The Grammarphobia Blog

Crippled, handicapped, disabled?

Q: When did it become insulting to call someone crippled rather than handicapped or disabled?

A: Of the three words, “crippled” is by far the oldest, with roots going back to Anglo-Saxon times.

The adjective “crippled” has been in use since before 1300, and the noun “cripple” since about 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But another adjective, “lame,” which we wrote about last year, is even older, dating back to around 725, though it’s not heard much today in reference to people.

The OED doesn’t say exactly when “cripple” and “crippled” were first considered insensitive and their use discouraged. And we can’t tell from the published examples cited in the dictionary.

But it’s safe to say that these words began to be replaced in the 20th century—first by “handicapped” and “person with a handicap,” and later by “disabled” or “person with a disability.”

Lately, even “disabled” and “disability” have been criticized by some as negative words that emphasize what people can’t do, rather than what they can. So usage is still changing.

While we can’t precisely pin down dates for these shifts in sense and sensibility, we can pin down a few etymologies.

“Cripple” has similar-sounding relatives in other Germanic languages, all of which have prehistoric roots in a word stem that’s been reconstructed as krupilo-, from the verb kriupan (to “creep”).

As the OED explains, the connection to “creep” may be explained “either in the sense of one who can only creep, or perhaps rather in that of one who is, in Scottish phrase, ‘cruppen together,’ i.e. contracted in body and limbs.”

“Handicap” and “handicapped” were terms used in games and sports long before they were used to refer to disabilities.

They can be traced to “hand i’ cap” (that is, “hand in cap”), an expression originating in the mid-17th century and referring to a game of chance in which forfeit money was put into a cap.

“Handicap” was first applied to horseracing in the mid-18th century. In the sporting sense, it means a disadvantage (extra weight, strokes, or some other condition) imposed on a superior competitor in favor of an inferior one to equalize chances.

“Hence,” the OED says, in the 1890s a handicap came to mean “any encumbrance or disability that weighs upon effort and makes success more difficult.”

But it didn’t specifically mean a person’s physical or mental disability until the early 20th century. The adjective “handicapped,” the OED tells us, was first used this way in 1915.

“Disabled” has been around since the late 16th century in the general sense, defined by the OED as “rendered incapable of action or use; incapacitated; taken out of service.”

While “disabled” has been used since the 17th century in reference to people’s physical and mental capacities, it didn’t replace “crippled” and “handicapped” until modern times. As the OED explains:

“The word disabled came to be used as the standard term in this sense in the second half of the 20th cent., and it remains the most generally accepted term in both British and North American English today. It superseded outmoded, and now frequently offensive, terms such as crippled, handicapped, etc.”

We should mention, however, that not every disabled person considers the term “crippled” insensitive.

For example, Bill Veeck, the owner of several major league baseball teams from the mid-1940s to the early ’80s, didn’t.

Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, gave one of the chapters in his book Veeck as in Wreck this title: “I’m Not Handicapped, I’m Crippled.”

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Quality control

Q: Google helps me with almost all my language questions, but I couldn’t find a satisfying answer to this one: Is “bad quality” an oxymoron and “good quality” redundant?

A: No, “bad quality” is not an oxymoron (a combination of contradictory or incongruous words). And “good quality” is not redundant.

The noun “quality” has a lot of meanings, including many that could be described as good or bad: a character trait, an inherent feature, a characteristic, and so on.

Merriam-Webster Online lists quite a few examples of such senses, including these: “Honesty is a desirable quality” … “Stubbornness is one of his bad qualities” … “The house has many fine qualities.”

Of course some uses of the noun do indeed suggest excellence, and “good” or “bad” would be unnecessary or out of place with them.

We’ll make up a few examples: “The shop sells only merchandise of quality” … “He’s a member of the quality” … “Where can I find quality at a reasonable price?” … “I was blown away by the quality of the writing.”

When the noun “quality” first showed up in English around 1300, it referred to someone’s character or nature, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A century later, it came to mean a personal attribute.

Although English adopted the word from the Anglo-Norman or Old French qualité, the ultimate source is the Latin qualitas, which was Cicero’s translation of the Greek word for quality, poiotes, coined by Plato. 

If you’d like to read more, we had a posting a few years ago on the use of “quality” as an adjective meaning excellent or of high quality (as in “quality time”).

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Five foot two, hyphens too?

Q: Woe Is I saved me from an “I”-versus-“me” embarrassment in a murder mystery I wrote. But I can’t find anything in Pat’s grammar book about “six foot ladder” and “five feet two” questions. I’m on the side of not using hyphens in these cases. Hope to gain a bit of insight from you.

A: This is an issue of style, not grammar. Although style guides agree on “six-foot ladder” (they recommend a hyphen), they’re at odds about “five feet two.”

We’ll get to our opinion in a moment, but we should mention that Pat does include a section on hyphens, “Betwixt and Between,” in Woe Is I (pages 175-79 in the third edition).

And she discusses whether to hyphenate a two-word description that modifies a noun (as in “six-foot ladder”). Here’s an excerpt:

“One of the hardest things to figure out with hyphens is how to use them in two-word descriptions. When two words are combined to describe a noun, sometimes you use a hyphen between them and sometimes you don’t.

“The first question to ask yourself is whether the description comes before or after the noun.

“• If it’s after the noun, don’t use a hyphen. Father is strong willed. My cousin is red haired. This chicken is well done. Ducks are water resistant.

“• If it’s before the noun, use a hyphen between the two words in the description. He’s a strong-willed father. I have a red-haired cousin. This is well-done chicken. Those are water-resistant ducks.

Pat goes on to point out several exceptions, but we don’t need to get into them here. In answer to the ladder question, style manuals would recommend that you climb “a six-foot ladder,” but “the ladder is six feet” (or “six feet tall”).

Why “foot” in the first example and “feet” in the second?

We use singular nouns in nearly all adjectival phrases that precede nouns: “two-car garage,” “three-week vacation,” “four-bedroom house,” “five-month-old puppy,” “six-foot pipe,” and so on.

The only exception is with fractions, where the plural is often used in adjectival phrases that precede nouns: “a two-thirds turnout,” “a three-fifths margin,” etc.

Woe Is I doesn’t get into the hyphenation of adjectival phrases that describe dimensions (as in your “five feet two” question), but we’ve discussed this subject on our blog.

Again, if the phrase precedes a noun, it’s hyphenated, and a noun that’s part of it is singular: “a five-foot-two girl.”

Style guides differ, however, on how to deal with an adjectival phrase that follows the noun it modifies: Use hyphens, or not? Spell out numbers, or not? And so on.

The New York Times, for example, would say the girl is “5 feet 2 inches tall” or “5-foot-2.” The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, would recommend she’s “five feet two,” though it would accept what it considers the more colloquial “five foot two.”

The Times’s style on this seems reasonable and natural to us. There’s nothing wrong with saying “She’s five feet two inches,” but if you drop the word “inches,” it seems to us that “She’s five-foot-two” is more idiomatically correct (with or without the hyphens). 

Now, the Chicago Manual does appear to be on your side about whether to use hyphens here. And with style guides at odds, the choice is yours. Feel free to say, “She’s five feet two.”

We can’t resist concluding with a few lines from one of the many hyphenless versions of “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”

Five foot two, eyes of blue,
But oh! what those five foot could do,
Has anybody seen my gal?
Turned up nose, turned down hose,
Never had no other beaus,
Has anybody seen my gal?

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Basis points

Q: I work for a company where the word “basis” is pervasively misused as a shortcut for “based upon.” Example: “The results were disappointing, basis our quarterly report.” No matter how often I speak up, the misuse has become entrenched in the corporate vernacular.

A: We’ve found several complaints online about the prepositional use of the noun “basis” to mean based upon, regarding, in reference to, and so on, but the usage doesn’t seem very common—at least not yet.

This sense of “basis” isn’t standard English and apparently never has been. We couldn’t find it in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any of the standard dictionaries we checked.

When the word “basis” entered English in the 16th century, it meant the bottom of something, like a foundation or a base.

Although English borrowed the word directly from Latin, the Romans borrowed it in turn from the Greek basis (a step).

The ultimate source, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, is a reconstructed Indo-European root for going or stepping.

The English noun took on a figurative meaning—the main constituent or fundamental ingredient of something—at the beginning of the 17th century, according to citations in the OED.

Over the years, the word acquired other senses, including a basic principle and an underlying condition or state of affairs. But we see no basis for using it to mean based upon.

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Preexisting conditions

Q: You can settle a dispute I’m having with my doctor. I say all conditions are pre-existing; otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to diagnose them. No? Nu?

A: Well, from your standpoint, all the medical conditions you have when you walk into the doctor’s office are preexisting.

But they’re not necessarily preexisting from your doctor’s standpoint. And especially not from your insurance company’s.

The issue is not whether the condition preexists when you arrive at the examining room. It’s whether the condition preexists when you take out an insurance policy (or, rather, whether it existed “pre” the policy). 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “pre-existing condition” defines the noun phrase as an insurance term for “a disease or disorder from which a person taking out an insurance policy is known to be suffering, the effect or treatment of which is thus often not covered under that policy (or is only covered after a certain amount of time).”

The usage is relatively new. The first published reference in the OED is from a 1947 issue of the Reno (Nevada) Evening Gazette:

“Many people with disabilities that formerly were not insurable can now secure this new health service and have these chronic pre-existing conditions removed or repaired.”

The latest citation in the OED is from a 2003 issue of New York Magazine: “My new health insurance doesn’t start until March 1, and I wasn’t sure if dirty-bomb radiation would be considered a pre-existing condition.”

