The Grammarphobia Blog

No NYOOZE is good NYOOZE

Q: In your posting about radio pronunciation, you suggest that few North Americans say NYOOZE for “news.” Actually, an increasing number pronounce it that way. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and most people my age and younger (I’m in my ’30s) say NYOOZE. People who say NOOZE tend to be older or from the Eastern US.

A: We may have spoken a little hastily in that blog posting. You’re right—some Americans do indeed pronounce “news” as if it had a “y” in it: NYOOZE. But the number is not increasing.

Among ordinary speakers of the language, Americans who say NYOOZE are in the minority and their numbers are dwindling, according to people who study these kinds of things.

First, here’s what the dictionaries say.

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.), give both pronunciations as standard English without comment—NOOZE and NYOOZE.

The Oxford English Dictionary says British speakers use NYOOZE but Americans use both pronunciations.

Macmillan, which publishes both British and American dictionaries, says speakers in the UK say NYOOZE and those in the US say NOOZE.

Our hunch is that NYOOZE has been regarded as a standard American pronunciation for only a few decades. Our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition) has only one pronunciation: NOOZE.

Why does “news” have two pronunciations anyway?

As it happens, “news” is part of a small class of words in which speakers in Britain, and many in the American South, insert an audible “y” sound (linguists call it a palatal glide).

Other examples include “tune,” “duke,” “due,” “tuna,” “Tuesday,” “avenue,” and “stew.” Some interesting scholarship has been done on the subject.

“The pronunciation of such words as tune, duke, and news, it turns out, is one of the most marked differences between Northern and Southern speech,” the linguist Betty S. Phillips wrote in 1981 in the journal American Speech.

In the North and North-Midland, Phillips wrote, “the words are generally pronounced without a glide” (that is, they sound like TOON, DOOK, and NOOZE). In those Northern regions, she said, pronunciation with the glide (i.e., NYOOZE) is limited to rural New England.

“Only in the South and South-Midland does the [YOO] pronunciation remain in general use,” she wrote, “and even there the older pronunciation with the glide is being gradually replaced.”

In a more detailed follow-up article in 1994, and with fresh data on Southern speech patterns, Phillips confirmed that the YOO pronunciation was indeed fading in the South, especially among younger speakers.

“We are indeed dealing with a sound change in progress,” she wrote. “That is, the younger speakers are further along in the sound change than are the older speakers.”

Another article in American Speech, this one written by Ann Pitts in 1986, also found a decline in what she called “the Southern glided variant” (as in NYOOZE and DYOOK and TYOON).

But Pitts noticed something very odd. While Southerners were gradually dropping the “y,” Northern broadcasters were picking it up.

“The only answer to this puzzle,” she wrote, “is that the old glided variant has acquired a new kind of prestige which is keeping it alive artificially in the broadcasting register.”

Northern announcers, she suggested, may have interpreted the “y” sound “not as a Southern feature, but rather as an elegant variant appropriate to the formal medium of broadcasting.”

The “y” sound in some words, Pitts speculated, may have been kept alive by “snob value,” by “association with the British accent,” or by “elocution instructors teaching elegant speech in the North as well as the South.”

But in some cases the adoption of the “y” glide results in unnatural speech. Pitts reported an anecdote about clueless speakers who unknowingly turned the phrase “noon news” into a mock-elegant monstrosity: NYOON NYOOZE.

She also mentioned some other broadcasting oddities—”y” sounds inserted into words like “capsule,” “consumer,” “suitable,” “assume,” “super,” “revolution,” and others (SYOO-per, re-vol-YOO-shun, and so on).

But to get back to your original point, if the number of Americans who say NYOOZE is increasing, we haven’t seen any evidence of it.

Pronunciation aside, here’s something that may be news to you.

We were once surprised to notice that Anthony Trollope, a favorite Victorian author of ours, used a plural verb with “news” (as in “And now, here are the news”).

Today, the plural noun “news” is normally used with a singular verb. But in fact “news” was used with plural verbs through the 19th century, and it’s still used that way in Indian English.

The word “news,” meaning recent information, dates back to 1417, the OED says. Here are three OED citations (note the plural verbs):

“Th’ amazing News of Charles at once were spread” (Dryden, 1685).

“There are bad news from Palermo” (Shelley, 1820).

“There are never any news” (Thackeray, 1846).

But from about the mid-1500s, “news” was also occasionally used with singular verbs, as in this 1828 citation from Sir Walter Scott: “Was there any news in the country?”

Eventually, the singular usage became more common, and now “news” is routinely accompanied with a singular verb. Among other things, it means an account, a report, a broadcast, or information in general.

Finally, in case you’re wondering about the history of the expression “no news is good news,” we can tell you it’s not new. Variations on the theme have existed since the 1500s.

In a 1574 collection of proverbs translated from Portuguese, it appeared as “Evill newes never commeth too late.” And in a 1616 letter written by King James VI, it was “no newis is bettir then evill newis.”

But perhaps we really owe the expression to the Italians. In 1647, the historian and political writer James Howell had this to say: “I am of the I[t]alians mind that said Nulla nuova, buona nuova, no newes good newes.”

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Schismatic teaching

Q: One of the sisters in my old Catholic school used to rap our knuckles (literally) for pronouncing “schism” as SKIZ-em. She insisted it was SIZ-em. This was back in the ’50s and I still pronounce it SIZ-em. However, nobody else does. Where did SKIZ-em come from?

A: An old radio hand once scolded Pat for pronouncing the ch in “schism” as if it were a k. This prompted us to discuss “schism” in Origins of the Specious, our book about English myths and misconceptions.

When “schism” came into English in the 14th century, we wrote, it was spelled “scisme” and was pronounced SIZ- em.

The word apparently first showed up in print in the Wycliffe version of the Bible in 1382, and it originally referred to divisions in the Church.

We got the spelling “scisme” from Old French, but the ultimate source is schisma, Latin and Greek for “split” or “division.” (The Latin ch and the Greek letter chi are pronounced like k.)

Latin scholars got into the act in the 16th century, when they decided to stick an h in the middle of “scisme” to reflect its classical roots.

Despite the new spelling, the pronunciation remained SIZ- em for another couple of hundred years—until it began to annoy an 18th-century lexicographer named John Walker.

In his influential and widely popular Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), Walker wrote that in Greek-derived words, ch should be pronounced as k, so SKIZ- em “is the only true and analogical pronunciation.”

His opinion probably seemed reasonable to many people because ch was pronounced as k in two similarly spelled words of classical origin, “school” and “scheme.”

For the next 150 years or so, Walker’s new pronunciation was more popular with the people speaking the language than with those writing the dictionaries and usage guides.

The experts (like that sister at your parochial school) insisted SKIZ- em was an error until the 1960s, when the pronunciation started gaining a foothold in American dictionaries.

Today SKIZ-em is listed as the more popular choice in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). The old SIZ- em is a distant second.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes an even more distant third: SHIZ-em. God only know what Sister would have done if she’d heard that!

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Nasty Business

Q: Help me win a bet. I say Thomas Nast’s political cartoons gave us the word “nasty,” but my girlfriend disagrees. She’s read somewhere that this is bunkum. Please be the referee.

A. We hope you didn’t bet a lot because you’ll have to pay up.

Nast (1840-1902) was an editorial cartoonist whose caricatures in Harper’s Weekly helped bring down William M. Tweed, a corrupt political boss in New York City.

Nast could be nasty. An 1871 cartoon, for example, showed Boss Tweed as a potbellied vulture feeding on the carcass of New York.

