The Grammarphobia Blog

Etymology unloosed

Q: I’ve read that the prefix “un-” sometimes serves to intensify rather than to negate, but the only example I know of is “unloose,” meaning to loosen or set free. Are there others? And, if so, are there rules for the usage?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary considers this use of “un-” to be redundant rather than intensifying.

Although the redundant “un-” isn’t seen much now, it’s quite old, with roots in Anglo-Saxon times.

The Old English words liesan and unliesan, for example, meant, among other things, to set free.

“The redundant use of un- is rare, but occurs in Old English unliesan, and Middle English unloose, which has succeeded in maintaining itself,” the OED says.

The earliest citation for “unloose” in the OED is from Piers Plowman, the 14th-century allegorical poem by William Langland.

But let’s skip Langland’s Middle English and go with an example from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (circa 1602):

“Sweet, rouse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid / Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The dictionary gives several examples of this “un-” usage that are now considered obsolete, rare, or dialectal.

In the 17th century, the verb “unsolve” meant to solve. And from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, “unstrip” meant to strip.  From the 16th to the 19th centuries, “unbare” meant to lay bare.

In some modern dialects, according to the OED, “unempt” means to empty  and “unthaw” to thaw.

One redundant (or perhaps extended) example of “un-” that’s seen a lot today is the use of “unpeel” to mean peel off.

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a 1904 letter by the philosopher and psychologist William James:

“The original ‘that’ may vanish in the infinitely regressive superposition of human ‘whats’—we can’t today unpeel them wholly.”

(We wrote postings in November and December of 2009 that discussed word pairs like “peel”/“unpeel,” “thaw”/“unthaw,” “bone”/“debone,” and others.)

Are there rules, you ask, for using “un-” this way? We don’t know of any, which is understandable, considering the rarity of the usage.

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The sporting news

Q: I recently saw the following in an online sports report (“sports’ report”? “sport’s report”?): “We’re not trying to pull the wool over Damien Hardwick’s or the Tigers’ eyes.” Is it correct to use two possessives? I would have used only the second one.

A: You have two questions here: one about the possessives in that sports report about the Australian Football League, and one about the phrase “sports report” itself. Let’s address them in that order.

First, the writer quoting Guy McKenna, coach of the Gold Coast Suns, was correct in using two possessives.

McKenna was talking about the eyes of Damien Hardwick, coach of the Richmond Tigers, as well as the eyes of the Richmond players.

The Richmond coach and his 22 players may see things alike, but not through the same eyes. Hence, two apostrophes: one for the coach’s eyes and the other for the Tigers’ eyes.

Did McKenna pull the wool over the eyes of Hardwick and the Tigers? We don’t know, but the Suns did beat the Tigers 85 to 70 on July 16.

(We won’t get into the intricacies of Australian rules football, except to say that it’s a version of football played Down Under.)

As for whose name gets the possessive apostrophe when there are two or more owners, we had postings about this in 2011 and 2008.

When a single thing is jointly owned by two or more people, we wrote, the last-named owner gets the possessive apostrophe (“Mom and Dad’s house is for sale”).

But when things are owned separately, then each owner gets a possessive apostrophe (“Mom’s and Dad’s eyes are failing”).

So McKenna was right (at least grammatically) in saying he wasn’t “trying to pull the wool over Damien Hardwick’s or the Tigers’ eyes.”

Finally, we get to your question about the phrase “sports report.” Does it needs an apostrophe? And if so, where does the apostrophe go?

The plural “sports” isn’t a possessive here, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe. It’s legitimately used as an adjective (technically an attributive noun) in “sports report.”

Here are some other examples: “sports team,” “sports fans,” “sports drink,” “sports car,” “sports pages,” “sports section,” “sports equipment,” “sports medicine,” and so on.

And the word sometimes teams up with others to form the first element in compounds, as in “sportsman” and “sportswear.” Now that’s sporting of it.

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Do we dignify this usage?

Q: I use the verb “indignify” in the sense of to insult or disgrace, but I can’t find it in my dictionary and whenever I type it in an MS Word document a red line pops up under it indicating a misspelling or a nonexistent term. Am I wrong to use it?

A: If you don’t mind sounding a bit quaint, go right ahead and use the verb “indignify.” You may get puzzled or even indignant looks, however.

Such a word does exist, but it hasn’t been used much since the 19th century. We found a few hundred examples in a recent Google search, but many of them were on language sites.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “indignify” means “to treat with indignity; to dishonour; to represent as unworthy.” The dictionary says the word is now obsolete.

It was coined in the 16th century, but not in the way you might expect—by adding the negative prefix “in-” to the verb “dignify.” Instead, it was formed from the suffix “-fy” and the Latin adjective indignus (unworthy).

The verb “dignify” also entered English in the 16th century. It was borrowed from Old French (dignefier or dignifier), which in turn came from the medieval Latin word dignificare (to honor or make worthy).

So “dignify” and “indignify” made their way into the language independently, though they’re related through a common Latin ancestor, dignus (worthy).

In fact, English once had two related adjectives, “digne” (worthy or honorable) and “indign” (unworthy or undeserving), from that same Latin ancestor. But those words, which were older than “dignify” and “indignify,” are now obsolete or archaic.

The OED’s first citation for “indignify” is from a long pastoral poem by Edmund Spenser, Colin Clout’s Come Home Againe (1595):

“I deeme it best to hold eternally / Their bounteous deeds and noble fauours shrynd, / Then by discourse them to indignifie.”

(We’ve gone to the original to expand on the citation. The word “shrynd” here means venerated. In later printings of the poem, “then” is changed to “than.”)

The OED’s last citation, dated 1743, is from Edward Poston’s The Pratler, a collection of essays and letters: “The very Idea … is greatly indignified, even by our aiming or pretending to understand it.”

However, we’ve found some 19th-century usages, and even a few strays in 20th-century writing, aside from the more recent sightings on Google.

Today, you’ll find “indign” in many contemporary standard dictionaries (labeled “archaic” or “obsolete”), but “indignify” is a rarity. The only entry for it we find is in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, where it’s listed as obsolete.

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Shortly later, alligator

Q: We have a usage question in the office about these two phrases, “shortly later” and “a short time later.” Is one correct or incorrect? Is one preferred?

A: “Shortly later” doesn’t strike us as idiomatic English. We’d say “shortly” or “later” or “a short time later.”

However, a lot of people like the usage. When we googled “shortly later,” we got 277,000 hits.

Perhaps they’re confusing it with the more common adverbial phrase “shortly after,” as in “The fireworks began at nine and we arrived shortly after.”

As for “shortly,” “later,” and “a short time later,” all three are adverbial usages (as in “I returned shortly” … “I returned later” … “I returned a short time later”).

The first two are straight adverbs and the third functions as an adverbial phrase. All three are perfectly fine.

It’s not unusual to have one adverb modifying another (as in “rather soon” or “relatively later”), but a combination like “shortly later” sounds clunky to our ears.

If we wanted a more informal way of saying “a short time later,” we’d go with “a little later” or “a bit later” or “somewhat later.”

And with that we’ll say, “See you later, alligator.”

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Who put the duck in duck sauce?

Q: Why is duck sauce called “duck sauce”? There’s no duck in this sweet sauce associated with Chinese food and I’ve never seen it served with duck. Any insights?

A: The “duck sauce” found in Chinese-American restaurants (and in those little plastic take-out packets) was indeed originally intended to go with duck.

But today it’s brought to the table no matter what you order. It goes with almost everything Chinese—and with many things that aren’t, like hamburgers.

We’re skeptical, however, about how Chinese this Chinese sauce actually is.

The use of the name “duck sauce” for this condiment appears to be an American brainchild, and so does the sauce itself or at least the orange stuff you now get in those plastic packets.

From what we can gather, the original duck sauce was what the Chinese would call plum sauce (plum, vinegar, brown sugar, ginger, etc.) or perhaps an Americanized version of it.

The Chinese chef Grace Zia Chu, in her book Madame Chu’s Chinese Cooking School (1975), has this to say about the birth of duck sauce:

“The name ‘duck sauce’ was created in the United States because this sauce was originally served with deep-fried pressed duck, which had no sauce of its own.”

She includes a recipe for duck sauce that combines Chinese plum sauce, apricot preserves, peach preserves, applesauce, dry mustard, garlic powder, and chili sauce.

The food writer Rhonda Lauret Parkinson, in The Everything Chinese Cookbook (2003), offers her version of the birth of duck sauce:

“Plum sauce was nicknamed ‘duck sauce’ after Western Chinese restaurants began serving it with Peking Duck, under the mistaken impression that this was an authentic practice. In reality, Peking Duck is traditionally served with hoisin sauce.”

However, the earliest published reference for Chinese “duck sauce” that we could find (thanks to the word sleuth Barry Popik and his Big Apple website) suggests that it was originally served with all kinds of duck dishes.

The citation, from Henry Low’s Cook at Home in Chinese (1938), describes “duck sauce” as a “kind of chutney good with any kind of duck.”

