The Grammarphobia Blog

Gramm-ology: “Sequester”

Q: My friend and I are having difficulty figuring out how the government selected the word “sequester” for the current fiscal crisis. Any ideas on this?

A: Let’s begin with a little history.

When the verb “sequester” showed up in English in the late 14th century, it meant to set aside or separate, and it still has that meaning.

The word, which first appeared in the Wycliffe Bible, was adapted from the Late Latin term sequestrare (to place in safekeeping), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The noun “sequester” also showed up in the late 14th century and the noun “sequestration” followed in the mid-15th century.

Over the years, the verb (as well as the nouns) has taken on many different senses related to setting aside or separating: to excommunicate or isolate someone, to confiscate something, to seize the possessions of a debtor, to set apart property in dispute, to isolate a jury, and so on.

In the sense you’re asking about, the term refers to budget sequestration, a process for controlling the size of the federal budget by setting spending limits and enforcing them with automatic cuts.

The term “budget sequestration” was first used in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985. Senators Phil Gramm, Warren Rudman, and Ernest Hollings were the main sponsors.

The measure provided for “sequesters” (automatic spending cuts) if the federal deficit exceeded targets.

The term was later used in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and in the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012.

How, you ask, did the word “sequester” come to be used in this sense?

Tracey Samuelson, a reporter on public radio, quotes former Senator Gramm, one of the sponsors of the 1985 legislation, as saying, “To me, sequester conjured up taking something off the table, withholding something.”

Gramm, a Texas Republican, said Congress had also considered the word “impoundment” before settling on “sequester,” according to Samuelson’s American Public Media report.

“It’s always helpful if when you invent a term, if it already conjures up what you’re trying to say,” he said, adding, “If a sequester is what you got to do to get people’s attention, I would do it.”

So, did Gramm coin the usage? Not exactly, according to Samuelson’s report. Gramm said the former House majority leader Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, had suggested this use of the term “sequester” to him.  

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An arm and a leg

Q: I just caught up with your Thanksgiving post on the names for turkey parts. How about something on the names for people parts? I was recently surprised to learn that the meanings of “arm” and “leg” in anatomy differ from common usage.

A: This was news to us too, but then we skipped anatomy class. You’re right, though. “Arm” and “leg” have special meanings in medicine.

In standard anatomical terminology, the word “arm” means what most of us think of as the upper arm—the part between the shoulder and the elbow.

And the word “leg” in anatomy means what most of us think of as the lower leg—between the knee and the ankle.

The limbs as a whole are called the “upper limb” and the “lower limb.”

We quizzed our own doctor about this as she was giving us our annual physicals the other day. She said physicians call the upper arm the “arm” or the “brachium”; the part below the elbow is the “forearm” or the “antebrachium.”

Why? Because a doctor is generally concerned with one part of a limb, not the limb as a whole. And the parts are distinct—different bones, different muscles, and so on.

Hence, different terminology. The words “arm” and “leg” as used in the general sense would be too broad for medical purposes.

Kenneth Saladin’s book Human Anatomy (2007) has this explanation:

“The upper limb is divided into brachium (arm proper), antebrachium (forearm), carpus (wrist), manus (hand), and digits (fingers); the lower limb is divided into thigh, crus (leg proper), tarsus (ankle), pes (foot), and digits (toes).”

Elsewhere, Saladin explains that the term “arm proper” means the upper arm, which “extends from shoulder to elbow,” while the “leg proper” is “below the knee.”

Another medical textbook, Grant’s Dissector (2012), by Patrick W. Tank, says, “The upper limb is divided into four regions: shoulder, arm (brachium), forearm (antebrachium), and hand (manus).”

Earlier, Tank writes: “The lower limb is divided into four parts: hip, thigh, leg, and foot. It is worth noting that the term leg refers only to the portion of the lower limb between the knee and the ankle, not to the entire lower limb.”

Tank is right—this IS worth noting, since in ordinary language the words “arm” and “leg” are interpreted less narrowly.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “arm” (the body part, that is) only in the usual sense: “The upper limb of the human body, from the shoulder to the hand.”

There’s no mention in the OED of a medical definition of “arm” that would differ from that one.

Oxford adds that “the part from the elbow to the hand” is known as “the fore-arm.” Elsewhere, it defines the “forearm” as “the part of the arm between the elbow and the wrist; sometimes the whole arm below the elbow.”

On the other hand (if that’s the appropriate expression), the OED’s definition of a person’s “leg” includes the ordinary sense of the word as well as a more restrictive sense.

Here’s the definition: “one of the two lower limbs of the human body; in narrower sense, the part of the limb between the knee and foot.”

It’s interesting to note that while people have “forearms,” they don’t have “forelegs,” a term used only of animals. The OED says a “foreleg” is “one of the front legs of a quadruped.”

We can’t end this without mentioning “an arm and a leg,” which Oxford describes as a colloquial expression meaning “an enormous amount of money, an exorbitant price; freq. in to cost an arm and a leg.”

The OED’s first citation is from Lady Sings the Blues, the 1956 autobiography of one of our favorite singers, Billie Holliday, written with William Dufty: “Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg.”

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“By” lines

Q: The Hunter College Reading/Writing Center has this example of a preposition used to show manner: By doing it yourself, you save time. I’m confused. Can you explain what “by doing it yourself” is doing there?

A: “By” and other prepositions are often used with “-ing” words to form phrases that are in effect adverbial—they tell how or in what manner.

In the sentence “He supports himself by teaching,” for example, the phrase “by teaching” tells how or in what manner he supports himself.

And in the sentence “By frowning, he showed his impatience,” the phrase “by frowning” tells how or in what manner he showed his impatience.

Your sentence—“By doing it yourself, you save time”—is a similar example. How do you save time? By doing it yourself.

Those prepositional phrases (“by teaching,” “by frowning,” “by doing it yourself”) are all adverbial because they serve to modify verbs (“supports,” “showed,” “save”).

The Oxford English Dictionary says this use of “by” is especially common in the phrases “begin by” and “end by,” followed by a gerund. (A gerund is a verb form that ends in “-ing” and acts as a noun, so it’s frequently the object of a preposition.)

We found a good illustration in Dorothy Dymond’s An Introduction to Medieval History (1929):

“The barbarians began by imitating the Roman Empire, and they ended by making a group of nations. They began by accepting Christianity, and they ended by making the medieval papacy.”

When a gerund is the object of a preposition (“by teaching,” “upon waking,” “after going,” “in creating,” “without looking,” and so on), the resulting prepositional phrase has an adverbial function because it tells how or in what manner.

