense to refer to the performance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

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It’s like a marching band uniform

Q: I want to write that something is reminiscent of a marching band uniform. But “marching-band-uniform-esque” (with or without the hyphens) looks very awkward. Is there a standard way of putting something like this down in writing?

A: Well, “esque” is a good example of a suffix that’s sometimes an unsuitable attachment. It’s used to make adjectives out of nouns. But while it may work mentally and even in jocular speech, in written English it’s cumbersome when attached to the wrong noun or noun phrase.

Where does the suffix “esque” come from? Here it is in a nutshell:

We borrowed “esque” from the French esque, which came from the Italian esco, derived from the medieval Latin iscus, which came from ancient Germanic and is similar to the Old Teutonic isko, Old High German isc, Old English isc, modern German isch, and our own “ish.”

It’s interesting that English retains two suffixes from the same source: “esque” and “ish.”

Added to nouns, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “esque” forms adjectives in which “the suffix has the sense ‘resembling the style partaking of the characteristics of.’ “

For example, a “picaresque” novel has a “picaro” (a rogue, scoundrel, or bohemian) as its hero. We don’t often see “picaro” (from the Spanish pícaro) in English these days, but it lives on in “picaresque.”

The OED explains that “esque” is found in many words coming through French from Italian, “as in arabesque, burlesque, Dantesque, grotesque, romanesque.”

Our word “grotesque,” for example, adopted in the 1560s from the early modern French crotesque, was originally the Italian grottesco or grottesca.

In Italian, the OED says, words ending in esco are freely formed from the names of artists, and French and English writers have imitated this practice by attaching “esque” to names and other nouns to form adjectives.

“The words formed with this suffix on Eng. ns. are chiefly nonce-words of a jocular character, as cigaresque,” the OED says. (A nonce word is one made up for a particular occasion or special use.)

Examples of the suffix “esque” added to names include “Audenesque,” “Browningesque,” “Carlylesque,” “Chaplinesque,” “Dickensesque,” “Disneyesque,” and so on.

“Chaplinesque” is one thing, but “marching-band-uniformesque” is another! It just doesn’t work as a written form.

I’ve always felt that “esque” is overused to make awkward adjectives. It’s particularly clumsy when tacked on to nouns that end in a vowel, as in “Obamaesque.”

In answer to your question, why not simply say that it’s “like a marching band uniform”?

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A perfectly cromulent word

Q: The neologism “cromulent” would feel positive to me even if I didn’t know its context from The Simpsons. This despite the fact that “lent” endings are often associated with negative words as opposed to the more neutral words with “ism” and “logue” suffixes. Any comment?

A: Some prefixes and suffixes have inherently positive or negative connotations (“pro,” “anti,” “mal,” etc.).

Others, like “logue,” can be either neutral (as in “catalogue,” “dialogue,” “analogue”) or negative (“ideologue”).

The “ism” suffix is pretty much neutral in and of itself, but it’s attached to words that may have positive (“idealism”), negative (“fatalism”), or neutral (“organism”) connotations.

The “lent” suffix is also neutral in and of itself. It’s merely used to form adjectives. However, many of the adjectives in which we find it are on the negative side: “turbulent,” “violent,” “pestilent,” and even “sanguinolent,” now chiefly used in pathology to mean bloodstained.

As for “cromulent,” it was coined for a 1996 Simpsons episode entitled “Lisa the Iconoclast.” Since then, it has been insinuating itself into the English language.

I got more than 63,000 hits when I googled the word, which appears in titles like the Cromulent Shakespeare Company, the Cromulent Knitter, Cromulent Music, and Cromulent Design.

I don’t find “cromulent” yet in standard dictionaries, but Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon describes it as a slang adjective meaning fine or acceptable.

In the 1996 Simpsons episode, the Springfield town motto is “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

When Edna Krabappel, a schoolteacher, says she never heard the word “embiggens” before moving to Springfield, another teacher, Miss Hoover, replies, “I don’t know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

Although “embiggens” is often cited as another Simpsons neologism, it first appeared in print more than a century earlier – in an 1884 issue of Notes and Queries, a scholarly journal devoted to the English language.

In a debate among the journal’s correspondents about slang, one writer comments that the best way to rid dictionaries of unwanted jargon is to let fresh slang come along and replace old slang.

The author, C. A. Ward, cites several “barbarous verbs” in other languages, then coins his own: “to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

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Turkey Day

Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?

A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.

A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)

In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.

In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.

And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”

In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:

“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”

As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.

As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.

During the 20th century, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.

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Blind spot

Q: I enjoyed your recent talk at the NY Public Library, but I didn’t speak to you. I see the terms “blindside” and “heads up” often and understand their meanings, but why can’t I find them in the American Heritage dictionary at my office?

A: Thanks for coming to my talk. Next time, introduce yourself!

To “blindside” (or “blind-side”) someone literally means to attack from the person’s blind side, so he doesn’t see you coming. Figuratively, it means to take advantage of a vulnerability or take unawares.

The verb had its origins in US sports writing in the 1960s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first citation is from the book Pro Football, USA (1968): “Usually it is the quarterback who gets blind-sided as he is about to pass.”

The next OED citation is from a 1972 issue of the Atlantic Monthly: “That great sportsman … took the cheapest shot of all time when he slammed into (blindsided, as these brave gladiators say) an overexuberant spectator who ran onto the field in a Baltimore-Miami game.”

A more recent reference, from Fortune magazine in 1983, illustrates the figurative use of the term: “Some companies will find themselves blind-sided by competitors they never imagined existed.”

You also ask about “heads up,” a topic I’ve written about before on the blog. I hope you find the posting helpful.

By the way, both “heads up” and “blindside” are in my copies of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. If you miss a program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Everyone’s here and frightfully gay

Q: Why does the New York Times use “gays” to refer to male homosexuals and “lesbians” for females? “Gay” has always covered men and women. When did it become a term for male homosexuals?

A: The Times does indeed often refer to gay men as “gays” and gay women as “lesbians,” as in its reporting on a gay rights rally in Washington last month. The phrase “gays and lesbians” crops up over and over again in the paper.

Why not use the single term “gays” for both men and women?

The simple answer is that many gay women want a term of their own – at least in public discourse. This is what I’ve been able to gather after reading extensively in lesbian discussion groups and other forums on the Web.

