The Grammarphobia Blog

Nose piece

Q: Why isn’t there a word that by itself means blow the nose? This is such a common act that there ought to be one word to take the place of three. You agree? I suggest “honk.”

A: There is such a word, or at least there was (and it wasn’t “honk”). The unlovely word “snot” was once a verb meaning to blow one’s nose. Really!

The verb “snot,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was derived from the noun, which has roots in old Germanic languages.

In the early 1400s, when the noun was first recorded, it meant both “the burnt part of a candle-wick” and “the mucus of the nose.”

What’s the connection here? As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, there was “possibly a perceived resemblance between an extinguished candlewick and a piece of nasal mucus.” His words, not ours.

The verb “snot,” the OED informs us, was first recorded in English at about the same time as the noun. When it originally appeared, it meant “to snuff (a candle),” Oxford says. So to “snot” a candle meant to put it out.

In the 1500s, according to the OED, the verb was first recorded with the other meaning—“to blow or clear (the nose).” So to “snot” one’s nose was to blow it.

The earliest use in writing for the nasal meaning comes from a 1576 translation of Giovanni della Casa’s Il Galateo, a treatise on manners:

 “They spare not to snot their sniueld noses vppon them.” (The word written as “sniueld” is “sniveled”; to “snivel” originally meant to run at the nose.)

The OED also has two 17th-century citations from old dictionaries.

This one is from an Italian-English dictionary dated 1611: “Smozzicare … to snot ones nose.” And this is from a French-English dictionary dated 1632: “To snot (or blow) his nose, se moucher le nez.”

Sometimes the nose-blowing was involuntary, if this 1653 example, from a translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, is any indication: “Then he … sneezed and snotted himself.”

Since the subject is noses, you might be interested in knowing that many English words that start with “sn-” have something to do with the nose, and in the languages they came from, they probably echoed the sound of air passing noisily through the nostrils.

Words thought to have imitative or onomatopoeic origins include “snot,” “snore,” “snort,” “snout,” “schnoz,” “sneeze,” “snoot,” “snooty” (in the sense of looking down one’s nose), and the 20th-century word “snorkel” for a breathing tube. Also “snuff” and “snuffle,” “sniff” and “sniffle,” and the aforementioned “snivel.”

As we’ve written before on our blog, words like these have origins in prehistoric Germanic roots that are believed to echo nasal sounds and are associated with breathing, blowing, or sneezing.

We can’t end this treatise on nose-blowing without mentioning that old snot joke from childhood. Pat’s version: “I thought it was a booger, but it’s snot.” Stewart’s: “It looks like mucus, but it’s snot.”

And here’s an even sillier version we found online: “Don’t kiss your honey when your nose is runny. You may think it’s funny but it’s snot.”  

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Disorganized crime

Q: I am having a hard time finding the real difference between “disorganized” and “unorganized,” but I know you can make this clear to me.

A: We can see why you’re confused. There’s a lot of overlap between the terms “disorganized” and “unorganized.” They’re often defined in terms of one another.

In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for instance, one definition of “disorganized” is “not organized,” while one definition of “unorganized” is “disorganized.”

But there are differences, too. And as far as the differences go, something that’s disorganized is usually worse off than something that’s simply unorganized.

A committee that’s “unorganized” could be one that hasn’t yet been formed, while a committee that’s “disorganized” is in disarray.

The definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary mention the chaos that can characterize the “disorganized” state.

The OED defines “disorganized” as “deprived or destitute of organization; having lost, or being without, organic connection or systematic arrangement; thrown into confusion, disordered.”

But the OED entry for “unorganized” doesn’t entail confusion and disorder. It defines the term this way: “Not formed into an orderly or regulated whole.”

The dictionary adds that “unorganized” can also refer to workers or to companies that aren’t unionized.

Interestingly, the terms “disorganized” and “unorganized,” as well as the verb “organize,” are ultimately derived from organon, a Greek term for a tool, a musical instrument, and a body part, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Greek organon has given English the words for a pipe organ as well as a body organ.

When the noun “organ” showed up in early Old English, the OED says, it referred to “any of various ancient musical, esp. wind, instruments.”

By the late 1300s, the term was being used for a pipe organ. And in the early 1400s, it took on the sense of a body organ.

When the verb “organize” entered English in the 1400s, according to the OED, it was a medical and biological term.

As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, “This originally denoted literally ‘furnish with organ so as to form into a living being,’ and hence ‘provide with a co-ordinated structure.’ ”

The verb didn’t take on its modern meaning (“to become organized; to assume an organized structure”) until the late 1800s, according to the OED.

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A sense of wonder

Q: I was typing out dialogue for a play, and wrote this sentence: “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle?” I see dialogue like this all the time, written as if the speaker is asking a question. But then it struck me; is this truly a question? Should it be punctuated with a question mark or a period?

A: Obviously, someone who wonders about something has a question on his mind.

But a sentence beginning “I wonder” is a statement, not a question, and a statement should end with a period: “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle.” (In case any readers are wondering, we’ll discuss “who” versus “whom” later.)

This is an example of an indirect question, and as The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says, “An indirect question never takes a question mark.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples of indirect questions: “He wondered whether it was worth the risk” and “How the two could be reconciled was the question on everyone’s mind.”

This is a subject we touched on in 2010, but it’s worth mentioning again.

Sometimes a mini-question (like the single word “who,” “when,” “how,” or “why”) is embedded within a statement. Here, too, no question mark is used, though the word may be italicized.

The Chicago Manual illustrates this with two examples: “She asked herself why” and “The question was no longer how but when.”

Similarly, as Chicago says, “A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark.”

A typical example: “Would you kindly respond by March 1.”

So much for indirect questions. But as conscientious language mavens, we should mention one other point about your sentence, “I wonder who they’ll move into Mr. Anderson’s cubicle.”

A purist would remind you that technically, the grammatical construction calls for “whom” instead of “who.” But we believe that “who” can be defended here.

As we’ve written before on our blog, in speech or in casual writing it can seem stuffy and unnatural to begin a sentence or clause with “whom.” So in what appears to be an informal office conversation, you can certainly justify your use of “who” instead.

By the way, the verb “wonder” is very old, dating back to
Anglo-Saxon days. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Alfred’s translation of Boethius into Old English, circa 888, when “to wonder” meant to be struck with surprise or astonishment.

The noun “wonder” is even older, according to OED citations, first appearing in “Caedmon’s Hymn,” an Old English poem from around 700, when it referred to something that causes astonishment.

The noun (wunder in Old English) is similar to words in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, and other Germanic languages.

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Why does “fridge” have a “d”?

Q: Who put the “d” in “fridge”? If it’s short for “refrigerator,” why isn’t it “frig”?

A: Although most dictionaries list “fridge” as the only spelling for this abbreviated version of “refrigerator,” a few do indeed include the “d”-less version “frig” as a variant spelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, has only the “fridge” spelling, while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes “frig” as a variant.

Some American dictionaries describe the “frig” spelling as British, but all the British dictionaries we’ve checked (Macmillan, Collins, Longman, etc.) list only “fridge” for the short form of “refrigerator.”

Interestingly, the earliest written example for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary uses the “frig” spelling (plus an apostrophe). In fact, five of the eight OED examples spell the term without the “d” (some with and some without the apostrophe).

