The Grammarphobia Blog

Shall we shilly-shally?

Q: Do you know the origins of “shilly-shally”?

A: Yes. No shilly-shallying from us!

The phrase (which can be used as a verb, an adjective, an adverb, or a noun) refers to indecision, hesitation, vacillation, or procrastination.

An early version of the expression entered English in the 17th century as part of the verbal phrase “to stand shall I, shall I” (meaning to vacillate). Other early versions were “to go shill-I shall-I” and “to stand at shilly-shally.”

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the verbal phrase is from a 1674 medical text that refers to drugs “that will not stand shall I? shall I? but will fall to work on the Disease presently.”

The shorter verbal phrase “to shilly-shally” showed up in the late 18th century, according to citations in the OED. The first example is from Fanny Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia: “So I suppose he’ll shilly shally till somebody else will cry snap, and take her.”

The adverb, noun, and adjective all showed up in the 18th century, according to published references in the OED. Here are a few examples that we found interesting (they’re not the earliest ones in the dictionary).

Thomas Jefferson uses the phrase adjectivally in this 1792 quotation from his writings: “I had heard him say that this constitution was a shilly-shally thing, of mere milk and water, which would not last.”

Robert Browning uses it adverbially in his 1873 poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, when he refers to someone “At shilly-shally, may he knock or no / At his own door in his own house and home.”

And here’s an 1876 example of the noun from George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda: “What I wished to point out to you was, that there can be no shilly-shally now.”

A final note: At around the same time the verb “shall” gave us “shilly-shally,” the verb “dally” gave us “dilly-dally” and the adjective “washy” (water-logged) gave us “wishy-washy.” A bit earlier, the verb “will” and the now-obsolete verb “nill” (to be unwilling) gave us “willy-nilly.”

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Foreign relations

Q: Your recent post about “foreign” vs. “international” sent me to the dictionary to check the etymology of “foreign” and its strange spelling. I didn’t find a “g” in its Middle English, Old French, or Latin ancestors. So where does the “g” come from?

A: The “g” in “foreign” has no business there. But it is there, of course. Here’s the story.

The word was originally “g”-less, but the “g” crept in during the 16th century, perhaps in confusion with the spelling of “reign” or “sovereign,” or in an attempt to make the spellings analogous.

Just as it wasn’t always spelled the way it is now, “foreign” didn’t always mean what it does today.

Etymologically, “foreign” means out of doors. It was adopted from the Old French word forein or forain, which in turn came from the late Latin foranus, which is derived from forus (out of doors, outside, abroad).

Interestingly, the word “forest” is related to “foreign.” The word “forest” originally meant outside woods—that is, unfenced woods, or those outside the walls of a park.

But back to “foreign.” When it entered English in the 13th century, it was spelled “forene” or “forren” (later “foreyne,” “forein,” and so on). And it originally meant out of doors or outside.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that a “chambre forene” (or “chamber foreign”) was a privy.

By the early 15th century, the sense of “abroad”—that is, from other countries—came to the fore. In the following century, as we noted, the “g” spelling was first recorded, but it didn’t become established until sometime in the 17th century.

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Has the subjunctive gone nuclear?

Q: In an ICAN appeal to world leaders some time ago, Bishop Tutu said, “It’s time we retired nuclear weapons.” If “retired” is replaced with “retire,” will the sentence still be subjunctive?

A: First of all, we don’t believe that a sentence beginning “It is time” (or “It’s time”) requires the subjunctive mood.

In our opinion, the clause following “It’s time” is generally in the indicative mood, with the verb in a past tense (“It is time he went” or “It’s time he was going”).

Here, we’re using a past tense imaginatively to speak of a future action. However, it’s not unusual to find the present tense used instead (“It is time he goes”).

Some grammarians would classify these sentences as subjunctive, since they refer to an action that’s remote and unrealized. But we don’t agree with this interpretation.

Of course, a subjunctive construction is possible: “It is time that he go” … “It is time that he be gone” … “It’s time he were going.” And such usages were more common in the past. But today they’d be seen mainly in very formal or literary English.

But let’s get back to that sentence by Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Cape Town, promoting the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Both his version (“It’s time we retired nuclear weapons”) and the present-tense version (“It’s time we retire nuclear weapons”) are natural, idiomatic English. And as we see it, both are in the indicative mood, not the subjunctive.

We’ve had several blog items about the subjunctive. In our most recent posting, we say it’s called for in modern English in the following cases (we’ll use something like your sentence in the examples, but with a singular subject to make the subjunctive usage more apparent).

(1) When expressing a wish: “I wish the nuclear arsenal were retired.” (In the subjunctive, “was” becomes “were.”)

(2) When making an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If the nuclear arsenal were retired, we’d be safer. ” (Ditto.)

(3) When something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “We demand that the government retire the nuclear arsenal.” (In these cases, the verb in the second clause is always in the infinitive, as in “I suggest she walk,” “They ordered that he be jailed,” etc.)

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Penalty kicks

Q: I’d like to say I got punished for what others did “impunitively” rather than “with impunity.” But I see no evidence that “impunitively” is a word. There’s “punitive,” which suggests that there could be “impunitive,” but I can’t find this either. Would using “impunitively” be misunderstandable? (And is “misunderstandable” a word?)

A: Yes, “impunitively” is a word, but it’s not seen very often and it doesn’t mean “with impunity.” So using it the way you suggest would be “misunderstandable” (a word seldom seen but unlikely to be misunderstood). Here’s the story.

English adapted the noun “impunity” (freedom from punishment) and the adjective “punitive” (inflicting punishment) from Latin in the 16th century.

We got “impunity” from the classical Latin impunitatem and “punitive” from the medieval Latin punitivus. The classical Latin verb punire means to punish.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that he noun first showed up in a 1532 religious tract in which Thomas More refers to “the safegard of heretikes, and impunitie of all mischieuous people.”

The adjective appeared in a 1593 work in which the English ecclesiastical lawyer Richard Cosin writes of the “Processe punitiue, when the enquirie and examination is to punish the offender.”

The terms “impunitive” and “impunitively” are quite new, according to citations in the OED, not showing up in English until the 20th century.

The dictionary describes “impunitive” as a psychological term that means “adopting an attitude of resignation towards frustration; characterized by blaming neither oneself nor others unreasonably.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Henry Alexander Murray’s book Explorations in Personality (1938), which says an accepting response to a disagreeable situation “may be termed ‘impunitive.’ ”

The dictionary defines “impunitively” as “in a way characteristic of an impunitive individual.” The first citation is from John Michael Argyle’s book Religious Behaviour   (1958): “The humanitarians on the other hand responded impunitively.”

Although all the published references in the OED for “impunitively” use the term in its psychological sense, a bit of googling suggests that some people do indeed use it the way you suggest doing.

We’d still recommend against using “impunitively” that way. As we’ve said, it’s likely to be “misunderstandable,” a word that the OED defines as “capable of being misunderstood.”

The OED’s earliest example is from an 1843 issue of Peter Parley’s Annual, a Christmas magazine for children: “The old mamma grunted and looked very misunderstandable through her grey eyes.”

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On “ilk” and its ilk

Q: I was wondering if you could give me the current countries that use the word “ilk” (usage example: “my children = my ilk”). I know it is often used in the southern USA, but is it used in India, Ireland, etc.? Any information will be greatly appreciated.