The preference for the term “lesbian” appears to reflect a desire among many gay women to have a public label all their own and to emphasize the fact that gay men and gay women are not a homogeneous group.

So much for the public terminology. Privately, however, it’s a different story.

From my reading I’ve concluded that the terms “gay woman” and “lesbian” are often used interchangeably, and that a woman’s choice of a personal label for herself is highly individual.

I also get the impression that some women who identify with the masculine or “butch” end of the spectrum prefer to call themselves “gay,” while some at the “femme” end think of themselves as “lesbian.”

But some of the women commenting online see no difference at all between the labels, and still others reject both labels in favor of “queer.”

In short, there are not only public and private aspects to the use of “lesbian,” but there are intensely personal and idiosyncratic aspects as well.

Let’s examine the terms. (First let me note that many gay women as well as gay men discourage the use of “homosexual” because they see it as a medical or psychological term.)

The word “Lesbian” (originally capitalized) has been in the language since 1601, when it had no sexual meaning. It was an adjective pertaining to the Greek island of Lesbos.

A “Lesbian rule,” for example, was a pliable mason’s rule made of a kind of lead, found on the island, that was flexible enough to be shaped to fit a curved edge. (I wrote a blog entry on the subject earlier this year.) And “Lesbian wine” was made from grapes grown on Lesbos.

Lesbos, as you probably know, was also the home of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who addressed some love lyrics to girls.

This connection, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, gave the word “lesbianism” the meaning of “female homosexuality,” a sense that originally appeared in print in 1870. The adjective “lesbian” first showed up in the sexual sense in 1890 and as a noun in 1925.

“Gay” has had many meanings since it was introduced into English around 1300. Its etymology is murky, but it was borrowed from Old French (gai) and may come from Frankish or Old High German (gahi).

In English, according to the OED, it first meant noble, beautiful, or excellent. In the later 1300s it came to mean “bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy.”

In the 1400s it was first used in the modern sense of merry or cheerful, though it was also used to mean wanton, lewd, dissolute, or even (in the case of women) living by prostitution. All of these negative meanings are now either rare or obscure.

It’s difficult to say when “gay” was first used as slang term for homosexual. As the OED explains, many citations could be read that way by innuendo, but such interpretations might just be the result of hindsight.

Here’s one such example, from the writings of Gertrude Stein in 1922: “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then. …They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there … not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”

And here’s another, from a 1939 song lyric by Noel Coward: “Everyone’s here and frightfully gay, / Nobody cares what people say, / Though the Riviera / Seems really much queerer / Than Rome at its height.”

The OED‘s first definite citation is from Gershon Legman’s “The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary,” which was published in 1941 as an appendix to a two-volume medical study of homosexuality.

Legman’s glossary includes this entry: “Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity … or lack of restraint, in a person, place, or party. Often given the French spelling, gai or gaie by (or in burlesque of) cultured homosexuals of both sexes.”

However, a book called Language and Sexuality (2003), by Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick, says the use of “gay” in the homosexual sense “originated in the 1930s as an in-group term, part of a code which only insiders or sympathizers understood.”

You asked when “gay” became a term for male homosexuals. The answer is that it doesn’t necessarily mean males – or not always. Cameron and Kulick write:

“Many lesbians prefer the gender-specific term ‘lesbian’ to ‘gay,’ which, they argue, obscures the presence of women by subsuming them under a label whose primary reference is to men.”

And indeed the OED says the term is more frequently used to refer to men.

One final note about “gay.” There’s no evidence, according to the OED, that there was an earlier use of gai or gaie in French to mean homosexual. Rather, the French use of the word in this sense is a late-20th-century borrowing from English.

As for “queer,” its origins are uncertain but it may be related to the German quer (oblique or at odds). It’s been in English in the ordinary sense (peculiar or strange) since the 1500s.

The OED‘s first citation for the use of “queer” in the sexual sense is from a letter written in 1894 by Oscar Wilde’s archenemy, the Marquess of Queensberry, who used the word as a noun: “I write to tell you that it is a judgement on the whole lot of you. Montgomerys, The Snob Queers like Roseberry & certainly Christian hypocrite Gladstone.”

The adjective ”queer,” according to the OED,  was first recorded in a 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times: “He said that the Ninety-six Club was the best; that it was composed of the ‘queer’ people…. He said that the members sometimes spent hundreds of dollars on silk gowns, hosiery, etc…. At these ‘drags’ the ‘queer’ people have a good time.”

As the OED points out, “queer” was a derogatory term until it was reclaimed as a positive or neutral word by gays in the 1980s. It’s since become a respectable term in academia.

“In some academic contexts,” the OED says, “it is the preferred adjective in the study of issues relating to homosexuality (cf. queer theory …); it is also sometimes used of sexual lifestyles that do not conform to conventional heterosexual behaviour, such as bisexuality or transgenderism.”

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Don’t forget to write, y’all

Q: I was an English major (Florida State University, class of ’82) and boy am I glad I found y’all because THINGS HAVE CHANGED. However, I don’t see anything in the new Woe Is I about “y’all.” Can I use it in writing? I’m not kidding.

A: I say go for it in casual writing.

I wouldn’t use it in formal contexts. But “y’all” is, after all, merely a contraction of the regionalism “you all.” And contractions have been around since Anglo-Saxon days.

A good rule to follow would be to use it in writing to people you’d be comfortable using it with in speech.

Modern English, unlike some other languages, has only one form of “you” for both singular and plural. So how did “you all” arise in the South as a second-person plural of “you”?

It’s been suggested by some linguists that “you all,” “you uns” (a Pittsburgh expression), and “yous” or “youse” (heard in the East) may have originated as attempts to differentiate the singular “you” from the plural “you.”

In Old English, in fact, there were four ways of expressing “you”-ness: the singulars “thou” and “thee,” and the plurals “ye” and “you.” The Anglo-Saxons used “thou” and “ye” as subjects, “thee” and “you” as objects.

But by the end of the 16th century, the all-purpose “you” was firmly established as standard English, though some “thee”-ing and “thou”-ing survived, notably among the Quakers and in rural dialects.