The first “frig” citation in Oxford is from E. F. Spanner’s 1926 novel Broken Trident: “Best part of our stuff here is chilled, and with no ’frig plant working, the mercury will climb like a rocket.”

The earliest “fridge” cite is from Frame-Up, a 1935 crime novel by Collin Brooks: “Do you mean that you keep a dead body in a fridge waiting for the right moment to bring her out?”

The OED has examples of “frig” from as recently as 1960. Here’s one from The Quiet American, the 1955 novel by Graham Greene: “We haven’t a frig—we send out for ice.”

Although “fridge” is either the only spelling or the preferred one in the eight US or UK dictionaries we checked, a bit of googling finds that “frig” is not exactly cooling its heels today. Here are just a few of the many examples posted over the last year:

“Frig not cooling, freezer is fine” … “Looking for built-in frig with crushed ice / water dispenser” … “Frig not cold anymore. What can i do?” … “Freezer works but frig not cold” … “Freezer Semi Cold, Frig Warm.”

A similarly spelled verb, “frig,” which most dictionaries describe as vulgar slang, has more to do with heating than cooling. It means to have sexual intercourse or masturbate. (The present participle, “frigging,” is often used as an intensifier.)

How are all these frigging words pronounced? Well, the verb “frig” rhymes with “prig,” but the nouns spelled “frig” and “fridge” both rhyme with “bridge.” And “frigging” rhymes with “digging,” though it’s often spelled and pronounced friggin’.

The OED describes “fridge” as a colloquial abbreviation for “refrigerator,” and suggests that the “frig” spelling may have been influenced by the brand name “Frigidaire” (a play on “frigid air”).

We can’t tell from the published examples in the OED (or some earlier ones in Google Books) who originated the “frig” and “fridge” spellings. But we can speculate about why “fridge” has become the dominant spelling.

First of all, the natural pronunciation of “fridge” matches the way the second syllable sounds in “refrigerator.”

Although “frig” is pronounced the same way as “fridge” when it means a refrigerator, the natural pronunciation of “frig” would be like that of the naughty verb we mentioned above.

Our guess is that English speakers generally prefer the “fridge” spelling because they instinctively pronounce it the way the letters f-r-i-g sound in “refrigerator.”

We’ll end with a few lines from Ray Charles’s recording of Louis Jordan’s blues hit “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”:

“Let me tell you, honey
We gonna move away from here
I don’t need no iceman
I’m gonna get you a Frigidaire.”

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We’re not stymied

Q: I heard a word the other day that I hadn’t heard in years—“stymie.” I also seem to remember that Stymie was a Kentucky Derby winner. Is the horse the source of the word?

A: No, the word “stymie” doesn’t come from the name of the chestnut that won quite a few races in the 1940s (though not the Derby). However, “stymie” does have a sporting pedigree.

In golf, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), a “stymie” refers to a situation “in which an opponent’s ball obstructs the line of play of one’s own ball on the putting green.”

When the word entered English in the early 1800s, it referred to a now-defunct rule in golf. This is how the original “stymie” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“An opponent’s ball which lies on the putting green in a line between the ball of the player and the hole he is playing for, if the distance between the balls is not less than six inches.”

In singles match play, according to the old rule, a golfer had to putt around (or perhaps over) a stymie. The old rule was abandoned in 1952, allowing a golfer to pick up the obstructing ball regardless of distance.

The OED’s earliest citation for the noun is from the 1834 rules of the Musselburgh Golf Club in Scotland: “With regard to Stimies the ball nearest the hole if within six inches shall be lifted.”

The verb, which showed up two decades later, originally meant to “put (one’s opponent or oneself) into the position of having to negotiate a stymie.”

Oxford’s first citation for the verb is from an 1857 monograph about golf: “The ball stimying may be lifted if within six inches of that of the player, until the stroke is done.”

By the early 1900s, the OED says, the verb was being used figuratively in the sense of to “impede, obstruct, frustrate, thwart (a person, an activity, or a project).”

The first citation for “stymie” used this way is from The Girl Proposition, a Bunch of He and She Fables (1902), by George Ade: “In about 8 minutes he had the Regular Fellow stymied and Hazel was leaning against him.”

Where does “stymie” come from? The OED suggests that it’s derived from the Scottish term stymie, meaning “One who does not see well.”

American Heritage adds that it might ultimately come from another Scottish term, styme, as in the phrase “to se nocht ane styme, not to see a glimmer (of something).”

We’ll end with an example from Mulliner Nights, a 1933 collection of short stories by one of our favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse: There came the shrill cry of a Hunting Bishop stymied by a hat-stand.”

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Equatorial currents

Q: When did “Ecuadoran” become “Ecuadorian”? Why do we need “Ecuadorian”? It sounds illiterate, Bushlike.

A: We’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news, but we checked half a dozen dictionaries and none of them consider “Ecuadoran” the preferred  English adjective or noun for Ecuador and its citizens.

Most of the dictionaries list “Ecuadorian” as the standard noun and adjective. The most common alternative given is the spelling variant “Ecuadorean.”

The two standard dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—don’t include “Ecuadoran” as a variant. Neither does the Oxford English Dictionary.  

We could find only two standard dictionaries that consider “Ecuadoran” a variant spelling: the Collins English Dictionary and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

In the OED’s entry for “Ecuadorian,” the earliest example of the adjective (defined as “of, belonging to, or characteristic of Ecuador”) is from an 1860 issue of The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London.

The earliest example of the noun (“a native or inhabitant of Ecuador”) is from an 1861 issue of the same journal.

Though the spellings do vary a bit in the OED’s earliest examples (“Equatorian,” “Ecuatoreans,” etc.), the number of syllables is consistent, and all entries end in either “-ian” or
“-ean.”

As the OED explains, the suffixes “-ian” and “-an” are used to form adjectives and nouns that convey the meaning “of or belonging to.” Some words have the extra letter (“Parisian,” “Bostonian,” “Italian”) and some use the shorter “-an” suffix (“American,” “Ohioan,” “Roman”).

Not surprisingly, the word ecuador is Spanish for “equator,” the imaginary circle that divides the earth into northern and southern hemispheres. And Ecuador is one of 14 countries through which the equator passes.

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Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

Q: I have a Thanksgiving question: Why is a turkey leg called a “drumstick”? Why not a “club” or a “bat” or a “bowling pin”?

A: You’re right. The leg of a turkey isn’t as long and skinny as a real drumstick. Even the bone alone isn’t quite like a drumstick—it has big knobs at each end instead of a single knob or padded head.

So calling this part of the bird a  “drumstick” seems to be stretching a metaphor. But why use a metaphor at all?

Etymologists think that people started calling this part of a fowl the  “drumstick” because the word “leg” wasn’t polite table talk in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Neither were the words “thigh” and “breast,” so discreet (OK, prudish) diners referred to them as “dark meat” and “white meat.”

Sometimes the breast of the turkey was referred to as—ahem—the “bosom.” And occasionally the term “upper joint” was used instead of “thigh,” and “lower joint” or “limb” instead of “leg.”

Yes, really. There actually was a time when “leg,” “breast,” and “thigh” were considered too coarse for the ears of ladies and unfit for mixed company.

The word  “drumstick,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used in the mid-18th century  to mean “the lower joint of the leg of a dressed fowl.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Samuel Foote’s play The Mayor of Garret (1764): “She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies.”

Our fellow word maven Hugh Rawson recently discussed
dinner-table euphemisms like these on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog.