A: English speakers don’t usually refer to their children as their ilk. In contemporary English, the word “ilk” means type or kind, as in “He doesn’t trust bankers, brokers, and other people of that ilk.”

That’s the way the word is defined in standard American and British dictionaries. And that’s how it’s used in the US, UK, India, Ireland, and elsewhere that English is spoken.

We’ve come to that conclusion after a search of dictionaries and newspaper archives in various countries.

The word “ilk” has had many other meanings since it first showed up in Old English in the 800s. But as far as we can tell, it’s never meant one’s family.

As an adjective, it once meant same or identical. And as a pronoun, it once meant the same person or the same thing. But those senses are now considered obsolete.

One older sense survives in Scottish English, where the pronoun means the place where someone, especially a member of the landed gentry, is from. So “Macquarie of that ilk” would be another way of saying “Macquarie of Macquarie.”

Although “ilk” is an ancient word, its modern sense of type or sort is relatively new. The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the late 1700s.

An etymology note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the modern sense of the word grew out of the Scottish usage.

American Heritage adds that the underlying meaning of the word reflects the obsolete sense of sameness in the Old English and Middle English versions of “ilk.”

“The ancestors of ilk, Old English ilca and Middle English ilke, were common words,” AH says, “usually appearing with such words as the or that, but the word hardly survived the Middle Ages in those uses.”

You’re probably wondering if the pronoun “ilk” is related to the adjective “like.” They certainly look alike. And the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the similarity is no coincidence.

Chambers points out that ilca, the Old English ancestor of “ilk,” combines the demonstrative i (that) and lic, the root of gelic, the Old English ancestor of “like.” In other words, both “ilk” and “like” are ultimately of the same ilk.

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The echt article

Q: I see the new vogue word in NY literary circles is “echt.” Caught it the other day in the NYT.

A: The adjective “echt” (it means authentic, genuine, or typical) may be in vogue now among the literati, but it’s not especially new. English-speaking literary types have been using it since around World War I.

In the last year, the adjective “echt” has made quite a few appearances in the pages of the New York Times.

In December, an installation at Art Basel Miami Beach was said to attract “a breezy mash-up of Hollywood royalty and echt nobility.” And a piece in the Book Review in November described an episode in the life of Kurt Vonnegut as “echt Vonnegut.”

In June, a DVD review referred to “that echt ’70s subject, the Woman in Search of Her Identity.” And a travel piece last March about Trieste used the term “echt-Austrian architecture.”

A dining-out review last January referred to a restaurant as an “echt East Village establishment.” And in December 2010, an article about the sale of the clothing company Lilly Pulitzer described it as “perhaps one of the echt totems of prephood.”

As we mentioned, “echt” has been in use in English since the war to end war, so there’s no longer any need to italicize it now, as the Times Book Review did last month.

The Oxford English Dictionary says English adopted the word from German, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) traces it to both the German echt and the Yiddish ekht.

The OED’s earliest citation is from an article by George Bernard Shaw that appeared in 1916 in the journal The New Age: “Many Englishmen who know Germany, and whose social opinions are echt Junker opinions, hail this war as a means of forcing England to adopt the Prussian system.”

The word has appeared in literary or consciously fashionable writing ever since.

In 1917, for example, Ezra Pound used it in a letter to James Joyce: “The opening is echt Joice.” (In his comments on Ulysses, Pound improvised further on Joyce’s name: “All I can say is Echt Dzoice, or Echt Joice, or however else you like it.”)

Whenever it’s used, “echt” seems to call attention to itself, as in these later citations from the OED:

The British composer Constant Lambert went on an “echt” spree in his book Music Ho! (1934): “England has never produced an artist so ‘echt-English’ as Mussorgsky is ‘echt-Russian,’ or Renoir ‘echt-French.’ ”

And here’s a flirtatious usage from Nicolas Freeling’s crime novel Love in Amsterdam (1962): “ ‘Are you married? … I see your ring, but is that camouflage or echt?’ ”

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Especially on Christmas Day

Q: I teach English at a high school in Germany. My class is studying this sentence: “Especially girls are interested in games that require social skills.” For a German, this use of “especially” sounds perfect, but I have read that it is incorrect to begin an English sentence with the adverb “especially.” Can you help my students and me?

A: In English, we would not normally write a sentence like “Especially girls are interested in games that require social skills.”

It’s not that there’s any rule involved here, and it’s not that “especially” is always ungrammatical at the beginning of a sentence (though it’s generally awkward).

The problem is that the sentence is ambiguous. Does “especially” refer to the subject—girls, in particular (as opposed to others)? Or does it refer to the adjective, meaning girls are “especially interested”?

“Especially,” as you know, is an adverb. And as an ordinary adverb it’s used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.

But it has another function too. When it’s used to call attention to a particular part of a sentence (the subject, for instance), it’s what grammarians sometimes call a “distinguishing adverb.”

We’ll use a simpler set of examples to explain what we mean. First, here’s “especially” used as an ordinary adverb.

Modifying a verb: “Julia especially likes dressing up.”

Modifying an adjective: “Julia looks especially nice.”

Modifying another adverb: “Julia dressed especially carefully.”

Now, here’s “especially” used as a distinguishing adverb referring to the subject: “Julia, especially [or “in particular”], likes dressing up.” The implication is that many people like dressing up, but Julia likes it more than most.

Getting back to your original sentence, if you intend “especially” as a distinguishing adverb to refer to the subject, you might write it this way:

(1) “Girls, especially, are interested….”

(2) “Girls, in particular, are interested….”

But if you mean that girls are interested to a special degree, then write: “Girls are especially interested…. ”

It’s true that “especially” is rarely used at the beginning of an English sentence. It’s awkward at best, ambiguous at worst.

For example, a sentence like this is not ungrammatical: “Especially during the Christmas season, traffic on Main Street is horrendous.”

But the adverbial phrase at the beginning (“Especially during the Christmas season”) is more effective and less awkward when it’s closer to what it modifies (the adjective “horrendous”).

So either move the entire adverbial phrase to the end of the sentence or, better yet, write, “Traffic on Main Street is especially horrendous during the Christmas season.”

Of course, we often use incomplete sentences that start with “especially,” as in this exchange:

“Boy, the traffic on Main Street is horrendous!”

“Especially during the Christmas season.”

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Farewell, My Lovely

Q: In your post about “goodbye,” you say it doesn’t mean leaving someone for good. How about “farewell”? My impression is that it might be suitable for “goodbye forever.”

A: This was our impression, too—that “farewell” implied a more or less permanent “goodbye.” But the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t say that in so many words.

“Farewell” is a one-word version of the phrase “fare well,” in which to “fare” means to travel or make one’s way.

The word was first recorded in William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1377). And the OED defines it simply as “an expression of good wishes at the parting of friends, originally addressed to the one setting forth, but in later use a mere formula of civility at parting.”

Nevertheless, we detect a sense of permanence when “farewell” is used as an attributive noun (that is, adjectivally) in phrases like “farewell address,” “farewell dinner,” “farewell gift,” “farewell letter,” and “farewell speech.”

