The Grammarphobia Blog

Our changing language

Q: When do we stop correcting everyone around us and acknowledge that language has evolved? For instance the lovely distinction between “jealous” and “envious” has been so thoroughly blurred that it’s widely lost. At what point do we throw in the towel?

A: This is a complicated question. It’s a myth that English has been formal up until now and has suddenly become casual. English has always been in transition and always will be.

As the inevitable shifts in usage occur, there’s going to be a certain amount of  hand-wringing on the part of those who think English should remain frozen in time—their time!

One concrete thing you can do is keep your dictionary up to date. Lexicographers always have their ears to the ground. It’s the words that are out there, in common usage, that make it into dictionaries in the first place.

A dictionary entry in effect tells people that this is a word people use, this is how they spell it, this is how they pronounce it, and this is what they mean by it.

Inevitably, its meaning, its spelling, its pronunciation will change over time in common usage.

And as these things change, so does a word’s entry in the dictionary. This is why dictionaries of only fifty years ago are very different from those of today.

We wrote a blog posting last year about how words can change their stripes over the centuries.

As for “jealous” and “envious,” you may be surprised at how much these two words have evolved over the years.

The adjective “jealous,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has meant wrathful, furious, devoted, eager, amorous, lustful, zealous, and so on, though many of these senses are now obsolete.

The word is ultimately derived from zelus, Latin for zeal.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “jealous” apparently entered English sometime before 1200, and originally meant “distrustful of the faithfulness of a spouse or lover.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem from the 12th or 13th century: “He was so gelus of his wive.”

It wasn’t until a couple of centuries later, according to citations in the OED, that people began being “jealous” of their rivals (or imagined rivals) in love.

Here’s an early citation from The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, a mid-15th century translation of a French etiquette guide for young women: “She loued hym so moche that she was ielous ouer alle women that he spake with.”

The adjective “envious” has meant “vexed or discontented at the good fortune or qualities of another” since it entered English around 1300.

But over the centuries it has also meant malicious, spiteful, grudging, stingy, and odious, though most of those senses are now obsolete.

Why all those nasty meanings? Perhaps because the word ultimately comes from the Latin invidere, to look with ill will upon or cast an evil eye on someone.

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Too many chefs in the kitchen?

Q: If Bob, Jack, Kate, and I (David) all chip in and start a restaurant, does one say, “That’s Bob, Jack, Kate, and my restaurant”? Or ought one say, “That’s Bob’s, Jack’s, Kate’s, and my restaurant”? Maybe we should just chip in for a bar! Or, is it just me?

A: It’s not just you. This is a subject that flummoxes many people, and that’s understandable. We wrote a posting on the subject a while back.

There’s really no good answer here.

In this case, you wouldn’t use more than  one possessive-adjective apostrophe BEFORE the noun.

If a noun is jointly owned, use the apostrophe only with the last owner. That’s why we say, for example, “Mom and Dad’s house,” not “Mom’s and Dad’s house.”

If the first-person problem went away, you could say, “That’s Bob, Jack, and Kate’s restaurant.” But the “my” screws up that construction.

You might refer to yourself in the third person: “That’s Bob, Jack, Kate, and David’s restaurant.”  But that would be a little weird.

Here are several (admittedly clunky) solutions:

“The restaurant is mine, Bob’s, Jack’s, and Kate’s.”

“The restaurant belongs to [or “is owned by”] me, Bob, Jack, and Kate.”

“The restaurant is ours—Bob’s, Jack’s, Kate’s, and mine.”

“We—Bob, Jack, Kate, and I—own the restaurant.”

“The restaurant belongs to us—Bob, Jack, Kate, and me.”

And by the way, if you do use a pronoun to refer to yourself, the order doesn’t matter; “me” or “I” could go anywhere in the list. Just don’t use “I” as an object or “me” as a subject.

Sorry, but we can’t think of a more graceful solution!

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Why is “she” the cat’s mother?

Q: You must be catted out by now, but I have one more feline inquiry. My mother would not allow us children to refer to her in the third person while she was in front of us. Any infraction of this rule would cause her immediate response: “Don’t call me ‘she’!  ‘She’ is the cat’s mother!” What the heck does this mean?

A: Well, we’ve answered two catty questions lately—one in March and one in April—so why not one more?

There was a time when a child could get a scolding for using the word “she” instead of a name, especially if the “she” (often an older person, like one’s mother) was present.

And the scolding might have consisted of  “Who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?”

We can see why “she” is sometimes rude. And we can see why “she” might be equated with “the cat’s mother.”

After all, a cat’s mother is probably some nameless, unknown feline. But people have names—“Mom,” for example.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the catchphrase “Who’s she—the cat’s mother?” (or some variation thereof) is “said to one (esp. a child) who uses the pronoun of the third person singular impolitely or with inadequate reference.”

Here are the OED’s citations for such reprimands, which date from the late 19th century:

“Don’t call your mamma ‘she.’ ‘She’ is a cat” (from The Beth Book, by Frances Macfall, writing as Sarah Grand, 1897).

“ ‘Who’s She?’ demanded Nurse. ‘She’s the cat’s mother’ ” (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, 1913).

“ ‘She said so.’ Jane looked superior. ‘She, my boy, is the cat’s mother’ ” (from The Painted Garden, by Noel Streatfeild, 1949).

“To one who keeps saying ‘she’ in an impolite manner the reproof is: ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ ” (from The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, by Iona and Peter Opie, 1959).

“Who’s she? The cat’s grandmother?” (from Nanny Says, by Sir Hugh Casson and Joyce Grenfell, 1972).  

Is all this merely quaint nostalgia by now, or do parents still reprimand their children for using “she” impolitely? Our guess is that this is one more nicety of language that’s going by the wayside.

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Why isn’t a W called a double v?

Q: Why is the letter W called “double u”? It looks like a “double v” to me.

A: The name of the 23rd letter of the English alphabet is “double u” because it was originally written that way in Anglo-Saxon times.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains it, the ancient Roman alphabet did not have a letter “w.”

So in the 7th century, when Latin was first used in early Old English writing, it was necessary to invent a symbol to represent that sound.

At first, the sound was represented by “uu”—literally a double “u.”

It wasn’t written as a “v” because the letter “v” didn’t exist in Old English, as we’ve written before on the blog. And a double “v” would not have approximated the sound anyway.

The “uu” was replaced by another symbol in the 8th century, a character from the Runic alphabet called a “wyn.”

In the 11th century, the old “uu” form was reintroduced by Norman scribes in a ligatured (that is, joined) form, written as “w.”

But as the OED says, “It has never lost its original name of ‘double U.’ ”

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Archie Fisher snow

Q: I’ve been wondering about something I swear I learned as an undergrad (longer ago than I’d ever admit) in a development of the English language course. It was about a man who grew up thinking artificial snow was called “Archie Fisher snow.” As a boy in a small town, he’d misheard a reference to the snow in a Christmas display in Archie Fisher’s drugstore. I think this phenomenon has a name but I can’t remember it.

A: By chance, as we were researching another question, we recently happened upon the reference you mention. It’s described in The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles & John Algeo.

The anecdote is told on page 280 in our copy of the book:

“As a child too young to read, one of the authors of this book misheard artificial snow as Archie Fisher snow, a plausible enough boner for one who lived in a town in which a prominent merchant was named Archie Fisher. In any case, Mr. Fisher displayed the stuff in his window, and for all an innocent child knew, he might even have invented it.”

The story is told in Chapter 11 (“New Words From Old”), in a section called “Blending Words.” This particular blend (Archie Fisher snow) is described in a subsection called “Folk Etymology.”

The authors write: “Folk etymology—the naive misunderstanding of a more or less esoteric word that makes it into something more familiar and hence seems to give it a new etymology, false though it be—is a minor kind of blending.”

Another example is given, in which dance students at an American university described a certain ballet jump as a “soda box.” Questioned by a visiting German teacher of dance, they insisted this was what it was called and even how it was spelled.

What they were referring to was the ballet term saut de Basque (Basque leap).

The authors describe another, and more widespread, misunderstanding in which the phrase “chest of drawers” is misheard as “Chester drawers.” This mistake, the authors note, has even appeared in furniture-store advertisements.

