The Grammarphobia Blog

Was ist das?

Q: I’ve studied German, English, French, and Latin, which may explain my fascination with how languages influence one another. For example, the French word for a transom, vasistas, comes from the German phrase was ist das?  I’ve read that French soldiers picked up the usage during World War I or II. True or false?

A: We don’t usually comment on French or German expressions unless we’re discussing their influence on English usages, but curiosity got the better of us this time.

The French noun vasistas is generally believed to be derived from the German expression was ist das? However, the French usage didn’t originate during either of the two world wars.

And some scholars have questioned the influence of was ist das? (what is that?) on vasistas (a transom, a narrow opening in a door or window, or simply a movable window pane).

In the 19th century, for example, the French lexicographers Auguste Brachet and Émile Littré disagreed about the origin of the French term.

In his Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Française (1868), Brachet, who was an etymologist and a historical grammarian of French as well as a lexicographer, says in the entry for vasistas: “origine inconnue” (origin unknown).

But Littré, in his Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, parts of which began appearing in 1863, says the word comes from the German question was ist das?

And Littré, who helped edit a later edition of Brachet’s etymological dictionary, revised the vasistas entry to read: “Origin uncertain. Littré accepts the Germ. was ist das? (We’re quoting here from an English edition.)

Today, though, French language authorities generally accept the German origin of vasistas.

The online Larousse Dictionnaires de Français, for instance, defines vasistas as an “alteration de l’allemand was ist das?, qu’est-ce que c’est?”

And Le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, an updated online version of Littré’s dictionary, describes vasistas similarly: “Déformation de l’all. was ist das?, littéral. «qu’est-ce que c’est?»”

Some language books and websites say the usage originated during World War II, World War I, or even the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

The American language writer Eugene Ehrlich, for example, offers this explanation in Les Bons Mots: How to Amaze Tout Le Monde With Everyday French (1997):

“A term said to have originated in the nineteenth century, during the Franco-Prussian War, when Paris was occupied by German-speaking soldiers who had never before seen transoms, the windows over doors that afford ventilation without having to leave doors open.”

However, the usage preceded all those wars. It showed up in French in the mid-1700s, more than a century before the Franco-Prussian War.

The earliest example we’ve found of vasistas is from a 1760 entry in a diary of household expenses kept by the Duchesse de Mazarin, who was living at Versailles at the time.

In her household accounts, the Duchess recorded this entry under her expenses for  Nov. 14, 1760: “Plus pour deux vasistas, une pour ma chambre, e l’autre pour M. de Laporte.”  (“Also for two vasistas, one for my room and the other for M. de Laporte.”)

(Her household accounts for 1760-62 were published in Paris in 1892 by the Revue Respective.)

The earliest citation we’ve found linking vasistas and was ist das is in Mémoires sur la Nature, les Effets, Propriétés & Avantages du Feu de Charbon de Terre Apprêté (1770), a book by the French physician Jean François Clément Morand in support of coal-burning fireplaces.

In describing the smoke produced by a wood fire, he says this inconvenience “ne laisse dans certaines maisons d’autre alternative, ou que d’éteindre le feu & d’être alors saisi par le froid de l’appartement, ou, si l’on veut ne pas être fatigué de rougeurs, de maux d’yeux cuisans, de souffrir le vent d’une porte, d’une fenêtre, d’un Wass-ist-dass.”

Translation: “leaves in some abodes no alternative but to either put out the fire and then be suddenly cold, or if one does not want to suffer burning red eyes, to endure the wind from a door, window, Wass-ist-dass.”

In our searches, we’ve found the word vasistas in many French dictionaries, encyclopedias, and technical works of the late 18th to early 19th centuries and beyond.

The word appears in quite ordinary surroundings. We even found it—again printed in italics as if it were a foreign term—in a book on raising chickens.

In his book Ornithotrophie Artificièle (1780), the Abbé Copineau addresses the problem of how to ventilate a chicken coop:

“Tant que la saison le permétra, & même dans les beaux jours de l’hiver, on tiendra une partie des croissées du midi ouvertes; ne fût-ce qu’un simple careau de vitre, en manière de vasistas.” 

Translation: “As long as the season allows, & even on mild winter days, one will keep part of the south facing windows open, even if only a single glass pane, as if it were a vasistas.”

 In 1798, vasistas was officially recognized by the French Academy in the fifth edition of Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Françoise.

The dictionary defines it as a small part of a door or window that can be opened or closed at will. But the word’s derivation isn’t given.

So how did the German expression was ist das? come to mean a vasistas in French?

Le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé suggests that the usage originated as a “name given in jest to the opening through which you can talk to someone.”

We can imagine two possibilities here. Perhaps the usage evolved from French mockery of the German response to those little Gallic windows.