The OED describes “farewell” as synonymous with “Goodbye!” or “Adieu!” But it adds that today “farewell” is used poetically or rhetorically, “chiefly implying regretful feeling.”

The “regretful” part may be the key here. Certainly there’s an element of sadness in “farewell” that isn’t present in “goodbye.”

Perhaps that’s because “farewell” conveys the idea that the parting is a long one, as if a friend were “setting forth” (as the OED says) on a journey. This could be why we associate “farewell” with more long-lasting partings.

On a less poignant note, we wrote a blog item a couple of years back on why “so long” means goodbye.

Finally, all this talk about “farewell” makes us think of two Raymond Chandler novels, Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. He wrote The Long Goodbye while his wife, Cissy, was dying.

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Think piece

Q: Way back in high school, I had Sister Aloysius for an English teacher. Each time a supposedly educated student started a comment with “I don’t think,” she’d stop him with “You’re right, you don’t think.” She wanted us to say “I don’t believe….” Today when I hear “I don’t think,” particularly from a speaker I don’t like, I yell out “You’re right, YOU DON’T THINK!” What is your take on the matter?

A: We think Sister Aloysius was being cranky for no good reason. There’s nothing wrong in beginning a sentence with “I don’t think….”

People do this quite regularly, as in “I don’t think it’s going to rain after all,” or “I don’t think it needs more salt, do you?”

The verb “think” is legitimately used in the sense of “believe” and accompanied by a direct object—a word, phrase, or clause indicating what is thought, believed, etc.

We suspect that Sister Aloysius was under the impression that “think” cannot correctly be used as a transitive verb—that is, one that has a direct object.

But for more than a thousand years, “think” has been both transitive and intransitive. When used transitively, it takes a direct object (as in “to think evil thoughts”). When used intransitively, it has no direct object (as in “Now think!”).

Here are some more examples of each, from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Transitive: “Canst thou remember … ? I doe not thinke thou canst” (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, 1610-11); “No doubt you think yourself as good” (from a poem of Ambrose Bierce, 1910).

Intransitive: “Pause here, and think” (from a poem by William Cowper, 1800); “Consider: take a month to think” (from a poem of Tennyson, 1842).

As the OED explains, one of the meanings of “think,” used transitively, is “to hold as an opinion, to believe, judge, consider.”

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Pinkies up

Q: Is my little finger my “pinkie” because it’s pink or because it’s little?

A: Just when we think we’ve been asked every question under the sun, a new one pops up in our inbox.

So why is the digitus minimus called a pinkie? We call the little finger a “pinkie” because it’s small, not because it’s pink (and, of course, not all pinkies are pink).

The word comes from Scots English. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from the first edition of John Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808).

Jamieson, who was an antiquary and philologist, defined the word this way: “Pinkie, the little finger; a term mostly used by children, or in talking to them.”

The Scots term may have originated in the nursery, but it soon graduated. In his novel The Life of Mansie Wauch, Tailor in Dalkeith (1828), the Scottish poet and physician David Macbeth Moir wrote: “His pinkie was hacked off by a dragoon.”

The OED says “pinkie” (also spelled “pinky” and occasionally used for the little toe) is derived from an earlier noun, “pink,” a now obsolete 16th-century Scottish word for “a very small person or creature; a brat; an elf.”

In the 17th century, this same word was used in Scotland to mean a very small thing, like a speck or tiny hole. Until the 18th century, the word was spelled “pinck” or “pinke.”

All of these Scottish words are of “uncertain” origin, the OED says. But there could be a Dutch connection. As the OED notes, similar words in Dutch and West Frisian (pinck, pink, pinke) had been used earlier to mean the little finger.

The original Dutch pinck is described as “of unknown origin, perhaps originally children’s language.” The modern Dutch for the little finger, pinkje, emphasizes the littleness idea by adding the diminutive suffix -je (similar to our suffixes “-y” and “-ie”).

The OED doesn’t go so far as to say the Scottish word came from Dutch. But some etymologists make the leap. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “pinkie,” meaning “the smallest finger,” was “borrowed from Dutch pinkje, diminutive of pink little finger.”

As we said earlier, the color pink is no relation—at least not directly. The color was named after a garden flower, the pink (a dianthus).

Chambers explains: “About 1720 the plant name began to be used attributively in the sense of having the color of the garden pink when pale or light red, of a pale rose color.”

The name of the flower, which we have in profusion in our garden, was first recorded in the late 1500s, but we don’t know its origin.

The OED says there may be a connection with an old use of “pink” to mean “pink eye” or “little eye.” Or perhaps the flower got its name because of its jagged edge, since the verb “pink” once meant to ornament by cutting holes or slits.

The verb “pink” now means, among other things, to cut with a zigzag edge, the kind of finished edge you get when using pinking shears or scissors.

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Caffeine content

Q: Why is “teacup” one word but “coffee cup” two words?

A: Although “teacup” is usually written as one word and “coffee cup” as two, they’re sometimes spelled the same way. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, hyphenates both: “tea-cup” and “coffee-cup.”

We checked six standard dictionaries—three American and three British—and all of them listed “teacup” as one word. Only one had an entry for the cup used to drink java, and listed it as two words: “coffee cup.”

So why is “teacup” usually one word and “coffee cup” two? The answer may lie in the dearth of dictionary entries for the container used to drink coffee.

Perhaps lexicographers feel that “teacup” is popular enough to be listed as a single word while “coffee cup” isn’t popular enough to get an entry.

In googling the two terms, we got five times as many hits for “teacup” as we did for “coffee cup.” (The “coffee cup” results included the hyphenated version.)

However, both “teacup” and “coffee cup” are very popular, with many millions of hits apiece. So perhaps the answer lies elsewhere.

Interestingly, many dictionaries that ignore “coffee cup” have single-word entries for less popular terms like “coffeecake,” “coffeemaker,” and “coffeepot.”

Words often begin life as two separate terms (like “try out”), then become hyphenated (“try-out”), and finally lose their hyphens as they become more common (“tryout”). But “teacup” and “coffee cup” appear to be exceptions that prove the rule.

The earliest citation for “teacup” in the OED (from a play by William Congreve that premiered in 1700) is a hyphenated version: “Let Mahometan Fools … be damn’d over Tea-Cups and Coffee.”

A one-worder showed up 14 years later in the writings of Joseph Addison: “The fashion of the teacup … has run through a wonderful variety of colour, shape, and size.”

As for “coffee cup,” it began life as two words connected with a hyphen, according to OED citations, and ended up as two words, minus the hyphen.

The OED’s first published reference for the usage is from a 1782 book by Horace Walpole about English painting: “I have a coffee-cup of his ware.”

But more recent citations are two worded and hyphen-free. Here’s a colorful one from what appears to be a Vanity Fair review of the 1999 film Office Space:

The fiefdom’s key rat fink and enforcer is a supervisor named Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), a walking vanity plate who patrols the tick-tack-toe cubicles, coffee cup in hand, acting as if he just happened to be dropping by.”

Sorry we can’t be more helpful. We drink coffee as well as tea, and we use the same containers for both. What do we call them? The small ones are “cups” and the big ones are “mugs.”

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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 the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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When golf was banned in Scotland

Q: I cringe every time someone says “I’m going golfing” or “Did you go golfing today?” I tell them “Golf is not a verb! You don’t go tennis-ing or basketball-ing, do you?” But no one seems to care. Has the word “golf” become a verb after all this misuse?