But Nast didn’t give us “nasty,” a word that has been in English since the late 1300s.

At first, it meant “filthy” or “dirty” (as it still does), but in the late 1400s it also came to mean “annoying” or “contemptible.”

By the early 1800s, years before Nast was born, the meaning had widened to include “bad tempered,” “spiteful,” and “unkind”—adjectives that Nast’s cartoon subjects might have used to describe him.

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How much is everything?

Q: I saw this sign at a flea market in Greenwich Village: “Everything in the box 25 cents.” The items in the box were worth a lot more than 25 cents and I don’t think the vendor would have been happy if I took everything and left him a quarter. Shouldn’t he have said “each thing”?

A: The two standard dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—agree with you.

American Heritage defines “everything” in this context as “all things or all of a group of things.” Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “all that relates to the subject.”

However, we think that most people seeing that sign at the flea market would understand that the vendor really meant each thing in the box.

In fact, that’s what you understood. You realized that if you took everything and left the vendor a quarter, he would have called for Officer Krupke.

Although “everything” now refers to the whole enchilada, it used to mean pretty much the same as “each thing.” And even now there’s a sense of individuality built into the words “every” and “everything.”

For starters, “everything” is a grammatically singular pronoun, which is why we say “everything is” rather than “everything are.” But while using a singular verb, we think of “everything” as meaning more than one thing.

Why is this? As ever, the Oxford English Dictionary has the answer.

“Everything” is a compound formed from the adjective “every” and the noun “thing. And “every,” as the OED explains, is “used to express distributively [that is, one by one] the sense that is expressed collectively by all.”

In fact, “each” and “every” were once very intimately connected. The Old English word for “each” (ælc), first recorded in the ninth century, originally had the sense we now associate with “every.”

The word “every” developed from an Old English phrase, æfre ælc (“ever each”).

Here, the æfre part of the compound was added to intensify the meaning, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

So æfre ælc had a meaning much like our modern phrases “every single” or “every which.”

Little by little, the word was contracted until the modern spelling “every” appeared at the end of the 14th century.

“When every had ceased to be recognizable as a compound of each,” says the OED, “the two words were at first often used somewhat indiscriminately, but their functions were gradually differentiated.”

Today, Oxford tells us, “every directs attention chiefly to the totality, each chiefly to the individuals composing it.”

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Hers, ours, theirs—and mines?

A: I’m hearing a usage among teens in the Bronx, where I teach: “I got mines.” The speakers aren’t referring to either explosive devices or places to find ore. They’re adding an “s” to the pronoun “mine” in line with “hers,” “ours,” and “theirs.” Is this regional, cultural, or specific to inner cities?

Q: You’re right in thinking that “mines” is an alteration of “mine” along the analogy of “hers,” “ours,” and “theirs.”

The Oxford English Dictionary thinks so too, and identifies “mines” as a regionalism. There’s no mention in the OED of inner-city American usage, though.

Oxford says “mines” is chiefly Scottish, and several other linguistic sources we checked say it’s a feature of Scots dialect.

The OED’s first citation for the written use of “mines” (spelled “myns”) is from a letter by Sir John Drummond, a Scottish nobleman, in 1661: “Giv order to Bruntfeild for your part off his bond, for myns shall be at Edinburgh this weik.”

In another example, a Scotsman quotes an Irishman as using “mines.” It’s from A Sea Lawyer’s Log by William Lang (1919): “ ‘Innyone as hasn’t had a letter can have a rub of mines,’ says Moriarty, the big Irishman, generously.”

Apparently the Scots are still using “mines.” Here’s an example from Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing! (1992), a novel set in Glasgow:

“If there really was such an entity as the human soul then mines would be packing its astral bags and getting ready to ram the clenched gates of my body.”

The OED also has a 1977 citation from The Torchlight, a newspaper in St. George’s, Grenada, but we can’t tell who’s speaking: “I know you have your gun and I have mines.”

We didn’t find much in the way of scholarly articles on the use of “mines” as an American regional usage, but it’s obviously around.

It crops up in hip-hop lyrics as well as in blog postings and discussion groups.

Searches of the journal American Speech turned up a couple of leads as well.

A 1956 article quotes a man from Providence, R.I., whose method of laying claim to something—or getting “dibs” on it—was to say, “All mines, fellas, all mines!”

And a 1942 article reported that Hawaiian children were much more likely to use “mines” (meaning “mine”) than children on the mainland.

One of the better articles we found was about one teacher’s method of dealing with nonstandard usages like “mines.”

In 1996, Rhoda Byler Yoder, who says she teaches ”inner city students in Jackson, Mississippi,” wrote in The English Journal (published by the National Council of Teachers of English):

“After comparing the possessive pronoun pairs (my/mine, our/ours, your/yours, her/hers, his/his, its/its, their/theirs), students readily note the –s ending on all the other possessive pronouns when used alone and see that their use of mines makes logical sense. This knowledge inspires their pride in their language ability, allows them to chuckle at the illogical SAE [Standard American English] form, and increases their willingness to practice the SAE form.”

Here a natural question arises: Why do the other so-called nominal pronouns (those that can stand alone, like “his,” “hers,” “ours,” “yours,” “theirs”) end in “s” while “mine” doesn’t?

One might even ask, Why don’t they all end, like “mine,” with an “n” sound? Well, it turns out, there’s some evidence they once did.

As The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) points out, “hisn, hern, ourn, yourn, and theirn have a long history in English.”

“They arose in the Middle English period (c. 1100-1500) by analogy with mine and thine, forms that are older than my and thy and that can be traced to Old English (c. 449-1100),” the dictionary says.

In fact, American Heritage continues, “these -n forms may be older than the current standard -s forms, which arose late in the Middle English period, by analogy to his.

Although the old “n” endings may have history on their side, they’re now considered regionalisms.

“Most likely, hern, ourn, yourn, and theirn originated somewhere in the central area of southern England,” says American Heritage, “since they can still be found throughout many parts of that region.”

In the United States, the dictionary adds, “the forms appear to be increasingly confined to older speakers in relatively isolated areas, indicating that these features are at last fading from use.”

And “mines”?

“In some Southern-based vernacular dialects, particularly African American Vernacular English,” AH says, “the irregular standard English pattern for nominal possessive forms has been regularized by adding -s to mine, as in That book is mines.

And that’s apparently what you’re hearing among your students in the Bronx.

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A myth with a silver lining

Q: I was reading a book review in the Weekly Standard that said “sterling” (as in “pound sterling”) is an abbreviation of “Easterling,” a reference to the Byzantine empire and its stable gold coin, the solidus. Is this true? Or too good to be true?

A: It’s too good to be true; “sterling” didn’t come from “Easterling,” and “Easterling” didn’t refer to Byzantium. But the truth is pretty good too. Here’s the story, which reaches back into medieval history.

Until recently, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “sterling” was believed to be short for “Easterling,” but Byzantium wasn’t involved and this belief has now gone the way of the sixpence.

The word “sterling” entered English in Anglo-Norman times, when it was the name given to the English silver penny first coined after the Norman Conquest.

In its earliest appearance in writing, in the late 11th or early 12th century, the word is spelled in the French manner, “esterlin,” and an Anglo-Latin version, sterlingus, was recorded in 1180.

The current form (originally spelled “sterlynge”) first appeared in 1297.

The word’s origin is uncertain, but the OED suggests it was derived from the Old English steorra (“star”) plus “-ling,” a suffix added to nouns to form new and sometimes diminutive versions.

Some of the new Norman pennies had a small star on them, and since steorra was Old English for “star,” a late Old English word steorling (literally “little star”) could have meant “coin with a star.”

