The Grammarphobia Blog

Lettering in sports

Q: When Pat was on WNYC recently, she discussed the quadrennial use of “medal” as a verb at the Olympics.  That reminded me of a similar athletic usage: the verb “letter” as in “He lettered in baseball and basketball.”

A: You’re right, and Pat wishes that thought had occurred to her while she was on the air.

We wrote a posting a couple of years ago about the use of “medal” as a verb. Although that exact usage is relatively new (it first showed up in the mid-1960s), an earlier version has been around since the 1820s.

Unfortunately, we didn’t mention in that blog item the similar use of “letter” as a verb in sports, but it’s never too late!

The Oxford English Dictionary says this is a North American usage meaning “to be awarded a varsity letter acknowledging achievement in a sport.” That italicized “in” means that generally an athlete is said to “letter in” something.

The OED’s earliest example, from a fraternity journal, is dated 1922: “John C. Pickett … not alone lettered in baseball but in a former year earned a letter in basketball.”

Oxford’s other citations include these:

1925: “He lettered in football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis, making a fine showing in all of them” (from an Illinois newspaper, the Decatur Review).

1971: “Campbell … was succeeded by Robert D. Wrenn, a Harvard student who lettered in football, hockey and baseball” (from Will Grimsley’s book Tennis).

2003: “Norwoods’s daughter, Sandra, lettered in three sports in high school” (from the Washington Post’s online edition).

It’s not surprising that this usage developed in North America, since the noun “letter” in the sports sense came from American athletics.

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the noun: “An initial letter made of cloth, usually the first letter of the name of a school or university, awarded for achievement in sport and sewn on to the recipient’s coat or sweater.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from an 1897 issue of the Harvard Graduates Magazine (1897): “No student shall be allowed to use the letter ‘H’ in such a way as to appear to be a player on a Harvard team, except in accordance with the following rules….”

In 1915 the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper of the University of Chicago, used the term this way: “The Board of Athletic Control will meet today to award letters to this year’s members of the track, baseball, tennis and gymnastic teams.”

Athletes who “letter” have been proudly collecting their “letters” ever since.

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Beck and call

Q: I’m bugged by all the JetBlue posters in the NYC subways with the wacky slogan “Your Beck. Our Call.” I’d expect a copywriter who deals regularly with words to use “beck and call” properly. I nominate this as the worst slogan of 2012.

A: That JetBlue slogan (“Your beck. Our call”) may be wacky, but it’s effective. It got your attention, didn’t it?

The noun “beck,” which comes from the verb “beckon,” isn’t used much today except when we speak of being at someone’s “beck and call.”

As we all know, this means to be available at the slightest command, as in “I’m at the boss’s beck and call 24 hours a day.”

So the JetBlue ad is a play on words, a takeoff on “beck and call.”

The airline is saying in effect that its “call” (that is, its “calling”) is to respond to the customer’s “beck.” Or perhaps that it’s at the “call” (ready to respond) to the customer’s “beck.”

Either way, the original expression is “beck and call,” not “beckon call,” as a lot of people seem to think.

“Beck,” which originally meant a signal or gesture, is very old. The noun was first recorded in English in the late 1300s, according to the OED.

It was derived from an earlier verb, “beck,” which dates from the 1200s. And the verb, meaning to make a signal, was merely a short form of “beckon,” which is so old that it makes the other words look like youngsters.

“Beckon,” written as biecnan or becnian in Old English, dates from about 950 according to the OED and from before 830 according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Over the centuries, “beckon” hasn’t changed much. It means today what it meant over a thousand years ago—to make a signal or gesture in order to get someone’s attention or to bid the person to approach.

And by the way, the verb “beckon” and the noun “beacon” have a common ancestor, a prehistoric Germanic word reconstructed as baukno or baukna (sign), according to the OED and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

But getting back to the noun “beck,” it had two meanings when it was first used, in the 1370s and ’80s.

The OED says it could mean either “a gesture of salutation or respect,” like a nod or a bow or a curtsey, or it could mean a signal or gesture, “especially one indicating assent or notifying a command.”

In that latter sense, a “beck” might consist of “a nod, a motion of the hand or fore-finger, etc.,” Oxford adds.

Later, in the 16th century, the word became less literal, and no physical gesture was necessary. So “beck,” the OED explains, could mean “the slightest indication of will or command,” and by transference, “absolute order or control.”

These less literal senses of “beck” survive today chiefly in the phrase “to be at the beck and call of” someone, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase is from an 1875 sermon by the Scottish preacher Alexander Maclaren: “Christ’s love is not at the beck and call of our fluctuating affections.”

However, we were able to find much earlier examples, from the 1600s and 1700s, in searches of Google and the Early English Books Online database.

The earliest we found was from a book entitled “Eighteen Sermons Preached in Oxford, 1640,” by James Usher, identified as “late Bishop of Armagh in Ireland.” The collection was published in London in 1660.

In “Sermon VII,” Usher writes: “Satan shall use them at his pleasure: both in soul and body they shall follow him at his beck and call.”

And Joseph Glanvill, a chaplain to King Charles II, used “beck and call” in 1668, though his words appeared in print 13 years later.

Glanvill died in 1680, and the following year his collection of writings on witchcraft, Saducismus Triumphatus, was published. One of the essays, “Some Considerations About Witchcraft,” is dated 1668, and in it Glanvill writes:

“It hath indeed been a great dispute among Interpreters, whether the real Samuel was raised, or the Devil in his Likeness? Most later Writers suppose it to have been an evil Spirit, upon the supposition that good and happy Souls can never return hither from their Coelestial abodes; and they are not certainly at the beck and call of an impious Hagg.”

As for the noun “call,” it meant a shout or cry when the word first showed up in English sometime before 1300, according to the OED. The verb “call” (to shout or cry) is even older, dating from before 1000.

A century after the noun “call” appeared, it took on the meaning of “summons” or “bidding,” the sense in which it was later used in the expression “back and call.”

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“Out” sourcing in English

Q: During a past incarnation as an avid road cyclist, I noticed many redundant uses of the word “out.” Examples: “I swapped out the big chain ring” … “The crash trashed my front rim, and I changed it out.” I now hear this type of usage everywhere. Bring me the head of the one responsible.

A: The terms “swap out” and “change out” are pretty common jargon in some industries—like auto repair—though you won’t find them in standard dictionaries. They generally mean “replace.” We wrote a posting some time ago on the subject.

Don’t think of the “out” here as redundant; think of it more as an intensifier.

There are technically redundant adverbs and prepositions in some of our most common idiomatic phrases: “meet up with,” “chase after,” “face up to,” “try out,” “divide up,” “hurry up,” “lose out on,” “fix up,” and many others.  In these examples, they  add emphasis.

But there are a couple of common redundancies—“off of” (as in “It fell off of a truck”) and “at” (“Where’s the book at?”)—that are frowned on by even the most liberal grammarians.

There may be a case to be made (though we wouldn’t make it) for a sentence like “I need to speak to her, but I don’t know where she’s at.”

As we wrote on the blog earlier this year, “People naturally use contractions when they talk, but not at the end of a sentence.”

“This is because when you end a sentence with a contraction, like ‘she’s,’ the verb (‘is’) gets swallowed up. And a swallowed-up verb at the end of a sentence—as in ‘Did she say where she’s?’—is not idiomatic English.”

So if you use a contraction at the end of a sentence, you’ll want to put something after it—like “at.” If you think ahead, though, you can spell out the contraction and avoid the unnecessary “at.”

By the way, we say in another post that a related expression has become an accepted idiom. This is the colloquial use of “where it’s at,” “where he’s at,” and so on to mean the true state of something or someone, as in “Mick really knows where it’s at!”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the idiomatic “where it’s at” this way: “the true or essential nature of a situation (or person); the true state of affairs; a place of central activity.”

The OED has published references for this expression going back to a 1903 article in the New York Sun, but it really took off in the 1960s.

Here’s  a 1967 example, from the now-defunct BBC magazine The Listener: “As Dylan says, ‘I’ll let you be in my dream, if I can be in yours.’ I think I know where he’s at.”

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The wages of sin

Q: I teach English in a program at a local church. Years ago I was asked a grammar question that has haunted my subconscious ever since. Why is the verb singular in this familiar Bible verse: “For the wages of sin is death”? Every popular translation, from King James to the English Standard Version, has it the same way.

A: We’re happy to be linguistic exorcists and drive out the grammar spirits that are haunting your subconscious.

Why, you ask, does the plural noun take a singular verb in that excerpt from Romans 6:23? Because “wages” was often treated as singular in the past.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references from the late 1300s to the 1700s of the plural noun construed as singular.

In fact, the OED’s first citation of this usage is from the 1395 revision of the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The wagis of synne is deth.”

Here’s a later example from a 1679 book about Islam by the Anglican cleric Lancelot Addison: As for his wages, it amounted to so little, that it would not do him much service.”

The word “wages” here, according to the OED, is being used figuratively to mean reward or recompense.

English borrowed the word “wage” from Anglo-Norman, which got it from Old French, where both wage and gage meant pledge in different geographic regions.

When the noun “wage” entered English in the 14th century, it meant a pledge of security as well as a payment for services.