Although the OED uses a hyphen in “preexisting,” as do all the examples cited for this sense of the term, we’ll follow the hyphenless spelling in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Interestingly, the adjective “preexisting” is surprisingly old, showing up in English (minus the hyphen) in the late 1500s.

The earliest citation in the OED is from The Silkewormes and Their Flies, a 1599 book written in verse by the farmer, physician, and naturalist Thomas Moffett:

“Now what are seedes and egges of wormes or foule / But recrements of preexisting things.”

In this sense, the OED defines “preexisting” simply as existing beforehand. A similar adjective, “preexistent,” showed up two years earlier. And the verb “preexist” appeared earlier still.

We’ll end with the OED’s first citation for the verb, from The Difference Betwene the Auncient Phisicke, First Taught by the Godly Forefathers (1585), by Robert Bostocke:

“God, which of nothing, that is hauing no matter, preexisting, or goying before, hast created al the world.”

We’ll assume that “goying” here means going, not hanging out with goys. Nu?

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Processing to the altar

Q: I missed Pat the last time she was on WNYC and didn’t get a chance to ask her about something that has been bothering me. In describing a religious procession, the Catholic press often says things like this: “The priest and lector processed to the altar.” Shouldn’t it be “proceeded” to the altar or “approached” it?

A: We’re sorry you missed Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show, but do you know that you can listen at any time on your computer by going to our WNYC page?

As for your question about the verb “process” (accented on the second syllable), this usage dates from the early 19th century, so it’s relatively new as words go.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb as meaning “to go, walk, or march in procession,” and in fact it’s a back-formation from the noun “procession.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an older one.)

In this sense, “process” is modeled after the verbs “progress” and “transgress,” the OED adds.

It was first recorded, according to Oxford, in Strains of the Mountain Muse (1814), a book of old tales and traditions collected by Joseph Train, a Scottish antiquary and folklorist.

Train wove the old tales into narrative verse form, and the relevant lines (which we’ve expanded from the OED citation) read:

From old Kilwinning’s sacred fane,
Slow marches forth a mystic train,
As venerably as when they
Process on Dedication day.

The OED’s next citation records the use of the verb in the past tense. It’s from a letter written in 1824 by Countess Granville: “On Christmas Day we processed into the chapel.”

In its early days, the dictionary says, the verb was considered colloquial—that is, more suited to speech than to formal writing. (Many back-formations begin life as colloquial expressions.)

But it eventually gained acceptance. Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list this use of the verb “process” as standard English, though M-W labels is as a “chiefly British” usage.

It retains something of the flavor of a procession or a stately march, which can lend humor when used in an ordinary situation.

For example, the illustration used in American Heritage, from a novel by Anita Brookner, is faintly humorous: “The man in the panama hat offered his arm and … they processed into the dining room.”

This verb, as we said earlier, is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable (pruh-SESS).

The other verb spelled “process” has a different pronunciation (it’s accented on the first syllable, PRAH-sess), and means to prepare, treat, alter, or deal with something.

And you may be surprised to hear the verb meaning to process something (food, for example) is even newer than the verb that means to process somewhere (say, to the altar).

The OED’s earliest published reference for this sense of the word is from an 1878 issue of the Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye: “Some have been adding a sufficient quantity of that non-crystallizable substance, known as glucose. Honey thus ‘processed’ will not thicken, but it is certainly not pure.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the newer verb was derived from the noun “process,” meaning “a set of actions or changes in a special order (as in the process of making cloth from wool).”

Though the two verbs spelled “process” are so different in pronunciation and meaning, they have a distant ancestor in common.

The nouns they come from, “procession” and “process,” can be traced to the classical Latin process-, the participial stem of the verb procedere (to advance, go forward, come forth).

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Going forward in biz speak

Q: I’ve been thinking lately about the often meaningless use of “going forward” in the corporate world. Do you know if there’s anyone who has looked into it—academically or etymologically or otherwise? The phrase keeps nagging at me for some reason and I feel as if there might be something interesting there.

A: We’ve written briefly about “going forward” on our blog, but your question gives us a chance to expand on that earlier posting.

Let’s back up a bit, though, before getting to the biz-speak sense of the phrase you’re asking about.

Within its entry for adverbial uses of “forward,” the Oxford English Dictionary says the word is used figuratively to mean “onward, so as to progress or advance.”

This sense of the word, the OED says, is used chiefly in the phrase “to go forward,” which means “to be in progress or ‘on foot,’ to be going on.”

The infinitive phrase is “to go forward,” and the participial form is “going forward.”

The usage isn’t as new as you might think. The OED’s earliest example is from the works of Thomas More, written sometime before he was executed in 1535:

“There must it nedes bee long ere anye good conclusion goe forwarde.”

Here are the other relevant citations:

1535: “To se that the worke of the house of the Lorde wente forwarde.” (From Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible.)

1766: “Mr. Burchell … was always fond of seeing some innocent amusement going forward.” (From Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield.)

1832: “Dinner was going forward.” (From Life in the Wilds, a parable by the political economist Harriet Martineau.)

We ourselves found many examples of this usage from newspapers published in the early- to mid-20th century.

A headline referring to the marriage of Woodrow Wilson’s daughter in 1913, from the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, reads: “Preparations Going Forward Rapidly for White House Wedding Tuesday.”

A headline about a 1936 strike in Illinois, from the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, reads: “Business Is Going Forward in Strike Town.”

And a picture caption in a 1960 issue of the Southeast Missourian reads: “Buildings Had Been Razed Today and Site Preparations Were Going Forward.”

In all of these citations, the phrase means, generally, “continuing” or “progressing.”

But none of them convey the often empty, throat-clearing sense that’s heard in boardrooms, on the hustings, and so on today—“looking ahead,” “in the future,” “from now on,” and so forth.

This seems to be an extension of that earlier usage, though it’s hard to pin down when the new sense showed up, since many examples from the last few decades can be read two ways, in the old sense and in the new one.

What could be the earliest example may be seen in a November 1980 issue of the New York Times, reporting on a press conference by President-elect Ronald Reagan.

In response to a question, Reagan said: “I not only have confidence in Howard Baker, but I have been informed by members of the Senate that there is no friction and there is no move going forward to change in any way that his position is solid. He will be the majority leader of the Senate.”

In that quotation, however, Reagan could have meant “going forward” in the earlier sense of “progressing,” rather than “looking ahead.”

By the 1990s, clear examples of the new usage were appearing in the news media. Here’s one from the Oct. 8, 1997, issue of the Syracuse Herald Journal:

“ ‘Going forward, a nuclear plant that’s run well is a valuable source of energy,’ Sylvia said.”

We’ll finish this with a recent example of biz speak by Joe Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade:

“The past quarter was great, but going forward many companies may have problems. People are confused about what to think.”

Update: A reader, commenting on July 26, noted that ”going forward” is also used in biz speak as “a conversational spacer, like ‘moving right along.’ Example: ‘We’ve heard from Tim. Thank you, Tim. Going forward, let’s hear from Ron.’ ”

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Modal children

Q: What is the difference between “can” and “could” in these two pairs? (1) “You did the best you could” … “You did the best you can.” (2) “Can you please wash the floor?” … “Could you please wash the floor?”

A: “Could” differs from “can” in two respects: it’s not only the past-tense form of “can” but it sometimes represents a change in attitude as well.

The two sets of examples you’ve given illustrate these aspects very nicely.

Let’s start with your first pair: “You did the best you could” and “You did the best you can.”

The first sentence is correct. It’s written in the past tense (“You did the best …”), and the tense of the auxiliary verb matches (“you could”).

But in the second sentence, the sequence of tenses is askew. If the sentence began with the present (“You do the best …”), the tense of the auxiliary verb would match (“… you can”).

An English teacher would tell you that “can” and “could” are modal auxiliary verbs. The term isn’t as intimidating as it sounds.

They’re “auxiliary” because they’re what people sometimes call helping verbs, always used with another verb whether present or implied (in your first set of examples, there’s an implied “do” at the end).

And they’re “modal” because (like the pairs “will/would,” “shall/should,” and “may/might”) they add a dimension or modality to the verb they help along. They add the notion of probability, necessity, permission, or obligation.

Here’s how the different forms of these verbs are used to refer to present and to past time:

Present: “They say you can [will/shall/may] get there on time.”

Past: “They said you could [would/should/might] get there on time.”

So much for the past-tense aspect of “could.” Now it’s time for a change of attitude.

Let’s look at your second set of sentences: “Can you please wash the floor?” and “Could you please wash the floor?”

Both sentences are correct. “Can you …?” and “Could you …?” here mean “Is it possible for you to …?”

But the two sentences reflect different attitudes on the part of the speaker. We sometimes use “could” instead of “can” when we want to be more tactful or polite.

As Sidney Greenbaum writes in the Oxford English Grammar, the past-tense forms “could” and “would” may be used to refer to present or future action “as a more tentative or more polite alternative to the present tense.”

For example, “Could you pass the salt?” is more polite than “Can you pass the salt?” And “Would you help me?” is more deferential than “Will you help me?”

We touched on this subject once before, in a posting about the phrase “would like.”

As we wrote in that blog item, the authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language say that “would” often “introduces a rather vague element of tentativeness, diffidence, extra politeness, or the like.” The same might be said of “could.”

We’ve barely scratched the surface here, but we hope this answers your questions.

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Did the Bard speak American?

Q: I tuned in late to the discussion on WNYC about Elizabethan English, but did Pat really say Shakespeare spoke like an American? How does she know what he sounded like? I didn’t realize Francis Bacon had invented the tape recorder.

A: The short answer is that Shakespeare didn’t sound just like an American, but his accent was probably more NBC than BBC.

If you’d like to listen to Pat’s July 18, 2012, appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, you can find a link to it on our WNYC page. Meanwhile, here’s the story.