Or think of a Parisian answering a knock on the door by peeping through the opening and asking “Vasistas?”—in imitation German—instead of “Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Either of those explanations could be the answer. Or perhaps something entirely different. We won’t know for sure until we see a citation from the 18th century that explains exactly was das ist.

Note: We’re indebted to a French friend, Martine Copeland, for translating the 18th-century French in this post.

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Wagyu or waygu?

Q: We know it’s “wagyu,” but the menu at Spoons Bistro in Victor, Idaho, spells it “waygu.” When we mentioned this to our server, the chef came out and explained that “waygu” is the accepted and proper term for US-raised wagyu. We liked the restaurant and we’ll go again, but we were skeptical of this explanation. What do you think of that spelling?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary has only one spelling, “wagyu,” for this borrowing from Japanese. It refers to either Kobe-style beef or the cattle the beef comes from.

In Japanese, the OED says, wa- means Japan or Japanese, and gyu means cow, bull, cattle, or beef. So in Japan wagyu can refer to a Japanese cow or bull, Japanese cattle, or Japanese beef.

The word is generally pronounced WAG-yoo and can be either singular or plural. It’s sometimes capitalized.

Oxford defines “wagyu” this way: “A breed of cattle of Japanese origin, from which is obtained tender marbled beef typically containing a high percentage of unsaturated fat; an animal of this type. Also: the beef obtained from such cattle.”

However, the Japan Meat Information Center (on an English-language Web page entitled “What is wagyu?”) says the beef comes from four different breeds of cattle: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled.

We checked half a dozen standard American and British dictionaries, but only one, Collins, had an entry for the word—spelled “wagyu.”

Collins uses the terms “Kobe” and “wagyu” interchangeably to describe the beef, though “Kobe beef” technically refers to beef from cattle raised and slaughtered in the Kobe area of Japan.

The term “wagyu” is still relatively new in English, which may account for its absence from most standard dictionaries, and the lack of a consensus on exactly what it means.

We’ve seen it used to mean Kobe beef, Kobe-style beef, beef from any of the four Japanese wagyu breeds, beef from wagyu hybrids, beef from other cattle raised like wagyu, and so on.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from the July 5, 1963, issue of the Sheboygan Press in Wisconsin: The country’s farm experts hope to increase the production of beef tremendously by crossing Angus with the native black Wagyu cattle.”

The most recent citation is from Murder at Marathon, a 2003 mystery by  W. H. Denney: “Duncan, never shy or left hungry, ordered the expensive Wagyu sirloin, imported from Japan.”

Getting back to your question, we looked at the online menu of Spoons Bistro and found the dish that caught your eye: “Bistro Filet Medallions: grilled waygu beef, ratatouille, baby potato with a spicy bloody mary sauce.”

We’ve seen “waygu” on the menus of other restaurants, but in many cases that spelling seems to be the result of typos.

The Yamashiro restaurant in Hollywood, for example, has a “From the Kitchen” feature entitled “Waygu Steak on Salt Plate,” but the restaurant uses the spelling “wagyu” in describing the steak.

We haven’t seen any authoritative source that supports the “waygu” spelling, though some people believe “waygu” refers to American-produced beef from wagyu cows or wagyu hybrids, while “wagyu” refers to beef produced in Japan from wagyu cows.

Well, the term “waygu” may not have scholarly cred, but our googling suggests that it’s nearly as popular as the original “wagyu.” Here’s the Google the scorecard: “wagyu,” 1.8 million hits; “waygu,” 1.2 million hits.

So what’s going on here? To be honest, we don’t know, but here’s one possibility. Perhaps English speakers find “waygu” easier to pronounce than “wagyu.”

It will be interesting to see if both spellings make it into standard dictionaries as the word catches the attention of more lexicographers. Stay tuned.

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“Least” wise

Q: I hate it when people say to me, “It’s the least I can do.” I know what they mean, but the implication is that they’ll do the least they can for me. I always point out that I’m more interested in the most they can do for me. It’s a funny old English-speaking world.

A: We interpret the familiar idiom “It’s the least I can do” more generously than you do.

People who say this are suggesting that they’d be willing to do even more if you were to ask. They don’t mean “I’ll do the least I can and no more.”

But there’s another side to this coin. Someone who responds with “It’s the least you can do” isn’t being magnanimous. He means he has a right to expect more!

Enough about the psychology of “the least I can do.” We’re on firmer ground discussing the history of this expression and ones like it.

The word “least” is Germanic in origin. It was first recorded in writing about the year 950 as an adjective, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s a superlative form of “little,” and is defined in the OED as “little beyond all others in size or degree; smallest; slightest.” Although “least” once meant “fewest” as well, that sense of the word has died out.

This OED citation, from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), nicely illustrates the use of “least” as an adjective: “A fix’d star of the least magnitude.”

Two other good adjectival example are the phrases “line of least resistance” (1746) and “path of least resistance” (1896).

“Least” has also been used as an adverb since around 1300.

