The Grammarphobia Blog

When abusage becomes usage

Q: I came across your blog for the first time today. After scanning the entries, I came to this conclusion:  No usage is wrong if your research shows it has been used before. From this brief exposure to your work, it seems your entire focus is to find some way to justify questionable usage.

A: We’re sorry that you interpret our judgments as ways “to justify questionable usage.”

When the two of us make a judgment about a usage, we consult many sources, including these:

The Oxford English Dictionary; current standard dictionaries (and sometime older ones, for historical perspective); old and new usage guides; scholarly studies, and articles in journals like American Speech.

This gives us a feel for whether educated opinion about a usage has changed.

Many times, we’re chagrined at what we learn. But as former journalists (we were once editors at the New York Times) we report what we find, painful though it may be!

English is well over a thousand years old, and it has adapted itself to common usage century by century. Some 19th-century usages are almost unrecognizable today.

The underlying grammar, of course, is much slower to change, though change it does.

Use of the subjunctive, for example, is rapidly slipping away in Britain. We no longer hear “thou sayest” or “she cometh” or “doth,” and English speakers on both sides of the pond seldom use “shall” in place of “will” any more.

Changes in usage – for instance, in spellings, pronunciations, meanings, and choice of vocabulary where no new grammatical function is involved – are more readily observable over time.

And the choice of preposition (as in “wait on line” versus “wait in line,” or “wait on the weather” versus “wait for the weather”) is often idiomatic and does not involve a change in grammatical  function.

Many people ask us, “When does something ‘incorrect’ become ‘correct,’ or at least grammatically acceptable?”

This is the million-dollar question! Any linguist who could definitively answer this question would deserve a Nobel Prize (that is, if the Swedes decided to give one for linguistics).

If you wouldn’t mind reading another blog entry, here’s one we wrote not long ago to a reader who had a similar complaint: 

Even if you never read us again, thanks for letting us hear from you.

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Jock talk

Q: I have a question about the non-word “athleticism.” It’s enough to ruin a football broadcast even when the Hawkeyes win. An ism is a belief or philosophy, not a physical attribute. Is there another word that would be appropriate?

A: Believe it or not, “athleticism” is 140 years old and counting. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the practice of, or devotion to, athletic exercises; training as an athlete.”

The OED’s first published citation for the word is from the Daily News (London’s, not New York’s) in November 1870: “The controversy about athleticism at the Universities and the Public Schools.”

There’s also a citation from Macmillan’s Magazine in 1881: “Athleticism … ought to be a valuable ally in promoting habits of temperance and sobriety.”

Etymologically, the OED says, it’s a combination of the adjective “athletic” – which comes to us by way of Latin (athleticus) and ultimately from Greek (athletikos) – and the suffix “ism.” 

But not every ism is a belief or philosophy. As the OED explains, a word ending in “ism” can also be “a simple noun of action … naming the process, or the completed action, or its result.”

Examples include “baptism,” “criticism,” “embolism,” “magnetism,” “plagiarism,” and so on.

The OED adds that the suffix can also be used for “words in which -ism expresses the action or conduct of a class of persons,” as in “heroism,” “despotism,” “barbarism,” and others.

Yet another function of “ism” is to form “a term denoting a peculiarity or characteristic.” Examples include “classicism,” “colloquialism,” “modernism,” “sophism,” and “witticism.”

Terms like these are formed from adjectives, and illustrate the characteristic of being classic, or colloquial, or modern, or witty, or whatever. So “athleticism” would probably fall into this category.

 The OED entry for “athleticism” doesn’t include the more recent sense of the word, which Webster’s New World Dictionary (4th ed.) defines as “physical prowess consisting variously of coordination, dexterity, vigor, stamina, etc.”

However, several OED entries for other words include published references from as early as 1939 that use “athleticism” in its contemporary sense, more or less.

The first couple of examples use the word in the phrase “sexual athleticism,” which the OED defines as “vigorous or skilful sexual performance, or the capacity for this.”

The British musician and writer Julian Jay Savarin used the term in his 1986 thriller Naja to refer to a disc jockey who “body-popped with unbelievable athleticism.”

The most recent citation (from the Feb. 10, 2002, issue of the New York Times Book Review) uses the term in a review of a book about the African-American missionary William Henry Sheppard:

“Sheppard brought to the table not only an agile intelligence – he was the rare missionary who learned several African languages – but athleticism and physical courage (he enjoyed nothing more than a day spent bagging hippopotamuses, often thereby becoming a hero to entire hungry villages).”

Now, that is indeed an example of bringing intelligence, athleticism, and physical courage to the table!

You may also be interested in a recent blog entry we wrote on a related word, “physicality,” though we suspect that you won’t like it any better than “athleticism.”

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Should we strike out “stricken”?

Q: Please tell me that someday soon the word “absolutely” will be stricken from the language. Oops! Did I commit an egregious error by using “stricken” in lieu of “struck”? If your answer is in the affirmative, please do not respond by saying “absolutely.” I can’t stand hearing it anymore.

A: You’re not the first reader of the blog to complain to us about this. In fact, we wrote an item a few years ago about the annoying overuse of “absolutely” in place of a simple “yes.”

But let’s turn to “stricken.” The past tense of “strike” is “struck,” and that’s usually  the correct past  participle as well.

But, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, the alternative participle “stricken” is used when “strike” has the sense of “to afflict suddenly.”

The usage guide adds that “stricken” is also commonly used (as you used it) in the sense of “to cancel or delete.”

So in the sentence you wrote, either “stricken” or “struck” is absolutely fine!

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Is “proven” innocent or guilty?

Q: What do you think about “proven” as a past participle? A lot of people insist that it’s an adjective and “proved” is the participle. However, the participial use of “proven” was certainly accepted in the past (“innocent until proven guilty”).

A: Both “proved” and “proven” are standard English, whether as an adjective or as the past participle of “prove.” The choice is a matter of preference rather than right or wrong.

In American English, “proven” is clearly more common as the adjective before a noun: “This is a proven remedy” … “She’s considered a proven talent.”

As for the past participle, until relatively recently “proved” was more common: “It has been proved” … “She had proved unworthy” … “I have proved that my theory works.”

But “proven” has made rapid gains as a past participle and is now about even with “proved” as the American preference.

As you point out, “proven” has a long history as a past participle in certain legal language: “A person is innocent until proven guilty” … “The verdict was not proven.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “proven” began life as the past participle of preven, the usual Middle English spelling of the word we now spell as “prove.”

Proven survived in and descends to us from Scottish English,” the usage guide adds. “It apparently first established itself in legal use and has been slowly working its way into literary and general use.”

As for the choice between “proved” or “proven,” Merriam-Webster’s says: “Both forms are standard now.”

The Oxford English Dictionary also notes that the use of “proven” as both a participle and as an adjective originated in Scottish English.

And in Scots Law (the legal system in Scotland), the OED says, “the verdict ‘Not proven’ is admitted, besides ‘Guilty’ and ‘Not guilty,’ in criminal trials.”

A usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says: “Surveys made some 50 or 60 years ago indicated that proved was about four times as frequent as proven. But our evidence from the last 30 or 35 years shows this no longer to be the case.”

“As a past participle proven is now about as frequent as proved in all contexts,” the usage note adds. “As an attributive adjective (‘proved or proven gas reserves’) proven is much more common than proved.”

Case closed!

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Why Alice has got to grow up again

Q: On your Grammar Myths page, you defend the use of “gotten” and discuss the distinction between “have got” and “have gotten.” Yes, there is a distinction, but there’s a larger issue too. In the spirit of omitting extraneous verbiage, why not simply use “have” instead of “have got”?

A: On the surface, this sounds like a good idea, as if the “got” in “have got” is merely redundant. But the answer is more complicated.