This might be a good place to mention that not all verb forms ending in “-ing” are gerunds. Some are participles.

The traditional wisdom is that a gerund acts like a noun. So it can be the subject or object of a verb (“fishing is his passion” … “he loves fishing”), or the object of a preposition (“after fishing he cleans his catch”).

And traditionally, an “-ing” participle is used in a progressive tense (“he is fishing”), as an adjective (“he’s a fishing fool”), after conjunctions (“while fishing, he whistles”), and in some subordinate phrases (“fishing in the lake, he caught cold”).

But today many grammarians don’t make those distinctions in terminology with “-ing” words.

As we’ve written before on our blog, Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, prefer the term “gerund-participle.”

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Is “to” part of the infinitive?

Q: In your recent article for Smithsonian magazine, you defend the split infinitive by saying “to” isn’t actually part of the infinitive. Huh? Says who? Not any standard – or even nonstandard – grammar book or authority I’ve ever seen, heard of, or read. Here’s the standard definition of an infinitive, from Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition: “An infinitive is a verbal consisting of to followed by the verb.”

A: Sorry, but you’ve been misled, and the late John Warriner, a teacher and textbook author, was misinformed, as we’ll explain. His is absolutely NOT the “standard” definition of an infinitive.

The infinitive is the uninflected or basic form of a verb, and “to” is not part of it. When “to” appears with an infinitive, it is generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle”; it is not part of the verb and is not always used.

“To” is not there, for example, when the infinitive is used with modal verbs (sometimes called modal auxiliaries or secondary auxiliaries). The modal verbs are “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would,” and “must.”

Examples, “I must go,” “he should read,” “they can eat,” and so on. In modal constructions, infinitives (”go,” “read,” and “eat” in the examples) do not require “to.”

You don’t have to take our word for this. We can cite a great many authorities. Here are only a few.

(1) Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), edited by the language scholar and lexicographer R. W. Burchfield, likewise describes two uses of the infinitive: (a) “the to-infinitive,” in which “to” is described as a “particle,” and (b) “the bare or simple or plain infinitive.”

The bare infinitive, Fowler’s says, “is often optionally used after the verbs dare, help, and need.” (Examples of infinitives used this way would be, “Does he dare go?” “We helped them move,” “You need not come.” Here, “go,” “move,” and “come” are infinitives.)

Fowler’s adds: “But its use after modal verbs (can, may, must, shall, etc.) and after comparatives and superlatives (better, had better, best, had best, rather than, etc.) is much more significant.” (For example, in constructions like “we had better eat,” and “rather than eat later,” the verb “eat” is an infinitive.)

Fowler’s also mentions these other common uses of the bare infinitive:

(a) At the head of a clause, as in “Try as I might, I couldn’t … etc.” Here, “try” is an infinitive.

(b) After “let” plus its object, as in “Let him enjoy his ignorance.” Here, “enjoy” is an infinitive.

(c) After “is” and “was,” as in “All they want to do is hide in the kitchen.” Here, “hide” is an infinitive.

(d) After “why” and “why not,” as in “Why not ask Robert?” Here, “ask” is an infinitive.

Some other sources:

(2) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the infinitive (as well as the imperative and the subjunctive) “consists simply of the lexical base, the plain base without any suffix or other modification.” (Examples of imperative and subjunctive forms of “run,” respectively would be: “Run as fast as you can!” and “I suggest you run.”)

The Cambridge Grammar, written by the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, goes on to explain that the marker “to” is “not part of the verb.”

 “The traditional practice for citation of verbs is to cite them with the infinitival marker to, as in ‘to be,’ ‘to take,’ and so on,” Cambridge continues. “That is an unsatisfactory convention, because the to is not part of the verb itself.”

The word “to” here “is not a (morphological) prefix but a quite separate (syntactic) word,” Pullum and Huddleston say, adding:

“This is evident from the fact that it can stand alone in elliptical constructions (as in I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to shortly), need not be repeated in coordination (as seen in I want to go out and get some exercise), and can be separated from the verb by an adverb, as seen in the so-called ‘split infinitive construction,’ I’m trying to gradually improve my game.”

(3) The Oxford English Grammar, written by the linguist Sidney Greenbaum, says the infinitive “has two major uses: (a) bare infinitive (without to) follows a modal auxiliary, [as in] ‘I must write that message’; (b) to-infinitive is the main verb in infinitive clauses [as in] ‘I’d like to write something on process theology.’ ”

Even dictionaries don’t use Warriner’s definition. Witness:

(4) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), definition of “infinitive”: “A verb form that functions as a substantive while retaining certain verbal characteristics, such as modification by adverbs, and that in English may be preceded by to, as in To go willingly is to show strength or We want him to work harder, or may also occur without to, as in She had them read the letter or We may finish today.

(5) Merriam-Webster’s International, Unabridged Third Edition, definition of “infinitive”: “an infinite verb form normally identical in English with the first person singular that performs certain functions of a noun and at the same time displays certain characteristics (as association with objects and adverbial modifiers) of a verb and is used with to (as in ‘to err is human’; ‘I asked him to go’) except with auxiliary and certain other verbs (as in ‘he can see’; ‘let me go’; ‘no one saw him leave’).

(6 ) The Oxford English Dictionary has an extensive discussion of the historical development of “to” with the infinitive in Old and Middle English. Later it has this: “The simple infinitive, without to, remains: 1. after the auxiliaries of tense, mood, periphrasis, shall, will; may, can; do; and the quasi-auxiliaries, must, (and sometimes) need, dare: 2. after some vbs. of causing, etc.; make, bid, let, have, in sense B. 15a; 3. after some vbs. of perception, see, hear, feel, and some tenses of know, observe, notice, perceive, etc., in sense B. 15b; 4. after had liefer, rather, better, sooner, as lief, as soon, as good, as well, etc.: see have v. 21, rather adv. 8d, and the other words.

“The infinitive with to may be dependent on an adj., a n., or a vb., or it may stand independently. To an adj. it stands in adverbial relation: ready to fight = ready for fighting; to a n. it stands in adjectival or sometimes adverbial relation: a day to remember = a memorable day; to a vb. it may stand in an adverbial or substantival relation: to proceed to work = to proceed to working; to like to work = to like working.”