We can well believe it. As we’ve said before in our blog, we once spotted a newspaper ad for a sale on “Chip ’n’ Dale” furniture. The store’s ad manager confused “Chippendale” with Chip and Dale, the Disney cartoon chipmunks.

As we mentioned, the Pyles and Algeo book includes such usages among blends traceable to folk etymology, but most people would probably refer to them as malapropisms. A more recent, and more precise, term would be “eggcorns.”

We’ve discussed malapropisms and eggcorns several times on the blog, including postings in 2007 and 2010. A similar term, “mondegreens,” is usually applied to goofy mishearings of song lyrics or poems.

We can’t end this without mentioning an example of mangled usage that we heard about from a blog reader named Mark. When he played hide-and-seek with his little nephew, the boy would say: “Uncle Mark … get set … go!”

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A rhetorical sin of omission

Q: I’m trying to track down a term from my days at Power Memorial Academy in New York. I believe it’s praeteritio. Brother Hickey told us in Latin III that it was a rhetorical device for when you say you won’t mention something and then proceed to mention it.

A: The English word for the rhetorical figure you’re talking about is “preterition” (pronounced pret-uh-RISH-un).

The word dates from 1602, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a rhetorical device “in which attention is drawn to something by professing to omit it.”

The use of preterition is easy to spot, since it’s usually introduced by “I needn’t mention …” or “to say nothing of …” or “needless to say …” or “it’s not my intention to …” or something of that nature.

In Trollope’s 1857 novel Barchester Towers, for example, this is how the wife of Bishop Proudie is introduced:

“It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she adds much to her husband’s happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is henpecked.”

The English term “preterition” ultimately comes from the Latin verb praeterire (to go past). In the third century, the post-classical Latin noun praeteritio came to mean the rhetorical device, according to the OED.

Henry Peacham, in a 1577 treatise on rhetoric, The Garden of Eloquence, coined a short-lived English version of the Latin noun:

Preteritio, when we faine and make as though we would say nothing in some matter, when notwithstanding we speake most of al, or when we say something, in saying we will not say it.”

As we said, the “preteritio” that Peacham used did not last long in English (the OED calls it an “unassimilated borrowing”).

However, “preterition” as well as another term for the same rhetorical device, “paralipsis,” did survive in English.

“Paralipsis” (also spelled “paraleipsis”) entered English in 1550.

The OED says it was borrowed from the post-classical Latin paralipsis, a “rhetorical device of emphasising or drawing attention to something by professing to say little or nothing about it, or affecting to dismiss it (3rd cent.).”

The Latin word came from the Greek paraleipein (to leave out).

The Romans must have used this rhetorical gambit a lot, since they had two words for it—praeteritio and paralipsis. Here are their etymologies.

praeteritio: a passing by or over, from Latin praeter (past or by) + ire (to go)

paralipsis: a leaving aside, from Greek para (aside) + leipein (to leave)

Brother Hickey may have mentioned both of those terms when he discussed the rhetorical device at Power Memorial, an all-boys high school that existed from 1931 to 1984.

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Can one person make a concerted effort?

Q: Can a single person make a concerted effort? The dictionaries I’ve checked say a “concerted effort” is something that’s done collectively. But I often hear the phrase being used to mean a strenuous or serious effort by one person.

A: We suspect that most people who use the phrase to refer to a strong or energetic action really mean “a concentrated effort,” which makes more sense to us.

However, you might argue, on merely technical grounds, that one person can indeed make “a concerted effort.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective “concerted” as meaning “arranged by mutual agreement; agreed upon, pre-arranged; planned, contrived; done in concert.”

Notice that “planned, contrived” definition, sitting there surrounded by semicolons. It implies that one person could perform a “concerted”—that is, a planned—action.

This sense of singularity can be traced to the verb “concert” (like the adjective, it’s accented on the second syllable).

In one of its definitions, the OED says the verb “concert” applies to “a single person,” and means “to plan, devise, arrange.”

The dictionary has only two quotations using this sense of the verb:

(1) “I must now concert matters” (1712, from the writings of the antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne);

(2) “He could … concert his measures against any state” (1878, from Carthage and the Carthaginians by Reginald Bosworth Smith).

But those writers weren’t talking about strenuous, fevered activity. To them, to “concert” meant simply to “plan, devise, arrange.”

That’s why we think the determined efforts of a politician to win reelection or a tennis pro to improve his serve are better described as “concentrated” than as “concerted.”

Or, of course, as “strenuous,” “serious,” “determined,” and so on.

While “concerted” is most often used to modify “effort” or “efforts,” it’s seen with other nouns too.

A brief Google search  turns up “concerted movement,” “concerted action,” “concerted approach,” “concerted measure,” “concerted struggle,” and “concerted activity,” as well as plural versions of all those phrases.

The verb “concert” originally meant to unite or agree when it entered English in the late 1500s.

The noun, originally meaning agreement or harmony, came along in the mid-1600s, and by 1689 it meant a public performance.

You’re right that some people use “concerted” to mean strenuous or serious. But none of the standard dictionaries we checked include this sense.

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A gazeeka box and a green-fedora guy

Q: I’m reading Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders. She uses the phrase “a green-fedora guy.” Do you have any idea what that means? And if you want to tackle “gazeeka box,” that would be interesting, too. She peppers this book with quite a bit of showbiz jargon.

A: In The G-String Murders, a 1941 mystery, there are two references to green fedoras.

In describing a guy named Moey, an “ex-racketeer” who runs the concession at the burlesque house where the novel is set, the author writes:

“He wore a white wash coat when he was working, dazzling checks when the show was over. Strictly a green-fedora guy, but he gave us a ten per cent discount on our cokes, so he was popular enough backstage.”

Later in the book, Moey reappears in his street clothes (a suit with “green and yellow threads running through the material”) and begins opening a package: “He pushed his green fedora back on his head and went to work with the scissors.”

None of our slang references (not even the aptly named Green’s Dictionary of Slang) give us a clue to what a “green-fedora guy” might be.

Our guess is that the reference is literal, and Gypsy Rose Lee meant that Moey always wore a green fedora (and perhaps that his taste was a bit over the top).

Green fedoras were more common in those days—now we see them chiefly on St. Patrick’s Day.

A 1935 song called “I’m Wearin’ My Green Fedora,” by Al Sherman, Al Lewis, and Joseph Meyer, was featured in several cartoons of the 1930s. The refrain: “I’m wearin’ my green fedora, for Dora, for Dora, for Dora is the girl I love.”

The song was a takeoff on the comic routines of Joe Penner, a popular stage, radio, and film actor of the ’30s whose trademark was a fedora perched on the back of his head.

When you finish the novel, you might want to check out Lady of Burlesque, a 1943 film made from it (Barbara Stanwyck is the Gypsy Rose Lee character). 

You also asked about “gazeeka box,” a term that turns up many times in The G-String Murders. The gazeeka box in the novel is a coffin-like prop used in the burlesque house. (Naturally, a body is discovered in it!)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang describes “gazeeka box” (origin unknown) as a burlesque term for “a stage prop used in comedy acts which takes the form of a large box from which beautiful girls emerge, supposedly endlessly.”

Random House’s first citation for the use of the term is from Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1941 novel. But the term is much older. It’s mentioned, for instance, in Archibald Haddon’s book Green Room Gossip (1922).

In at least one old burlesque sketch we found online, the showgirls who magically emerge from the gazeeka box are called “gazeekas.”

But gazeeka boxes, with their false backs, could also be used to make a showgirl magically disappear.

And they weren’t always coffin-like, as in Gypsy Rose Lee’s novel. They were generally upright, like phone booths.

And with that, we’ll make our exit.

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Purple prose

Q: In the sentence “Jack painted his old jalopy purple,” what part of speech is the word “purple”?

A: It’s an adjective.

The modifier here could have been an adverb, as in “He painted the jalopy quickly.” In that case, “quickly” is an adverb because it modifies the verb, “painted.”

But in a sentence like “He painted the jalopy purple,” the modifier is an adjective because it describes the noun “jalopy.”

It’s not an adverb; it doesn’t modify the verb.

If hypothetically “purple” did modify the verb, the sentence would be saying that Jack painted it “in a purple manner.”

That wouldn’t make much sense, unless perhaps he orated in an ornate way while he painted the jalopy.