The OED calls this the “most plausible” explanation for the word’s etymology.

A couple of earlier theories have been abandoned, including one that the Old English staer (“starling,” the bird) is the source.

Some older pennies, from before the Conquest, did carry the image of four birds, but this explanation is not taken seriously anymore.

And the “Easterling” theory?

The belief arose because antiquarians in the 16th and 17th centuries assumed the coin was originally minted by “Easterling moneyers”—that is, German and Baltic money coiners.

This explanation, says the OED, has also fallen by the wayside.

As for Byzantium, we find no reliable source that says it was ever referred to as “Easterling.”

(A classical scholar, P. E. Easterling, has written about the Byzantine period.  And J. R. R. Tolkien used the term for people from the east of his fictional Middle-earth.)

Back in the real world, the Norman silver penny was highly respected, and was used as currency on the Continent as well as in Britain.

As the OED says, “Continental examples are frequent in the 13th cent., the excellence of the English penny having procured for it extensive currency in foreign countries.”

Thus there were words in many other languages for the “sterling” coin.

In 13th-century Britain, a “pound of sterlings” (later simply “pound sterling”) was originally a pound’s weight of silver pennies—or about 240 pence.

This is the source of “pound” as a British monetary unit.

In the 15th century, people began using the adjective “sterling” to describe silver as pure as the standard penny. In later usages, “sterling silver” meant silver of a particular quality.

In the 16th century, “sterling” also came to mean money as good as the standard silver penny. It also meant, more generally, genuine English money (or English as opposed to foreign money).

Later, “sterling” was also used figuratively to describe something fine or pure.

Here’s an early example, from a 1647 letter by the historian and political writer James Howell: “ ’Twas your judgement, which all the world holds to be sound and sterling, induced me hereunto.”

Finally, here’s a more poetic example, from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896): “Then the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.”

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Is crack addictive or addicting?

Q: Is the proper word “addictive” or “addicting”? I can find only “addictive” in my dictionary.

A: Both adjectives are OK, though “addictive” is older and more popular with speakers of English as well as the lexicographers who put together dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have entries for “addictive,” but not “addicting.”

(AH does include the participle “addicting,” minus a definition, in its entry for the verb “addict.”)

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has adjectival entries for “addicting” as well as “addictive.”

And some googling suggests that a lot of people are addicted to both: “addictive,”  58.7 million hits, versus “addicting,” 22.7 million.

The adjective “addictive,” according to published references in the OED, first showed up in the late 19th century.

In its original, pharmaceutical  sense, the dictionary says, it refers to “a drug or other psychoactive substance: capable of creating addiction or dependence.”

The first citation is from an 1891 issue of the Medical Temperance Journal, a publication of the National Temperance League in London: “Narcotic—Addictive—Opium—Alcohol—Cocaine.”

In the early 1960s, according to OED references, the meaning of “addictive” widened to include anything “regarded as capable of creating a dependence likened to that of addiction.”

Here’s an example from a 1962 issue of Film Quarterly: “Critical debates seem to be addictive as well as contagious.”

As for “addicting,” it first showed up in print in a 1932 issue of Science News-Letter (now called Science News): “Morphine, for instance, is strongly addicting.”

The OED says it means the same as “addictive.”

Both words were formed by adding suffixes to a much older word, the verb “addict,” which first appeared in English in the 16th century.

To “addict” originally mean to hand over someone or something in accordance with a judicial decision. The OED says this sense, which comes from Roman law, is now historical.

It was soon used in the sense of to “bind or attach oneself to a person, party, or cause” as well as to “devote oneself to as a servant, adherent, or disciple.”

This sense is now obsolete, but here’s an example from Trollope’s 1857 novel Barchester Towers (which we’ve recently reread):

“He had addicted himself to a party in religion, and having done so had received that benefit which most men do who become partisans in such a cause.”

Most of the other senses in the OED entry for the verb “addict” are now archaic, rare, or obsolete.

Today, of course, the verb usually means to be hooked (or to hook someone else) on a habit-forming drug or other compulsion—like video games, politics, or fries.

The noun “addict,” by the way, didn’t appear until the late 19th century. Here’s the first citation in the OED, from an 1899 issue of the Illinois Medical Journal:

“Indulgers in stimulating food, gluttonous feeders, tea and coffee addicts, are much more prone to beget degenerate and inebriate offspring than are the moderate users of alcohol with generally temperate habits.”

Yikes!

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A do or a don’t

Q: My wife and I run a cheese shop where we make sandwiches to order. Lately, people come in to order a sandwich and say, “I’ll do a ham and cheese.” I don’t care to know if our customers are going to do something besides eat the sandwich. I think this is poor manners in ordering. I’d like to know what you think.

A: We too have overheard this usage, mostly in delis and other takeout places, though occasionally in sit-down restaurants as well.

It’s certainly casual, but we wouldn’t call it ill-mannered. Then again, we don’t have to listen to it all day, unlike you and your wife!

The verb “do” has been around for more than a thousand years, and this usage seems to be a variation on a theme.

People have been using “do” to mean consume (as in “do a couple of pints” or “do a burger”) since the mid-19th century.

The three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang has examples dating from 1862 and the Oxford English Dictionary from 1867.

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from James S. Borlase’s story collection The Night Fossikers: “I asked him to come to Poole’s shanty and do a chop and a nobbler [a drink] with me.”

Here’s a more modern-sounding example, from a 1987 issue of the Sunday Telegraph: “An invitation to lunch might be pitched as, ‘Come on, let’s do sushi,’ or ‘We have to do some Korean.’ ”

“Do” can also mean to habitually eat or drink something, as in “You still, ah, do coffee?” (from William Deverell’s novel Mindfield, 1989), or “Ellis doesn’t do alcohol any longer” (from the Denver Post, 1994).

I’m surprised you didn’t say that you and your wife “do” sandwiches at your shop, since that use of “do” has been around for a while, too.

In this case, the OED says, “do” means “to provide or offer (esp. meals) commercially.” Oxford gives two citations for this colloquial usage:

“[Farmers’] wives are encouraged to take visitors and ‘do teas’ ” (from the Observer, 1966), and “The Marina doesn’t do meals other than breakfast” (from William John Burley’s novel To Kill a Cat, 1970).

Then there’s the ubiquitous “let’s do lunch,” which has been around since the 1970s.

The OED describes “to do lunch (also dinner, etc.)” this way: “to meet for the specified meal, esp. with a view to conducting business.”

Here’s Oxford’s first citation, from Richard Price’s novel Ladies’ Man (1978): “I was gonna do lunch; you wanna do lunch?”

And here’s a later one, from Nelson DeMille’s novel The Gold Coast (1990): “This is better than doing dinner or some beastly Easter thing with lamb parts and a house full of paesanos.”

Over the centuries, the verb “do” has had scores of food-related meanings, most of them slang or colloquial—that is, more representative of common speech than formal English.

The one you mention is slightly different from the others discussed here.

At a take-out shop, “I’ll do a ham and cheese” is just another way of saying “I’ll order …” or “I’ll have …” or “I’d like a ham and cheese sandwich.”

For an ancient and endlessly versatile verb like “do,” it’s all in a day’s work.

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What have we wrought?

Q: My dictionary says “wrought havoc” is an acceptable variant of “wreaked havoc.” But it adds that “wrought” is a past tense of “work,” not “wreak.” It seems to me that the only reason the “wrought” variant has come into common usage is that it sounds like the past tense of “wreak.” After all, no one says “work havoc.”