When this preposition was first used in English as an infinitive marker ( in Old English), it did have a prepositional flavor. “I prepared to eat” sounded to the medieval ear something like “I prepared for eating”; “he fails to think” sounded something like “he fails in thinking”; “we strive to please” sounded something like “we strive toward pleasing.” As the OED says, “it expressed motion, direction, inclination, purpose, etc., toward the act or condition expressed by the infinitive; as in ‘he came to help (i.e. to the help of) his friends,’ … ‘he prepared to depart (i.e. for departure).’ ”

There once was a sense of motion, of moving toward accomplishing something (represented by the infinitive), if that makes any sense.

But as the OED says: “in process of time this obvious sense of the prep. became weakened and generalized, so that became at last the ordinary link expressing any prepositional relation in which an infinitive stands to a preceding verb, adjective, or substantive.” [Here the italicized represents the Old English word.]

As we’ve written on our blog, a great many people misunderstand infinitives because they aren’t familiar with their many uses.

In that post, we cite the clause “I saw her fall,” with the verb “fall” in the infinitive. In English, this is a very common pattern: one verb followed by a second in the infinitive. It’s often the case when the first verb is one involving sensory perception (“see,” “feel,” “hear”).

Here are a few examples of the kinds of verbs that are often paired with infinitives (the infinitives are underlined):

“I helped her walk” … “They saw us go” … “We felt it move” … “He heard her cry” … “You need not worry” … “Dare we ask?” … “I would rather die” … “We will let it rest” … “Let there be light.”

In addition, the auxiliary “do” is often used with an infinitive to form a question: “Do you smoke?” … “Did they drive?”

And as we’ve said, the modal auxiliary verbs (“can,” “may,” “must,” etc.) take infinitives as their complements: “She may smoke” [or “May she smoke?”] … “We must leave” [or “Must we leave?”].

In all of these cases, the second verb is in the infinitive. But many people don’t recognize these verb forms as infinitives because they expect infinitives to be preceded by “to.” As you can see, that’s often not the case.

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Meteoric language

Q: I’m putting together a planetarium exhibition on meteorites. My background documents often say pieces of a meteorite were “recovered” after falling to earth. Can we “recover” something we never had? I’d appreciate your help.

A: We checked all the many meanings of “recover” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and when used in reference to physical objects, it generally means to regain or reacquire something lost.

An old meaning of the verb “cover,” now obsolete, was to get or acquire. And the original, 14th-century meaning of “recover” (literally, “cover again”) was to win back ground lost in battle.

But etymology aside, astronomers and geologists use the word in a different sense. They quite routinely use “recover,” “recovered,” and “recovery” in writing about meteorite fragments found on earth, even though nobody had physical possession of them beforehand.

Though this use of “recover” might seem questionable, at least in the strictly literal sense of the word, we think it’s perfectly reasonable in a scientific context, like an exhibition at a planetarium.

As it happens, the OED does recognize “recover” as a technical term in astronomy. But it has a more celestial meaning than the earthbound one we’re talking about. It refers only to the observation of objects in space.

The OED defines this “recover” as meaning “to observe (an astronomical object, esp. a periodic comet) following an extended period during which it has not been visible or observed.”

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word is from a 1901 issue of a scientific journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: “Professor Howe … recovered the comet on May 27, after its perihelion passage.”

This more recent citation is from a 2006 issue of the Guardian: “The dim comet was lost again until … it was recovered tracing a 5.4 year orbit about the Sun.”

But we think you’re safe using “recover” in reference to meteorites that have fallen to earth. Though the OED hasn’t yet recorded this sense of the word, scientists routinely use it that way, which is a pretty good argument in its favor.

For example, we found this example in a 1977 issue of the British magazine New Scientist:

“Analysis of the photographs suggested the fall of several kilogrammes of meteorites at a point some 150 km east of Edmonton. … A 2.1-kg freshly fallen meteorite was recovered only 500 metres from the predicted impact point.”

Scientists use “recover” even when the meteorites weren’t seen falling beforehand. That’s the case in this passage from Paul W. Hodge’s book Meteorite Craters and Impact Structures of the Earth (1994):

“The Haviland crater itself was not discovered until about 1925, when H. H. Nininger visited the Kimberley farm to recover the meteorites.”

Finally, Robert T. Dodd’s book Meteorites: A Petrologic-chemical Synthesis (1981) has this note about the naming of meteorites:

“A newly fallen or newly discovered meteorite is named for a locality or permanent geographic feature that is near its point of recovery. … The many meteorites recovered from Antarctica raise a serious problem of terminology.”

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The singularity of “as follows”

Q: I’ve been having a debate with my wife about the phrase “as follows.” I think the verb should be singular (follows) or plural (follow), depending on the context. My wife thinks it’s always singular. Can you please provide some insight?

A: Your wife is right. The construction is always singular: “My position is as follows” … “The three points are as follows” …  “Her favorite books were as follows,” and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase “as follows” as “a prefatory formula used to introduce a statement, enumeration, or the like.”

In this formula, the OED says, the verb is impersonal and should always be used in the singular—“follows.” Use of the plural verb “follow,” Oxford adds, is “incorrect.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage concurs, saying “All experts agree” that “as follows regularly has the singular form of the verb—follows—even if preceded by a plural.”

The OED’s earliest examples of the phrase in writing are in the singular: “als her fast folowys” (as here directly follows), from 1426, and “He openly sayde as foloweth” (He openly said as follows), from 1548.

A more telling example, from George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), discusses the correct use of the phrase:

“Analogy as well as usage favour this mode of expression. ‘The conditions of the agreement were as follows’; and not as follow. A few late writers have inconsiderately adopted this last form through a mistake of the construction.”

An inquiring mind might well ask why this is true. Here’s an answer from Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield:

“The phrase as follows is naturally always used cataphorically, i.e. with forward reference, and is not replaced by as follow even when the subject of the sentence is plural: His preferences are as follows … ; his view is as follows.”

“The reason for its fixed form,” the usage guide adds, “is that it was originally an impersonal construction = ‘as it follows.’ ”

In case you’re still not convinced, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has this to say:

As follows is always the correct form, even for an enumeration of many things. The expression is elliptical for as it follows—not as they follow.”

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Closeted language

Q: I was speaking to my grandmother about getting less-than-desirable presents for Christmas and she said, “We used to put them in the chifen robe.” When I asked about the term, she said it referred to a closet where her mother stored unwanted gifts to be regifted. I’m not sure of the spelling, but I’d appreciate any information you can provide.

A: The term your grandmother used is usually spelled “chifforobe.” It combines two different terms—“chiffonier” and “wardrobe.”