We’ll try to come up with an illustration where the modifier could go either way—adverb or adjective. Say a sailor is tying a knot: “He made it fast.”

Here, “fast” could be an adverb, meaning that he made the knot quickly.

Or, it could be an adjective, meaning that he made the knot tight.

“Fast” is one of many words that can be an adverb or an adjective; it doesn’t take the typical “-ly” adverbial ending. We’ve written before about these “flat adverbs,” including a posting back in 2006.

In case you’re interested, the expression “purple prose,” meaning ornate or fussy language, first showed up in the early 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first print reference is from a 1901 issue of the North Adams (Mass.) Evening Transcript: “It is probably in the wine and egg period that he composes accounts of Nero banquets and other purple prose matter.”

That usage evolved from the older “purple passage” (1882), which evolved from the even older “purple patch” (early 1700s), which evolved from the much, much older Latin phrase purpureus pannus (purple garment, circa 18 BC) in Horace’s Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry).

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The other half of it

Q: You say on the blog that the idiomatic use of “the” in “the half of it” isn’t acceptable in formal English. However, I’ve found this usage in the King James version of the Bible, where the Queen of Sheba tells Solomon: “Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard.”

A: In our 2009 posting, we discussed many of the idiomatic uses of “the.” Among others, we talked about the expressions “the both of us” and “the half of it.”

We said those two constructions, while acceptable in speech and informal writing, wouldn’t be appropriate in formal written English in the US.

But perhaps we were a bit shortsighted about “the half of it.” After doing some additional research, we’ve decided to fill in the other half of the story. So here goes.

A search of the Early English Books Online database shows that respectable writers—and not just writers of Bibles—have been using phrases like “the half” and “the half of it” for centuries.

Examples in the ordinary sense (that is, half of something) are numerous: “the half of my kingdom,” “the half of their goods,” and so on.

But we also found many examples of negative or ironic constructions built around the phrases “the half of” and “by the half.”

These are early versions of such modern expressions as “you don’t know the half of it” and “he’s too clever by half.”

Here’s a sampling from the 16th and 17th centuries.

1571: “Excuse if I writ euill [evil], ye may gesse the halfe of it” (from George Buchanan’s condemnation of Mary Queen of Scots).

1587: “If men but knew, the halfe that he did write” (from a eulogy on the death of Sir Phillip Sidney).

1652: “O, quoth the Goat-Heard, I doe not yet know the half of the Adventures succeeded to Marcela‘s lovers” (from a translation of Don Quixote).

1655: “Is it not as well to have it [money] without blows?” “Not by the half” (dialogue from The Passionate Lovers, a tragicomedy by Lodowick Carlell).

1667: “few of the Laity know the half of them” (from an anti-papist treatise by Jeremy Taylor).

1677: “But truly I have not come to the half of that which I intended” (from a London minister, Thomas Wadsworth).

1685: “report of the Glory was true, but the half of it was not told” (from a theological treatise by George Keith).

1686: “it was too little by the halfe” (from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland).

1686: “the half of it is not mentioned” (from Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury).

1690: “I found that the half was not told you then of what is commonly known in this place” … “They have not done the half of what will be necessary to save them” (sentences from a theological work by Thomas Morer).

1696: “It were tedious to number the half of its omissions” (a comment on the Litany by a Presbyterian minister, Richard Baxter).

We could go on, but you get the idea.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s citations for “the half of it” (meaning “a significant or more important part of something” and generally used “in negative contexts”) don’t begin until the 20th century.

The OED’s first citation is from Hot Water (1932), a novel by P. G. Wodehouse.

Since we never pass up an opportunity to quote Wodehouse, here’s the relevant passage: “It makes me sick. And that’s not the half of it. … She told me I’ve got to be American Ambassador to France.”

Here’s another OED citation, from Minute for Murder (1947), by the pseudonymous Nicholas Blake (actually Cecil Day-Lewis): “ ‘We’ve not seen the half of it yet,’ said the Messenger darkly.”

The OED’s citations for “by half” (meaning “by a great deal; much, considerably, far”) go back much further—to before the year 1000.

The first quotation—which translates into Modern English as “sweeter by half”—is from the Metres of Boethius, an Old English adaptation from the Latin of the sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius.

We’ll give a few more lines of the poem for context: “The comb of the honey cannot but seem / To each son of men sweeter by half, / If he have tasted before the honey / Aught that is bitter.”

A 1780 citation in the OED—“Oh, he’s too moral by half”—is from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy The School for Scandal.

And  later comes “too clever by half,” from George John Whyte-Melville’s novel The Interpreter (1858). The OED says the phrase means “trying too hard to be clever.”

And with that, we’ll stop. We don’t want to be too wordy by half.

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A cat’s-paw in fable and law

Q: In an appearance on WNYC, Pat mentioned the “cat’s-paw” fable of La Fontaine. As an attorney and an ailurophile, I might add that “cat’s paw” is the name of a legal theory of employer liability for discrimination. In a recent Supreme Court opinion, Justice Scalia explained the fable in footnote 1.

A: We’re ailurophiles (or cat lovers) ourselves, and we found your comment an interesting footnote to Pat’s discussion on the radio about feline expressions.

As Pat said on the show, a “cat’s-paw” (now often “catspaw,” but usually “cat’s paw” in employment law) is a dupe, someone used as a tool.

The term, first recorded in the mid-17th century, is an alteration of the earlier phrase “cat’s foot,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED explains that it’s a “reference to the fable or tale of a monkey (or a fox) using the foot or paw of a cat to rake roasted chestnuts out of the burning coals.”

The dictionary adds parenthetically that some versions of the story say the monkey belonged to Pope Julius II (1503-13). Depending on the version, the cat is either tricked or forced into letting the monkey use its paw.

The earliest citation in the OED for “cat’s-paw” is from a political pamphlet, Killing Is Murder, written by Michael Hawke in 1657: “These he useth as the Monkey did the Cat’s paw to scrape the nuts out of the fire.”

The earliest reference to a “cat’s foot” used in this sense comes from a 1623 translation of The Spanish Rogue, a picaresque novel by Mateo Alemán that was published in Spanish the year before.

The English version of the Alemán quotation: “To take the Cat by the foote, and therewith to rake the coales out of the Ouen.”

As for the fable that gave rise to these terms, it was “current in the sixteenth century, but varying considerably in details,” according to John S. Farmer’s Slang and Its Analogues (1890).

“The earliest printed version,” Farmer writes, “occurs in John Sambucus’ Emblemata (Plantin, Antwerp, 1564), where the sufferer is a dog, and not a cat. There is, however, a story of the same kind told … of Pope Julius II.”

Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) also notes that the monkey was said to have belonged to Pope Julius II.

And a contributor to the journal Notes and Queries wrote in 1884 that he had found an account written in 1600, stating “that the occurrence took place while the chamberlains of Julius II were waiting for the Pope to retire to rest, and that the monkey held the cat with his left arm and took the paw in his right.”

Pope or no pope, the definitive version of the tale is the one written by Jean de La Fontaine in the 17th century.

La Fontaine’s “Le Singe et le Chat” (“The Monkey and the Cat”) first appeared in a collection of fables published in 1679.

This version of the tale is less violent than some earlier ones, because La Fontaine’s cat is persuaded by flattery, not wrestled by force, into sticking a foot into the hot coals.

As the cat blisters his paws to claw the chestnuts out one by one, the monkey gobbles them up.

The footnote in Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion says La Fontaine’s fable was “conceived by Aesop.”

Though the idea has often been attributed to Aesop, we haven’t found any positive evidence of this. Perhaps Justice Scalia knows something we don’t.

We can’t close without explaining the etymology of “ailurophile,” which comes from the Greek roots ailouros (cat) and phile (one who loves).

Despite its ancient connections, the word is a relative newcomer, coined in the 20th century.

The OED’s first citation is from 1931, but a Google Books search turned up one from a 1927 issue of Scribner’s Magazine:

“You are really an ‘ailurophile,’ or ‘lover of cats.’ I think ailurophile is a beautiful word, is fluent, and rolls trippingly on the tongue with catlike fluency.”

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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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Bear facts: the passive infinitive

Q: A narrator on Nat Geo TV who was speaking about a killer grizzly said the “authorities could order him to be destroyed.” Is this construction acceptable? I’d say the “authorities could order that he be destroyed.”