But let’s back up a bit. When we speak of duck sauce, we’re broadly referring to two kinds of sauce.

One is used in European-style cooking and is made with oranges. The other is used in Chinese-American cooking and may or may not be made with oranges.

Let’s start with the European version, which came first. This sauce used to be—and sometimes still is—referred to as “bigarade sauce,” and the dish associated with it as “duck (or duckling) bigarade.”

The word “bigarade,” which was first recorded in English in 1658, is the name of a sour orange, sometimes called the Seville orange, used in cooking, flavorings, and essential oils.

The essence for Grand Marnier liqueur, for example, comes from the rind of bigarade oranges.

It isn’t often that we go to the bookcase in our kitchen to research a language question, but our old copy The New Doubleday Cookbook came in handy here.

One recipe for roast duckling appears under three names. The cookbook says it’s known as “duckling with orange sauce,” “duckling à l’orange,” or “duckling à la bigarade.”

The recipe calls for a sauce on the side made with orange rind, sugar, orange and lemon juices, water, and brandy.

“To be strictly authentic,” the cookbook says, “this recipe should be made with bitter Seville oranges.”

English borrowed the word “bigarade” directly from French, but the ultimate source is probably an old Occitan word, bigarrada, meaning multicolored, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Occitan, in case you’re curious, is a Romance language spoken in parts of France, Italy, Spain, and Monaco.)

“Bigarade” originally meant the orange itself. But in the 19th century it also came to mean “a sauce made with bigarade oranges, and dishes, esp. roast duck, served with this sauce,” the OED says.

Oxford’s first citation for the word used in this sense is from an 1833 edition of The Cook’s Dictionary, and House-Keeper’s Directory, by Richard Dolby.

A recipe in the book for fillets of wild duck à l’orange says, “Arrange them in a dish, and serve with bigarade sauce under them.”

We looked up the recipe, and the sauce calls for the rind of a Seville orange. (It also says that wild ducks should be fresh: “if not fresh, on opening the beak they will smell disagreeable.” Maybe we won’t try this recipe after all.)

In Britain and the United States, the sauce served with roast duck has sometimes been called “orange gravy” or “orange sauce.” As far as we can tell, however, it is not commonly referred to as “duck sauce.”

The OED cites an 1845 recipe from Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery in All Its Branches (1845), which has a recipe for “orange gravy, for wild fowl.”

The recipe involves boiling “half the rind of a Seville orange” with “a small strip of lemon-rind,” then straining the liquid and adding port or claret.

More recently, the OED cites a 1950 advertisement in the New York Times offering “Tender and succulent Roast Stuffed Long Island Duckling … Served with Orange Gravy.”

In Chinese-American cooking, the term “duck sauce” refers to a similar but not identical concoction. As we said earlier, it may or may not contain oranges.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the term “duck sauce” as “a thick sauce in Chinese cuisine that contains fruits (as plums or apricots), vinegar, sweeteners, and seasonings.”

We’ll stick with Madame Chu’s recipe.

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Me and my shadow

Q: I’m constantly hearing “Me and (fill in any name) went to wherever.” I feel like an old school marm (which I am), but I’m astounded that the phrase is even commonplace in TV commercials. Is this now acceptable grammar? Am I missing something?

A: We can’t say that we hear this as often as you do—but then, we seldom watch television (too much to read and too much work to do!). However, we do encounter this misuse from time to time.

Pat was once invited to appear before a large group of school teachers and administrators in suburban New Jersey. A high school principal and one of his colleagues approached her beforehand to apologize because, as the principal said, “Me and him have to leave early.”

This is a true story. We have witnesses!

No, using “me” as the subject of a sentence is not considered acceptable grammar. It’s nonstandard English and widely regarded as a grammatical faux pas. What’s more, we don’t sense any change in the wind.

(We’ll have something to say later about why the practice persists, including one usage authority’s lukewarm defense of it.)

Language does change, of course. Variations in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning come along with some regularity, and if they persist in common usage they eventually gain acceptance. This is a natural process in the development of a language.

But grammar is much more resistant to change, as we’ve written before on the blog. The cases of English pronouns are well established, and “me” is an object, not a subject.

A much more frequent misuse in English is the mirror image of this one. Many people use “I” where they should use “me,” as in “That’s up to you and I.” We’ve written about this problem too, including posts in 2010 and 2009.

Getting back to this business of using “me” as a subject, why do so many people prefer “me” to “I”?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests that politeness may be a factor here.

Although “I and someone” and “someone and I” are the traditional subjects, Merriam-Webster’s says,  “I and someone seems a bit impolite.”

So, M-W adds, “in actual practice we also find me and someone and someone and me.”

Of the two constructions, the M-W editors say, “me and someone does have the minor virtue of putting the me in the emphatic position, where it is slightly less noticeable.”

Really? It seems to us that putting “me” in front makes it more noticeable, not less so.

In the end, M-W acknowledges that you’ll make a poor impression by using either “me and someone” or “someone and me” as a subject:

“Both are speech forms, often asociated with the speech of children, and are likely to be unfavorably noticed in the speech and writing of adults except when used facetiously.”

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Raise taxes? Read our lips

Q: Isn’t it ambiguous to speak of “raising taxes”? The verb “raise” has two meanings: (1) increase (“The bank raised interest rates”) or (2) collect (“We raised money for the Red Cross”). So “raising taxes” can mean either increasing or collecting them, right?

A: The verb “raise” has a lot more than two meanings, of course.

Since entering English around 1200, it has meant, among other things, to revive someone from the dead, stir up or instigate, lift up, build or erect, and cause dough to rise.

The word “raise” has roots in early Scandinavian, in which the runic word ræisa meant to erect a stone monument.

In Old Icelandic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, reisa meant to erect, build, start, rebel, cause to rise, and many other things.

But getting back to your question, the English verb “raise” came to mean to collect taxes, rent, money, and so on in the 14th century.

But none of the OED’s citations for “raise” used in the sense of collecting taxes actually use the word “taxes.”

The earliest example of this usage in the dictionary is from a 1389 ordinance of an English guild: “It schal ben reysed and gadered be ye alderman and his felas.”

And here’s a 1688 example from a collection of pamphlets and official papers issued by the colonial government in Massachusetts: “Impowered to make Laws and raise moneys on the Kings Subjects.”

When the verb “raise” and the noun “taxes” are used together, it generally means to increase taxes, not collect them.

This sense of “raise” (to increase taxes, rents, prices, etc.) showed up in the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from the Coverdale Bible (1535), the first complete printed translation of the Bible in English: “Acordinge to the multitude of the yeares shalt thou rayse the pryce.”

The dictionary’s entry for this sense of the word doesn’t include any citations for raising taxes, but the OED does include several examples of the usage in other quotations, including this memorable 1988 example from President George H. W. Bush:

“Congress will push me to raise taxes and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’ ”

No, we don’t think there’s any ambiguity about “raising taxes.” It means increasing them.

And we’re sure the present occupant of the White House as well as the present Congress would agree with us.

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Is a one-sentence paragraph OK?

Q: What are the rules on one-sentence paragraphs? I tend to see the regular use of them as a sign of tabloid journalism.

A: Many people seem to have been told, sometime during their school careers, that a one-sentence paragraph is not legitimate. It’s this belief, however, that’s not legit.

Modern dictionaries define a paragraph as a piece of writing consisting of one or more sentences devoted to a single point or topic. It begins on a new line and is usually indented.

(We don’t indent the beginning of paragraphs on our blog. We start them flush left, with a line of white space between them. This seems to be a common convention of online writing.)

As for how many sentences in a paragraph, the writer can use as many—or as few—as the topic requires.

Quite often, as you’ve probably noticed if you read much fiction, a paragraph consists of one speaker’s quoted words. In fact, it might have just a single word:

“Right!”

There are no “rules” of English grammar about the number of sentences per paragraph. This is a matter of style, not grammar.

On our blog, for example, we often use one- or two-sentence paragraphs, confining ourselves to just a few items of information per paragraph.

We think this is easier for people to read, especially in a format consisting of a narrow vertical column with other matter abutting on either side.

But our book Origins of the Specious, with its vacant margins and roomier format, has a more classic style of paragraphing. We used as many sentences per paragraph as we needed to complete a particular point or thought.

Personally, we don’t like extremely long paragraphs, since the eye tends to get lost without a few geographical landmarks as reference points. It’s fatiguing to read a paragraph that takes up page after page, even if it’s legitimately devoted to a single argument.

Many famous writers—Samuel Johnson among them—have written paragraphs of only one or two sentences.

In The History of the English Paragraph (1894), Edwin Herbert Lewis scrutinized dozens of famous writers, examining several hundred paragraphs from the works of each.

For the works he studied, he calculated the percentage of single-sentence paragraphs in Defoe at 62 percent; Bunyan, 61; Laurence Sterne, 55; Spenser, 48; Scott, 45; Dickens, 43; Fielding, 38; Hobbes, 35; Bacon, 32; George Eliot, 27; Johnson, 27. The writers Locke, Lamb, Swift, De Quincey, Addison, Ruskin, Dryden, Sidney, and Milton were in the 18 to 10 percent range. (The novelists among these writers were in some cases using one-sentence paragraphs to quote speakers.)