Words like this are sometimes called portmanteau words, which we’ve written about before on our blog. They get their name from their resemblance to a portmanteau, a case that has two hinged compartments.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “chifforobe” originated in the US and means “a piece of furniture incorporating a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.”

It was first recorded, according to OED citations, in a 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog that carried this entry: “The chifforobes as illustrated on this page are a modern invention, having been in use only a short time.”

The word is sometimes rendered as “chiffing robe,” and your grandma’s version, “chifen robe,” isn’t unusual either.

The OED cites this example from Carson McCullers’s novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1953): “The room was furnished with a large ‘chiffen robe.’ ”

Like chifforobes, both chiffoniers and wardrobes are free-standings cupboards devoted to storage, much like large dressers but with extras.

Now that homes have built-in closets, we see less of words like “chiffonier” and “wardrobe,” which were once common household terms.

The OED defines a “chiffonier” as “a piece of furniture, consisting of a small cupboard with the top made so as to form a sideboard.”

The word comes from French, in which chiffonnier or chiffonnière originally meant a “rag-gatherer,” the OED says. (In French, chiffon means rag.)

By transference, chiffonnier was later used in French to mean “a piece of furniture with drawers in which women put away their needlework, cuttings of cloth, etc.,” says the OED, quoting the French lexicographer Émile Littré.

The use of “chiffonier” in English, the OED says, was first recorded in 1806 in reference to the furniture.

In the 1850s, in conscious imitation of the French, it was also used in English to mean a rag-picker.

The word was sometimes spelled “sheffonier,” which the OED says “represents the common pronunciation.”

The other half of your grandmother’s word—“wardrobe’’—is much older than “chiffonier” and may date from the 1300s.

It comes from the Old French word warderobe, a variant of garderobe, a locked room for safeguarding clothing, armor, and other valuables.

When “wardrobe” came into our language during the Middle English period, it originally meant a separate room for storing clothing and armor—similar to a dressing room.

As far as we can tell, the word didn’t mean a movable cupboard until the late 1700s.

The term “wardrobe” is used this way twice on the title page of The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterers Guide (1788), a book of furniture designs by George Hepplewhite. The term is also used this way in four of the engravings, printed in 1787.

(The book was written by Hepplewhite’s widow, Alice, who ran the enterprise as A. Hepplewhite & Company after his death in 1786.)

Each wardrobe in the engravings is described as about four feet wide and seven feet tall, shaped more or less like a refrigerator.

Each has tall doors on top and three to four drawers on the bottom. Behind the doors are five slide-out shelves for folded clothes.

Finally, in case you’re interested, we once wrote a posting on the blog about the verbs “gift” and “regift”:

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Indian territory

Q: I came across a website that says the use of the word “Indian” for a Native American is derived from the Spanish phrase Gente de Dios. Whaddya think?

A: Didn’t your mother tell you not to believe everything you see on the Web?

The website of La Prensa, a weekly newspaper for Latinos in the Midwest, does indeed say the term “Indian” is derived from that Spanish phrase for People of God.

A “Latino History” page on the site says Gente de Dios was later shorted to en Dios, then endios, and finally “Indian.”

“Yes, ‘Indian’—they were called Indians,” La Prensa adds, “not because they were thought to live in India but because they were children of God.”

As you suspect, that etymology is nonsenseor as one would say in Spanish, una tontería.

The truth, as you were undoubtedly taught in school, is that Christopher Columbus did indeed think he’d reached India when he landed in the Americas and that he referred to the natives as “Indians” in Spanish.

In the diary of his first voyage to the Americas, which Columbus wrote in 15th-century Spanish, he repeatedly referred to the indigenous population as indios and yndios.

Here’s a modern Spanish version of the diary in which he describes the islands he visited in the region as estas islas de India (these islands of India).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the use of the term “Indian” for the indigenous people of the Americas is the result of “Columbus’s assumption that, on reaching America, he had reached the east coast of India.”

The word “Indian” in this sense first showed up in English, according to OED citations, in the mid-16th century.

The earliest reference in the OED is from A Treatyse of the Newe India With Other New Founde Landes and Islandes (1553).

Here’s the citation from Richard Eden’s translation of a work by the German cartographer Sebastian Münster: “They saw certayn Indians gatheringe shel fyshes by the sea bankes.”

Not surprisingly, the adjective “Indian” in reference to the people of India entered English a lot earlier—in the late 1300s, and the noun “Indian” in that sense first showed up around 1400, according to OED citations.

Although English adapted the adjective and noun “Indian” from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French indien, the dictionary notes, the geographic name “India” is a direct borrowing from Latin and showed up centuries earlier.

The OED has two Early Old English citations from History Against the Pagans, a work by Paulus Orosius, a church historian who lived in the late 4th and early 5th centuries.

We won’t go through La Prensa’s “Latin History” page point by point, but we should note one other questionable statement: “Christopher Columbus, by the way, was not his real name—it was Cristóbal Colón.”

Columbus, who made four voyages to the New World under the auspices of the Spanish Crown, was born Cristoforo Colombo on Oct. 31, 1451, in the Republic of Genoa, now part of modern Italy.

“Christopher Columbus” is an Anglicized version of his name in Latin, Christophorus Columbus. Cristóbal Colón is the Spanish version of his name and Cristóvão Colombo is the Portuguese version.

Columbus was a man of the world who spoke all those languages. We imagine that he referred to himself by the name used in whichever language he was speaking.

In his diary, for example, Columbus writes his name in the Spanish of his time: almirante don x’val Colón (almirante is Spanish for “admiral” and “x” is short for Cristo, or “Christ”).

Columbus, by the way, didn’t invent the use of “x” as an abbreviation for “Christ.” This convention is more than a thousand years old, as we’ve written on our blog.

In a posting six years ago, we noted that the practice grew out of Greek, in which “Christ” begins with the letter “chi,” or “X.” In Greek letters it’s spelled ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ.

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Our how many-eth beer?

Q: How come we don’t say “many-eth” in English? Example: “This is the how many-eth beer we’ve had?”

A: That’s the kind of question we ask ourselves after having a few too many Becks. And if we don’t know how many we’ve had, we’ve probably had too many.

In sober—that is, standard—English, we’d say something like “How much beer have we had” or “How many beers have we had?” Yet for some reason we don’t use “many-eth” to ask questions like this.

The “-th” suffix is used in its numerical sense with ordinal numbers, like “fifth,” “eleventh,” and “thirty-fourth,” as well as looser ordinals like “nth,” “zillionth,” “umpteenth,” and so on.