This brief history of “you” comes from Origins of the Specious, a book that my husband, Stewart Kellerman, and I have written about language myths and misconceptions.

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Now, mea culpa, I repent

Q: I’m one of your BIG FANS and also President of Nitpickers Anonymous. So I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard you say on WNYC “as far as” without a following verb. And not once, but TWICE! As in, “As far as your question, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.” I was calmly driving along, listening to you on the radio, when all of a sudden I nearly drove into a tree! Tell me it isn’t so.

A: Mea culpa!

You are absolutely right. I misspoke. I should have said, “As for your question…” or “As far as your question goes…” and I mistakenly conflated the two.

That wasn’t the first time (as I’ve been told).

One of the perils and terrors of live radio is that I have to think a couple of sentences ahead, and meanwhile MY MOUTH IS STILL WORKING! Always a dangerous situation.

I will try harder in the future.

By the way, “mea culpa,” from the post-classical Latin for “through my own fault,” has been used in English since the early 13th century to express one’s guilt or responsibility for an error.

Here’s an example from Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1385): “Al have I been rebel in myn entente: / Now, MEA CULPA, lord! I me repent.”

Meanwhile, thanks for listening, and for nitpicking.

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Hits and misses

Q: I was listening to NPR the other day when a reporter used the term “anti-intuitive.” I don’t believe such a word exists, though I got more than 60,000 hits for it on Google. Isn’t “counterintuitive” the correct term?

A: An unscientific analysis of Google hits for “anti-intuitive” suggests that most of the writers are mistakenly using the term in place of “counterintuitive.”

However, I’ve found some instances in which academic, technical, or scientific writers use both “anti-intuitive” and “counterintuitive,” so I suspect that at least some of these people regard the two as independent words.

The question then becomes, if they’re different, what do they mean?

“Counterintuitive” means contrary to intuition – that is, unexpected or apparently improbable. The word was first used in print by Noam Chomsky in 1955, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The prefix “counter” is from the Latin contra, meaning against or in return.)

“Anti-intuitive” is not cited anywhere in the OED or any of the dictionaries I usually consult, but logically it would seem to mean either defying or lacking intuition.

As many writers use it – that is, those who aren’t mistaking it for “counterintuitive” – the word often means incoherent or difficult to understand. (The prefix “anti” is from Greek and means against or instead.)

This may be a term that’s still in progress!

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The daffydils of Broadway

Q: In the song “Lullaby of Broadway,” there’s a line about the “daffodils” at Angelo’s and Maxie’s. Maybe “daffodils” refers to chorus girls or such, but I suspect that it’s being used here to describe gays. Am I off base?

A: “Lullaby of Broadway” celebrates “The rumble of the subway trains / The rattle of the taxis, / The daffydils who entertain / At Angelo’s and Maxie’s.”

The song, with lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren, was written for Busby Berkeley’s movie The Gold Diggers of 1935, and revived in the 1980 musical 42nd Street.

Who were the “daffydills”?

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that in 1935 “daffodil” was a slang term for an effeminate young man, similar to “pansy.”

In fact, one citation given is Dubin’s “daffydils” lyric. Also cited is a 1938 line from “You Play the Black 3,” an unidentified work by the pseudonymous R. Hallas: “He said it mocking, in a high voice, like a daffodil.”

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines “daffodil” as “a homosexual man.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “daffodil” was a slang term for an effeminate young man from the 1920s through the ’80s.

Cassell’s also has an entry for “daffy-down-dilly (also daffydill)” as meaning a dandy in the mid- to late-19th century. (The Oxford English Dictionary says “daffadowndilly” and “daffydowndilly” have been popular terms for “daffodil,” the flower, since the 1500s.)

Interestingly, it would appear that some Broadway old-timers are either unaware of the gay meaning of the term or are keeping it to themselves. Here’s an excerpt from an F.Y.I. column in the New York Times in 1995:

“Joe Franklin, the former television host and a living encyclopedia of show-business trivia, says that daffydill was a ‘pet word for chorus girls’ who often performed in the night clubs and restaurants with floor shows.”

Then again, the word might have had two slang meanings (though if so, slang experts seem unaware of the “chorus girl” angle).

We can’t tell what kind of entertainment was on hand at the Angelo’s and Maxie’s mentioned in Dubin’s lyric because Angelo’s and Maxie’s was (or were) fictitious.

But a family-style steakhouse named Angelo and Maxie’s opened at 19th Street and Park Avenue South in 1996, according to a Food Notes column that year in the New York Times. The writer, Florence Fabricant, noted that the partners took their name from the song.

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The exact same time

Q: Here’s a pet peeve of mine. In the last 10 years or so, people have been saying things like “the exact same time” in place of what I think should be “exactly the same time.” (Even Leonard Lopate does it on WNYC.) Please enlighten me if I’m wrong about this.

A: What’s the difference between “exactly the same time” and “the exact same time”? It depends on whom you ask.

The traditional construction is “exactly the same time,” with an adverb (“exactly”) properly modifying an adjective (“same”).

A search of the online Oxford English Dictionary comes up with more than 170 published citations for “exactly the same” and none for “the exact same.” But a bit of googling confirms your observations: “exactly the same,” 266 million hits; “the exact same,” 85.5 million.

Critics of a phrase like “the exact same time” condemn it because “exact” (an adjective) is being used as an adverb (like “very”).

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), for example, says “exact same” is merely “a lazy truncation of exactly the same. Although the exact same is acceptable in informal speech, it’s not an expression for polished prose.”

However, there’s another viewpoint.

I would argue that when we say “the exact same time,” we’re using an adjective to modify another adjective for emphasis. This isn’t unusual. We sometimes use adjectives to modify other adjectives (“bright blue sky” … “light green eyes”).

And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that the phrase “exact same” is used by educated speakers and writers; it cites several instances from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and scholarly journals.

You didn’t bring this up, but some critics reject both “exactly the same” and “the exact same” on grounds that they’re redundant. If so, this is a kind of redundancy that’s well established in English usage.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains that “same” could be omitted in a sentence like “We’re going to the same hotel that we stayed at last year.” But the grammar guide says “its presence serves to reinforce, to emphasise, the identity.”

While noting that “some of the more authoritarian usage manuals” would condemn “same” as redundant, the authors reject that advice: “There is no empirical basis for proscribing it, however: it is very common and thoroughly acceptable.”