“Get” is an extremely versatile verb and much misunderstood, with many idiomatic usages.

Often, critics of “have got” misunderstand the nature of the verb. The problem is that they confuse “get” and “have,” which are two separate and distinct verbs.

As you know, several forms of the verb “get” legitimately use forms of “have” as an auxiliary. We underline that because people sometimes assume “have got” is always incorrect and should be replaced by “have.” Not so. 

Here, for example, are two sentences indicating that Henry owns a car:

(1) “Henry has got a car.”

(2) “Henry has a car.”

In the first, the verb is “get,” used in the present perfect tense.

In the second, the verb is “have,” used in the present tense.

Both are perfectly correct English, and you may choose either “get” or “have” as your verb. You may prefer one to the other for reasons of style, euphony, or economy of expression. But both are unassailably correct.

We mentioned above that “get” has many idiomatic usages. One that sometimes puzzles people is the construction “have got to” in the sense of “must.” For example, “You have got to read this.”

Some people consider this incorrect English. Again, not so!

The perfect-tense “have got” plus “to” plus a verb in the infinitive (as in “I have got to go”) is often used in place of present-tense “must.” So “You have got to read this” is equivalent to “You must read this” or “You have to read this” (another idiomatic usage).

By “idiomatic” we don’t mean to suggest that “have got to” isn’t absolutely kosher.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out early literary examples of this usage in the works of Disraeli, Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw.

So there’s no reason to avoid using “have got to” in the sense of “must” or “have to.” As M-W says, “Have got to, have to, and the frequently recommended must can all be used in the present tense, but only had to can be used in the past.” 

The Oxford English Dictionary has quite a few citations for the “have got to” usage, including these from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865):

“The first thing I’ve got to do is to grow to my right size again.” And later, “I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve got to grow up again.”

The OED says that “to have got to” is the equivalent of “to have to” or “to be obliged to.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 113) says, “The idiom have got derives historically from a perfect construction,” an origin that’s “reflected in the fact that the have component of it is an auxiliary.”

Cambridge also notes that there is sometimes a difference between “I’ve got to mow the lawn” and “I have to mow the lawn.”

The first sentence expresses the sense of a “single obligation,” Cambridge says, while the second expresses a “single or habitual obligation.”

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How many hornets in a hornet’s nest?

Q: I am curious to hear your opinion on why the word “hornet” in the title of Stieg Larsson’s third novel is singular in the US and plural in the UK.

A: First, a true story (unfortunately).

Earlier in the summer, Pat decided to prune an overgrown lilac near our house. Suddenly she was attacked by a hornet (just one, oddly), which, despite some frantic flailing and arm-waving on her part, succeeded in stinging Pat on the chin.

Yikes! It was extremely painful.

In clearing away the brush later, Pat discovered a nest – this hornet’s nest – in one of the pruned-away branches. Presumably there were other hornets that called this nest their home, but she had dealings with only one.

We were reminded of all this when your question landed in our mailbox (and we’re sorry it’s taken us so long to answer it).

In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (its US title), the heroine, Lisbeth Salander, grapples with one principal enemy – the archfiend Zalachenko.

There are peripheral bad guys as well, but he’s the biggie, and arguably the “hornet” of the title.

For this reason, we think the US title makes more sense than the British one. It’s Zalachenko’s “nest” that Salander is metaphorically kicking.

The title is appropriate for other reasons, too.

Many US publishers use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) as their house dictionary. And M-W renders the well-known expression as “hornet’s nest.”

So do at least two more American references: Random House Webster’s College Dictionary and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

We did, however, find “hornets’ nest” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Score: three to one for the singular.

But, like Stieg Larsson’s British publisher, the two UK dictionaries we checked seem to favor the plural version. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English has “hornets’ nest,” and so does the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the citations given in the OED for the actual use of the phrase are mixed – some singular, some plural.

In fact, the first published example of the expression uses the singular version. It’s from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1739-40): “I rais’d a Hornet’s Nest about my Ears, that … may have stung to Death my Reputation.”

Of the seven citations for the use of the phrase that are given in the OED, five have “hornet’s nest” and only two have “hornets’ nest.”

Obviously, both forms of the expression (which means a dangerous, violent situation, or an explosive reaction) are legitimate.

Nests have multiple hornets, not just one. And if you’re stirring up a nest full of them, you’re stirring up a “hornets’ nest.”

But if one villainous hornet is what you’re stalking, and it’s his nest you’re kicking, then it seems appropriate to call it “a hornet’s nest.” 

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Hyphen anxiety

Q: I’m puzzled about when words are hyphenated and when they aren’t. What’s the rule? Help!

A: The use of hyphens is a long and complicated subject, and Pat devotes a considerable section to it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

There’s no single rule that covers all situations. But there is one rule (involving compound modifiers before a noun) that’s pretty straightforward. 

In general, two-word descriptions are hyphenated before a noun (“powder-blue dress,” “red-haired cousin,” “well-done hamburger”). But if the description comes after the noun, no hyphen is used (“a dress of powder blue,” “a cousin who’s red haired,” “a hamburger well done”).

However, there are many exceptions!

Compound modifiers in which one of the words is “very,” “most,” “least,” or “less” (as in “most pleasing tune”) don’t have hyphens. And if one of the words ends in “ly,” there’s generally no hyphen (as in “incredibly difficult task”). 

Some prefixes always take hyphens (as in “self-effacing,” “ex-husband,” “quasi-official”).

Others sometimes do and sometimes don’t (“pre,” “re,” “ultra,” “anti”). Hyphens appear in fractions (“two-thirds”) but not in whole numbers (“two hundred”).

Some compounds simply have to be memorized – or, better yet, looked up in the dictionary. For instance, hyphens appear in some family terms (like “brother-in-law”) but not in others (“half sister”). 

In fact, “half” is all over the map as part of a compound: sometimes hyphenated (“half-moon,” “half-life”), sometimes separate (“half note,” “half shell”), and sometimes solid (“halfhearted,” “halftime”).

When you look words up, make sure you have a recent dictionary. Hyphenation may change from edition to edition.

Often nouns begin life as two separate words (like “home school” and “try out”), then become hyphenated words (“home-school,” “try-out”), and finally lose their hyphens as they become more common (“homeschool,” “tryout”).

We’ve written before on the blog about “homeschool,” “tryout,” and “cross” (a term that can be bewildering in compounds).

Both “half” and “cross” are great arguments for buying a dictionary, in case you don’t already have one.

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Number crunching: when un oeuf is un oeuf

Q: Pat was asked on WNYC about inconsistencies between English and French in pluralizing numbers. Well, French itself is inconsistent. For example, 200 is deux cents, but 2,500,000 is deux millions cinq cent mille.

A: You’re right. French numbers DO seem inconsistent to us, just as English numbers must seem inconsistent to the French.

We consider “three hundred” as simply a number (like “nine” or “seventy-eight”). But the French treat their word cent (hundred) more like a noun than a number.

Just as we would pluralize the word “bushel” in “three bushels,” the French pluralize cent as cents when it appears in multiples: trois cents (literally, “three hundreds”).

Similarly, the French pluralize the words million and milliard (“billion”) in multiples, as if they were nouns.

So when un million and un milliard are multiplied by three, they become trois millions and trois milliards (literally, “three millions” and “three billions”).

But their word mille (thousand) stays singular no matter what: trois mille (“three thousand”).

And here’s one more exception. When cent is followed by another number, the plural “s” is dropped: trois cent dix (“three hundred ten”).

But multiples of million and milliard keep the plural “s” even if another number follows: trois millions deux cent mille (literally, “three millions two hundred thousand”).

There are several other differences between the French and the English systems.