A: A sentence like “The authorities could order him to be destroyed” conjures up images of a judge saying to the bear, “Hey, you, Bruno! Be destroyed!”

But in fact sentences like this have been common for centuries. It’s an example of the passive infinitive.

Here, “to be destroyed” describes something to be done to the bear, not something Bruno is supposed to do to himself.

We often see the passive infinitive after verbs intended to cause something to happen—like “order” or “command”—when the person who’s supposed to carry out the order or command isn’t mentioned.

We’ll invent a few more examples: “I ordered the tree to be planted next to the pond” … “The king commanded the castle to be made ready” … “The vet directed the dog to be euthanized.”

In all those cases, the verbs’ immediate objects—the tree, the castle, the dog—aren’t being told to do anything. Some unnamed person or agent is the one being ordered around.

This kind of construction doesn’t work with every verb under the sun. We wouldn’t say, for example, “I asked the tree to be planted next to the pond” or “The vet advised the dog to be euthanized.”

With those verbs (“advise,” “ask”), a passive construction would call for a “that” clause in the subjunctive mood: “I asked that the tree be planted next to the pond” … “The vet advised that the dog be euthanized.”

(There are other kinds of passive infinitive sentences in which the agent isn’t mentioned: “The car needs to be washed” … “There wasn’t a star to be seen” … “The company is said to be on the ropes.”)

The word order may sound odd in some passive infinitive constructions, but it’s not ungrammatical.

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Cess who?

Q: The other day an Irish friend wished “bad cess” to the bankers responsible for Ireland’s economic woes. Is that “cess” as in “cesspool”? Too bad this is too late for St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe next year.

A: Why wait for St. Patrick’s Day to come around again? In fact, tax day (yes, today is the deadline for filing) may be just as appropriate. More on this later.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “bad cess to” as an Anglo-Irish phrase meaning “bad luck to” or “evil befall.”

The OED’s first published reference for the usage is from Punch in 1859: “Carlisle and Russell—bad cess to their clan!”

But a Google Books search turned up a much earlier example.

In a story published in 1833 in the Dublin University Magazine, a character named Barny O’Reirdon says, “Whist, whist! and bad cess to you both.”

And the busy scanners at Google have also provided us with several 19th-century appearances of “good cess,” meaning good luck.

Here’s an 1857 example from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art: “Oh, he’s a curious crayther, tho pig, an has his own ways, good cess to him!”

How did “cess” come to mean luck or fortune? The etymology here is a question mark, though the OED offers two suggestions:

(1) It could be short for “success.” This seems unlikely to us, since “good success” is redundant and “bad success” is an oxymoron.

(2) It could have something to do with taxes—a timely subject today, even if we’re too late for St. Patrick’s Day!

A “cess” has meant an assessment, tax, or levy since at least as far back as the 16th century. It’s an aphetic (or shortened) form of  “assess.”

(While the proper etymological spelling of the shortened term would be “sess,” the word generally appears as “cess.”)

“Cess” seems to have  been a product of English officialdom.

The OED’s first citation is from an act of Henry VIII in 1531 that makes reference to “divers and sundry Cesses, Scots, and Taxes.” (A “scot” is an assessment.)

Jonathan Swift in the 18th century refers to a “parish cess,” or church tax. Similar usages spread to other parts of the Empire.

In Scotland, for example, a “cess” referred to a land tax in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And in 19th-century India, a journalist wrote of “the road cess, the irrigation cess, the public works cess, and the education cess.” (Today all taxes in India are subject to an education cess of 3 percent.)

In Ireland, “cess” is still the official term for a local tax. But it once had another and more sinister meaning, and we think this is where “bad cess” comes from.

The OED defines this meaning of “cess,” first recorded around 1571, as “the obligation to supply the soldiers and the household of the lord deputy with provisions at prices ‘assessed’ or fixed by government.”

In other words, the Irish populace was arbitrarily forced to support the occupying soldiers and the personal needs of the lord deputy.

At any rate, to wish someone “bad cess” would be a curse indeed. A contributor to the Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland had this to say in 1889:

“Before barracks were commonly built in Ireland, it was usual to quarter soldiers permanently upon the inhabitants, and this was called ‘cessing’ them. It was possible that the soldiers thus quartered might be well conducted and respectable men, but if (which was more than probable) they were not very desirable persons to have the run of a man’s house and premises, this might  be reasonably called a ‘bad cess’; and a few things can be imagined to have been more disagreeable.”

As for “cesspool,” the OED says the word is “of uncertain origin,” though the dictionary offers several theories.

The most likely, in our opinion, is that the English term is somehow related to the Italian word for privy, cesso, which is derived from the Latin secessus, a secluded place.

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You really got a hold on me

Q: I’m seeing the word “ahold” a lot in books—and not just in dialogue! I’m miffed, but a fellow librarian says it’s an archaic form like “aholt” that’s now an acceptable variation of “a hold.” If that’s the case, what part of speech is it?

A: As you know, the word “hold” is not only a verb (to grasp) but a noun (a “hold” is a grip). The verb preceded the noun; it was first recorded in the 10th century, the noun in the 11th.

In the common expression “get hold of,” it’s a noun. Sometimes the article “a” is added: “get a hold of.” Neither of these usages raises any hackles.

But the combination of the noun and the article into one word—as in “get ahold of”—gets people’s attention.

This usage is often criticized by language commentators as “dialectal” (peculiar to a region, social class, etc.), or “colloquial” (found more often in speech than in writing).

For example, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) calls it colloquial and says the usual idiom is just “hold … with no a- prefixed.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) calls “ahold” a “casualism” (an informal usage).

And Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I recommends “get hold” or “get a hold” instead.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include “ahold” without any such reservations, which means they regard it as standard English.

American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s—the two standard dictionaries we rely on the most—cite examples from the writings of contemporary authors.

AH quotes Jimmy Breslin: “I knew I could make it all right if I got … back to the hotel and got ahold of that bottle of brandy.” And M-W quotes Norman Mailer: “if you could get ahold of a representative.”

As for its part of speech, both dictionaries identify “ahold” as a noun meaning “hold.”

But the Oxford English Dictionary takes a different view. It still regards “ahold” (which it hyphenates, “a-hold”) as dialectal or colloquial. And it classifies the word as an adverb.

In the OED’s analysis, “ahold” is an adverb formed from the noun “hold” and the prefix “a-,” which is not an article but a preposition.

So “ahold” or “a-hold,” according to the OED editors, is in effect a small prepositional phrase, serving as an adverb.

In explaining the use of “a-” as a prepositional prefix, the OED says it’s often used with a noun or gerund, sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not, to express action.

Most words formed this way are now obsolete or regional, as in “At noon he was still lying abed” or “Froggy went a-courtin’ ” or “It’s been a long time a-coming.”

Historically, “ahold” was once used as a navigational term meaning to sail a ship close to the wind.

It was recorded sometime before 1616 in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Act I, the boatswain cries: “Lay her a-hold, a-hold!” That use of the word is now obsolete.

The modern sense of the word emerged in the 1870s. Here’s an OED citation from an 1878 issue of Scribner’s Monthly: “With one bee a-hold of your collar … and another a-hold of each arm.”

And here’s a 20th-century example, from Ernest Hemingway’s short-story collection In Our Time (1926): “Nick dropped his wrist. ‘Listen,’ Ad Francis said. ‘Take ahold again.’ ” 

Since you mention “aholt,” it’s interesting to note that the OED’s first citation for the current meaning of “ahold” is spelled this way.

It’s from Edward Eggleston’s novel The End of the World (1872): “You gripped a-holt of the truth.”

“Aholt,” which doesn’t appear in standard dictionaries, can be traced to what the OED calls “an unexplained phonetic variant” of “hold” as “holt.”

The OED has many citations for “holt,” dating from around 1375 to modern times.

In fact, it says “hold” is still pronounced “holt” in some midland and southern counties of England, as well as regionally in the US. So it’s dialect, not archaic.

But getting back to “ahold,” you can consider it a noun or an adverb, standard English or dialectal. In our opinion, it still has a dialectal flavor and doesn’t belong in formal writing.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “ahold” is “primarily a spoken construction, and its most frequent appearance is in the transcription of speech.”

(Perhaps if the people quoted were writing instead of speaking, they would have written “a hold.” Who knows?)