When an ordinal number is derived from a cardinal number ending in “y,” the “y” becomes “i” and the “-th” ending becomes “-eth.” For example, “twenty” becomes “twentieth,” and “fifty” becomes “fiftieth.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “-th” ending has been used this way since Anglo-Saxon days. The “th” sound was represented then by the Old English letters thorn or eth.

The OED says the “-th” suffix is ultimately derived from –tos, an ancient Indo-European superlative ending.

The “-th” ending is also used to form nouns from verbs (“growth,” “stealth,” and so on) and from adjectives (“health,” “truth,” etc.).

In addition, the “-eth” ending was used to form many third person singular verbs that are now considered archaic: “goeth,” “sendeth,” and so on. But as the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes, this ending is still used as a literary device: The Iceman Cometh.

Like “umpteen,” the adjective “many” refers to a large but indefinite number.  We say “umpteenth,” so why then don’t we say “many-eth”? Well, for whatever reason, it’s not considered idiomatic English.

Despite that, we’ve found lots of examples of the usage on the Web, including many from writers whose English is otherwise beyond reproach.

Here’s an example from a review of a concert in which Joshua Bell is the soloist in a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto: “Here he was, playing it for the … how many-eth time?”

Does “many-eth” have a future? Who knows? If enough people use it for enough time, “many-eth” may become standard English some day. Not yet, though.

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The full story

Q: Your piece on the use of “full” in reference to eating mentioned in passing the use of “full” to describe, among other things, a sail filled with wind. This got me thinking about the link between “full” and “fill.” Would you comment on it?

A: The words “full” and “fill” have an ancestral connection that not only predates English but is older than written language.

Far back in prehistory, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the ancestor of “fill” was derived from the ancestor of “full.” So etymologically, to “fill” is to “make full.”

As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, a prehistoric Germanic adjective that linguists have reconstructed as fullaz (full) was the source of a corresponding verb, fulljan (fill).

These words eventually developed into the English “full” and “fill” along with their equivalents in German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, and Norwegian.

But the story goes back even beyond the early Germanic languages, which are only one branch of the Indo-European family tree.

The ultimate source, as Ayto notes, is an Indo-European root reconstructed as ple-.

This root, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, by Calvert Watkins, has given us “derivatives referring to abundance and multitude.”

The ple- root has descendants not only in the Germanic languages—in which the “p” sound became “f”—but also in Latin and Greek.

English inherited words having to do with abundance and multitude from both directions.

From the Germanic direction, in addition to “full” and “fill,” English has the word “folk” (people), from the prehistoric Germanic word folkam.

On the classical side, the ple- root is the source of the Latin words plenus (full), plere (to fill) and plus (more), as well as the Greek polus (many), pleres (full), plethein (to be full), and pleon (more).

And from this direction, according to Watkins, English acquired “plenary,” “plenitude,” “plenty,” “replenish,” “plural,” “plus,” “nonplus,” “pluperfect,” “surplus,” “hoi polloi,” “plebian,” “plethora,” “accomplish,” “complement,” “complete,” “compliment,” “comply, “deplete,” “expletive,” “implement,” “replete,” “supply,” and the prefix “poly-,” among others.

In case you’re curious about “fulfill,” etymologically it means to “fill full” though that sense of the word is now defunct.

The OED says that when “fulfill” entered Old English as fullfyllan more than a thousand years ago, it meant “to fill to the full, fill up, make full.”

In case you haven’t had your fill yet, we had a brief post back in 2007 about whether to use the word element “full” or “ful” as a prefix or a suffix.

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“Want” adds

Q: Why do we say or write things like “I want to thank you for your wonderful lecture the other night” or “I wanted to let you know that the blouse you like is in stock again”? I find myself doing it when I’m in a business situation. What’s with this “want” business?

A: In our opinion, starting a statement like that with “I want to …” (or the even more deferential “I just want to …”) is an example of tentativeness or excessive politeness.

We’ve written on our blog about a similar mannerism, the use of “I would like …” (or “I’d like …”) instead of “I want ….”

As we said in that May 18, 2009, post, people tell a waiter “I would like the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts” because it sounds more indirect, hence more polite and less demanding, than “I want the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts.”

Some grammarians use the term “tentative volition” to describe this less demanding way of demanding something.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses the use of “would” in a sentence like “I would like to see him tomorrow” (vs. “I want to see him tomorrow”).

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say that “would” often “introduces a rather vague element of tentativeness, diffidence, extra politeness, or the like.”

Huddleston and Pullum go on to describe “would like” as “more or less a fixed phrase, contrasting as a whole with want.”

We think people insert things like “I wanted to …” and “I’d like to …” in sentences when they’re nervous, overly deferential, addressing someone of importance (such as a valued customer), or unsure of their own authority.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong in all this. It’s more of a psycholinguistic issue.

Etymologically, to “want” something is to lack it, the meaning of the word when it entered English in the early 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The sense of desiring something “is a secondary extension” of the original meaning, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

English adapted “want” from the Old Norse vanta (to be lacking), but Ayto says the ultimate source is the prehistoric Germanic root wan- (lacking), which is also the source of the English word “wane.”

The adjective “wanton” is another relative. As Ayto explains: “Someone who is wanton is etymologically ‘lacking in proper upbringing or discipline.’ ”

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Still sleeping with the fishes

Q: After reading your entry on “sleeping with the fishes,” I ran across the usage in Moby-Dick. The passage is late in the book—so few readers get that far, it’s no wonder the reference isn’t cited on the Internet.

A: By Jove, you have it! And so do we now. It’s not the oldest written example of the usage, but we’re happy to have another 19th-century citation.

The reference, from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), comes as Stubb, the second mate, recognizes the signs of the zodiac on the gold doubloon that’s nailed to the mast of the Pequod.

In this passage from Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” Stubb reads the signs with the help of his almanac and interprets them as a birth-to-death calendar of human life. (For blog readers in a hurry, the usage is in the last sentence.)

“By Jove, I have it! Look you, Doubloon, your zodiac here is the life of man in one round chapter; and now I’ll read it off, straight out of the book. Come, Almanack! To begin: there’s Aries, or the Ram—lecherous dog, he begets us; then, Taurus, or the Bull—he bumps us the first thing; then Gemini, or the Twins—that is, Virtue and Vice; we try to reach Virtue, when lo! comes Cancer the Crab, and drags us back; and here, going from Virtue, Leo, a roaring Lion, lies in the path—he gives a few fierce bites and surly dabs with his paw; we escape, and hail Virgo, the Virgin! that’s our first love; we marry and think to be happy for aye, when pop comes Libra, or the Scales—happiness weighed and found wanting; and while we are very sad about that, Lord! how we suddenly jump, as Scorpio, or the Scorpion, stings us in the rear; we are curing the wound, when whang come the arrows all round; Sagittarius, or the Archer, is amusing himself. As we pluck out the shafts, stand aside! here’s the battering-ram, Capricornus, or the Goat; full tilt, he comes rushing, and headlong we are tossed; when Aquarius, or the Water-bearer, pours out his whole deluge and drowns us; and to wind up with Pisces, or the Fishes, we sleep.”