Why a pledge? John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ancient source of the two Old French words was wathjam, a prehistoric Germanic root for pledge, and an ancestor of the English word “wedding.”

Although the pledge sense of “wage” is now considered obsolete, the meaning is alive in the English words “engage” and “mortgage.” (We had a posting earlier this year about “mortgage.”)

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See you later, educator

Q: I’m an American educator in Taiwan. I recently made a follow-up appointment with a Taiwanese doctor and he replied, “See you two weeks later.” Would this example of Chinglish (Mandarin grammar in an English sentence) be considered incorrect or merely odd in standard English?

A: Your doctor’s use of “later” isn’t idiomatic English. Although we can find many examples of it in Google searches, most of them seem to be from non-native speakers, especially Chinese.

A native English speaker would say “See you in two weeks” or “See you two weeks from now.”

Although the adjective “late” is very old, first appearing in Anglo-Saxon days, the adjective and adverb “later” didn’t show up until the 16th century.

There are several idiomatic ways to use “later” in English, some considered standard English and others informal or slang.

As an adjective, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can mean “more late; coming at a longer interval after the usual or proper time; further advanced in a period; more recent.”

Here’s an example from Milton’s poem “Il Penseroso,” published in 1645: “Or what (though rare) of later age, / Ennobled hath the Buskind stage.” (In ancient Greece, tragic actors wore boots called buskins.)

The adjective can also describe the works of a creative artist, as the British composer Leonard Constant Lambert uses it in his book Music Ho! (1934): “This lack of rapport between the tune and harmony is particularly noticeable in some of the later works of Bartók.”

As an adverb, it can mean “at a later time or period.” Here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Both to destroy, or unimmortal make / All kinds, and for destruction to mature / Sooner or later, which th’ Almightie seeing.”

The adverb “later” (and the adverbial phrase “later on”) can also mean “subsequently,” as in Augustine Birrell’s essay collection Obiter Dicta (1887): “Later on music was dragged into the fray.”

“Later” is also used as an adverb in the expression “I’ll see you later,” a usage described as “U.S. slang” in the OED and “informal” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

Finally, according to The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1955), by Leonard Feather, “later” can be used by itself as a “parting phrase, short for ‘I’ll see you later.’ ”

That’s the story. And with that, we’ll see you tomorrow.

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Primary education

Q: In editing technical writing, I replace the word “primary” when it’s used as a synonym for “important.” Example: “There are three primary reasons for this occurrence.” Am I being unnecessarily fussy? The root of “primary” does seem to be singular, but maybe the word has taken on a broader meaning.

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “primary” to mean important. What’s “primary” isn’t necessarily the one that’s first in line, so a phrase like “three primary reasons” isn’t incorrect.

Many people use “primary” in the same way they use “principal” or “chief,” and there’s nothing unusual in this. Let’s take a look at the word’s etymology.

The word “primary,” which entered English in the 15th century, is from the classical Latin primarius, which means “of the first rank or importance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

At the root of the Latin adjective, the OED says, is primus, which to the Romans meant “first in order of time, earliest, young, most notable or distinguished, chief, principal, of the best quality, first class, primary, fundamental, from which all else is derived.”

When first used in English in the first half of the 1400s, the dictionary says, “primary” meant “occurring or existing first in a sequence of events; belonging to the beginning or earliest stage of something; first in time.”

One early citation for the use of “primary” in this sense pairs it with a plural noun. George Ripley in his Compend of Alchemy (1549) uses the phrase “primary quallytes” (qualities).

In the later 1500s, “primary” was used in two new ways, the OED says: (1) to mean “of the highest rank or importance; principal, chief”; and (2) to mean fundamental, original, or “not subordinate to or derived from anything else.”

In these and similar senses of the word, “primary” is often used with plural nouns. After all, several things of equal importance can be described as “not subordinate” to any of the others, and “primary” is often used this way in scientific and academic language.

For example, philosophers from the 17th century to the present have written about the “primary qualities” of matter. Doctors speak of “primary symptoms,” “primary nerves,” and “primary branches” of the carotid artery.

Astronomers say the “primary planets” are the ones that orbit the sun. In academic research, “primary sources” are original documents.

In biology, birds have “primary feathers,” and people have “primary sexual characteristics” as well as secondary ones. Economists speak of “primary commodities,” “primary products,” and “primary industries.”

So it’s not unusual that in ordinary usage we can call more than one thing at a time “primary.” Every state has its “primary roads,” and everybody who’s ever owned a box of crayons knows about the “primary colors.”

Standard dictionaries endorse the plural usage.

Within its entry for “primary,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) uses the examples “primary stages” and “primary materials.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) uses “primary sources” and “primary nerves” as examples.

In case you’re wondering where (or whether) the noun “primer” fits in, take a look at a posting we wrote earlier this year.

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Feelin’ Groovy

Q: A lot of people (including me!) use the word “feel” to describe thinking, as in “I feel there’s a Starbucks on every corner.” Why is this? Is it here to stay? Where does it come from?

A: Using “feel” to mean “think” or “believe” is very common and quite legitimate. This usage has been around for a lot longer than Starbucks.

But your example offers a subtle variation on that theme. Although we’ve occasionally heard this usage, it’s less familiar to us.

We’re more familiar with uses like “I feel you’re avoiding me,” or “They feel they’re not being treated fairly.” Here, a speaker uses “feel” to convey a conviction about a subjective reality. This is the traditional use of “feel,” the one that gets hundreds of millions of hits on Google.

On the other hand, in a sentence like “I feel that guy just ran a red light,” or “I feel there’s a nail salon on every block,” the speaker uses “feel” to express a conviction (whether exaggerated or not) about an objective reality. This use of “feel” is what’s unusual to us.

Will it catch on? We can’t say. But what we can do is explain how “feel” came to be used to mean “think” or “believe.”

When the verb “feel” was first recorded in Old English in the 900s, it meant to handle—to examine or explore by touch. And that’s still one of its meanings.

But almost immediately the word took on several wider, more figurative, meanings.

Even during the Old English period, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, to “feel” meant “to perceive mentally, become aware of.”

Somewhat later, around the late 1200s, it came to mean “to be conscious of (a subjective fact)” or “be the subject of, experience (a sensation, emotion), entertain (a conviction).”

In the Middle Ages, for example, people used phrases like “feel feeble,” “feel well,” and “feel friendship.” One OED citation from 1393, “feleth he ful ofte guile,” or roughly “he feels full of guile,” is translated by the OED as “finds himself deceived.”

In various later usages, people in the 17th through 18th centuries were said to “feel a loss,” “feel emotion,” “feel woes,” “feel curiosity,” and “feel little inconvenience.”

And in the 19th century people began using constructions like “I do not feel like eating,” “I now feel like ending the matter,” “I feel indebted to you,” “I don’t feel myself,” “I did not feel up to much fatigue,” “felt some misgivings,” “felt the influence,” “feel vengeance,” and so on.

The sense we’re getting at—described in the OED as “to believe, think, hold as an opinion”—was first recorded in the late 1300s.

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from a 1382 quotation by Nicholas Hereford, who collaborated with John Wycliffe on the first complete English translation of the Bible: “We were required to seyne what we felyde of diverse conclusions.”

In modern usage, the OED says, to “feel” in this sense means “to apprehend or recognize the truth of (something) on grounds not distinctly perceived; to have an emotional conviction of (a fact).”

One of the OED’s citations for this modern sense is from Anthony Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers (1861): “She felt that she might yet recover her lost ground.”

They say that seeing is believing. And it’s long been true that feeling is believing as well.

Of course, we still feel good, bad, or groovy, which gets us to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th St. Bridge Song”:

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy

(Paul Simon’s book Lyrics 1964-2011 doesn’t use punctuation at the end of these lines.)

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An aha moment in lexicography

Q: Just when I figured we had enough words to worry about, Merriam-Webster’s throws a bunch more at us. It’s enough to make me throw one right back—“f-bomb.” What do you guys think about this article from the Atlantic?

A: After checking out the latest additions to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary over a “craft beer” at our local “gastropub,” we had an “aha moment.” Most of these terms aren’t “game changers” and they aren’t going to give anybody a “brain cramp.”

See what we mean? We’ll bet that nobody who’s reading this has to look them up. After all, what part of “f-bomb” (the term that turned you into a bomb thrower) doesn’t the average guy understand?

The Merriam-Webster company usually adds about 100 new words a year to its Collegiate Dictionary, though most of them are technical or scientific.

The 2012 update was announced on Aug. 14 with a selection of the sexiest new additions—that is, if you get a buzz from the likes of “sexting,” “mash-up,” “energy drink,” and the other newbies we quoted above.

Other terms that need no introduction are “cloud computing,” “bucket  list,” “life coach,” “earworm,” “e-reader,” “tipping point,” and “shovel-ready” (a phrase whose time may have come and gone).

But not all of the new words and phrases are household terms.

Take “copernicium,” described as “a short-lived artificially produced radioactive element that has 112 protons.” (And don’t pretend you knew it already.)

To be honest, another newbie, “obesogenic,” was news to us, but we had no trouble figuring out what it means—“promoting excessive weight gain.”