The French, for instance, don’t use et (“and”) between the hundreds and the tens, as English speakers often do (“three hundred and ten”). We’ve written a blog item about this English practice.

Also, large numbers in French have another noun-like quality. Big numbers are followed by de (“of”) when they come before a noun.

So to say “Ten million people own four million dogs,” the French would say, Dix millions de personnes ont quatre millions de chiens.  

There are many other differences –  hyphenation and punctuation, for example, and the way twenties (vingts) are treated as units.  But un oeuf is un oeuf.

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A black perfect little dress?

Q: Why do we say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress”?

A: Guess what, there’s a general formula for the order of adjectives in English. (Isn’t there a general formula for everything?)

This is why we say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress.”

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains, size usually comes before color: “A large black sofa represents the preferred order while a black large sofa is very unnatural” (page 452).

Well, that explains “little black dress.” But why does “perfect” come before “little” and “black”? Read on.

Cambridge distinguishes between two kinds of “pre-head modifiers” (for our purposes, these are adjectives preceding a noun): the “early” ones and the “residual” ones.

As a rule, the “early” ones come first, and they account for things like quantity (as in “two,” or “enough,” or “another”); superlatives (“largest”); order (“second”); and rank or importance (“key”). 

After these come the following kinds of adjectives, which Cambridge lists in this order:

(1) Evaluative (these express a speaker’s subjective opinion), as in “good,” “bad” “attractive,” “tasty,” “valuable,” “perfect.”

(2) General property (these represent a quality that can be observed objectively, like size, taste, and smell, as well as human characteristics). Examples include “big,” “fat,” “thin,” “sweet,” “ear-splitting,” “long,” “jealous,” “pompous,” “wise.”

(3) Age, as in “old,” “new,” “young,” “modern,” “ancient,” “up-to-date.”

(4) Color, as in “black, “green,” “crimson,” “powder-blue.”

(5) Provenance, as in “French,” “Chinese,” “Venezuelan.”

(6) Manufacture (these describe what something is made of, or how or by whom it’s made). Examples include “woolen,” “wooden,” “cotton,” “iron,” “carved,” “enameled,” “Sainsbury’s.”  

(7) Type, as in “men’s,” “women’s,” “children’s,” and words (often nouns) like those underlined in these phrases: “sports car,” “photograph album,” “dessert spoon,” “passenger aircraft,” “laptop computer,” “winter overcoat,” “digestive biscuit,” “summer’s day.”

Cambridge gives the following as an example using all seven kinds of adjectives: “an attractive tight-fitting brand-new pink Italian lycra women’s swimsuit.”

This explanation isn’t rigid, but it shows how adjectives generally fall into line.

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The diaspora of English

Q: I’m working on a paper in which an indigenous film-making group is described as being part of an electronically mediated diaspora. I need an adjective for “diaspora.” Is it “diasporic,” “diasporal,” or something else? I prefer “diasporic” strictly because of how it rolls off my tongue.

A: The noun “diaspora” literally means “dispersion,” and was formed “in allusion to the scattering of the Jews after the Babylonian captivity” in the sixth century BC, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Today, the word is often used to refer to the Jewish communities living outside the Holy Land, as well as by extension to other groups of people dispersed from their original homeland.

The term is also used loosely, as you propose, to refer to the dispersion of something that was originally more or less homogeneous.

The linguist Randolph Quirk, for example, uses it in discussing whether English will suffer the same fate as Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire.

“Small wonder,” he writes in English in the World, “that there should have been in recent years fresh talk of the diaspora of English into several mutually incomprehensible languages.”

The noun “diaspora,” which entered English in 1876, was a borrowing from the Greek diaspora, which comes from the verb diaspeirein (to scatter or disperse), which in turn comes from the verb speirein (to sow).

The English words “spore” and ”sporadic” have the same Greek origin.

Neither Chambers nor the Oxford English Dictionary lists an adjective form.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives “diasporic,” and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives both “diasporic” and “diasporal.”

So feel free to use “diasporic” if you like the sound of it.

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A phobia you won’t find in the PDR

Q: I was reading Bob Cesca on the Huffington Post the other day when he referred to “the increasingly regional, homogenized, sophophobic GOP.” I checked the Oxford English Dictionary and didn’t find the word “sophophobic,” though I’m sure the meaning is obvious to you. Can you enlighten me?

A: “Sophophobia” is a fear of learning or knowledge, so someone with this phobia is “sophophobic” or a “sophophobe.”

You won’t find any of these words in the OED. Or in the Physicians Desk Reference, either. They’re inventions, based on the Greek roots sophos (wise or clever) and phobos (fear).

We can’t tell you when or where they first cropped up, but one of them is at least a couple of decades old.

“Sophophobia” (defined as “intense fear of knowledge or of learning”) appears in a glossary in Robertson’s Words for a Modern Age: A Cross Reference of Latin and Greek Combining Elements (1991).

John G. Robertson, who compiled and edited the work, also includes the word in a later book of lists, An Excess of Phobias and Manias (2003).

Of all these phobias (not to mention manias), we especially like “sophophobia” because of the quirky letter combination “phopho” in the middle! 

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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. Today, she’ll be judging  the baddest of the bad – poorly written signs submitted by listeners.

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Stiff upper English

Q: I grew up in Oklahoma and live in Connecticut, but British English often seems more correct to me. For instance, the Times of London uses spellings like “catalogue” and “largesse” (my preferences) while the New York Times uses “catalog” and “largess” (ditto). The London paper also uses “none of them is” and “any of them is” (my choices) while the NYT uses “none of them are” and “any of them are” (ditto).

A: The different spellings and usages you mention aren’t necessarily characteristic of British vs. American practices.

In fact, the divisions aren’t as black and white as many people think. In some cases, for instance, two spellings are used, both in the US and in the UK.

First of all, let’s set the record straight about “none” and “any.”

It’s not true that they are invariably singular. In both the US and the UK, these can be either singular or plural.

When we mean “any of it” or “none of it” (that is, any or no amount of one thing), the accompanying verb is singular. But when we speak of “any of them” or “none of them” (that is, any people or no people), the verb is plural.

For what it’s worth, we searched the archives at both newspapers for “any of them” and “none of them.” Guess what? We found lots of singular and plural examples – at both papers. No comment.

We’ve written before on the blog about “none.” Though many people are misled by the word’s etymology, it’s not true that “none” invariably means “not one.” Unfortunately, this bit of 19th-century folklore is deeply entrenched.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees. It says that “none,” in the sense of “not any (one) of a number of people or things” or “no people,” is used “commonly with plural concord.” Examples are given from late Old English up to the present.

Now let’s examine the other words you mention. We’ll begin with “catalog” vs. “catalogue.” 

The word was first adopted into English in the 1400s, when it was spelled “cataloge” or “cathaloge.”

It’s derived from the French catalogue and the late Latin catalogus (which come ultimately from the Greek katalogos). The “gue” ending was introduced in the 1500s, possibly to emphasize the resemblance to French.

In American English, both spellings are used; “catalog” is generally preferred, with “catalogue” listed in dictionaries as an equal variant. In British English, both spellings are also used, but the preferences are reversed.

We consulted Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (published in Britain).

The American preference for “catalog” was underscored early in the 20th century, when the American Library Association endorsed the simpler spelling.

The popularity of the spellings “catalog,” “dialog,” “analog,” and others is evidence of the gradual decline of the “gue” ending.

The New York Times still uses “dialogue,” but prefers the simpler spelling for “catalog.” It uses “analog” for the adjective that means the opposite of digital, but it uses “analogue” for the noun meaning a counterpart or equivalent. (See what we mean about black and white?)