A: Actually, quite a few people say “work havoc,” though a lot more prefer “wreak havoc.”

In fact, both expressions have been around since at least the late 19th century, according to Google Timeline searches.

A Dec. 17, 1894, report by the House Committee on Banking and Currency, for example, comments on how easy it is for speculators to “work havoc in the market by withdrawing gold for shipment.”

And a Dec. 5, 1898, article in the New York Times has this headline about a fire that wrecked an insurance company’s offices in Manhattan: “Flames Wreak Havoc in the Home Life Building.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the verbs “work” and “wreak” in the two expressions mean pretty much the same thing: to cause or to effect something, to bring it about.

Published references in the OED suggest that the “work” version may have been more popular in the early days.

The dictionary has five citations for each expression, but the “work” examples begin much earlier than the “wreak” ones.

Although both expressions have a history, “wreak havoc” is much more popular today, with nearly 4.8 million hits on Google compared to somewhat more than 33,000 for “work havoc.”

As for the past tenses, “wreaked havoc” gets more than a million hits versus only 198,000 for “wrought havoc” and a mere 12,000 for “worked havoc.”

(The OED notes that many people assume “wrought” here is the past tense of “wreak,” rather than “work.”)

“Wrought” was the original past tense and past participle of “work.” As the OED explains, “worked” didn’t become established until the 15th century but is now the normal form.

However, “wrought” is still used in some “senses which denote fashioning, shaping, or decorating with the hand or an implement,” Oxford says.

As for their etymologies, “work” and “wreak” aren’t directly related, though both have origins in old Germanic languages.

By the way, we had a blog item a few years ago about the “havoc” part of “wreak havoc.”

In the earlier posting, we also discuss “wreck havoc” (a common misuse) as well as confusion over “rack” and “wrack.”

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As far as we’re concerned

Q: What do you make of this sentence: “The chapter is concerned to trace the trajectory of the process”? The author seems to be using “is concerned” in the sense of “intends,” but none of the dictionaries I’ve consulted has this meaning.

A: This is a new one on us, though people have written to complain about the use of “concerning” as an adjective meaning “of growing concern” (as in “The high water levels are concerning”).

In a posting on the blog a few years ago, we said “concerning” isn’t normally used this way as an adjective meaning “worrying” or “alarming.”

But “concerned” (as an adjective or a verb), can mean the same as “worried” or “alarmed.”

And “concerned” has another meaning as well—“involved” or “having an interest.”

No matter how “concerned” is used—whether to mean anxious or merely involved—it can be used with or without a preposition.

Here are preposition-free examples:

“We were extremely concerned” … “The concerned parties were gathered” … “The meeting concerned campaign strategy.”

And here are examples with prepositions:

“We aren’t concerned in the matter” … “He’s concerned with accounting but not with budgeting” … “Mom and dad are concerned about you” … “The doctor isn’t concerned by the lump.”

But what about “to,” the preposition in the sentence you’ve ask about?

When “concerned” means troubled, it’s often followed by “to” plus an infinitive.

Examples: “The doctor wasn’t concerned to find a lump” … “I was concerned to hear you were ill” … “We were concerned to learn you’d been fired.”

However, the “to”-plus-infinitive construction is less common when “concerned” has to do simply with involvement—having a responsibility or obligation to do something, having it as one’s business, or caring about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many examples of this less common usage, but most of them are centuries old. We’ll give a few and insert the meaning in brackets.

1652: “Princes are concerned [obligated] to bee warie and careful” (from a translation of Marchamont Nedham’s Of the Dominion or Ownership of the Sea).

1659: “That gentleman will be concerned [make it his business] to name them in a fitter season” (from Thomas Burton’s Diary).

1735: “I shall think myself concern’d [responsible] to pursue my Thoughts upon this Subject” (from John Price’s Some Considerations … for Building a Stone-bridge Over the River Thames).

1876: “I am not concerned [don’t care] to tell of the food that was eaten in that green refectory” (from George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda).

In modern English, we don’t see this usage much. And there’s a good reason—it’s sometimes ambiguous.

Take the sentence “The doctor wasn’t concerned to find a lump.”

Most of us would interpret this as meaning the doctor wasn’t worried. But a 17th-century interpretation could mean the doctor didn’t make it his business to look for a lump.

If there’s no worrying involved, as in the example you cite, modern writers would avoid using “concerned” plus “to” plus an infinitive.

We’d rewrite the sentence using “with” as the preposition: “The chapter is concerned with tracing the trajectory of the process.”

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Is it racist to “stereotype” a language?

Q: Some friends called me a racist for saying, “Hebrew looks like a horizontal line with squiggly writing across it.” And other friends were offended when I said, “English is insane, given its bizarre and sometimes arbitrary rules.” Am I insensitive for “stereotyping” these languages? Don’t be afraid to tell me I’m wrong.

A: No, we don’t think it was insensitive of you to describe Hebrew and English the way you did. It may have been wrongheaded, but not insensitive! You were describing languages, not people.

Your description of Hebrew (we assume you’re referring to script) would apply to handwriting in just about any unfamiliar language: Arabic, Swahili, Vietnamese, even English, though some languages can be written vertically.

As for your comment about English, we don’t think it was poor form, but we disagree with you that the rules of English are “bizarre and sometimes arbitrary.”

In fact, the rules of English are quite sensible, and stretchy when a little flexibility is required.

If a “rule” doesn’t make sense or puts you in a straitjacket, it’s probably not a rule at all.

The prohibition against “splitting” an infinitive, for example, is a perfect example of a bogus rule.

Two other phony no-noes: beginning a sentence with a conjunction and ending one with a preposition.

If any readers of the blog disagree with us about these “rules,” take a moment to look at the Grammar Myths page on Grammarphobia.com.

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Hats off to the bowler

Q: The French word for bowler (the hat) is melon, which also means what you’d think it does in France. I assume that English speakers similarly call the hat a “bowler” because it resembles an upside-down bowl?

A: The French aren’t the only ones to name the hat for a round object. In Dutch, it’s bolhoed (globe hat), in Spanish hongo (mushroom), in German melone, and in Italian bombetta (little bomb—think of a cartoon bomb).

It may seem logical, therefore, that the English word comes from “bowl,” and many people make that assumption, but there’s another kind of logic at work here.

The bowler was created in 1850 for William Coke II, later the earl of Leicester, who wanted a snug hat with a hard, rounded crown to protect his gamekeepers from branches as they rode on horseback.

His purveyors of headgear, James and George Lock of No. 6 St. James’s Street, London, designed the hat and had it produced by their chief suppliers, Thomas and William Bowler of Southwark.

The hat took its name from the Bowler label inside and not from its bowl-like shape.

The bowler has also been called a “derby,” especially in the United States, apparently because of its association with horseback riding and races, or “derbies.”

(Americans say DUR-bee, by the way, and the British say DAR-bee.)

The original Derby, run in 1780 at Epsom Downs in Surrey, was named after Edward Stanley, 12th earl of Derby.

He had earned the right to name the race by winning a coin toss with Sir Charles Bunbury, but Sir Charles got the last laugh when his horse Diomed won.

We’ve written in more detail about the bowler in Origins of the Specious, our book about English myths and misconceptions.

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Was the Joplin tornado surreal?

Q: I’m disappointed that “surreal” has become the adjective of choice for disasters. Example: “The Joplin tornado was surreal.” Argh! I can’t stand the loss of what was once a beautiful, subtle word for the dreamlike worlds of Jung and Dali.

A: You’re right that the word “surreal” got a real workout last month as people struggled for words to describe the death and destruction in Joplin, Missouri.