This adverbial example is from the philosopher George Berkeley’s Alciphron (1732): “Alciphron has made discoveries where I least expected it.”

But “least” has another important function. Since the 12th century it’s been used as a “quasi-noun,” the OED says.

This is the “least” that we find in expressions like “to say the least,” “at least” (or “at the very least”), “not in the least,” “last but not least,” “that’s the least of it,” “least said, soonest mended,” and the usage you’re concerned with—“the least I can do.”

That last one, and versions that vary with the subject or pronoun used (“the least you/he/she/they can do”), go back to the early 17th century—at least.

The OED has only one example (from the 20th century), but we’ve found many going as far back as the 1600s and we wouldn’t be surprised if there are even older ones.

This one is from a 17th-century volume, The Annals of King James and King Charles the First: 1612-1642 (the quotation is from a speech that James delivered before the House of Lords in 1621):

“And since I cannot yet retribute by a General Pardon (which hath by form been usually reserved to the End of a Parliament) the least I can do (which I can forbear no longer) is to do something in present, for the Ease and Good of my People.”

Here are a few more examples:

1677: “Certainly the least you can do is to wait upon his pleasure for them.” (From John Flavel’s Divine Conduct and Saint Indeed.)

1680: “The least he can do is to be mistrustful of his Judgment, and of the quality of his Understanding.” (From a collection of Jansenist treatises called Moral Essays.)

1694: “And truly this is the least you can do if you would be grateful.” (From Samuel Slater’s An Earnest Call to Family-Religion.)

1695: “You have taken care of Honour, and ’tis the least I can do to take care of Conscience.” (From William Congreve’s comedy Love for Love.)

And that’s not the least of it. The usage became even more ubiquitous in the centuries to come.

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Did Marco Polo ride a donkey?

Q: I wonder about the use of “donkey” in place of “ass.” I’ve seen both in various English translations of Marco Polo’s travels, though he probably used whatever the term was in his native Venetian. My question is, what’s the origin of “donkey” in English?

A: We’ve discussed the history of “ass,” but we haven’t looked into the etymology of “donkey” until now.

Although “ass” dates from Anglo-Saxon times, “donkey” is a relative newcomer. Yet we know less about the origin of the newer term.

The earliest written example for “donkey” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “Donkey or Donkey Dick, a he or Jack-ass.”

The OED says the word is “apparently of dialect or slang origin,” but as John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “No one really knows where it came from.”

“The usual explanation offered is that it was based on dun ‘brownish grey’ and the diminutive suffix -ey, with the intermediate k added in imitation of monkey (donkey originally rhymed with monkey),” Ayto writes.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology offers another possible explanation—that “donkey” originated as “perhaps a nickname for Duncan, a man’s name, from Gaelic, brown head (cen head).”

By the way, the book describing Marco Polo’s travels in the late 13th century was written in Old French by Rustichello da Pisa, based on accounts from Polo while the two men were imprisoned during a war between Venice and Genoa.

Rustichello probably spoke Pisan and Polo Venetian. The Florentine used by Dante in the 14th century evolved into Italian, where the usual word for “donkey” is now asino.

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Mayday: French to the rescue!

Q: I don’t see any mention of “Mayday,” the danger signal, on your blog. Do you know that it comes from m’aidez in French?

A: Yes, it’s true that the distress signal “Mayday” comes from French. The Oxford English Dictionary says this English interjection is derived from the French m’aidez or m’aider (“help me!”).

The OED notes that the latter form, m’aider, is “either the imperative infinitive or short for venez m’aider  ‘come and help me!’ ”

The term (capitalized in some dictionaries but not in others) was adopted in the early 20th century as an international radio distress signal, principally for use by ships and aircraft.

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall, England, says on its website that Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, originated the usage in 1923:

“He was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word ‘mayday’ from the French word m’aidez.”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage, from a February 1923 edition of the Times of London, explains why it was devised as an alternative to “SOS”:

“Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’ will give place to the words ‘May-day,’ the phonetic equivalent of ‘M’aidez,’ the French for ‘Help me.’ ”

This somewhat later example, under the heading “Aircraft and Wireless,” is from the B.B.C. Year-Book for 1930:

“In case of distress, due to engine failure over the sea, the word ‘Mayday’—equivalent to the S.O.S. used by ships—transmitted through the microphone, will summon immediately all possible help.”

 “Mayday” was used later as a noun to mean either “a distress signal consisting of the word ‘Mayday!’ ” or, more generally, “any distress call or call for help,” the OED says.

By the way, the distress signal “SOS” (it’s dotless these days), doesn’t stand for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls” or anything else. Here’s how we describe it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths:

“Wireless radio operators adopted it in the early twentieth century because the letters in Morse code (three dots, three dashes, three dots) were easy to send and unlikely to be misunderstood.”