Elsewhere, the Cambridge Grammar notes that noun phrases including “the same” often include modifiers to reflect varying degrees of sameness. Sometime modifiers come after “the” (as in “the very same mistake”), and sometimes before, as with “much,” “almost,” “roughly,” and “exactly.”

I would add “exact” to the list of modifiers that can follow “the” (as in “the exact same mistake”). In my opinion, this usage is acceptable in all but the most formal writing.

If you’d like another authority, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English also says “exact same” is “standard in all but the most formal and oratorical contexts.”

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Yes, we can

Q: Here in America, we have cans and can openers. But in Britain, they have tins and tin openers. Our canned goods come from canneries. Do the British get theirs from tinneries? Yes, I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds (or something like that).

A: Excuse me for stealing the punny subject line of your email for the title of this post.

The short answer to your question is that a cannery is a cannery on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cannery” simply as a “factory where meat, fruit, etc. are canned.” Another British reference, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, says it’s “a factory where food is put into cans.”

As for this “can” vs. “tin” business, it’s far too interesting to be dismissed as merely one of the minor language quirks that separate British and American English. In fact, the story of why we have these two usages begins back in Anglo-Saxon days.

The noun “can” has meant a container for holding liquids since it first showed up in Old English, spelled canne, around the year 1000. Here’s a typical example, from Every Man Out of His Humor, a 1598 comedy by Ben Jonson: “Two cannes of beere.”

In the early years, according to the OED, a can could be made of various materials, but the word eventually came to be used primarily for a metal container.

So how did a container of beans or tuna or soup come to be called a “tin” at a Sainsbury’s in Liverpool and a “can” at a Safeway in San Francisco?

It all began with the development of canning in the early 19th century as a method of preserving food for Napoleon’s armies. Nicolas Appert, considered the father of canning, boiled the food in airtight bottles.

So, the first cans used in canning were actually bottles. And we still use the term “canning” for preserving fruit and vegetables at home in Mason jars.

Canning soon spread from France to other countries in Europe as well as to the United States, but commercial canneries found the glass bottles costly and difficult to transport.

A year after Appert’s discovery, an Englishman, Peter Durand, patented a method for preserving food in sealed tin cans.

By the late 19th century, people in Britain were referring to these metal containers as “tins” while people in the US were calling them “cans.”

The first published reference in the OED for this British use of “tin” is from Isabella M. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861): “Many cooks use the tinned turtle … preserved in hermetically-sealed canisters…. The cost of a tin … is about £2.”

The first OED citation for the American usage is from Albert D. Richardson’s 1877 book about the West, Beyond the Mississippi: “Mitchell … was fined two cans of oysters for contempt.”

These containers are primarily made of steel or aluminum now, but the British still refer to them as “tins.” We Americans can’t laugh, though. Our pie pans are usually made of aluminum these days, but we call them “tins.”

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Who caught the fish?

Q: My son’s English teacher taught the children this song: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 / Once I caught a fish alive. / 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 / Then I let it go again.” Next, she showed them “Wh-“ questions, one being: “Who caught the fish? Me.” Is the object pronoun correct here? I would much prefer the nominative, “I did.”

A: A great many speakers of English – probably most – use “me” (an object pronoun) rather than “I” (a subject or nominative pronoun), even though the pronoun would appear to be the subject of a verbless sentence.

Here are some examples:

“Who’s there?” “Me.” (Alternatives using the nominative: “I” or “I am.”)

“I left early.” “Me too.” (Alternatives using the nominative: “I too” or “I did too.”)

“Did you flunk?” “Me?” (Alternative using the nominative: “I?”)

“Who has time?” “Me.” (Alternative using the nominative: “I” or “I have” or “I do.”)

A response of “I am” or “I did ” or “I have” isn’t at all unusual. But the use of “I” in a short reply without a verb seems unnaturally stiff to most speakers.

So we seldom hear a reply of “I” or “I too.” The use of “me” in these cases has become recognized as acceptable, even standard, English.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says this in a usage note:

Me is used in many constructions where strict grammarians prescribe I. This usage is not so much ungrammatical as indicative of the shrinking range of the nominative form.”

Merriam-Webster’s adds that “me began to replace I sometime around the 16th century largely because of the pressure of word order.”

I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb,” M-W says. ”Me occurs in every other position: absolutely (who, me?), emphatically (me too), and after prepositions, conjunctions, and verbs, including be (come with me … you’re as big as me … it’s me).”

The note concludes that “almost all usage books recognize the legitimacy of me in these positions, especially in speech; some recommend I in formal and especially written contexts after be and after as and than when the first term of the comparison is the subject of a verb.”

My grammar book Woe Is I touches on this issue in discussing the use of “It’s me” instead of “It is I.” Here’s how I put it:

“In all but the most formal writing, some of the fussiest grammarians now accept It’s me. Most of us find the old usage awkward, though I must admit that I still use ‘This is she’ when somebody asks for me on the phone. Old habits die harder than old rules.”

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Sound bites

Q: I have a question about using “a/an” before consonant/vowel sounds. Why is the long “u” considered a consonant sound? After all, the long “a” in “atrium” and the long “i” in “island” are vowel sounds. Why can’t the long “u” in “universe” be a vowel sound too? Can we have any wiggle room here?

A: Nope, no wiggle room.

In deciding whether to use “a” or “an” before a word, use your ears, not your eyes. If the word begins with a consonant sound, use “a.” If it begins with a vowel sound, use “an.”

As I’ve written before on the blog, don’t be distracted by the letter of the alphabet. Some letters play dual roles.

For instance, the vowel combination “eu” at the beginning of a word like “European” is a consonant sound. The word is pronounced just as if it began with “yoor.”

Similarly, “universe” is pronounced just as if it began with “yoon.” Would you really want to say “I attend an university” or “He has an universe of things to learn”? Of course you wouldn’t.

So again, pay no attention to the LETTER a word begins with. Listen to the SOUND. It’s what determines whether you use the article “a” or “an.”

That’s the long and the short of it.

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Time tested

Q: I use expressions like “ten of five” to mean 4:50 and “a quarter to ten” to mean 9:45. I’m from Connecticut, but people from other parts of the country have no idea what I mean. Where did this method of telling time come from?