Not worried about your waistline? Maybe the economy is keeping you awake nights.

M-W Collegiate can help you put your worries into words: a “toxic” asset that’s gone down the drain, a house that’s worth less than its “underwater” mortgage, a “systemic risk” posed by a bank that’s too big to fail.

OK, we can hear you grumbling. All these changes pose a “systemic risk” to the English language! Why can’t the editors at Merriam-Webster’s leave well enough alone?

There’s a very good reason. Lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries, don’t add new words because they like or approve of them. New words get into dictionaries because people are using them—a lot—and they’re expected to keep using them.

The Oxford University Press, for example, issues quarterly updates to the Oxford Dictionaries Online.

The latest Oxford additions, announced yesterday, include many that are new to us, such as  “lifecasting” (continuous video of one’s daily activities), “tweeps” (followers on Twitter), and “dog food” used as a verb (to test a new product before it’s marketed).

Where do new words come from? As Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at the Merriam-Webster company, puts it, “They’re in the ether.”

Life changes, and English changes along with it. That’s why a term like “man cave” (a space a guy can have for himself) has shown up on the M-W Collegiate list of new entries.

Technology changes too, and that also requires new words, like the aforementioned “cloud computing,” “sexting,” and “e-reader.”

A new word doesn’t make it into the dictionary overnight, though. It has to be around for a while. No wonder so many of these “new” M-W terms don’t seem all that new.

Many people think that dictionaries shape the language. But just the opposite is true. The people who use the language determine what gets into dictionaries.

If a word is out there, if people are using it, then you can be sure that dictionary editors are watching and weighing it. Lexicographers always have their feelers out.

But don’t assume a word is standard English just because it’s in a dictionary. You have to read the fine print.

Dictionaries include standard usages, but also ones that are labeled colloquial, slang, dialect, nonstandard, regional, disparaging, offensive, obscene, and vulgar. (Covers just about all the bases, doesn’t it?)

And don’t assume every word in a dictionary is there to stay. Most dictionaries discard obsolete, unused words as they add fresh, new ones.

And as a word’s meaning or its spelling or its pronunciation changes in common usage, so does its entry.

Do you find this disturbing? Relax. If dictionaries didn’t keep up, they wouldn’t be of much use. And once you accept that, you’ll have an “aha moment.”

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Legal aid

Q: Why is a lawyer called an “attorney at law” and not an “attorney of law”? Doesn’t “at” refer to a place? An MD is a “doctor of medicine” not a “doctor at medicine.”

A: In American English, the terms “lawyer,” “attorney,” and “attorney at law” are pretty much interchangeable, according to Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (3rd ed.). All three refer to “a licensed lawyer.”

The legal dictionary, written by Bryan A. Garner, says “lawyer” and “attorney,” the most common of these terms in the US, “are not generally distinguished even by members of the profession.”

However, these three terms have had different meanings in different places and times.

In England, for example, an attorney used to practice in common-law courts and a solicitor in equity courts.

But the term “attorney” developed “an unpleasant smell about it,” Garner writes, and “in the nineteenth century it was supplanted in England by solicitor.”

(As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the word “attorney” was often used reproachfully to mean something like “knave or swindler.”)

In the US, on the other hand, the term “attorney” has become a somewhat tony (or, as Garner puts it, more formal and less disparaging) version of “lawyer,” while “solicitor” has taken on an offensive whiff, as in signs like “No Peddlers or Solicitors.”

Why, you ask, is an attorney “at” law rather than “of” or “in” law? Doesn’t “at” refer to a place?

Well, all three prepositions were used in the past, according to published references in the OED, but they referred to the place where the attorney practiced, not to the practice of law itself.

The Oxford editors say “attorney-at-law” (they hyphenate the term) originally referred to a “professional and properly-qualified legal agent practising in the courts of Common Law (as a solicitor practised in the courts of Equity).”

Interestingly, the earliest OED citation for “attorney at law,” from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1768), refers to lawyers at admiralty and ecclesiastical courts, not courts of common law:

“An attorney at law answers to the procurator, or proctor, of the civilians and canonists.” (A procurator, or proctor, used to be a legal representative in English admiralty or ecclesiastical courts.)

Why, you might wonder, has the term “attorney at law” survived when “attorney” and “lawyer” can do the job just as well with two fewer words?

Well, we could be cynical and say that the kind of lawyer who feels it’s classy to be called an “attorney” would probably feel it’s even classier to be called an “attorney at law.”

But there’s a more respectable reason for the survival of the longer term. It distinguishes an “attorney at law” (a licensed lawyer) from an “attorney in fact” (someone with a power of attorney to act for another).

In fact, when the word “attorney” entered English in the 1300s (borrowed from Old French), it referred to someone “appointed or ordained to act for another; an agent, deputy, commissioner,” according to the OED.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594):

I will attend my husband, be his nurse,
Diet his sickness, for it is my office,
And will have no attorney but myself;
And therefore let me have him home with me.

By the 1400s, the word “attorney” was being used to mean a lawyer practicing in the common-law courts in England.

But around the same time it took on its negative sense. Here’s a later example from Alexander Pope’s essay Of the Use of Riches (1733): “Vile Attornies, now an useless race.”

And here’s one from The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), by James Boswell: “Johnson observed, that ‘he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.’ ”

The word “lawyer,” which entered English around the same time as “attorney,” has roots in the Old English word for law, lagu.

From the beginning, according to the OED, it meant what it does now: “One versed in the law; a member of the legal profession.”

We’ll end with this proverb from The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), by Thomas Wilson: “The lawyer never dieth a begger. The lawyer can never want a livyng till the yearth want men.”

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Till the cows come home

Q: Your posting about the grammar in Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me” reminds me of a similar singular/plural issue in the opening of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” I’ve seen both “wind” and “winds” in the second line, which makes me wonder if Gray himself might have written it both ways.

A: Let’s begin with the opening lines of the elegy, as they appear in our dusty copy of the Palgrave Golden Treasury:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

As you’ve noticed, however, the verb in the second line is “wind” in some published versions of the poem and “winds” in others.

Did Gray use both verbs at different times? No, the poet himself used only the plural verb “wind,” according to the Thomas Gray Archive, a digital collection supported by the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

Although the verb appears as “winds” in the first printed edition of the poem (published in 1751), it’s “wind” in Gray’s manuscripts and in all reprints of the “Elegy” approved by him.

Why “wind,” not “winds”?

The commentary on the poem in the Gray archive cites this analysis by William Lyon Phelps, editor of a late 19th-century collection of Gray’s works:

“ ‘Wind’ is better for two reasons: it is more melodious, as it avoids the hiss of a double s; it has more poetical connotation, for it suggests a long, slowly-moving line of cattle rather than a closely packed herd.”

Gray began working on the poem around 1745, according to the archive, and finished it early in June 1750.

But years earlier, Alexander Pope used a similar bovine image in his 1726 translation of the Odyssey: “As from fresh pastures and the dewy fields … The lowing herds return.”

We could go on about the elegy (the Gray archive is fascinating), but we’d be writing “till the cows come home,” an expression that first showed up in the early 1600s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So let’s end with this cow-minded quip by Groucho Marx (a k a Rufus T. Firefly) in Duck Soup (1933): “I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you came home.”

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The case of the missing clew

Q: Can “clue” and “clew” be used interchangeably? I was browsing in the Chicago Tribune archive and came across this headline: “CLEWS FADING IN MURDER OF CLERIC, WIFE.”

A: Not really. Although a few standard dictionaries include “clew” as a variant spelling of “clue,” the usage is unusual and we wouldn’t recommend it. Many readers would consider it a misspelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says this use of “clew” is chiefly British, but the British dictionaries we checked describe the spelling as rare or archaic.

“Clue,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, is “has now become the prevailing form” for this meaning of the word.

You can still find the “clew” spelling in old American newspapers, however, as you learned when you came across that Oct. 1, 1969, headline about the murder of the Rev. Bruce W. Johnson and his wife, Marjorie Eugenia.

Your question gives us a chance to discuss the fascinating history of “clew,” a very old word whose meaning as well as spelling evolved over the years.

The OED says “clew” originally meant a ball formed by rolling pieces together, as in a ball of yarn or twine. To this day, the word for a ball of yarn is spelled “clew” in Scotland and the north of England, the OED says.

The word was recorded in Old English (usually spelled cliwen or cleowen) as long ago as 897. In the Middle English period the “n” was dropped and the “ew” spelling was introduced.

Such “ew” spellings were once more common in English than they are today. Several English words now spelled “ue” were once spelled “ew,” including “blew” (for blue), “glew” (for glue), “rew” (for rue), “dew” (for due), “sew” (for sue), and “trew” (for true).

These spellings all became “ue” in modern English, and the same happened with “clew.”

The “clue” spelling first appeared in the 1400s, became frequent in the 1600s, and is now the dominant form of the word.

So how did the ball of yarn become the word we know from crime reports and mystery novels?

The sense of “clew” or “clue” as a key to a problem emerged in the early 1600s, originally as a figurative use of that earlier word.

