The Grammarphobia Blog

Title tracking

Q: Is there a term for a song that has the same title as the album it’s on? Is it called the “titular track”?

A: Although the phrase “titular track” is sometimes used for such a tune, the most common terms are “title song” and “title track.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says that when the word “title” is used as an adjective it can mean “having the same title as or providing the title for the collection or production of which it forms a part.” It gives this example: “the title song.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “title song” as “the song or track giving its name to a long-playing record.”

The OED’s earliest example is from the Jan. 6, 1961, issue of the British weekly magazine New Musical Express: “Am I that easy to forget … is the title song of a soft-sung album by Debbie Reynolds.”

Oxford defines “title track” (it hyphenates the term) simply as “title song.” The first citation in the dictionary is from the Feb. 21, 1970, issue of Melody Maker, a British weekly that merged with New Musical Express in 2000:

“It’s hard to believe that the same man who could write and play the extraordinary title track could also be responsible for ‘Spirits’ and ‘Search.’ ”

We’ve written a couple of posts about a related term, “eponymous,” which has traditionally referred to the person something is named for, as in “Hamlet is the eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.”

Modern dictionaries say the term can now refer to the named as well as the namer, as in “Hamlet is the eponymous title of Shakespeare’s play about Hamlet.”

Getting back to your question about a song with the same title as its album, here are the results of a few Google searches: “title song,” 14.1 million hits; “title track,” 10.3 million; “titular track,” 126,000; “titular song,” 22,400.

In case you’re wondering, the word “title” is quite old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. The OED says it was spelled titul in Old English and probably pronounced with a short “i” (as in “little”), similar to the short “i” in its Latin source, titulus (an inscription or a title).

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Myself and other selfies

Q: Every time I hear someone say “I myself,” it makes me pause. I can never figure out why someone would use such a redundancy. It seems more prevalent on the East Coast than on the West Coast. Is this regional? Is it correct?

A: There’s nothing grammatically wrong with using both a pronoun and its reflexive (“she herself,” “you yourself,” “I myself,” “me myself,” etc.), or a name plus a reflexive (“Herman himself,” “from Vivian herself”) for purposes of emphasizing the subject or object.

What IS considered poor English is using a reflexive in place of the pronoun or name, as in “John and myself went to the movies,” or “that’s between him and myself.” (The first reflexive should be “I” and the second one “me.”)

But for more than a thousand years, people have used reflexive pronouns for emphasis by placing them in apposition to (that is, as the equivalent of) the subject or object.

As far as we can tell, the usage is common wherever English is spoken: in the US, the UK, and elsewhere.

Within its entry for “myself,” for example, the Oxford English Dictionary says that in “emphatic uses,” the reflexive pronoun appears “in apposition to” an accompanying subject or object pronoun (“I” or “me”).

The OED has examples dating from before the year 1000 for “I myself,” when it was written ic me sylf in Old English. And it has examples of “me myself” dating from around 1300.

In these usages, Oxford says, the reflexive pronoun is used “in apposition to” an accompanying subject or object pronoun. As the OED explains, when used in apposition to “I,” the meaning of the reflexive is “in my own person; for my part; personally, as far as I am concerned.”

In the simplest emphatic use, the OED says, “myself is generally placed immediately after I.”

But when it appears elsewhere, as in “I will go to him myself” or “I’ve never been there myself,” the emphasis takes on another character. As the OED says, “in other positions there is often an explicit or implicit contrast with the idea of any other person performing the action.”

And the emphasis is strongest of all, Oxford adds, when the reflexive comes first. An example: “Myself, I wouldn’t think of it.”

The emphatic reflexive is not only legitimate, but it’s found in English literature from the earliest times. You may have heard this line from A. E. Housman’s poem A Shropshire Lad (1896): “Then the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.”

Of course Housman may have used the construction purely for reasons of meter (though we think it serves an emphatic purpose as well). But even in prose, the usage is common in cases where the lone pronoun or name just wouldn’t be enough.

Just for fun we looked into a few Shakespeare concordances, and we found scores of examples from the plays and sonnets of the sterling lad himself.

Shakespeare used “I myself” at least 38 times, as in this line from King Henry IV, Part I: “For I myself must hunt this deer to death.”

He used “you yourself” at least 18 times, as in this line from Twelfth Night: “It is perchance that you yourself were saved.”

He also used “he himself” 12 times, “she herself” seven times, “they themselves” six times, and “we ourselves” five times.

Many people think a word is incorrect if it’s not absolutely necessary. Not so. An extra word or two is often justified. We’ve written often on the blog about emphatic redundancy, including posts in 2012, 2008, and 2007.

As for the noun “selfie” in the title of this post, its use in the sense of an uploadable smartphone photo taken of oneself has been traced back to 2002.

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Are there fangs in newfangled?

Q: The adjective “newfangled” suggests there must have been a not-so-new version, “fangled.” And if there was a “fangled,” surely there must have been an even older noun or verb, “fangle.” Is there also lurking in the etymological past a pair of fangs?

A: Yes, there are sharp teeth associated with “newfangled,” but the history of the word is more complicated than that, so let’s forget the fangs for the time being. We’ll get back to them later.

This adjective is probably a lot older than you think. “Newfangled” has been around since the late 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It developed from an even earlier adjective, “newfangle,” which may have been recorded as early as 1250.

Originally, both “newfangle” and “newfangled” referred to people who were eager for novelty, though later both could refer to new and novel things.

 The OED says “newfangled” originally meant “very (esp. excessively or immoderately) fond of novelty or new things; keen to take up new fashions or ideas; easily carried away by whatever is new.”

It was first recorded in about 1496 in a book of sermons by Bishop John Alcock: “Boyes of fyfty yere of age are as newe fangled as ony yonge men be.”

The OED says this use of “newfangled” to describe novelty-loving people is “now rare.” The dictionary’s most recent citation is from Dorothy L. Sayers’s novel Clouds of Witness (1926):

“All these new-fangled doctors went out of their way to invent subconsciousness and kleptomania, and complexes and other fancy descriptions to explain away when people had done naughty things.”

In the mid- to late 1500s, the OED says, people began using “newfangled” to describe things, not people: something “newly or recently invented or existent,” as well as something “gratuitously or objectionably modern or different from what one is used to.”

It’s still used in those senses today.

Where did “newfangle” and the later “newfangled” come from? The source, according to Oxford, is an archaic Old English verb, “fang,” which was recorded as long ago as the year 855 and is still alive in some dialects of English.

Originally, to “fang” meant to grasp, seize, take, catch, attack, embrace, or simply to commence. But over the centuries it has had many associated meanings: to obtain, collect, get at, receive, earn, welcome, and others.

So etymologically, “newfangled” might be described as newly seized, newly begun, and so forth.

So where do the sharp teeth come in?

The verb “fang” gave rise to a noun, first recorded in 1016, meaning the thing caught or taken—the prey or the plunder. And it soon came to mean a capture or a catch, the OED says, and “also a tight grasp, a grip.”

The noun “fang” acquired another meaning in the mid-1500s: “a canine tooth; a tusk.” And the plural “fangs” was used generally to mean “the teeth of dogs, wolves, or other animals remarkable for strength of jaw.”