Now, let’s look at “largess” vs. “largesse.” This noun, which means something like “generosity,” was adopted into English from the French largesse in the 1200s, when it was spelled a variety of ways.

The anglicized spelling “largess” was firmly established in the 1500s and for centuries was preferred in both American and British English. That’s still somewhat true in American English, though many Americans as well as Britons have reverted to the French spelling.

As things stand today, according to American Heritage, “largess” is preferred in American English, with “largesse” as a less common variant. Most usage guides agree. But  Merriam-Webster’s gives “largesse” as the more common spelling and “largess” second.

As for the British, Longman gives both spellings equal weight, though “largesse” is listed first. The OED calls its entry for the word “largess, largesse.” (Again, there are more grays than blacks and whites!)

In summary, the variations you speak of are not necessarily examples of American vs. British usage. Or at least, the demarcations are not as cleanly cut as is often supposed. And sometimes different practices are examples of greater or lesser degrees of formality.

We generally prefer the shorter spellings, but feel free to use the longer ones if you like. Be consistent, though. Never mind what Emerson had to say.

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My bad!

Q: A Washington Post sports blogger has discussed speculation that Manute Bol, the NBA player who died last month, may have coined the phrase “My bad.” Is there any chance this isn’t a tall story?

A: No, the 7-foot-6 Manute Bol, the tallest person to play in the NBA, did not coin the phrase “My bad.”

Language sleuths say  the phrase (roughly translated as “My fault” or “I blew it” or even “Whoops!”) was tossed around on playgrounds and basketball courts before the Sudanese player was quoted as using it. 

Ben Zimmer, the New York Times Magazine’s new “On Language” columnist, has written about this elsewhere – in his Word Routes column on Visual Thesaurus.

So far, word detectives have found examples of “My bad” in print going back to 1985. (Bol was not quoted using it until 1989.) Anecdotal reports, which are not  authoritative, have the phrase showing up as early as the 1970s.

“All of this makes it unlikely,” Zimmer concludes, “that Bol was the first to come up with ‘my bad’ when he began playing in the NBA in the late ’80s, or even in his earlier collegiate days.”

Nonetheless, Zimmer adds, Bol’s “natural ebullience must have done much to popularize the expression among his fellow ballplayers, despite the language gap. The big man’s outsized personality made ‘my bad’ his own.”

We should add that Dan Sternberg, the Washington Post blogger, expressed doubts in his original posting that Bol actually coined the phrase.

And Sternberg later posted an update on his D.C. Sports Bog (yes, “Bog” is correct), citing Zimmer’s  good work on “My bad.”

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Lie detection

Q: I was just wondering: Is a lie “bold-faced” or “bald-faced”?

A: They’re both correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), but they may have slightly different meanings.

The expression “bold-faced lie” (given as an example in the dictionary’s entry for “bold-faced”) suggests a brazen lie while “bald-faced lie” (an example in the “bald-faced” entry) suggests an undisguised one.

However, the definitions for “bold-faced” and “bald-faced” in American Heritage indicate that the two phrases overlap somewhat. The “bald-faced” entry, for example, is defined as brash as well as undisguised.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) makes a bit more of a distinction between the two phrases.

M-W defines “bold-faced” as impudent, and “bald-faced” as barefaced. (The term “barefaced” is this context is defined as unscrupulous.) And Merriam-Webster’s only example involving lying is in its “bald-faced” entry.

In spite of these dictionary distinctions, a bit of googling suggests that lots of people use “bold-faced lie” and “bald-faced lie” interchangeably to refer to either a brazen or an undisguised lie.

Of the two, “bold-faced lie” is by far the more popular, with nearly 1.6 million hits on Google compared with only 39,000 for “bald-faced lie.”

A version of the expression especially popular in Britain, “barefaced lie,” gets 452,000 hits, with another 413,000 for two-word or hyphenated versions.

The terms “bold-faced” and “barefaced” (minus the word “lie”) date back to Shakespeare, according to citations in the OED.

“Bold-faced,” in the sense of impudent, first appeared in Henry VI, Part 1 (1591): “It warm’d thy father’s heart with prowd desire / Of bold-fac’t Victorie.”  

“Barefaced,” meaning undisguised, first showed up in Macbeth (1605): “And though I could / With bare-fac’d power sweepe him from my sight.”

Although many people seem to believe that “barefaced lie” is the source of both the “bald” and “bold” versions, it appears that “bold-faced lie” is by far the oldest, dating back to at least the early 1600s.

In a search of the Early English Books Online database, we found this example from a 1607 anti-Papist poem by Robert Picket: “Who so beleeues this Popish bold facest lie, / That’s grounded on, suppos’d admired Grasse, / May fatly feed, his follies foolerie: / Yet liue indeed, a very leane fed Asse.”

We couldn’t find any examples of “barefaced lie” until the late 18th century. One of the earliest (found in the Early American Imprints database) is from a 1798 religious tract by John Fowler.

In the work, Fowler questions whether “watchmen would report a barefaced lie that would have criminated themselves” about the disappearance of Jesus’ body.

The real newbie here, “bald-faced lie,” apparently didn’t show up until the mid-19th century.

The earliest citation we found comes from a headline in an Iowa newspaper, the Sept. 12, 1860, issue of the Weekly Council Bluffs Bugle: “Another ‘Bald-Faced’ Lie Nailed to the Counter.”  

To recap, it’s OK to use either “bold-faced lie,” “bald-faced lie,” or “barefaced lie.” But “bold-faced lie” is the most popular, and a lot of people would scratch their heads over “bald-faced lie.”

If you want to be understood – and that’s the primary goal of good English – then it would be safer to go with “bold-faced lie” or “barefaced lie.”

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Suffice it to say

Q: Which is the correct usage, “suffice to say” or “suffice it to say”?

A: You’re the second person in a week to ask us about this usage. In modern English, the common expression is “suffice it to say,” though “it suffices to say” and “suffice to say” have their adherents.

Why the “it”? Let’s begin with the etymology of the verb “suffice.”

It’s defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “to be enough, sufficient, or adequate for a purpose or the end in view.”

The word comes from the Latin verb sufficere (to be sufficient or adequate) and was first recorded in English in about 1325.

Here’s how Sir Thomas More used it in 1528 in one of his dialogues: “Yet yf he lacked charite, all hys fayth suffised not.”

And here it is in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1596): “ ’twixt such friends as wee, / Few words suffice.” 

Almost from the beginning, however, people also used this kind of construction: subject + “suffice” + “to” + infinitive. Here are a pair of 19th-century examples:

1839, from Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation: “A very short time would suffice to teach him to read.”

1883, from the Manchester Guardian: “A little thing has sufficed to destroy the balance of a structure that was already tottering.”

A similar construction would be “it suffices to say,” but as the OED points out, the subjunctive version of the expression (“suffice it to say”) is the one now commonly used.

The dictionary quotes the poet John Dryden as writing “It suffices to say” in 1692,  but the later examples, from the 18th and 19th centuries, are in the subjunctive mood: “suffice it to say.”

The OED indicates that “formerly,” the expression sometimes appeared without the “anticipatory subject it.” In other words, “suffice to say” was once used, but no more.

The dictionary seems to be a bit behind the times here. Although “suffice it to say” and “it suffices to say” are far more common today, the “it”-less version is very much with us.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “suffice it to say,” 24 million hits; “it suffices to say,” 1.2 million hits; “suffice to say,” 349,000 hits.

In modern times, according to the OED, the “it” version of the expression is “chiefly in the subjunctive.”

Why the subjunctive?

Well, it’s not unusual for a rather archaic-sounding subjunctive (like “suffice it …”) to survive in a common expression rather than the straightforward indicative version (“it suffices …”). 