And, yes, the word was probably overused (we got more than 1.2 million hits when we googled “surreal” and “Joplin”), but we don’t think it was necessarily misused.

The adjective “surreal” broke away from its artistic and psychoanalytic roots quite a few decades ago. It has long been a favorite of newspaper headline writers looking for a way of describing something weird, unreal, incongruous, etc.

A 1970 headline in the New York Times, for example, used it to describe Vice President Spiro Agnew’s efforts to support Republican candidates for Congress: “For Agnew, a Surreal Campaign.”

A 1972 headline in the Los Angeles Times used the term to describe the presentation of fashion awards: “Surreal Theatrics at Coty Ceremony.”

And a 1982 headline in the Montreal Gazette used it to describe an interview with the Libyan leader: “Khadafi gives ‘surreal’ interview.”

More in line with the usage that bugs you, here’s a headline from the San Jose Mercury about a 1985 earthquake in Mexico: “WITNESSES DESCRIBE SURREAL, SPECTACULAR SCENE.

We had a blog item a couple of years ago when a reader complained about the use of “surrealistic” for “surreal.”

Both words are 1930s offshoots of two earlier ones, the noun “surrealism” (1917) and the adjective “surrealist” (1918), coined by the French painter Guillaume Apollinaire (originally as surréalisme and surréaliste).

The French words were immediately absorbed into English, where “surrealist” became a noun (meaning an adherent of surrealism) as well as an adjective.

Surrealism refers to works of art, literature, film, or theater that seek to express the world of the subconscious mind by using techniques like juxtaposing realistic images in an irrational way.

As the poet André Breton explained in his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), the aim was to transmute “those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak.”

These days, as you’ve observed, “surrealism” and company are used both inside and outside the worlds of art, literature, film, and so on.

In everyday language, both “surreal” and “surrealistic” can simply mean dreamlike, unreal, strange, and so on. In our opinion, though, they’re a bit overused.

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Advocacy English

Q: Do you “advocate” something? Or do you “advocate for” something?

A: If you rally round a cause, you “advocate” it; you don’t “advocate for” it (“He advocates universal free health care”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says the verb means to “speak, plead, or argue in favor of” something.

So a prepositional sense (“in favor of”) is part of the verb and no additional preposition or prepositional phrase is necessary.

However, “advocate” is also a noun meaning a supporter or defender (“He is an advocate of universal free health care”).

Although the verb shouldn’t be followed by a preposition (like “for”)  or a prepositional phrase (like “in favor of”), the noun is another matter.

It can stand alone (“She is an advocate”) and it can be followed by a prepositional phrase (“She’s an advocate of free school lunches” … “He’s an advocate for the underprivileged”).

Perhaps that last usage (to be an “advocate for” something) leads people to use “advocate for” as a verb phrase.

But using “advocate” as part of a verb phrase (as in “We advocate for cheaper prescription drugs”) isn’t considered standard usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Advocate the verb is used almost entirely as a transitive verb and usually takes no preposition at all.” (A transitive verb is one that needs a direct object to make sense.)

The noun “advocate” (pronounced AD-vuh-kut) was first recorded in English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It came into the language from the Old French avocat, which in turn came from the Latin advocatus. The Latin meaning was “one summoned or ‘called to’ another, especially one called in to aid one’s cause in a court of justice,” the OED explains.

In 14th-century England, the noun “advocate” had both a legal meaning (one who pleads in court) and a more figurative or general sense: “one who pleads, intercedes, or speaks for, or in behalf of, another; a pleader, intercessor, defender.”

The verb in its modern sense (pronounced AD-vuh-kate) came much later, in the mid-1700s, the OED says. And Benjamin Franklin, for one, didn’t like it.

In a 1789 letter to Noah Webster, Franklin complained about several new words, including the use of “advocate” as a verb.

“If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations,” Franklin said, “you will use your authority in reprobating them.”

Webster apparently felt differently. In An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), he described the verb as transitive, with the meaning “to plead in favor of; to defend by argument, before a tribunal; to support or vindicate.”

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For “instance”

Q: I read your post on “incident” vs. “incidence,” and it made me curious about whether “instance” is related? All three words seem to have a lot in common.

A: Like “incident” and “incidence,” the word “instance” was borrowed from French and ultimately comes from Latin.  But “instance” is derived from a different Latin root. Here’s the story.

When “instance” first showed up in English in the 14th century, it referred to urgent pressure exerted in trying to get someone to do something.

That’s understandable, since the French instance then meant, among other things, eagerness, anxiety, and solicitation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word (circa 1340) is from a Middle English treatise by the religious writer Richard Rolle: “At the prayere and instaunce of other.” (The “th” in “the” and “other” was represented by a runic letter called a thorn.)

Although this urgent sense of the word is now considered obsolete, we do have a similar sense: instigation, urging, or request. Example: “I’m writing you at the instance of my client.”

Over the years, “instance” has taken on a lot of other meanings: an occurrence, a fact used to make a point, the present time, and so on.

The word “instance” is ultimately derived from the Latin instantia (presence or urgency), while “incident” and “incidence” come from the Latin incidere (to fall into, fall upon, happen).

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Does the prefix “re-” have a dark side?

Q: Why do so many negative words begin with the prefix “re-”? For example: “reprehensible,” “reprove,” “reproach”?

A: Is there something evil lurking in the heart of the prefix “-re”? No, not really. And it doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning from word to word.

In Latin, the original sense of “re-” was “back” or “backwards,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in English, the OED adds, “in the large number of words in which it occurs it shows various shades of meaning.”

Here are those various senses, and you’ll notice some overlapping.

(1) Back from a point reached, or back to or towards a starting point. This meaning can be seen in “reproach” which in Anglo-Norman meant “to recall (something disagreeable to someone),” the OED says.

This sense is also in “reflect,” “reduce,” “recede,” “recur,” “refer,” “resilient,” “reluctant,” “refuge,” “retract,” “revoke,” “recall,” “resonate,” “repel,” “recuse,” “rescind,” “remove,” “respect” (literally, to look back), “remit” (to send back), and “reclaim.”

(2) Back to the original position. This sense is present in “restitution,” “receive,” “redeem,” and “resume.”

(3) Again or anew. This meaning is reflected in “recreate,” “renovate,” “reform,” “regenerate,” “retract,” and the many words that have to do with repetition (like “repeat,” “rearrange,” “reignite,” and many more).

(4) An undoing of some previous action (much like the negative prefix “un-”). Thus we have words like “resign,” “reveal,” “reprove” and “reprobate” (both of those last two are descended from the Latin reprobare, to reject or disapprove).

(5) Back in a place. This sense, the OED says, can be seen in words like “reprehend” (and “reprehensible”), “retain,” “relegate,” “refrain,” “reserve,” “remain,” “reside,” “relinquish,” and even “rest” (from the Latin restare).

As the OED points out, the meaning of “re-” isn’t always clearly defined, and in many cases new meanings have arisen and obscured the originals.

That’s only to be expected, because words with the “re-” prefix have been in English since the early 1200s. And words can undergo lots of changes in 800 years.

Some of the earliest “re-” prefixed words include “recluse” (adjective), “remission,” “recoil,” “record” (verb), “relic,” “relief,” “religion,” and “religious.”

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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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Hear Pat live tomorrow 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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When the subject is an object

Q: Pat writes in her grammar book Woe Is I that it’s OK to say “that’s him” and “that’s her” in all but the most formal writing. I don’t know how this could be true. The pronouns are nominative case. This means they should be “that’s he” and “that’s she.”