The connection is easy to imagine—from the verb that means to seize to the noun for prey and finally to the “fang” that means the predator’s tooth.

“Although the broad semantic connection between ‘seizing’ and ‘sharp canine teeth’ is clear,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “the precise mechanism behind the development is not known.”

At any rate, “newfangled” was in use well before “fang” meant an animal’s tooth, so there’s no direct line of descent though there is a connection.

But wait a minute. We haven’t discussed the word “fangled,” which you suspect must be in there somewhere.

Well, there was such an adjective. It was first recorded in 1587 and meant “characterized by crotchets or fopperies” (a “crotchet” is a whimsical notion).

But “fangled” came about in error, the OED says, through “a mistaken analysis of newfangled.” Writers in the 16th century erroneously assumed the existence of “fangle” as a noun and a verb, and consequently as an adjective, “fangled.”

The assumption was wrong of course, because “newfangled” is derived from the ancient verb “fang,” not from “fangle” and “fangled.”

The OED says “fangled” is obsolete now. It’s immortal, though, thanks to Shakespeare, one of those confused writers we mentioned.

We know he was familiar with “newfangled” because he used it three times in his plays and sonnets. And in Cymbeline, first produced in 1611, he too assumed there was a shorter adjective: “Be not, as is our fangled world, a garment / Nobler than that it covers.”

So if Shakespeare and his contemporaries could make that mistaken leap, perhaps it’s not surprising that you did too.

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Can kids see fun?

Q: I am working on a workbook for a children’s book, but I am stumped by this question: “What did Little Cub see on his adventure?” One choice is “Lots of Fun!” Can a person see fun? I am not sure how to word this and would appreciate your help.

A: A child (or a little cub) would not literally “see” fun. It’s something one has or experiences or encounters.

Although the verb “see” does have many nonliteral senses, its use with “lots of fun” wouldn’t be idiomatic.

You might use “discover” instead of “see” as your verb (“What did Little Cub discover on his adventure?”). Or is that too big a word for this age group?

 If you want to keep “see” as the verb, you might change the item to something like “Kids [or whatever] having fun.”

The word “see” has generally meant to perceive with the eyes since it first showed up in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled seon in Old English).

Here’s an example from the epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s. (We’ve expanded on the OED citation, and changed the runic letters thorn and eth to “th.”)

Thær mæg nihta gehwæm nithwundor seon, fyr on flode. Modern English: “There each night may be seen a fearful wonder, fire on the flood.”

But “see” has taken quite a few other meanings over the years: see (that is, imagine) things, circa 1200; see to (take care of) something, before 1300;  see (realize) something, 1390; see someone in gambling, 1599; see someone home or to the door, early 1600s; see good in someone (1831), and so on.

And now we’ll see to our next question.

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The house of delegates

Q: I’m having a discussion with a fellow professor over what it means when a government agency delegates a task to a private organization. Does the verb “delegate” mean to devolve ultimate authority? Or can it be used in the sense of handing over a task that the delegator is ultimately responsible for?

A: We don’t see any evidence that the verb “delegate” has ever meant to transfer ultimate authority for something.

When the verb entered English in the early 1500s, it meant—and it still means—to give a deputy or representative the authority to act on one’s behalf.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for the English: “I delegate myne auctorite, je delegue.”

This is how the OED defines the original sense of the word: “To entrust, commit or deliver (authority, a function, etc.) to another as an agent or deputy.”

There’s no suggestion here that the person doing the delegating is giving up ultimate authority for the task that’s being delegated.

In fact, we’ve found quite a few instances in which officials overruled their delegates or withdrew the authority that they delegated.

William K. Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the first Bush administration, discusses the issue in an oral-history interview.

“I believe in delegation—really believe in it,” he says. “I think that people ought to be allowed to make mistakes and if they’re good, they’ll learn from them.”

He adds that he delegated authority to his regional administrators and generally didn’t interfere with their decisions, but he notes:

“There were exceptions to that. I reversed my Regional Administrator on the Two Forks Dam. I also withdrew authority from my Regional Administrator in Chicago to oversee wetlands implementation in the state of Michigan.”

In the early 1600s, according to Oxford, the meaning of the verb “delegate” widened somewhat: “To send or commission (a person) as a deputy or representative, with power to transact business for another; to depute or appoint to act.”

The earliest example of the newer usage is from Henry Cockeram’s The English Dictionarie; or, An Interpreter of Hard English Words (1623): “Delegate, to assigne, to send in commission.”

Again, someone is delegating a subordinate to act in one’s stead, not giving up ultimate authority for the action.

The primary meaning of the verb “delegate” hasn’t changed much over the years. Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines it:

“1. To authorize and send (another person) as one’s representative.

“2. To commit or entrust to another: delegate a task to a subordinate.

In addition to those senses, the OED says, “delegate” took on a specialized legal meaning two hundred years ago: “To assign (one who is debtor to oneself) to a creditor as debtor in one’s place.”

As for its etymology, the English word comes from delegare, Latin for to send, dispatch, assign, or commit, but its ultimate source is leg-, an Indo-European root that’s given us such words as “legal,” “legislator,” “legitimate,” “colleague,” “legate,” and “college.”

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What’s the difference?

Q: I’ve always said “A is different from B,” but now I’m hearing television ads and reporters saying that “A is different to B.” (Currently, there is a denture ad that says, “Dentures are very different to real teeth.”) I cringe when I hear “different to,” but am I cringing with righteousness?

A: We’d say “different to” makes you cringe out of unfamiliarity, not righteousness. The usage has a long history, but it’s uncommon in American English despite your recent sightings or, rather, hearings.

In a post a few years ago, we pointed out that both “different from” and “different than” are legitimate constructions. But we didn’t say much about “different to,” except that it’s used in British English.

On one point, British and American speakers agree—“different from” is standard in all varieties of English. 

But the other two combinations—“different than” and “different to”—are controversial, depending on whom you ask and where you live. In very broad, general terms, Americans accept “different than” but not “different to,” while the reverse is true in Britain.  

Much has been written about all of this—probably more than it deserves.

The editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage say they have “thousands and thousands of words” in their files, by about 80 commentators, on the subject of “the propriety of different than or different to.”

Despite all the wordage, the M-W editors write, the various “different” phrases can be explained very simply:

● “different from”: This usage “is the most common and is standard in both British and American usage.”

● “different than”: This construction “is standard in American and British usage, especially when a clause follows than, but is more frequent in American.” (A clause contains both a subject and its verb.)

● “different to”: This phrase “is standard in British usage but rare in American.”

We should note here that not all authorities agree with M-W that “different than” is standard in Britain.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says “different than” is “hardly used at all in BrE [British English], but is well established in AmE.”

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, write: “American manuals accept than, especially with clausal complements, while British ones vary in their attitude to it: some defend it as permitting a simpler construction … but most do not allow it as standard in BrE.”

Another guide, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed.), by R. W. Burchfield, has this to say:

“The commonly expressed view that different should only be followed by from and never by to or than is not supportable in the face of past and present evidence or of logic.”

Despite that, Burchfield adds, “different to” is “rarer in AmE,” while “different than” is “widespread in AmE but does not form part of the regular language of Britain.”