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New Year’s daze

Q: I have a customer who gives out T-shirts at a New Years party. The back of the shirts has the year. Should the date for the next party be 2013 or 2014? I think it should be 2013 because the party starts on New Years Eve. Is there a grammar rule that would apply here?

A: No, we can’t think of any grammar, usage, or style rule that would apply.

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says only that the terms “New Year’s Eve” and “New Year’s Day” should be capitalized (don’t forget the apostrophes).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “New Year’s Day” as the first day of the year and “New Year’s Eve” as the last day of the year.

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked have similar definitions.

What do we think? Well, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but we think the year on the back of those T-shirts should reflect the new year, not the old one.

From our experience, the main point of a New Year’s party is to celebrate the new year, not the old one, though we imagine that some people would disagree with us.

To the extent that New Year partyers do any serious thinking, it’s to make New Year’s resolutions, which the OED describes as resolutions “to do or to refrain from doing a specified thing from that time onwards, or to attempt to achieve a particular goal, usually during the coming year.”

The earliest written example of “New Year” in the OED is from the Ormulum (circa 1200), a book of biblical commentary that refers to “New Year’s Day” (spelled newyeress dayy in Middle English—we’ve replaced the letter yogh with “y”).

Yes, we know what you’re thinking—where’s the apostrophe?

Although “New Year’s Day” now takes an apostrophe, the use of the punctuation mark here is relatively new.

The earliest OED example of an apostrophe in “New Year’s” is from The New Mirror for Travellers, an 1828 travel guide: “It was new year’s eve, and Douw was invited to see out the old year at Judge Vander Spiegle’s.”

The apostrophe showed up in English in the 1500s, but it was originally used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters in a word (as in a contraction like “can’t”).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “apostrophe” is ultimately derived from prosoidia apostrophos, the classical Greek term for an omission mark—the Greek phrase literally means “accent of turning away.”

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post a few years ago about how the apostrophe became possessive.

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How noble is the sandwich?

Q: Did the Earl of Sandwich really give us the sandwich? Or is this just one of the many folk etymologies to be found on the Internet?

A: John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, didn’t give us the sandwich, but the 18th-century nobleman—or rather his table manners—may have given us the name for it.

The word “sandwich,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is said to be named after the Earl, “who once spent twenty-four hours at the gaming-table without other refreshment than some slices of cold beef placed between slices of toast.”

“The basic idea was nothing new, of course,” explains John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “but the Earl’s patronage ensured it a vogue, and by the early 1760s we have the first evidence of his name being attached to it.”

It’s not exactly clear when the Earl (who lived from 1718 to 1792) is supposed to have gone on this round-the-clock binge of gambling and sandwiching.

The first mention of it in writing, according to the OED, is in Londres (1770), a book by the French travel writer Pierre-Jean Grosley about a visit to London in 1765.

Here’s an excerpt from A Tour of London (1772), Thomas Nugent’s English translation of Grosley’s book:

“A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London; it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”

Although Grosley doesn’t mention him by name, Lord Sandwich was the First Lord of the Admiralty and a Secretary of State in 1765.

If that gambling incident did indeed take place and inspired the fast-food use of the word “sandwich,” it occurred before Grosley’s trip to London.

The earliest OED citation for the term “sandwich” used in the culinary sense is from a Nov. 14, 1762, entry in the journal of the historian Edward Gibbon, who describes the membership of the Cocoa Tree Club:

“That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich, a drinking a glass of punch.”

(We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

So if Lord Sandwich didn’t invent the sandwich, you’re probably wondering, who did invent it?

Well, Larousse Gastronomique, the encyclopedia of gastronomy, says farm laborers in rural France had been eating meat between slices of bread long before the word “sandwich” showed up in London.

But Larousse doesn’t name names. And it’s probably impossible to say who’s responsible for the first sandwich.

If we had to pick a name, though, it might be Hillel the Elder, a Jewish sage who lived in Jerusalem at the time of King Herod.

Hillel, according to Jewish tradition, wrapped lamb and bitter herbs inside unleavened bread to create a sandwich eaten during Passover.

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Pat on WNYC and at the NYPL

Hear Pat live this afternoon on WNYC. And meet her in person this evening at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library.

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time on Nov. 20, 2013, to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s subject: the branding of English.

(If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.)

Later in the day, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM, Pat will be at the public library’s Mid-Manhattan branch, Fifth Avenue and 40th Street.

The subject of her talk: “Once a Pun a Time—Let’s Play With Words!”

Pat will share her delight in the fun of language—puns, spoonerisms, and mischievous wordplay of every stripe.

She’ll discuss “crash blossoms” and “eggcorns,” how “Tom Swifties” are formed, and why “mondegreen” is not a color. Join in and share your favorite plays on words!

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A grizzly of a different color

Q: Here’s a question you can get your teeth into. An article in the Guardian about the eating habits of the Neanderthals included this sentence: “There are other, equally valid but decidedly more grizzly explanations to account for those microscopic fragments of herbs and plants found in Neanderthal teeth.” Any comment?