Paragraphing itself is very old. Lewis said that indented sections of writing can be found in some of the oldest English manuscripts.

“In a manuscript of the sixth century,” he wrote, “quotations are written as in modern paragraphs,—carried in evenly from the marginal line.”

One-sentence paragraphs are found in “every period in English Literature,” Lewis said, but they were more common in the 18th than in the 19th century.

Reading between the lines, it appears that prejudice against the one-sentence paragraph came from 19th-century writers on rhetoric and composition.

Lewis quotes a contemporary of his who believed that “a paragraph is to a sentence what a sentence is to a word.”

And this hierarchy—from word to sentence to paragraph—may have encouraged the belief that a paragraph must be a group of sentences.

Lewis notes that most of the multiple-sentence definitions he found in books of rhetoric and composition “were framed primarily for purposes of pedagogy.”

“This,” he said, “may explain why so much stress is laid upon the idea of a paragraph as a sentence group.”

Teachers, he suggested, wanted to discourage pupils from simply making each new sentence a paragraph.

It seems, though, that they taught their pupils too well.

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Are you having none of it?

Q: Is the expression “I will have none of it” acceptable when referring to someone’s behavior or actions? For example, “His excessive praise is a thinly veiled attempt to jinx my research project and I will have none of it.”

A: Yes, it’s fine to use the expression that way. People have been doing it for more than a century and a half.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as “to refuse or reject something outright.” And that something can be someone’s behavior or actions.

In the earliest example cited, Henry David Thoreau rejects friendship with someone who disagrees with him about right and wrong.

Here’s the citation from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849): “If Friendship is to rob me of my eyes, if it is to darken the day, I will have none of it.”

And we never miss an opportunity to quote P. G. Wodehouse. This is from Very Good, Jeeves! (1930): “Her name was Maudie and he loved her dearly, but the family would have none of it. They dug down into the sock and paid her off.”

The most recent OED example of the usage is from Swing Hammer Swing! (1992), a novel by Jeff Torrington: “I tried to coax the old woman into her apartment but she was having none of it.”

The pronoun “none” is one of the oldest words in English. We’ve written several times on the blog about the myth that it always means “not one” and always is singular.

If you disagree and are having none of it, take a look at our latest posting on the subject.

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Is a “concrete boardwalk” an oxymoron?

Q: The NYC parks commissioner considers a “concrete boardwalk” an oxymoron, but he argues that the usage is OK because the word “boardwalk” had become eponymous. As I see it, he’s using the words “oxymoron” and “eponymous” incorrectly. If I’m wrong, you can bet I won’t tell anyone I consulted you!

A: Thanks for sending that New York Times article about the fight to keep the boards in the boardwalk at Coney Island.

In the article, Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, is quoted as saying last year that a concrete boardwalk is an “oxymoron.”

He’s also quoted as saying  that “boardwalk has become eponymous, in the way Kleenex is for paper tissue. It is a generic term for an elevated oceanfront walkway, and other communities use concrete.”

We think the parks commissioner is being a little loose with his terms, misusing both “oxymoron” and “eponymous.”

The phrase “concrete boardwalk” may be a misnomer, though that’s debatable, but it’s not an oxymoron.

The word “oxymoron,” as we’ve said before on our blog, is a figure of speech with a pair of opposite or markedly contradictory terms. Wood and concrete are different building materials, but they aren’t opposites or markedly contradictory.

And it may be true that “boardwalk” is now a generic term, as the parks commissioner says, but it’s definitely not eponymous.

The adjective “eponymous,” which we’ve also written about on the blog, refers to the person something is named for. For example, Hamlet is the eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

Perhaps the parks commissioner meant that “boardwalk” is ubiquitous—that is, found everywhere. Many people confuse the words “eponymous” and “ubiquitous,” but as we’ve also pointed out on the blog, they’re not synonymous.

One thing we can say for “boardwalk” is that it’s an all-American word. We associate it with Coney Island, Atlantic City, and similar American vacation spots, and as it turns out the word was born in the USA.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “boardwalk” is from a letter written in 1872 by Frances M. A. Roe, author of Army Letters From an Officer’s Wife:

“We reached a narrow board-walk that was supposed to run along by her side fence.”

Notice that the word wasn’t originally associated with waterfronts. But a 1906 citation from a story by Abby Meguire Roach in Harper’s Magazine has a whiff of salt air:

“A few days later, on the board walk at the seashore, she came face to face with Hugh Wilberding.” (A later version of Roach’s story, collected in a book, has “on the board-walk at Atlantic City.”)

As for what a boardwalk should be made of, the word was—and still is—defined by the OED as “a footway or walking-path constructed of boarding.”

Though the OED doesn’t say so, boardwalks these days are sometimes built of things other than wooden boards.

Perhaps if Coney Island’s boarding continues to be replaced with concrete, the OED will revise its definition.

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It’s NYOOZE to us

Q: Your posting on pronouncing “news” as NYOOZE reminded me of my undergraduate music studies. As a voice student, I had to take a one-semester course in diction, where we learned that NYOOZE was the correct pronunciation. In fact, we learned that whenever a long “u” sound follows any of the consonants in the phrase “Daniel Sitteth,” it should be pronounced with a “y” sound. So words like “lute” and “tune” should be pronounced LYOOT and TYOON. This comes from  Madeleine Marshall’s book on diction for singers.

A: Thanks for the interesting footnote. We weren’t familiar with Marshall’s book, The Singer’s Manual of English Diction, which was first published in 1953. It’s still in print and widely used.

When she died in 1993, at the age of 93, her obituary in the New York Times described the work as “a standard guide on the subject.”

We found an online overview of the book that has this advice for choral singers (the “j” in the pronunciation key is a “y” sound):

“Syllables spelled with u or ew, where the u or ew comes after the consonants d, n, l, s, t, or th (mnemonic device: ‘Daniel Sitteth’) are pronounced [ju], e.g., duty, due, dew, during, new, knew, lute, prelude, suit, assume, tune, stupid, student, enthuse. (See Chapter 36 for these rules and further examples).”

Madeleine Marshall Simon, who was known professionally as Madeleine Marshall, was a singing coach and concert pianist. She taught diction to singers at Juilliard for more than half a century, from 1935 to 1986.

Her pupils, according to her obituary, included Lily Pons, Leontyne Price, and Lauritz Melchior. Her husband was Robert A. Simon, a writer, a librettist, and a longtime music critic for The New Yorker. He died in 1981.

Of course, there’s singing pronunciation and there’s spoken pronunciation.

We’re pretty sure that Marshall would not have advised students of speaking elocution to pronounce “lute” as LYOOT or “tune” as TYOON. But clarity and uniformity of pronunciation are especially important in vocal music.

In discussing the value of clarity, Marshall laments the singer who sounds “as if he had a hot potato in his mouth …. as if he had a mouthful of mush … as if his mouth were full of marbles.”

“One of the purposes of this manual,” she writes, “is to help singers remove the potatoes, mush, and marbles from their songs in English. … It’s a book about singing in English and isn’t tended as a guide to anything else.”

Her pronunciation manual, she says, also aims at uniformity. In performance, each word must be pronounced exactly the same way by every singer.

If different characters in an opera, for instance, say the same word differently, she writes, “This disparity in pronunciation is disconcerting to an audience.”

But she stresses that she’s not concerned with ordinary spoken English: “The recommendation of this English for singing is, of course, no criticism of the English spoken in any given area.”

“Your personal speech,” she says, “is your own prerogative.”

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Is a comma before “and” a serial crime?

Q: When I was in junior high in the ’40s, I was taught that an apostrophe in a word denoted a missing character and a comma in a series denoted a missing word. But I often see a comma before “and” in a series. Wouldn’t this mean “and and”?

A: We’ll discuss this comma business first. No, the comma doesn’t represent a missing or implied word.

Commas, like other marks of punctuation, bring meaning to strings of words, organizing them for readability and clarity.

As the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language puts it, commas “mark boundaries within a sentence”—boundaries between clauses and between words in a series.

When used in a series, commas separate each part from the next, as in these examples: “knives, forks, and spoons” … “eating, drinking, and making merry” … “rude, abrupt, and insensitive” … “quickly, politely, and accurately.”

Here we’ve used a comma before each “and.” This is sometimes called the “serial comma” or “Oxford comma,” and though it isn’t required, we think it’s a good idea.

As we’ve said before on our blog, a final comma before “and” can make a sentence clearer.

We used this sentence as an example of one that could use another comma for clarity: “The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.”

But your email made us curious. Apparently there was once a belief that each comma in a series represented a missing “and.”

In “Certain Fashions in Commas and Apostrophes,” a 1945 article in the journal American Speech, Steven T. Byington called this a “popular misconception.”

“There exists a widespread belief that one of the functions of the comma is to take the place of an omitted word, especially of an omitted coordinating conjunction,” Byington wrote.