A: Your using “of” to tell time is perfectly legitimate. And it’s by no means confined to Connecticut, either. I can tell you that it’s also common in the Midwest, where I come from.

The earliest sense of the preposition “of” was “away” or “away from,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (This sense is retained in the spelling “off.”) When we say it’s “ten of five,” we mean that five o’clock is ten minutes away.

Your method of telling time has been common since the early 19th century, though the preposition “to” has been used in the same way since roughly the year 1000.

In North American, Scottish, and Irish English, “of” is commonly used “in expressing the time: from or before (a specified hour),” the OED says. Here are the dates and partial citations given.

1817: “At 15 minutes of 10 a.m.”

1857: “Five minutes of nine.”

1912: “It is a quarter of twelve.”

1956 (from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Blunderer): “His watch said twenty of six.”

1995 (from a story by T. C. Boyle): “It was a quarter of one.”

The usage is also seen with the hour unstated but understood, as in Ira Levin’s novel The Boys from Brazil (1976): “I leave at five of.”

So don’t be apologetic. And now that it’s a quarter of one, I’m quitting for lunch.

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An inkling of medieval times

Q: I just read an article in an information technology trade magazine wherein the author used the word “inkle” as a verb meaning to imply or to hint. That can’t be right – can it?

A: This is one of those “Eureka!” moments.

The verb “inkle” is extremely old, and dates back to the 1300s. Its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “to utter or communicate in an undertone or whisper, to hint, give a hint of.”

With the addition of “ing,” the verbal noun “inkling” was born around 1400. It meant – and still means – a slight mention, hint, or subtle intimation.

Meanwhile, the parent verb, “inkle” fell into oblivion and pretty much vanished for hundreds of years.

It was essentially reinvented in the 1860s, and again around 1900, apparently as a back-formation from “inkling,” according to the OED. (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an older one, as “escalate” was formed from “escalator,” and “burgle” from “burglar.”)

R. D. Blackmore, the author of Lorna Doone, used the verb in his lesser-known novel Cradock Nowell (1866): “His marriage settlement and its effects, they could only inkle of.”

And Samuel Butler used it in Erewhon Revisited (1901), a sequel to his better-known utopian novel Erewhon (1872): “People like being deceived, but they also like to have an inkling of their own deception, and you never inkle them.”

In 1904, Thomas Hardy inkled in the first part of his three-part Napoleonic drama The Dynasts: “Thou art young, and dost not heed the Cause of things / Which some of us have inkled to thee here.”

Now, “inkle” seems to have been reinvented again! Technically, it may be a back-formation, but I secretly like to think of it as a revival of a medieval verb.

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A yenta at the complex

Q: At my senior complex, I’ve heard a word that sounds like “flibber-de-gidget” used to describe a certain yenta. It seems to be archaic but describes the individual to a T. Would you source the word and give the correct spelling?

A: The word you mean is spelled “flibbertigibbet” in modern English.

The adjective, which is even better, is “flibbertigibbety.” I’m not making this up!

You can consult The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), or the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun is defined variously as a flighty, silly, frivolous, scatterbrained, meddlesome, chattering, or gossipy person. In other words, a yenta.

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word entered English sometime before 1450, when it was spelled “flepergebet” or “flypyrgebet.” The word is thought to be imitative of the sound of meaningless chatter.

The current spelling, “flibbertigibbet,” which seems to add a syllable to the original word, was first recorded in King Lear (1605). Shakespeare uses it for one of the five fiends possessing Edgar: “This is the foule fiend Flibbertigibbet.”

Note: A reader of the blog has contributed this appearance of “flibbertigibbet” (spelled with a “j” instead of a “g”), from the song “Maria” in The Sound of Music, the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical:

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the-wisp! A clown!

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Who put the egg in egg cream?

Q: Why is an egg cream called an “egg cream”? My parents had a candy store with a soda fountain in Brooklyn. I started making egg creams at age three, while standing on the ice cream freezer in the store and reaching over to the fountain handles. There was no egg in our egg creams!

A: The modern incarnation of the egg cream has neither egg nor cream – just chocolate syrup, seltzer, and milk. So why do we call the drink an “egg cream”?

There are quite a few theories about the origin of the name, some eggier and creamier than others.

A common eggless explanation is that the word “egg” here is a corruption of the Yiddish echt or ekht, meaning genuine or real. So an egg cream was the genuine article. That seems a bit far-fetched to me.

Although the origin of the name is uncertain, the evidence tends to suggest that egg creams may once have been made with eggs and cream.

The story most often mentioned involves Louis Auster, who in the 1890s opened the first of his family’s several candy shops/soda fountains on New York’s Lower East Side.

Many egg-cream authorities – I wouldn’t be surprised if NYU has an endowed chair in the subject – consider Auster the creator or popularizer of the beverage.

After the New York Herald Tribune ran an article entitled “The Egg Cream Mystique” in 1964, Louis Auster’s son Emanuel replied with a letter to the editor.

“Allow me to enlighten you on a few facts,” he wrote. “We are in business since 1892. We started in at Stanton-Lewis Streets on the lower East Side. About 1900, my father originated egg cream chocolate. We made all our syrups.”

He went on: “Sodas in those days were 2 cents a 15 oz. glass. or 1 cent you got seltzer with a little syrup on top. Chocolate was 2 cents, and egg cream (pure, cream and eggs, proportioned in a batch of syrup, not an egg to each glass) was 3 cents.”

(I am indebted to Barry Popik for quoting Emanuel Auster’s letter on his Big Apple website.)

Did the original Auster’s egg cream really have egg and cream, as Emanuel said? Perhaps, but not every member of the Auster family agreed with him.

Stanley Auster, a grandson of Louis, got his two cents in when he was interviewed for Jeff Kisseloff’s You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II (1989).

“The name egg cream was really a misnomer,” he said. “People thought there was cream it in it, and they would like to think there was egg in it because egg meant something that was really good and expensive. There was never an egg, and there was never any cream.”

Stanley ought to know. He was given the family’s secret recipe when he was about 13 years old, according to the interview, and made egg creams for Auster’s right through college.

In two articles in the journal American Speech, however, David Shulman provided additional evidence that egg creams may indeed once have had both egg and cream in them.