For example, we use the subjunctive in such common sayings as “God be with you,” “far be it from me,” “heaven help us,” “God forbid,” “Long live the Queen,” “the powers that be,” “so be it,” and “come what may.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written a blog item about the survival of older vestiges of the subjunctive in constructions like those.

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What’s “de” story?

Q: I recently read a book review in the New York Times that refers to Simone de Beauvoir as “Beauvoir.” However, the Times invariably refers to Charles de Gaulle as “de Gaulle.” Similarly, Ludwig van Beethoven is called “Beethoven,” but the von Trapp singers keep the “von.” Is there any consistency in this? And how are these names alphabetized? The author of the book review is Francine du Plessix Gray. Is she alphabetized under D, P, or G?

A: The “de” in Simone de Beauvoir’s name, like the “van” in Ludwig van Beethoven’s and the “von” in Werner von Braun’s, is called a particle or, more specifically, a nobiliary particle (it originated as a mark of noble rank).

In English, particles are sometimes used with a last name standing alone (as in “de Beauvoir”) and sometimes not (“Beauvoir”); in her case, you’ll find it both ways, but the usual American practice is to refer to her as “Beauvoir.”

Some famous last names never appear with their particles, but others regularly do.

For example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is simply referred to as “Goethe,” Honoré de Balzac as “Balzac,” Miguel de Cervantes as “Cervantes.” And of course Beethoven as “Beethoven.” On the other hand, there are “Von Braun,” “Van Gogh,” “De Quincey,” “de Klerk,” and “de Gaulle.”

We won’t get into the complexities of particles in their countries of origin, where usage is governed by a host of byzantine rules and traditions. 

Even in English-speaking countries, the use or non-use of the particle as well as its capitalization and alphabetization aren’t always easy to figure out. 

The painter Willem de Kooning, for instance, is generally known as “de Kooning” when his last name appears alone, but he’s indexed with the K’s.

Charles de Gaulle, always known as “de Gaulle,” and Daphne du Maurier, whose last name is written as “Du Maurier” when it appears alone, are indexed with the D’s.

See what we mean?

Here’s the advice given in The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.): “In alphabetizing family names containing particles, the indexer must consider the individual’s personal preference (if known) as well as traditional and national usages.”

If that’s not much help to you, the manual adds that you can look up the name in Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary or in the biographical section of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

Unfortunately, the Biographical Dictionary is no longer in print, but Mark Stevens, the director of general reference at Merriam-Webster’s, was kind enough to send along the following helpful advice:

“In the names of Frenchmen and -women, de and d’ are almost always lowercased; treatment of du varies. La and Le are almost always capitalized. In alphabetized lists, names are alphabetized under their first capitalized element. When someone is referred to by his or her surname alone, the particle is usually included only if it’s capitalized; thus, we would normally say ‘Sartre and Beauvoir’ but ‘Molière and La Rochefoucauld.’

“Elsewhere in Europe, particles such as von, vandadi, and the Spanish/Portuguese de are just about always lowercased when they show up in surnames, and usually omitted when the surname is used by itself. Dutch particles such as van and ter are usually lowercased, but when the surname is used by itself, the particle is capitalized and included (‘in Van Gogh’s paintings’).

“Surnames of people born in Britain or the U.S., regardless of the names’ original sources, just about always begin with a capital letter even if they look foreign (Mark Van Doren, Bernard De Voto). When you come across the surname of a native-born American or Briton that starts with a lowercase letter, such as Agnes de Mille, Walter de la Mare, or John le Carré, you’ll often be right in thinking that these aren’t quite the names they were born with. But American writers and editors naturally try to observe the style preferred by the individuals themselves.”

Thank you, Mark. We might add that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage follows roughly these same guidelines, which is why the newspaper uses “Beauvoir” for the French intellectual.

“But follow individual preferences,” the Times style guide adds.

As for Francine du Plessix Gray, the daughter of a French vicomte, she emigrated as a child to the US and later married the painter Cleve Gray. Her surname is given as “Gray” and she’s alphabetized under G.

What difference does a tiny particle make? At one time, it meant a great deal.

We came across this quotation in Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s book French and English: A Comparison (1889):

“After careful observation I have arrived at the conclusion that the French de  before a name, whether rightly or fraudulently borne (for that makes little perceptible difference), is equivalent to about ten thousand pounds in the [London] marriage market and will often count for more. It is wonderful that it should be so, considering that all French people know how frequently the de is assumed; but it seems to be valued as a mark that the bearer belongs to the gentry, which, in fact, he generally does. The genuine nobility who have become too poor to keep a place in genteel society, and have to work for their living, seldom retain the particule, or retain it only for a short time. If they did not drop it themselves the world would drop it for them.”

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How hilarious is very hilarious?

Q: Pat used the expression “very hilarious” recently on Iowa Public Radio. I am wondering if words like “excellent,” “hilarious,” “superb,” etc., shouldn’t stand alone. Isn’t “very” superfluous?

A: Some usage authorities object to qualifying words they consider “absolutes” (like “complete,” “perfect,” “unique,” “infinite,” and so on). However, the words you mention aren’t considered absolute terms.

You’re right, though, that words like “excellent,” “superb,” and “hilarious” are intense enough by themselves, and generally shouldn’t need to be qualified.

As soon as Pat used the phrase “very hilarious” during her June 14 appearance on Talk of Iowa, she regretted it. She wouldn’t have used this expression in writing, but such are the perils of live radio!

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog entry a while back about the use of absolute terms.

In a broad sense, we agree with the usage writers who object to qualifying these terms. But we think it’s legitimate to use qualifiers with absolute terms in some cases — for instance, to show that something is approaching an absolute condition.

We think that’s what the Founders had in mind when they wrote in the Preamble of the Constitution about forming “a more perfect Union.”

If you’d like another opinion, here’s what The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has to say in a usage note about absolutes:

“By strict logic, absolute terms cannot be compared, as by more and most, or used with an intensive modifier, such as very or so. Something either is complete or it isn’t – it cannot be more complete than something else.”

But criticizing such a usage as illogical, American Heritage adds, “confuses pure logic or a mathematical ideal with the rough approximations that are frequently needed in ordinary language.”

“Certainly in some contexts we should use words strictly logically; otherwise teaching mathematics would be impossible,” the dictionary says.

But it notes that people “often think in terms of a scale or continuum rather than in clearly marked either/or categories.”

“Thus,” American Heritage concludes, “we may think of a statement as either logically true or false, but we also know that there are degrees of truthfulness and falsehood.”

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A choice usage

Q: The mayor of Seattle recently chose between two candidates for police chief. Would it be  correct to say he had two choices? Or did he have a single choice between two alternatives? I think the former would be wrong, but I cannot get anyone to support me.

A: The  noun “choice” doesn’t always mean “that which is chosen.” It has other definitions as well.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists “option” and “alternative” among the accepted definitions.

So it would not be incorrect to say the mayor had two choices to pick from. And this is not a particularly new usage either.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this use of the word back to 1794. Here’s a typical citation, from Edward A. Freeman’s The History of the Norman Conquest (1871):

“In dealing with William the Conqueror there were only two choices, unconditional submission and resistance to the last.”

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Can one ship make a flotilla?

Q: The word “flotilla” has been in the news a lot lately since the Israeli raid last May on ships carrying aid to Gaza. I find this use of the term odd, since the story is primarily about an Israeli raid on one ship. Is “flotilla” being used correctly?

A: You’re  right that one ship does not a flotilla make. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “flotilla” as “a small fleet; a fleet of boats or small vessels.”

But most of the news stories we’ve read use the term correctly, saying Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of six ships, and killed nine people on one of the ships.