As the OED explains, it meant “a ball of thread, employed to guide any one in ‘threading’ his way into or out of a labyrinth … or maze.”

This notion is at least as old as Greek mythology. Legend has it that Theseus unwound a ball of string as he made his way to the heart of the Labyrinth, then killed the dreaded Minotaur and followed the string to find his way out again.

As an extension of this idea, “clew” or “clue” subsequently came to mean “a fact, circumstance, or principle which, being taken hold of and followed up, leads through a maze, perplexity, difficulty, intricate investigation, etc.,” the OED says.

The OED’s first citation for this use of the word comes from a poem written by Michael Drayton in 1605: “Loosing the clew which led vs safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust.”

Soon the literal sense of the word took a back seat to the figurative one, the OED says.

By the 17th century, a “clew” or “clue” meant “that which points the way, indicates a solution, or puts one on the track of a discovery; a key. Esp. a piece of evidence useful in the detection of a crime.”

The 19th-century writer Fergus Hume, for instance, used the word this way in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): “Another hansom cabman … gave a clue which will, no doubt, prove of value to the detectives in their search after the murderer.”

Although the “clue” spelling is now the prevailing one for this sense, the old spelling can still be found in American newspapers from as recently as the 1970s. You might regard these sightings as clues to the word’s history.

Update: Readers of the blog note that the word “clew” has several other meanings today, including one of the two lower corners of a square sail and the lower aft corner of a fore-and-aft sail. And of course it’s still used now for a ball of yarn or thread.  

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The apian origin of spelling bees

Q: On a recent episode of the TV show Cake Boss, the bakery created a special cake to honor the winner of a spelling bee. It was iced in yellow with black trim, and was topped by a stylized statuette of a honey-producing insect. Does the word “bee” here really have something to do with the insect?

A: Yes, there is a connection. That busy and very sociable insect inspired the American term for the contest—“spelling bee.”

The “bee” part of the term is an “allusion to the social character of the insect,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The term “bee” for a gathering devoted to some special purpose originated in the US in the 18th century, the OED says.

The dictionary defines this sense of “bee” as “a meeting of neighbours to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number; e.g. as is done still in some parts, when the farmers unite to get in each other’s harvests in succession.”

The term is “usually preceded by a word defining the purpose of the meeting, as apple-bee, husking-bee, quilting-bee,
raising-bee
, etc.,” the editors write.

The OED’s earliest citation for this use of “bee” is from a 1769 issue of the Boston Gazette: “Last Thursday about twenty young Ladies met at the house of Mr. L. on purpose for a Spinning Match; (or what is called in the Country a Bee).”

And in his History of New York (1849), Diedrich Knickerbocker (a k a Washington Irving) wrote: “Now were instituted quilting bees and husking bees and other rural assemblages.”

It’s this use of “bee,” the OED says, that gave us the extended sense of “a gathering or meeting for some object; esp.
spelling-bee, a party assembled to compete in the spelling of words.”

The OED’s first published reference for the actual term “spelling bee” is credited to an Englishman, Sir John Lubbock, who was a friend of Darwin and an advocate of spelling reform.

In an 1876 essay on elementary education, Lubbock wrote in the Contemporary Review: “He may be able to parse any sentence, he may be invincible at a spelling-bee; but if you have given him no intellectual tastes, your school has to him been all but useless.” [We’ve expanded the OED’s citation here to provide some context.]

The Scripps National Spelling Bee website says: “Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that.”

The earliest published reference we’ve found for “spelling bee” is from the April 1850 issue of The Knickerbocker, a monthly literary magazine in New York City. A description of such a contest is introduced this way:

“Those who have attended a ‘spelling-bee’—and what reader who ever went to a district-school in the country but has attended them?—will call to mind a familiar and pleasant scene while perusing the annexed extract.”

As for the name of the insect, it’s been part of the language since before the year 1000. In Old English, it was beo, and it has cousins in other Germanic languages.

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Enough said

Q: Enough is enough. Why do I hear “enough of” all the time? To me, the “of” is unnecessary. Maybe it’s just my ear, but I find this grating.

A: All these usages are correct:

(1) “Is there enough?” Here, “enough” is a pronoun meaning “an adequate amount.”

(2) “Is there enough milk?” Here, “enough” is an adjective meaning “sufficient.”

(3) “Is there enough of the milk?” Here, “enough” is a pronoun, followed by a prepositional phrase, “of the milk.” The phrase answers the question “enough of what?”

So both “enough milk” and “enough of the milk” are correct English. They merely represent different grammatical constructions. You might regard “of the” as unnecessary, but it’s not incorrect.

 “Enough!” can also be an interjection expressing impatience or exasperation. And it can be an adverb, as in “Is the milk fresh enough?” Here it’s an adverb modifying the adjective “fresh.”

By the way, the expression “enough is enough” is hundreds of years old, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest citation is from a 1546 proverb collection by John Heywood.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms defines the expression this way: “One should be satisfied; stop, there should be no more.”

The word “enough” itself is much older, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. In Old English, according to the OED, it was genog.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins traces “enough” from Old English back to the prehistoric Germanic ganogaz and the Indo-European root nak-, “whose underlying meaning is probably ‘reach, attain.’ ”

Why, you may ask, is the “gh” at the end of “enough” pronounced like “f”?

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the “gh” here was once pronounced like the “ch” in the Scottish loch and the German ach. Although the pronunciation shifted over the years to the “f” of “off,” the “gh” survived.

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“Instantly” vs. “instantaneously”

Q: Is there a difference between “instantly” and “instantaneously”?

A: Yes and no, and whatever distinction exists between these two adverbs is getting less distinct.

Both words can mean in an instant, immediately, or at once, but “instantaneously” has another meaning: it can refer to two events that occur at the same or virtually the same time.

For instance, you can say “The corporal obeyed instantly” or “The staff sergeant obeyed instantaneously” (though “instantly” sounds more idiomatic to our ears).

But if you want to indicate that the two orders were carried out at the same time, you’d say, “They were obeyed instantaneously.”

A bit of googling, however, suggests that this distinction between “instantly” and “instantaneously” is being lost.

That may explain why R. W. Burchfield, author of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), dropped the “instantly”/”instantaneously” item added by Sir Ernest Gowers in the second edition. Here’s what Gowers had to say:

Instantly is virtually a synonym of at once, directly, and immediately, though perhaps the strongest of the four. Instantaneously is applied to something that takes an inappreciable time to occur, like the taking of an instantaneous photograph, especially to two events that occur so nearly simultaneously that the difference is imperceptible.”

Bryan A. Garner, writing in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), generally agrees with Gowers.

But the only standard dictionary we found with an entry for the adverb “instantaneously” doesn’t make the distinction. The Collins English Dictionary defines it this way:

(1) “in a way that occurs with almost no delay; immediately ⇒ Airbags inflate instantaneously on impact.” (2) “in a way which happens or is completed within a moment.”

Of the two adverbs, “instantly” is the oldest. When it entered English in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “urgently, persistently, with importunity,” but this sense is now considered archaic.

In the mid-16th century, it took on the modern meaning we’re discussing: “In a moment; immediately, forthwith, at once.”

“Instantaneously” showed up in the mid-17th century, according to the OED, with the meaning of “in an instant, in a moment; without any perceptible interval between beginning and completion.”

Interestingly, the OED entry for “instantaneously” doesn’t mention the distinction cited by Gowers or Garner, and it has no published reference for the usage.

Our Google searches suggest that many, if not most, English speakers are unaware of this distinction.

As we’ve said, we think “instantly” sounds more idiomatic than “instantaneously” in describing something that happens immediately.

And if we wanted to indicate that two events occurred at the same time, we’d say they occurred “at the same time” or “simultaneously.”

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Hanging up one’s spurs

Q: A techie at the university where I teach told me that he was going to hang up his mouse, which spurred me to look up the origin of “hang up one’s spurs.” Google sent me to the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, when spurs of the vanquished were hung up. But that isn’t quite the modern sense of retiring. Is there another origin?

A: In the engagement, also known as the Battle of Courtrai (now Kortrijk, Belgium), the Flemish victors collected the gilded spurs of the French knights killed on the field.

These trophies of war were then displayed in a nearby church. Hence the fight is often called the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

But that’s not the origin of the expression “hang up one’s spurs” (or boots, guns, etc.), which generally means to retire.

We’re talking here about two different traditions in which two different things are hung up—(1) war trophies and (2) tools of the trade. To get to the bottom of these traditions, we have to go back to biblical and classical times.

It’s likely that for as long as there have been wars, the victors have taken the armor of the defeated—the weapons, shields, helmets, spurs, heraldic banners, and so on—as trophies.

In an 1878 issue of Popular Science, Herbert Spencer wrote about this ancient tradition:

“The Philistines, besides otherwise displaying relics of the dead Saul, put ‘his armor in the house of Ashtaroth.’ By the Greeks the trophy, formed of arms, shields, and helmets, taken from the defeated, was consecrated to some divinity; and the Romans deposited the spoils brought back from battle in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. … Hundreds of gilt spurs of French knights vanquished by the Flemish in the battle of Courtrai were deposited in the church of that place.”