Today the phrase “sleeping with the fishes” is associated with mob rubouts. But as we wrote in our earlier post, death has been likened to sleeping with the fishes since at least as far back as the 1830s, according to searches of digitized books.

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

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

Thanks for rounding out the picture, and all the best,

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Where is “put” in “stay put”?

Q: My daughter was in the Northeast during the recent snowstorm and I asked her if she was planning to stay put. That got me to thinking: where is put?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “stay put” as a colloquialism that originated in the US in the mid-19th century.

The OED defines the verbal phrase as meaning “to remain where or as placed; to remain fixed or steady; also fig. (of persons, etc.).”

The earliest published reference in the dictionary is from the Sept. 23, 1843, issue of the New Mirror, a weekly journal in New York: “And now we have put her in black and white, where she will ‘stay put.’ ”

The usage apparently raised eyebrows in its early days. John Russell Bartlett, in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), describes it as a “vulgar expression”—that is, a common one.

In Haunted Hearts, an 1864 novel by Maria Susanna Cummins, the expression refers to a thing: “This curl sticks right out straight; couldn’t you put this pin in for me, so that it would stay put?”

James Russell Lowell, uses it to refer to a person in his 1871 essay collection My Study Windows: “He has a prodigious talent, to use our Yankee phrase, of staying put.”

Where, you ask, is put?

The OED doesn’t explain the origin of the usage, and we couldn’t find an explanation in any of our usual language references.

But there may be a clue in Oxford’s definition of the phrase: “to remain where or as placed.”

If we had to guess, we’d say the verbal phrase originally meant something like “to stay where someone or something is put,” or “to stay where one puts oneself.”

However, an idiomatic expression like “stay put” doesn’t necessarily have to make sense, as we’ve mentioned several times on the blog, including in a posting a couple of years ago. In other words, there may be no “where” there.

The word “put,” by the way, is one of the commonest English verbs, but its source is uncertain, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto says it goes back to an Old English word, putian, “never actually recorded but inferred from the verbal noun putung ‘instigation,’ but where that comes from is not known.”

He speculates that putung “was presumably related to Old English potian ‘push, thrust,’ whose Middle English descendant pote formed the basis of Modern English potter.” (Think of that, next time you find yourself pottering in the garden.)

In case you’re curious, the golfing term “putt” as well as the track-and-field term “shot put” are descended from that same uncertain source.

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Rhetorical deviltry

Q: Do you know who said this: “God gave us the word and the Devil gave us religion”?

A: This fill-in-the-blank formula—“God gave us X and the Devil gave us Y”—dates back in one form or another at least as far as the 16th century.

The old saying “God sends meat and the Devil sends cooks” has appeared, with slight variations, since about 1542, according to Robert William Dent, a scholar of colloquial and proverbial language in literature.

And it’s been much quoted ever since, especially in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Sometimes the verb is “give” instead of “send,” and the object is “food” instead of “meat.”

(Dent, a UCLA English professor who died in 2005, dated the expression in a footnote to Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Tool, a 1994 study of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

Over the years, the expression has proved highly adaptable, inspiring other proverbs like “God sent the wheat and the Devil sent the bakers,” and “God sends corn and the Devil mars the sack.”

We found this passage, for example, in A Cordial for Low Spirits (1763), a collection of tracts by Thomas Gordon:

“It is a common saying, that God sends meat, but the Devil sends cooks; so I think one may say of the Dean that God gave him an understanding, but the Devil gave him a will.”

In 1796, an English pastor, the Rev. William Huntington, wrote this in a letter to his brother: “As soon as God sent me ten pounds, the devil sent one or other to rob me of twenty.”

The formula is a handy rhetorical device for any writer wishing to contrast something good with something not so good.

For instance, here’s a passage from the April 1869 issue of The Methodist Quarterly Review, published in New York:

“Mr. Froude tells us that God gave us the Gospel, but that the devil gave us theology.” (The italics are the author’s.)

The formula survived intact into the 20th century and beyond.

A classmate of Samuel Beckett’s wrote that the headmaster at their Dublin school used to say, “God sends me the boys but the Devil sends me their parents.”

And you can find dozens of variations on the Internet with “religion” in the final position:

“God gave us truth [the universe ... spirituality ... reason ... the world ... love] and the devil gave us religion.”

It’s sometimes embellished a bit: “God gave us truth; the devil organized it and called it religion.”

Deepak Chopra is often quoted at second hand as saying something similar. For a direct quote, here’s an excerpt from an interview with him published April 18, 1998, in the St. Petersburg Times:

 “I like to think of myself as seeking spirituality, which is the basis of religion. God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion. ’ ”

The original was a highly flexible old proverb and we haven’t seen the last of it.

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Quote école

Q: I just discovered your blog and enjoyed reading several entries, although I noticed a small error in the recent post about British and American punctuation. The closing quotation mark in the British example should be inside the period, or rather the full stop, as the British say.

A: We’re glad to hear that you’re enjoying the blog. But our Oct. 29 post is punctuated correctly.

As you note, and as we’ve written before on our blog, British style often calls for placing periods outside closing quotation marks.

Often, but not always. The example we used in our blog post is an exception.

Here’s what The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has to say in a paragraph devoted to the British style for punctuating quotations:

“Single quotation marks are used, and only those punctuation points that appeared in the original material should be included within the quotation marks; all others follow the closing quotation marks. (Exceptions to the rule are widespread: periods, for example are routinely placed inside any quotation that begins with a capital letter and forms a grammatically complete sentence.) Double quotation marks are reserved for quotations within quotations.”

The sentence we used as an illustration is a typical example of this exception: As Professor Witherspoon told us, ‘The word “fructify” means to bear fruit.’

The quotation begins with a capital letter and is a grammatically complete sentence, so the period is placed BEFORE the closing quotation mark.

Keep reading. And keep reading so closely. We like our readers to keep us on our toes.

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Look, readers!

Q: I’ve noticed a lot of television commentators starting their comments with the word “look.” Is this something new? What’s the grammatical term to describe this?