We know what Shakespeare might have sounded like because linguists have reconstructed the sounds of Elizabethan speech (we’ll soon explain how), and it’s very different from the standard modern British accent, known as Received Pronunciation.

This isn’t as startling as it sounds. We’ve written before on our blog about the fact that the familiar characteristics of the modern British accent developed relatively recently, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It was after the American Revolution that the British began using the broad a (as in PAHST for “past”), dropping their r’s (as in FAH for “far”), and losing syllables (saying SEC-ruh-tree for “secretary,” NESS-a-sree for “necessary”), and so on.

Meanwhile, colonists in North America retained many features of pre-Revolutionary British speech.

We know this because people wrote about these changes at the time they were happening—in books on speech and elocution, in articles in contemporary newspapers and journals, in pronouncing dictionaries, and so on.

Now, as Pat said on WNYC the other day, there’s been a revival of interest in reconstructing the sounds of British speech as it was even further back, at the dawn of the Early Modern English period.

This was around 1600, Shakespeare’s time, and it’s appropriate that this new interest in period speech was inspired by a project at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

The Globe, which was reconstructed in 1997, mounted a production of Romeo and Juliet in 2004 with the actors speaking as they would have in Shakespeare’s day.

Since then, other theaters, directors, and acting companies have joined with language experts and become interested in what’s known as Original Pronunciation.

Several productions have been mounted in Britain and the United States, and an Off Broadway production of Macbeth will be announced later this fall.

The examples of Elizabethan speech that were played during Pat’s appearance on WNYC came from a new CD, Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation, produced by the British Library and distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

To our ears, the actors’ accent sounds like a mix of American and Irish English, with a little Aussie thrown in.

How do scholars know what English sounded like circa 1600? As it happens, there’s plenty of evidence to go on.

For one thing, groundbreaking work had already been done in this area back in the 1950s.

There have been at least two  previous studies of Original Pronunciation, one in the UK by John Barton of Cambridge, and one in the US by Helge Kökeritz at Yale. Kökeritz in fact made the first systematic attempt to identify the Elizabethan sound system, according to several sources.

In a booklet that comes with the British Library CD, the linguist David Crystal explains much of the scholarship that has gone into the reconstruction of these sounds.

First, contemporary authors wrote commentaries on the pronunciation of their day.

Ben Jonson, for instance, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a book on grammar in which he discussed the proper sounding of r after a vowel, as in “far” and “heart.” He described it as “growly.”

Second, we have the evidence of the spellings Shakespeare used. In those days, spelling was not yet standardized, and people spelled words as they sounded to them.

Shakespeare originally spelled the word “film” (meaning a membrane) as “philom”—so it would have had two syllables, “fillum.” As we know, that’s the pronunciation of “film” used by the Irish today.

Third, there are the rhythms, puns, and rhymes Shakespeare used, many of which don’t quite work in modern English—either British or American.

When we hear some of these passages recited in Original Pronunciation, we can appreciate many of the puns and rhymes that Shakespeare intended.

For instance, in King Henry IV, Part I, Prince Hal demands proof of some story Falstaff has just told, and asks him his reasons. Falstaff says, “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.”

Why “as plentiful as blackberries”? Well, there’s a pun there, but it’s missed in modern English. When you listen to that same passage in Original Pronunciation, the pun becomes apparent, because the word “reason” was pronounced “raisin”—“If raisins were as plentiful as blackberries.…”

Many Shakespearean puns that are missed in modern English are naughty ones, since the words “lines” and “loins” sound the same in Original Pronunciation, as do “hour” and “whore.”

The difference that pronunciation has on rhymes is astonishing, too.

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, and two-thirds of them have rhymes that don’t work in today’s English, according to Crystal. But in Original Pronunciation, we’re able to hear them as the Elizabethans did.

To mention just one example, the last lines of Sonnet 116 read: “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

In modern English, “proved” and “loved” don’t rhyme. But in Original Pronunciation, they do. They sound like “pruvved” and “luvved,” though even that spelling doesn’t quite get the sound across. There’s a hint of ”oo” in that vowel.

In listening to the recording, we noticed many other important differences between RP (modern Received Pronunciation) and OP (Original Pronunciation). A lot of the OP sounds would be familiar to American ears.

The words “bath” and “France,” for example, sound in OP much as they do today in the US; the a vowel is flat, instead of broad (“ah”).

And in OP we hear the r sounds in “far,” “star,” “return,” “wherefore,” and “world” (which sounds like a cross between “whirled” and “whorled”; in RP it sounds like WULD).

In OP, we can clearly hear both the r and the t in “fortune.” It comes out like FOR-tun. Today, in American English it’s pronounced FOR-chun, while in RP it sounds like FOH-tyoon.

In Elizabethan speech, linguists say, you can find traces of all the modern accents of English. On the CD, you’ll hear sounds of the English spoken today in America, Australia, Wales, Ireland, and the West Country of Britain.

No one’s suggesting that from now on, all Shakespeare should be done in Original Pronunciation. But since many productions boast of authentic period clothing, music, instruments, and so on, it’s valuable that we now can have period speech as well.

As for your comment about Bacon, no, he certainly didn’t invent the tape recorder. But he was the first person to use the adjective “electric” in writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Bacon used the term around 1626 to describe a substance, like amber, capable of developing static electricity when rubbed.

However, Thomas Browne is credited with first using the adjective (spelled “electrick”) as well as the noun “electricity” in its modern sense, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a 1646 book debunking myths about science.

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Serial number

Q: While reading your blog, I notice that you place a comma before “and” in a list of things. For instance, “in the laundry hamper, on the bathroom sink, and under the bed.” I have always thought that it was incorrect to place a comma before the “and” at the end of a series. Where did I get that?

A: The final comma before “and” in a series is optional. It’s sometimes called the “serial comma” or the “Oxford comma” (because it’s a staple at the Oxford University Press).

The use of the serial comma is not incorrect. We don’t know how you got this impression, but we can guess.

There’s a popular misconception that a comma represents a missing “and,” which would make that final comma redundant. This isn’t true, as we pointed out on the blog last year.

Although the serial comma is optional, many publishers and authors (we’re among them) prefer to use it because the comma can add clarity to a series.

This helps when the list includes phrases rather than single words. Example: “His favorite foods are apple pie, bacon and eggs, and mashed potatoes.”

A final comma can also help to avoid putting terms in apposition—that is, identifying them with one another. Example: “He consulted two top oncologists, his uncle and his best friend.”

Are the oncologists his uncle and his friend? If not, use a comma before “and.”

We used a similar example in a posting a couple of years ago. As we said then, a sentence like this cries out for a clarifying comma: “The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.”

See what we mean? A serial comma can make a big difference.

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.), agrees: “The ‘Oxford comma’ is frequently, but in my view unwisely, omitted by many other publishers.”

Many news organizations, including the Associated Press and our old boss, the New York Times, don’t generally use serial commas.

When the two of us worked for the Times, we naturally followed the house style. But we think the serial comma is a good idea. That’s why we use it on our blog.

While we’re discussing commas, we should mention that the word “comma” referred to a small piece of a sentence when it entered English in the late 16th century, but it soon came to mean the punctuation mark at the end of the piece.

Although English adopted the word from the Latin comma, it’s ultimately derived from the Greek komma (literally, a piece cut off), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto adds that the Greek verb koptein (to cut) gave Russians the word kopeck and probably gave English the word “capon.” And with that, we’ll cut this off.

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Coming to terms

Q: In a recent post, you agreed with a questioner that the instructor on a grammar video was wrong to refer to a prepositional phrase as an indirect object. As a 20-year veteran of college-prep ESL, I think the instructor may have known the correct terminology but simplified his explanation. I’ve found that grammar terms are unbearably confusing and intimidating to most students in the classroom.

A: We certainly agree that grammatical terminology can be “unbearably confusing and intimidating” (that goes double for those studying English as a second language). And proper grammar can often be explained without using bewildering terms.

This is what inspired Pat to write Woe Is I, which is an attempt to make problems in English understandable—to put “Better English in Plain English,” as the subtitle says. Although the book oten mentions grammatical terms, it always explains them in plain English.

But readers of our blog sometimes (in fact, quite often) ask questions that require a close analysis of what’s going on grammatically. And while we try to answer as clearly and plainly as possible, we have to beware of oversimplification.

As we say in the posting that got your attention, the sentence “I gave the book to her” can be used instead of “I gave her the book.” In the first sentence, “to her” is a prepositional phrase; in the second, “her” is an indirect object.

We explain that “a prepositional phrase can be used in place of an indirect object,” and “you might even say that the indirect object in this sentence has been paraphrased as a prepositional phrase.”

But we were asked a specific question about terminology. And it would not be correct to say that the prepositional phrase IS an indirect object.

We do sympathize with teachers who try to make English as plain and simple as possible—we do too! But we think it can be done without letting an error slip in because of oversimplification.

Thanks for your comments. And don’t hesitate to let us hear from you again.

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Jenny Kissed Me

Q: I was browsing through a collection of “best loved poems” the other day and came across the charming rondeau “Jenny Kissed Me,” a favorite of mine. Once upon a time I even had occasion to memorize it (wrongly as it turns out). Two of its lines are: “Time, you thief, who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in!” I remembered it as “who loves to get,” which sounds better to me. I’m certainly not the one to correct Leigh Hunt, but I would be interested in any comment you might have.

A: You can find published versions of Leigh Hunt’s poem (originally published in the November 1838 issue of the Monthly Chronicle) with either “love” or “loves.” But most of them use the second-person singular “love,” which is appropriate, as we’ll explain.