As he writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century, drumstick was being used by the authors of cookbooks, and it eventually was lumped in with other dinner-table euphemisms.”

Rawson cites a lecture, “The Laws of Disorder,” by the Unitarian minister and speaker Thomas Starr King, who died in 1864: “There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for drumsticks.”

Such terms, particularly in America, made table talk easier for everyone, Rawson explains: “Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of ‘breast meat,’ dark meat instead of a ‘thigh’ and a drumstick in place of a ‘leg’ saved embarrassment all around.

The 19th-century British novelist and naval captain Frederick Marryat pokes fun at this kind of squeamishness in Peter Simple (1834). In one episode, Rawson points out, the novel’s hero describes a dinner party on the island of Barbados.

“It was my fate to sit opposite a fine turkey, and I asked my partner if I should have the pleasure of helping her to a piece of breast. She looked at me very indignantly, and said ‘Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! – really quite horrid.’ ”

The OED cites another example from Marryat’s works as an example of “limb” as a euphemism for “leg,” a usage it describes as “now only (esp. U.S.) in mock-modest or prudish use.”

In his book A Diary in America: With Remarks on Its Institutions (1839), Marryat says a young American woman told him that “leg” was not used before ladies; the polite term was “limb.” She added: “I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte.”

That example, like several others from the OED, seems to have been used with humorous intent.

For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his novel Elsie Venner (1861), has this bit of dinner-table conversation: “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the—under limb?”

And John S. Farmer, in his Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1885), uses this illustration: “Between you’n me, red stockings ain’t becomin’ to all—ahem—limbs.”

Euphemistic language has proven itself useful, not just at the dinner table. It comes in handy for swearing, too.

We’ve written before on our blog about euphemistic oaths like “doggone it,” and “gosh a’mighty,” milder substitutes for “God damn it” and “God almighty.”

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Putting an adverb in its place

Q: An über-editor at the New York Times recently criticized the placement of “also” in this sentence from the paper: “Among them are Facebook and Google, which also have redesigned their hardware.” He wrote on a Times blog that “it’s smoother to place the adverb between parts of the verb: ‘which have also redesigned.’ ” Always? Your thoughts?

A: Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, made his comment on the paper’s After Deadline blog, which is adapted from a weekly newsroom critique he oversees.

What do we think of the advice he offers in his Oct. 2, 2012, posting?

Well, it’s true that “also” often sounds better between the parts of a verb phrase (“have also redesigned”). But there’s no rule that says “also” can’t come first (“also have redesigned”).

In fact, many writers deliberately put “also” and other adverbs before both the auxiliary and main verb in a misguided effort to avoid splitting a verb phrase.

As we say on our Language Myths page, the belief that it’s wrong to split the parts of a verb phrase is a byproduct of the infamous myth against splitting an infinitive.

However, the question of where to place “also” in a sentence like the one cited on the Times blog can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

In an informal survey of Google Books, scholarly journals, and general writing on the Web, we found no single pattern for the placement of “also” in relation to verb phrases.

Educated writers use “also” before verb phrases, in the middle of them, and even at the beginning of sentences.

In our opinion, the best place to put “also” is where it seems most natural and makes the most sense.

The linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say that “only rather broad and approximate flexible generalisations” can be made about the placement and order of adverbs.

“There is a great deal of variation in use,” Huddleston and Pullum write in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “and features of context, style, prosody, and euphony play a role in some decisions.”

They say that adverbs like “always,” “usually,” “often,” “sometimes,” “never,” “possibly,” “probably,” and “certainly” tend to precede a single verb (as in “they probably go”) and to follow an auxiliary (“they have probably gone”).

But they note that these adverbs can sometimes precede the auxiliary in verb phrases (as in, “they probably have gone”).

The position of the adverb here affects its “emphatic polarity”—that is, the part of the sentence that the adverb influences.

As for “also,” Huddleston and Pullum describe it as a “focusing modifier” because it can focus on different parts of the sentence.

Sometimes, however, it’s not clear which part “also” is focusing on. The Cambridge Grammar illustrates this ambiguity with the example “Jill had also attended the history seminar.”

As the authors point out, that sentence can be interpreted in different ways. Does it mean Jill, as well as other people, attended? Or that she attended other seminars too? Or perhaps that she did other things besides attending a seminar?

In that example, “also” is unavoidably ambiguous. It wouldn’t have helped much to move it around. But sometimes the placement of “also” makes a difference.

Take, for instance, the phrases “also have worked” and “have also worked.” We can imagine sentences in which one might be preferred over the other:

(1) “I have traveled in Italy, and I also have worked there.” (Here, “also” focuses on the entire verb phrase “have worked” rather than on the main verb, “worked.” As a result, the two verb phrases, “have traveled” and “have worked” are parallel.)

 (2) “I have worked in Greece, and I have also worked in Italy.” (Here, “also” focuses on the main verb “worked,” emphasizing that the writer has worked in two different countries. So the two phrase “worked in Greece” and “worked in Italy” are parallel.)

We’re talking about subtle differences. And other writers might prefer “also” in different places in those sentences. The point is that moving “also” can change its focus, its orientation to one part of a sentence or another.

As we noted above, the use of “also” with a verb phrase is often ambiguous. And it’s ambiguous in that sentence from the Times: “Among them are Facebook and Google, which also have redesigned their hardware.”

Have companies OTHER than Facebook and Google redesigned their hardware? Or have Facebook and Google redesigned things OTHER than their hardware?

Here’s the entire paragraph, from a Sept. 22, 2012, article about how Internet data centers pollute the environment:

“A few companies say they are using extensively re-engineered software and cooling systems to decrease wasted power. Among them are Facebook and Google, which also have redesigned their hardware. Still, according to recent disclosures, Google’s data centers consume nearly 300 million watts and Facebook’s about 60 million watts.”

Sometimes context can help clear up an ambiguity. But in this case, the context doesn’t help. We still can’t tell where the emphasis of “also” belongs.

If the reporter means that Facebook and Google, like some other companies, have revamped their software and cooling systems, that sentence could simply read “Among them are Facebook and Google.” Period.

But you know what? At some point, questions like this make us cross-eyed. And that point has been reached!

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Did Winston want discipline?

Q: I was listening to a Churchill biography in which someone older says Winston wants discipline. In fact, that’s the last thing he wanted. But the context suggests that “wants” here means both “lacks” and “needs.” Is this a British usage?

A: We think so, and so do two of the UK dictionaries we checked (Collins and Macmillan), which describe it as “mainly British.”

Collins, for example, gives this example of the British usage: “your shoes want cleaning.”

However, all the US dictionaries we consulted include, without qualification, “need” and “lack” among the definitions of the verb “want”—that is, they consider those meanings standard American English.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives this example: “the motor wants a tune-up.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives this one: “ ‘Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter” (Lewis Carroll).

Of course that American Heritage example is from a British writer. And we see the “need” and “lack” senses of “want” a lot more in British writing than in American.

In fact, all but one of the 14 citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for the “lack” sense are from British writers. And all of the OED’s 21 citations for the “need” sense are British.

“Etymologically,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “to want something is to ‘lack’ it (a sense still intact in the noun want).”

As Ayto explains, the common contemporary sense of the verb (to desire to have or do something) “is a secondary extension” of the earlier “lack” usage.

He says English adopted “want” from vanta, an Old Norse verb meaning to lack, which in turn came from a prehistoric Germanic word reconstructed as wanaton (lacking).