A: Well, the Neanderthals may have eaten like bears, but the Guardian writer probably meant “grisly.” (As one reader commented on the Guardian’s blog, “Bear with it.”)

These are two very different words. “Grizzly” essentially means gray or grayish (the grizzly bear is named for its color). The venerable old adjective “grisly” originally meant “scary” rather than what it means to most of us today—“gruesome.”

Let’s take a look at the histories of both, starting with the older one.

“Grisly” was first recorded in English sometime before the year 1150, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It came from an earlier word (grislic) in Old English, which came in turn from a verb, “grise,” which died out in the 1500s and meant to shudder with fear.

(This word “grise,” by the way, may be related to another old verb, “grue”—to shudder, to feel terror or horror—which is the source of “gruesome.”)

Originally, the OED explains, “grisly” meant “causing horror, terror, or extreme fear; horrible or terrible to behold or to hear; causing such feelings as are associated with thoughts of death and ‘the other world’, spectral appearances, and the like.”

In more recent times, the dictionary adds, it has meant “causing uncanny or unpleasant feelings; of forbidding appearance; grim, ghastly.”

In modern usage, according to standard dictionaries, “grisly” is often used in the sense of gruesome or repugnant.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes this among its “grisly” definitions: “inspiring disgust or distaste.”

The online version of the dictionary includes these examples: “The jurors saw grisly photos of the crime scene” … “recounted the visit to the murder scene in grisly detail.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “grisly” as meaning “causing repugnance; gruesome.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that in 1900 the OED labeled “grisly” archaic or literary, but since then “its fortunes have recovered strongly, and it is now firmly part of the general language.”

The adjective “grizzly” is a horse of a different color—gray, to be specific. Since it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says,  it has meant “grey; greyish; grey-haired; grizzled.”

An earlier adjective, “grizzle” (1425), meant gray in color, and an even earlier noun form (1390) meant a gray-haired old man.

The phrase “grizzly bear” dates from early 19th-century North America. The OED defines it as “a large and ferocious bear, Ursus horribilis, peculiar to the mountainous districts of western North America.”

A member of the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first to record the bear’s name.  In 1807 Patrick Gass, in a journal of the expedition, wrote: “The bears from which they get these skins are a harmless kind, and not so bold and ferocious as the grizly and brown bear.”

“Grisly” and “grizzly” not only have different meanings, but they also have different ancestors.

“Grisly” is from Germanic sources. But “grizzly” comes from the Old French word grisel, from gris (gray).

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Lozenge or lozenger?

Q: This sets my teeth on edge: Why is it that so many people, especially in the NY area, say “lozenger” instead of “lozenge”?  Isn’t this incorrect?

A: The sweetened, medicated tablet is spelled “lozenge” and pronounced LAH-zinj in standard English, according to dictionaries in the US and the UK.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary says a variant spelling, “lozenger” (pronounced LAH-zin-jer), is present in the US and northern England.

The OED describes this variant as dialectal—that is, a regional or social variation from standard English.

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the variant is present in various parts of the US, though chiefly in the Northeast.

Although most DARE examples of the usage are from New England and the Middle Atlantic states, the regional dictionary has quite a few citations from other parts of the US, including Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, and Ohio.

The DARE editors suggest that the American usage may have crossed the pond with speakers of Scottish English and regional dialects in England.

The ultimate source, though, may be an obsolete usage that the OED traces to the early 1500s, when the term “lozenger” was apparently used to describe a diamond-shaped, four-sided figure—the original sense of the word “lozenge.”

However, Oxford has only one written example of this early usage, from a 1527 will in which the word is spelled “losinger.”

As for “lozenge” used in its geometric sense, the OED defines it as “a plane rectilineal figure, having four equal sides and two acute and two obtuse angles.”

The dictionary has several questionable citations dating from the early 1300s. The first clear example is from “The House of Fame,” a poem by Chaucer written around 1384: “Somme crouned were as kinges, / With crounes wroght ful of losenges.”

As we’ve said, the term “lozenger,” as well as the pronunciation LAH-zin-jer, isn’t standard English. But it’s common enough that the first item to come up when we googled the word was a Vicks ad for cough drops and similar products.

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You’ll find out!

Q: When my advanced English students use “find out,” I tell them it’s a lazy colloquialism that should be replaced with verbs like “learn,” “perceive,” and “discover.” Your blog is required reading for my students, but the search function returns 58 instances where you use the term. Am I too strict, or are you lazy, also?

A: Well, we may be lazy, but you’re much too strict! The phrasal verb “find out” is perfectly respectable.

It’s been used in scholarly English since the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) dates it even earlier, from the 13th century.