A: We hate to disappoint you, but “golf” is indeed a legitimate verb. It’s listed as such in standard dictionaries, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

In fact, “golf” has been used as a verb for more than 125 years. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from an 1883 issue of the Standard, a now defunct London newspaper, referring to “a General Officer who golfed.”

The form “golfing,” used adjectivally, is older yet, dating at least as far back as 1805, when it appeared in the autobiography of Alexander Carlyle, a Church of Scotland minister: “We crossed the river to the golfing-ground.”

As for the noun “golf,” it’s very old, as you probably know. The oldest existing written reference to the game is from a 15th-century manuscript in which golf and football were banned in Scotland.

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from a passage in the Scottish Acts of Parliament enacted in 1457, during the reign of James II of Scotland: “And at the fut bal ande the golf be vtterly cryt downe and nocht vsyt.” (Translation: “And that the football and the golf be utterly cried down and not used.”)

The game of golf, as the OED notes, is “of considerable antiquity in Scotland.” And it’s surely older than that first citation in the dictionary.

If the sport was so popular that it had to be banned, then obviously both the game and the word “golf” were around for quite some time before that 15th-century law was passed.

Why the ban? Apparently the military-minded Scottish kings felt that able-bodied men should be busying themselves with longbows instead of golf clubs. In the end, the prohibition proved futile, and James IV eventually took up the game himself.

But to get back to the noun “golf,” its origin is obscure. The first recorded spelling was “golf,” though later Middle English spellings included “gouff,” “goiff,” and “golfe.”

The OED notes that the word is “commonly supposed to be an adoption” of a Dutch word, kolf or kolv, which means “club” and refers to “the stick, club, or bat, used in several games of the nature of tennis, croquet, hockey, etc.”

So did the game or golf originate in the Netherlands? Sports historians have debated the issue for years. It’s perhaps inevitable that when you’re talking about a game that involves hitting balls with sticks, you’re going to get disagreement about where it came from.

The OED seems to come down on the side of Scotland as the origin: “None of the Dutch games have been convincingly identified with golf, nor is it certain that kolf was ever used to denote the game as well as the implement, though the game was and is called kolven.”

In some modern Scots dialects, the OED notes, the word for “golf” is gowf, which literally means “a blow with the open hand.” The pronunciation roughly rhymes with “loaf.”

This Scottish version apparently influenced an “l”-less pronunciation of “golf” (it rhymes with “off”) that the OED describes as “somewhat fashionable in England.”

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Preppy pronunciation

Q: Why is there such a proliferation of “prepatory” schools these days? I thought the word was “preparatory.” I’ve even heard a spot on WNYC that uses “prepatory.” If my sons were still of school age, I certainly would not send them to that prep school!

A: We can’t tell you why this is showing up, only that it’s considered a mispronunciation and not yet listed as standard (or as any kind of variant) in any dictionary we can find.

What’s being dropped in this pronunciation is not just the second “r” but the entire second syllable. The five-syllable “preparatory” becomes the four-syllable PREP-a-tor-ee.

Standard American dictionaries include several five-syllable pronunciations. They can be stressed on either the first syllable (PREP-er-a-tor-ee) or the second (pre-PAR-a-tor-ee).

One of the references we checked, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), does accept a four-syllable pronunciation in which the first “r” is retained: PREP-ra-tor-ee.

By the way, the British pronounce the word as four syllables with the stress on the second syllable (pri-PAIR-a-tree), according to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

The adjective “preparatory,” meaning preliminary or introductory, entered English in the early 1400s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. It was borrowed from Middle French, but its ultimate source was the Latin verb praeparare (to prepare).

The term “preparatory school” first showed up in the mid-1600s and the short form, “prep school,” in the late 1800s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation for “prep school” is from an 1891 issue of the Cosmos, the student newspaper at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

“A prep school girl being told by her teacher to parse the sentence, ‘He kissed me,’ consented reluctantly.”

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Where have all the participles gone?

Q: Have you noticed that many people no longer use participles with perfect tenses? I’ve  heard things like “We’ve already ate” and “He’d went by then.” What do you make of this? Is it as inevitable as the change in the meaning of “momentarily?”

A: We too have noticed this failure to use a participle with the present perfect and past perfect tenses. It’s nothing new, though. We recently came across a discussion of it in a textbook published in 1918.

The problem involves the perfect tenses of irregular verbs (like “eat,” “go,” “give,” “break,” “take,” “write,” etc.).

The present perfect ends up as “have ate” (instead of “have eaten”), “have went” (instead of “have gone”), and so on. The error is the same in the past perfect: “had gave” (instead of “had given”), “had broke” (instead of “had broken”), etc.

What the speaker does is substitute a simple past tense form (like “took” or “wrote”) for the participle (“taken,” “written”). This is widely considered nonstandard English.

The textbook we mentioned, Vocational English: A Textbook for Commercial and Technical Schools, illustrates this “confusion of past tense and past participle” with the following anecdote:

“There is a story of a small boy who, as a punishment for having written I have went, was told by his teacher to remain after school and write / have gone fifty times. When the teacher returned to her room after ten minutes’ absence, she found the phrase written the required fifty times, followed by the note:

Dear Teacher: I have wrote I have gone fifty times and I have went home.”

We’re pretty certain this use of the simple past for the participle won’t become standard English in our lifetimes, or even our children’s lifetimes. It’s just too big a grammatical shift. The change in meaning of “momentarily” is a mere alteration in usage.

On a related issue, we ran a blog item a few days ago on the tendency for people (mostly callow youths) to say things like “If I’d have known” as the opening clause of a sentence that calls for “If I had known.”

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A word pileup on the traffic report

Q: As I listen to traffic reports, my teeth are set to grating by the phrase “an accident in the process of being cleared.” I understand (I think) that there’s nothing technically wrong with that phrase, but it’s a personal bugbear of mine. Grrr!

A: We can’t see anything grammatically wrong here, just an inelegant pileup of unnecessary words.

One would think, though, that a fast-talking traffic reporter trying to squeeze two minutes’ worth of words into a 60-second spot would be the last person to get wordy.

One could say “an accident being cleared” and dispense with “in the process of.” Or better yet, just say “an accident.” We’d assume it was being cleared, no?

We were once startled by a usage on a traffic report. Because of an accident (of course!), an exit ramp had been “coned off.” In other words, it had been blocked off by those orange traffic cones.

A bit of googling, though, produced hundreds of thousands of hits for “cone off” and “coned off.”

We couldn’t find the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary or the two standard US dictionaries we consult the most, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

However, the unabridged Collins English Dictionary (10th ed.) describes “cone off” as a British usage meaning “to close (one carriageway of a motorway) by placing warning cones across it.”

And it’s defined in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online as a phrasal verb meaning “to prevent traffic from using a road or area by putting special objects that are shaped like cones on it. Part of the road had been coned off for repair work.”

Live and learn!

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Window shopping on FITH Avenue

Q: I have taught languages for almost 40 years and I am befuddled by two usages that seem to be accepted today in American English: (1) The pronunciation of words like “interstate” and “antiterrorist” as “innerstate” and “anniterrorist.” (2) The pronunciation of “fifth” as “fith.” Should I not instruct students in correct usage anymore regarding these examples? Please enlighten me.