As for how to label “ahold,” the M-W usage guide says, “If it is indeed dialectal it is well spread around.”

The word has been recorded in 17 states, both urban and rural and in all parts of the country, according to M-W usage and the Dictionary of American Regional English.

A couple of Google searches suggest that the two-word version is more popular: “a hold,” 16 million hits, vs. “ahold,” 5 million. (Many of the one-worders refer to the Dutch grocery chain Ahold.)

We’ll stick with “hold” or “a hold,” unless we’re going to our local Stop & Shop, an Ahold supermarket. 

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Odd fellows

Q: Your posting on the idiomatic use of prepositions with “odd” and “even” left me to wondering how these two little words got their numerical meanings.

A: And now we’ve been wondering about the conventions of “odd” and “even” numbering.

Let’s begin with “even” and save the odder history of “odd” for later.

The adjective “even” has had several related meanings over its more than 1,000-year history.

Among other things, it has meant level, equal, alike, uniform, straight, direct, parallel, exact, precise, balanced, and equable (that is, unruffled).

In the mid-16th century, the Oxford English Dictionay says, “even” acquired a numerical meaning: “divisible integrally into two equal parts.” 

“Even” first appeared this way, according to OED citations, in Robert Record’s The Whetstone of Witte (1557): “Euen nombers are those, whiche maie be diuided into equalle halfes.”

It’s easy to see how a word that meant equal could evolve over a few hundred years into one that meant dividable into equal parts.

The adjective “odd,” however, didn’t have to evolve to get its numerical sense.

It’s been used for numbers since it showed up in a Middle English religious poem in the late 13th century, according to OED references.

The original meaning of “odd” in English was one in addition to (or one shy of) an even number.

“Odd” got this meaning from associations it had in early Scandinavian.

For example, oddi in Old Icelandic meant a triangle, and later a third or an odd number. Here’s how the OED explains it:

 “The senses ‘odd,’ ‘odd number’ in early Scandinavian apparently developed by metaphor from ‘triangle’ (as being three-cornered), and thence by extension from the third or unpaired member of a group of three, to any single or unpaired member of a group, and from three as the primary ‘odd number,’ to all numbers containing an unpaired unit.”

Meanwhile, a century of so after it entered English, “odd” started taking on non-numerical meanings: left over, unpaired, irregular, strange, and generally the opposite of “even.”

So “even” developed its numerical meaning because of an earlier sense of evenness, while “odd” developed its sense of oddness because of an earlier numerical meaning.

Now isn’t that odd!

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Is all well that begins well?

Q: The words “so” and “well” are often the first ones that talking heads utter. Example: “So, Catherine, give us an update on the world. Well, Martha, the world is still round.” I know they aren’t needed here, but are they used properly?

A: Yes, “so” and “well” are properly used in sentences like those. But they do seem to be overused by on-air reporters and interviewers.

Many people have asked us about the use of “so” to introduce a remark. In fact, we had a blog item a couple of years ago about this usage.

As for “well,” it’s an adverb, but in this case it doesn’t modify a verb. Instead, it’s used almost like an interjection (or even a throat-clearer).

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of the adverb:

“Employed without construction to introduce a remark or statement, sometimes implying that the speaker or writer accepts a situation, etc., already expressed or indicated, or desires to qualify this in some way, but frequently used merely as a preliminary or resumptive word.”

So “well” can be used merely to introduce a conversation (“Well, what do you think about so and so?”) or resume one (“Well, let’s get back to the subject of so and so”).

One thing you can say in favor of this usage is that it has a lot of history.

The OED’s first citation comes from King Alfred’s translation of  Boethius into Old English, circa 888: “Wella, wisan men, …” (Well, wise men, …).

The word has been steadily used in this way ever since.

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Into the woulds

Q: I was speaking to a Brazilian friend and said something like this: “When I was a boy, I would go to a theater every Saturday and watch two films, a newsreel, a short subject, and a cartoon for 30 cents.” A look of consternation crossed her face. “You mean you can use the conditional ‘would’ in place of ‘used to’?” I told her yes, but I couldn’t tell her why. Can you? Can anybody?

A: We’re surprised that your Brazilian friend found this use of “would” more astounding than seeing those two films and all the rest for 30 cents!

We’ve written before on the blog about the use of “would” to express a tentative question or request. Example: “I would like to borrow that book when you’re finished reading it” instead of “I want to borrow it.”

Your question is different, though. In a sentence like “When I was a boy, I would go to the theater every Saturday,” the word “would” is not the conditional; it’s the simple past tense of the verb “will.”

Here we’re not talking about the “will” that’s an auxiliary (or “helping”) verb to indicate a future action.

This “will” is a verb in itself, meaning to intend or desire. It expresses volition, intention, or voluntary action (as in “Do what you will”).

When “would” is the past tense of “will,” it can have many meanings: wished to, intended to, chose to, was capable of, was determined to, insisted on, was accustomed to, or used to.

And in many of these usages (as when it means wished to or used to), “would” is generally followed by an infinitive: “would go,” “would take,” “would find,” “would eat,” and so on.

(Yes, “go,” “take,” “find,” and “eat” are infinitives despite the absence of the prepositional marker “to.” We’ve written before about these “to”-less infinitives as well as the split infinitive myth.)

Getting back to “would” plus an infinitive, the Oxford English Dictionary cites this example from the works of Daniel Defoe in which “would” is used in the sense of wished to:

“Mrs. Bargrave asked her whether she would drink some Tea” (from A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, the Next Day after her Death, to One Mrs. Bargrave, 1707).

Now here’s a citation in which it means used to, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1848): “The girls would ask her … for a little music, and she would sing her three songs.”

This posting barely scratches the surface of “would,” which is a many-splendored verb with a multitude of uses. But we hope it answers your question.

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Can you “read” an audio book?

Q: I believe you can “read” an audio book, but some people insist you can only “listen” to it. They feel that engaging in a book with your ears is inferior to using your eyes. What’s your take on this? And what about books written in Braille?

A: In our opinion, reading and listening are different experiences, though we don’t necessarily see one as better than the other.

And by reading, we mean interpreting a written text, whether with the eyes or the fingertips.

As you know, much of the ancient literature that’s survived into modern times was preserved in people’s memories and recited to generations of listeners, until at last it was committed to writing.

But the listener and the reader have different ways of engaging with that literature. Listening can be profoundly absorbing, of course. But it’s absorbing in a way that’s different from reading. 

Listening requires two people—one to recite and one to listen. Reading is more solitary; the only “voice” you hear is your own.

In an audio recording, for example, the voice (often an actor or other professional) might supply interpretive nuances that the reader of a book would have to supply for himself.

That’s what we mean by different ways of engaging. And that’s why we would have to say that one doesn’t read an audio book—one listens to it.

Interestingly, the verb “read” meant a lot more than to take in written words when it showed up in the early days of English.

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, “read” also meant to consider, interpret, discern, guess, discover, and so on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In other words, the process of reading has always meant something more than merely taking in words with our eyes.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) points out that English is “one of the few western European languages that does not derive its verb for ‘to read’ from Latin legere.

In an etymology note, the dictionary says the Latin verb for read gave the Italians leggere, the French lire, the Germans lesen, and so on.

Read comes from the Old English verb raedan, ‘to advise, interpret (something difficult), interpret (something written), read,’ ” American Heritage adds.

It seems that Anglo-Saxons also felt that reading was a more involved way of taking in information than listening.

In saying this, we’re not making a value judgment about reading versus listening. We’re merely recognizing that the experiences aren’t the same.

So how do the two of us experience them?

Well, we find ourselves more engaged by words on the page than by words in an audio book.

After all, we can listen to an audio book while driving, though perhaps the driving should get all of our concentration!

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Do your bangs stay bung?

Q: Why does the word “bangs” refer to a fringe of hair cut straight across the forehead?

A: The use of “bangs” (or “bang”) for that short fringe of hair originated in the US in the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the usage has its roots in “bangtail,” an equine term seen on both sides of the Atlantic. So let’s start our investigation in the stables.

The word “bangtail” is defined in the OED as “a (horse’s) tail, of which the hair is allowed to grow to a considerable length and then cut horizontally across so as to form a flat even tassel-like end.”

The dictionary notes that the term has also been used in Australia for cattle with tails cut that way, and in the US as slang for a horse, especially a race horse.