A: What you’re describing is an idiomatic use of “look” that’s intended to get someone’s attention. And it’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary says “look” has been “used to bespeak attention” for more than a thousand years.

The verb “look” is used here in the imperative—that is, as a command. But it isn’t meant literally (to direct one’s sight). Here it’s used figuratively in the same way English speakers have also used “see,” “behold,” and “lo.”

According to Oxford, the word often appears as part of a phrase, “look you,” meaning “mind this,” which “in representations of vulgar speech” is written as “look’ee.”

Another such phrase, “look here,” is described as “a brusque mode of address prefacing an order, expostulation, reprimand, etc.” This phrase is often written as “look-a-here” or, in regional American usage, “looky.”

The OED has many examples of all of these attention-getting usages. The earliest is from the Benedictine monk and scholar Ælfric of Eynsham, who used loca nu (Old English for “look now” or “behold”) around the year 1000.

And the usage has been common ever since. Many of the OED’s citations are from written speech in plays, stories, or novels.

In the early 1600s, Shakespeare used “looke you” and “looke thee heere” in two of his plays. Later in the century, the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, used “look you now” and “look you, Sir” several times in his play The Rehearsal (1672).

In the early 18th century, Richard Steele used similar constructions in his writings in the Tatler: “Look ye, said I, I must not rashly give my Judgment” (1709), and “Look’ee, Jack, I have heard thee sometimes talk like an Oracle” (1710).

Charles Dickens used such phrases in at least two of his novels: “Now, look here my man … I’ll have no feelings here” (Great Expectations, 1861); and “Now, lookee here, my dear” (Our Mutual Friend, 1865).

American examples are plentiful too. This OED citation is from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876): “look-a-here—maybe that whack done for him!”

The use of “look” by itself is more familiar to us today, as in these 20th-century examples:

“Look, my Bill doesn’t include any blanket condemnation of unofficial strikes” (from the former BBC journal The Listener, 1949).

“Look, we don’t have to sit here. We could go down to the beach” (from George Sims’s novel Hunters Point, 1973).

So the commentators you mention are merely continuing a long tradition. People who constantly begin sentences with “Look” can get on one’s nerves. But an occasional example here or there isn’t out of line.

Note: We had a posting on the blog a couple of years ago about the use of “look” as a quasi-transitive verb in an expression like “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” 

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Should we dis “disassociate”?

Q: “Dissociate” or “disassociate”? The New Yorker used the latter, and I think it stinks. But what do I know?

A: A search of the New Yorker’s archive finds that writers for the magazine have used each word, with a slight preference for the shorter version.

Is one correct? Well, these verbs mean the same thing and are considered variants of one another, but some usage guides say “dissociate” is better.

For example, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says “disassociate” is “a common but now widely condemned variant (first recorded in 1603), of dissociate.”

Another guide, Garners Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), calls “dissociate” the “preferred term” and labels “disassociate” a “needless variant.”

Though Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) doesn’t condemn “disassociate,” the dictionary defines it in terms of the other verb: “to detach from association” or “dissociate.”

And “dissociate,” M-W says, means “to separate from association or union with another,” as in “attempts to dissociate herself from her past.”

As mentioned above, “disassociate” was first recorded in writing in 1603. The now favored variant, “dissociate,” followed soon afterward.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the verb “dissociate” appeared in 1623 in a dictionary that defined it as meaning “to separate.” So it must have been in use for some time before that.

An adjectival form (“dissociate”) was recorded in 1548; another adjective (“dissociated”) and a noun (“dissociation”) were both recorded in 1611.

Regardless of the chronology, the two verbs are defined similarly in the OED.

“Dissociate,” Oxford says, means “to cut off from association or society; to sever, disunite, sunder.” And “disassociate” means “to free or detach from association; to dissociate, sever.”

Ultimately, the Latin root of both is sociare (to join together or associate), and both have the negative Latin prefix dis-.

As the OED says, “dissociate” is from the Latin dissociare (to separate from fellowship). “Disassociate” was modeled after the 16th-century French verb désassocier.

Since both verbs have been in use for some 500 years, we can’t see why one is preferred over the other. But perhaps people feel shorter is better, and we often feel that way ourselves. “Dissociate” does save a syllable.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has an opinion here, as it does on most things:

Dissociate and disassociate share the sense ‘to separate from association or union with another,’ and either word may be used in that sense. Dissociate is recommended by a number of commentators on the ground that it is shorter, which it is by a grand total of two letters—not the firmest ground for decision.”

M-W’s conclusion: “Both words are in current good use, but dissociate is used more often. That may be grounds for your decision.”

PS: In case you’re wondering about the verb “dis” in the title of this post, we had an item on the blog some time ago about the usage.

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Blood and treasure

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the expression “blood and treasure,” as in “Was Vietnam worth the price in blood and treasure?”

A: We’ve seen the phrase “blood and treasure” a lot lately, but it’s an age-old poetic expression meaning “lives and money.” It’s generally been used in reference to the high price of war or conquest.

The expression seems to have been fairly common in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The earliest references we’ve been able to find appeared in the 1640s.

Passages from the proceedings of the House of Lords include “the Blood and Treasure that hath been spent” (1646) and, reversing the formula, “with great Expence both of their Treasure and Blood” (1643).

We found a petition to the British Parliament on behalf of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, dated 1647, that refers to “those our Native Liberties, which have now cost the Kingdom such vast Expence of Blood and Treasure.”

Sir Henry Vane used the expression in attacking Richard Cromwell in a speech before Parliament in 1659:

 “We have driven away the hereditary tyranny of the house of Stuart, at the expense of much blood and treasure, in hopes of enjoying hereditary liberty, after having shaken off the yoke of kingship.” (Vane was executed for treason the following year.)

The phrase crops up a lot in early 18th-century political pamphlets and essays, such as Robert Crosfeild’s The Government Unhing’d, a political treatise written in 1702 and published in 1703:

“In vain has the Nation spent so much Blood and Treasure, to preserve its Liberty, if Men have not the Freedom of Speech without Doors, as well as within.”

Daniel Defoe frequently used the expression. So did Jonathan Swift, who was so fond of it that he used it twice in a single sentence in this passage from his pamphlet The Publick Spirit of the Whigs, written in 1712:

“I cannot sufficiently commend our Ancestors for transmitting to us the Blessing of Liberty; yet having laid out their Blood and Treasure upon the Purchase, I do not see how they acted parsimoniously; because I can conceive nothing more generous than that of employing our Blood and Treasure for the Service of Others.”