The ultimate source of “want,” according to Ayto, is the prehistoric Indo-European root wan, which has also given English the verb “wane.”

The OED says the verb “want” entered English around 1200 with the “lack” sense, which the dictionary defines this way: “Not to have; to be without, to lack; to have too little of; to be destitute of, or deficient in; to fail to have, or get.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from the Ormulum, a collection of Middle English homilies explaining biblical texts: “All thatt wannteth cristess hald / All sinnketh inn till helle.” (We’ve changed the runic letter thorn to “th.”)

The OED defines the “need” sense, which appeared in the late 1400s, this way: “To suffer the want of; to have occasion for, need, require; to stand in need of (something salutary, but often not desired).”

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (circa 1591): Oh welcome Oxford, for we want thy helpe.”

Although Americans sometimes say things like “The house wants cleaning,” they usually say “The house needs cleaning” or “The house needs to be cleaned.”

We wrote a post on the blog some time ago about a related regional usage in the US: “The house needs cleaned.”

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Not for the squeamish?

Q: A colleague and I are debating whether “of” is a proper preposition to follow “squeamish.” I believe a subject can be “squeamish of” an object. He thinks it should be “squeamish about” it. Thoughts?

A: You’re both right. The Oxford English Dictionary says “squeamish” is normally used with “about,” “as to,” “at,” “of,” “to,” or “toward.”

The adjective began life in the early 1300s as “squeamous,” adopted from the Anglo-Norman escoymous, which the OED describes as “of obscure origin.”

The word with the “-ish” suffix first showed up in the 1400s.

Although both the “-ous” and “-ish” suffixes coexisted for several centuries in various spellings of the word, the versions with “-ous” are now considered obsolete or dialectal.

The adjective meant disdainful or fastidious when it entered English, but it took on the additional sense of easily shocked or prudish in the 1500s.

Here’s the earliest OED example for “squeamish” used with each of its prepositions:

1608: “If we would … not be so squeamish as to refuse those wholesome medicines which are easie to be had.” (From Edward Topsell’s Historie of Serpents; Or, the Second Booke of Living Creatures.)

Before 1625: “If you please sir; I am not squeamish of my visitation.” (From The Womans Prize, a comedy by John Fletcher.)

1654: “Squemish towards the present, and longing for Innovation.” (From Zootomia, a treatise by Richard Whitlock.)

1676: “When they are nice, curious, and squeamish about undetermined circumstances in forms of administration.” (From a speech about religious nonconformists, by William Allen.)

1784: “We found that he was too squeamish to drink turtle’s blood.” (From A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, by James Cook and James King.)

1843: “But now the uneasy stomach of the time / Turns squeamish at them both.” (From “A Glance Behind the Curtain,” a poem by James Russell Lowell.)

We get many questions, both from native speakers of English and from newcomers to the language, about the sometimes perplexing use of prepositions.

The book Words Into Type (3rd ed.), familiar to journalists, has a handy section called “The Right Preposition,” consisting of a long list of words together with the prepositions they usually take. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include “squeamish.”

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Did you early vote?

Q: President Obama “early voted,” or that’s how he put it, rather than “voted early.” And he’s not the only one. A distinction without a difference? Or do we have a new, and rather awkward, phrasal verb crafted out of the noun phrase “early voting”?

A: As you’ve noticed, President Obama isn’t the only person to say he “early voted” after casting a ballot well ahead of the big day. The verb phrase to “early vote” (past tense “early voted”) was all over the airwaves this fall.

As a contributor to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list recently noted, the MSNBC commentator “Rachel Maddow used the verb ‘to early-vote’ and the past participle ‘early-voted’ many times in the week leading up to the election.”

But this wasn’t the first election cycle for the verb “early vote.” The subject came up in the fall of 2008 as well.

Back then the linguist Arnold Zwicky, writing on both the Language Log and the ADS list, commented on usages like “We early voted Friday” and “Thousands line up to early vote.”

Zwicky also noted a few instances of “to absentee vote” (as in “You can also absentee vote this week”) as well as some for “to advance vote.”

What goes on here?

“These formations look to me not like an unusual placement of the modifiers ‘early’ and ‘absentee,’ ” Zwicky wrote in 2008, “but rather like back-formations” from noun phrases like “early voting,” “early voter,” “absentee voting,” and “absentee voter.”

(A back-formation is a new term formed by dropping part of an old one.)

Zwicky explains why he thinks the verb “early vote” makes sense: “There’s a clear advantage to having such a unit, since ‘vote early’ could refer to voting early on election day, while ‘early vote’ refers specifically to institutionalized procedures for voting before election day.”

We agree with Zwicky about the origin of to “early vote”— that it’s a back-formation from the nouns “early voting” and “early voter.”

Since writing about “early vote,” Zwicky has written about similar formations, which he calls “two-part back-formed verbs.”

In a 2009 post on his own blog, he gave dozens of examples, some familiar and some more recent, including “to gay marry” (from “gay marriage”); “to spellbind” (from “spellbinding”); “to bartend” (from “bartender”); “to fence-sit” (from “fence-sitting”); “to air-condition” (from “air-conditioner”); “to offshore drill” (from “offshore drilling”); “to substitute teach” (from “substitute teacher”), and others.

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Vet noire

Q: When did “vetrin” replace “veteran” and “vetrinarian” replace “veterinarian”? This drives me crazy. I hear it on NPR as well as TV news programs. I hope misusage hasn’t corrupted two perfectly good words.

A: Sorry! The title of this post doesn’t make much sense, but we couldn’t resist the pun.

As for your question, those pronunciations may drive you crazy, but they’re not incorrect. Both “veteran” and “veterinarian” have clipped alternate pronunciations that are standard English.

In each case, the word has a longer and a shorter pronunciation, and the shorter loses the second syllable.

So “veteran” can properly be pronounced as three syllables or as two. “Veterinarian” can properly be pronounced as six syllables or as five.

These pronunciations are given as standard in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

By the way, “veteran” and “veterinarian” sound as if they have something in common, and it turns out that they may be distantly related.

The word for an old or experienced soldier came into English in the early 16th century via the Latin adjective veteranus (old), a derivative of vetus (old).

The word for an animal doctor dates back to the mid-17th century and comes from the Latin adjective veterinarius (pertaining to cattle or beasts of burden), which in turn comes from veterinum, the noun for such an animal.

What’s the connection?

Veterinum, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is “perhaps derived from vetus” (old). Connecting the two notions, Chambers says veterinum probably referred to “a beast one year old; possibly also, experienced, or used to work as a draft animal in plowing or pulling.”

Another source, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, speculates that “perhaps” the connection with vetus was “as if the orig. ref. was to animals past work.”

If all this is true, it may be that the original veterinarians got the name because they treated veteran—that is, old or experienced—animals.

One final aside. In case you’re interested, we wrote a post six years ago about the use of “vet” to mean examine or check out. Yes, there’s a connection.

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At the end of the day

Q: The expression “at the end of the day” grates on my ears. I hear it constantly, even from my own lips. At the end of the day, it is what it is: too damn useful to ignore. Perhaps you could say a word about where it comes from and why it’s so prevalent.

A: As a matter of fact, we’ve mentioned “at the end of the day” on the blog a couple of times in discussions about expressions used to death in the media.

As we said in a posting in 2008, a survey in Britain found that “at the end of the day” was the most annoying cliché in the opinion of those polled.