This belief “has had a very perceptible influence” on the debate about the use of the final comma in a series like “A, B, and C,” he said. “A good-sized minority will mentally argue, ‘The purpose of the comma after A is to take the place of the omitted conjunction; consequently it is illogical to use it also after B, where the conjunction is expressed.’ ”

Newspapers may have encouraged the belief that a comma was equivalent to “and.”

In a 1940 article in American Speech, “The Serial Comma Before ‘And’ and ‘Or,’ ” R. J. McCutcheon wrote:

“An author informs me that in newspaper work he observed that the comma between the last two members of a series was habitually omitted, probably on the theory that the word and took its place and that the use of both the comma and the word and was redundant. Many syndicated articles in newspapers, however use both in series constructions.”

American Speech surveyed several US newspapers, magazines, and publishing companies on the subject for McCutcheon’s article.

It found, McCutcheon wrote, that “the ‘serial comma’ is omitted by the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun, the New York Herald Tribune, Daily News, Sun, Times, and World-Telegram. The Boston Christian Science Monitor employs the comma.”

The magazines surveyed had differing opinions on the serial comma, as did book publishers.

In 1940, McCutcheon wrote, The Chicago Manual of Style recommended using the final serial comma. (It still does.)

“The University of Chicago Press, following its influential A Manual of Style, seems to be inflexible,” McCutcheon said. “They inform me that for material edited by them or bearing the press imprint they insist upon the comma before the final member of a series of three or more.”

Today the Chicago Manual, now in its 16th edition, says: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities, since it prevents ambiguity.”

No one would dispute the presence of the last comma in this example from the Chicago Manual: “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.”

As for the apostrophe, it signifies a missing letter or letters only when used in a contraction (like “it’s” for “it is,” or “tho’ ” for “though”).

Byington, in his American Speech article, wrote that in newspaper punctuation, “the latest aberrant tendency is that of using apostrophes before monosyllabic words which are falsely supposed to be abridgments of forms with prefixes.”

As examples he cites words written as ’round, ’though, ’way, and ’til on the assumption that they’re short for “around,” “although,” “away,” and “until.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed “until” & company on our blog.

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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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Apposition paper

Q: Burning question and a grant might be riding upon it! The sentence in question goes something like this: “We live quite happily here, my gerbils, my neighbors, and I.” Or is  “me” the proper pronoun in the object phrase at the end? I have argued both sides. Can you help me with this war within myself? Torn apart!

A: The noun phrase at the end of that sentence should read, “my gerbils, my neighbors, and I.”

This phrase, by the way, is not an object. On the contrary, it’s in apposition to—or the equivalent of—the subject (“we”). So the pronoun in the phrase should be in the same case (“I”).

Another way of looking at this is that the appositive noun phrase “my gerbils, my neighbors, and I” could replace the subject, “we.”

Here are examples of both subject and object pronouns used in apposition:

(1) Subject pronoun: “Three people built the house—Dad, Uncle Harry, and I.” (Here the phrase in italics is in apposition to the subject, “three people,” and could replace it.)

(2) Object pronoun: “The house was built by us—Dad, Uncle Harry, and me.” (Here the phrase is in apposition to the object, “us,” and could replace it.)

We’ve written about appositives before on our blog. An appositive is usually found right next to its equivalent, as in “Let me introduce you to my boss, Mr. Dithers.” But, as in your sentence and in No. 1 above, this isn’t always the case.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives this example of an appositive that’s separated from its “anchor,” or original noun phrase: “I met a friend of yours at the party last night—Emma Carlisle.”

The anchor is “a friend of yours” and the appositive is “Emma Carlisle.”

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Why do NO HUNTING signs say “POSTED”?

Q: Just the other day, I saw a “POSTED: NO HUNTING” sign at a nature preserve. It made me wonder why the word “posted” appears in signs forbidding hunting, fishing, trespassing, etc. Doesn’t the fact that the sign was actually posted make the inclusion of the word at best redundant?

A: In our area of rural New England, we see endless examples of “POSTED: NO HUNTING,” “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING,” and so on. The signs are there, so obviously somebody “posted” them—why underscore the fact?

The short answer is that there’s no short answer.

If you regard a sign as a simple communications tool, the “posted” part is of course redundant. But if you regard it as a legal notice, the wording is another matter.

As you might imagine, this business of sign posting has become a thorny issue involving the rights of hunters on one side and landowners on the other. So, naturally, sign requirements vary widely from state to state.

In some states no signs are necessary, because a hunter must get permission before hunting on private property. In other states, hunting is allowed unless a sign is posted that says otherwise.

And among those states where a sign is necessary, not all require that it include the word “posted.” (It should be noted that municipalities, too, sometimes enact their own ordinances.)

Mark R. Sigmon wrote in the Duke Law Journal in 2004 that 29 states “have statutes requiring landowners to post their land to exclude hunters; the other states have statutes requiring hunters to get explicit permission from landowners before they hunt.”

In his article, “Hunting and Posting on Private Land in America,” Sigmon said that of the states requiring signs, most “set an exact number of signs that must be posted, their size, what they must say, and even their height off of the ground and their color.”

But even in states where the word “posted” isn’t required, its presence on signs seems to have become a hoary American tradition.

Perhaps a sign that shouts “POSTED” underscores the seriousness of a landowner’s intentions. But it may simply be the kind of sign the hardware and farm-supply stores tend to sell. At any rate, here’s a little etymology.

The noun “post,” meaning a support or column of timber, has been in the language since the days of Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was taken from the classical Latin word postis, meaning a doorpost.

When the verb “post” first entered English in the mid-1500s, it meant to cut timber into posts, the OED says. A century or so later, it came to mean “to affix (a notice, poster, etc.) to a post, or in a prominent position.”

In the 19th century, “post” began to be used more generally to mean to put up a notice. Here’s a modern citation from Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Bellefleur (1980): “All of the Bellefleur property was posted against trespassers.”

Similarly, the adjective “posted” has been used since the 19th century to mean “set up or fixed in a prominent place; displayed so as to provide information; advertised, made public.”

This adjectival usage is “chiefly” North American, the OED says. The dictionary’s first citation is from Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick (we’ve gone to the original to expand the quotation).

In searching for a leaking cask, Ishmael imagines finding deep in the hold of the Pequod a “mouldy corner-stone cask containing coins of Captain Noah, with copies of the posted placards, vainly warning the infatuated old world from the flood.”

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Sex education

Q: I teach sex education at an inner-city school. Over the last few years, I’ve learned more new sexual slang than I care to recount. But my question is about one of the older terms. My students would like to know when “blow job” was first used to mean fellatio and whether it’s one word or two. School is out for the summer, but I’d like to have an answer for them when they return in the fall.

 A: Things have certainly changed since we were in school—Pat in Des Moines and Stewart in Yonkers. But you’re the teacher (yes, we checked her out and she is), so here goes.

Let’s begin with the easy part: one word or two? The two standard dictionaries we usually consult differ on this.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) prefers one word, while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) goes with two.

We’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary be the tie-breaker: it uses two words, and we will too.

Now for the etymology. The slang term “blow job” isn’t quite as old as you seem to think.

The earliest published reference in the OED is from a poem by Anthony Hecht published in the Hudson Review in 1961 (we’ve expanded the excerpt):

“I have been in this bar / For close to seven days. / The dark girl over there, / For a modest dollar, lays. / And you can get a blow-job / Where other men have pissed, / In the little room that’s sacred / To the Evangelist.”

But perhaps the OED isn’t the first place we should look to find the origins of “blow job.”

The new three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang traces the noun phrase back to around 1948, when it appeared in an underground comic strip featuring the McCarthy-era figures Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss.

The slang dictionary cites Tijuana Bibles, a book of explicit comics collected by Bob Adelman, and includes an excerpt in which the Chambers figure apparently tells Hiss that “you give such good blow jobs!”

The noun phrase “blow job” may be a relative newbie, but the use of the verb “blow” in a sexual sense is much older, dating back to the 1600s, when Green’s says it meant “to bring to orgasm.”

However, the earliest citation for this sense in the dictionary, from an anonymous 1650 song, uses “blow” only obliquely to suggest sex:

“Limping Vulcan he came, / As if he had been jealous, / Venus follow’d after him, / And swore she’d blow the bellows.”

The use of the verb “blow” in the sense of fellatio or cunnilingus didn’t appear in writing until the 1930s, according to the slang dictionary.

The first published reference is from a book, Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam: “The Greek contractor wanted me to blow him in the bundle room.”

Although the book was originally published in 1970, Green’s dates its composition from around 1930.

The work presents itself as a confessional memoir introduced and edited by Stephen Longstreet, a man of mystery, according to a website devoted to unraveling the mystery.

We hope you and your students find this informative. We surely did.

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Data entry

Q: In your 2007 posting about “media,” you write that “data” is now “considered singular by a great many usage experts.” As a consulting economist, I’ve long observed that “data” is usually singular in technical literature.

A: You’re right in observing that in scientific and technical literature, “data” has long been treated as a singular collective noun.