A: The short answer is that most dictionaries consider these consonant-dropping pronunciations nonstandard. In other words, mispronunciations. So you’re safe in holding your ground here.

As you note, such pronunciations aren’t unusual. Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd. ed.) includes “fifth” and “interesting” in its list of frequently mispronounced words in American English. (They’re spoken as if they were spelled “fith” and “inneresting.”)

Common or not, all the dictionaries we’ve checked agree that the “t” is pronounced in words beginning with an “anti-” or “inter-“ prefix, as well as in “interesting.” (The “t” is often dropped here in unaccented syllables.)

But not all authorities agree about “fifth.” One source, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), accepts the pronunciations FITH and FIFT.

In accepting this latter pronunciation, M-W has ancient history on its side. In Old English, “fifth” was pronounced and written differently, as fifta. Similarly, the word had no final “th” sound in the other old Germanic languages.

So where did the “th” sound come from? The Oxford English Dictionary has the answer: “The normal form fift still survives in dialects; the standard form, which first appears in the 14th cent., is due to the analogy of fourth.

So if “fourth” were “fourt” instead, we’d probably still be saying “fift.”

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How did a holy day become a holiday?

Q: Happy holidays! Apropos of the holiday season, when did “holiday” become a word and when did it lose its holiness? I assume it was originally “holy day,” but I’ve never looked into it.

A: The word “holiday” was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it looked a lot different back then.

In Old English, it was written haligdæg or hali-dægh (literally “holy day’). And later, in Middle English, the first vowel was also an “a”: halidei, halidai , halliday, haliday, etc.

A bit later in the Middle English period (12th to 15th centuries) the “a” became an “o,” and eventually the usual forms of the word became “holy day,” “holy-day,” or “holiday” (a spelling first recorded in 1460).

The different forms of the word—that is, whether it was written as one word or two—had something to do with its different meanings.

Originally, the word meant a consecrated day or a religious festival. But in the 1400s, it acquired another, more secular meaning.

The OED defines this sense of the word as “a day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or a community) are suspended; a day of exemption or cessation from work; a day of festivity, recreation, or amusement.”

That’s how the single word “holiday” came to include the secular side of life and became identified with vacations. But the two–word versions (“holy day,” “holy-day”) retained the original meaning—a day set aside for religious observance.

Today we still recognize these different senses and spellings.

Now here’s an aside. In the Middle English period, people sometimes observed holy days by eating a large flatfish called butte. Thus this fish became known as “halibut” (“hali” for holy and “but” for flatfish).

And happy holidays to you!

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When woulds collide

Q: Here’s a sentence written by a student of mine at Rutgers: “If I had have known, I  would have changed my forecast.” Ouch! But if I’m honest, I can hear myself using a contracted version, “If I’d have known, I would have changed my forecast.” What’s going on here?

A: When people say (or write) “If I’d have known,” they’re contracting “I would,” not “I had.” That’s why your student’s uncontracted sentence sounds especially jarring to you. However, modern usage guides consider both sentences wrong.

The error here is using “If I would have known” (or “If I’d have known”) instead of “If I had known.” The construction calls for the past perfect tense in that first clause: “If I had known, I would have changed my forecast.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says this use of “would have” has been cited as an error since at least the 1920s. It adds that the “usage is characteristic of informal speech, in which it may often occur in a contracted form.”

“Our evidence indicates that it does not occur in standard writing that finds its way into print,” Merriam-Webster’s says, “but it is notorious in student writing and therefore a staple of college handbooks even today.”

A few years ago, we ran a blog entry that touched on this error. But for your convenience, we’ll summarize the part that relates to your question.

A common error with “would” is illustrated in the sentence “If I would have shown him, he would have believed me.”

This is an error in the sequence of tenses. The challenge here is to juggle two tenses in one “if” sentence, and in this case the first clause calls for the past perfect tense (“had shown”).

Here’s a fairly simple explanation of how the tenses should work together:

(1) If the first verb is in the simple present, the second should be in the simple future: “If I show him, he will believe me.”

(2) If the first verb is in the simple past, the second should be in the simple conditional: “If I showed him, he would believe me.”

(3) If the first verb is in the past perfect, the second should be in the conditional perfect: “If I had shown him, he would have believed me.”

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A formidable subject

Q: “Formidable” used to be pronounced FOR-midable in the US, but I believe the
pronunciation was influenced after WWII by British speakers, who pronounced it for-MID-able. For some reason this latter pronunciation has taken hold in the US.

A: Let’s establish at the outset that in modern American usage “formidable” can be pronounced correctly with the accent on either the first or the second syllable (FOR-mid-able or for-MID-able).

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), among others, give the two pronunciations, in that order, as standard English.

We can’t find any evidence, though, that Americans acquired the for-MID-able pronunciation from the British, as you suggest. But the pronunciation does appear to be relatively new—both in the US and in Britain.

For one thing, older standard dictionaries in both countries—even those as recent as the mid-1980s—list only one pronunciation, FOR-mid-able.

And for another, usage guides didn’t begin noticing the word until the mid- to late-20th century, which suggests that its pronunciation wasn’t an issue before then.

Even now, the only pronunciation given in the Oxford English Dictionary is accented on the first syllable (FOR-mid-able). One would think that if for-MID-able were a well-established British pronunciation, and if in fact Americans had acquired it from the British, the OED would list it as a variant.

Yet another British reference book, the latest version of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed., 2004), has this to say:

“The standard pronunciation is with the main stress on the first syllable. Second-syllable stressing, though increasingly heard (a limited opinion poll by J. C. Wells, 1990, actually revealed a slight preference for for-MID-able), is not recommended.”

Later the editor of the new Fowler’s, R.W. Burchfield, includes “formidable” in a list of multi-syllable words with “unstable accents.”

Words in which the accent is moving from the first to the second syllable in British usage, he says, include “applicable,” “clematis,” “controversy,” “despicable,” “exquisite,” “formidable,” “harass,” “hospitable,” “integral,” “lamentable,” and others. (Obviously, some of these newer pronunciations have already established themselves in American usage.)

As far as we can tell, the for-MID-able pronunciation seems to be a mid-20th-century phenomenon. The first edition of Fowler’s (1926) doesn’t mention it, nor does our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition). But it does show up, among similar “unorthodox” pronunciations, in the second edition of Fowler’s (1965).

Despite that “unorthodox” label in the ’60s, several recent dictionaries, British as well as American, list both pronunciations as standard today. Macmillan, for example, publishes British and American editions, and both of them give the two pronunciations. When both are given, the one accented on the first syllable is invariably listed ahead of the other.

Clearly, however, this pronunciation is in flux. Cambridge Dictionaries Online gives for-MID-able as the standard British pronunciation and FOR-mid-able as the American.

As for why the for-MID-able pronunciation has taken hold, the original Fowler’s offers a clue. In a section about the “recessive accent,” Henry Fowler commented on “a repugnance to strings of obscure syllables.”

Some people’s tongues, Fowler explained, “cannot frame a rapid succession of light syllables hardly differing from each another.” In reaction, he said, they tend either to shift the stress to the second syllable or to drop a syllable.