Whether or not you regard “different than” as standard in Britain, it’s certainly standard in the US.

As we wrote in that blog entry, “different than” is especially handy before a clause. For example, “different than it appeared” is much simpler than “different from the way it appeared” or “different from what it appeared.”

Now on to the question at hand, the use of “different to.”

This construction, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “is found in writers of all ages, and is frequent colloquially, but is by many considered incorrect.”

As we’ve shown, it’s probable that most of the “many” who consider this incorrect are Americans, since “different to” isn’t considered incorrect in British English.

The British commentators Huddleston and Pullum give this example of the usage in the Cambridge Grammar: “This version is very different to the one we shall hear in the simulcast.”

From a historical perspective, there’s no doubt that “different to” has a respectable pedigree. Evidence in the OED shows that it was the first one on the scene, in 1526. “Different from” followed in 1593 and “different than” in 1644.

For many years, all three forms lived peacefully together. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 18th century that objections began cropping up. Some grammarians of the day found reasons to quarrel with both “different than” and “different to.”

Henry Fowler, in the first edition of his Modern English Usage (1926), defended both of them. Nevertheless, they still raise the ire of pedants in one English-speaking country or another.

We’ll conclude by saying that neither “different than” nor “different to” is incorrect. All that can be said against them is that in some places they aren’t commonly heard. 

British speakers don’t routinely use “different than.” Some still occasionally object to “different to,” though it’s a standard usage in Britain.

Similarly, some Americans still occasionally object to “different than,” though it’s standard in the US. But Americans rarely use “different to.”

So any American who uses “different to” on home ground can expect to inspire a few cringes.

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Texicography

Q: Your July 9 blog about how to pronounce “texted” inspires me to write about a ubiquitous and annoying pronunciation of the past tense of “text” here in Cincinnati. Young people almost exclusively pronounce the present as “tex” and the past as “text.” Maybe the past would be spelled “texed,” but that doesn’t change the pronunciation. Have you heard this in your area?

A: No, we weren’t aware of the usage until you mentioned it.

But on looking into this we find that quite a few people consider to “tex” the infinitive, with “tex” or “texes” the present, and “text” the past.

Others consider “tex” or “texes” the present, and “texed” (pronounced TEXT) the past tense. And still others use “text” or “texts” for the present and “text” for the past.

Interestingly, these usages aren’t confined to speech. We got more than half a million hits in Google searches for “tex” and “texed” used in place of “text” and “texted.”

And the linguist Arnold Zwicky, in searches for past tenses and past participles, found roughly one example of “text” for every five of “texted.”

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon, either, and it’s not limited to Cincinnati.

A July 25, 2005, article in the Modesto Bee, for example, reported that a friend sent this text message to the cell phone of a California teenager killed in a car crash:

“Tex me when u get to heaven.”

(Family members found the message on 16-year-old Stephanie Blevins’s phone.)

In standard English, as you know, the infinitive or root verb is “text,” the present tense is “text” or “texts,” and the past tense (as well as the past participle) is “texted.”

Why all the variants? We think pronunciation has a lot to do with this.

Some people hear the verb “text” as if it were spelled “texed,” and assume it’s a past tense. Naturally, the present tense would be “tex” or “texes.” (Think of “fax,” “faxes,” and “faxed.”)

The phonetician John Wells notes on his blog that the confusion here apparently lies with the consonant cluster at the end of “text.”

“The final cluster [kst] is highly susceptible to losing its final consonant, particularly when followed by a consonant sound,” Wells writes.

In words with similar-sounding endings (like “next,” “boxed,” and “mixed”), he says, “it’s usual for the final [t] to be elided (lost) except in very careful (over-enunciated) speech.”

The linguist David Crystal, however, finds “nothing intrinsically difficult about the consonant cluster at the end of text.”

“But adding an -ed ending alters the pronunciation dynamic,” he writes on his blog. “We now have two /t/ sounds in a rapid sequence, as we had in broadcasted.”

Although it’s “very unusual to find a new irregular past tense form in standard English,” Crystal says, it “does happen, as we see with the preference for shorter broadcast.”

He predicts that lexicographers will one day recognize “texed” as a legitimate past tense. We’re not so sure, but we’ll let Crystal have the last word.

“Whatever the reasons, we do now find forms such as texed and tex’d being used with increasing frequency,” he writes. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we find it being treated like broadcast in dictionaries, and given two forms.”

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Chili, chile, or chilli?

Q: Can “chile” describe a pepper, or is “chili” the correct spelling? My company has taken over the Golden Chile Award, which has been spelled that way for years. I would like not to correct it, but I also don’t want to misspell the award.

A: There are three spellings for this hot pepper from several varieties of the genus Capsicum: “chili,” “chile,” and “chilli.”

Which is correct? It depends on where you live.

The usual spelling in American English is “chili,” but “chile” is an acceptable variant. The only spelling in British English is “chilli,” though the Brits use the term for both hot and sweet peppers.

(The plurals are “chilies” or “chiles” in the US, and chillies” in the UK.)

Should you change the spelling of the pepper in the name of the award? We don’t think so.

Although we spell the word “chili,” there’s a good case to be made for sticking with the existing name of the award, which is given for sauces, relishes, and other fiery foods, as we’ve learned online.

The award is American, and the two US dictionaries we consult the most list “chile” as a legitimate variant of the more common spelling “chili.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says such a variant spelling is “acceptable in any context,” while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the choice here is a matter of “personal inclination.”

And, as you undoubtedly know, the Spanish word is spelled “chile” in Latin America, the  birthplace of the hot pepper. And that’s the way the word is spelled in “chiles rellenos,” the stuffed peppers that originated in Mexico.

However, the name of the plant was “chilli” in 16th-century transcriptions of Nahuatl, the indigenous language that gave Spanish the word.

The plant was spelled “chille” when it showed up in English in the 17th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Indian Nectar, a 1662 treatise on chocolate: “Some Pepper called Chille … was put in.”

However, the spelling is “chile” in the next OED example, from Vinetum Britannicum, a 1678 book by John Worlidge about cider: “Two Cods, or Pods, of Chile.”

Interestingly, the earliest citation for the usual American spelling, “chili,” is from a British novel, Vanity Fair (1848), by William Makepeace Thackeray:

“ ‘Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,’ said Joseph, really interested. ‘A chili,’ said Rebecca, gasping. ‘Oh yes!’ She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported.”

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The prince of shorthand

Q: Prince (the musical artist) popularized the modern practice of using shortened spellings of common words, sometimes using only one letter or number in place of a word. For example, the title “I Would Die 4 U.” But I’m wondering if there are popular examples of this in older English.

A: Prince apparently began using letters or numbers for sound-alike words as far back as 1981. His album Controversy, released that year, includes the song “Jack U Off.”

By the time he released his album Purple Rain (1984), Prince was further into this kind of abbreviating, liberally using the letter “u” (for “you”) and the numbers “2” (“to”) and “4” (“for”).

Cuts from that album include “Take Me With U” and “I Would Die 4 U,” which includes the lines “I would die 4 u, yeah / Darling if u want me 2” and “No need 2 worry / No need 2 cry.”