We mentioned this in a discussion of “data” in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

Here’s what we wrote:

“ ‘Data’ first appeared in English in the seventeenth century, but it didn’t become a common word until a century or so ago. Since then, people have been arguing about its singularity. In its modern sense—information in the form of facts and figures—is ‘data’ singular or plural? It was first used as a singular in 1902, and the practice soon became widespread, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. But battle lines formed.

“English handbooks reared up in protest over the next couple of decades. Their reasoning? In Latin, data is plural and the singular is datum. But no less an authority than the journal Science joined the fray in 1927 on the opposite side, insisting that ‘ “data” in the sense of facts is a collective which is preferably treated as a singular.’ As Science pointed out, the term ‘datum’ (plural: ‘datums’) is a technical word used in surveying, while ‘data’ means information. Even the revered Webster’s Second of 1934, the dictionary that nobody with back problems should attempt to lift, endorsed the singular ‘data.’ As the usage authors Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans noted dryly in the 1950s, ‘No one should think that he must treat data as a plural merely because Julius Caesar may have done so.’ The lesson? Tempus fugit.

“In Caesar’s day, data referred to things that were given, such as the givens in a scientific hypothesis. (It came from dare, the Latin verb for ‘give.’) But we use ‘data’ more broadly today to refer to factual information in general. In fact, the English word is closer to indicium, the Romans’ word for ‘information,’ than it is to the Latin data. When a Latin word has a life of its own in English (think “audio” or “video”) there’s no reason to treat it as Caesar did.

“Then why do so many people ignore the data on ‘data’? There’s an old joke in journalism that when all else fails, you can always blame the media. And here, it seems, publishers of newspapers, magazines, books, and so on are largely to blame. For decades, the house style for most companies required treating ‘data’ as a plural. That means generations of editors diligently changed ‘data is’ to ‘data are,’ and ‘this data’ to ‘these data.’ ”

As we note in our book, we did this ourselves for many years when we were journalists. Our former employer, the New York Times, changed its house style to favor the singular “data” in 1999.

By the way, as you probably noticed in that 2007 posting about whether “media” is singular or plural, we advised readers to “stay tuned.”

“Many usage experts,” we wrote, “have predicted that in a generation or two ‘media’ will be considered acceptable as a singular noun.”

This has now come to pass, at least when “media” refers to the world of mass communications as a whole, as we wrote last year in an updated blog entry.

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To me, or not to me

Q: A comment on a New York Times blog begins this way: “To me, the most important ….” Is it possible to start an English sentence with “To me …”?  I am German, but an American friend told me that most grammarians would say it is, at best, colloquial. What do you think?

A: There are two issues involved here: beginning a sentence with “To me …” and introducing an opinion with “to me ….”

Nobody would object to using “To me …” as an ordinary prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence.

For instance, a sentence like “To me they taste the same” is no less legitimate than “They taste the same to me.”

The prepositional phrase here has an adverbial function; it modifies the verb “taste,” not the entire sentence.

The sentence on the Times blog, however, uses the prepositional phrase to introduce an opinion. In effect, it modifies the entire sentence.

A great many people, when stating an opinion, begin with “to me ….” This is probably an abbreviated form of “It seems to me that … ” or of the more telescoped “Seems to me ….”

All of them convey the same meaning: “In my opinion ….”

In our opinion, introducing an opinion with “to me …” (whether at the beginning of a sentence or a clause inside it) sounds colloquial—that is, more suited to casual than to formal occasions.

So it’s probably not a good idea to use it in formal writing. But no one would fault you for using “to me …” this way in speech, especially casual speech, or informal writing.

Even the moderately abbreviated “seems to me” is labeled colloquial by the Oxford English Dictionary.

As an example of this usage, the OED cites a sentence from John Strange Winter’s novel Bootles’ Children (1888): “Seems to me women get like dogs—they get their lessons pretty well fixed in their minds after a time.”

(Boy, does that sound sexist! Yet the pseudonymous Winter was actually Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Stannard.)

The OED doesn’t even get into the shorter “to me …” but no doubt the dictionary would find it colloquial too.

It seems to us that starting an opinion at the beginning of a sentence with “Seems to me …” isn’t quite as casual as starting it with “To me ….”

Perhaps the more compressed the expression, the less formal it seems. At least that’s our opinion.

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Are you bugged by bivvies?

Q: L.L. Bean sells something called a “bug bivy,” a mini-tent made of mosquito netting for keeping out insects. No dictionary I have access to has an entry for “bivy,” and not even the Bean people could give me a definition. Have you ever heard of it? I went on an etymological flight of fancy and decided that it’s a diminutive of “bivouac.”

A: Your instincts are right on track.

“Bivy,” more commonly spelled “bivvy,” originated during World War I as army slang, short for the older “bivouac.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “bivvy” as “a temporary shelter for troops; a small tent.”

The OED’s first citation for its use in print is from The Anzac Book (1916), which was written and illustrated in Gallipoli by the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps: “We lays down in the open / W’en our ‘bivvies’ isn’t dug.”

Here are a few more OED citations.

1918: “We arrived at our allotted spot, somewhere in Palestine, and erected our bivvies” (from the Chronicles of the N.Z.E.F., a journal published for soldiers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force).

1920: “The Egyptian Camel Corps and Gurkhas arrived, bringing ‘Bivies’ and other luxuries” (from Blackwood’s Magazine).

1925: “That word was ‘tambu’, meaning a rough and ready shelter made of branches, planks, corrugated iron, a ‘bivvy’, in fact” (from the Glasgow Herald).

But L.L. Bean isn’t using a military term. As it happens, “bivvy” later acquired a more peaceful meaning as a slang word among mountaineers, climbers, and backpackers.

This sporting sense of the word was first recorded as a verb in 1943 and as a noun in 1961, according to citations in the OED.

As a verb, the dictionary says, to “bivvy” is “to spend the night in the open air without a tent (esp. in a bivvy bag); to camp with little or no shelter.”

The verb also appears with prepositions, so a camper can “bivvy down,” “bivvy out,” or “bivvy up.”

As for the noun, the OED says a “bivvy” is “a night spent in the open air without a tent” or “an open air encampment.”

In mountaineering slang, a “bivvy sack” (1977) or “bivvy bag” (1982) refers to a waterproof sleeping bag used outdoors instead of a tent, according to the OED.

And in L.L. Bean slang, a “bug bivy” is a lightweight, waterproof, and bug-proof shelter for “the minimalist outdoor adventurer.” 

The original “bivouac” has had many similar meanings over the years.

The noun was first recorded in 1706, when it meant a “night-watch by a whole army under arms, to prevent surprise,” Oxford explains.

In today’s military usage, the dictionary says, it means “a temporary encampment of troops in the field” without tents.

The nonmilitary meaning of “bivouac,” which came along in the mid-19th century, is simply “an encampment for the night in the open air” or “a camping out.”

The verb “bivouac” was first recorded in 1800, when it meant to remain, especially overnight, in the open air with no shelter.

As for its etymology, the word comes from the French bivouac and bivac, terms that the OED says are “generally said to have been introduced during the Thirty Years’ War” (1618-48).

But ultimately “bivouac” probably comes from beiwacht, an old term in Swiss German dialect. It was used in the cantons of Aargau and Zürich in the Old Swiss Confederacy to mean a nighttime citizens’ patrol for keeping order.

As the OED says, “This remaining of a large body of men under arms all night explains the original sense of bivouac.”

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The subject was colors

Q: In a proposal to a client some time ago, I wrote, “A wide range of colors are available.” The client replied, “It’s ‘A wide range of colors is available.’ ” Since then, friends, family, and casual observers have been engulfed by the issue. Thanks much if you are able to weigh in.

A: This is a problem of subject-verb agreement, and it’s a sticky one.

What makes it sticky is the combination of a singular noun phrase (“wide range of”) followed by a plural noun (“colors”). Should the verb agree with the singular noun (“range … is available”) or the plural (“colors are available”)?

We say plural: “A wide range of colors are available.”

And faced with similar examples, so do the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Experts and common sense agree that the plural verb is natural and correct.”

In a section devoted to subject-verb agreement, the usage guide takes this sentence as its example: “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon.” (It’s a line from Robert W. Service’s 1907 poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”)

Merriam-Webster’s says “were” is correct in this sentence, and it notes that commentators like James J. Kilpatrick and Jacques Barzun also weigh in on the plural side in such cases.

One reason for choosing a plural verb is the concept of “notional agreement.” This is agreement based on meaning—that is, the meaning an expression has to the writer or speaker—rather than on form.

In the case of “a wide range of colors” and “a bunch of the boys,” the meaning is clearly plural. But the collecting noun phrase at the beginning (“a wide range of,” “a bunch of”) is singular in form.

This is the heart of the problem. And as Merriam-Webster’s says, “the conflict between notional and formal agreement is behind many disputed usages.”

M-W, along with most modern authorities on English grammar and usage, comes down on the side of notional agreement. But the usage guide says there are other factors “pulling in the direction of the plural.”

These include proximity (“boys” is closer to the verb than “bunch”) and what M-W calls “the plain sense of the subject-verb relation.” That is, “the boys whoop, not the bunch.”