In Swift’s other political writings, we find passages like these: “the Disposal of their Blood and Treasure” … “without whose blood and treasure” … “obtained by the Blood and Treasure of others”… “sacrificing so much Blood and Treasure” … “the blood and treasure of his fellow-subjects” … “prodigal of our Blood and Treasure” … “conquered … with so much Blood and Treasure” … “the loss of infinite blood and treasure,” “our best Blood and Treasure,” and others.

Possibly because of Swift’s influence, countless examples of the phrase appeared in books, newspapers, pamphlets, and journals of the 1720s, ’30s and ’40s.

In 1742, a speaker in the House of Commons referred to “Spain, which hath cost us much Blood and Treasure, and is like to cost us much more.”

And the 1778 issue of The Annual Register, a summary of the year’s events in Britain, referred to the Revolutionary War as “So great an exhausture of blood and treasure.”

Byron used the phrase in his poem The Age of Bronze (1823): “Blood and treasure boundlessly were spilt.”

At least two American presidents have used the expression at times of great political turmoil.

John Adams wrote on July 3, 1776: “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.”

And Abraham Lincoln said on Dec. 1, 1862, that the country’s essential nationhood “demands union and abhors separation. In fact, it would ere long force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost.”

In our own time, we’ve seen the phrase used in reference to the war in Afghanistan.

In a Pentagon press conference on Jan. 10, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the phrase in response to a similar usage by a journalist.

The journalist asked Panetta: “How do you go to the American people and ask for yet another year, 18 months, or more of blood and treasure to pour into this war that kind of seems endless?”

Panetta’s reply: “Look, we have poured a lot of blood and treasure in this war over the last 10 years. But the fact is that we have also made a lot of progress as a result of the sacrifices that have been made.”

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Homophobia, past and present

Q: Whenever there’s an insensitive, insulting, inhumane, or vulgar comment about homosexuals, the press describes it as homophobia. However, “homophobia” would seem to be the irrational fear of homosexuals, not the hatred of them.

A: It’s true that the noun “phobia” principally means an exaggerated or irrational fear. But when “-phobia” is a word element that’s part of another noun, it can also mean hatred of something, not just fear of it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “homophobia” in its usual contemporary sense as “fear or hatred of homosexuals and homosexuality.”

The adjective “homophobic” is defined by the OED as “pertaining to, characterized by, or exhibiting homophobia; hostile towards homosexuals.” And “homophobe” is “a homophobic person”—that is, someone hostile toward gay men or lesbians.

All three terms are relatively new in the sense you’re talking about, judging from the OED’s citations for their first appearances in print: “homophobia” in 1969; “homophobic” and “homophobe” in 1971.

However, the word “homophobia” is much older in another sense: fear of men. The first Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 5,1920, issue of Chambers’s Journal:

“Her salient characteristic was a contempt for the male sex as represented in the human biped …. The seeds of homophobia had been sown early.”

In a search of Google Books, we found a 1908 article in The Alienist and Neurologist, a quarterly medical journal, with what appears to be an even earlier citation for “homophobia” in this sense (juxtaposed with “gynephobia”).

In  an article entitled “La Phobie du Regard” (the fear of being looked at), C. H. Hughes describes a medical case and then adds, “In Beards’ neurasthenia or cerebrasthenia this phobie du regard would appear as homophobia and gynephobia.”

(Hughes is apparently referring to George Miller Beard, a 19th-century American neurologist who popularized the term “neurasthenia.”)

We also found an interesting later example of “homophobia” used to mean hatred of men. It comes  from The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, a 1940 story collection by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (a k a Ellery Queen):

“Mr. Ellery Queen paled, and choking, set down his weapons. When he had first encountered the lovely Miss Paris, Hollywood’s reigning goddess of gossip, Miss Paris had been suffering from homophobia, or morbid fear of men.”

Now let’s return to your question about the modern use of the word “homophobia” to mean hatred or fear of homosexuals or homosexuality.

A precursor was “’homoerotophobia,” a term used by Wainwright Churchill in Homosexual Behavior Among Males (1967). Churchill, a clinical psychologist, described it as a cultural fear of same-sex sexuality.

Another clinical psychologist, George Weinberg, has said he coined the use of the term “homophobia” in its contemporary sense in the mid-1960s.

In an interview with Gay Today, Weinberg says he used the term in a speech in 1965. However, he didn’t use it in print until 1971, when his book Society and the Healthy Homosexual appeared.

In a prologue to the interview, Gay Today claims inaccurately that the OED credits Weinberg with coining the use of the term “homophobia” in this sense.

In fact, the OED’s first written citation for the term used in its newer sense is from the Oct. 31, 1969, issue of Time magazine:

“Such homophobia is based on understandable instincts among straight people, but it also involves innumerable misconceptions and oversimplifications.”

The noun “phobia” in English—as in “I have a phobia of spiders”—is defined this way in the OED: “a fear, horror, strong dislike, or aversion; esp. an extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by a particular object or circumstance.”

The noun came into English in the 1780s and was adapted from Latin and Greek compounds that had -phobia as an element, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

As Chambers explains, the Romans borrowed the word element -phobia from the Greeks. In Greek, the noun phobos means fear and the verb phobein means frighten or put to flight. A related Greek verb, phebesthai, means to flee in terror.

The first such classical compound to come into English, according to the OED, was “hydrophobia,” which was borrowed from Latin in the 16th century. (Chambers says an early erroneous spelling, “ydroforbia,” appeared in 1392.)

“Hydrophobia” literally means a fear or a morbid dread of water, but since its earliest appearance it has also meant rabies. As the OED explains, this is because “an aversion to water or other liquids, and difficulty in swallowing them,” are symptoms of the disease when transmitted to humans.

“Hydrophobia,” the OED says, “is probably the model for subsequent English formations” ending in “-phobia.” Such words became “very abundant” in the 19th century, Oxford says.

Here are some examples, and the dates when they were first recorded in OED citations:

“Anglophobia” (coined by Thomas Jefferson, 1793), “pyrophobia” (fear of fire, 1858), “agoraphobia” (fear of crowds or of leaving home, 1871), “claustrophobia” (1879), and “gynophobia” (fear of woman, sometimes spelled “gynephobia,” 1886).

Also, “acrophobia” (fear of heights, 1888), “xenophobia” (aversion to foreigners, 1909), “triskaidekaphobia” (fear of the number thirteen, 1911), and “arachnophobia” (fear of spiders, 1925).

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