But the notion of hanging up one’s own spurs (or gun, or sword, or other implement) is very different from displaying the spurs of another—someone defeated in battle.

Today, to “hang up one’s spurs” (or the tools of one’s trade) means to retire from the field, to give up, or to turn one’s attentions elsewhere.

This too is a tradition dating back to classical times.

The Roman poet Horace, who lived in the first century BC, refers to this tradition in his “Ode XXVI (To Venus),” narrated by a flirtatious ladies’ man who’s tired of fighting love’s battles.

With the lines nunc arma defunctumque bello / barbiton hic paries habebit, the narrator decides to retire metaphorically from the field of battle and hang up his weapon—the lyre with which he does his wooing.

In discussing that passage, the Latin scholars Maurice Balme and James Morwood add this footnote: “When a soldier retired, he would dedicate his weapons to Mars by hanging them on the temple wall.” (Oxford Latin Course, Part 3, 2nd ed., 1997.)

In Horace’s ode, the narrator is similarly retiring his lyre (his weapon in wooing) and dedicating it to Venus.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary to “hang up” one’s sword, gun, boots, or some other implement means to give up using it, to give up the game, or even to die.

The OED’s first such reference was recorded in early Middle English in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “Ich mai honge vp min ax, febliche ic abbe agonne.” (“I may hang up my axe, feebly have I gone on.”)

A similar expression occurs in a translation of Jean Nicolas de Parival’s Historie of This Iron Age (1656 ): “Before we sheathe our sword, and hang it upon the naile.”

The OED has 19th-century examples including “hung up his sword” (1826) and “hang my gun up over the chimney” (1847).

More recently, the OED cites a reference from a 1963 issue of the Times of London: “Johnson, Miller, and Johnston hung up their boots soon afterwards.”

This explains why today we might say that a retiring doctor hangs up her stethoscope, that a carpenter hangs up his hammer, or even that a techie hangs up his mouse.

But sometimes the “hanging up” is even more permanent than retiring. Oxford quotes the grammarian Otto Jespersen as writing in 1926 that “to hang up the spoon” meant to die.

We found other instances in which death was associated with the hanging up of something used in life. Most notable was the medieval English custom of honoring a dead knight by hanging above his tomb the sword, spurs, shield, and other equipment he once used.

In his book Costume in England (1846), Frederick William Fairholt describes “the old custom of burying a knight with his martial equipments over his grave, originally consisting of his shield, sword, gloves, and spurs; the boots being a later and more absurd introduction.”

This custom survived into the 18th century. John Chambers, in A General History of the County of Norfolk, Vol. 2 (1829), describes the tomb of Sir Nicholas Garrard, who died in 1727 and was buried in a church in the village of Langford:

“Opposite to this monument, against the south wall, are fixed several insignia of honour, as the shield, mantle, torce, helmets, spurs, and sword, and several banners.” (A torce or torse was a band for securing a knight’s crest to his helmet.)

This explains why someone who does battle in the trenches (or cubicles) of the computer age might “hang up his mouse” on retiring. But we doubt that a techie would want one hung over his grave.

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A mighty wind

Q: How long has “derecho” been a meteorological term in the US? And how did the Spanish word for “right” come to mean a line of severe thunderstorms? I’m a weather observer, but I hadn’t heard the usage until this summer.

A: The weather term “derecho” first showed up in English in the 1880s, but it was rarely used, even by meteorologists, until the 1980s, according to a paper by Robert H. Johns on the history of the term.

Johns, a meteorologist who specializes in severe convective storms and tornadoes, says the term refers to “widespread straight-line damaging winds associated with lines of thunderstorms.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes a “derecho” as “a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.”

“Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to that of tornadoes, the damage typically is directed in one direction along a relatively straight swath,” NOAA says.

Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs, a professor of physical sciences at the University of Iowa, coined the weather term “derecho” in the late 19th century to distinguish storms with winds blowing straight from tornados with circular winds.

Hinrichs first used the term in 1883 at a meeting in Minneapolis of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to a brief history by Ray Wolf of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Davenport, Iowa.

But Hinrichs didn’t use the word in writing until 1888, when he published a paper, entitled “Tornadoes and Derechos,” in the American Meteorological Journal.

The English term is derived from the Spanish adjective derecho, which means straight as well as right. Spanish seems an apt source, since it has also given English the word “tornado.”

The etymology of “tornado,” though, is appropriately twisty. It apparently comes from tronado, Spanish for “storm,” but the spelling reflects confusion with tornado, Spanish for “turned,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The term “derecho” doesn’t appear yet in the Oxford English Dictionary, but a July 25, 2012, posting on the OxfordWords blog says that “only relatively recently has it risen to any kind of prominence.”

In the posting, Ammon Shea, a consulting editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says the term “gained in popularity after the eastern US states experienced a particularly devastating storm at the end of June.”

In another indication that the term is relatively new in popular usage, we could find an entry for it in only one standard dictionary, the new fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

The earliest mention of the term in the New York Times is from an Aug. 27, 1995, article about a storm that killed four campers and a motorist in the Adirondacks: “It is called a derecho by the weather connoisseurs and its fury is unrelenting.”

Although the term appeared occasionally in the Times over the next decade and a half, it didn’t show up in large numbers until a storm in the Mid-Atlantic region on June 29, 2012, killed 22 people and left more than 4 million without power.

As a July 2, 2012, article in the Times put it, “Millions of people learned a new word over the weekend: ‘derecho.’ It was not a happy lesson.”

That probably explains why you just began noticing the term this summer.

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Why UK singers sound American

Q: Could you please explain why British pop stars seem (at least to me) to have American accents when singing?

A: We’ve noticed this too. It seems that unless they’re deliberately trying to maintain their regional accents, all pop music singers sound American when they sing in English.

The Swedish group ABBA is a good example. The members speak English with Swedish accents. But when they sing, their accents disappear and they sound like Americans.

The same is true of the classic British rock stars.

While the Beatles did give certain words a Liverpool twang, the overall impression is that we’re listening to Americans. And you can’t tell from their singing voices that Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Rod Stewart all grew up in or near London.

To use a more current example, when you hear the singer Adele perform, you’d never think she speaks with an extremely heavy cockney accent.

In performance, all these singers sound American.

There are several reasons for this. When people sing, their regional accents are obliterated by physiology, phonetics, and the music itself.

In effect, their accents are neutralized. And if they sound American, that’s because the general American accent is fairly neutral itself.

We notice people’s accents more easily when they’re speaking at a normal speed. But singing is not done at normal speed; it’s slower. And it’s also more powerful.

William O. Beeman, a linguist and the chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota, and Audrey Stottler, a voice teacher at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis—discussed the physiology of all this in a 2010 television interview.

As they explained, the air pressure used to make sounds is much greater when we sing, and the air passages open up and become larger. So the sound quality is very different.

The result is that when we sing, syllables are longer, vowels get stretched out, and stresses fall differently than in speech. In effect, regional accents disappear.

The linguist David Crystal, writing about this process on his blog, says melody cancels out the intonations of speech, the beat of the music cancels the rhythms of speech, and singers are forced to accent syllables as they’re accented in the music.

And as all singers know, the music forces them to elongate their vowels. A vowel that falls on a sustained note has to be drawn out more than it would be in ordinary speech.

Another effect is that diphthongs in speech are lost in singing.

Take the word “no,” which in British-accented speech has a diphthong (it sounds like “neh-ow”). That diphthong would be difficult to sing, so it becomes more of a neutral, American-sounding “noh.”

What all this adds up to is that in singing, regional accents tend to flatten out. The sounds becomes more neutral or homogeneous, and in fact similar to what a general American accent sounds like.

(In fact, Americans’ accents are flattened when they sing too. The r’s become less sharp and the pronoun “I” is often flattened to more of an “ah.”)

Crystal believes some singers in the UK today are deliberately avoiding an “American” sound and inserting regional accents into their singing.

“It’s perfectly possible for singers to retain an individual accent, if they want to, and many do,” he writes.

But even so, he adds, “in hardly any case do singers use a consistent regional accent throughout the whole song. Mixed accents seem to be the norm.”

Crystal also says that imitation may also play a role when UK singers sound “American,” but not everyone agrees that imitation is involved.

Not much academic research has published on the subject. But one study is available.

Andy Gibson, a New Zealand researcher who studies the sociolinguistics of performance, has concluded that pop singers sound American because it’s easier and more natural to sing with a neutral accent—call it American if you want.

His study, conducted in 2010, found that singers in New Zealand spoke certain words with a distinct “Kiwi” accent, but sang those same words just as Americans would.

Gibson showed that this wasn’t deliberate imitation, as had been suggested previously. The subjects of his study said they didn’t perceive any difference in their speaking and singing voices. They felt they were singing naturally.

Gibson concluded that the sound was automatic—the default accent when singing pop songs. The more neutral, American-sounding accent is simply easier and more natural to sing, he found.

That means that a regional accent will disappear in pop music—unless it’s the deliberate accent of a certain style, as in rap and hip-hop (African-American), Country-Western music (Southern), and reggae (Caribbean).

In the ’60s and ’70s, some British rock groups were accused of deliberately imitating American pop singers. But if Gibson is right, then the reverse is true—British singers have to make a deliberate effort to sound British.