Fowler used the example of “laboratory,” a five-syllable word (at least it was in his day). Its “orthodox” pronunciation, he said, is accented on the first syllable, but some people “find four successive unaccented syllables trying.”

So rather than accent the first syllable, he said, they accent the second (la-BOR-a-tor-ee) or drop the fourth (LAB-or-a-tree). And, as we know, some British speakers do both (la-BOR-a-tree).

Americans have no trouble accenting the first syllable, but they drop the second (LAB-ra-tor-ee), the usual pronunciation in the US. Fortunately, “lab” is standard English on both sides of the Atlantic.

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What is your heart’s desire?

Q: I am guessing that there should be an apostrophe in “My heart’s desire is a Lab puppy,” since the desire belongs to the heart. Am I right?

A: Yes, there’s a possessive apostrophe. The phrase is properly written “heart’s desire,” as in “Those diamond stud earrings are my heart’s desire,” or “His heart’s desire was a six-pack and a large pizza with double cheese.”

Here, “my heart’s desire” is equivalent to “the desire of my heart.” Both are possessive constructions. By the way, we had a posting a while back about the history of the apostrophe in possessive constructions.

The expression “heart’s desire” dates back at least as far as the 14th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. This was before the apostrophe showed up in English, and when “es” was the possessive ending for most nouns.

The phrase first appeared in writing, according to OED citations, in a Middle English poem, The Gestes of the Worthie King and Emperour, Alisaunder of Macedoine (1340-70): “Hee hoped to haue there of his hertes desyres.”

Here’s a later example with modern punctuation, from a piece by Richard Steele in the Tatler (1709): “Farewel my Terentia, my Heart’s Desire, farewel.”

And if YOUR heart’s desire really is a Lab puppy, go for it! We recently welcomed a golden retriever puppy into our home.

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Topology

Q: Please comment on this UK slang expression for suicide: “to top oneself,” usually in lieu of facing trial or dishonor or worse at the hands of villains.

A: Since the 13th century, people have used the noun “top” to refer to the head. And since the 18th century, the verb “top” has been used in one way or another to mean to behead or to put to death by hanging.

(In the 19th century, “topsman” was a slang word for a hangman.)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the use of “top” in the executioner’s sense is from Charles Hitchin’s crime exposé The Regulator (1718): “He being known to be an old Practitioner, will certainly be cast and top’d, alias hang’d for the same.”

Now, according to the OED, “to top someone” usually means to commit murder and “to top oneself” means to commit suicide.

The sense of topping oneself first showed up in the mid-20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations. Here are some suicidal examples:

“He also took my tie and belt so that I could not top myself” (from Frank Norman’s Bang to Rights: An Account of Prison Life, 1958).

“I have to try and get a key to it all, otherwise I’ll just top myself” (from the former BBC publication The Listener, 1983).

Let’s end this on a lighter note with an excerpt for the campaign season from Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”:

I’m the nominee of the G.O.P.
Or GOP!
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!

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Is your English busted?

Q: What about using “busted” for “broken”? I was taught NEVER to do that, but now I always hear things such as “He has a busted leg.” I realize usage, and grammar, evolve but what do YOU think about this?

A: How acceptable is using “bust” for “break” (and “busted” for “broken”)? That depends on the dictionary you consult.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) calls this usage informal, and the Oxford English Dictionary labels it colloquial (that is, more suited to speech than writing).

But at least one dissenting voice, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), accepts it as standard English without reservation.

Since you asked our opinion, we’ll tell you. We agree with American Heritage that a sentence like “He busted a leg skiing” is too informal for polished written English, but it’s OK for informal speech.

However, some other meanings of “bust” and “busted” are more widely accepted and can be used without apology in writing as well as speech. Here’s the story.

The verb “bust” got its start a couple of hundred years ago as an “r”-less pronunciation of “burst.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, this pronunciation was “apparently common in many dialect areas in the 19th century and earlier.”

In those days, the verb “burst” had more meanings than it does today. In addition to its most common modern meaning, to explode, “burst” meant to break or smash. So when the “bust” pronunciation came along, It too conveyed those meanings.

The OED credits the American explorer Meriwether Lewis with the first recorded use of the verb “bust.” In 1806, during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he wrote in his journal: “Windsor busted his rifle near the muzzle.”

In the mid-19th century, Charles Dickens used “bust” in the sense of “burst” in his novels.

The OED gives one example from Nicholas Nickleby (1839): “His genius would have busted all bounds.” And it cites two examples from Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44): “Keep cool, Jefferson. … Don’t bust!” and “If the biler [boiler] of this vessel was Toe bust, Sir.”

Soon, “bust” and “busted” acquired more meanings.

People began using “busted” to mean bankrupt (first recorded in 1829); demoted or reduced in rank (1918); and placed under arrest or raided (1953).

And they used “bust” to mean punch or slug, a usage the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces back to 1873. (P. G. Wodehouse used it artfully in his 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress: “I shall infallibly bust you one on the jaw.”)

All the senses of the verb “bust” are more or less informal sounding. But which are considered standard English? Again, this varies from dictionary to dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s is the most lenient, accepting nearly all the modern meanings of “bust,” even “to bust one’s chops” (give someone a hard time) and to “bust one’s butt” (to work hard or exhaust oneself). M-W  regards only one sense of “bust” as slang: to arrest.

American Heritage regards “bust” as informal when it means to smash, break, or render inoperable; to reduce in rank; or to arrest. (It labels the busting of chops and butts as “vulgar slang.”)

If there’s a safety zone for “bust,” it consists of usages that both dictionaries consider standard—that is, the ones they list without reservation.

These senses get two thumbs up: to bring an end (“bust the monopoly”); to tame (“bust the bronco”); to bankrupt or ruin financially (“bust the budget”); to hit or punch (“bust him in the nose”); and to explode (“laugh fit to bust”).

And that busts our budget of information.

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Sleeping with the fishes

Q: During Pat’s WNYC discussion of euphemisms for death, a caller mentioned the expression “sleep with the fishes.” I believe it originated with the first Godfather movie. After Luca Brasi is thrown into the sea, Tessio carries in Brasi’s bullet-proof vest with a fish inside. Sonny says, “What the hell is this?” Tessio says: “It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

A: That line from the 1972 movie undoubtedly helped popularize the expression, but it didn’t originate with The Godfather or even with the Mafia, which arose in Sicily in the 1860s.

A search of books digitized by Google suggests that the expression was alive and well in English at least as far back as the 1830s and probably earlier.

In Sketches of Germany and the Germans (1836), Edmund Spencer describes a trip by a British angler to an area occupied by superstitious villagers who considered fly fishing a form of black magic:

“This terrible apprehension was soon circulated from village to village: the deluded peasants broke in pieces the pretty painted magic wand, and forcibly put to flight the magician himself, vowing, with imprecations, if he repeated his visit, they would send him to sleep with the fishes.”

Here’s one more fishy example. An article from the July 15, 1905, issue of The Search-Light, a magazine specializing in international affairs, describes an attempt by the Russian fleet to capture a pirate ship:

“After her at full speed hurried the torpedo boat ‘Smetilvy,’ manned by a crew of officers and faithful blue jackets, and pledged to send the rebels to sleep with the fishes.”