It seems to have aced out its chief competitors in the
summing-up category, “in the final analysis” and “when all is said and done.”

However, we’ve never looked into the origins of this prepositional phrase, so here goes.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “at the end of the day” as a “hackneyed” expression meaning “eventually” or “when all’s said and done.”

The OED has several citations for the published use of the phrase, all dating from the 1970s and ’80s.

The earliest is from Henry McKeating’s book God and the Future (1974): “Eschatological language is useful because it is a convenient way of indicating … what at the end of the day we set most store by.” (The italics are McKeating’s.)

Oxford’s citations also include this one, from Bill Beaumont’s Thanks to Rugby (1982): “But, at the end of the day, it is an amateur sport and everyone is free to put as much or as little into the game as he chooses.”

However, we’ve googled several earlier citations, many from the 20th century but a few extending back into the 19th.

This passage comes from an autobiographical sketch written in 1889 by the scientist Thomas H. Huxley:

“The last thing that it would be proper for me to do would be to speak of the work of my life, or to say at the end of the day whether I think I have earned my wages or not. Men are said to be partial judges of themselves. Young men may be, I doubt if old men are.”

We wouldn’t describe this example of the usage as hackneyed. Huxley, who died in 1895, seems to be using the expression to sum up his life’s work.   

We also found a couple of examples from religious writings published earlier in the 19th century. In both of them, “at the end of the day” seems to be used figuratively in the sense of “when all is said and done,” though it’s possible that the authors may have been using it in a more literal way.

An essay entitled “An Interpretation of the Fourteenth Chapter of the Apocalypse,” published in an 1832 issue of The Morning Watch, a theological quarterly, includes this passage:

“And thus it is that Christ at the end of the day will have his own will in the church … and all the carnality and bondage which hath been in the church shall be proved to be not of him, but of Antichrist. … Ah me! how I long to see it.”

And this one comes from a sermon by the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, published in 1826:

“Christ’s flock is but a little flock, comparatively considered. … They are but little in respect of their numbers. Indeed abstractly considered, at the end of the day, they will make an ‘innumerable company, which no man can number’; but, viewed in comparison of the wicked, they are but few.”

We’re sure that even earlier examples will come to light as old books and other documents are digitized.

Why is this expression so common today? We can’t say. But generally as phrases are used to death, they lose their novelty and new ones spring up to take their places. Perhaps the days are numbered for “at the end of the day.”

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Must a love affair include sex?

Q: I wrote to the New York Times the other day concerning the Sept. 16 obituary of the actor-playwright Jerome Kilty, who wrote a play based on the correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. I pointed out that the obit spuriously described their platonic relationship as an affair. A Times editor responded that an affair does not necessarily have to involve sex. Your thoughts, please?

A: The short answer is that you’re both right. There are good arguments to be made on both sides of this dispute, which we can’t settle one way or the other because dictionary definitions of “affair” disagree on whether sex is involved.

Technically the Times editors are correct, if having the Oxford English Dictionary on your side makes you right.

The OED defines an “affair” in this sense as “a romantic or sexual relationship, often of short duration, between two people who are not married to each other.”

So the OED would agree with the Times that Shaw’s passionate yet nonsexual liaison with Mrs. Campbell, described in Kilty’s play Dear Liar, was an “affair.”

In its definition of the word, the OED adds that specifically the relationship is “(a) one that is carried on illicitly, one or both partners being involved in a relationship with another person; (b) an intense sexual relationship.”

The dictionary adds that the word can mean “a sexual encounter of any of these types.”

However, we must say that most if not all of the OED’s citations for the published use of the word sound as if something is going on between the sheets. You can judge them for yourself.

Oxford’s earliest example is from William Congreve’s play The Way of the World (1700): “I got a Friend to … complement her with the Imputation of an Affair with a young Fellow, which I carry’d so far, that I told her the malicious Town took notice that she was grown fat of a suddain.”

When a woman’s “affair” results in sudden weight gain, one suspects sex was involved.

Here are the OED’s other citations:

1732: “In our Dialect a vicious Man is a Man of pleasure … a Lady is said to have an affair, a Gentleman to be gallant, a Rogue in business to be one that knows the World.” (From George Berkeley’s philosophical dialogue Alciphron.)

1762: “Why, then, do you pursue your affair with Araminta; and not find some honourable means of breaking off with her?” (From William Whitehead’s play The School for Lovers.)

1825: “Ovid … discovered some incestuous affair in the imperial family, and was banished from Rome for life.” (From the Encyclopedia Londinensis.)

1888: “I shall let the liaison run its course—it will be very amusing & not as costly as an affair with a regular horizontale.” (From a letter by the English poet and novelist Ernest Dowson, describing a singer he had picked up in a music hall.)

1933: “We could carry on a backstairs affair for weeks without saying a word about it.” (From Noel Coward’s play Design for Living.)

1965: “The story of his affair with Mother. … It’s hot stuff, as we used to say at school.” (From David Lodge’s novel The British Museum Is Falling Down.)

2005: “What kind of a sophisticated guy in his fifties doesn’t have an affair? It’s basically mandatory.” (From Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty.)

You see what we mean. The bulk of those references appear to be sexual rather than romantic.

The use of “affair” to mean a romantic or sexual relationship was preceded by the longer phrase “affair of love,” described by the OED as now somewhat archaic.

“Affair of love,” first recorded in 1574, is defined as “(a) a matter or experience connected with love,” usually used in the plural, or “(b) a romantic or sexual relationship between two people in love.” It can also mean “a sexual encounter.”

A term first recorded in 1710, “affair of the heart,” is defined in the OED as “a matter concerning romantic love; a love affair.”

And “love affair,” dating from 1767, is defined as “a romantic or sexual relationship between two people in love.”

By the way, the faux-French phrase “affaire d’amour” would be meaningless in France, where an affaire is a business deal, not a romance.

As we write in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, “affaire d’amour” is simply a froufrou version of “love affair.”

Getting back to your question, an “affair of the heart” does sound as if it could be an innocent romance, conducted fully clothed. But we think most people would assume an “affair” or a “love affair” has a sexual component.

However, we can’t support this with solid evidence; it’s mere intuition, which doesn’t count for much.

Standard dictionaries are split on the issue of whether the principals in an “affair” are actually having sex.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “affair” in its romantic sense this way: “A sexual relationship between two people, especially when at least one of them is married or in another committed romantic relationship.”

The Macmillan Dictionary, in both its American and British editions, agrees: “A sexual relationship between two people, especially when one of them is married to someone else.”

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this broader definition: “A romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration.”

And Webster’s New World College Dictionary (the Times’s house dictionary) also takes a broader view: “An amorous relationship between two people not married to each other; an amour.”

So the word “affair” will have to be allowed to retain some of its mystery.

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A recipe for success

Q: I recently became hooked on Downton Abbey, where I heard the word “receipt” used for a cooking “recipe.” I looked the words up online and learned that a “receipt” was once a “recipe.” When and how did “receipt” become “recipe”?

A: You’re right that a “receipt” was once a “recipe,” but the relationship between these two words isn’t as simple as that.

When the word “receipt” entered English sometime before 1349, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, it simply meant the act of receiving something.

Although English adapted the word from Anglo-Norman and Old French, it’s ultimately derived from the Latin recipere (to receive).