Further, the usage guide says, “if boys is the real subject of the sentence, then the phrase a bunch of is functioning essentially as a modifier—it is, in fact, very similar to what many modern grammarians call a predeterminer.”

The editors go on to supply similar examples where a collecting noun phrase followed by a plural noun calls for a plural verb. We’ll abbreviate a few of the examples:

“a rash of stories have reported” … “a host of people who are interested” … “a class of sentences which are superficially parallel” … “a fraction of such deposits are actually insured” … “a large part of the Jewish communities were Arabic-speaking.”

The editors at M-W conclude: “When you have a collecting noun phrase (a bunch of) before a plural noun (the boys), the sense will normally be plural and so should the verb.”

“Normally,” yes, but not always. We think you have to consider the meaning case by case, “the plain sense,” as M-W puts it.

Nobody would have a quarrel with a sentence like “A bunch of flowers was delivered.” Here the real subject is the bunch.

Similarly, reasonable people can disagree on notional versus formal agreement. Take the case of institutional and collective nouns and how they’re perceived in the US as opposed to the UK.

The American practice is to go with formal agreement: “the commission is” … “General Electric was.” The British practice is to go with notional agreement: “the commission are” … “General Electric were.”

In the US, the institution is regarded as a singular entity; in the UK, it’s regarded as a collection of individuals.

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Over and over again

Q: I’m a copy editor who’s often wondered why the style guide where I work considers it a cardinal sin to use “over” in place of “more than.” The rationale is that “over” can only convey position. But it seems to me that its use to mean “more than” is pretty darned ingrained, and certainly sounds right to my ear. Am I nothing more than a victim of new-fangled language or is there some overarching history to be had?

A: No, you’re not a victim of new-fangled language. And, yes, you’ve got history on your side. This is something we’ve written about before.

As we said in a blog entry in 2007, “over” and “more than” have been used interchangeably for six centuries or more, and there’s no reason to think this is wrong.

But we didn’t say much in that post about the origin of the belief that “over” shouldn’t be used to mean “more than.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which has an excellent entry on the subject, says, “Disapproval of over meaning ‘more than’ is a hoary American newspaper tradition.”

The objection, according to M-W, began with William Cullen Bryant’s book Index Expurgatorius (1877).

It was picked up in Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right (1909), the usage guide says, and from there “passed into almost all of the newspaper handbooks.”

What was Bryant’s beef with using “over” to mean “more than”? He never said, according to the M-W editors.

We checked Bierce’s book, and he never explained it, either.

You’re right, however, that many editors believe “over” should refer only to position, but that belief is waning.

We have an old Associated Press stylebook that insists “over” refers to “spatial relationships” and “is not interchangeable with more than.” But the latest AP stylebook doesn’t include this bugaboo.

Here’s what the editors at the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide conclude: “There is no reason why you need to avoid this usage.” We agree.

[Update, March 24, 2014: The Associated Press has officially changed its policy. Last week, the editors of the AP Stylebook announced at a session of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) Conference that in reference to a quantity, “over” may now be used. “We decided on the change because it has become common usage,” said Darrell Christian, the editor of the AP Stylebook. “We’re not dictating that people use ‘over’—only that they may use it as well as ‘more than’ to indicate greater numerical value.”]

 

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An indissoluble solution

Q: The word “indissoluble” popped out at me in one of David Denby’s New Yorker movie reviews. It’s not his fault, of course—it’s in the dictionary. But why does this word have a double negative prefix? Why not simply “insoluble”?

A: Don’t jump to conclusions. Each of these English words—“insoluble” and “indissoluble”—has only one negative prefix.

The story begins with two Latin words (solvere and dissolvere) that mean the same thing: to loosen or dissolve.

English got “soluble” from solvere (via the Late Latin solubilis) and “dissoluble” from dissolvere (via the Classical Latin dissolubilis).

When the adjective “soluble” entered English around 1400, it was a medical term that meant free from constipation (remember those Latin senses of solvere?).

In the 1500s, “soluble” took on the sense you’re asking about (capable of being dissolved), according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from Polychronicon, a work by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higdon that refers to a white salt “whiche, beenge soluble in the fyre, brestethe and brekethe in the water.”

As for “dissoluble,” the adjective entered English in the 16th century, meaning capable of being separated into elements or being destroyed.

The OED’s first citation is from Sir Thomas More’s Treatise on the Passion (1534): “The body being made of the earth, and mixte wyth other elementes, was of nature dyssoluble and mortall.”

It took about a century for the word to come to mean capable of being dissolved—that is, soluble.

The first OED citation, from The Art of Distillation (1651) by the English physician John French, says water passing through a mine “carryeth along with it some of the dissoluble parts of the mine.”

As for the negative versions, “insoluble” and “indissoluble,” the OED says, they’re simply the result of adding the negative prefix “in-” to “soluble” and “dissoluble.”

You’ll find entries for both negatives in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), as well as the OED.

Although both are considered standard English, the one you prefer, “insoluble,” is by far the more popular, with 14.6 million hits on Google compared to not quite 1.6 million for “indissoluble.”

By the way, the Latin roots of these words have given us many other common words, including “absolve,” “dissolute,” “dissolve,” “resolve,” “solution,” “solve,” and “solvent.”

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When etymology is bunkum

Q: Your article about Thomas Nast and “nasty” says the belief that the former is  responsible for the latter is bunkum. My question: Who’s responsible for “bunkum”?

A: We can thank Felix Walker, a 19th-century congressman from North Carolina, whose district included Buncombe County.

Walker made a long-winded speech during the discussions that led to the 1820 passage of the Missouri Compromise, an agreement between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the 16th Congress.

This is how the Oxford English Dictionary describes the origin of “bunkum”:

“The use of the word originated near the close of the debate on the ‘Missouri Question’ in the 16th congress, when the member from this district rose to speak, while the house was impatiently calling for the ‘Question’. Several members gathered round him, begging him to desist; he persevered, however, for a while, declaring that the people of his district expected it, and that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe.”

The word “buncombe,” now usually spelled “bunkum,” came to mean empty, insincere, or foolish talk.

When the usage first showed up, according to citations in the OED, it referred to political oratory “to please or gull a constituency.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an 1828 issue of the Niles Weekly Register: “This is cantly called ‘talking to Bunkum.’ ” (The Baltimore magazine was founded by Hezekiah Niles.)

In the mid-19th century, the term came to mean insincere political talk as well as empty or deceptive talk in general.

Here’s an 1862 example from the Saturday Review: “In short, did it signify business or ‘bunkum’ ”?

A more recent, non-OED example showed up in a 2006 posting to the Language Log about a questionable etymology in Daniel Cassidy’s book How the Irish Invented Slang.

This is how the linguist Mark Liberman summed up Cassidy’s assertion that “bunkum” is derived from a Gaelic word for a shaggy dog story: BUNKUM!

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In high dudgeon

Q: In your posting about adjectives and nouns that hang out together, you say “dudgeon” is seldom seen without “high.” My dictionary says “dudgeon” originally meant the handle of a dagger, but it doesn’t explain why it now means anger or resentment.

A: How did a dagger handle come to mean hard feelings? Nobody seems to know for sure, though that hasn’t stopped people from taking a stab at it.

Sorry about that! We made the same pun in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

In the book, we briefly mention the etymology of “in high dudgeon” during a discussion about the blooper “in high dungeon.”

Some word detectives have tried to link “dudgeon” with dygen, a Welsh word that means malice or resentment, but the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t see a connection.

The most likely theory is that the expression “in high dudgeon” originally had something to do with grabbing a dagger in anger.

Interestingly, two similar-sounding words, “bludgeon” and “curmudgeon,” are also etymological mysteries.

But “gudgeon,” a small fish used for bait, as well as a gullible person who’ll swallow anything, has a clear pedigree: It comes from goujon, the French word for the fish, which in turn is from gobius, the Latin for it.

Getting back to “dudgeon,” the word first showed up in the 15th century in the sense of the wood used to make the handle of a knife or dagger. Later, it came to mean the hilt or handle itself.

Shakespeare has Macbeth use the word in reference to the hilt of a dagger: “I see thee still, / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before.”

But decades before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the early 1600s, “dudgeon” was being used to mean a feeling of anger or resentment.

The first citation in the OED for “dudgeon” used in this sense is from a 1573 entry in  The Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey: “Who seem’d to take it in marvelus great duggin.” (Harvey was an English writer and his book contained a collection of draft letters.)

The first OED example of “high” and “dudgeon” linked together are in Hudibras (1663), a mock heroic poem by Samuel Butler:

“When civil dudgeon first grew high, / And men fell out they knew not why; / When hard words, jealousies, and fears, / Set folks together by the ears.”

(The author of the poem was a 17th-century poet and satirist, not the better-known Victorian novelist of the same name.)

The OED’s first citation for the most common use of “dudgeon” today is from an 1885 issue of the Manchester Examiner: [He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon.”

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At whose earliest convenience?