In a 1987 article, Shulman cited an egg-cream recipe in W. A. Bonham’s Modern Guide for Soda Dispensers (1896) that called for both cream and eggs.

And in a 1995 article, he insisted that “the original drink with that name did have egg and cream in it.” He added that the Oxford English Dictionary had accepted the results of his research on the subject.

The OED does in fact now define “egg cream” as “any of various kinds of rich sweet drink made orig. with eggs and milk or cream and more recently with milk, soda water, and flavouring.”

The OED’s earliest published reference for the term “egg cream” used in reference to a beverage is from 1906, half a dozen years after Louis Auster was said to have created the drink.

In closing, I’d like to quote a few lines from Lou Reed’s song “Egg Cream”:

When I was a young man, no bigger than this
A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed.
Some u bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk,
You stir it up into a heady fro, tasted just like silk.

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Two thawful usages

Q: Are “dethaw” and “unthaw” words? They don’t make sense to me, yet I hear both of them. Hearing and believing = two separate things.

A: Well, you won’t find them in standard dictionaries, but as you point out a lot of people use them. I got more than 52,000 hits when a googled “dethaw” and over 31,000 for “unthaw.”

Are they words? Yes. Are they standard English? No. Or maybe I should say not yet. English is a living language, but I wouldn’t put any money on these newbies.

I can find only two references that have entries for them: Urban Dictionary, whose definitions are written by readers, and WordNet, “a large lexical database” put together by linguists, computer scientists, and psychologists at Princeton.

What people mean when they use “dethaw” and “unthaw” is “thaw.” If these terms made sense, however, they would mean the opposite of “thaw” – that is, “refreeze.”

Of course English doesn’t always make sense. That’s why you don’t need a hammer and saw to make your bed in the morning.

My guess is that “dethaw” is a mistaken combination of “defrost” and “thaw.” For example, someone wonders how to quickly defrost or thaw a chicken, so he asks, “How do I quickly dethaw a chicken?”

People make similar mistakes when they use “unpeel” and “unloosen” and “I’m still unpacked” (for “I’m still packed”).

The verb “thaw” comes from old Germanic sources and has been in English since roughly the year 1000. It originally meant to turn a frozen substance (like ice or snow) back into a liquid by raising its temperature.

In the 1500s, it also came to mean to unfreeze a nonliquid substance (like a chicken). And if you want to know how to quickly thaw or defrost a chicken, you’ll have to go to a different source!

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Slip sliding away

Q: I would like to know if the term “sliding pond,” meaning a playground slide, is specific to the NYC area. Could it be a corruption of “slide upon”?

A: My husband, born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, remembers the playground slide as a “sliding pond,” as do many New Yorkers and New Jerseyites. Others recall it as a “sliding pon.”

The expression was a new one on me (I’m from the Midwest) until a few years ago when a reader from New Jersey asked me about it.

In looking for an answer, I came across an item on the Mavens’ Word of the Day website that says “the expression ‘sliding pon(d)’ is almost exclusively connected to the New York City area.”

The origin of the expression is obscure, according to the Random House site, but one possibility is indeed your suggestion that it’s derived from “slide upon.”

However, the writer points out two problems with this theory: (1) “upon” is a more formal word than children would normally use, and (2) “slide upon” is not known to have ever been used for a children’s slide.

“A somewhat more likely possibility is that it comes from a Dutch source,” the website tells us. “A Dutch dictionary in 1599 gives the term glijd-baene, literally ‘glide-road,’ for a children’s slide (on ice, in this case).”

The term “sliding pond,” the writer adds, “could thus represent a partial translation of the Dutch term, with the glijd translated as ‘sliding’ and the baene taken as ‘pond.’ ”

Although the website mentions two similar German terms, it says glijd-baene is a more likely source because of the Dutch influence on New York speech.

It also notes that the term “sliding pond” hasn’t shown up in other cities influenced by large concentrations of German immigrants.

All this talk about gliding and sliding, reminds of these lines from Simon and Garfunkel: “We’re workin’ our jobs, collect our pay / Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip sliding away.”

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The vegetable kingdom

Q: I’m writing this from under my bed in a hut on Kilimanjaro, where I’ve been hiding since the first time I heard the word “veggie.” One theory is that this type of baby talk is the verbal equivalent of comfort food, to which people are drawn in times of insecurity. A second theory is that this form renders vegetables less threatening. Here, too, I am at odds, because I like vegetables. What’s your (educated) prediction … will it die out or should I get used to snowy winters?

A: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the word “veggie” lasts longer than the snows on Mount Kilimanjaro, where scientists say the ice cap is melting.

As it turns out, the word (also spelled “veggy” and “vegie”) isn’t all that new. It’s been around for more than half a century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest published reference in the OED is from a book called Lost Girls (1955), by Caroline Brown: “I did get a job for myself, selling vegies at a stall in the market.”

The first OED citation for the “veggie” spelling is from a 1978 article in the Washington Post about a World Vegetarian Day conference: “Special veggie conference events on Saturday include a ‘space vegetarian’ lunch.”

I even found a 1976 article in the New York Times archive that mentions a vegetarian restaurant in Paris called Veggie. A typical meal, according to the Times, might include soup, vegetables, prunes, and cake.

I’m a vegetable lover too, though my husband (a meat-and-potatoes guy) wonders how a lover of vegetables can bear to kill a poor innocent Brussels sprout.

As for “veggie,” I’m not particularly bothered by the word, no matter how it’s spelled. I fear that you’d better stock up on woolies.

Thanks for the entertaining question.

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When nice wasn’t nice

Q: As a black person, I’m aware that the word “nigger” has been a source of much controversy in our community. Oprah disdains the usage and Jay-Z embraces it as a term of endearment. Are there other words used to disparage a group of people and later embraced by the same group? I’d appreciate any additional insight that you may have on the topic.

A: Yes, there are other cases in which a word that’s been used to put certain people down is embraced by them – or at least some of them – and turned into a positive term.

This is only one instance of a more general phenomenon that linguists call semantic bleaching, where a word or phrase is weakened by common use and turned into something else.

To use a familiar (and less sensitive) example, the term “goodbye” began as a contraction of “God be with you.” Over the centuries, its original sense was weakened by general usage and underwent a shift: it lost its religious meaning.