For example, in 1965 the British group Herman’s Hermits recorded two heavily accented songs. The lead singer, Peter Noone, is from Manchester, but in these two songs he affected an exaggerated cockney accent. The songs were aimed at the American market, then in the grip of the so-called “British Invasion” rock movement.

The songs, “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” both became No. 1 hits in the US. But they weren’t even released as singles in Britain.

The relationship between song and speech, music and language, is still being explored. It’s been suggested that perhaps different parts of the brain are involved, since speech impediments (like stuttering or Tourette’s syndrome) often disappear when someone sings.

Of course, people remarked on the homogeneity of singing long before rock-’n’-roll. In the Oct. 1, 1932, issue of the Music Educators Journal, the author T. Campbell Young wrote: 

“It is true that the spoken word varies considerably, as the many dialects which are found among the English-speaking nations will prove.  It is equally true to say that language, in song, has been standardized to such an extent that it has become universal and homogeneous. It follows naturally that when words and music are allied, the former must be pronounced in such as way as to conform with the accepted principles of good singing.”

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: Why do British pop stars sound American when they sing? If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Heavy reading

Q: I was talking to my wife about a post in which you say “lb.” is short for “pound” because the abbreviation comes from the Latin libra. My wife wondered if libra is also the source of the Spanish word for book.

A: As we say in our posting, that English abbreviation for pound comes from the Latin libra. However, libra is not the source of libro, the Spanish word for book.

In classical Latin, libra has a couple of meanings. It means a balance or a set of scales, and it’s also the word for a specific weight—the Roman pound (12 ounces).

Traces of both meanings linger today.

As we say in that posting, we use “lb.,” an abbreviation of libra, as a modern English term for “pound.”

The name “Libra” has also been given to a constellation resembling scales, as well as to the corresponding sign of the zodiac (symbolized by a set of scales). (We had a posting yesterday about whether one weighs oneself on the “scale” or the “scales.”) 

But don’t confuse libra with liber, the Latin source of the Spanish libro as well as some book-related terms in English.

In Latin, there are several different words that are spelled liber and that are derived from one or the other of two unrelated ancient roots.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the Roman use of liber for “book” is thought to come from the Latin word for “bark” (liber), “the bark of trees having, according to Roman tradition, been used in early times as a writing material.”

The “book” and “bark” senses of liber are ultimately derived from a reconstructed Indo-European base for leaf, loubh- or lubh-, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.  (The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots spells it leup-.)  

English words derived from this liber include “library,” “libretto,” and “libel” (from libellus, a small book or pamphlet). Some related words for book in other languages are libro (Spanish and Italian), livre (French), and livro (Portuguese).

Another Latin word spelled liber means “free” and comes from the same prehistoric root as the Greek word for “free,” eleutheros. That root is leudh-, according to American Heritage, which says its “precise semantic development is obscure.”

The Latin liber for “free” has given us such English words as “liberty,” “liberal,” “liberate,” and “libertine.”

To sum things up, the English abbreviation of “pound” isn’t related to the Spanish word for “book,” despite the similarity of their Latin roots, though etymology can sometimes make for heavy reading.

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Weigh station

Q: I’m a New Yorker living in London. My housemate, who is British, refers to her scale in the plural. For a while I thought she was weighing herself on multiple scales, but that’s not the case—just one! What is the history behind this and what is the correct way to refer to the weighing instrument?

A: The thing you weigh yourself on in the bathroom can be called either the “scales” or the “scale.” The instrument is usually singular in the US and plural in the UK, though Americans often use the plural too.

For the full story, we have to go back to medieval times and to Old Norse, a language in which the word for a bowl was skal.

In the Middle Ages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this Old Norse word had several descendants in English, including “scale,” which once meant a cup or drinking bowl.

Weight entered the picture in the first half of the 15th century. That’s when “scale” began appearing in a new sense, says the OED: “the pan, or each of the pans, of a balance.”

The plural form, “scales,” was used soon after that to mean the weighing apparatus itself, according to OED citations.

In Oxford’s words, “scales” became a noun meaning “a weighing instrument; esp. one (often called a pair of scales) consisting of a beam which is pivoted at its middle and at either end of which a dish, pan, board, or slab is suspended.”

At about the same time, the OED says, the singular “scale” also came to mean the weighing instrument, though the singular form was often used figuratively, especially in the expression “to turn the scale” (to indicate an excess of weight on one side or the other).

Here’s an example of the singular from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600): “If the scale doe turne but in the estimation of a hayre [hair].”

As for use of the singular form today, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says one definition of “scale” is “an instrument or machine for weighing.” But  AH adds that it’s often used in the plural too.

When used in the plural, the word requires a plural verb: “The scales aren’t weighing correctly … I’m sure of it!”

One final note. If you feel you need a drink after weighing yourself, here’s something to think about.

That old sense of “scale” as a cup or drinking bowl has long since died out and is no longer used by speakers of English (except in South Africa). But its Old Norse ancestor (skal) lives on in a familiar drinking toast, “Skoal!”

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Ask us anytime (or any time?)

Q: My cousin and I were just reviewing a business letter, and the word(s) “any time” became a question: Is there a difference between “any time” and “anytime”?

A: The two-word version, “any time,” is a noun phrase that means something like “any amount of time” or “any particular time.”

Examples: “You never seem to have any time for your mother” … “Is there any time when you’re free next week?”

The single word, “anytime,” is an adverb (that is, it modifies a verb), and its meaning is similar to “whenever,” “on any occasion,” or “at any time.”

Examples: “You can call me anytime” … “Do this anytime your iPad freezes” … “He can sleep anytime.”

In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.), Pat uses an example that combines the terms: “The boss will see you anytime she has any time.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains the use of these terms by citing the advice given by the language writer Edward D. Johnson.

In The Handbook of Good English (1982), Johnson says one word is all right when it can be replaced by the phrase “at any time,” but otherwise the two-word spelling should be used.

“Johnson’s rule of thumb is a sensible one,” M-W adds, “though occasionally it is not observed.”

Interestingly, “anytime” is a relatively recent usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the adverb dates back only to 1926, but the Oxford English Dictionary has an earlier, century-old example.

Under the OED entry for the verbal phrase “to send round” is this quotation from 1912: “I will leave the basket; you can send it round anytime. I will send round tomorrow to inquire how the patient is.”

Although “anytime” shows up in a couple of dozen OED citations, the dictionary doesn’t yet have an actual entry for the adverb.

It does, however, have entries for such compounds as “anyhow,” “anyhoo,” “anyplace,” “anyways,” “anywhat,” “anywhen,” “anywhence,,” “anywhither,” and “anywise.”

Some usage guides say “anytime” is typically American. For instance, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.) says “anytime” (meaning “at any time”) is “another characteristically American adverb.”

So is “anytime” American? Well, many of the OED citations are American, but some are from British, Australian, South African, and other sources.

Other one-word adverbs favored by Americans, according to Fowler, are “anyplace” (in the sense of “anywhere”) and “anymore” (meaning “any longer”).

But Fowler adds that “anymore” is gaining acceptance with British writers and publishing houses.

We’ve written on our blog, by the way, about another use of “anymore”—to mean “now” or “nowadays.”

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A whole other thing

Q: I’m arguing with someone who says “whole other thing” should be “whole different thing.” What do you think? Is “whole other” grammatical or not?

A: There’s nothing wrong with a phrase like “whole other thing” except, possibly, its informality. But not everybody would consider it informal.

In this construction, “whole” is an adverb meaning “wholly” or “entirely”; it modifies the adjective “other,” which has meant “different” or “additional” since Anglo-Saxon times.

So the phrases “whole other” and “whole different” are pretty much the same.

“Whole,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been used as an adverb since at least as far back as the 1300s, but its use as an adverb is now obsolete except in certain phrases.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the adverbial use of “whole” is considered informal.

American Heritage gives the example “a whole new idea.” (So AH would also consider the phrases “whole other thing” and “whole different thing” informal English.)

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has no such reservations. It treats the adverbial use of “whole” as standard English, giving as an example “a whole new age group.”

We’ve written posts on our blog in 2008 and 2011 about the phrase “whole nother,” which is a whole other thing.

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A horse of another color

Q: I don’t get it. What, if anything, does a horse have to do with the expression “horse of another color”?

A: For centuries, English speakers have viewed the horse as some kind of standard against which to draw comparisons. And why not?

Horses have strength (“he’s as strong as a horse”), energy (“you work like a horse”), and big appetites (“she eats like a horse”).

The Oxford English Dictionary cites several such “proverbial phrases and locutions” in which “horse” is used for making comparisons.

In fact, horses may once have been considered models of sanctity, since the OED’s earliest example of a horsey comparison is “as holy as a horse,” from 1530.

The equine expression you ask about is another kind of comparison, one for saying that something is like or unlike something else. The two things being compared are imagined as horses, either the same or different in color.

As the OED explains, the expression “a horse of another (the same, etc.) colour” means “a thing or matter of a different (etc.) complexion.”

Oxford’s earliest example of this kind of expression comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written sometime around 1600: “My purpose is indeed a horse of that colour.”