Prince has been in this shorthand mode ever since, writing lyrics like “4 all time I am with U / U are with me” (from his song “Adore”), and titles like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Nothin Compares 2 U,” and “The One U Wanna C.”

As you note, the trend has caught fire in the rest of the pop music industry.

In a 2002 article on the website MTV.com, the writer Corey Moss discusses the popularity of abbreviations and misspellings, suggesting that they make song titles and lyrics “stand out from the pack.”

Obviously, texting wasn’t around when Prince started using this type of shorthand. Brian Morton’s biography Prince: A Thief in the Temple (2007), suggests that Prince’s abbreviations were influenced by graffiti.

But almost certainly the development of email, instant messaging, and now texting has reinforced the use of such shorthand by other pop artists.

This brings us to your question—were such clipped usages around in days gone by? Well, not much, as far as we can tell, at least not until the early 20th century.

Although medieval scribes used dozens and dozens of abbreviations (we’ve written about their use of “X” for “Christ” in “Xmas”), we couldn’t find many early examples of letters or numbers used in place of words that they sound like.

For older examples, we checked the Oxford English Dictionary. But the OED records only a couple of historical instances, many centuries old, of “u” intended to represent “you.” (The OED doesn’t record any of the other Prince-style usages.)

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was probably written in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare constructs an elaborate pun in which “u” is a play on “you.”

And another comedy, Westward Hoe (c. 1604), by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, includes a scene in which naughty puns are played on letters of the alphabet—the fifth vowel being “u”/”you.”

But both of these are complicated plays on words rather than the kind of simple abbreviations we’re talking about.

The OED does have citations indicating that the letter combination “I.O.U” has been used since the 1700s as an abbreviation for “I owe you.”

But as we said, it would appear that the kind of abbreviating you mean—substituting a single letter or number for a word or part of one—didn’t really begin until a little over a century ago.

In 1923 the language scholar Louise Pound wrote about similar usages, which she had noticed a decade earlier but had since become more common.

“The tendency toward novelty of spelling has gained momentum in the last few years,” she wrote. “It is now a stock recourse in the coinage of trade names and in popular advertising.” 

Her article, “Spelling Manipulation and Present-Day Advertising” (1923), appeared in the journal Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society.

As early leaders in the abbreviation trend, she mentioned the products Uneeda Biscuits and E. Z. Walker shoes, both of which got their names around the turn of the century.

She went on to discuss successor products like Fits-U Eyeglasses and U-Rub-It-In ointment, as well as sales pitches such as “Oysters R now in Season” and “R U interested in a Rummage Sale?”

A few years later, Donald M. Alexander of Ohio Wesleyan University defended the use of “u” for “you.”

In a 1929 article in the journal American Speech—entitled “Why Not ‘U’ for ‘You’?”—he drew attention to the ubiquitous “While U Wait” signs in shoe-shine parlors, repair stores, and such.

Other service providers, he said, were using expressions like “U Drive It” and “I. C. U. R. ready for our real estate.”

He also cited trade names including U Put It On Weather Strip, U-Do-It Graining Compound, Wear U Well Clothes, Wear U Well Shoes, U-Bet-U It’s Good Candy, and several others.

“Likewise,” he wrote, “the Wayne County Highway Commissioners (Detroit) have erected large roadside maps at important crossings throughout the county which indicate the tourists’ whereabouts by means of an arrow which points to the particular crossing saying ‘U R Here.” And should you travel into Northern Michigan with Petoskey for your destination you will be informed as you cross this particular county line that ‘U R now in Emmet County.’ ”

[After this item was posted, a reader (@4thEstateX) tweeted to remind us of “Toys ’R’ Us” (1957). The company refers to itself as “Toys’R’Us,” though its logo is “ToysЯUs.”]

Perhaps the most analyzed early 20th-century example of the usage is in the postcard that Denis Breen receives in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was serialized from 1918-1920.

Denis’s wife, Josie, meets Bloom on the street, takes the postcard out of her handbag, and hands it to him:

“ ‘Read that,’ she said. ‘He got it this morning.’

“ ‘What is it?’ Mr Bloom asked, taking the card. ‘U.P.?’

“ ‘U.P.: up,’ she said. ‘Someone taking a rise out of him. It’s a great shame for them whoever  he is.’

“ ‘Indeed it is,’ Mr Bloom said.”

The phrase “U.P.: up” here, with its suggestion of urination and erection, has been the source of much speculation among Joyceans. We side with those who believe it simply stands for “You pee up.”

Getting back to Prince, by the time he came along, as u can c, the pattern was well established.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: New words and back-to-school words. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
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A bordello on the waterfront

Q: On a visit to a Canadian lake, I saw bord de l’eau signs along the edge of the water. The French looked to me a lot like “bordello.” Is there a connection? Bordellos were frequently near the waterfront since sailors were good customers.

A: No, there’s no connection between bord de l’eau and “bordello”—at least no direct connection—though the two usages may have had an ancestor in common back in ancient times.

English adopted “bordello” in the late 16th century from Italian, in which bordello means a brothel, an uproar, or a mess.

The earliest citation for “bordello” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Every Man in His Humor, a 1598 play by Ben Jonson: “From the Burdello, it might come as well.”

In the early 1300s, however, English borrowed “bordel,” a now obsolete word for a house of prostitution, from Old French, where bordel meant a cabin, hut, or brothel, according to the OED.

Both the Italian and Old French words are derived from borda, the medieval Latin term for a hut. So a bordello was originally a little hut for prostitution.

The OED says the etymology here “is still wanting,” but it speculates that borda may have once meant a “thing of boards.” In Old English, bord meant, among other things, a board or plank.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Old English word, as well as similar ones in other Germanic languages, may have come from—or been influenced by—two different prehistoric Germanic roots:

“Some evidence suggests that the Germanic word was a fusion of two different but related words: one that had senses related to ‘plank, table, shield’; the other with senses related to ‘border, rim, side of a ship.’ ”

So the “bord-” in “bordello” may come from the “plank” sense in prehistoric German, while the bord in bord de l’eau (like the “board” in “seaboard”) may come from the “edge” sense. (We had a post a while back that discussed “seaboard.”)

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Can the White House talk?

Q: Quick question. What is the term for a statement like “the White House replied” or “the Mayor’s office said” or “the record company claimed”? In other words, what is it called when inanimate objects make statements?

A: It’s amazing how many of the quick questions that pop up in our inbox aren’t so quick to answer.

There are several terms for giving inanimate objects human attributes. But do the phrases “White House,” “mayor’s office,” and “record company” refer strictly to inanimate objects?

We don’t think so, and many dictionaries agree with us.

Let’s look at “White House” first. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “The popular name for the official residence of the President of the United States at Washington; hence, the President or his office.”

So the term “White House,” according to the OED, can refer to the president’s residence, the president himself, or the presidency.

We’d expand on that, as the online Macmillan Dictionary does, to include “the people who work at the White House, including the President.”

Many standard dictionaries also offer expansive definitions of the term “office.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says it can refer to “the administrative personnel, executives, or staff working in such a place.”

The online Collins English Dictionary says it can mean “the group of persons working in an office” while Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) says it can mean “all the people working in such a place.”