Another familiar word, “nice,” is ultimately from the Latin nescius (“ignorant”), and until the 13th century it meant foolish or stupid. Over the centuries its meaning changed: from coy and shy to dainty and fastidious and finally to the much weakened positive adjective we have today.

Something similar may occur with racially and sexually taboo words, as my husband and I wrote in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

“Nigger” (or “nigga”) has been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African-Americans, while “bitch” and “cunt” have been reclaimed by some feminists as terms of empowerment.

These attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are also examples of semantic bleaching.

Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York, has written an interesting paper on the subject that was published in the book African-American English (1998).

In the paper, Professor Spears relates an anecdote in which a black male gangsta rap artist shares a limousine with a female African-American economist. During the trip to attend a program together, the rap star refers to his companion as a “bitch economist,” a term that she doesn’t find empowering.

“The rapper was positively impressed and had no intention of insulting the economist,” Dr. Spears writes. “He was not aware of her rules of speech use and evaluation. She was not aware of his and rebuked him with uncommon severity all the way to their destination.”

That’s one problem with attempts to reclaim taboo words. Not all members of the group may agree that a word has been reclaimed.

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The light side and the dark

Q: I listen to you on my iPod from Martinez, CA, home of John Muir. I’ve been thinking lately about the words “vindicate” and “vindictive.” Why did one embrace the light side and the other the dark?

A: “Vindicate” and “vindictive” were once more complicated words than they are today, and the first one originally had a lot of negative connotations that were lost over the years.

The verb “vindicate” comes from the Latin vindicare, meaning to claim, set free, punish, or avenge. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the English word reflected both the negative and positive sides of its Latin heritage.

First, it meant to avenge or exercise vengeance. Later it came to mean punish; rescue or set free; justify or clear (as from suspicion or dishonor); establish possession of something; and make good or defend against encroachment.

The adjective “vindictive” (from the Latin vindicta, meaning revenge), was preceded by an earlier form, “vindicative,” in the 1500s, and has had a generally grim history since entering English.

When “vindictive” first showed up in the early 1600s, it described someone “given to revenge; having a revengeful disposition,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In other words, someone who liked punishing people or holding a grudge.

In former days, “vindictive” was also used to describe anything punitive, retributive, or avenging. Today we use the legal phrase “punitive damages,” but the OED cites a quotation from 1813 about “vindictive damages.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that “vindicate” could be a back-formation from an earlier word, “vindication,” which first appeared in English in the late 1400s and originally meant the act of avenging. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

The OED says that “vindication” made its first published appearance in William Caxton’s printing of Aesop’s Fables (1484): “An asse … smote hym [the lion] in the forhede with his feete by maner of vyndycacion.”

So both “vindicate” and “vindictive” come from notions of vengeance and punishment. Although “vindictive” has continued to embrace the dark side, “vindicate” has lightened up.

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Variations on a theme

Q: My grandma has a question about the word “formidable.” She’s read that it has two meanings that are opposite of each other, and she was wondering if that’s correct.

A: “Formidable” has three related meanings: (1) arousing fear or apprehension; (2) inspiring awe, admiration, or wonder (similar to “impressive”); (3) difficult to undertake or overcome, as in “a formidable challenge.”

None of the meanings are really opposites; they’re just variations on a theme.

The source of “formidable,” which has been in English since the early 1500s, is the Latin formidare (to fear or dread).

The words “awe” and “wonder” in the second meaning above were once negative terms, since they meant fear and dread. “Wonderful,” odd as this may seem, once was a negative word, and “awful” still is.

But some words have truly opposing meanings. They’re called “contronyms.” Examples are “cleave,” “sanction,” and “oversight,” which all have opposing meanings.

I’ve written about words like these before on the blog. Here a link to a posting from last year and here’s a link to one from two years ago.

By the way, the pronunciation of “formidable” may be changing in the United States, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Traditionally, the first syllable has been stressed, but an increasing number of Americans have begun accenting the second syllable, a common variant pronunciation in British English.

American Heritage lists both pronunciations as standard English, but its Usage Panel overwhelmingly prefers the traditional one.

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It’s about feeling clamorous

Q: I saw this sentence on Slate: “Bush came up with the plan to put 10 anti-missile interceptors and radars on Czech and Polish soil in 2007, and the Russians have been clamoring about it ever since.” Can one clamor “about” something? I thought one could only clamor “for” it.

A: Generally, people clamor “for” or “against” or “to do” something, or they clamor “in support of” or “in opposition to” something.

But they can clamor “about” something as well. And of course they can simply clamor, with no prepositions at all.

The verb “clamor,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), means to make a din or insistently complain or demand, as well as to influence or bring something about by making a hubbub.

American Heritage says the verb can be both intransitive (meaning it doesn’t need an object), as in “clamored for tax reforms,” and transitive (it has a direct object), as in “clamored their disapproval” or “clamored the mayor into resigning.”

I don’t see any published references in the Oxford English Dictionary for “clamor about,” but I do see a couple for making “a clamor about” something.

Here’s a citation from Fraser’s Magazine in 1837: “No people … make such a blaring about apostasy, and such a clamour about consistency, as the Liberals.”

The verb “clamor” has been in use since about 1400, according to the OED. It was preceded by the noun “clamor,” meaning a shouting or outcry, which has been around since the late 1300s.

The word “clamor’ has been spelled all sorts of ways over the years: “clamur,” “clamure,” “clamoure,” “clamour,” “clamor,” etc. Today, it’s “clamor” in American English and “clamour” in British English.

The source of all this clamor is the Latin clamare, to cry out or shout.

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The sun also sets

Q: I do ESL tutoring and I would like to be clear about “sit” vs. “set” and “rise” vs. “raise.” We sit at a table and rise from a chair. We set a table and raise flowers. Why does the sun rise in the east (as of its own volition), but it sets in the west?

A: When we speak of the sun’s rising and setting, we’re using “rise” in the sense of to ascend or mount up.

This meaning of “rise,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been in use since about 1200 in reference to heavenly bodies coming up above the horizon.

As for the sun’s setting, we’re using “set” here in the sense of to sink or descend. This meaning of “set” has been in use since about 1300 in reference to heavenly bodies going down below the horizon.