A: You’ve raised an issue that’s been argued among English grammarians for the last 250 years.

The question: After the use of the verb “be,” should a subject or an object pronoun be used?

In other words, must we always say, “It is he”? Or is “It is him” just as good?

The thinking among modern grammarians and writers on usage is that a subject pronoun (“That is he,” “This is I,” etc.) is appropriate in formal English.

But an object, these language writers say, is fine in informal English (“That’s him,” “This is me”).

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an excellent discussion of this in its entry for “it’s me.”

“The venerable argument over the nominative versus the objective case after the verb to be is a memorable part of our linguistic heritage,” M-W says.

The arguing began in the 1760s, with the two great warring camps led by Robert Lowth (nominative) versus Joseph Priestly (objective).

The remnants of those 18th-century arguments are still with us. But today “the grounds have been shifted,” as M-W puts it.

Now the difference between the two camps is no longer one of correct versus incorrect or standard versus nonstandard, but of “formal versus colloquial styles.”

“So instead of the old choice between right and wrong,” M-W explains, “we are now choosing a style; it is a choice that is much closer to the reality of usage than the old one was.”

It’s also worth mentioning that this “nominative-after-be” rule is a convention of Latin grammar, a convention the isn’t even observed by all Latinate languages (witness c’est moi).

And why should English be expected to adhere to a convention of Latin grammar? After all, English is not Latinate but Germanic.

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How “sooner” came to mean “rather”

Q: I used “sooner” in the sense of “rather” the other day, and it suddenly struck me as an odd choice of words. Is this meaning somehow related to the phrase “sooner rather than later”? Any insight into the origin of this usage will be gratefully received.

A: Why, you ask, do we use the word “sooner” in a sentence like “Elizabeth would sooner be an old maid than marry Mr. Collins”?

Let’s begin with the adverb “soon,” which entered English around 825 with the same principal meaning that it has now: in a short time, before long, quickly.

The word, spelled sona in Old English, was related to similar words in Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German, and other Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The comparative form “sooner” showed up in the early 13th century in the sense of “within a shorter time; more quickly; with less delay; at an earlier time or date.”

At about the same time, the OED says, “sooner” (chiefly in the phrase “sooner than”) took on the sense of “more readily or easily.”

Eventually, in the mid-15th century, this meaning gave us the one that struck you as odd: “More readily as a matter of choice; preferably, rather.”

Here’s an example from Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749): “I wou’d sooner swopp her to a Tobacco plantation.”

And here’s one from Trollope’s novel Can You Forgive Her? (1864): “I’d sooner it should be you than me; that’s all I can say.”

We don’t see any connection between this sense of “sooner” and the temporal expression “sooner rather than later,” which apparently arrived on the scene a lot later.

The earliest example of the expression in a recent Google search is from the April 2, 1869, issue of a Scottish newspaper, the Glasgow Herald:

“The man who has only himself to please finds soon or late, and probably sooner rather than later, that he has got a very hard master.”

The expression “sooner or later” (meaning at some time or other) is much older, dating from the 16th century, according to published references in the OED.

The earliest citation is from a 1577 translation of a Latin book on farming: “The stones, stickes, and suche baggage … are to be throwen out sooner or later.”  

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Probability theory

Q: I have been busy writing a requiem for an old, well-used word: “probably.” Its three syllables have been reduced to two, “prolly” or “probly,” by practically everyone, including my grandchildren, most of whom have had obscene amounts of money spent on them at top-notch universities. RIP, “probably.”

A: You’re not the first person to worry about the fate of “probably.” Just stick “prolly” and “probly” in your search engine—and stand back!

However, the demise of “probably” is much exaggerated, so don’t count it out just yet.

When they write, most people give “probably” its full complement of syllables and letters. In speech, though, it sometimes gets shortchanged, and comes out sounding like “probly” or “prolly.”

But in all probability, its full spelling will remain the standard. A quick Google search of the various spellings shows “probably” is far and away the winner and still champion.

As you might suspect, the adverb “probably” was formed from the adjective “probable.” It was first recorded in writing in the mid-1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1600, “probably” was first used as a sentence adverb—that is, one modifying an entire statement rather than an individual verb—and that’s the way it’s normally used today.

The OED does have an entry for “prolly,” which it says represents “a colloquial pronunciation” of the adverb “probably.” By “colloquial,” the OED means more likely to be encountered in common speech than in formal English.

Of course, writers have used “prolly” now and then to quote people, fictional or real, who pronounce the word that way.

The OED’s first citation for “prolly” is from H. G. Wells’s novel Christina Alberta’s Father (1925): “Prolly thiswe sitting on my beawawd.” And what that means we cannot tell you.

Now for a more intelligible citation, with “prolly” representing a dialectal pronunciation.

This is from a mystery by the British crime novelist Kenneth Giles, Death Cracks a Bottle (1969): “I don’t know wot ’appen to it. The mice prolly.”

Our advice: don’t worry  about “probably.” It’s more than probably here to stay.

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We not know

Q: In your posting about why “you not know” is ungrammatical, you say “not” always follows a verb in a negative statement. Not that I care, but is this always the case?

A: You have a very good eye! We should have said it generally follows the verb, and we’ve changed the post to read as such.

When “not” serves to negate a verb, it usually comes afterward, but it can come first in the following cases:

(1) in infinitive phrases (“I asked the children to not shout, not throw food, and not hit each other”);

(2) in gerund phrases (“Not graduating was a big mistake”);

(3) in participial phrases (“Not knowing his strength, he broke the axe” … “She has lovely hands, not spoiled by gardening”).

In addition to modifying verbs, “not” can modify other elements—a word, a phrase, a clause, or an entire sentence—and it can precede them.

We’ll supply a few examples:

“Not until I’d seen him did I realize he was coming” … “You can have dessert, but not till you finish your peas” … “Not once did he offer to pay” … “Not everybody likes him” … “Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins, not unkindly.”

As we all know, “not” can introduce a sentence fragment or a sentence whose verb is understood: “Not bad!” … “Not I!” … “Not now, thanks” … “Not on your life!”

And finally, as you say, “not” is used at the head of introductory phrases like “not that,” “not but that,” “not but what,” and so on. Such phrases date back to the late 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s a familiar example, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (written in the late 1500s or early 1600s): “Not that I lov’d Cæsar lesse, but that I lov’d Rome more.”

And this example is from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): “Not but that we sometimes had those little rubs.”

Not that this covers every possible contingency, but we think we’ve hit the highlights. Meanwhile, thanks for keeping us on our toes, not that we need it.*

*Actually, we DO need it! We appreciate your comment.

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Here’s to the graduate!

Q: We often hear someone raise a glass of champagne and say, “Here’s to the newlyweds” or “Here’s to the graduate” or “Here’s to victory.” But exactly what does “here” mean here?

A: “Here’s to” has been a common way of introducing a toast since at least the late 16th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s short for “here’s a health to.” A “health,” the OED says, is a “salutation or wish expressed for a person’s welfare or prosperity.” In other words, a toast.

The dictionary says the “here’s” formula is echoed in other drinking expressions like “here’s looking at you,” “here’s luck,” “here’s hoping,” and “here’s how.”

The dictionary’s first “here’s to” citation is from none other than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597): “Here’s to my love!”

Jonathan Swift used it in his A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1653): “Come, Madam; here’s a Health to our Friends, and hang the rest of our Kin.”

And convivial types have been toasting each other with “Here’s to …” ever since.

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Is “safer”more safe than “safe”?