The earliest version of “Jenny Kissed Me” that we could find online was from an 1847 collection of Hunt’s prose writings. In one of the essays, he mentions that a rondeau written by Pope inspired him to write this one of his own:

“Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.”

(We’ve used the punctuation from Hunt’s essay.)

Why does Hunt uses “love,” not “loves,” in his poem? Because the line is addressed to “Time, you thief!” so the second-person verb—the form used with “you”—is correct.

Similar second-person constructions (as in “you who love,” “you who say,” “you who are,” and so on) can be found throughout English literature, whenever the writer addresses a subject referred to subsequently as “who.”

Here’s an example from a sermon by John Wesley: “And as to you who believe yourselves the elect of God, what is your happiness?”

And here’s another, found in a letter written from Italy by Lord Byron in 1819: “All this will appear strange to you, who do not understand the meridian morality, nor our way of life in such respects.”

By analogy, Hunt might have written, “Time! You who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in.”

Hunt’s poem, commonly known as “Jenny Kissed Me,” is actually entitled “Rondeau,” though it’s technically not a rondeau. It has only one stanza and it doesn’t have the typical rhyme scheme of a rondeau. But it does, like a rondeau, begin and end the same way.

Who, you may ask, was Jenny and why did she kiss him? Here’s Hunt’s explanation:

“We must add, lest our egotism should be thought still greater on the occasion than it is, that the lady was a great lover of books and impulsive writers: and that it was our sincerity as one of them which obtained for us this delightful compliment from a young enthusiast to an old one.”

The Carlyle Encyclopedia, edited by Mark Cumming, identifies Jenny as Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the historian Thomas Carlyle. Her nickname was “Jenny,” acccording to the encyclopedia, and she kissed Hunt on learning that he’d recovered from one of his many illnesses.

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“For example” vs. “for instance”

Q: Is there any difference between “for example” and “for instance”? I use them without distinction, mainly to avoid repetition, but I guess that some differences in meaning or style may exist.

A: There’s no real difference between “for example” and “for instance,” though the second phrase may be slightly more informal.

One definition of the noun “example” is “a typical instance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And one definition of the noun “instance” is “an example.”

The phrase “for example” was first recorded in 1584, and “for instance” in 1657, according to published references in the dictionary.

The OED doesn’t specifically define the phrase “for example, but it says “for instance” means “for example, as an instance of what has been said.”

The abbreviation “e.g.” (for the Latin exempli gratia) means “for example” (literally, “for the sake of example”), but it can be used in place of “for instance” as well.

By the way, we’ve said this before but it deserves repeating: don’t confuse the abbreviation “e.g.” for “i.e.,” which means “that is.” Both abbreviations came into use in English in the 17th century, and they’re often used incorrectly.

Here’s how Pat explains them in her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I (revised 3rd ed.):

“Go ahead. Be pretentious in your writing and toss in an occasional e.g. or i.e. But don’t mix them up. Clumsy inaccuracy can spoil that air of authority you’re shooting for. E.g. is short for a Latin term, exempli gratia, that means ‘for example.’ Kirk and Spock had much in common, e.g., their interest in astronomy and their concern for the ship and its crew. The more specific term i.e., short for the Latin id est, means ‘that is.’ But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears. Both e.g. and i.e. must have commas before and after (unless, of course, they’re preceded by a dash or a parenthesis).”

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Please be careful of the gap!

Q: I’ve been bothered by a usage in the MTA’s automated subway announcement at certain stations (e.g., 14th St.-Union Square): “please be careful of the gap.” One can be plain careful and one can be careful to do or not to do something. But can one be careful of something? Mindful, yes (and that’s presumably what the MTA meant).

A: In some New York City train stations, there’s a gap between the car and the edge of the platform—a nasty hazard for the unwary. The same is true in London.

In New York, subway riders are told to “be careful of the gap.” But in London, riders of the underground are told to “mind the gap.”

In both cities it’s good advice, given in good English.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority could have used the word “mindful” instead, but there’s nothing wrong in its telling people to “please be careful of the gap.”

The phrase “be careful” doesn’t have to be followed by the preposition “to” plus an infinitive, as in these examples: “be careful to cross at the light” … “be careful not to fall” … “be careful to ask permission first.”

It can be followed by other prepositions: “be careful of the eggs” … “be careful around the baby” … “be careful with knives.” This is how “be careful” is used in that subway announcement.

“Be careful” can also be followed by “that” (“be careful that no errors creep in”). And, as you know, the adjective “careful” can be followed by a noun (“a careful surgeon”).

Like most English words, “careful” has undergone some changes over the centuries. When first recorded, in Old English, it had meanings that are no longer used today.

For one thing, it meant “full of grief; mournful, sorrowful,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. For another, “careful” meant “full of care, trouble, anxiety, or concern.”

So in the very distant past, “careful cries” were cries of grief or sorrow; a “careful widow” was a mourning one; a “careful brow” was a troubled brow. In those days, people didn’t tell each other to “be careful.”

Today they do, because “careful” roughly means attentive, painstaking, watchful, cautious, exercising or taking care, and so on.

Though a couple of isolated uses were recorded in the 11th century, examples of the newer meanings didn’t appear in significant numbers until the 16th century.

In its newer incarnations, “careful” is often followed by a preposition. The OED says the word can mean “full of care or concern for, attentive to the interests of, taking good care of, and so on (the preposition that follow are shown in italics).

Here’s an example of a “careful of,” cited by the OED: “Be careful of the horses, Sam … don’t ride them too fast” (from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852).

And as we’ve said, “careful” can also be followed by “that” as well as by infinitive phrases. Here are examples of each:

“Be careful that they are neither thrown about nor changed” (from Hoyle’s Games Improved, 1820).

“Both males and females are careful to ornament their persons with paint” (from William Macgillivray’s The Travels and Researches of Alexander von Humboldt, 1836).

So “careful of” is a well established English usage. The MTA uses the phrase not only in its recorded announcements but also on its website.

On a page entitled “How to Ride the Subway,” the transportation agency says, “Be careful of the gap between the platform and the train.”

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Meet Pat today in New York

She’ll be at the Mid-Manhattan Library, 40th St. and Fifth Ave., on Wednesday, July 18, 2012, at 6:30 p.m. to discuss “The Ear of the Beholder: What Makes a Word Beautiful?”

Everybody, it seems, has a favorite word or two.  For some people, a beautiful word is one that means something beautiful to them—like “bucolic” or “love.”

For others, music is everything, and a word isn’t beautiful unless it has a pleasing blend of sounds—like “cellar-door.”

Some words satisfy both camps; they not only sound pleasing, but they have emotional associations that add to their beauty. Henry James’s favorite phrase, “summer afternoon,” comes to mind.

In her talk, Pat will discuss notions about beauty in language, and share her thoughts about what makes a word beautiful.

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Is “higher” in “hierarchy”?

Q: Years ago I had to look up a word that combined “church” and “monopoly.” I can’t remember it. Do you know the word?

A: We’d guess that your memory is playing tricks here. We know of no word—unless it’s a deliberate joke—that combines “church” with “monopoly.”

Words that end in “-poly” have to do with more earthly business—selling. For example, a “monopoly” is a market dominated by one seller; an “oligopoly” is one dominated by a few.

This word ending comes from the Greek verb polein, which means to sell. (In Greek, mono means single and oligoi means few.)

The word you’re trying to remember may be “hierarchy,” whose original, literal meaning was “sacred rule.”

It comes ultimately from the Greek words hieros (sacred) and archein (to rule). So etymologically, there’s no “higher” in “hierarchy.” 

In church matters, “hierarchy” has a different meaning from the one that’s developed in modern, secular usage.

When first recorded in English around 1380, “hierarchy,” which grew out of writings in Christian mysticism, had to do with the divisions among celestial beings.

In its earliest English sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “hierarchy” meant “each of the three divisions of angels, every one comprising three orders, in the system of Dionysius the Areopagite.”

The word in this sense can also mean “the collective body of angels” or “the angelic host,” the dictionary says.

Elsewhere, within its entry for the word “cherub,” the OED explains that according to a fourth-century work attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, “the heavenly beings are divided into three hierarchies, each containing three orders or choirs.”

The nine orders are seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominions, virtues, powers; principalities, archangels, angels.

The word “hierarchy” acquired a new meaning in the mid-1500s, when it came to mean, in the words of the OED, “rule or dominion in holy things; priestly rule or government; a system of ecclesiastical rule.”

Less than a century later, in the early 1600s, it took on a more concrete meaning in the church: “The collective body of ecclesiastical rulers; an organized body of priests or clergy in successive orders or grades.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson used the word in this sense when he wrote in his book English Traits (1856): “When the hierarchy is afraid of science and education … there is nothing left but to quit.”

The modern sense of the word, defined by the OED as “a body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above another,” was first recorded in the mid-1600s.

English words that end in “-archy” include “monarchy,” which is government by a single ruler, and “oligarchy,” government by a few. Other such words include “matriarchy” (literally, rule by women), “patriarchy” (rule by men), and “anarchy” (without rule).

Just as there are names for such rulers—“monarch,” “oligarch,” “matriarch,” “patriarch”—there’s a corresponding word for a sacred ruler: “hierarch.”

In ancient Greek, the word hierarches meant a chief priest or leader of sacred rites, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

This word became hierarcha in medieval Latin and “hierarch” in English, where it was first applied to angels. Later, in the 1500s, it came to mean an ecclesiastical ruler like a pope, archbishop, prelate, and so on.

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Are you for sure about that?

Q: I have a close friend and any number of acquaintances who say “I’m not for sure” when they’re not certain about something. I hold my tongue, but that “for” is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Is there anything remotely correct about it?

A: The prepositional phrase “for sure” is generally used as an adverb, not as an adjective.