By the 1390s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “receipt” referred to “the amount, sum, or quantity of something received.” That “something” could be money, food, or medicine.

Before the end of the 1390s, the word “receipt” (spelled “resceyte”) was being used in the sense of a medical prescription.

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage is from John Trevisa’s 1397 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedia written in Latin by Bartholomeus Anglicus:

“In alle goode resceytes and medicyns amomum is ofte y-do.” (“In all good receipts and medicines amomum [an aromatic plant] is often put.”)

It wasn’t until 1585, according to OED citations, that “receipt” was recorded in a new sense—a “written or printed acknowledgement of receiving something, esp. of the payment of money.”

Ten years later, Oxford says, “receipt” took on the meaning you ask about: “A statement of the ingredients and procedure required for making a dish or an item of food or drink.”

The dictionary has written examples of the word used in this sense from 1595 to 1993, but the last few citations seem to be referring to a usage from the past, and the OED says this meaning is now considered historical.

The two most recent published references that clearly use “receipt” to mean a contemporary recipe are from the early 20th century.

Henry James, in his 1903 novel The Ambassadors, writes: “It’s such an order, really, that before we cook you the dish we must at least have your receipt.”

And an article in the Feb. 14, 1903, issue of the Lancet refers to “a new receipt for a ‘special beef-tea,’ in which the nutritious elements are preserved, and reinforced as far as possible.”

As for the word “recipe,” which comes from the same Latin root as “receipt,” it referred to a medical prescription when it entered English in the early 1500s.

The OED’s first citation for “recipe” is from Thomas Paynell’s 1533 translation of De Morbo Gallico: A Treatise of the French Disease,  a book by Ulrich von Hutten about his struggle against syphilis:

“This phisition whan I was wrytinge these thynges, and takyng my iourney from Frankeford, wher he was wrytynge his recipe, was asked … what he thought of Guaiacum.” (Guaiacum is a plant that has been used to treat syphilis and other diseases.)

So in the 1500s, the words “recipe” and “receipt” could mean a medical prescription. Although “recipe” is sometimes still used that way, that sense of “receipt” is now considered archaic.

By the 1600s, according to OED citations, “recipe” was being used more broadly to mean a “statement of the ingredients and procedure required for making something.”

But it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the word came to mean the instructions for preparing food. The OED’s first citation for this sense comes from a 1743 letter by Horace Walpole: “You’ll find as soon … recipes for pastry-ware.”

So when, you ask, did “recipe” replace “receipt” in the kitchen?

Well, the two words coexisted in this sense for more than a century and a half, but “recipe” became the dominant term in the early 20th century.

How, you ask, did this happen? Simply put, more people preferred “recipe” to “receipt” in the food sense. And in language, the majority rules. Whether language mavens like it or not, that’s the etymological recipe for success.

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Side effects

Q: I was reading a description of Lord Bingham, a British judge who died two years ago, and came across this sentence: “He had no side to him at all, and he would be surprised to hear me saying these things about him.” I’m thinking this means he was not haughty or pompous, but I’d like to hear it from you!

A: In British usage, “to put on side” is to give oneself airs, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And someone who has “no side” is modest and unpretentious.

Here, the OED adds, “side” is a slang term meaning “pretentiousness, swagger, conceit.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from Joseph Hatton’s novel Cruel London (1878): “Cool, downy cove, who puts side on.” (In British slang, a “downy cove” is a knowing fellow.)

Another citation, from Joseph Hocking’s 1896 novel Fields of Fair Renown, uses “side” the same way: “They seem to have no side; they are all as jolly as may be.”

We’ve found this sense of “side” in only one American dictionary, the unabridged Webster’s Third New International, which defines it as “swaggering manner” or “arrogant behavior.”

But British dictionaries know the usage well. They define it as meaning insolence, arrogance, a proud attitude, pretentiousness, and so on.

Where does it come from? Unfortunately, the usage is “of doubtful origin,” the OED says.

But the dictionary does mention a possible connection with the game of billiards, in which “side” means the spin or “direction given to a ball by striking it at a point not directly in the middle.” (An American would say such a stroke puts “English” on the ball.)

The OED’s earliest example of this comes from Billiards (1873), a book written by Joseph Bennett and Henry Jones: “In putting on side, all that has to be done is to strike the ball on the side instead of in the middle.”

On the other hand, the OED invites readers to look at another use of “side”—an old adjective meaning haughty or proud. This usage dates to the 1600s and perhaps to the early 1500s.

Among the OED’s citations is this one from Sidney Oldall Addy’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield (1888): “I met Mrs. —— in the town, and she was very side.”

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Robot talk

Q: I was watching a video in which Isaac Asimov pronounces “robot” as ROH-but instead of the way it’s pronounced today: ROH-bot. When did his pronunciation arise and why did it vanish?

A: Asimov’s pronunciation didn’t vanish.

We checked four American dictionaries and three of them list both ROH-bot and ROH-but as standard pronunciations of “robot.” Most British dictionaries, though, list only one pronunciation: ROH-bot.

We can’t tell you exactly when Asimov’s pronunciation of “robot” arose, but it’s not in our 1956 edition of the Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

Webster’s Second lists two pronunciations: ROH-bot and ROB-ott. However, we haven’t seen ROB-ott in any other dictionary, including Webster’s Third.

In that YouTube video you mention, the science fiction writer discusses the Three Laws of Robotics, which were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

However, the noun “robot” originally had nothing to do with science fiction.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it first showed up in English in the early 19th century in reference to  a “central European system of serfdom, by which a tenant’s rent was paid in forced labour or service.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from an 1839 book by John Paget about Hungary and Transylvania: “The system of rent by robot or forced labour … is a direct premium on idleness.”

However, Oxford says this sense of the word is now historical—that is, used to refer to events in the past.

The dictionary says the term was resurrected in the early 20th century in its science fiction sense: “An intelligent artificial being typically made of metal and resembling in some way a human or other animal.”

Oxford’s earliest example of the new usage is from the Oct. 10, 1922, issue of the New York Times: “A Robot that fails to raise goose flesh does dire sabotage against its dramatic inventor.”

The OED says this usage originated in the Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1921 science fiction play RUR (the title stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). In fact, the Times citation is from a review of the English translation of the play.

Capek, at the suggestion of his brother Joseph, extracted the Czech word robot from robota (Czech for forced labor or drudgery), according to the OED.

The dictionary says the English word was soon being used figuratively to refer to a “person who acts mechanically or without emotion.”

The first OED citation for this usage is from the June 22, 1923, issue of the Westminster Gazette: “Mr. G. Bernard Shaw defined Robots as persons all of whose activities were imposed on them.”

In a few years, the word was being used to refer to a “machine capable of automatically carrying out a complex series of movements.”

The first OED example is from the Oct. 17, 1927, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Herald: “A ‘televocal’ electrical robot, which … can answer the telephone, tell the height of water in a reservoir, open doors, switch on lights and perform other mechanical services.”

Now, that’s a jack of all trades!

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When Ireland was Scotland

Q: In a recent posting, you cite a study entitled “The Scotch-Irish Element in Appalachian English.” There is no such thing as “Scotch-Irish”! There is Ireland and Scotland. The inhabitants of the former are Irish whilst the inhabitants of the latter are Scots or Scottish, not scotch, a variety of whiskey. I submit these observations for your comment. Full disclosure: I am a Canadian of English birth.