Q: My dictionary defines “safe” as meaning without risk or danger, but it includes the comparative “safer” and the superlative “safest.” If there’s no risk or danger when one is safe, how does one get safer?

A: You’re right that “safe,” in this sense, means free from harm or risk or danger. And if one is truly safe, of course, one can’t be any safer.

But “safer” doesn’t mean safer than “safe.” And “safest” isn’t necessarily safe at all.

“Safer” simply means more safe, and “safest” most safe.

One can be safer than someone else and still be in danger. And the safest of three people may be in a lion’s den, though not in its mouth.

During a tornado, for example, someone in an interior room of a house is safer than someone in a car. And someone in a basement shelter is safest of the three. But none of them are truly safe!

Similarly, the term “safe sex” refers to sexual activity in which safeguards are taken to reduce the chance of getting or spreading disease.

But some people prefer the term “safer sex” to emphasize that the risks are reduced but not eliminated. In this case, “safer” suggests sexual activity that’s less safe than “safe.”

When the adjective “safe” (originally spelled “sauf”) entered English in the late 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant free from harm or damage.

English borrowed the word from French, but its roots are in the Latin salvus (uninjured or entire).

The adjective “safe” took on the sense you’re asking about (free from danger) in the late 14th century, according to citations in the OED.

Here’s a late 16th-century example from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew: “Whil’st thou ly’st warme at home, secure and safe.”

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An inner-office memo?

Q: I recently came across a person who uses “inner-office mail” as opposed to “inter-office mail.” When I questioned her usage, she informed me that many colleges use “inner” instead of “inter,” and that both are acceptable. Can you please shed some light?

A: A bit of googling reveals that it’s not uncommon to see such things online as “inner-office mail,” “inner office dating,” and “inner office relationships.” But Google helpfully (and correctly in these cases) suggests: “Did you mean: ‘interoffice.’ ”

Our cursory searching did indeed find quite a few examples of the misuse on academic websites. We won’t embarrass the colleges and universities by mentioning them, but they might consider sending around an interoffice memo on the subject.

“Inter” and “inner” mean different things. “Inter” means between or among. But “inner” (or “intra,” which is the more common prefix) means something quite the contrary: within.

That’s why “interstate” commerce is business conducted between states or across state lines, while “intrastate” (not “inner-state”) commerce is confined to a single state.

In a corporate or academic setting, an “interoffice” memo would be one between or among offices. An “intra-office” memo would be one sent around within the same office.

An “inner-office” memo could refer to one sent around within the same office, but “intra” is generally used in such compounds to mean within.

Besides, the noun phrase “inner office” has a special meaning—the chief or primary office, or one located inside another.

So an “inner-office” memo (if such a phrase were used) might mean one sent from, or within, the boss’s inner office.

One more word, about hyphenation. Most adjectives formed with “inter” and “intra” don’t have hyphens (“intercollegiate,” “intravenous”).

Adjectives formed with “inner” are sometimes hyphenated (“inner-city,” “inner-directed”) and sometimes not (“innerspring,” “innermost”).

When in doubt, check your dictionary.

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Talk radio: naturalness vs. clarity

Q: Most people don’t pronounce the “d” in “Raymond James.” Yet there’s an announcer on WNYC who makes sure to pronounce every letter. The result sounds awkward, as if there’s a little trip-up between the names. Is there a right way to pronounce this?

A: Normally, one wouldn’t separately articulate the “d” at the end of one name and the “j” at the beginning of the next. As you suggest, that would require a distinct separation of the names, which would created an audible bump.

In natural-sounding speech, these two letters would be somewhat elided, sounding like the “dg” in “fudge.” So the name would sound like “Raymon Djames.”

Similarly, in speaking a phrase like “broad jump,” one would normally elide the “d” and the “j” (as in BRAW-djump). Pronouncing each of those letters distinctly would require an exaggerated separation of the words, with a marked space in between.

When we speak normally, we don’t always insert a space between words, as we do when we write. Phrases are connected, even when we speak slowly.

Some abutting consonants simply don’t want to be pronounced separately. (A phonetician would give you a better explanation, having to do with tongue placement and so on.)

That radio announcer’s pronunciation wasn’t wrong, just a bit forced or unnatural. This isn’t a matter of correctness. Announcers don’t always use what most of us would consider natural speech. (How many Americans really say NYOOZE for “news”?)

In this case, naturalness was sacrificed for clarity, and that may not be a bad thing. No doubt the intention was to make the name as clear as possible. And in that, the announcer certainly succeeded.

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Is our posting toast?

Q: I have a question about your posting that Bill Murray introduced the expression “you’re toast” in Ghostbusters (one of my favorite films). It’s not for me to dispute your source, but I wonder how thorough the OED is in its monitoring of American slang. I’m certain I heard the phrase long before the 1984 movie.

A: We said in our posting that Bill Murray is responsible for phrases like “you’re toast,” but what he actually said in the film was “All right, this chick is toast.”

Never mind. You make a good point. From the available evidence, we have Murray to thank for the usage. But with the digitalization of almost everything, earlier examples may eventually come to light.

And now that the Oxford English Dictionary is online and constantly updated, we’re sure that it will be on the case.

The lexicographers at the OED do indeed monitor American slang, though in the early days slang in general wasn’t given nearly the attention—or respect—that it now enjoys at the dictionary.

Of course not all slang locutions make it into the OED, only those that its lexicographers think are likely to last.

Slang dictionaries are another matter. The lexicographers who compile them watch street language very closely, and they record even passing obscurities. Permanence isn’t an issue.

We checked the huge three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang (which only recently came out) and here’s what we found.

The adjective “toast,” meaning “facing serious problems; esp. in phr. you’re toast,” is credited to the film script of Ghostbusters by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.

This we know to be untrue. As we say in our posting, the phrase wasn’t in the script as written by Aykroyd and Ramis. Green’s should have credited Bill Murray’s ad-lib during the filming (which the OED does).

Green’s also credits the journal Campus Slang, edited by Connie Able, as reporting that the phrase showed up on college campuses in 1986—two years after the film.

We did several searches in the Google and NewsBank archives, but the earliest examples we found of “you’re toast” used in this sense were from 1987.

One more comment. Green’s is full of other, different slang uses of “toast.”

In 1984, for example, Campus Slang reported that the phrase “bad as toast” meant amazingly good or shocking. And as far back as 1971 “toast” was used adjectivally to mean excellent.

What’s more, a reader has written to us to point out that T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) has an even earlier reference: “ ‘You run a grave risk, my boy, said the magician, ‘of being turned into a piece of bread, and toasted.’ ”

But those are worlds away from the meaning we’re talking about.

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“Look” in its quasi mode

Q: In my dictionary, “look” is listed as an intransitive verb. How then would you explain the following sentences? “He looked me in the eye.” (Isn’t “me” an object?) “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” (Same question for “a gift horse.”)

A: “Look” is indeed an intransitive verb—most of the time. By “intransitive” we mean it doesn’t require an object. Examples: “Don’t look now” … “Look before you leap” … “Try to look interested.” 

But in statements like “look me in the eye,” “look a gift horse in the mouth,” “look death in the face,” “look the part,” and “look one’s age,” the verb is what the Oxford English Dictionary calls quasi-transitive.

“Look” is fully transitive (no quasi-ness here) when it means “to quell or overcome by one’s looks,” the OED says. An example: “When the bully confronted me, I looked him down.”

And it’s also transitive when it means “to cast one’s eyes over; to scrutinize; to examine (papers, or the like),” says Oxford. Example: “Please look the manuscript over.”