So a sentence like “I don’t know for sure that it’s true” is idiomatically normal. (“For sure” functions as an adverb modifying the verb “know.”)

But a sentence like “I’m not for sure that it’s true” seems off-kilter. (“For sure” here functions as an adjective.)

Obviously, “for” is redundant in the adjectival usage. In sentences like “I’m sure” and “I’m not sure,” the adjective “sure” is sufficient. It follows the verb “be” and thus it essentially modifies the subject.

Yet many people add “for,” as in “I’m for sure we’re going to be late” … “I’m not for sure where I left my keys.”

The negative version is especially common. In a Google search, “I’m for sure” got 1.6 million hits while “I’m not for sure” turned up 4.7 million.

Why does “for” creep into the picture? We suspect this trend was influenced by other common uses of “for sure.”

These include the colloquial expression “that’s for sure,” generally used alone or placed at the end of a sentence. This is another adjectival usage.

But in the other familiar usages, “for sure” functions as an adverb, since it modifies a verb. Examples: “She’s going for sure” … “He can’t say for sure” … “They’ll know for sure” … “Tell them for sure that you’re quitting.” Such usages often intensify or add emphasis to a statement.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels this adverbial use of “for sure” informal and defines it as meaning “certainly” or “unquestionably.”

The Oxford English Dictionary labels it colloquial and says it means “as or for a certainty, undoubtedly.”

In its entry for the preposition “for,” the OED says it’s sometimes used adverbially before an adjective to create a sense of “attributed or assumed character.”

This kind of construction is evident in many familiar verb phrases—not only “to know for sure” and “to say for certain,” but also “to take for granted,” “to leave for dead,” “to give it up for lost,” and “to take … for better or for worse,” from the marriage vow in the Book of Common Prayer (1549).

In short, “for sure” often functions as an adverb and nobody finds that remarkable. But it’s less idiomatic when used as an adjective (as in “She’s for sure that it’s over”).

So far, we haven’t found any evidence that lexicographers or usage authorities have commented on the adjectival usage that bugs you.

What’s the conclusion? Well, it’s hard to ignore millions of Google hits, but we find “I’m for sure” and “I’m not for sure” to be unidiomatic. The “for” isn’t necessary and adds nothing. That’s for sure.

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A lub of butter?

Q: My mother tells me that as a girl she once asked the grocer for a lub of butter, which brings me to my question: why don’t the abbreviations “lb.” and “oz.” look more like the words they stand for, “pound” and “ounce”?

A: Those two abbreviations are short for foreign terms, which is why they bear so little resemblance to their English counterparts.

Our abbreviation “lb.” (plural “lbs.”) is from the Latin libra, which means “pound.” It came into use in English in the 14th century.

And “oz.” (both singular and plural) is from an obsolete Italian word for “ounce,” onza. (The modern Italian term is oncia.) English writers borrowed the “oz.” abbreviation from the Italians in the 15th century.

Two other frequently seen abbreviations, “i.e.” and “e.g.,” are short for the Latin phrases id est (which means “that is”) and exempli gratia (“for example”).

These abbreviations, which came into use in English in the 17th century, are sometimes used incorrectly. Here’s how Pat explains them in her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I (revised 3rd ed.):

“Go ahead. Be pretentious in your writing and toss in an occasional e.g. or i.e. But don’t mix them up. Clumsy inaccuracy can spoil that air of authority you’re shooting for. E.g. is short for a Latin term, exempli gratia, that means ‘for example.’ Kirk and Spock had much in common, e.g., their interest in astronomy and their concern for the ship and its crew. The more specific term i.e., short for the Latin id est, means ‘that is.’ But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears. Both e.g. and i.e. must have commas before and after (unless, of course, they’re preceded by a dash or a parenthesis).”

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Is “seabome” a word?

Q: I was reading a financial report about ocean shipping that referred to “seabome” transportation. How was this word being used there?

A: We searched the Oxford English Dictionary as well as half a dozen standard dictionaries, including Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, and couldn’t find an entry for “seabome.”

We did find a few examples of the word on the Internet, but they were mainly in English-language reports apparently written by people who weren’t native English speakers.

For instance, a Vietnamese government website had a report on “Developmental orientation for fleet of ships to meet the requirements of Vietnamese Seabome Strategy until the year 2020 and international integration.”

And an online help-wanted advertisement  said “A Market Leader in Seabome Transport of Energy” is looking for a Mumbai-based risk and compliance analyst.

If we had to guess, we’d say “seabome” is simply a typo for “seaborne,” an adjective that showed up in English in the 17th century.

The adjective was first used to describe cargo or passengers conveyed by sea, but by the 19th century, it was also being used to describe the seagoing ships themselves.

Of course “seaborne” is made up of two older words. Both “sea” and “borne” are derived from Old English words that first showed up in Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as the year 725. (We had a posting recently about “born” and “borne.”)

Interestingly, people may not be the only ones to mix up “seabome” and “seaborne.” Some search engines apparently read the “rn” combination as an “m,” so they can’t distinguish the real thing from the typo.

A search of Google Books for “seabome” (as we tediously found out) brings up many pages with the word “seaborne” highlighted.

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Why the hyphen in Spider-Man?

Q: The latest Spider-Man movie made me realize that I’d been misspelling the superhero’s name as “Spiderman” (as I type this the red, wriggly, spell-check line tells me the non-hyphenated word is wrong). So why does “Spider-Man” have a hyphen?

A: Spider-Man’s name has a hyphen because Stan Lee, who created the comic character with Steve Ditko, apparently wanted to distinguish him from Superman.

In a Feb. 24, 2010, comment on Twitter, Lee wrote: “Spidey’s official name has a hyphen—‘Spider-Man.’ Know why? When I first dreamed him up I didn’t want anyone confusing him with Superman!”

However, Lee’s memory may have been playing tricks. His superhero’s name appeared as two words, “SPIDER MAN,” when it first showed up in 1962 on the cover of the final issue of Amazing Fantasy (a magazine previously known as Amazing Adult Fantasy).

And clarity may not have been the only reason for distinguishing Spider-Man from Superman. We’ve read that Lee, a former president of Marvel Comics, may have wanted to avoid infringing on the DC Comics trademarks for the unhyphenated Superman.

(“Stan Lee,” by the way, is the pen name of Stanley Martin Lieber.)

Interestingly, the word “spider-man” had been around (with and without a hyphen) before the Stan Lee character showed up.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Britannica Book of the Year (1955): “Spiderman, an erector of building structures.”

The OED’s entry for “spider-man” (Oxford uses a hyphen) defines the term as “one employed to work on high structures; a steeple-jack.”

We’ll end with a 1958 citation from the Radio Times, a British magazine that features broadcast program listings:

“These spider-men and steel-erectors work at great heights, often where there are no means of protection. They walk along girders at dizzy heights as though they were strolling along Piccadilly.”

And by the way, be skeptical of those red, wriggly lines. There are lots of words that spell-checkers don’t know!

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Lies, damn lies, and the 1500s

Q: My dad has sent me an email about life in the 1500s. It includes the origins of many sayings. Are they true? Just curious, as there are a lot of urban legends out there.

A: This list of so-called “Facts About the 1500s,” sometimes called “Life in the 1500s,” is a hoax that’s been floating around in cyberspace since 1999.

It claims to explain the origins of many common words and phrases, and occasionally a reader forwards it to us and asks whether there’s any truth in it.

The answer is no.

These “facts” are merely folk etymologies. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a folk etymology as a “popular perversion” intended to make a word or phrase “apparently significant.”

Some common phrases (like “raining cats and dogs”) are simply idioms that can’t be interpreted literally. Nature abhors a vacuum, which is why people like to invent explanations for what can’t be explained.

“Raining cats and dogs” has nothing to do with domestic animals falling through thatched roofs. It’s merely a hyperbolic, semi-humorous idiom that has no literal meaning. We’ve written before on our blog about such idioms.

But some other common phrases are no mystery, since their true etymologies are well established. Yet the hoaxer who came up with this fictitious list has even invented fake etymologies for those.

An example is “saved by the bell,” which originated not in 16th-century graveyards but in 1930s boxing.

We won’t bother to go through the list and refute each point, since researchers at Snopes.com, the Phrase Finder, and elsewhere have already done so.

But we’ll address one of the folksier of the folk etymologies, the claim that “piss poor” originated in the practice of collecting urine to tan hides.

It’s true that urine was used in tanning in olden times, but the phrase “piss poor” wasn’t recorded until the 20th century, according to the OED, and tanning had nothing to do with it.

As the OED explains, the word “piss” is sometimes “prefixed to an adjective (occas. to a noun) as an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability.” This usage originated in the United States in the 1940s, Oxford says.

The dictionary defines “piss-poor” as meaning “of an extremely poor quality or standard,” and its written examples begin in 1946 with “piss-poor outfit” and “piss-poor job.”

The OED also cites more general uses of “piss” prefixed to adjectives, including “piss-rotten” (1940); “piss-elegant” (1947); “piss-bad” (1970); “piss-chic” (1977); and “piss-easy” (1998).

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Why don’t we say “eastnorth”?

Q: We say “northeast” and “southwest” in giving directions, not “eastnorth” or “westsouth.” Why do we mention the up or down word first and the left or right word second?

A: Actually people did at one time, mainly in the days before the compass, use such terms as “eastnorth” and “westsouth.”

In fact, Old English versions of “eastnorth” and “westsouth” coexisted with early versions of “northeast” and “southwest,” though the pairs apparently had different meanings. 

But let’s begin with the 16 main compass points in the modern directional system.

In English, the  four principal compass points are north, south, east, and west. The four intermediate points are “northeast,” “southeast,” “southwest,” and “northwest.”