We couldn’t find any citations for “sleep with the fishes” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the OED does have an entry from an 1891 slang dictionary of “feed the fishes” used figuratively to mean “to be drowned.”

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When did “Venus’s beauty” get a second “s”?

Q: I am 50 and I was taught that words ending in “s” (“Chris,” for example) were made possessive by adding an apostrophe (“Chris’ coat”). But in recent years I have noticed another “s” being added after the apostrophe. When did “Chris’s” get an extra “s”?

A: As far as we can tell, an apostrophe plus the letter “s” has generally been used to mark the possessive case of singular nouns since at least the 1700s. This has been true whether the nouns ended in “s” or not.

A 1772 edition of Joseph Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar, for example, says the possessive “is formed by adding (s) with an apostrophe before it” to a singular noun. Examples include one with a singular noun ending in “s” (“Venus’s beauty”).

So a name or other singular noun that ends in “s” (like “Chris”) is usually made possessive with the addition of an apostrophe plus a final “s” (as in “Chris’s coat”).

Here’s the rule, from The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.): “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s. … The general rule extends to proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z, in both their singular and plural forms.”

The examples given in the Chicago Manual include “Kansas’s legislature,” “Marx’s theories,” “Berlioz’s works,” “Borges’s library,” and “Dickens’s novels.”

The manual goes on to say: “Some writers and publishers prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s—hence ‘Dylan Thomas’ poetry,’ ‘Etta James’ singing,’ and ‘that business’ main concern.’ Though easy to apply and economical, such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

The point about pronunciation is a good one. When a name ends in  “s” or another sibilant sound, we add a syllable when pronouncing the possessive form. So the possessive form of the name “Chris” is pronounced KRIS-ez—a good enough reason to retain the final “s.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written before on the blog about forming the possessive of plural names. And if you’re game for a little history, we had an item on how the apostrophe became the mark of possession.

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Tennis, anyone?

Q: Many years ago, I was flipping through a book at friends of my grandparents. It was a compendium of expressions and claimed bizarrely that “Tennis, anyone?” meant “Would you like to go for a walk in the rain?” Can you shed any light on this?

A: We doubt that “Tennis, anyone?” is—or ever was—another way of asking, “Walk in the rain, anyone?” The book you read might have suggested this as a joke, since only the most obsessive tennis obsessives are likely to play in the rain.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the tennis expression (which has lots of variants) as “a typical entrance or exit line given to a young man in a superficial drawing-room comedy.”

The phrase is also used adjectivally to describe someone or something reminiscent of this kind of comedy (as in “He used his tennis-anyone voice”).

The OED quotes John van Druten’s book Playwright at Work (1953) on the use of the expression:

“There is no average Mr. and Mrs. Blank at all. An attempt to draw one … will lead you into the pit of emptiness, and you will emerge with something as unreal as the juveniles in plays who come in impertinently swinging tennis rackets, and when the time for their exit arrives, make it with the remark: ‘Tennis, anyone?’ ”

The first to use an equivalent expression may have been George Bernard Shaw. In his play Misalliance (1914), a rich young man says flippantly, in mid-conversation, “Anybody on for a game of tennis?”

Shaw’s line is quoted in Fred A. Shapiro’s The Yale Book of Quotations, which goes on to say that “Tennis, anyone?” later became “a catchphrase associated with drawing room comedies.”

“Humphrey Bogart is often said to have originated that phrase, but no example of its use has ever been found in the plays in which he appeared,” Shapiro writes. “The earliest example to date of ‘Tennis, anyone?’ is in the Dixon (Ill.) Evening Telegraph, 5 May 1951.”

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On the tarmac

Q: Why does the media insist on using “the tarmac” as a catchphrase for different areas of an airport: runways, aprons, taxiways? Tarmac is largely obsolete and hasn’t been used at airports for many years. For some reason this just bugs me.

A: You’re right technically, though it doesn’t pay to be too technical about this. English is a work in progress, and dictionaries are starting to accept “the tarmac” as the paved part of an airport where planes stop to take on or let off passengers.

But let’s back up a bit. In the early 1800s, a Scottish engineer named John Loudon McAdam developed a technique of road building using layers of small pieces of stone. This road surface was referred to as “macadam.”

In the early 20th century, an English surveyor named Edgar Purnell Hooley developed a technique for combining tar with macadam to produce a road-building material called tar macadam or tarmac.

Although tarmac was used extensively in the construction of airports during World War II, no major airport now uses it. The pavement at major airports is now usually asphalt or concrete.

(While we’re metaphorically waiting on the runway, check out our blog entries about “cement” and “concrete,” their meanings and their pronunciations.)

To get back to your question, a baggage handler or a language stickler would refer to the loading and unloading area at an airport as a ramp or an apron. But we think “the tarmac” is evolving and it’s not a crime for laymen to use it loosely for such an area.

Some dictionaries still restrict the term “tarmac” to paved areas made of tar macadam (or tarmacadam), but others now say it can refer generally to airport areas made of any kind of pavement.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “tarmac” as the “registered trade-mark of a kind of tar macadam consisting of iron slag impregnated with tar and creosote; also designating a surface made of tar macadam.”

However, the OED then notes that the phrase “the tarmac” is often used colloquially to mean an airfield or runway.

The British and American versions of the online Macmillan Dictionary go one step further and define “the tarmac” simply as “the part of an airport where the planes stop and that people walk across to get on a plane.”

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Why do we favor a sore foot?

Q: Please enlighten me about this sentence: “He is favoring his left leg.” Does this mean the person in question is depending more on his left leg (presumably because his right one is injured)? Or does it mean he is giving special protective treatment to the left leg because it is the injured one?

A: “Favoring” one leg means treating it gently—that is, using it less than the other.

This use of the verb “favor” was first recorded in English in 1526, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines this sense of the word as “to deal gently with; to avoid overtasking (a limb); to ease, save, spare.”

Not surprisingly, many citations for this usage come from books on horsemanship.

The OED includes an early example from Gervase Markham’s Cavelarice, or the English Horseman (1607): “When a horse doth stand but firme upon … three feete … favoring the other.”

Late in the following century, William Augustus Osbaldiston wrote in The British Sportsman (1792): “He will set his foot on the ground warily, and endeavour to favor it.”

And here’s a human example. Samuel Pepys, who experienced severe pain while reading and writing, wrote in a 1668 diary entry about “walking in the dark in the garden, to favour my eyes.”

This sense of “favor” is perhaps a natural extension of the word’s original meaning.

When “favor” first entered English in the 1300s, the OED says, it generally meant to regard with favor or show favor to; to look kindly upon or to treat kindly; to have a liking or preference for; to encourage or patronize; to treat with partiality, and so on.

It’s not surprising that one—whether equine or human—should want to deal kindly with sore feet and sore eyes!

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Gallows rumor

Q: It seems to me that the word “executor” has two pronunciations, one for the person who carries out the terms of a will, and another for the person who carries out the sentence in a capital crime. Am I right about this?

A: Yes and no. The use of “executor” for a hangman is now considered obsolete (we’ll get to this later), but there are indeed two different kinds of “executor” in modern usage, and most people pronounce them differently.