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Equal treatment

Q: Please forgive this ignorant foreigner’s frustration with the intricacies of your bewildering American English. I don’t understand why people say things like “Our federal debt is equally as bad as our federal deficit.” Isn’t “equally as” overkill?

A: Yes, we think it is, and many usage authorities agree with us.

Henry Fowler, in the original 1926 edition of Modern English Usage, says the use of “equally as” instead of “equally” or “as” by itself “is an illiterate tautology.”

R. W. Burchfield, in the 2004 revised third edition of the usage guide, quotes Fowler’s original comment and says “the echoes of his condemnation rumble on.”

If we were writing that sentence about the debt and the deficit, we’d use “as bad as” or “equally bad as” or (for more emphasis) “just as bad as,” “quite as bad as,” or “every bit as bad as.”

To be fair, though, we should mention that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage considers “equally as” an acceptable idiomatic way of adding emphasis.

Equally as is certainly not ‘illiterate,’ and its redundancy is more apparent than real,” M-W says. “We would describe it as an idiomatic phrase that is equivalent to just as and that is widely regarded as redundant.”

In the end, though, the usage guide suggests that writers avoid using “equally as” because of the phrase’s bad reputation among language commentators:

“This innocuous phrase has drawn more vehement criticism than is warranted, but you may well want to prefer just as in your writing or to use equally by itself for emphasis where your construction permits it.”

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What’s up in headlinese?

Q: A recent headline in the Jersey Journal: Gunfire erupts in Jersey City after exchange of “What ups?” My question: What’s up here?

A: We’re not surprised that the headline caught your attention!

This might have been a better headline: Gunfire erupts in Jersey City after exchange of “What’s up?” Or maybe this: Gunfire erupts in Jersey City after “What’s up?” exchange.

There’s always a way!

(Like you, we didn’t put the headline within quotes so we wouldn’t have a pileup of quotation marks at the end.)

For the rest of our readers, here’s the key part of the story, courtesy of nj.com:

“The 19-year-old victim said he was walking east on Wegman Parkway near Ocean Avenue shortly after midnight when he was approached by two men wearing hoodies, according to police.

“The two men said, ‘What’s up?’ to the man, who responded with, ‘What’s up?’ police said.

“When the victim was about 20 feet away from the two men, the taller of the two suspects started shooting at him with a handgun, hitting him once in the left calf, according to police.”

Granted, each of the parties—the victim and the shooters—said, “What’s up?” But the headline writer made a mess by trying to pluralize the quotation.

There’s no correct way to do this, though. Or, rather, the “correct” way would be a monstrosity like “What’s up?”s. See what we mean?

But don’t be too hard on the headline writer. We’ve been in the newspaper business, and these things happen.

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Movie ad-libs: New and improv

Q: In Pat’s May 11 discussion on WNYC of movie ad-libs, she said the lines “I’m walkin’ here!” and “You talkin’ to me?” were improvised. They may not have been scripted, but they weren’t “improvised.” They’re everyday street talk in WNYC.

A: By “improvised,” Pat meant unscripted—in other words, lines that either deviated from the script or that actors were directed to supply on the spot, impromptu.

This is a legitimate use of the verb “improvise,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says can mean “to utter or perform extempore.”

An improvised or ad-libbed line is one supplied by the actor on the spot. It’s not necessarily original and never-before heard.

An ad-lib CAN be original, though, as with Bill Murray’s line in Ghostbusters (1984): “All right, this chick is toast.”

That line was not only improvised (that is, it deviated from the script), but was the first recorded example of this usage, according to the OED.

As we wrote on the blog last month, what Murray apparently invented was the use of a form of the verb “be” + “toast”—as in “I’m toast,” “you’re toast,” and so on.

This has come to be a common expression when stated in a proleptic way (that is, said of something before the fact), and it apparently originated with Bill Murray’s ad-lib.

Another ad-libbed line that Pat mentioned on the Leonard Lopate Show seems to have been original too. It’s Roy Scheider’s remark in Jaws (1980): “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

As one WNYC listener called in to say, Scheider’s expression has become a popular catch-phrase (sometimes as “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”) for people who find themselves in over their heads.

However, most of the ad-libs that came up during the show were not original material. Two, in fact, were deliberate allusions to earlier sources.

For example, there’s Jack Nicholson’s unscripted line in The Shining (1980): “Heeere’s Johnny!”

Nicholson improvised the line on the spot, but it wasn’t original. It was a deliberate allusion to Ed McMahon’s nightly introductions of Johnny Carson.

Another example is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): “I need a vacation.”

It was a deviation from the script, done on the spot as a joke. It was a line Schwarzenegger had delivered the year before in Kindergarten Cop.

Then there’s the “You talkin’ to me?” speech ad-libbed by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976). As De Niro himself has said, the line, though improvised, wasn’t original with him.

Various sources have said he got it from a stage line delivered by either Bruce Springsteen or a stand-up comic. But, as you say, it was probably popular street talk long before that.

And we agree with you that pedestrians had probably said “I’m walkin’ here!” in self-defense long before Dustin Hoffman used the line in Midnight Cowboy (1969).

We can’t say for sure that it was Hoffman’s ad-lib, however, since Hoffman and the producer, Jerome Hellman, tell different stories.

There’s similar disagreement about a line that brought the house down in When Harry Met Sally (1989): “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Of course, actors have been ad-libbing since talkies were invented.

In the very first feature-length film with synchronized speech, The Jazz Singer (1927), Al Jolson says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

It’s the first speech in the movie. And while it was impromptu (that is, unscripted), he had used similar lines before on stage.

The term “ad-lib” comes from the Latin phrase ad libitum (at one’s pleasure). Originally used as an adverb, the full phrase first appeared in English in 1610 and the abbreviation in 1811.

Through the 19th century, the term in both long and short forms was often used in music, as the opposite of “obbligato” (that is, obligatory).

But it was used in general ways, too, as in “to marry wives ad libitum,” a line from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1848 novel Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings.

The use of “ad-lib” as a verb, an adjective, and a noun, however, was a 20th-century American show-biz invention.

Here are a couple of early examples, courtesy of the OED:

“ ‘Easy money, friends,’ Miss Hoag would ad lib. to the line-up outside her railing” (from Fannie Hurst’s short-story collection Humoresque, 1919).

“ ‘Can the ad lib!’ which means, politely, ‘Will you be good enough to hush!’ ” (from a 1925 article in the journal American Speech about stage slang.)

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Purple prose, part 2

Q: I’m puzzled by your posting about the color purple. In the sentence “Jack painted his old jalopy purple,” I’d say “purple” is a noun, not an adjective.  Isn’t “purple” a noun in the sentence “Jack painted his old jalopy two different purples” (meaning two different shades of purple)? If it’s a noun there, why isn’t “purple” a noun in your posting?

A: In sentences like “Jack painted his old jalopy two different purples,” or “He painted it a purple that would knock your eyes out,” or “She turned two shades of purple,” the word for the color is a noun.

But it’s an adjective in “Jack painted his old jalopy purple.”

Here, “purple” is a predicate adjective, modifying “jalopy.” It’s analogous to the adjective “happy” in “He made Susan happy.” (The adjective modifies the noun “Susan.”)

There’s a temptation to label “purple” an adverb (modifying the verb “painted”), along the analogy of “He painted it quickly.”

There’s also a temptation to label “purple” a noun. But here’s a test. What possible noun could be substituted in that spot?

The only appropriate words are other adjectives of color (“green,” “blue,” “black,” etc.), or else adverbs/adverbial phrases (“quickly”/“in a hurry”).

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