Each of those eight divisions is further divided—“north-northeast,” “east-northeast,” and so on—and in some kinds of navigation the divisions are even smaller.

But it’s the intermediate directions we’re concerned with here—“northeast,” “southwest,” etc. In these compound words, “north” and “south” always come first, while “east” and “west” are subsidiary.

Why is this? There are several reasons.

First of all, speakers of Old English probably didn’t make a conscious decision in favor of using “northeast” instead of “eastnorth” and so on. They were likely influenced by similar compound words in other old Germanic languages.

“Northeast,” which we’ll use as our example, is northostan in Old Saxon, northost in Old Dutch, northastera in Old Frisian, and nordostan in Old High German. It’s noordoost in modern Dutch; noroaustur in Icelandic; and nordost in German, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.

And in the Romance languages, it’s northest in Old French; nordest in modern French and Italian; and nordeste in Spanish and Portuguese.

But there’s a more elemental reason why “north” and “south” now come first in such compounds, while “east” and “west” come second.

North has always had a special significance in navigation. In the days before compasses, when mariners relied on the stars to get their bearings, they used the North Star (Polaris) as a reference.

More to the point (if you’ll pardon the expression), the needle of a compass points to the magnetic north, with the other directions derived from that bearing.

And maps commonly include a legend or device pointing to the geographic north; the other directions are assumed from that.

Those are reasons enough for north and south (the “up” and “down” directions, as you call them) to take precedence over east and west (the “right” and “left.”) But there’s one more.

The modern English system of directional points—with four principal directions bisected by “northeast,” “southeast,” “southwest,” and “northwest”—was known to be in use by the early 12th century, which is about when Europeans began using compasses.

This system, says the OED, “superseded an older twelve-point system (with its origin in the twelve winds of antiquity) in which each quadrant was subdivided by two intermediate points at 30° intervals.”

Here again, the OED says, the subdivisions were “denominated by compounds: north-east, east-north; east-south, south-east; south-west, west-south; west-north, north-west.”

Do you find this confusing? The ancient mariners probably did too. As the OED comments, “it is unclear with what degree of exactitude these terms were applied, as the surviving texts evince much confusion.”

Obviously, it was much clearer to divide each quadrant by only one intermediate point (“northeast,” for instance), and then to put one further subdivision on each side of that one (creating “north-northeast” and “east-northeast”).

As we’ve always said, the point of using good, clear English is to communicate. And when words are designed to tell you where you are, they shouldn’t be confusing.

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Vowel mouthed

Q: My boyfriend and I were sitting on my balcony, perhaps drinking too much, when the talk turned to vowels. At some point, he said, “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w.” ALL I said was this: “I learned only y. I never heard w called a vowel.” Before long, we were hurling insults at each other’s schools (mine in Iowa and his in New Jersey). Now I’m beginning to wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me. So here’s my question: Pat is from Iowa. Did she learn her vowels with just y or with y and w?

A: Some people learned that old school jingle with just “y,” some with both “y” and “w,” and some without either one.

When Pat was going to elementary school in Iowa in the ’50s, she learned that the vowels were “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes w and y.” When Stewart was learning his vowels in New York in the ’40s, he learned just “a, e, i, o, u.”

Five years ago, we ran a brief entry on “w” and “y” as vowels. To make a long story short, they’re generally consonants at the beginning of a syllable and vowels at the end. They’re also vowels when they’re part of a diphthong, as in “boy” or “cow.”

Writers on language have singled out “w” and “y” as special cases since at least as far back as the late 1700s.

This is from A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, by the influential 18th-century lexicographer John Walker: “The vowels are, a, e, i, o, u; and y and w when ending a syllable. The consonants are, b, c, d, f, [etc.] …; and y and w when beginning a syllable.”

Walker also says two vowels forming one syllable are a diphthong, three are a triphthong. His examples include the “aw” in “law”; the “ay” in “say”; the “ew” in “jewel”; the “ey” in “they”; the “ow” in “now”; the “oy” in “boy”; the “uy” in “buy”; the word “aye”; and the “iew” in “view.”

After discussing “w” and “y,” he concludes: “Thus we find, that the common opinion, with respect to the double capacity of these letters, is perfectly just.”

We quoted from a 1797 edition of Walker’s book, first published in 1791 and widely reprinted throughout the 19th century.

We also found several mid-19th-century books that describe “y” and “w” variously as “vowel consonants” or as letters that unite or straddle the two categories.

But whatever you were told in school, the subject of what we call consonants and what we call vowels is very slippery and often misleading.

Sometimes, as with “say” and “now,” the “y” and “w” are vowels. But in some other words they’re obviously consonants, even though their sounds could be respelled with a pair of vowels.

For example, the name “Danielle” is sometimes spelled “Danyel.” In the traditional spelling, “ie” is a vowel cluster. Yet in the alternate spelling, “y” is a consonant, since it’s a hard or voiced “y” as in “yellow.” Same sound, different symbols, different labels (vowel vs. consonant).

And to use a “w” example, the French oui and the English “we” sound alike, yet “ou” is a consonant cluster while the “w” in “we” is clearly a consonant, as in “well.” Again, same sound, different symbols, different labels.

As you can see, the “vowel” vs. “consonant” labels sometimes break down when applied to spellings.

You might even argue that “y” and “w” are always diphthongs to some degree or other, since even when they’re consonants at the beginning of a syllable—as in “yet” and “wet”—they’re still combinations of vowel sounds (“ee-eh” and “oo-eh”).

At many points, the old categories let us down and stop being useful. This is more apparent now than when we were kids, because scholars of linguistics and phonology have developed more sophisticated ways of looking at our sound/spelling systems.

A “vowel” is a kind of sound, or the letter that represents it. Similarly, a “consonant” is a kind of sound, or the letter that represents it. If a particular letter can represent either kind of sound, then it can be both a vowel and a consonant.

Here’s what the linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum write in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

“The categories vowel and consonant are defined in terms of speech. Vowels have unimpeded airflow through the throat and mouth, while consonants employ a significant constriction of the airflow somewhere in the oral tract (between the vocal cords and the lips).”

Thus, they write, “we do not follow the traditional practice of simply dividing the alphabet into five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and twenty-one consonants.” This traditional classification, they say, “does not provide a satisfactory basis for describing the spelling alternations in English morphology.”

The authors don’t even use the terms “vowel” and “consonant” alone in referring to writing. For example, they describe y as a “vowel letter in fully,” as a “consonant letter in yes,” and as “just part of a composite vowel symbol in boy.”

They describe u as a “vowel letter in fun,” as a “consonant letter in quick,” and as “part of a composite symbol in mouth.”

And “y,” “w,” and “u” aren’t the only in-between letters. “H” is a consonant in “heavy” but a vowel in “dahlia.”

In his book American English Spelling (1988), Donald Wayne Cummings summarizes the situation this way:

“Thus we get the following categories: (1) letters that are always vowels (a, e, i, and o); (2) letters that are sometimes consonants but usually vowels (u and y); letters that are sometimes vowels but usually consonants (h and w); and (4) letters that are always consonants (b, c, d, f, g, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, x, and z).”

So in the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly worth it for you and your boyfriend to throw insults at each other over vowel language. Still, we’ve had some pretty silly language arguments too, ones that you’d probably find pointless.

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We say the darndest things

Q: I don’t see why we use “things” in a sentence like this: “Don’t say things like that.” Things are objects, aren’t they? We wouldn’t use “objects” in that sentence: “Don’t say objects like that.” I realize this usage is long-established, but it sounds very slangish to me. By the way is there such a word as “slangish”?

A: The word “thing” doesn’t have to refer to a physical object. So we do indeed say things, do things, wish for things, think of things, promise things, and so on.

This usage is perfectly correct and there’s nothing slangy about it. (“Slangy” is the usual adjective, though “slangish,” meaning somewhat slangy, is in the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.)

We’re glad you raised this question, however. “Thing” is such a common word that most of us take it for granted, and aren’t familiar with its very uncommon history.

The etymological roots of “thing” go far back into pre-history, before written language. Its “ancestral meaning,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, is “time.”

The OED explains that an ancient relative of “thing” can be found in Gothic, a now defunct Germanic language in which the word theihs meant “occasion” or “time.”

The origin of theihs probably lies even further back in prehistory, the OED says.

Ultimately, the Gothic word may be from the same Indo-European base as the classical Latin word tempus (“time”), which is a good illustration of how the Germanic and the Latinate languages are ancestrally related.

In the Germanic languages, as Ayto explains, this ancient term came to mean “appointed time” and consequently evolved into meaning a “judicial or legislative assembly.”

For example, the word for a court or legislative body developed into thing in Icelandic, and ting in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. (Iceland’s parliament is called the Althing.)

In Old English, too, as the OED explains, the word “thing” at one time meant “a meeting, an assembly; esp. a deliberative or judicial assembly, a court, a council.”

But even during the Old English period the word took on a much more general meaning.

From a subject under discussion at a meeting, “thing” came to mean any subject, business, concern, matter, affair, deed, circumstance, fact, event, experience, incident, statement, idea, object, and so on.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes: “Similar semantic developments are found in the Romance languages, in which Latin causa, legal case, has given rise to French chose, Italian and Spanish cosa, all meaning ‘thing.’ ”

In short, “thing” can mean almost anything (which reminds us that the old phrases “any thing,” “every thing,” “no thing,” and “some thing” are now written as one word).

In modern English, a remnant of the old meaning “assembly” survives in the word “hustings,” a word we hear a lot in the campaign season.

A “husting” or “hustings” (literally “house assembly”) was originally a court, tribunal, or council among members of a household.