This early American example comes from a Philadelphia newspaper, the Aurora (1798): “Whether any of them may be induced … to enter into the pay of King John I. is ‘a horse of another colour.’ ” (The reference here is to President John Adams.)

And since we always like to quote Anthony Trollope, a favorite of ours, here’s a citation from The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867): “What did you think of his wife? That’s a horse of another colour altogether.”

The OED also has examples with “different color” instead of “another color.”

This quotation is from John Carter’s Taste and Technique in Book-Collecting (1949): “Buxton Forman’s A Shelley Library, however, was a horse of a different colour: no mere handlist but a fully annotated and richly informative study of Shelley’s original editions.”

And this one is from the BBC’s former magazine, The Listener (1966): “A horse of a somewhat different colour is that tycoon of the brush, pop-man Salvador Dali.”

Why a horse, rather than a pumpkin, an armadillo, or a ranch house of another color? We don’t know. We’ve read speculation that the expression may have originated in racing, but we haven’t seen any evidence to support this.

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Onymously speaking

Q: We all know about synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms. And we recently added retronyms to the list. But what do we call the onymous term for a word like “cleave” that has two opposite meanings?

A: These two-faced words are usually called “contronyms,” though they’re sometimes referred to as “auto-antonyms,” “self-antonyms,” or “Janus words” (after the god with two faces).

We’ve written about them several times on our blog, including postings in 2007, 2008, and 2010. But this gives us a chance to discuss the combining term that has given us all those onymous words. (Yes, “onymous” is a word—more about this later.)

In English, “-onym” is a combining form derived from onyma, Greek for name or word.

Its ultimate source is the Indo-European root -nomen, which has given us “name,” “noun,” “nominate,” and many other words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The first of the “-onym” words to enter English was “synonym,” which showed up in the late 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Synonym” originally referred to identical ideas expressed in different ways. Now, of course, it refers to a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another.

As for your other “-onym” words, “homonym” (a word that sounds the same as another but means something different) showed up in the late 1500s, and “antonym” (a word that means the opposite of another) appeared in the mid-1800s.

The newest of these linguistic critters, “retronym,” which arrived on the scene in the 1980s, refers to a new name coined to differentiate the original form of something from a more recent version.

For instance, the retronym “acoustic guitar” was coined to distinguish the older instrument from the new “electric guitar.”

Other retronyms include “analog watch” (as opposed to a digital one), “conventional oven” (versus a microwave), and “skirt suit” (as opposed to a pantsuit).

No, we haven’t forgotten “onymous,” an adjective that first appeared in the late 1700s, according to the OED, and means having a name—that is, the opposite of “anonymous.”

Here’s an onymous example from an 1802 letter by the English poet Robert Southey to the writer Grosvenor Charles Bedford:

“I shall have a house in the loveliest part of South Wales, in a vale between high mountains; and an onymous house too, Grosvenor, and one that is down in the map of Glamorganshire, and its name is Maes Gwyn.”

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Culinary arts

Q: Why is the first syllable of “culinary” pronounced  “cull” in the US? I thought words starting with “cu,” a consonant, and “i” have a “cue” sound: “cuticle,” “cupid,” etc. Is this more Americanization of the English language? It may be ACCEPTED now, but that doesn’t make it CORRECT.

A: In American usage, “culinary” has two acceptable pronunciations—KUL-inary and KYOO-linary, according to standard dictionaries in the US.

This is nothing new, since our 1956 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2nd ed., unabridged) gives the same two pronunciations.

And it’s not an example of “Americanization” either. On the contrary!

In standard British speech, the first syllable is pronounced only one way—KUL. (We consulted the British online editions of the Cambridge, Collins, and Macmillan dictionaries.)

So if anybody introduced the “cue” into “culinary,” it was the Americans, not the British.

It’s true that many words starting with “cu” plus a consonant and “i” are invariably pronounced as if they started with “cue” (as in “cubic”). But this is not universal, since some words don’t fit that pattern.

Another culinary exception is “cumin,” which we’ve written about before on our blog.

Until fairly recently, as we say in that post, KUM-in was regarded as the only correct pronunciation of “cumin” in American English

Sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, new pronunciations became accepted in the US. Today it can be pronounced KUM-in, KOO-min, or KYOO-min.

When we say that a variant spelling or pronunciation is “accepted,” that means it’s correct in the eyes of lexicographers. In other words, it’s standard English.

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None sense

Q: I was listening to a TED talk the other day when the presenter mentioned a few things and then said, “I want to talk about none of that.” Shouldn’t it be “I don’t want to talk about any of that”? It just struck me as odd. Hoping you can help.

A: There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I want to talk about none of that,” though (as you suggest) it may be more idiomatic in some cases to say, “I don’t want to talk about any of that” or “I don’t want to talk about any of those things.”

You probably wouldn’t find it odd, for example, to hear something like this: “At times I’ve felt all of that, and at other times I’ve felt none of that.”

Or something like this: “The pro at the golf club wanted to change Ben’s swing, stance, and grip, but he was having none of that.”

It seems to us that the use of “none” in those two examples (and perhaps in that TED talk) accentuates the negative. 

For readers who are unfamiliar with TED, it’s a nonprofit group (the acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) that arranges conferences and makes talks available on video.

The word “none,” by the way, is one of the oldest English words and one of the most misunderstood.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that it’s always singular and always means not one. In fact, it’s usually plural and usually means not any (of a number of people or things), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we say “none” has been both singular and plural since Anglo-Saxon days:

“Alfred the Great used it as a plural back in the ninth century, when he translated a work by the Roman philosopher Boethius. Although the OED lists numerous examples of both singular and plural ‘nones’ since Alfred’s day, it says plurals have been more common, especially in modern times.”

If you’d like to read more about “none,” we’ve discussed it on the Language Myths page of our website as well as on the blog. And we had a posting last year about “having none of it.”

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Get thee to a carwashery

Q: On a jaunt through western Maryland, we passed a billboard for The Horsery. We’d never seen the word “horsery” before, but we instantly understood what it meant—a tack shop. The same can be said about the “Hair Cuttery” chain. So – our question to the Grammar Mavens is: What’s up with “-ery”? And no jiggery-pokery.

A: The suffix “-ery,” which is used to form nouns, first showed up in the Middle English period (originally spelled “-erie”) in words that were adopted from French.

Since then, the suffix has taken on a life of its own and has been used extensively to make new English nouns.

In fact, words with this ending are so numerous and varied that we’ll have to simplify our etymology a bit. That’s because the suffix “-ery” doesn’t have a single function in English—it has many.

First, it might be helpful to back up and look at how this ending was used in French.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, many French nouns ending in -ier or -er designate a person engaged in some occupation, like drapier (a draper, or dealer in cloth).

And words derived from these but with -erie endings sometimes designate the class of goods those people deal in, like draperie (drapery).

In other cases the -erie ending designates an employment or art, like archerie (archery), from archer (an archer). And sometimes it designates a place of business, like boulangerie (bakery), from boulanger (a baker).

Still other French nouns were formed by adding -erie to verbs.

The resulting nouns might mean an action, like braverie (braving), from braver (to brave); or an occupation, like confiserie (confectioner’s business), from confire (to preserve fruits, etc.); or a place of business, like brasserie (brewery), from brasser (to brew).

All these same patterns, and more, were transferred to English. But in English, as in French, the patterns don’t always result in neat triplets like “bake,” “baker,” and “bakery.”

For example, the “-ery” in “nunnery” adds the sense of a residence or community—a place where nuns live. The same is true for “rookery”—a place where rooks (crows) live.

Often, “-ery” designates “the place where an employment is carried on, as bakery, brewery, fishery, pottery,” the OED says.

And occasionally, it designates “classes of goods, as confectionery, ironmongery, pottery.

By analogy, the OED adds, sometimes the suffix adds the sense of “-ware,” “-stuff,” or the like, “as in crockery, machinery, scenery.”

Such nouns, Oxford says, ”sometimes (though rarely) signify a state or condition, as slavery.”

But more often “the force of the suffix is ‘that which is characteristic of, all that is connected,’ in most cases with contemptuous implication, as in knavery, monkery, popery.”

In yet other English nouns, the “-ery” ending denotes a “place where certain animals are kept or certain plants cultivated, as piggery, rookery, swannery, vinery.”

And the OED says that in modern usage, particularly in the US, the example of “bakery” has been extended to form such words as “beanery, bootery, boozery, breadery, cakery, carwashery, drillery, drinkery, eatery, hashery, lunchery, mendery, toggery, wiggery.”

And now, apparently, we can add “horsery” to the list!

As for “jiggery-pokery,” that’s a late-19th-century colloquialism meaning, more or less, humbug.

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Whom truths

Q: Which is correct, “who” or “whom,” in the following sentence? “It involves all girls, of all races and backgrounds, many of who/whom are held back by societal barriers.”

A: It should be “whom.” The clause at the end of that sentence should read “ … many of whom are held back by societal barriers.”

As you know, a clause has its own subject and verb. In this clause, the subject is “many,” and the verb is “are.”