As for the word in question, it was adopted from the Spanish word flotilla, a diminutive of flota, or “fleet.” In fact, “flota” was adopted into English too, though we don’t see it much these days.

In English, the OED says, “flota” was used not only generically for a fleet of ships but also as a term for “the Spanish fleet which used to cross the Atlantic and bring back to Spain the products of America and the West Indies.”

The OED’s first English citation for “flotilla” is dated 1711, and the first for “flota” is from 1690.

If you suspect the English verb “float” is lurking in here somewhere, you’re right. But we didn’t get it from Spanish; like “fleet,” it came from old Germanic sources.

Interestingly, the English word “fleet,” meaning a group of ships, was fleot in Old English and originally meant a single ship or floating vessel.

It came from the Old English verb fleotan (to float), which is ultimately traceable to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as pleud (to flow).

By the 1200s, according to the OED, “fleet” had come to mean a group of ships or a naval force.

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The salt of life

Q: In reading one of the stories in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, I was stumped by this sentence: “And I am not fooling when I say that for several days the salt had gone out of life.” Can you help me?

A: In the World War II story you were reading, the narrator is describing the reaction of servicemen at the base laundry after their pet dog was run over by a truck.

Michener, who based the story collection on his experiences as a naval officer in the South Pacific, was using a poetical way of saying the flavor (or spice) had gone out of life.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several figurative uses of the word “salt,” including “that which gives liveliness, freshness, or piquancy to a person’s character, life, etc.”

The OED cites published usages of the word in this sense dating back to 1579, when Laurence Tomson used it in translating some French sermons of Calvin: “They are such that have neither salt nor sause in them.” 

Shakespeare came up with one of the best-known phrases using “salt” in this sense. He wrote in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598): “We have some salt of our youth in us.”

This passage was echoed by Trollope in his novel The Belton Estate (1865): “He was a man not yet forty years of age, with still much of the salt of youth about him.”

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The holistic truth

Q: I’m having an argument with spell-check over “holistic.” I’d like to spell it with a “w,” as in “whole,” but my computer is unhappy and wants to spell it like “holy.” Seriously, why do we spell “whole” with a “w,” but “holistic” without one?

A: The adjective “holistic,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is relatively new, a creation of the 1920s, but its “w”-less spelling has older origins.

The adjective was formed from the noun “holism,” a combination of the Greek holos (“whole”) plus the English suffix “ism.”

The Greek root holos probably accounts for the absence of the “w” in “holism” and “holistic.” Although the word “whole” (spelled various ways) dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, the “wh” spelling didn’t appear in English until the 15th century.

The noun “holism,” the OED says, was coined by Jan Christiaan Smuts, a South African general, politician, and philosopher, “to designate the tendency in nature to produce wholes (i.e. bodies or organisms) from the ordered grouping of unit structures.”

Here’s a quotation, using both the noun and the adjective, from Smuts’s book Holism and Evolution (1926): “The whole-making, holistic tendency, or Holism, operating in and through particular wholes, is seen at all stages of existence.”

And here’s a slightly later quotation, from The British Weekly (1927): “The real entities of the material world must, like organisms, be creative, self-transcending, functional. They must be Holistic unities.”

But perhaps this 1959 use of the noun from the Times of London better reflects modern usage:

“Holism has at last penetrated departments of nutrition, and a new school of nutrition has arisen which realizes that the integration of nutrition, health and disease is a problem that must be attacked on a wide front.”

Is there a connection between “whole” and “holy”? Well, yes, if we go back far enough.

Both came into English from Old Teutonic sources, but they’re distantly related to one another (as well as to  “hale,” “health,” “heal,” and the Greek holos) through an ancient Indo-European ancestor reconstructed as kailo or qoilos, meaning whole, uninjured, or of good omen.

In discussing the origin of “holy,” the OED says “the primitive pre-Christian meaning is uncertain,” but “it is with some probability assumed to have been ‘inviolate, inviolable, that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be injured with impunity.’ ”

This sense was preserved in Old Norse, the OED adds, “hence the adj. would naturally be applied to the gods, and all things specially pertaining to them.”

Thus a word for wholeness made its way into English as meaning “held in religious regard or veneration, kept reverently sacred from human profanation or defilement.”

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Is “funnily enough” cringeworthy?

Q: I cringe when I hear “funnily enough,” as in “Funnily enough, I saw him yesterday” or some such blather. Yuck! Do I have a right to be (prepare for understatement) peeved? No matter what you say, I will continue to hate it.

A: We’re not fond of  this expression ourselves, and we certainly don’t recall ever using it. But we can’t say it’s grammatically incorrect.

The adverb “funnily” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “in a funny manner.”

The first recorded use is from a letter written by Harriet, Countess Granville, in 1814: “[He] says she … talks so funnily and sweetly.”

The British aristocracy must have liked the word. Here’s another example, from  Memorials of His Time, by Henry Thomas, Lord Cockburn (1856): “It was funnily done; which was not always the case, for it was often with bitter gravity.” 

Awkward as it sounds, ”funnily enough” is grammatically parallel to such adverbial phrases as “oddly enough,” “curiously enough,” “aptly enough,” “strangely enough,” and so on.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! But the fact that a usage is acceptable doesn’t mean you have to use it.

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Is he moaning or complaining?

Q: I’ve read that the British make a useful distinction between complaining and moaning. A Brit complains to a shopkeeper about the prices, but he later moans to his wife about them. My wife says I’m constantly complaining. If she were British, she’d say I’m constantly moaning. I rarely complain. My question is this: Should I complain to my wife about her English?

A: We’re going to take this as a serious question, though we aren’t convinced that people in the US and UK treat complaining and moaning very differently.

Here, for example, is an example from the BBC News: “British consumers have kept up their reputation as a nation of moaners, making more complaints than before in the past year.”

So should you complain to your wife about her use of “complain” instead of “moan”? No, you have no complaint.

Your wife isn’t out of line in saying you’re constantly complaining. Of course, she could also say you’re constantly moaning, because the words “moan” and “complain” often have similar meanings. 

The verb “complain” has been in English since the 1300s, borrowed from the French complaindre, which in turn came from the late Latin complangere.

The Latin word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is made up of the prefix com (an intensifier) plus the verb plangere (“to lament, bewail, orig. to strike, beat, beat the breast or head in sign of grief”).

One meaning of “complain” in English, the OED says, is “to give expression to sorrow; to make moan, lament.” Another is “to give expression to feelings of ill-usage, dissatisfaction, or discontent; to murmur, grumble.” And yet another is “to emit a mournful sound.”

If that doesn’t include moaning, we don’t know what does!

As for the verb “moan,” it has roots that go back to an obsolete word in early Old English, mean.

It showed up in its current form in the 1300s, when the word meant “to complain, lament.” The modern meaning, “make a mournful sound,” wasn’t recorded until the 1700s, long after “moan” first came into use. 

However, the original sense of “moan” lives on. A current meaning, which for some reason the OED labels as “colloquial” (better fit for speech than for written English), is “to grumble or complain, typically about something trivial.”

American dictionaries, however, regard this use of “moan” as standard English, whether or not the complaint is trivial.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) include “to complain, lament” among their definitions.

American Heritage gives these examples: “an old man who still moans about his misspent youth”; and “She moaned her misfortunes to anyone who would listen.” 

One more point. As far as we can tell, to complain is to complain is to complain – no matter who is the recipient of the complaint.

Most people would probably say that they “complain,” not “moan,” to a manufacturer or retailer about a product.

But the follow-up kvetching and griping to one’s spouse can reasonably be described as either “complaining” or “moaning.”

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Do you own this usage?

Q: In the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing business people say they “own” a project, by which they mean they accept responsibility for its tasks, as well as its success and failure. How do you feel about this new use of the word “own”?