When first recorded in writing, the OED says, “find out” meant “to come upon by searching or inquiry; to discover (what is hidden).” Oxford’s earliest recorded example comes from a book on logic, Thomas Wilson’s The Rule of Reason (1551).

In a reference to searching for gold, Wilson writes: “They … do searche narrowly … and … at length fynde out the mine.”

(A few years later, in The Arte of Rhetorique, Wilson uses the phrase “to finde out the trueth,” and refers to logic as “that arte, which by reason findeth out the trueth.”)

Around this same time, the OED says, the verb was used to mean “to discover by attention, scrutiny, study, etc.; to devise, invent; to unriddle, solve.” 

The dictionary’s first citation for this use of “find out” is from an English-Latin dictionary, Richard Huloet’s Abcedarium Anglo Latinum (1552): “Finde out by studye, excudo.”

The sense of the verb that’s most familiar today (“to make a discovery; to discover a fact, the truth, etc.”) emerged in the mid-19th century, according to OED citations. In this usage, “find out” is often followed by “about,” Oxford adds.

Here are a few of the OED’s citations for this sense of the phrasal verb:

1862: “ ‘I don’t like the pigs—I don’t know where they are.’ ‘Well, we must find out.’ ” (From George Macdonald’s novel David Elginbrod.)

1881: “ ‘Who might that one be?’ ‘I am thinking ye’ll have to find out for yourself.’ ” (From Charlotte Eliza L. Riddell’s novel The Senior Partner.)

1893: “ ‘He has found out about Mrs. Le Grice’s bill,’ said Lally to herself.” (From Mary Elizabeth Mann’s novel In Summer Shade.)

1894: “Perhaps death brings peace. I shall soon find out about that.” (From “The Umbrella-Mender,” a short story in Beatrice Harraden’s book In Varying Moods.)

So you can see that “find out” has a solid reputation. If a phrase has been used in educated English since before Shakespeare’s (maybe even Chaucer’s) time, you can be sure that it’s a legitimate usage.

And none of the dictionaries or usage guides we’ve checked label “find out” as a colloquialism or as anything other than standard English.

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The comma in question

Q: I am editing a document that contains the following sentence: “The problem is, how do we properly make sense of it all and use it to our benefit?” My issue is the propriety of the comma. My first inclination is to rewrite the sentence, but I am having a hard time determining exactly what is improper about the original usage. What do you think?

A: You’re right in thinking that we don’t normally use a comma to separate a verb like “is” from its object. But when the object is a direct question, it’s usually preceded by a comma and followed by a question mark.

We’ve touched on this subject before on our blog, including postings in 2010 and 2008. This is an issue of style, rather than grammar or usage.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says a direct question like the one in your example “is usually introduced by a comma” unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence.

The Chicago Manual, which is widely used in the publishing industry, adds that such an interior question “may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.”

The style guide gives several examples, including this one: “The question on everyone’s mind was, how are we going to tell her?” Your sentence (“The problem is, how …”) is a parallel example. 

The Chicago Manual says an alternative is to rephrase and use an indirect question, as in “The question of how to tell her was on everyone’s mind.”

You didn’t ask about this, but a related issue is whether to use quotation marks to describe thoughts or questions that aren’t actually spoken.

“Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference,” Chicago says. The style guide gives these two examples:

“I don’t care if we have offended Morgenstern,” thought Vera. “Besides,” she told herself, “they’re all fools.”

Why, we wondered, did we choose this route?

By the way, we noted in a posting last year that the word “comma” referred to a small piece of a sentence when it entered English in the late 16th century, but it soon came to mean the punctuation mark at the end of the piece.

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

Ayto adds that the Greek verb koptein (to cut) gave Russians the word kopeck and probably gave English the word “capon.”

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Speaking words of wisdom

Q: I’m confused about the expression “let it be.” Is it used in a positive or a negative sense?

A: We wouldn’t describe the usage as either positive or negative, though “let it be” is often used in the sense of letting a complicated or troublesome situation resolve itself on its own.

The verbal phrase “let be,” meaning let someone or something alone, first showed up in English in the 12th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines the phrase as “to leave undisturbed, not to meddle with; to abstain from doing (an action); to leave off, cease from.”

Here’s an example of the usage from The Legend of Good Women (circa 1385), a poem by Chaucer:

“Lat be thyn arguynge / Ffor loue ne wele nat Countyrpletyd be.” (Modern English: “Let be thine arguing / For love will hear no pleas against itself.”)

And here’s an example of the actual phrase “let it be” from Shelley’s 1822 translation of Goethe’s Scenes From Faust:

“Let it be — pass on — / No good can come of it — it is not well.” (Mephistopheles is speaking here to Faust.)

Of course the best-known use of the expression is from “Let It Be,” the title song of the Beatles’ last studio album, which was released in 1970:

“When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”

Paul McCartney has said the idea for the song came to him in a dream while he “was going through a really difficult time around the autumn of 1968.”