Don’t be misled by “of whom” in phrases like “many of whom,” “several of whom,” “most of whom,” “all of whom,” “few of whom,” “one of whom,” and so on.

The subject in such a phrase is what precedes “of.” The prepositional phrase beginning with “of” merely modifies the subject.

Grammarians say that in phrases like these, a word such as “some” or “many” is a quantifier; it expresses quantity. And the prepositional phrase “of whom” functions as a partitive; it hints at the whole of which only a part is being referred to.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language gives several examples of this kind of “preposition + whom” construction: “some of whom, all/both/many/few/none/two of whom, etc.”

In his book Essentials of English Grammar, Otto Jespersen illustrates the partitive use of the preposition “of” with these examples: “He had two daughters, both of whom were married. … He had two daughters, one of whom married a judge.”

A simpler way to look at all this might be to compare a similar clause: “Many of them are held back by societal barriers.”

Here too, the subject is “many,” and the prepositional phrase “of them” is a partitive.

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Guess who’s coming to dinner

Q: Would you ever use “Who are …” in a question? I always say “Who is …” even if I know the answer will be plural. For example, I’d say, “Who’s coming to dinner?” and not “Who are coming to dinner?”

A: We found an interesting juxtaposition of “who is” and “who are” in an old book, Richard Marsh’s Frivolities (1899). One character says, “It is they who are coming,” and the other replies, “And pray who is coming?”

The convention here is that in an interrogative sentence—one that asks a question—“who” (as well as “what”) is generally used with a singular verb, even when it’s understood that the pronoun refers to more than one person (or thing).

If the sentence were turned around and made declarative (that is, a statement rather than a question), a pronoun understood to be plural would be used with a plural verb.

That’s why we say things like “Who is [singular] complaining?” … “They’re the people who are [plural] complaining.” And “Who is [singular] at that table over there?” … “You must mean my neighbors, who are [plural] at the table by the door.”

As Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans write in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, “An interrogative pronoun is usually treated as a singular. That is, we may say who is coming? and what is in the box? regardless of how many people or things are to be expected.”

Note the word “usually” there, because this is not a universal rule with interrogative pronouns. The interrogative “who” is used with a plural verb, for instance, when plural elements are present. Examples: “Who are they?” … “Who are your favorite authors?”

The Evanses’ guide, by the way, was first published in the 1950s, but it’s still “contemporary” and sensible, and it’s worth picking up if you spot it in a sale of old books.

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What’s with “I can’t with”?

Q: I’m writing about an expression I’ve just started noticing: the use of “I can’t with” to mean “I can’t deal with” something. I won’t ask if this is a thing (another useful and seemingly recent usage), since it clearly is, but how long has it been one?

A: You’re right. A lot of people are using the expression “I can’t with” in the sense of “I can’t deal with” someone or something. 

Here are a few recent examples from Google searches: “I can’t with this show!” … “I can’t with this cat” … “I can’t with my stupid family sometimes” … “I can’t with these people on this site.”

So, yes, it’s a thing, and if saving a word is useful, then perhaps it’s a useful thing. And as you suggest, it’s a recent usage, though perhaps not as recent as you may think.

In Susane Colasanti’s young-adult novel Waiting for You (2009), for example, the narrator complains about “the weirdo spaced-out people” on the subway, and says, “I can’t with them.”

And in “Here and There,” a short story in David Foster Wallace’s collection Girl With Curious Hair (1996), the narrator says: “All the time I thought of her constantly—but she says ‘My feelings have changed, what can I do, I can’t with Bruce anymore.’ ”

Although it’s been around for a while, it’s hard to pin down exactly when this usage showed up. People routinely drop verbs after “can’t,” complicating database searches for “I can’t with.”

When “can” or “can’t” is used as an auxiliary (that is, a helping verb), the main verb is often dropped when the auxiliary is repeated. Here’s an example: “I can deal with your family, but I can’t with mine.”

This is standard English. But in the usage you’ve asked about, the main verb never appears. The auxiliary does all the work.

You won’t find this sense of “I can’t with” in standard references, but it’s definitely out there. And if enough people use it, we may be seeing it in dictionaries someday.

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Vaganza: a mini-extravaganza?

Q: You’re pretty good on negative words like “gruntled” that don’t have positive versions. How about extraordinary words that don’t have ordinary versions? For example, “extravaganza” when a single “vaganza” just isn’t enough.

A: Just when we think we’ve been asked everything under the sun! Unfortunately, you won’t find the word “vaganza” in standard dictionaries (too bad!), though that won’t stop you from getting thousands of hits for it in Google searches.

We’ve seen it used as a synonym for “extravaganza” (“Home Vaganza: Home of Extravaganza Design”) as well as an oomphless version of it (“Just a regular vaganza”).

In fact, the prefix “extra-” (or at any rate its spelling) crept into “extravaganza” by the back door. Here’s the story.

Our word “extravaganza” was borrowed from the Italian estravaganza, which means oddness, peculiarity, or eccentricity of behavior—in other words, extravagance. Today, the Italian word is more commonly stravaganza.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, when English glommed onto the Italian estravaganza in the 18th century, it was “refashioned” into “extravaganza,” giving it the Latin prefix “extra-.”

It must have seemed natural to English speakers to begin the word with “extra-” rather than “estra-.”

The earlier words “extravagance” and “extravagant” had the “ex,” and so did the words they came from—the French extravagance and extravagant, and the medieval Latin noun and adjective extravagantem.

Since the Italian alphabet has no “x,” Italian words prefixed with the Latin extra- are instead spelled estra-. So you might say that when English borrowed estravaganza, it gave it back the “x.”

The OED says that in its original English sense, “extravaganza” was “bombastic extravagance of language or behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a review in a 1754 issue of the journal Connoisseur: “Thalia … was … with difficulty restrained from falling into ridiculous drolleries, and what our author calls extravaganzas in her manner.”

A few decades later, according to the OED, the word was used to mean “a composition, literary, musical or dramatic, of an extravagant or fantastic character.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this sense of “extravaganza” is from Thomas James Mathias’s satirical poem The Pursuits of Literature (1797).

In a footnote, Mathias identified a now forgotten writer, Maurice Morgan, as “author of the pleasant Extravaganza on the Courage of Sir John Falstaff.”

Matthew Arnold used the word in the same sense in 1873, when he wrote in his essay Literature and Dogma: “The difference between the grandeur of an extravaganza and the grandeur of the sea or the sky.”

Nowadays we also use “extravaganza” loosely for any over-the-top production or display, like a wildly extravagant party. (We’ve found no evidence, though, of a boring event being described as a “subvaganza.”)

By the way, the literal sense of “extravagant”—wandering out of bounds, straying beyond the limits—is reflected in the medieval Latin verb it came from, extravagari.

The Latin roots are extra- (beyond or outside) and vagari (to wander). Although you won’t find the noun “vaganza” in dictionaries, something resembling it is cited in the OED:

In her book The Wandering Scholars (1927), Helen Jane Waddell coined the term “vagantes” to mean “the scholar monks who travelled about Europe in the Middle Ages.”

Perhaps medieval monks who wandered out of bounds could be called “extravagantes.”

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: “derecho” and other weather terms.

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Shall we segue?

Q: I think the verb “segue” means to move gradually or smoothly from one subject to another. But the chairman of a board I serve on never changes a topic without saying, “Let’s segue to X.” This irritates me, as I think an abrupt change isn’t a segue. Am I right or do I owe her a mental apology? Also, an educated person recently used the word “segway” in writing to me (not in reference to the scooter). Is this acceptable?

A: Most of the standard dictionaries we checked say the verb “segue” in its non-musical sense means to move smoothly and uninterruptedly from one subject to another.

For example, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the verb this way:

“1. Music To make a transition directly from one section or theme to another.

“2. To move smoothly and unhesitatingly from one state, condition, situation, or element to another: ‘Daylight segued into dusk’ (Susan Dworski).”

Does one have to move gradually, as you believe? Not necessarily. It’s OK to move directly from one subject to another as long as it’s done smoothly.

Is your board chairman moving smoothly from subject to subject when she says “Let’s segue to X”? It’s a judgment call, but we’d give her the benefit of the doubt.

You also asked if “segue” can be spelled “segway” (like the vehicle with two wheels).

The only dictionary we found that mentions this variant spelling, the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed.), calls it “a frequent misspelling of segue.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “segue” directly from Italian, where segue is the third person present singular of the verb seguire (to follow). It was initially used—and still is—as a musical direction (“segue the lieder” = “the lieder follows”).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1740 translation of a French musical dictionary: “Segue, it follows, or comes after; this word is often found before aria, alleluja, amen.”

In the mid-20th century, the verb came to mean “to move without interruption from one song or melody to another.” (Oddly, the OED considers this sense of the word slang, though standard dictionaries include it without comment.)

The dictionary’s first citation is from The Decca Book of Jazz (1958), by Peter Gammond: “Then, without stopping, the guitarist and Ellington segued into Body and Soul.”

The first example in the OED of the verb used in a nonmusical way is from George Baxt’s 1972 murder mystery Burning Sappho: “The crowds … let up a roar which soon segued into a mixture of cheers, jeers, jests, gibes.”

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