The earliest citation for “bangtail” in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Scottish journal, suggesting that the term may have first reared its head in the British Isles.

Green’s cites an 1812 issue of the Edinburgh Review that mentions a stud horse named Bangtail, but the name surely came from an even earlier use of the term.

Through a Google search we found a comic British story about fox-hunting, published in 1851, in which “bang-tail” appears least seven times in reference to tails as well as horses.

The story, “Turning Out a Bagman,” by a writer signed “B.P.W.,” is about two London greenhorns who are on vacation and want to hire a pair of hunters.

The showily groomed horses they hire are called “bang-tails,” and are described as having “such flowing bang-tails as at once stamped them in the eyes of our friends as ‘out-and-out’ thorough-breds.”

The story is chockfull of slang (like “bagman” to mean “fox”), which may explain the repeated use of “bang-tail” instead of “horse.”

Apparently it didn’t take long for “bang” to graduate from horse tails to human hair.

We found an 1844 travel book, Revelations of Russia by Charles Frederick Henningsen, that mentions a man’s hair cut “somewhat in the fashion of a thorough-bred’s ‘bang-tail.’ ”

In another travel book we came across an 1849 entry that describes a woman whose hair was braided in back and “cut in bang style” in front.

The OED’s earliest citation for the human usage is from a letter written in 1878 by Frances M. A. Roe, author of Army Letters From an Officer’s Wife: “It had a heavy bang of fiery red hair.” (The “bang” was on a face mask in a shop window in Helena, in the Montana Territory.)

Another American, William Dean Howells, also used the word in his book The Undiscovered Country (1880): “His hair cut in front like a young lady’s bang.”

A Google search turned up a plural reference in an 1883 article from the New York Times. A Catholic priest, lecturing Sunday school children, “condemned the fashion of wearing ‘bangs’ in severe terms.”

A matching adjective (as in “banged” hair) and verb (to “bang” or cut the front hair straight across) also emerged in the 1880s, according to citations in the OED.

Here are a couple of examples: “He was bareheaded, his hair banged even with his eyebrows in front” (from the Century Magazine, 1882), and “They wear their … hair ‘banged’ low over their foreheads” (from Harper’s Magazine, 1883).

So it would appear that the verb “bang” (to cut hair straight across) emerged after the hairstyle and not before, unless there are earlier verb references we haven’t found.

That still leaves us with a question: Why did “bang” mean bluntly cut?

Both Green’s and the OED indicate that since the late 1500s the verb “bang” has meant to hit or thump, and the noun “bang” has meant a blow or a thump.

And “bang” has been used adverbially since the late 18th century, the OED says, to mean “all of a sudden,” or “suddenly and abruptly, all at once, as in ‘to cut a thing bang off.’ ”

Since the bangs on a person’s forehead, like a horse’s banged tail, end abruptly—you might say with a  “bang!”—perhaps the word is simply a case of creative English.

A collection of humor pieces, Wit and Humor of the Age (1883), takes the creativity a step further. In a story by  Melville D. Landon, one chambermaid asks another “if she banged her hair.”

“Yes, Mary,” the first chambermaid says. “I bang my hair—keep a banging it, but it don’t stay bung!”

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Here it is. Or is it?

Q: A Russian who teaches English in Moscow asked me about these sentences: (1) “Here is the key.” (2) “Here it is.” She wonders if “here” is the subject. Could you forward the cause of détente and shed some light on these structures?

A: Although each of those sentences begins with the word “here,” your student shouldn’t mistake it for the subject.

“Here” can be either an adverb or (less commonly) a noun.

It’s an adverb if it means “in this place” (as in “I was born here” or “Here is the car”).

It’s a noun if it means “this place” (as in “We leave here tomorrow” or in the expression “the here and now”).

In both sentences you ask about (“Here is the key” and “Here it is”), “here” is an adverb modifying the verb “is.”

The subjects of these sentences are “key” and “it.” In the first, the subject follows the verb; in the second, the subject precedes the verb.

The subject/verb order of the first sentence could easily be reversed (“The key is here”). But the same isn’t true of the second. “Here is it” is not idiomatic English.

Generally, when the pronoun “it” is used in place of a subject noun, it precedes the verb. An exception is an interrogative sentence (“Where is it?”).  

“It” usually follows the verb if it’s an object instead of a subject. For example: “This is it.” (The subject is “this,” the object “it.”)

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Let the cat out of the bag

Q: The expression “let the cat out of the bag” means to reveal a secret that’s impossible to take back. Why? This is a no-brainer for anyone who has ever tried to get a wise cat into a carrier to go to the veterinarian.  

A: It seems to be raining cats here. This is the second question we’ve had lately about feline expressions. The earlier posting discussed “the cat’s pajamas,” “the cat’s meow,” “the cat’s whiskers,” and similar phrases.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees with you that “let the cat out of the bag” means to disclose a secret, but it doesn’t mention anything about the difficulty of taking the secret back.

The OED cites a 1760 quotation from the London Magazine: “We could have wished that the author … had not let the cat out of the bag.”

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English gives an earlier date, 1750, though it doesn’t provide a source.

But why a cat, and why a bag?

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests this expression is a variation on the “pig in a poke” theme. Here’s Brewer’s explanation for the porcine phrase:

A pig in a poke. A blind bargain. The reference is to a common trick of yore of trying palm off on a greenhorn a cat for a sucking-pig. If he opened the poke or sack he ‘let the cat out of the bag,’ and the trick was disclosed. The ruse is referred to in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1580). The French chat en poche refers to the fact, while our proverb refers to the trick.”

(We checked Tusser’s book and found a reference to “pig in a poke,” but nothing about letting cats out of bags.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms agrees with the Brewer’s explanation. It dates “let the cat out of the bag” from the mid-1700s and says:

“This expression alludes to the dishonest practice of a merchant substituting a worthless cat for a valuable pig, which is discovered only when the buyer gets home and opens the bag.”

We’re a little skeptical here. One would have to be a pretty dim bulb to mistake a cat—no doubt meowing and trying to claw its way out of the bag—for a squealing baby pig. And wouldn’t you look to see what you were getting for your money?

The word sleuth Michael Quinion doesn’t buy the pig story either. On his website World Wide Words, he says the expression “let the cat out of the bag” does indeed date back to the mid-18th century, but he adds:

“Anybody who has ever kept a live cat in a bag for more than a couple of seconds will know that even the most gullible purchaser would hardly mistake it for a piglet. It may just possibly be that the phrase comes from the explosive exit of a cat from a bag when it’s opened, so suggesting an original connection more with the shock and surprise of the event than of disclosure of the secret itself.”

Quinion concludes that there may be another explanation, now lost.

If somebody knows the secret, we’ll have to wait for him to let the cat out of the bag.

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An ear for idiomatic English

Q: I teach a course in law school on drafting legal documents. In a matrimonial agreement on holiday parenting, I’d write “in even (or odd) numbered calendar years,” but a lot of my students would use “on.” Is there a preferred way of writing this? I have no idea how to spell “sprachgefuhl,” but is this an example of it?

A: As we’ve written many times on the blog, the uses of prepositions in English are very slippery and idiomatic, and they’ve been that way from the start.

Today, people generally use “in” with years and “on” with days.

Examples: “in 2001,” “in the year we met,” “on Tuesday,” “on the 27th,” “on Feb. 22, 1900.” (There are exceptions, of course, like “later in the day.”)

But over the course of their very long histories, both “in” and “on” have been used to pin down years. And, as citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show, the two have often traded places in time-related usages.

Since early Old English, the OED says, “on” has been used for “indicating the day or part of the day when an event takes place.”

And it still is. In fact, people even now say “on yesterday” and “on tomorrow” in some dialects of American and Irish English, a practice we discussed in a posting a couple of years ago.

In the past, “on” was often used where we would now say “in.” The OED has citations like “on thaem ilcan geare” (on the same year), “on wintra & on sumer” (on winter & on summer), and “on the day-time.” 

As for “in,” it was formerly used to indicate times in phrases where we would now use a different preposition, like  “on” or “at.” 

Here’s “in” used for “on,” in a citation from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “In a thores-dai it was” (In a Thursday it was).