“Set” has had a great many meanings over the years, which accounts for some of the confusion with “sit.” In fact, people have been confused about “set” and ”sit” as far back as the early 1300s, according to the OED.

This is partly because of the close similarity of their past tenses and past participles, and partly because of the similarity in their meanings in some uses.

For example, one meaning of “set” is to cause someone to be seated or to sit (as in “to set the king on his throne” or “to set the child in his highchair”).

You don’t have to be an ESL student to find this confusing.

In “Mixed Doubles,” a section on confusing pairs in the new third edition of my grammar book Woe Is I, I explain the difference between “set” vs. “sit” and “raise” vs. “rise” this way:

“RAISE/RISE. To raise is to bring something up; there’s always a ‘something’ that’s being lifted. To rise is to get up. When they raise the flag, we all rise.

“SET/SIT. To set is to place something; there’s always a ‘something’ that’s being placed. To sit is to be seated. Set the groceries on the counter and sit at the table.“

I hope this helps.

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A dogged question

Q: I’m reading Origins of the Specious and enjoying it, but I have a question prompted by this line on page 39: “Lassie is a dog who could direct her own movie.” Lassie was a female character played by a male animal. Do we use “her” or “his”? This is a question that is dogging me.

A: The question occurred to Stewart and me, too, when we were writing the book.

The female character was portrayed by many male dogs over the years. You might say the actors were in drag! But we decided to go for the feminine pronoun, since the character was feminine.

All those Lassie movies, TV shows, novels, comics, toys, etc. began with a female rough-coated collie in a 1938 short story by Eric Knight in the Saturday Evening Post.

Knight later expanded the story into a novel, Lassie Come Home (1940), and MGM turned it into a move in 1943.

Pal, the first dog to play Lassie, sired a long line of male collies that succeeded him in the role. In fact, fans have protested when unrelated collies appeared as Lassie.

Why a male dog in a female role? In checking various Lassie sites on the Web, I find these two explanations most often mentioned:

Male collies tend to have thicker coats, so they’re more photogenic during the summer when dogs shed. Also, male dogs are generally larger, which lets them play opposite growing child actors for longer.

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Hand me the wellies, Jeeves

Q: My British-born boss corrected me for preparing a letter that said “I am writing you” instead of “I am writing to you.” He sniffed that dropping the preposition “to” in the first example was an Americanism and bad English. Is there a difference between UK and US English on this? Help!

A: WELL! What a snippy comment! And wrong besides.

This is not bad English. It’s standard American English (which is why my husband and I invite readers of our website to “Write us”), and it was once standard British English too. Here’s the story.

In a sentence like “Write me a poem” or “Write your mother a letter,” the preposition is understood and is properly omitted in both British and American English. In fact, people would never say “Write for me a poem” or “Write to your mother a letter.”

Several verbs, including “hand,” “pass,” “give, “offer,” “send,” and “write,” are commonly used without prepositions when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object (like “me” and “your mother” in the sentences above).

However, if the direct object comes first (“a poem,” “a letter”), the preposition is used: “Write a poem for me,” and “Write a letter to your mother.”

Here are a few more examples: “Pass Dad the salt,” but “Pass the salt to Dad.” … “Hand me the hammer,” but “Hand the hammer to me.” … “Offer her tea,” but “Offer tea to her.” … “Give them a break,” but “Give a break to them.” … “He left her his fortune,” but “He left his fortune to her.”

In the case of “write,” it’s long been correct English to drop the preposition even if the only object is an indirect object, as in “Write me when you can” or “Write your parents at least once a week.” (In this respect, we use “write” in much the same way that we use “call.”)

As for your British-born critic, he is right in one respect. A sentence like “Have you written your mother?” or “Write me,” once standard English on both sides of the Atlantic, is now frowned upon in the UK though it’s still fine in the US.

Only when both direct and indirect objects are present – as in “Have you written your mother a thank-you note?” or “Write me a letter” – do British speakers today omit the preposition.

Under its entry for “write,” The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains that preposition-dropping in Britain “is now in restricted use unless accompanied by a second (direct) object, as in I shall write you a letter as soon as I land in Borneo.”

“In old-fashioned commercial correspondence,” the usage manual adds, “the types We wrote you yesterday; Please write us at your convenience were often used, but nowadays to would normally be inserted before you and us.”

And this old British usage wasn’t limited to commercial writing, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The 18th century Scottish clergyman and poet Thomas Blacklock, for instance, used it in a these lines from 1746: “Pray write me soon, to let me see / How much superior you can be / To doctors in divinity.”

In other words, the American use of “write” isn’t incorrect – it’s old-fashioned!

Interestingly, some speakers in the UK colloquially say “Give it me” (meaning “Give it to me”), omitting the preposition after the direct object, which Americans seldom do. We might say “Give me it” or “Give me that,” but we’d never drop the preposition in “Give it to me.”

I hope this takes away the sting, even if just a bit.

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One-faced words

Q: Are the words “plethora” and “dearth” like “sanction” and “invaluable” – i.e., does each have two meanings that are contradictory? I hear “dearth” being used as meaning many, and “plethora” as meaning few. I always thought “dearth” meant few and “plethora” too many.

A: The kind of two-faced word you refer to is sometimes called a “contronym” or a “Janus word,” after the god with two faces. “Cleave,” “sanction,” and “oversight” are examples of contronyms, since they have opposing meanings.

If you’re interested in reading more about these words, I’ve discussed contronyms before on the blog, in a posting last year and in another two years ago.

“Invaluable,” by the way, isn’t one of these words. It has only one meaning: priceless, or beyond value. It never means without value. The negative prefix “in” here suggests something that’s so valuable it can’t be valued.

“Plethora” and “dearth” aren’t contronyms, either. They too have only one meaning each.

We got “plethora” from post-classical Latin, and it has meant the same thing ever since entering English in the 1500s: an overabundance, a plenitude, a large amount.

“Dearth,” first recorded in the 1200s, is from Germanic sources and means a scarcity, an inadequate supply. (It’s related to “dear” in the sense of costly, which once was one of its meanings.)

Anyone who uses “plethora” to mean a scarcity or “dearth” to mean an overabundance is misusing the words.

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