A: No such thing as Scotch-Irish? We beg to differ. The linguist who wrote the study we cited in our post about “everwhat” and “everwhere” was perfectly correct to use the term “Scotch-Irish” in his title.

In fact, we briefly mentioned this term in a blog item we wrote a couple of years ago about the use of the adjectives “Scot,” “Scotch,” and “Scottish.”

In that posting, we noted that “Scotch-Irish” is commonly used on this side of the Atlantic to refer to the descendants of Scots who migrated to Ireland, and later to North America.

These people are also sometimes referred to as “Scots-Irish” or “Ulster Scots.” But in the US and Canada, the preferred term is “Scotch-Irish.”

You needn’t take our word for it. You’ll find “Scotch-Irish” defined similarly in standard dictionaries as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the term “Scotch-Irish,” when used in this sense, is “chiefly” North American. It has citations for the published use of the term from Colonial documents dating back to the late 1600s.

The OED defines “Scotch-Irish,” which is both a noun and an adjective, as “designating Ulster Scots settlers in North America; of, belonging to, or descended from these settlers; (occas.) designating the Ulster Scots themselves. Also: of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry.”

The term “Scotch-Irish,” the OED adds, is “usually preferred in the United States and Canada over Scots-Irish. Historically, the term was sometimes used more widely in North America to designate any Irish Protestant immigrants, as well as those from southern Scotland and the English-Scottish borderlands.”

The OED has many citations for this sense of the term. We’ll quote one each from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

This example is from a colorful affidavit—”sworn,” you might say, in more senses than one—found in the judicial records of Somerset County, Maryland (1690): “I will give you full satisfaction to your own Content. You Scotch Irish dogg it was you.”

From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society comes this entry in the journal of Witham Marshe (1744): “The inhabitants [of Lancaster, Pa.] are chiefly High-Dutch, Scotch-Irish, some few English families, and unbelieving Israelites.”

And this example is from George Bancroft’s A History of the United States (1876): “Its convenient proximity to the border counties of Pennsylvania and Virginia had been observed by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and other bold and industrious men.”

Besides those US and Canadian senses of “Scotch-Irish,” the phrase has had several earlier meanings in Celtic history, according to the OED.

For instance, the terms “Scotch-Irish,” “Scots-Irish,” “Scoto-Irish,” and “Irish-Scots” have been used at various periods—though rarely today except in history books—to refer to Irish settlers in what is now western Scotland.

And “Scotch-Irish” has been used to mean the “Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands and Islands considered collectively,” Oxford says.

In fact, in very early Old English the term “Scot” itself, both the noun and the adjective, referred to the Gaelic people of early medieval Ireland. Yes, Ireland!

As the OED explains, this Old English term applied to “a member of the Gaelic people inhabiting early medieval Ireland; spec. a member of the people of Dalriada who began settling in what is now the west of Scotland from about the 5th cent. a.d.”

This modern citation, from William Ferguson’s The Identity of the Scottish Nation (1998), refers to “Scot” in this sense: “Buchanan meant the ancient Scots of Dalriada, who were … the root stock from which the Scottish nation developed.”

(Dalriada was an ancient kingdom “originally located in the far north-east of Ireland,” the OED says. This kingdom “expanded into parts of what is now western Scotland (esp. Argyll) from at least the 5th cent. a.d. During the 9th cent., alliances between Dalriada and the Pictish kingdoms led to the formation of the kingdom of Alba, the forerunner of the medieval kingdom of Scotland.”)

The ultimate origin of the word “Scot” is something of a mystery. It comes from a post-classical Latin word, Scottus, which in the late 4th century denoted the inhabitants of Ireland. The word Scot in Early Irish is probably from the Latin Scottus.

But the origin of the Latin term is described by the OED as uncertain: “There is no evidence that it represents the indigenous name of any Irish-speaking people.” (The classical Latin name for Ireland was Hibernia.)

Both the post-classical Latin word Scotia and the English name “Scotland” were first recorded as ancient names for Ireland.

In those days, and until about the 800s, Ireland “was probably understood to include the areas of Irish settlement in northern Britain,” the dictionary adds. And from about this time, the word “Scot” began to appear in reference to inhabitants of Scotland.

“The emergence of Scotland as the name exclusively denoting a part of northern Britain is probably linked to the consolidation of the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th cent.,” Oxford says.

If the ancient Irish (that is, the first “Scots”) hadn’t moved east, what would Scotland be called today? Perhaps “Pictland,” after the Picts who occupied the lands north of the Firth and Clyde rivers and who eventually merged with the immigrants from Dalriada.

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“In” a paper vs. “on” the Net

Q: Why is something “in” a newspaper but “on” the Internet, or “in” a movie” but “on” television?

A: The prepositions “in” and “on” have had many different meanings since they showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, though they were sometimes used interchangeably in Old English.

In the simplest terms, “in” refers to being within a given space while “on” refers to being on top of it. However, these two words are often used idiomatically—that is, in unusual or distinctive ways.

H.W. Fowler, in The King’s English, says there are so many idiomatic uses of prepositions that it would be impossible for dictionaries, grammar books, or usage guides to cite all of them.

We won’t use Fowler, though, as an excuse to avoid answering your question.

When the preposition “in” entered English sometime before the year 700, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to being within an actual place, such as a house, a forest, a cave, and so on.

By the late 800s, though, people began using “in” more loosely to refer to being within things like a book or the writings of an author. The preposition is being used in this sense when we say something is “in” a movie or an article or a newspaper.

But why, you ask, do we say something is “on” the Internet or “on” television?

In early Old English, according to the OED, the preposition “on” meant to be on the upper surface of a physical thing.

Over the years, though, people began using the preposition figuratively to refer to a judge “on the bench,” a truant “on the carpet,” a job applicant “on tenterhooks,” and so on.

In the late 19th century, English speakers started using “on” to refer to a medium of communications—the telephone at first, then radio, television, and the Internet.

The earliest written example of this usage in the OED is from Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary (1882): “Telephonist, a person versed in telephony, or who operates on the telephone.”

The next OED citation, from a 1929 letter by the English artist Roger Eliot Fry, refers to being on the radio: “I have still two ‘talks’ hanging over me—one at the Athenaeum Club and one on the wireless.”

And here’s a television example, from Up Your Banners, a 1969 novel by Donald E. Westlake: “The beautician hollered from the living room, ‘Leona, come quick! You’re on the TV!’ ”

In case you’d like to read more, we had a post in 2009 about “on” television versus “at” a movie house. And we had an item in 2008 about some of the idiomatic use of prepositions.

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Pat in NY Times on Web. 3 furor

Read Pat’s review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on the furor over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. She’s reviewing The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner.

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Something for the weekend?

Q: Before 1945, there was, in effect, no “weekend.” My father worked Saturday and half Sunday up to the late ’40s. Also, my memory is of a hyphenated “week-end.” It must have changed over the late ’50s and early ’60s.

A: The two-day weekend break (three or more days on holidays) may be relatively new, but the word “weekend” isn’t. It dates back to the 17th century.

As for that hyphen, “weekend” evolved like most compound words: they usually begin life as two separate words, are later hyphenated, and finally become one solid word, though this process can be a bit messy.

We checked nine standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all of them now list “weekend” without the hyphen.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary still hyphenates the word in its main entry (“week-end”), though the term is hyphen-free in all OED citations from the 1970s onward.