Q: Have you noticed that the voicemail messages at businesses now promise to return your call at their earliest convenience? This is an obvious screw-up of the polite request that the caller asks the called one. Egad.

A: We’re glad you brought up this “earliest convenience” business, because we have our own story to report.

Just the other day, we called the dog groomer to make an appointment for our standard poodle, Mimi. The message on the groomer’s answering machine concluded: “We will call you back at our earliest convenience.”

Hey! The convenience is supposed to be on the recipient’s part, not on the speaker’s.

A person who’s leaving a message should say something like, “I’d appreciate a response at your earliest convenience,” or “Please ask the doctor to call me at her earliest convenience.”

And the message on an answering machine should say, “We will call you at our earliest opportunity,” not “at our earliest convenience.” (Better still, “We’ll call you as soon as we can.”)

It’s not very gracious to suggest that your own convenience is uppermost in your mind (even if it is). But big companies often imply as much. And small businesses too, as we learned the other day.

Business voicemail systems—particularly when there are endless “menus” to listen to—are inherently ungracious. By their very nature, they make you feel like an inconvenience.

And a business that says its representatives are busy at the moment and will call you back at THEIR earliest convenience is really too much.

If the people who concoct these voicemails had to sit and stew on the other end of the line, perhaps things would change.

Enough grumbling. Let’s take a moment to look at the noun “convenience,” which meant agreement when it entered English in the early 1400s.

It comes from the Latin convenire (to come together or agree), which also gave us the adjective “convenient.”

That early sense of “convenience” as agreement is now considered obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a somewhat similar sense is alive and well: suitability or something that’s suitable.

The sense of convenience that you’ve asked about—an opportune occasion or opportunity—didn’t show up until the 17th century.

The OED has only two published references for the expression “at your earliest convenience.”

The earliest of them is from an 1832 letter by Charles Dickens: You will perhaps oblige me with a line at your earliest convenience.”

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Compound chemistry

Q: Should the verb agree with the nearest noun (as Words Into Type states) if all the nouns are singular and in series (“The red, green and blue that is/are the choice of the school”)?

A: The style guide Words Into Type is talking about a different kind of series than the one you mention.

When two or more nouns are joined by “and” to form a compound subject, as in your example, the subject is plural and gets a plural verb. (There are a few exceptions that we discussed in a recent posting.)

This is true no matter whether the individual nouns are singular or plural. When they’re added together, they’re plural: “Red, green, and white are more harmonious than the red, green, and blue that are the choice of the school.”

But it’s a different story when the parts aren’t joined by “and.” When a compound subject is an “either/or” pair, as in “either pancakes or an omelet,” then the verb agrees with the nearest part of the compound. For example:

(1) “Either pancakes or an omelet is being served for breakfast.”

(2) “Either an omelet or pancakes are being served for breakfast.”

This is probably what you’re referring to. Words Into Type discusses it in a section called “Plural and singular substantives joined by ‘or’ or ‘nor.’ ”

We’ll end this posting with an excerpt about the either/or problem from the third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (page 50):

“Often the subject of a sentence—whoever or whatever is doing the action—is a two-headed creature with or or nor in the middle: Milk or cream is fine, thank you.

“When both halves of the subject—the parts on either side of or or nor—are singular, so is the verb: Neither alcohol nor tobacco is allowed. When both halves are plural, so is the verb: Ties or cravats are required.

“But how about when one half is singular and the other plural? Do you choose a singular or a plural verb? Neither the eggs nor the milk [was or were] fresh.

“The answer is simple. If the part nearer the verb is singular, the verb is singular: Neither the eggs nor the milk was fresh. If the part nearer the verb is plural, the verb is plural: Neither the milk nor the eggs were fresh. (Treat or the same way, whether or not you use it with either: Is the milk or the eggs returnable? Are either the eggs or the milk returnable?)

“The same rule applies when subjects are paired with not only and but also: Not only the chairs but also the table was sold. Or: Not only the table but also the chairs were sold.”

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Don’t hold it against us!

Q: If I can disagree with you, why can’t I agree against you?

A: Obviously, the “dis-“ prefix in “disagree” negates the verb “agree.” So why can’t “against” negate it as well?

The answer is that “against” doesn’t work in quite that way.

The word “against,” which generally functions as a preposition, has many meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. We’ll give a few examples.

“Against” can mean in contact with or supported by (“leaning against a tree” … “looks well against a dark background” … “nestled against his shoulder”).

But it can also mean in collision with (“the plate broke against the sink”); in an opposite direction (“against the tide” … “against the grain”); or contrary to (“against my wishes”).

In addition, “against” can mean unfavorable (“her appearance was against her”); in competition with (“a race against the clock”); or opposed (“he’s against it”).

In other meanings, “against” can imply resistance or protection (“I’ll defend you against harm”). And you can bet “against” something, weigh one thing “against” another, or save your pennies “against” a rainy day.

But the sense that comes closest to a negation means in opposition to (as in “vote against” … “speak out against”).

And this sense of “against” is often used, the OED says, in “expressing the adverse bearing of many verbs and nouns of action.”

In other words, “against” can be used with many action words—those that have the potential to be used in a negative way—to bring out that negativity.

The OED goes on to give these examples of such verbs: “to legislate, protest, argue, testify; offend, sin; cry out, rage, inveigh, exclaim.”

And it gives these examples of such nouns: “a law, proclamation, declaration, protest, argument, objection, resolution, action, proceeding, accusation, complaint, evidence; sin, offence; hostility, outcry, feeling, prejudice, rage, anger, animosity, bitterness, grudge, etc.”

Note that, as the OED says, these are words of “adverse bearing”—words that are capable of being used in a negative way. The verb “agree” isn’t one of them. It’s simply too agreeable.

So while you could “testify against” someone, you couldn’t “agree against” that person.

We hope this answers your question. And if you’re still confused, please don’t hold it against us!

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An ion for an ion

Q: I’m uncomfortable with the dictionary pronunciations of  “cation” and “anion” (with the accent on the second syllable). I inevitably accent the first syllable, but I find that somewhat choppy. Any ideas?

A: We doubt that many people are losing sleep over how to pronounce these specialized scientific words.

A “cation” (pronounced kat-EYE-un) is a positively charged ion; an “anion” (pronounced a-NYE-un) is a negatively charged ion.

In an electrolyzed solution, a “cation” migrates to the cathode and an “anion” migrates to the anode.

We don’t see much chance that their pronunciations will change. The words simply aren’t being bandied about enough in the general population.

So if you’re using them in scientific conversations and want to be taken seriously, we’d recommend going with the dictionary pronunciations.

If the pronunciations sound like Greek to you, it may be because both words come from the language of Homer, Socrates, and Aristophanes.

The Greek verb katienai means to go down and anienai means to go up. The Greek ion, meaning something that goes, is from ienai (to go).

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Turning up our nosism

Q: Pat had a brief discussion on WNYC of why “we” has been insinuated so much into professional writing. I tried—but was not fast enough—to email and remind her that the noun for this procedure is “nosism,” taken (I believe) from the French for “we.”

A: Thanks for calling this rare and interesting noun to our attention. And “our” in this case really does refer to two of us—Pat and Stewart. It’s not an example of nosism!

“Nosism” is the practice of referring to oneself in the plural, as when a writer calls himself “we” instead of “I.” The word comes from the Latin nos (“we”), so it literally means we-ism.

When it was first recorded in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nosism” was the use of “we” in reference to a self-centered group rather than to an individual, so it meant something like clubbiness.

The OED’s first citation comes from Black’s Edinburgh Magazine (1819): “The egotism or nosism of the other luminaries of the Lake School, is at times extravagant enough, and amusing enough withal.”

It didn’t take long for “nosism” to mean the use of “we” by an individual.

The earliest example is from an 1829 issue of the Examiner, a 19th-century British weekly: “We will be consistent according to the fashionable virtue of the day in nos-ism.”

And here’s how Ben Zimmer used the word in a 2010 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine:

“Given the accumulated resentment of ‘nosism’ (using we for I, from the Latin pronoun nos), it’s little wonder that modern literary writers have rarely tried to write narratives in the first-person plural.”

The noun “nosism” may be rare, but the practice of nosism isn’t. The use of “we” for “I” dates back to early Old English, according to the OED.

One of the purposes of this usage, the dictionary says, is “to secure an impersonal style and tone, or to avoid the obtrusive repetition of ‘I.’ ”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from an Old English translation of a 5th-century Christian history written in Latin by Paulus Orosius, a student of St. Augustine.

In more modern times, this sense came to be known as the editorial “we” because it was used by journalists writing unsigned articles and editorials.

But, as the OED says, “This practice has become less usual during the 20th cent. and is limited to self-conscious and humorous contexts.”

Here’s an example from Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “We shall never forget the mingled feelings of awe and respect, with which we used to gaze on the exterior of Newgate in our schoolboy days.”

We have to disagree with the OED about the use of the editorial “we” today by journalists. The practice isn’t all that unusual, especially in signed articles that refer to the author.