In the early 18th century people began using “hustings” to mean the platform from which politicians make campaign speeches.

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Waste matter

Q: I heard a speaker on NPR pronounce “detritus” as DEH-tri-tus. He appeared to be an educated, native speaker of American English. Perhaps he was influenced by “detriment.” My admittedly out-of-date M-W 10th shows only one pronunciation.

A: “So to Speak,” the pronunciation chapter in the third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, also gives only one way to say “detritus”:

“Stress the middle syllable (de-TRY-tus). Hacker’s salamander buried itself in the detritus at the bottom of the pond.”

You’ll find the same thing in the Oxford English Dictionary—without the salamander—as well as in the latest versions of the two standard dictionaries we consult the most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Perhaps you’re right, and this mispronunciation was influenced by “detriment,” which is stressed on the first syllable.

As it happens, “detritus” and “detriment” are related. They have a common ancestor in the Latin verb deterere (to rub away, wear down, impair). But we can go back even further to that Latin verb’s parent, terere (to rub), the source of “attrition” and “trite.”

The older of the two words, “detriment” (meaning loss or damage), was first recorded sometime before 1440. As the OED says, it entered English through French (détriment, from the Latin noun detrimentum).

“Detritus” came along some 350 years later, borrowed directly from the Latin detritus (rubbing away). It was originally a term in physical geography describing an action—the “wearing away or down by detrition, disintegration, decomposition,” the OED says.

Its first appearance in writing is from James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1795): “Such materials as might come from the detritus of granite.”

But that usage has since become obsolete. In the early 19th century, people began using “detritus” to mean the matter produced by the wearing away. And by mid-century, “detritus” came to mean debris in general, or any kind of waste or disintegrated material.

This newer sense of the word may be “etymologically improper” (to use the OED’s words), but it hasn’t been detrimental to the language.

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Thanks for asking

Q: Why do so many people respond to a “Thank you” with an answering “Thank you”? Whatever happened to the traditional “You’re welcome”?

A: “You’re welcome,” the polite response to an expression of thanks, isn’t as traditional as you might think. It apparently didn’t show up in English until the 20th century, though the word “welcome” has been used this way since Elizabethan times.

We’ll get to “You’re welcome” in a bit, but first let’s discuss this business of a thankee thanking a thanker.

You’d be amazed at how many people write us about it. Saying “Thank YOU” in response to a “Thank you” is perhaps a small thing, but some people find it annoying or puzzling.

If it’s a sin, Pat is a sinner. Many readers of the blog have been bugged by her thanking Leonard Lopate in response to his thanking her for appearing on his WNYC show.

Pat now tries to avoid doing it. Why? Not because she sees anything wrong with the usage. Just because it brings in so many complaints!

Why thank Leonard? Pat says “You’re welcome” seems to imply that she’s doing Leonard a kindness by being on his show. But she feels the kindness is on his part, for inviting her.

These days Pat tries to say, “My pleasure,” or perhaps “Thank you for having me” (but some people object even to that).

She gladly says “You’re welcome” when someone thanks her for passing the salt, holding a door, picking up something that was dropped, and so on.

In cases like that, “You’re welcome” acknowledges that she did in fact do someone a favor, one she was happy to do.

We’ve had several postings about thanking a thanker, including one in 2007 and another in 2010. But your question gives us a chance to look at the history of “Thank you.”

The phrase “Thank you” (short for “I thank you”) first showed up in English in the 1400s. The earliest written example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the poem Why I Can’t Be a Nun:

“Thanke yow, lady,” quod I than,
“And thereof hertely I yow pray;
And I, as lowly as I can,
Wolle do yow servyse nyght and day;
And what ye byd me do or say.”

As we’re sure you know, the phrase hasn’t always been used thankfully. From the early 1900s, for example, it’s been used to mean pretty much the opposite, according to OED citations.

In The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), a children’s story by Edith Nesbit, a fire breaks out in a London theater, and the audience races for the doors. “No boys on burning decks for me, thank you,” one of the fleeing characters says.

The OED defines this sense of the phrase as “used to add emphasis to a preceding expression of a wish or opinion (usu. one implying a denial or refusal).”

And since the 1700s, Oxford says, the expression “Thank you for nothing” has been used ironically to indicate “that the speaker thinks he has got or been offered nothing worth thanks.”

Here’s an example from  William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair: “It’s you who want to introduce beggars into my family? Thank you for nothing, Captain.”

Interestingly, the polite answering phrase “You’re welcome” didn’t show up until the 20th century, according to published references in the OED. We touched on this in a posting in 2008.

The earliest reference in the OED is from a 1960 newspaper article, though the dictionary has one from a 1907 short story that’s quite close: “ ‘Thank you,’ said the girl, with a pleasant smile. ‘You’re quite welcome,’ said the skipper.

Although the expression “You’re welcome” is relatively recent, the language sleuth Barry Popik has traced the use of the word “welcome” in this sense back at least to Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an exchange from Othello (circa 1603):

“Lodovico: Madam, good night; I humbly thank your ladyship.
“Desdemona: Your honour is most welcome.”

As with “Thank you,” the phrase “You’re welcome” has also been used ironically to refer to something that’s not welcome. This usage, however, is not in response to an expression of thanks.

Here’s an example from Summer Half, a 1937 novel by Angela Thirkell, one of our favorite writers: ‘Fine Old English Gentleman,’ said the applicant enthusiastically. ‘You are welcome to him.’ ”

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The borne conspiracy

Q: I recently submitted an essay that discussed whether the French Revolution had sprung from the philosophical tenets of the Age of Reason. One sentence referred to the belief the revolution was so horrific that it “couldn’t be born of a time of reason.” I now wonder if I should have written “borne” instead of “born.” What are your thoughts?

A: You used “born” correctly in your essay. As we’ll explain later, “born of” is sometimes used figuratively to mean “sprung from.”

But first things first. The verb “bear” has two past participles that sound identical and look very similar: “borne” and “born.” You’re not alone in finding them confusing!

The thing to keep in mind is that “bear” has two distinct meanings: (1) to carry, support, endure, uphold, and so on; (2) to bring forth or give birth to.

The simple past tense, “bore,” is the same for both meanings, as in (1) “She bore a heavy burden” … “He proudly bore his father’s name”; (2) “The tree bore both flowers and fruit” … “She bore a child.”

But the past participles (the ones used with auxiliary verbs) differ.

“Borne” is used for all senses, both No. 1 and No. 2, when the auxiliary verb is a form of “have.” For example:

(1) “She had borne a heavy burden” … “He has proudly borne his father’s name”; (2) “The tree has borne both flowers and fruit” … “She had borne a child.”

The other form, “born,” is used only in passive constructions referring to birth (literally or figuratively), and is accompanied by a form of the verb “be”: “I was born in Cincinnati” … “Has the baby been born yet?” … “Puppies are born with their eyes closed” … “His wisdom was born of experience.”

The differing forms have had a long and complicated history, with three past participles—“bore,” “borne,” and “born”—being shuffled like cards over the years since “bear” was first recorded in Old English (as beran) in Beowulf, perhaps as early as 725.

The various past participles didn’t sort themselves out until the mid-1700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

That’s when “bore” disappeared as a past participle, leaving “borne” and “born,” which took on separate functions in conventional usage.

“Born,” according to convention, is used only in the sense of giving birth, either literally or figuratively, and only in the passive voice without the preposition “by” (“Sarah’s twin sons were born”).

“Borne” is used in every other sense—carrying, supporting, enduring, and giving birth in the active voice (“Sarah has borne twin sons”) or in the passive with “by” (“Twin sons were borne by Sarah”).

Getting back to your question, you used the word “born” correctly in your essay when you wrote that the revolution “couldn’t be born of a time of reason.”

As the OED says, “born” is used figuratively when it means “come into existence, sprung.”

The dictionary provides examples in which authors have used “born” figuratively as you did, including the following two:

“These distinctions, born of our unhappy contest” (from a speech on American taxation by the politician Edmund Burke, 1775).

“The Roman Empire and the Christian Church, born into the world almost at the same moment” (from Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, 1853).

 If you’re still confused, here’s a tip: “born” is misused a lot more often than “borne.”

As the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, “Our collection of errors shows that born is used in place of borne about twice as often as borne for born. The errors are both British and American.”

We hope we haven’t bored you! (No, the verbs “bear” and “bore” are not related.)

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May you live in interesting times

Q: Is the expression “May you live in interesting times” really an old Chinese curse? Or did RFK coin it? Or one of his speech writers? I’ve heard all of these at one time or another. Is there evidence to support any of them?

A: The earliest published reference for the saying that we could find is from the April 1939 annual meeting of the American Society of International Law, though the citation dates the expression three years earlier.

In the Proceedings of the American Society of International Law, Frederic R. Coudert, the group’s honorary vice president, says he heard the saying from a British friend:

“Some years ago, in 1936, I had to write to a very dear and honored friend of mine, who has since died, Sir Austen Chamberlain, brother of the present Prime Minister, and I concluded my letter with a rather banal remark, ‘that we were living in an interesting age.’ Evidently he read the whole letter, because by return mail he wrote to me and concluded as follows: ‘Many years ago, I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is, “May you live in an interesting age.” Surely,’ he said, ‘no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time.’ ”   

Is “May you live in interesting times” (or “in an interesting age”) really an old Chinese curse?

Well, The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, says: “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found.”

Although we’ve come across several Chinese proverbs that are similar in one way or another, we have to agree with Shapiro that none of them are quite right.

The closest one (寧為太平犬,不做亂世人)  is usually translated as “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period.”

As for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, he did indeed mention the saying—or, rather, a close version of it—but this was several decades after the citation mentioned above.