And here’s “in” for “at,” in a citation from Shakespeare’s Othello (written before 1616): “The Duke in Councell? In this time of the night?”

So while most people would join you in saying “in” even or odd numbered calendar years, the practice isn’t necessarily universal.

And, yes, you might say this is an example of “sprachgefühl” (you missed the umlaut), a feeling for language, especially an ear for idiomatic usage.

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No money in the till

Q: Can you tell me the origin of the expression “no money in the til”? I looked up the word “til,” but couldn’t find a definition related to purse or money box or anything other than time.

A: The phrase is “no money in the till.” The noun “till” here is spelled with a double “l.”

The word “till” has three principal meanings:

(1) It’s a noun for a cash drawer or money-box.  

(2) It’s a verb meaning to work the soil.

(3) It’s a preposition or conjunction with much the same meaning as “until.”

By the way, the preposition/conjunction is not a shortening or contraction of “until.” And it’s not etymologically correct to spell it with one “l,” though the misspelling is so common that many dictionaries list it separately as a variant. 

In case you’d like to read more on the preposition and conjunction, we wrote a blog post several years ago about the convoluted history of “’til,” “till,” and “until.”

But getting back to your original question, the Oxford English Dictionary has no citations that include the phrase “no money in the till.” (However, it does have a mention of the “no”-less phrase “money in the till,” used in the literal sense.)

We also can’t locate “no money in the till” in slang sources or collections of idioms, but a Google search comes up with more than 900,000 hits.

An unscientific sampling of the Google results suggests that most people use the expression figuratively in the sense of being broke. It’s another way of saying the cupboard is bare or the cookie jar is empty.

The expression is used literally, however, in the earliest example in a Google Timeline search (from the Nov. 12, 1862, issue of the Daily Southern Cross newspaper in Auckland, New Zealand).

In a report about the trial of a man charged with stealing money from the Yew Tree Inn, the innkeeper is quoted as saying: “There was no money in the till when I saw it again.”

By the late 19th century, though, the expression was being used loosely. An April 12, 1882, item in the New York Times includes this quotation:

“Six days before election the Chairman of the General Committee discovers that he has four wards left to ‘take care’ of, and no money in the till.”  

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A dour pronunciation

Q: How do you pronounce “dour”? Does it have an OO or an OW sound?

A: These days, “dour” can properly be pronounced either way, to rhyme with “tour” or “tower.” But it wasn’t always so.

At one time, this adjective meaning stern, obstinate, or gloomy had only one pronunciation, the one with the OO sound.

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “dour, which is etymologically related to duress and endure, traditionally rhymes with tour.

“The variant pronunciation that rhymes with sour is, however, widely used and must be considered acceptable,” American Heritage adds.

The dictionary says 65 percent of its Usage Panel preferred the traditional pronunciation while 33 percent preferred the variant.

Both pronunciations are now accepted in standard American dictionaries.

The online Macmillan Dictionary, which has both British and American pronunciation guides, gives the two pronunciations for readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

English probably got “dour” from the Latin durus (hard), which may have influenced the traditional pronunciation.

The English word first showed in the 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says it appeared a century earlier in Scottish and northern English dialects.

We came across the word recently in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South (1855):

“Thornton’s as dour as a door-nail; an obstinate chap, every inch on him,— th’ oud bulldog!”

Actually, he’s not a bad guy when you get to know him.

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Why aren’t whites people of color?

Q: Why aren’t white people included in the expression “people of color”? This has bothered me for a long time. White is a color too, isn’t it?

A: You make a very good point. All people are really “people of color,” since no one’s skin is colorless.

But the description “of color” strikes us as better than “nonwhite,” which describes people in a negative way—that is, in terms of what they lack or what they are not.

And we’re not especially satisfied with “minority,” which is often inaccurate or meaningless.

The term “people of color” has surged in popularity in the last couple of decades, but it’s not as new as you might think.

Citations in the Oxford  English Dictionary show that the phrase was in use during the 18th century.

The OED’s earliest citation is from An Historical Survey of St. Domingo (1797), by Bryan Edwards, a planter and politician:

“The inhabitants … were composed of three great classes: 1st, pure whites. 2d, people of colour, and blacks of free condition. 3d, negroes in a state of slavery. … The class which, by a strange abuse of language, is called people of colour, originates from an intermixture of the whites and the blacks.” (The italics are Edwards’s.)

And here are two more early appearances of the phrase: “The Bermudian pilots are men of colour” (from  an 1803 issue of The Naval Chronicle), and “She is a woman of colour” (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, 1883).

The OED says that in phrases like these, “color” means “the hue of the darker (as distinguished from the ‘white’) varieties of mankind,” and “in America, esp. a person of black descent.”

Obviously, today the term “of color” doesn’t necessarily mean racially mixed, as it sometimes did in the 18th century.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting Usage Note on the subject:

“Dissatisfaction with the implications of nonwhite as a racial label has doubtless contributed to the recent popularity of the term person of color and others, such as woman of color, with the same construction. In effect, person of color stands nonwhite on its head, substituting a positive for a negative. It is interesting that the almost exclusive association in American English of colored with Black does not carry over to terms formed with ‘of color,’ which are used inclusively of most groups other than those of European origin.”

You might be interested in a posting we wrote some time ago about how blackness and darkness came to have negative associations (as in in such phrases as “black sheep” and “dark day”).

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Is the diaeresis driving you dotty?

Q: Why has “naïve” survived, but not “coöperate”? Why do we write “Noël,” but not “poëm” or “reïgnite”? I’d appreciate (or appreciäte) any help you can offer on the rules for using the diaeresis. This particular issue is driving me dotty.

A: In a word like “appreciate,” the “i” and the “a” toward the end are clearly not a married couple.

Those two letters happen to be adjacent but they’re not a unit and aren’t pronounced as such. They belong to different syllables, and no one could mistake the way they’re sounded.

But in some words, two vowels side by side are pronounced as a diphthong—one vowel sound gliding into another within the same syllable, like the “oi” in “oil” or the “ou” in “loud.”

Then there are vowel pairs that might look like diphthongs but are in fact separate sounds in separate syllables.

In this case, a mark consisting of two dots over the second vowel can be used to show that the letter is sounded separately and not part of a diphthong.

This mark is called a “diaeresis” or “dieresis,” depending on which dictionary you follow. The two standard dictionaries we consult the most differ on this.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) prefers “dieresis” while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) favors “diaeresis.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) says the occurrences of “diaeresis” in print outnumber those of “dieresis” by three to one, which is why we’re going with the longer version here.

A classic example of the diaeresis is in the word “naïve,” where the first two vowels are phonetically divided: nye-EVE. The mark over the “i” tells the reader it’s pronounced separately.

A diaeresis is also placed over a lone vowel to show that it’s not silent, as in the name “Brontë.” But in most names (as well as words) with diaereses, the mark is suspended over the second of two vowels: “Chloë,” “Eloïse,” “Zoë,” “Noël.”

In practice, however, many familiar words are no longer written with diaereses, since readers already know how to pronounce them. In familiar names, the marks mostly serve as decoration.

As Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) explains: “Since the sign is not often on modern keyboards it is often omitted in printed work; and it has also usually been dropped from such familiar words as aërate, coöperate (now aerate, cooperate).” 

But Fowler’s adds, “Occasional examples still occur, e.g., I reëntered the chestnut tunnel—New Yorker, 1987.”

Most publications don’t resort to diaereses as much as the New Yorker, where you’ll find spellings like “coördinate,” “reëngineer,” “preëminent,” “coöperative,” and so on.

In fact, “naive” often goes naked these days in publications other than the New Yorker.

In their entries for the word, both Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage indicate that the diaeresis is optional. The spelling is given as “naive or naïve,” indicating that they’re equal variants and the choice is up to the reader.

You mention “poem” and “reignite.”

In fact, the first has sometimes been spelled with a diaeresis—“poëme” in the 1500s and “poëm” in the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And we found a few examples in blogs of “reignite” spelled with a diaeresis, though the usage seems to be extremely rare and idiosyncratic.

Today when a writer  worries that a word could be misread, the solution is usually a hyphen (“re-enter,” “re-ignite,” “co-op”), not a diaeresis.

The OED defines the noun “diaeresis” as “the division of one syllable into two, esp. by the separation of a diphthong into two simple vowels.”