The word “company” has been people oriented since it first showed up (spelled compainie) around 1250, according to the OED.

It originally meant companionship, and etymologically refers to people sharing bread. In Latin, com- means “with” and panis means “bread.”

In modern English, the word “company” still has that sense of companionship, as in having “company” over for dinner or keeping “company” with someone.

In the commercial sense, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), it refers to “an association of persons for carrying on a commercial or industrial enterprise.”

What, you ask, is the technical term for the phenomenon that occurs when a building or an office or a company issues statements?

Well, one possibility is “personification,” a figure of speech in which inanimate objects are given human qualities. For instance, “The house welcomed us back after our long vacation.”

Another possibility is “metonymy,” which refers to substituting a word or phrase for a related one. For example, the use of “Hollywood” to stand for the American film industry, including the people in it.

Still another possibility is “pathetic fallacy,” a literary term for giving human feelings to a natural phenomenon, like “somber clouds” or “nasty wind.”

The 19th-century British critic John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy” in attacking sentimentality in poetry.

No matter what you call it, we suspect that the usage originated as newspaper shorthand. Why waste all that ink and paper on “Whosis Q. Whatsis, a spokesman for the president,” when “the White House” gets the point across?

The earliest examples we could find were in newspaper articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Here’s a “company” example from a March 3, 1888, article in the New York Times about  a strike against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad: “Local freights, the company says, are being moved in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.”

And here’s one from an Aug 6, 1889, article in the Deseret News in Salt Lake City about a dispute between the postmaster general and Western Union about telegraph rates:

“The company says the Postmaster-general has thus been able to occupy and use streets in large cities regardless of local authority, and almost regardless of the public opinion.”

A Nov. 23, 1912, article in the Boston Transcript has 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue mum about an offer by Andrew Carnegie to provide pensions for American presidents:

“The White House is silent, for obvious reasons, but close friends of the President are confident that Mr. Taft would not accept a pension from this source.”

An Oct. 9, 1913, article in the New York Times about a confrontation between the White House and the Senate notes that “what the White House said appeared to mollify those senators who had let their angry passions rise.”

As for “office,” here’s an example from an Oct. 30, 1938, article in the Pittsburgh Press about a proposed agreement to end a strike by retail clerks against 35 department stores:

“The Mayor’s office said that the pact was a ‘tentative agreement’ which must obtain approval of both the union and the retailers’ council.”

If you’d like to read more about personification, we had a post on the blog some time ago about referring to countries and ships as “she.”

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A fraudster by any other name

Q: I’m editing a bunch of fraud-management documents created by colleagues in Europe, and I’ve been changing “fraudster” to “fraud perpetrator” for American audiences. Do you think my instinct is right, or is “fraudster” acceptable in American English?

A: We’ve found “fraudster” in only one standard American dictionary—the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged—and it says the word is chiefly British.

Not surprisingly, “fraudster” is in the four British dictionaries we’ve checked, defined variously as a swindler, someone who gets money by deceiving people, or a person who commits fraud, especially in business dealings.

Is “fraudster” acceptable in US English?

Well, it depends on the audience. It would be perfectly understandable to an American, and the primary goal of writing is communicating. But it sounds somewhat slangy to American ears—at least to our four American ears.

We like the term, however, and we wouldn’t hesitate using it in casual speech or informal writing. In fact, “fraudster” is a lot easier to find in US publications than in US dictionaries.

A Nov. 11, 1995, article in the New York Times, for example, describes “the victims of an opportunistic credit-card fraudster who also happened to be their waiter.”

And a Jan. 5, 2011, article in The Wall Street Journal begins: “Fraudster Bernard Madoff’s sister-in-law Marion, whose husband, Peter, was the former chief compliance officer at his brother’s firm, is asking $6.5 million for her Palm Beach, Fla., home.”

[After this item was posted, the writer Ben Yagoda pointed out that an article in the Aug. 26, 2013, issue of the New Yorker quotes an art historian comparing the art forger Mark A. Landis to “identity fraudsters.” Another reader had this comment: “I would add that the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners regularly uses the word ‘fraudster’ in its publication.  The word is widely accepted in the United States amongst those who seek to prevent, detect and prosecute fraud.”]

If the documents you’re editing are intended for professionals trying to prevent or control fraud, and if you think it might be a familiar term to them, “fraudster” is fine.  It won’t sound slangy or informal to such readers.

In our opinion, a general audience might find “fraud perpetrator” a bit clunky. For alternatives, consider a term that’s in American dictionaries, “defrauder.” And if your readers would accept a bit of informality, you might occasionally stick in a “deceiver” or a “swindler” (even a “fraudster” or two).

The term “fraudster,” by the way, is relatively new. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1975 issue of the Financial Times, though Merriam-Webster Unabridged dates the first known use of the term to 1960.

The OED notes that the word combines the noun “fraud” with the old suffix “-ster,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon days.

The Old English version of “-ster” was used to form feminine nouns while the Old English version of the suffix “-er” was used to form masculine nouns, according to Oxford.

In the 15th century, the “-ster” suffix gradually began losing its feminine identity, but a new suffix, “-ess,” showed up to replace it.

The old words “seamster” and “songster,” for example, became “seamstress” and “songstress.” An exception to this etymological evolution is “spinster,” which kept its old suffix.

From the 16th century on, the OED says, writers began using “-ess” to create new words, such as “actress,” “authoress,” “priestess,” and so on.

But the dictionary notes “the tendency of mod. usage” to treat nouns “indicating profession or occupation, as of common gender, unless there be some special reason to the contrary.”

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Stroke treatment

Q: Your recent article about stroking and stoking egos has inspired this question. How did the verb “stroke” come to mean caress while the noun “stroke” came to mean hitting? 

A: The word “stroke” has followed a long, twisted, and (as you’ve noticed) contradictory path since it evolved from its prehistoric Germanic roots.

Language scholars have reconstructed the ultimate source of “stroke” as strik- or straik-, an ancient Germanic base meaning to touch lightly.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this prehistoric root also gave English the word “strike,” which is a clue to the evolution of “stroke.”

“The verb has stayed very close semantically to its source,” Ayto writes, “whereas the noun has followed the same path as its corresponding verb strike.”

As we noted in our earlier post, when the verb “stroke” entered Old English in the ninth century, it meant to run a hand softly over the head, body, or hair of a person or an animal. The verb has generally meant to caress—figuratively or literally—since then.

But when the noun “stroke” showed up (probably sometime before 1300, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology), it referred to the act of striking.

Over, the years, the noun has had many meanings, some that suggest striking and some caressing. Here’s a selection from the Oxford English Dictionary:

a blow with an ax (circa 1400), the striking of a clock (1436), a linear mark (1567), a pull of the oar (1583), a seizure (1599), a caress (1631), a movement of a pen (1683), a calamitous event (1686), the hitting of a ball (1744), a swimming movement (circa 1800), a stroke of luck (1853).

It’s time for us to break for lunch, so we’ll end with this example from one of our favorite novels, Doctor Thorne (1858), by Anthony Trollope: “He dressed himself hurriedly, for the dinner-bell was almost on the stroke as he entered the house.

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Throw the brook at them!