In The Right Words at the Right Time, a book edited by Marlo Thomas, McCartney says he “had the most comforting dream about my mother, who died when I was only fourteen.”

In the dream, McCartney says, “my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes; and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ ”

“So, being a musician, I went right over to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me’… Mary was my mother’s name … ‘Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.’ ”

McCartney says he wrote “the main body of it in one go, and then the subsequent verses developed from there: ‘When all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.’ ”

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Figs and hoots

Q: I’m writing fiction that takes place in 1928 New York City and I wonder if these expressions were used at that time: “She didn’t care a fig” … “She didn’t give a hoot.” Also, could you recommend a good book to consult for speaking styles in the 1920s,’30s,’40s, and ’50s?

A: Those two phrases are well within your fictional time frame. The expression “to care (or give) a fig” dates back to the early 1600s, and “to give (or care) a hoot” has been around since before World War I.

In case you’d like to know how figs and hoots got into these expressions, here’s some etymology.

Both nouns—“fig” and “hoot”—have long been used figuratively for something small and unimportant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So something that’s “not worth a fig (or a hoot),” or something that you “don’t care a fig (or a hoot) about,” is worthless or contemptible.

The noun “fig”—sometimes “a fig’s end”—was recorded in the sense of something unimportant as early as the mid-1400s.

The OED has this example from The Court of Love, an anonymous poem written about 1450: “A Figge for all her chastite!”

The phrase “not worth a fig” appears in 1600 in a collection of epigrams and satires by Samuel Rowlands: “All Beere in Europe is not worth a figge.”

The OED’s earliest written example of  “care a fig” is from a French-English dictionary published in 1632: “Not to care a figge for one, faire la figue à.”

The “give” version appeared soon afterward, in a Latin-English dictionary of 1634: “Fumi umbra non emerim,  I will not give a fig’s end for it.”

The fact that readers were seeing those “fig” phrases in dictionaries of the 1630s indicates that they were in common use well before that time.  

The “hoot” version came along centuries later, and there are many variations: “give/care/worth a hoot,” even “two hoots,” and “a hoot in hell.”

The noun “hoot” was used in the late 19th century to mean the smallest detail, according to the OED.

Oxford’s earliest example is from John Hanson Beadle’s travel narrative Western Wilds, and the Men Who Redeem Them (1878): “I got onto my reaper and banged down every hoot of it before Monday night.”

“Hoot” started popping up in what are now familiar colloquial expressions shortly after the turn of the century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has the earliest example we know of. It’s from a letter Harry Truman wrote to his wife in 1912, collected in the book Dear Bess:

“I really do not care a hoot what you do with my letters so long as you write me.”

Random House also has this example from the novel Three Soldiers (1921), by John Dos Passos: “I didn’t give a hoot in hell what it cost.”

The OED quotes this passage from another novel that appeared a couple of years later, Ralph Delahaye Paine’s Comrades of the Rolling Ocean (1923): “I am glad of that even if he did tell me that as a supercargo I wasn’t worth a hoot in hades.”

Oxford has five subsequent examples that appeared in print before 1928—two from 1925, two from 1926, and one from 1927. So you can safely use both the “fig” and the “hoot” expressions in your fiction.

As for your final question, we recommend that you get yourself a good slang dictionary.

The three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang is pretty pricey, but you can get a used copy of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English or Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (both good) online for $10 or $20. Try eBay too. And try to get the most recent edition that you can afford.

Cheaper slang dictionaries aren’t likely to be as authoritative or dependable.

Unfortunately, the really excellent Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang  was never finished. Only the first two volumes appeared, and the company’s dictionary division shut down just before the third volume was to be published.

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Let’s rock-and-roll

Q: On a recent trip to California, a motel desk clerk asked us: “Are we done here?”  When we replied, “Yes,” he said, “Let’s rock ’n’ roll.”  How did this phrase come to mean “Let’s get moving”? I’ve even heard it used as a statement of approval.

A: For more than 30 years, the verb “rock-and-roll” (also spelled “rock ’n’ roll”) has been used in the sense of “get moving” or “get started.”

So that desk clerk meant “Let’s get on with checking you out and preparing your bill” (or words to that effect).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest published example for this use of the verb “rock-and-roll” (which it hyphenates) is from the April 2, 1980, issue of the Washington Post: “It’s time to rock and roll. The town is ours.”

A few years later, in 1984, this example appeared in the New York Times: “Mittleman looked down at his mended foot, slipped on a pair of shoes borrowed from Record and said, ‘I’m ready to rock and roll.’ ”

Later the phrase started showing up in books, as in these two OED citations:

“Looks like we’re on, lads. Be ready to rock and roll at eleven-thirty!” (From Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, 1997.)

“He uncapped a fountain pen, and took out a yellow legal pad. ‘Okay, Mrs. Chatterjee, let’s rock and roll.’ ” (From Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Desirable Daughters, 2002.)