A New York Times reporter, for example, used it repeatedly in a recent nightlife column, including a mention that Gwyneth Paltrow “agreed to an interview if we waited while she and Molly Sims schmoozed.”

Another kind of we-ism is sometimes called the royal “we” because of its use by sovereigns and rulers.

But the early history of this usage is unclear, the OED says, because some apparent Old English quotations “may rather show an inclusive plural use of the pronoun.”

Genuine uses of the royal “we” from Middle English and later include citations from Henry III (1298), King James I (1603), and King Charles I (1642).

But perhaps the best-known example of the royal “we” is the famous “We are not amused” quotation attributed to Queen Victoria.

Fred R. Shapiro writes in the Yale Book of Quotations that the comment  was first reported in an 1887 newspaper article that cited Victoria’s private secretary, Sir Arthur Helps, as the source.

Sir Arthur, according to this account, said the Queen used the line to snub him for telling a funny story to her ladies-in-waiting in an attempt to enliven a boring dinner.

But we’re not through with we-ism yet! There’s a kind of “we,” the OED says, that’s used “confidentially or humorously” to the person being addressed and that dates back to the early 18th century.

Here’s Oxford’s first such citation, from the playwright John Vanbrugh’s comedy The False Friend (1702): “Well, old Acquaintance, we are going to be Married then?”

It’s this kind of “we” that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is talking about when it describes two sub-genres of we-ism.

Quoting a 1972 usage guide, M-W characterizes these as “the kindergarten we (We won’t lose our mittens, will we?)” and “the hospital we (How are we feeling this morning?).”

With that, we’ll sign off—both of us.

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Can a body try to be hidden?

Q: A forensic witness in the Caylee Anthony murder case testified that the child’s plastic-wrapped body “was trying to be hidden.” And a newsletter publisher referred to fraud that “is trying to be perpetrated.” I’ve seen a couple of other trying examples in the news lately. Is this more than coincidence?

A: We’ve never come across this exact usage before, though a superficially similar one is quite common.

Let’s begin with the usage that caught your eye. We did a little googling and found some examples ourselves, including mosques, power stations, and marinas that were “trying to be built.”

What’s happening here seems to be a new twist on the passive voice.

In an ordinary passive construction, the object of the action becomes a passive subject: “the body was hidden” … “fraud is being perpetrated” … “a marina was being built.”

Nothing wrong there—those are perfectly grammatical passive constructions.

But in these new examples, the passive subject isn’t passive after all. It actually takes over the job of doing something to itself: “the body was trying to be hidden” … “a fraud is trying to be perpetrated” … “a marina was trying to be built.”

In other words, the thing that someone or something is trying to hide or perpetrate or build is raised to the position of the subject.

This isn’t a kosher way of using the verb “try.” Some other verbs, called “raising” verbs, can be used this way, but “try” isn’t one of them.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains “raising” verbs in a discussion of what it calls “to-infinitivals.” (In your examples, “trying” is followed by a “to” infinitive phrase: “to be perpetrated” … “to be hidden.”)

In its illustrations, Cambridge contrasts a raising verb, “seem,” with an ordinary verb, “hope.”

While “hope” requires a subject that’s “animate and typically human,” Cambridge says, the verb “seem” has no such restriction. It can “raise” almost any noun or noun phrase to the position of subject.

The authors use these sentences as examples: “This news hoped to convince them” versus “This news seemed to convince them.” The first sentence doesn’t work, but the second one does. News can’t “hope” (though it can “seem”) to convince.

Typical raising verbs, like “seem” and “appear,” don’t require a subject capable of performing the activity described by the verb. They can even have “dummy” subjects, as in “It seems to be …” or “There appears to be….”

But verbs like “try” and “hope” and “want” aren’t raising verbs. They require a subject capable of actually trying or hoping or wanting.

In short, a grammarian would say that the verb “try” in the examples you’ve found was being used ungrammatically as a raising verb.

Now, let’s discuss that more common usage that’s superficially similar to the one you asked about.

People use “non-raising” verbs in unconventional, attention-getting ways all the time, as in “That bungalow is trying to be a McMansion.”

This whimsical idiomatic usage may be anthropomorphic, but it isn’t ungrammatical.

A pseudo-passive version of the same sentence, however, wouldn’t be considered legit: “That bungalow is trying to be made into a McMansion.”

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We are not bemused

Q: When I was growing up in the Jurassic period, I was taught that “bemused” meant confused. And that’s how I still use it. But everyone else uses it to mean amused. This leaves me bemused. But maybe I’m just a dinosaur who should lighten up and be amused.

A: The two standard dictionaries we consult the most are split on this usage.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines the verb “bemuse” in the traditional way: to confuse or cause to be engrossed in thought.

[A 2012 update: The fifth edition of American Heritage sticks to its guns. It includes a usage note that reads, “The word bemused is sometimes used to mean ‘amused, especially when finding something wryly funny,’ as in The stream of jokes from the comedian left the audience bemused, with some breaking out into guffaws. Most of the Usage Panel does not like this usage, with 78 percent rejecting this sentence in our 2005 survey. By contrast, 84 percent accepted a sentence in which bemused means ‘confused.’ ”]

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now includes a third meaning: to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement—a usage also endorsed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

We’d like to side with AH, but in this case M-W seems to have its finger on the pulse of the language.

“Bemused” is rarely used in the traditional way these days, and anyone using it that way is almost certain to be misunderstood.

However, we can’t bring ourselves to use it to mean amused. We’d rather retire “bemused” and fill the gap with other words—“puzzled,” “bewildered,” “confused,” and so on.

But before we abandon “bemused,” here’s a little history.

For nearly three centuries, “bemused” has meant confused, muddled, or lost in thought, as in this 1735 couplet from Pope: “Is there a Parson, much bemus’d in beer, / A maudlin Poetess, a rhyming Peer?”

An earlier noun, “muse,” has meant a state of thoughtfulness since about 1500. And the verb “muse,” meaning to be absorbed in thought, has been around since 1340.

Both come from the Old French muser (to ponder or gape in wonder) and have nothing to do with the nine Muses of antiquity.

Interestingly, when “amused” first appeared in the 1600s, it meant to be in a muse— that is, absorbed, preoccupied, or distracted (not all that different from “bemused”).

It wasn’t until the next century that “amused” came to mean entertained, thanks again to our friend Pope. By the early 1800s, the two words had gone their separate ways. “Bemused” meant befuddled or lost in thought, while “amused” meant having fun.

And so things remained until the late 20th century, when newspaper and magazine writers, broadcasters, and Internet pundits started using “bemused” to mean amused.

Why? Our guess is that they were bored with “amused” and thought “bemused” would be more amusing.

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The book of “job”

Q: I was visiting a friend the other day and she used “good job” in the sense of fortunately. My friend grew up in Ireland, and it seems that I hear this usage most often from native English speakers who are not American. You had a posting a few years ago that mentioned this odd use of the word “job.” Could you expand on it?

A: We’ll be happy to oblige.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “job” entered English in the 16th century (excluding Old English references to the biblical figure in the Book of Job).

It had several early meanings, including a cartload, a stump, a stab, and a piece of work (the sense that led to the usage you’re asking about).

The earliest example of the work sense in the OED is in a document from the Office of Revels during the reign of King Edward VI.

Here’s the 1557 citation (published two years after Edward’s death), in which “jobs” is spelled “iobbes” and capitalized: “Doinge certen Iobbes of woorke.”

(The Master of Revels, in case you’re curious, was in charge of royal festivities. Nice work if you can get it!)

The OED says the origin of the word “job” is uncertain. But the dictionary adds that the early reference to “jobs of work” suggests that “piece,” rather than “work,” may have been the original core meaning of “job.”

Be that as it may, “job” took on a new sense in the 17th century: “A state of affairs, a situation, a set of circumstances.”

And this new sense, the OED says, was frequently modified by adjectives like “good” and “bad.”

The first citation in the OED for this usage is from Thomas Dangerfield’s picaresque novel Don Tomazo (1680):

“ ’Twas an ill jobb for one Misfortune so soon to fall upon the neck of one another.”

Here’s a more recent citation from A Season for Murder (1991), by the British crime novelist Ann Granger:

“All right, keep your hair on. Good job you could call him up.”

In that example, “Good job” is short for “It’s a good job that …” (meaning fortunately or luckily). This is the way your friend used the expression.

Although the OED references for this usage are generally from British sources, we often hear “job” used this way by Americans.

The dictionary also cites several expressions that use “job” in a similar way. We’ll mention only one of them here: “to make the best of a bad job.”

The expression, which means to do the best one can in unfortunate circumstances, first showed up in the early 19th century.

The first OED citation is from Vindiciae Britannicae, an 1821 religious tract:

“You cannot be the dupe of a craft, which after failing to strangle an infant in its birth, merely adopts it, ‘to make the best of a bad job.’ ”

In T. S. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party (1950), both Edward and Sir Henry use the expression in conversing with Lavinia:

Edward: “Lavinia, we must make the best of a bad job. That is what he means.”

Sir Henry: The best of a bad job is all any of us make of it.”

We hope this helps, and you find it a good job!

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