In a June 6, 1966, speech at the University of Cape Town to the National Union of South African Students, Kennedy said: “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times.”

So where do we think the saying comes from?

We don’t know. But if we had to guess, we’d say it originated with the British, perhaps among diplomats or expats who misheard or mistranslated something said in Chinese.

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Driver education

Q: I’m a court reporter, so it’s important to keep an accurate written record, but I’m always confused about “driver side” versus “driver’s side.” I have the same problem with “passenger side” and “passenger’s side.” What confuses me is that darned “s” in the word “side.” I’ve pulled out my hair in frustration many times.

A: It can be a tough job to translate speech into writing, and we’re not going to be of much help to you on that score. But as for grammar and usage, we can assure you of one thing: you can’t go wrong here.

Both “driver side” and “driver’s side” are fine, and both are quite common. People can correctly modify the noun “side” with whichever word they prefer—“driver” or “driver’s.”

In one case, the modifier is an adjective (in fact, an attributive noun, which is a noun used as an adjective); in the other, the modifier is a possessive adjective.

We use constructions like this all the time. Examples include “dog collar” vs. “dog’s collar,” and “ship captain” vs. “ship’s captain.” At times a speaker might prefer one, and at times the other.

The difference is clear when the word being modified doesn’t start with “s.” But when it does, as with “driver side” and “driver’s side,” the phrases sound virtually identical when spoken. That’s a real challenge to court reporters, who try to record speech in people’s exact words.

The best we can do is tell you how popular the various versions are.

A Google search shows that people prefer “driver side” to “driver’s side” by a margin of roughly two to one (25.7 million hits vs. 14.6 million).

People are much more emphatic in their preference for “passenger side” over “passenger’s side.” When we Googled both versions, “passenger side” was the preference by more than twenty to one (45.4 million hits vs. 2.1 million).

So we suppose you’d be justified in choosing the version that’s more prevalent in common usage.

We’ve written several times on the blog about attributive nouns, including postings in May and June of 2010.

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On bended English

Q: I thought you might like this (at best) archaic usage in a recent headline on Gizmodo: “This Airplane’s Landing / Was So Violent That It / Bended Its Fuselage.” To its credit, the electronic-gadgets blog has since changed it to “bent.”

A: The word “bended” was the original Old English past participle of the verb “bend,” but it was replaced by “bent” (and briefly “bend”) in Middle English.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “bended” is now “semi-archaic” and used adjectivally, “chiefly in on bended knees, etc.”

Here’s an adjectival usage from Shakespeare’s Henry V (circa 1599): “His bruised Helmet, and his bended Sword.”

The writer of the original Gizmodo headline used “bended” as the past tense of “bend,” not as a past participle.

Although “bended” has occasionally been used as a past tense, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, standard dictionaries now list only “bent” as the past tense.

We’re glad you brought that headline to our attention, though, because “bend” is an interesting word. It’s related to “band,” “bind,” “bond,” and “bundle.”

In Old English, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the verb bendan meant to tie up as well as to curve.

The two meanings apparently developed because of the use of bendan in archery. The tying-up sense was used in reference to bow strings. The bending sense evolved from the curving of the bow.

We’ll end with an excerpt from the Robin Hood ballads (circa 1500), with Robin and his Merry Men, bows bent, ready for battle:

Sone there were good bowes ibent,
Mo than seven score,
Hedge ne dyche spared they none,
That was them before.

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No Exit

Q: Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d expect the abbreviation for “North” to be “N” on highway exit signs. Here on Long Island (and elsewhere in New York), it’s always “No” (as in “No Conduit Ave” or “No Ocean Avenue”). Would a visitor dare take “No Exit” when it might lead nowhere? I jest, but those abbreviations bug me.

A: We agree that the abbreviation “No” on a street sign can be confusing to a stranger, especially one from out of state.

As it happens, the New York State Department of Transportation is on your side, and when those signs wear out and get replaced, they won’t look the same.

We’ll get back to the signs that bug you and (with the help of a state official) explain this “No” business. But first, a little etymology (this is a language site, after all).

The earliest abbreviation that was used for “north” was the initial “N” (usually capitalized and often followed by a period), a convention that originated in naval terminology.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded example of the abbreviation is from a dispatch sent by Sir Edward Howard, Lord Admiral of the British fleet, to King Henry VIII in 1513: “The Monday last, the wynd roosse soon to N.N.E.”

The single letter “N” has been used to mean “north” ever since. And while a two-letter version, “No.,” is sometimes used for the purpose, the OED has no citations for it.

In fact, in legal language the use of “No.” to mean “north” is a no-no.

The precedent legal dictionaries cite for this is a 19th-century court case (Burr v Broadway Ins. Co., 16 NY 267, 271) that has to do with a building described inaccurately in a fire-insurance policy.

According to the Cyclopedia of Law and Procedure (1908), the findings in that trial established the legal use of the initials “E, N, S, and W for east, north, south, and west, respectively.”

And “No.,” say the editors, “was held not to be an abbreviation of ‘north.’” Instead, they write, “No.” is “used as an abbreviation of the word ‘number.’”

Other law dictionaries say the same thing. A 1969 edition of Ballentine’s Law Dictionary defines “no.” as “an abbreviation of number” and says it’s “improper as an abbreviation of ‘north.’ ” The proper abbreviation of “north,” it says, is “n.”

And Black’s Law Dictionary defines the initial “N” this way: “In English, a common and familiar abbreviation for the word ‘north,’ as used in maps, charts, conveyances, etc.”

But when you don’t expect to be sued, is it OK to write “No.” for north? It’s fine, according to standard dictionaries.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) say that “north” can be abbreviated with one letter or two.

M-W gives the two-letter abbreviation lowercased and without a period (“no”), but American Heritage uses the period and says the abbreviation can be capitalized or lowercased (“no.” or “No.”), so sign-makers can justify any of those three options.

We haven’t been able to tell just when the abbreviation “No.” for “north” became acceptable in standard dictionaries (legal terminology aside). But we can make a rough guess.

The two-letter abbreviation doesn’t appear in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged 2nd ed.). So it seems to have become acceptable to the folks at Merriam-Webster’s sometime within the last 50 years or so.

Regardless of what current dictionaries say, we don’t like the two-letter abbreviation. When seen at a glance or glimpsed through a windshield, it looks like the adverb “no” (the opposite of “yes”). So a sign like “No Beach St.” seems to say you can’t get to the beach from there.

Would a stranger really be confused? Probably not, but who knows?

We think a simple “N” would be better. And as it happens, federal and state (and most municipal) authorities think so too. The New York signs that still say “No” for north just haven’t been replaced in a while.

Jennifer Post, an information officer with the New York transportation agency, says the state now uses the same abbreviations (“N,” “S,” “E,” and “W”) as those recommended by the federal government in its National Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

She recently emailed us to explain why those “NO” exit signs showed up in New York and when we’ll see the last of them:

 “Many of the signs with abbreviations such as NO and SO may have complied with the standard of the time when they were originally installed. But as signs are replaced across the state the abbreviations are being simplified to ‘N’ and ‘S’ to comply” with the new standards.

“The most cost-effective time to make sure a sign meets current standards is when it needs to be replaced.”

Many local governments do the same, she added.

New York City, for example, has a similar policy. Street signs in the city’s five boroughs use the abbreviations “N,” “S,” “E,” and “W,” according to “Standard Highway Specifications” (Vol. II), published by the City of New York Department of Transportation.

That’s good news. Big-city driving is enough of a hassle as it is.

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The Grammarphobia Blog

On “premises”

Q: In 2008, you advised a DJ that it’s OK to use “premises” to describe a singular location, but you didn’t go so far as to say “premise” would be incorrect. This use of the singular “premise” REALLY GRATES on my ears.

A: In that blog posting, we didn’t tell the DJ in so many words that “on premise” is incorrect. But it is, as he probably gathered, because we said the noun is always plural—“premises”—when it means a location or place of business.

In this sense, “premises” is often used with a singular verb, so one can properly write either “premises is” or “premises are.”

In explaining the noun’s history, we said the singular form, “premise,” entered English in the late 1300s as a term in logic meaning a statement or proposition.

In the following century, the plural form “premises” became a term in legal usage. Among other things, it was shorthand for land or buildings mentioned earlier in a deed or other legal document.

As a result of its use in legal terminology, the Oxford English Dictionary says, people in the early 1600s began using “premises” (always in the plural) to mean “a house or building together with its grounds, outhouses, etc., esp. a building or part of a building that houses a business.”

To this day, the word should be plural in this sense, according to the OED as well as standard dictionaries. So “premises” is the word businesses should use when they mean their location or site, and that brings us to another point.

We suspect that the familiar phrase “on site” has led to the use of “on premises” (sometimes written even more elliptically as “on premise”).

But “premises” is generally used with “the,” as in “All baking is done on the premises.” (A Google search found 127 million hits for “on the premises” versus 15.4 million for “on premises.”)

Is it OK to drop the article? Well, Pat finds “on premises” off-putting, but Stewart isn’t put off by it.

This tendency to drop articles isn’t unusual in broadcasting, but Pat wishes it would go away.

In a previous posting , she mentioned examples like “from bullpen” (as in “The manager is bringing Rivera in from bullpen”), or “on scene” (as in “This is Anderson, reporting on scene”), or “in studio” (“Now back to Brian in studio”).

Readers of our blog have written to comment about each of these usages.

We suppose it’s possible that broadcasters adopted this habit from British usage (as they adopted the now ubiquitous “gone missing”).

When we hear Americans dropping their articles, we’re reminded of a humorous piece in the L.A. Times. The writer walked into a restaurant and spotted a friend, who asked her to join him “at table.” The writer replied, “Let’s just sit at booth.”

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