Q: Do you know the origin and precise meaning of “brought to brook”? I used it recently as a shorthand for “made to answer for one’s bad actions” or “brought to justice.” But I may be misusing it and couldn’t readily find it with a Google search.

A: You’ve mushed together two somewhat similar constructions that are often conflated: “bring someone to book” (that is, to bring him to justice or punish him) and “bring someone to brook something” (bring her to accept or tolerate it).

The two expressions are often seen in similar passive constructions: “We have to make sure he’s brought to book” … “I don’t think she’ll ever be brought to brook their bigotry.”

Both usages showed up in English in the early 1800s, though we could find only one (“bring to book”) in dictionaries.

However, we’ve found many versions of “bring to brook” in 19th-century  writing, and some writers have used “brook” in the sense of “book” (though lexicographers don’t acknowledge this usage).

As you can imagine, the noun “book” is quite old, first showing up in the writings of King Alfred in the late 800s. In Old English, the word referred to various kinds of written documents, including deeds, lists, treatises, and literary works.

At the end of the 1400s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “book” (later “books”) came to mean the accounts of a business.

And by the 1500s, “book” was being used loosely in the sense of an official or personal set of standards.

The expression “bring to book” first showed up in the early 1800s in the sense of requiring someone to account for his actions.

The OED defines the expression as “to bring to account, cause to show authority (for statements, etc.); to examine the evidence for (a statement, etc.), investigate.” The earliest example in the dictionary is from an 1804 issue of Sporting Magazine:

“ ‘Tis not my business to examine your accounts, Sir—but should I bring you to book … there is something in that sly countenance that tells me you have sometimes staked your credit at too great a venture.”

The OED, like the other dictionaries we’ve checked, doesn’t have an entry for “bring to brook,” but it includes the verb “brook,” which meant to “make use of” or “profit by” when it showed up in Old English.

In the 1500s, according to Oxford’s citations, it took on the sense of to “put up with, bear with, endure, tolerate.”   

Here’s an example from Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667): “Heav’n … Brooks not the works of violence and Warr.”

And here’s one from Northanger Abbey (1803), Jane Austen’s first novel: “The General … could ill brook the opposition of his son.”

All the OED citations for this sense of “brook” are in negative constructions, and the dictionary says that’s the only way the usage is seen now.

As for “bring to brook,” we’ve found many examples of the expression used in the 19th century in the sense of bringing someone to accept or tolerate something.

Here’s an entertaining equine example from Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae, an 1826 book of religious writing by Robert Southey:

“It was always a gentle beast, and for that reason had always been ridden by the nobleman’s wife. But after carrying the Pope, the horse could never again be brought to brook his mistress; showing by the most expressive snorting and neighing, and by his indignant motions, that, consecrated as his back had been, no woman must ever presume to take her seat there.”

We’ve also seen quite a few examples, especially in the 20th century, of “bring to brook” used in the sense of “bring to book”—that is, bring to justice or punish.

Here’s one from a 1906 report by the National Association of Training Schools, an organization representing institutions for young offenders:

“You cannot solve the juvenile question by merely punishing the child. You must reach the home—the guilty parent who in most instances is the cause of the child’s undoing. The parents should be brought to brook for delinquency of the child as well as truancy.”

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How to correct a friend’s English

Q: I have a friend who loves using interesting words, but he often misuses them. For example, he uses “to whit” in the wrong way when everyday language would suffice. I’d like to help him, but I don’t know how to do it without hurting his feelings. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.

A: We often get questions like this, and they always make us uncomfortable.

“What’s the best way to correct my boss?” someone will ask, or “How can I keep my daughter-in-law from passing on her bad grammar to my grandchildren?”

This subject has more to do with etiquette than with grammar, which is one of several reasons it makes us squeamish (we are not Emily Post). Another reason is that there’s no good answer.

We’re in the business of giving people advice about their English, and in our writing we comment freely because we’re expected to. But in our “real” lives—apart from our blog, books, and other writing—we keep our opinions to ourselves unless we’re asked.

If someone we’re talking with tosses in a “should have went” or a “tough road to hoe,” we don’t interrupt to correct him. Neither do we clumsily insert the correct usage (“should have gone,” “tough row to hoe”) into our end of the conversation. This is not tactful—it’s still a correction, however oblique.

When the two of us meet new people, they often say something like “I’ll have to watch what I say around you!” We groan inwardly when we hear this, because nothing could be further from the truth. People are much more to us than the grammar they use. If they don’t ask, we don’t tell.

Now, some people get a kick out of debating points of grammar. It’s not unusual for office friends, or perhaps a married couple, to write and ask us to settle a good-natured argument. 

But your friend may be different. From what you say, he prides himself on his English (how many people use “to wit”?), and his ego may be easily bruised.

If he asks your opinion about his English, fine. But if he doesn’t, do you really want to risk hurting him and losing his friendship over something so trivial as an error in usage? (Here’s a self-serving suggestion. Tell him that as someone who appreciates language he might like to check out our blog.)

There’s another reason that it’s not a good idea to “correct” people’s English. You could be wrong.

We wrote a post a few years ago, for example, that explained why the phrase is “to wit,” not “to whit.” (When someone makes a mistake in a question, we usually fix it without comment, but we left this one in to make a point.)

Many so-called rules of grammar aren’t rules at all

For instance, the boss mentioned above might be “guilty” of nothing more than “splitting” an infinitive. But that’s perfectly good English, as we’ve written many times, including posts in 2013 and 2011.

And perhaps the daughter-in-law ends her sentences with prepositions. That’s no crime. either.

In short, unless you’re a teacher, the parent of a young child, or a mentor who’d be expected to correct someone’s English, think twice before doing so.

And if you do forge ahead, be sure you’re right. We’re all human and we’re all wrong at times—the “corrector” as well as the “corrected.”

We’re reminded of an exchange in Judith Martin’s book Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (2005):

Dear Miss Manners: A friend of mine always corrects me when I say the word ‘drapes.’ She says that is vulgar, and that the right word is ‘draperies.’ Which of us is correct?

Gentle Reader: You are both hopeless. The word for material that hangs on the sides of windows is ‘curtains.’ ”

Our gentle readers are aware, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with using “drapes” or “draperies” for “curtains” in American English.  

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How the Bard and Cicero spoke

Q: In one of your quizzes, you say, “The accent we now associate with educated British speech didn’t develop until after the American Revolution.” I am not doubting this, but I question how you know. I recall the same question learning Latin: how does anyone know the way Romans pronounced words?

A: We’ve written often on our blog about the way English was pronounced in the past, including a post last year about efforts to present Shakespeare’s plays in Elizabethan English.

In that item about what is known as Original Pronunciation, we explain how linguists have reconstructed the sounds of Elizabethan speech. Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

How, you ask, do we know the way the ancient Romans spoke Latin?

In Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin (1965), W. Sidney Allen offers details of how scholars have reconstructed the ancient pronunciation.

Michael A. Covington, a linguist at the University of Georgia, has a brief online summary of Allen’s explanation:

“The Latin alphabet was meant to be entirely phonetic. Unlike us, the ancient Romans did not inherit their spellings from any earlier language. What you see is what you get.

“Language teaching was big business in Roman times, and ancient Roman grammarians give us surprisingly detailed information about the sounds of the language.