A: We’re used to hearing people say things like “This is my project.” But “I own this project” sounds a bit in your face to us, as if possession has been taken a step too far.

Nevertheless, this seems to be a common usage in the corporate world, if Google hits are any  indication. And we have to admit that it isn’t out of line etymologically.

The verb “own,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has had many meanings over the centuries.

Of course there’s its original sense: “to have or hold as one’s own; to have belonging to one, be the proprietor of, possess.”

But there are also many figurative and extended meanings: to confess or admit to something (as in “own up to”); to lay claim to; to recognize as familiar; to acknowledge as belonging to oneself; to grant the truth of, and others.    

One such meaning – “to have control over or direction of (a person or thing)” – was actually first recorded in Old English but didn’t pop up again until the late 19th century.

In the OED’s first citation in print for this modern sense of the word, from an 1890 issue of The Spectator, the writer says American millionaires have a “practice of ‘owning,’ that is, controlling, both the professional politicians and the press.”

And here’s a more recent example, from Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-War Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution (1989): “The USA ‘owns’ the history of the Vietnamese war despite losing the conflict itself.”

We found another example in the same book: “The audiences can ‘own’ the commodity in a more intimate sense than ever before.”

Judging by the OED’s citations, though, this isn’t precisely the same “own” as in “I own this project.”

Another sense of the verb, “to be or feel responsible for considering or solving (a problem, issue, task, etc.),” came into use in the late 20th century, according to the OED.

The first citation in print is from Thomas Gordon’s book P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training (1970): “When a child’s behavior … interferes with the parent’s enjoyment of life or his right to satisfy his own needs, the parent clearly ‘owns’ the problem.”

Here’s another example, from a telecommunications industry news organization: “Heilmeier set the tone of the workshop by calling on us to own the problem and not toss it over the fence to another organization” (1991).

Again, that kind of ownership – as in, “It’s your problem, take care of it” – seems more of a liability than the kind you refer to, which involves being in command or having power.

We often run into another meaning of “own,” the one people use when they say that a candidate “owns the debate” or an entertainer “owns the room.”

For example, a movie star who “owns” the screen dominates it by his or her excellence. But once again, this isn’t the same “own” as in “I own this project.”

So it may be that here we have yet another variation on the theme, one the OED hasn’t yet documented.

This “own” makes sense etymologically, as we’ve said, but its aggressive tone sounds a little dissonant to our ears. Maybe the corporate world will tire of it and it’ll quietly go away.

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Do we “stanch” or “staunch” this usage?

Q: I hear the words “stanch” and “staunch” used interchangeably. Is this correct? Do you prefer one over the other?

A: “Stanch” and “staunch” are both legitimate words, but they’re not quite interchangeable. In modern usage, one is generally used as a verb and the other as an adjective.

Usage guides by and large prefer “stanch” as the verb meaning to stop or restrain a flow (as in “We managed to stanch the blood”).

“Staunch” is considered preferable as the adjective meaning loyal or steadfast (as in “He’s been a staunch supporter”).

As you mention, however, the two words are often used interchangeably, though “staunch” is more popular, with four times as many hits as “stanch” on Google.   

Both words appeared in English in the 14th century as verbs and in the 15th century as adjectives.

They were adapted from the Old French estanchier (to quench) and estanche (watertight), which in turn came from a word in the Common Roman dialect, stancare (to dam up).

Centuries ago, “stanch” and “staunch” were used interchangeably, though over the course of history they’ve taken on different functions, along with their different spellings and pronunciations.

But even today, there’s a lot of crossover in their usage. In fact, modern dictionaries list each spelling as an acceptable variant of the other.

But, as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says in a Usage Note, “Staunch is more common than stanch as the spelling of the adjective. Stanch is more common than staunch as the spelling of the verb.”

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Reading made easy

Q: I’ve been wondering about titles with the phrase “made easy” in them. I used the construction for a tourist CD I developed in 2001. Now I see it everywhere. Was this usage around before 2001?

A: Sorry, but the use of “made easy” in titles was around well before you thought of the construction.

In fact, this participial phrase, which combines the past participle of the verb “make” plus an adjective, has been in use for hundreds of years.

It’s been especially popular in book titles, and not just contemporary ones. Take for example Joseph Moxon’s Mathematicks Made Easie: or a Mathematical Dictionary (1679).

A search of the Oxford English Dictionary turns up 17 of these titles in the 18th century alone. Here are some of them (we’ll omit the authors’ names and parts of the longer subtitles):

1702, Introduction to Astronomy, Geography, Navigation and Other Mathematical Sciences Made Easy;

1739, Geometrical Rules Made Easy for the Use of Mechanicks Concern’d in Buildings;

1747, Polygraphy; or Short-Hand Made Easy;

1751, The French Tongue Made Easy to Learners;

1790, Navigation Made Easy and Familiar to the Most Common Capacity;

1790, Mythology Made Easy: or, a New History of the Heathen Gods and Goddesses;

And that’s just a half-dozen from the 1700s! As you can see, the self-help category was alive and well in the 18th century.

By now, of course, there’s almost nothing, from tap dancing to operational calculus, that hasn’t been “made easy” in the title of some book or other. 

But reading has perhaps been “made easy” in more book titles than any other endeavor.

Starting in the early 18th century, the title Reading Made Easy was given to so many books that it became a generic noun phrase for a reading book or elementary primer, according to the OED.  

Citations from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries for the term used this way often employed dialectical spellings, such as “ready-may-deazy,” “reedy-made-eazy,” “readamadazy,” “readamadeasy,” “reada-mud-easy,” and many more.

Here are a couple of typical examples:

“A poor ignorant shoe-maker … slipped through me Readin’-med-aisy and me Spellin’-book,” from Seumas MacManus’s The Bend of the Road (1898).

“It reminds me of the king in the readamadasy who thought he could stop the sea from rising by lifting his hand,” from Gerald O’Donovan’s Vocations (1921).

And by the way, we weren’t kidding about calculus, as in Heaviside’s Operational Calculus Made Easy (1944).

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Was El Greco a gringo?

Q: I’ve heard that gringo, the derogatory Mexican term for someone from north of the border, originated during the Mexican-American War. The story is that the Americans often marched while singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho.” Is there any truth to this?

A: Sorry, but there’s no truth to the popular legend that Mexicans (or anybody else) coined the word gringo after hearing US soldiers (or any other soldiers) singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho” or “Green Grow the Lilacs” (another mythological source of the word). 

Thanks to the Internet, the story lives on and on, though etymologists discredited it long ago.

Gringo was recorded in a Castilian Spanish dictionary in the 1700s (way before the Mexican-American War, 1846-48), and had undoubtedly been in use before lexicographers caught up to it.

In Spanish, gringo means a foreigner, an Englishman, a North American, or unintelligible language.

In English, “gringo” is a “contemptuous name for an Englishman or an Anglo-American,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was first recorded in English, the OED says, by John W. Audubon in his Western Journal (1849): “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes.’ ”  

Etymologists generally believe that the Spanish term gringo comes from griego, Spanish for “Greek,”  which in turn is derived from the Latin Graecus.

The Spanish lexicographer Esteban de Terreros explained in El Diccionario Castellano (1787) that  the word  gringo was a phonetic alteration of griego.

Why “Greek”? A word-history note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) explains the connection this way:

“The saying ‘It’s Greek to me’ exists in Spanish, as it does in English, and helps us understand why griego came to mean ‘unintelligible language’ and perhaps, by further extension of this idea, ‘stranger, that is, one who speaks a foreign language.’ ”

American Heritage adds that the “altered form gringo lost touch with Greek but has the senses ‘unintelligible language,’ ‘foreigner, especially an English person,’ and in Latin America, ‘North American or Britisher.’ ”

All this makes you wonder whether a Toledan would have considered El Greco a gringo.