(1) The one we meet most often is accented on the second syllable (ig-ZEK-yuh-ter). It means a person who executes the terms of a will (as in “Mr. Beazley is my late father’s executor”).

(2) Less frequently we hear the one accented on the first syllable (EK-suh-kyoo-ter). This means a person who executes something else or gets it done (“The sculptor is both designer and executor”).

Those are the pronunciations assigned to the two meanings in almost every reference we checked—the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and half a dozen other dictionaries and usage guides.

Only one source, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), says the pronunciations are interchangeable. In our opinion, pronouncing “executor” indiscriminately is likely to raise a few eyebrows.

In both of those definitions, #1 and #2, something’s being executed, and here the verb “execute” means to carry out, produce, or put into effect.

But, as you know, to “execute” also means to put to death. And once upon a time, an “executor” (pronounced EK-suh-kyoo-ter) meant someone who executes a condemned prisoner. But this sense of “executor” has been replaced by “executioner.”

Our verb “execute” was first recorded in English in 1387, according to OED citations. Interestingly, it was recorded more than a century after “executor,” circa 1280.

Both words came into English from Anglo-Norman, but their ultimate source is the Latin verb exsequi, which is composed of ex plus sequi—literally “to follow out,” or pursue to the end.

Originally, to “execute” something was to perform its functions (as in “to execute the office”).

In the following century, the word acquired most of its other senses, including one first recorded in 1413 and defined this way in the OED: “To carry into effect ministerially (a law, a judicial sentence, etc.).”

The meaning of “execute” that we associate with the gallows came along 70 years later, in 1483. How did it gets its meaning? This remains a puzzle.

“It is not quite clear,” says the OED, whether the capital punishment usage grew out of the 1413 sense of the word (that is, to put a judicial sentence into effect), or whether it partly represents “the etymological notion of Latin exsequi ‘to pursue to the end.’ ”

With that, we’ve pursued this subject to the end.

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Ask and it shall be told

Q: Your discussions last month on bring & take and come & go remind me that my children used to have trouble with ask & tell, inverting  them frequently during one period in their lives (I forget how old they were, but it used to amaze me). I hadn’t thought about that in years.

A: Generally, as you know, “telling” implies making a statement while “asking” implies posing a question. None of the usual senses of “tell” (explain, say, utter, relate, declare, inform, reveal, narrate, communicate, etc.) convey the meaning of “ask.” And vice versa.

Of course, “asking” and “telling” are intimately related. When we ask something, we might use the word “tell” (as in “Tell me your secret”). And one verb is often a response to the other (“He asked me, so I told him”).

The only overlap we can think of is in the sense of calling on someone to do something—you can “ask” him or you can “tell” him. Of course, the meanings differ, since it’s more courteous to “ask” someone to do something than to “tell” him.

Perhaps the politeness issue is what confused your children (as in “Don’t tell your brother to pass the butter; ask him”). But there’s no telling where children’s early notions about language come from!

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, Pat mentions that as a child she used to think that ordinary speech was a recent invention and that people once communicated by singing. Why? Because her parents would often listen to operas on TV when she was a toddler.

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Wanna argue?

Q: What does the word “arguably” mean? Does it mean “without a doubt” or “possibly”?

A: It usually means something in between those two definitions. In a sentence like “He’s arguably the best player in the National League,” we’re saying that one could make the case that he’s the best player in the league.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the adverb “arguably” describes something that “may be argued or shown by argument.” It gives these two examples: “an arguably effective strategy” and “arguably the greatest writer of his era.”

If you find that confusing, Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, a guide for students of English as a second language, offers a clearer definition: “used to say that a statement is very possibly true even if it is not certainly true.”

Although some people are confused about whether “arguably” is negative or positive, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains that it “is used in a positive sense and that it is primarily a qualifier or hedge against too strong a statement.”

One reason for the confusion is that the adjective “arguable” can be either positive or negative. M-W Collegiate says it’s used for something that can be “open to argument” or “convincingly argued.”

In fact, the M-W usage guide also includes some examples of “arguable” used in what it considers a neutral sense. A 1982 book review in the New York Times, for example, refers to “an arguable issue that he does not pause to argue.”

The adverb “arguably” is relatively new. The earliest published reference for the word in the OED is from an 1890 issue of the Saturday Review: “His policy, if sometimes arguably mistaken, was almost always a … generous policy.”

Although the adjective “arguable” dates from the early 1600s, it doesn’t appear to have been widely used until the mid-1800s.

In an 1860 example, the English essayist Walter Bagehot writes that the Jacobites believed in “an hereditary family, which claimed the Crown, not on arguable considerations of policy, but on ascertainable claims of descent.”

As for the etymology of these words, both the adjective and adverb, as well as the verb “argue,” are ultimately derived from the Latin arguere (to make clear, prove, assert, accuse, blame).

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Hwat’s up with what?

Q: Please explain to me why some people, generally older and perhaps Southern, pronounce the word “what” in such a way that it sounds as if it’s spelled “hwat.” I hope my cumbersome explanation conveys what I’m asking.

A: In modern American usage, “what” can be pronounced with either a simple “w” sound at the beginning, or with a breathier “hw” sound

In standard American dictionaries, like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), both of those pronunciations are acceptable.

This wasn’t always true. Formerly, the latter pronunciation—it sounds something like HWUT—was preferred. For example, our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition), gives that as the only pronunciation.

But today, while both pronunciations are acceptable, the “hw” sound is losing ground. Most Americans have dropped the “h” sound at the beginning of “what” and other such words (“which,” “why,” “when,” “whim,” “white,” and so on).

These days, as you suggested, the “hw” sound is more likely to be heard in parts of the South than elsewhere in the country.

This trend away from the “hw” sound isn’t restricted to American English. Modern British usage favors an “h”-less pronunciation of “what” that sounds something like WOT.

The online Macmillan Dictionary, which has both British and American versions, gives both “w” and “hw” pronunciations for American usage but only one, the “h”-less version, for British usage. The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, which also has US and UK pronunciations, agrees.

As you might suspect, the “hw” pronunciation is the much older one. In fact, when “what” first showed up in Old English in the 700s, the word was spelled with an “h” in front: hwaet or huaet.

The British began losing the “h” sound in “what” long before Americans did, and even before the Colonies existed.

We found an interesting perspective on all this in Kate Burridge’s book Weeds in the Garden of Words (2005).

Burridge, an Australian linguist, writes, “Over the years English has been simplifying the clusters of consonants it allows, in particular the clusters that occur at the beginning of syllables.”

“We know that the change in pronunciation from ‘hw’ to ‘w’ started in the south of England as early as the Middle Ages, but it couldn’t have been a big hit, since the ‘hw’ cluster went across to North America in the 17th century,” she goes on to say.

In 18th-century England, Burridge adds, “the pronunciation ‘w’ was clearly gaining ground. It had even begun to creep into the speech of the educated, who had earlier condemned it.”

“By 1800 which and witch and whether and weather had become homophones in Standard English pronunciation,” she writes. “The cluster is managing to hang in there in places like Scotland and Ireland, but everywhere else it’s well and truly on the way out.”

Update: A reader of the blog calls our attention to an episode of the animated TV show “Family Guy” in which Stewie, the precocious infant, asks for “Cool Hwip topping.”

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