Languages derived from Latin give us a lot of evidence. In fact, many of the letters of the alphabet are pronounced the same way in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. It stands to reason that the original Latin pronunciation has survived.

“Spelling errors made by the ancient Romans are very informative. If two letters are often mixed up, they must sound fairly similar. Likewise, if two letters are never mixed up, we know they sounded different.”

“Here’s an example. In classical times, the natives had no trouble keeping ae distinct from e; if they ever misspelled ae it came out ai. Later on, they started changing ae to e. That enables us to pinpoint when the sound of ae changed.

“Finally, transcriptions into other writing systems, such as Greek and Sanskrit, often pin down the ancient pronunciation of Latin very precisely.”

Although scholars may know quite a bit about how Caesar spoke Latin, the Latin spoken today doesn’t necessarily reflect their scholarship.

We’re simplifying things here, but there are lots of different Latins–church Latin, botanical Latin, schoolhouse Latin, and so on–with lots of different pronunciations.

For example, scholars say Julius Caesar pronounced his name YOO-lee-us KYE-sahr, but it’s pronounced YOO-lee-us CHAY-sahr in church Latin in Italy and JOO-lee-us SEE-zer in historical references in English.

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Spendy spree

Q: I’ve been hearing/seeing “spendy” used to mean costly or expensive in recent months. It’s in some online dictionaries.  Have you seen this? Any thoughts? I think it’s too cutesy to take seriously, which isn’t to say I haven’t used it myself.

A: Believe it or not, “spendy” has been in use for more than a century. We think it’s a pretty cool word and can’t understand why it’s not more popular, considering that “spendy” has been available for so long.

It’s out there, but not as out as we’d expect. A simple Google search for “spendy” gets more than 800,000 hits, but a search for “pricey” gets 24.5 million.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjective originated and is chiefly used in the US. It originally meant “extravagant, spendthrift,” but later another sense was added—“expensive” or “overpriced.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a May 1911 issue of the Indianapolis Star: “ ‘Come, boys,’ he said in a reckless impulse of sordid profligacy, ‘let’s have a candy raffle…’ ‘That’s awfully sporty and spendy of you.’ ” 

In searches of our own, we found another example from that same year. It appeared in an ad that ran in Edward P. Remington’s Annual Newspaper Directory for 1911: “These papers reach a thrifty and ‘spendy’ people in all sections of Utah.”

And we found further examples from the teens and twenties, including this one from a comic poem in the Saturday Evening Post (1913): “All found they were living a trifle too spendy / For the payment attached to their modus vivendi.”

This more contemporary example from the OED uses “spendy” to describe big spenders. It’s from a March 2002 issue of the Wall Street Journal: “It was an Olympic crowd, not a ski crowd. … That’s not a real spendy crowd. They eat fast food.”

We’ve also found a handful of examples, from the last decade or so, in which “spendy” appears in negative political contexts—“spendy politicians,” “spendy Democrats,” “spendy Congress,” “spendy liberal,” “spendy officials,” and so on. 

But oddly, the few standard dictionaries that recognize “spendy” see it as an adjective that applies to things, not people.

We found the word in three standard dictionaries, always defined as “expensive” or “costly.” None of the three define it as “extravagant” or “spendthrift.” 

And while most dictionaries agree that this is an American usage, we’ve had no trouble finding examples in British writing.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes “spendy” as an informal adjective meaning expensive or costly. The fourth edition describes the usage as “chiefly Pacific Northwest,” but that characterization has been deleted from the fifth.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the term is “chiefly Northwest.” (M-W also gives the comparative form, “spendier,” and the superlative, “spendiest.”)

The Collins English Dictionary, published in Britain, describes the word as a “US” adjective, though the example given is from a British newspaper, the Sunday Times (2002):

“Her magazine, O, might as well be called ‘Never mind the spendy moisturisers get rid of your terrible husband.’ ” 

And one of the later examples from the OED is also from a British publication, Snowboard UK (2004):

“So now you’ve got your selection of kit from our six of the blingest, you’re going to need to get out there and use it in anger—preferably in the poshest, spendiest resort out there for maximum bling effect.”

As for the etymology of “spendy,” we’ve found suggestions online that it’s a blending of “expensive” and “trendy.” But obviously that’s impossible, since “trendy” was nonexistent in 1911.

The OED’s etymology says the adjective-forming “-y” suffix was added to the word “spend.” As usual, the simpler explanation makes much more sense.

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Briefing paper

Q: Am I correct that the word “brief” applies to temporal length, such as a meeting or a vacation, but not to something linear, such as a document? Hence, a “brief nap” but a “short essay”? Speaking of naps …

A: Nope, both meanings of “brief” are well established. In fact, they date back to Middle English.

When the adjective entered the language, around 1400, it meant “of short duration, quickly passing away or ending,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But very soon, around 1430, it was recorded in another sense—“short, concise”—as in a brief speech or essay. This meaning emerged, the OED explains, from the sense of “occupying short time in speaking or reading,” and hence “consisting of few words.”

Shakespeare used the word in both senses.

The first meaning is evident in this familiar quotation from Macbeth (perhaps 1606): “Out, out, breefe Candle, / Life’s but a walking shadow.”

And the second meaning is intended in this passage from Hamlet (1603): “The Chronicles / And Briefe abstracts of the time.”

The adjective came into Middle English from the Old French bref, which in turn came from the Latin brevis (short).

The dual meaning of “brief” should come as no surprise, since the Romans used brevis in several senses—conciseness of expression as well as time, distance, dimension, and so on.

Latin literature has many examples, from Cicero (Brevis a natura nobis vita data est—“The life given to us by nature is short”), Horace (Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio—“In trying to be concise, I become obscure”), and many others. 

It’s interesting to note that the English noun “brief” is older than the adjective. It was first recorded in 1330, when it meant a short piece of writing.

As the OED explains, the noun is descended from the Latin breve (“letter, dispatch, note”), a word that in late classical Latin came to mean a “short catalogue, summary.” 

“From official Latin the word entered at an early period into all the Germanic languages” except for Old English, the OED says. Instead, the noun “brief,” like the adjective, “appears to have entered early Middle English from French.”

This explains why the noun “brief” is used one way in English and another in the other Germanic languages.

Here (as in French), the noun “has remained more distinctly an official or legal word, and has not the general sense ‘letter,’ which it has acquired in continental Germanic,” the OED says.

Those Latin ancestors, by the way, live on in several English words: “abbreviate”; “abridge”; “brevity”; “breve,” a musical term for a short note; and of course “briefs,” a 20th-century word for short underpants—or “shorts,” if you prefer.

Enough. We’re ready for a nap ourselves.

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Ego trips

Q: I recently came across “stroke their egos” in the Globe and Mail in Toronto. I always thought one “stokes” (i.e., feeds) an ego, not “strokes” it. I’d appreciate your opinion.

A: The more popular—and, in our opinion, the more idiomatic—version of the usage is “stroke one’s ego.” It’s also the one that makes more sense etymologically.

However, this usage is relatively new and may still be evolving, perhaps even evolving into two similar expressions with somewhat different meanings.