It adds that this is also the word for “the sign [ ¨ ] marking such a division, or, more usually, placed over the second of two vowels which otherwise make a diphthong or single sound, to indicate that they are to be pronounced separately.”

The word for the mark was first recorded in English in 1611, according to citations in the OED.

It comes from the Latin diaeresis, but its source is the Greek diairesis (division), which in turn comes from the Greek verb diairein (to divide).

Now here’s a little detour.

The roots of that Greek verb are dia (apart) and another verb, hairein  (to take or choose), which also gave us the word “heresy.” Etymologically, a “heresy” is a choice one makes, a “heretic” being one who makes the wrong choice.

But getting back to the diaeresis, don’t confuse it with its look-alike, the umlaut, which is also two dots above a vowel.

The word “umlaut” comes from German (um means “about” or “around” and laut means “sound”), and the mark is used in English only with German words and names.

It shows that a vowel sound has been modified, as in the word über or names like Göring and Gödel (which are sometimes rendered in English as Goering and Goedel). 

Both the diaeresis and the umlaut are diacritical marks (or “diacritics”). They’re not punctuation; they’re phonetic guides. Such marks are becoming less common in English, though they cling to some foreign borrowings.  

Besides the diaeresis and the umlaut, here are the most familiar diacritical marks, along with words they may appear with: the acute accent (“blasé”), the grave accent (“learnèd”), the circumflex (“bête noire”), the cedilla (“façade”), and the tilde (“señor”).

As for the “rules” on when and when not to use a diaeresis, the best authority is your dictionary.

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Two species of pronunciation

Q: Is “species” pronounced SPEE-shees or SPEE-sees? Or are they just regional variations?

A: Both pronunciations are correct in the US and both are given, without preference, in standard American dictionaries.

If you’re an American, whether you use SPEE-shees or SPEE-sees is more a matter of taste or preference than of regional variation.

However, SPEE-shees is preferred in British English.

This “sh” pronunciation is given in the Oxford English Dictionary and is preferred by Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.).

Fowler’s acknowledges the other pronunciation, but inserts the word “prissily” in front of it.

The online Macmillan Dictionary, which has both British and American versions, gives both pronunciations for American readers but only the “sh” version for British readers.

The word was borrowed from Latin, in which species means appearance, form, or kind. Its ultimate ancestor is the Latin verb specere (to look).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says that when it first came into English in the late 1300s, “species” was a classification in logic and meant appearance.

In the 1500s it came to mean sort or kind, and in the early 1600s it was first used in the biological sense, to identify groups of plants and animals.

The final “s” doesn’t mean “species” is a plural, by the way; like “series,” it’s the same in singular and plural.

In fact, the word “specie” is often used mistakenly as a singular form of “species.”

Although the two words come from the same Latin source, “specie” usually refers to money in coins.

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Are you ready for any more anymore?

Q: In your posting about the positive use of “anymore,” you caution against confusing “anymore” with “any more.” But one of your examples (“If you shout anymore, I’ll scream”) uses “anymore” where I (an Australian) would use “any more.” Am I misguided? Or is this a British vs. US thing?

A: In American English the one-word version, “anymore,” is standard usage for the adverb meaning “nowadays,” “any longer,” or “still.” And that’s how we used it in our posting.

The two-word version, “any more,” is standard in the US for the adjectival or noun phrases meaning “any additional” or “anything additional.”

But you’re right. This is indeed a British vs. US thing, though the British usage appears to be moving in the American direction.

The following sentences are considered standard in American English:

(1) “I can’t believe that you’re hungry anymore!” (Here, “anymore” is an adverb meaning “any longer” or “still.”)

(2) “If you eat any more hot dogs, you’ll explode.” (Here, “any more” is an adjectival phrase meaning “any additional.”)

(3) “Are you full or do you want any more?” (Here, “any more” is a noun phrase meaning “anything additional.”)

In explaining the US practice, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says the adverb “anymore” conveys a sense of time while the phrase “any more” conveys a sense of quantities or degrees.

As we said, however, the American view of sense #1 is not universal.

A British source, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.), notes that there are “sharp divisions” over whether to use one word or two for the adverb.

Fowler’s says American English “and other forms of English outside the UK tend to favour anymore, and this form is now being adopted by some British writers and publishing houses.”

However, the usage guide notes that the “majority of authors and printers in the UK … still print any more for this … sense.”

Another US source, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the one-word version is more common for sense #1, but it’s OK to use either one or two words for the adverb:

“Both anymore and any more are found in current written use. Although usage prescribers disagree about which form to use, the one-word styling is the more common. Feel free to use it as two words, if you prefer.”

The standard dictionaries we use most often—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—list only one spelling, “anymore,” for the adverb.

In a usage note, Merriam-Webster’s adds: “Although both anymore and any more are found in written use, in the 20th century anymore is the more common styling.”   

The Oxford English Dictionary spells the adverb as two words, “any more,” but notes that since the 19th century it has also been spelled “anymore.”

One last comment. With “than,” the two-word version is always used: “I don’t like shouting any more than you do.”

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Why does the “f” in “of” sound like a “v”?

Q: I’m puzzled by something. Why is “of” pronounced UV and not UF?

A: You raise a very interesting question.

First of all, the letter “v” wasn’t used in Old English writing. The letter “f” represented either an “f” or a “v” sound, depending on vocal stresses. 

This fact plays an important part in the history of the word “of.”

“Of” entered English from Germanic sources. It was derived from af  in languages like Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, and Gothic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word once had two forms—stressed and unstressed. In primitive Old English, it was spelled differently and pronounced differently depending on where it fell in a sentence.

The unstressed form (of) had a shorter pronunciation and the “f” was pronounced like “v.”

The stressed form (aef) was more drawn out, and the “f” was pronounced like “f.”

The vowel sounds were different, too. The unstressed form sounded more or less like UV and the stressed form like AHF.

The forms did not have different meanings, just different spellings and pronunciations. Soon the aef spelling disappeared, however, and for much of its history, until into the 1600s, this word was spelled “of” in both of its forms. 

Meanwhile, the spelling “off” developed for the stressed form, and eventually “off” became a separate word, with different functions to go along with its different sound.

The OED says “of” and “off” weren’t “fully differentiated” until the 17th century, and “thus of and off now rank as different words.”

One view of all this is that “of” and “off” were once the same word. Today it’s hard to imagine these two words as one with a single meaning, like the original of/aef.

In ancient times, the word’s primary sense was “away” or “away from.” But the original sense of “of” has become obscured over time. Even the OED admits that the history of its meanings is “exceedingly complicated.”

One things hasn’t changed much. Even now, we use different stresses in saying “of” and “off,” as in these underlined phrases: “The roof of the house blew off the house.”

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Pay pals: paid vs. payed

Q: Can the word “payed” be used as a legitimate alternative to “paid”—that is, as the past tense of “pay”?

A: In most cases, the past tense and past participle of “pay” is “paid.” (The past participle is the form used with “have” or “had.”)

For example: “I pay every month” (present) … “I paid last month” (past) … “For years, I have paid regularly” (present perfect).

The two standard dictionaries we use the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—agree on this.

There’s only one common sense in which either “payed” or “paid” can be used, according to the lexicographers at American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s.

This is when the verb “pay” means to slacken something like a line or rope, allowing it to run out a little at a time. Example: “He payed out the rope to give it some slack.”

English borrowed the verb “pay” in the 13th century from an Anglo-Norman word spelled various ways, including paier, paer, and paaer, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word ultimately comes from the classical Latin pacare, meaning to appease, pacify, reduce to peace.

In a note on the history of the word, American Heritage says: “Given the unpeaceful feelings one often has in paying bills or income taxes, it is difficult to believe that the word pay ultimately derives from the Latin word pax, ‘peace.’ ”

“However, it is not the peace of the one who pays that is involved in this development of meaning,” AH adds. “From pax, meaning ‘peace’ and also ‘a settlement of hostilities,’ was derived the word pacare, ‘to impose a settlement on peoples or territories.’ ”

In post-classical Latin, according to the dictionary, pacare took on the sense of to appease, and paiier, the Old French word that evolved from it, came to mean to pacify or satisfy a creditor.

This sense of the word, AH notes, “came into Middle English along with the word paien (first recorded around the beginning of the 13th century), the ancestor of our word pay.

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