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Object oriented

Q: I have a question about these sentences: 1) “I fed the dog.” 2) “I fed leftovers to the dog.” 3) “I fed the dog leftovers.” In the first, “dog” is a direct object. In the second, “leftovers” is the direct object. Which is the direct object in the third? The word “leftovers” seems left over. Is something wrong with the sentence?

A: All of your sentences are correct.

It’s not uncommon for a verb to have both a direct and an indirect object, which is what’s happening in the third example.

If a verb has only one object – that is, a noun or pronoun that’s acted on – then it’s a direct object.

If there are two objects, the indirect object is the person or thing on the receiving end and the direct object is who or what ends up there.

Now, let’s look at all three of your sentences.

In the first sentence, there is only one object: “I fed the dog [direct object].”

In the second, there’s a direct object as well as a prepositional phrase that stands in for an indirect object: “I fed leftovers [direct object] to the dog [prepositional phrase].”

In the third sentence, there are two objects: “I fed the dog [indirect object] leftovers [direct object].”

As you can see, a verb can have both direct and indirect objects, though it can’t have an indirect object unless there’s a direct object too.

Why isn’t “dog” part of a prepositional phrase in the third sentence?

Verbs like “feed” as well as “hand,” “pass,” “give, “offer,” “send,” “write,” “throw,” and many others are commonly used without prepositions when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object.

Here are a couple of other examples: “Smith threw Jones [indirect object] the ball [direct object]” and “I cooked my guests [indirect object] chicken Kiev [direct object].”  

Of course you could also use prepositional phrases: “Smith threw the ball [direct object] to Jones [prepositional phrase]” and “I cooked chicken Kiev [direct object] for my guests [prepositional phrase].”

We touched on this subject in a blog entry last year. You might find it interesting.

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Anger management

Q: During a recent bout of insomnia, I got to thinking of “anger,” not its irateness sense but its sound. We pronounce “anger,” “banger,” and other similar words with a hard “g.” But “danger,” “stranger,” and others have a soft “g.” I don’t know how “onager” sounds. Should this be keeping me awake? Or should I take a sleeping pill?

A: We’ll try to answer your questions (and perhaps help you with your insomnia) without putting the other readers of the blog to sleep.

The letter “g” has several distinct sounds in English. And so do the letter combinations “ng” and “ger,” which are found in many words with different pronunciations.

Contrary to what you suggest, “anger” and “banger” don’t have identical final syllables.

The “ger” in “anger” is like that in “longer” and “finger.” The “g” is plainly a hard consonant, and sounds as it does at the beginning of words like “go” and “girl.”

But the “ger” in “banger” is silent, like that in “hanger” and “singer” and “ringer.” In these words, the “ang” and “ing” combinations sound like the first two letters in “ankle” and “ink.”

Finally, the “ger” in “stranger” and similar words (including “onager,” the wild donkey of central Asia) sounds like a “j.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that in modern English the letter “g” has a “hard” sound in these cases (I’ll add examples):

(1) at the end of a word (“log,” “rag”);

(2) before a consonant (“grin,” “gleam”); 

(3) before the letters “a,” “o,” and “u” (“gather,” “go,” “gut”); exceptions are the British “gaol” and “gaoler,” which in American English are spelled “jail” and “jailer”;

(4) before the letters “e” and “i” in words that have Germanic origins (“girl,” “get”);

(5) in Hebrew proper names (“Gideon”).

But “g” has a “soft” or “j”-like sound  sound before the letters “e,” “i,” and “y” in words that come from Latin (“gender,” “giant,” “gym”).

In an interesting note about the “ng” combination, the OED says modern pronunciation is “somewhat inconsistent” when the pair occurs in the middle of a two-syllable word.

In words that are inflections or derivatives of verbs, the dictionary says, generally “the g is silent, as in singer, singeth, singing.”

But the letter “is sounded in the comparatives and superlatives of adjs., as in younger, longer,” and in “other words generally, as finger.”

We hope this helps you sleep – without a trip to your medicine cabinet!

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Tacks time

Q: A recent advertising column in the New York Times said an ad campaign for a menswear retailer “aims for a lighter, even humorous tack.” Isn’t “tack” what you do on a sailboat? Maybe the columnist meant “tact.” Am I wrong or is the NY Times?

A: In that May 27, 2010, advertising column, the Times writer was using sailing terminology figuratively – that is, in an imaginative or metaphorical way.

However, the columnist used awkward phrasing. You don’t usually “aim” for a “tack” when the term is used figuratively – you “take” one.

So the Times writer should have said “the campaign takes a lighter, even humorous tack.”

One definition of the noun “tack” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the direction given to a ship’s course by tacking.”

And when you “tack,” according to the OED, you “turn the ship’s head to the wind, so that she shall sail at the same angle to the wind on the other side.”

To “tack,” we’re informed, can also mean to “proceed by a series of such courses.”

And since the 17th century, the OED says, the noun “tack” has been used figuratively to mean “a course or line of conduct or action; implying change or difference from some preceding or other course.”

In other words, landlubbers can use “tacking” to mean something like zigzagging or changing course.

In the Times column that caught your attention, the writer was describing how the men’s clothing company had changed course in its advertising – from an earnest, straightforward ad campaign to a humorous one.

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Urban affairs

Q: Although my spell-checker rejects the adjective “urbanistic,” it’s a standard term in the field of urbanism. My question concerns the adverb: Is it “urbanisticly” or “urbanistically”? (Uh-oh, spell-check is having palpitations!)

A: Your spell-checker is so yesterday. It’s time to update its dictionary.

The adjective “urbanistic” and the adverb “urbanistically” appear in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) – in entries for the noun “urbanist.”

As you might imagine, all three words also appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “urbanist” first showed up in print 80 years ago, according to the OED, which defines it as “a specialist in or advocate of town-planning.”

It was first recorded in the Times Literary Supplement in 1930: “To do so would be to entrust the fate of a city to the technical urbanist.”

Below its entry for “urbanist,” the OED adds this note: “Hence urbanistic a., urbanistically adv.” It provides three citations, all from the British press:

1959, from The Listener, the former magazine of the BBC: “Though he has derived so much from the study of the city, his own urbanistic achievements are scarcely to be considered to rank alongside his architectural ones.” (The reference is to Le Corbusier.)

1975, from the Times Literary Supplement: “Urbanistically, there is no Middle America.”

1983, from The Listener: “An international competition was held for an urbanistic plan for the Sassi.”

Why isn’t the adverbial ending a simple “ly”? Because, as the OED explains, it’s unusual in English to add “ly” to an adjective ending in “ic” (like urbanistic”) in order to form an adverb.

In cases like these, the ending is “nearly always
-ically.” (A couple of exceptions that immediately come to mind are “publicly” and “franticly,” which is an acceptable variant of “frantically.”)

The “ically” adverbial ending is a compound suffix consisting of an adjectival suffix, “ical,” and an adverbial suffix, “ly.” And “ically” is used to form adverbs from adjectives ending in both “ical,” and “ic.”

The OED uses “historic/historical/historically” and “poetic/poetical/poetically” as examples.

The adverb almost always ends in “ically,” the OED says, “even when only the adj. [ending] in -ic is in current use, as in athletically, hypnotically, phlegmatically, rustically, scenically.”

Hence we would write “urbanistically” even if there’s no word “urbanistical” in common use.

This would also seem to indicate that any new adverb formed from an adjective ending in “ic” should end in “ically.”

As we’ve already suggested, if you expect to be using “urbanistic” and “urbanistically,” it’s time to add them to your word processor’s dictionary. 

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