Although we’ve found a few examples of both “stroke” and “stoke” versions from the 1950s, “stroke” was the clear favorite by the time the usage caught on in the ’70s and ’80s.

Our feeling is that “stroke one’s ego” showed up first and that the “stoke” version was initially the result of an eggcorn, the misinterpretation of a word or phrase as another plausible word or phrase.

But we haven’t yet found evidence in searchable newspaper and literary databases to support this belief. In fact, the earliest example of the expression we could find uses “stoke,” not “stroke.” Here’s the story.

When the verb “stroke” entered Old English in the ninth century, it generally meant to run a hand softly over the head, body, or hair of a person or an animal “by way of caress or as a method of healing,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s translation (circa 897) of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I on the responsibilities of the clergy.

But in the early 1500s, the OED says, the verb “stroke” took on a new meaning—to soothe, flatter, or treat indulgently.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (circa 1610): When thou cam’st first / Thou stroakst me, & made much of me.”

In recent usage, Oxford says, “stroke” has added the sense of reassuring someone (say, a timid child) or manipulating somebody (perhaps a politician).

The OED doesn’t include the phrase “stroke one’s ego,” but its entry for the verb “stroke” cites this convoluted example from the March 1975 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

“It’s Show Biz, man—a bunch a’ egomaniacal people using a captive audience to stroke themselves.”

We think that the expression “stroke one’s ego” is an extension of the soothing or flattering sense of the verb “stroke.”

Although the phrase “stoke one’s ego” also makes sense, it’s a somewhat different sense. Yes, we might “stoke” an ego to manipulate a politician or pep up an athlete, but we’d be more likely to “stroke” an ego to flatter a client or reassure a child.

The verb “stoke” (meaning to “feed, stir up, and poke the fire”) showed up in English in the 17th century, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto describes “stoke” as a back-formation, a term given to new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones—in this case the noun “stoker” (the guy who feeds a furnace).

Ayto says English borrowed “stoker” from a similar term in Dutch, where the verb stoken meant to put fuel into a furnace.

By the 18th century, according to the OED, the English verb “stoke” was being used figuratively in the sense of stoking or stirring up a controversy.

However, the OED has no examples of “stoke” used in the sense of flattering or treating indulgently.

As we’ve said, the expressions “stroke one’s ego” and “stoke one’s ego” both showed up in the 1950s.

The earliest example we could find of either one is this quote from an Oct. 22, 1952, editorial in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about wage controls:

“But whom are they going to fight to get the 40 cents a day for that milk while you stoke your ego by encouraging them to stay away from work?”

The earliest example we’ve found of the “stroke” version is from a publication about the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association’s 1954 convention. In discussing how to deal with behavioral psychologists, this advice is given:

“Deal with them on an equal basis, and appeal to their pride; stroke their egos, recognize their importance. Recognition, to a behavioristic psychologist, is the most important word in the profession. People want to be recognized.”

By the 1970s and ’80s, as we’ve mentioned above, “stroke one’s ego” was the predominant version the expression.

Here’s a “stroke” example from Cat Astrology, a 1976 book by Mary Daniels: “It’s actually very easy to get along with a Leo cat. Stroke his ego as much as his fur, call him your ‘King of Beasts,’ or your ‘Little Princess’ or ‘Movie Star.’ ”

And here’s a “stoke” example from a Feb. 24, 1986, article in the Glasgow Herald about Wallace Mercer, the flamboyant chairman of the Scottish soccer club team Heart of Midlothian: “Hearts may have benefited from having him front but it has also helped stoke his ego.”

In googling various versions of the expression (with “his,” “her,” “your,” and “their” egos being stroked or stoked), we’ve found that “stroke” is now clearly more popular than “stoke.”

Although the “stoke” version may have begun life as an eggcorn, some people (you, for example) are deliberately choosing “stoke” (to feed) over “stroke” (to soothe).

Could we be seeing the evolution of two similar expressions with somewhat different meanings? Only time will tell.

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The Grammarphobia Blog

Letterary criticism

Q: Is there a word for someone who writes a book that consists only of letters? If there is no such word, how does “epistlographer” strike you?

A: There are quite a few words for letter writers, but none (at least none that we can find) for authors who write epistolary collections. If we were to invent one, though, we might adapt an Italian word for a man of letters, scholar, or author—letterato.

As we’ve said, English does have words for a writer of letters. “Epistolographer,” which is similar to the word you suggest, is already taken.

The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for more of these words, most of them formed on the noun “epistle” (letter).

For instance, there’s “epistler,” meaning “a writer of an epistle.” The OED’s earliest example is from 1610, when the English bishop Joseph Hall wrote, “Let this ignorant epistler teach his censorious answerer.”

Then there’s “epistoler,” defined by the OED as “a letter-writer.” It was first used in 1637 by John Williams, Archbishop of York, in The Holy Table, Name and Thing: “Whether the Epistoler likes it or no.”

A more recent OED citation comes from an 1881 issue of the Saturday Review: “These two great epistolers and speakers” (the reference is to Prime Minister William Gladstone and a Member of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh).

Another noun, “epistolist,” defined as “one who writes epistles,” dates from the mid-18th century. The word appeared in a letter written in 1743 from an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Carter, to her friend Catherine Talbot:

“I am extremely obliged to you … for your account of the Italian epistolists.” (As it happens, the OED quotes this from a book of letters published in 1808.)

Yet another such noun, “epistolarian,” defined as “a letter writer,” appeared in the early 19th century and promptly vanished.

The OED’s sole example is from Anna Maria Porter’s novel The Hungarian Brothers (1807): “I’ll maintain this sweet, sermonising epistolarian to be a woman.”

Another word that’s seldom seen and has only one OED citation is “epistolean” (“a writer of epistles or letters; a correspondent”).

This example was quoted in an 1881 edition of Joseph Emerson Worcester’s  A Dictionary of the English Language: “He has been a negligent epistolean as well as myself.”

In short, there are quite a few words for letter writers—we won’t even go into “epistolographist” (1822) or the above-mentioned “epistolographer” (1824)—but nary a one for authors of epistolary works.

Which reminds us of  the related words “epistolary” (pertaining to or contained in letters, 1656); “epistolize” (to write a letter, 1650); “epistolographic” (used in writing letters, 1669); and “epistolography” (letter-writing, 1888).

The mother of all these words, “epistle,” is very old, having been recorded in Old English in about 893. Sometimes, from Old English and even into the 1900s, it was shortened to “pistle.” (The “t” is silent, as you probably know.)

As for its etymology, English acquired “epistle” directly from Latin (epistola), but its ultimate source is Greek (epistole).

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, notes the interesting similarity between the Greek epistole (“something sent to someone”) and the word “apostle,” which literally means “someone sent out.”

In English, the OED says, an “epistle” is “a communication made to an absent person in writing; a letter.” But the definition goes a bit further:

“Chiefly (from its use in translations from Latin and Greek) applied to letters written in ancient times, esp. to those which rank as literary productions, or … to those of a public character, or addressed to a body of persons. In application to ordinary (modern) letters now used only rhetorically or with playful or sarcastic implication.”

That explains why “epistle,” as Ayto says, “has never really caught on in English as a general term for a ‘letter’—too high-falutin.”

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