What is a “weekend”? Well, some dictionaries consider it Saturday and Sunday, others include Friday night, and still others describe it as the period between the end of one workweek and the start of another. (A “long weekend” is one extended by adjacent days.)

When the word entered English nearly 400 years ago, it simply meant the end of the week—at least, that’s the apparent sense in the OED’s earliest citation, a 1638 quotation reproduced in the Victoria County History of Yorkshire:

“The greatest weight of the said exaction will fall upon very poor people … who making every week a coarse kersey and being compelled to sell the same at the week end … are nevertheless constrained to yield one half penny apiece.” (Kersey is a heavy wool or wool and cotton fabric.)

In the next OED citation, from The Journal of the Rev. William Bagshaw Stevens (1793), the author seems to be using the word “weekend” in the sense of a period of leisure between two workweeks.

In a journal entry, Stevens, headmaster of the Repton School in Derbyshire, notes his plans to visit a friend, the Rev. John D. Dewe, a master at the Appleby School:

“Wrote to Dewe that I would put on my seven league boots next weekend and stretch my course to Appleby.”

(The excerpt comes from a version of the journal edited by Georgina Galbraith and published in 1965. The editing may account for this early appearance of “weekend” as a solid word.)

The next two OED citations, from the 19th century, are more specific about the meaning of the term.

Here’s an example from the Food Journal (1870): “ ‘Week-end,’ that is from Saturday until Monday,—it may be a later day in the week if the money and credit hold out,—is the season of dissipation.”

The journal Notes and Queries printed this passage in 1879: “In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.”

But the fun begins on Friday in this example from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel The Day Will Come (1889):

“Theodore and his friend betook themselves to Cheriton Chase on the following Friday, for that kind of visit which north country people describe as ‘a week end’.”

As we’ve said, none of the OED citations for “weekend” since the 1970s have hyphens. Here are a few examples, with “weekend” used attributively—that is, as an adjective:

“Lieutenant Mark Phillips, on weekend leave from Germany, went hunting on Saturday with Princess Anne.” (From the Guardian, 1973.)

“A weekend bag packed with scent, toothbrush and so forth.” (From Julia O’Faolain’s novel The Obedient Wife, 1982.)

“Humphrey Brooke was only a weekend gardener until … he decided to retire.” (From Harper’s and Queen, 1974.)

“Weekending French families setting out in their saloons for the countryside.” (From Anthony Grey’s novel Some Put Their Trust in Chariots, 1973.)

In Western countries, the week is typically divided into a workweek of Monday through Friday, and a weekend of Saturday and Sunday.

However, the usual workweek is often longer in other parts of the world. And the weekend can fall on other days, depending on the predominant religion in the area.

We won’t get into a detailed history of the two-day weekend, except to note that Henry Ford began giving his auto workers Saturday and Sunday off in 1926, the year the American Federation of Labor set a five-day, 40-hour week as one of its goals.

By the summer of 1929, according to a report by CQ Researcher, from one-half to three-quarters of a million American wage earners had a five-day week.

We should note, though, that many Americans don’t have a traditional workweek. When we were journalists, for example, we often worked on Saturday and Sunday, and had our days off on weekdays.

We’ll close this with a usage that was new to us. The phrase “something for the weekend” is a British euphemism for a condom (and sometimes for another sexual aid, like an aphrodisiac).

The OED explains the origins of this colloquialism: “Traditionally, as part of a question that barbers were said to have put to their customers.”

According to a 1987 citation in the Sunday Times of London, “Barbers would ask our fathers: ‘Anything for the weekend, sir?’ ”

This would seem to give a whole new meaning to the question, “How was your weekend?”

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Frankenly speaking

Q: I keep hearing the recent weather disaster on the East Coast referred to as “Frankenstorm.” I assume this just means it was a monster storm. But how does a usage like that get started and spread so fast?

A: The name has caught on because it’s both catchy and appropriate.

Not only was this a monstrous storm, but like Frankenstein’s monster it was cobbled together from disparate parts—an Atlantic hurricane moving up from the tropics, a cold front from the west, a blast of arctic air from the north, and high tides.

We can almost imagine Mother Nature, like the scientist Victor Frankenstein, looking upon her creation and shouting, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

During the recent storm, it was widely reported that “Frankenstorm” was coined on Oct. 25, 2012, by Jim Cisco, a weather forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as Hurricane Sandy was heading up the coast.

But in fact the term “Frankenstorm” had cropped up a couple of years earlier, in January 2010, when scientists in California were studying the potential impact of a monster storm.

As the Associated Press reported, the scientists at Cal Tech stitched together data from earlier disasters and dubbed their hypothetical model a “Frankenstorm.”

No matter who came up with the name, it’s certain to be resurrected again.

In fact, the combining form “Franken-” has been used for at least several decades to form words for unnatural creations.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is “Frankenfood,” a term that first showed up in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1992. Writing in response to an article about genetically engineered crops, Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College, wrote:

“Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human out of the lab, scientists have been bringing just such good things to life. If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.”

A bit of googling, however, finds several earlier examples, including Franken Berry (1971), a monster-themed cereal, Frankenweenie (1984), an animated short about a boy who brings his dog back to life, and Frankenhooker (1990), a film about a medical-school dropout who raises his girlfriend from the dead.

The OED says the word element “Franken-” is used to form nouns that convey the sense of “genetically modified” or “relating to genetic modification.”

Besides “Frankenfood,” the OED cites the use of terms like “Frankenfruit,” “Frankenplants,” and “Frankenscience.” (Sometimes the words are capitalized and sometimes not.)

Oxford notes an earlier usage, “Frankenstein food,” first used in 1989 and meaning food that’s genetically altered or irradiated.

Now, of course, “Franken-” is used more broadly for things put together in odd, unnatural, or monstrous ways. We’ve seen “Frankenbike” (a bicycle made of scavenged parts), “Frankenbite” (a patched-together sound bite), and “Frankenstrat” (Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, a Stratocaster body plus miscellaneous parts).

A contributor to the American Dialect Society’s discussion group recently quipped that if you were to create a senator from Minnesota out of senatorial body parts, you’d get a “Frankenfranken.”

The OED naturally traces all this to the noun “Frankenstein,” which comes from “the name of Victor Frankenstein, the title-character of Mary Shelley’s romance Frankenstein (1818), who constructed a human monster and endowed it with life.”

Shelley’s book didn’t refer to the creature itself as “Frankenstein.” But the name, according to the OED, is “commonly misused allusively as a typical name for a monster who is a terror to his originator and ends by destroying him.”

The  British Prime Minister William Gladstone was the first to use the name for the monster and not its creator, according to Oxford. In speaking of mules, which are a cross between a donkey and a horse, Gladstone was quoted as saying in 1838, “They really seem like Frankensteins of the animal creation.”

The term has been used that way ever since, as in this OED citation from London’s Daily Telegraph (1971): “There are now growing indications that the Nationalists in South Africa have created a political Frankenstein which is pointing the way to a non-White political revival.”

But what’s really kept the wider used of “Frankenstein” and “Franken-” alive are the many films inspired by Shelley’s book, beginning with the Universal Studios original, Frankenstein (1931), starring Boris Karloff.

After that, the deluge. Sequels included Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and so on for decades to come.

Our favorite adaptation is Mel Brooks’s hilarious Young Frankenstein (1974), in which Gene Wilder, playing a descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein, has a dance number with the monster and insists that his name be pronounced FRONK-en-steen.

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