The OED describes “rock-and-roll” here as a slang usage meaning “to get going, begin, esp. with vigour and energy.” The phrase occurs “chiefly” in the phrases “let’s rock and roll” and “ready to rock and roll,” Oxford adds.

As it happens, a shorter version, “rock”—also defined as “to get going, begin, esp. with vigour and energy”—was  recorded as early as the mid-’60s, the OED says.

This version also appears “chiefly” in the expressions “let’s rock” and “ready to rock,” according to the dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation for this use of “rock” is from a football story in the Oct. 17, 1966, issue of the Los Angeles Times: “All the Bruins, as a matter of fact, should be back and ready to rock with the Bears.”

This more recent example is from Wired magazine in 2000: “The infrastructure is still in place, future-proofed and ready to rock.”

The daddy of these usages, born in the USA in the 1950s, is the verb “rock-and-roll,” defined in the OED as “to dance to or play rock-and-roll music.”

And the granddaddy is the noun phrase “rock ’n’ roll” (as Oxford spells it), whose origins as a musical term aren’t so easy to pin down. In its earliest uses, it can probably be traced to black American music between World Wars I and II.

Here we need to back up a bit to point out that individually, the verbs “rock” and “roll” are extremely old.

The OED says “rock” (meaning “to move to and fro in a gentle and soothing manner”) was recorded in late Old English, and “roll” (“to move with a swaying motion”) in Middle English. So they’re pushing a thousand years old.

The expression “rock ’n’ roll,” the OED says, originated “probably with reference to the motion of the body when dancing.”

But it adds: “It is possible that there may originally also have been some allusion to uses of each verb as euphemisms for sexual intercourse.”

The journalist and rock historian Nick Tosches is more positive on this note, saying the two words have long had sexual connotations. In Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll (1977), Tosches writes:

“An early nineteenth-century sea chanty included the line, ‘Oh do, me Johnny Bowker, come rock ’n’ roll me over.’ A lyric found in the ceremonial Fire Dance of Florida’s obeah worshipers was ‘Bimini gal is a rocker and a roller.’ ”

In African-American blues recordings, “rock” and “roll” began to proliferate in the 1920s. Both Tosches and the OED cite a 1922 recording by the blues singer Trixie Smith of the song “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).”

Similar usages, especially in African-American music, appeared in the later ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s.

“Rock” in this sense, the OED says, meant both “to have sexual intercourse with” and “to dance with.” 

The OED says the early use of “rock ’n’ roll,” in reference to the hot, rhythmic music of the prewar years, meant “a vigorous and compelling rhythm with a strong beat, as in jazz, swing, or rhythm and blues music; (also) music featuring such a rhythm; lively dance music.”

Its two earliest citations for this early sense of “rock ’n’ roll” are from 1938.

This one is from a song, “Rock It for Me,” written by the twin sisters Kay and Sue Werner, and recorded by Ella Fitzgerald:

“It’s true that once upon a time, / The op’ra was the thing, / But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme, / So won’t you satisfy my soul with a rock an’ roll.”

And this example is from a photo caption that appeared in the New York Times in 1938: “ ‘Rock-and-Roll’ men. Band leaders Benny Goodman (left) and Gene Krupa—Their likes are not to be heard abroad.”

Some time in the early 1950s, the OED says, the meaning of “rock ’n’ roll” shifted and came to mean a new kind of music.

The modern sense of the phrase, according to the OED, was “popularized by disc jockey Alan Freed, who broadcast rhythm and blues music to a multiracial audience from 1951, and later promoted various dances and concerts featuring rhythm and blues performers.”

As the OED explains, Freed’s “1953 ‘Biggest Rhythm and Blues Show’ tour is often regarded as the first major rock ’n’ roll tour, although many of the performers featured would now typically be classified as rhythm and blues vocalists. From this time, the term rock ’n’ roll became popular with white audiences, esp. teenagers.”

Here’s an OED citation from Billboard magazine in 1954: “Freed is now calling his program the ‘Rock and Roll Show.’ ”

Of course, both “rock and roll” and “rock” have taken on whole new meanings in recent generations.

As you mention, the adjective “rock and roll” is now used in the affirmative—it means “cool,” more or less, a usage the OED first records in 1976.

This is an example that Oxford quotes from Esquire magazine in 2008: “Tea is so rock’n’roll these days; according to one rumour, Led Zep’s rider for the O2 gig asked for nothing more than a decent brew of English Breakfast.”

And since the late 1960s, the OED says, to “rock” has meant “to be full of energy, life, and excitement; to be excellent.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from an advertisement in a 1969 issue of the Times-Bulletin newspaper (Van Wert, Ohio): “Bored? Uptight? In a box? Weekend bowling really rocks!”

[Update, Nov. 11, 2013: A couple of readers pointed out that “let’s roll” is used in the same way as “let’s rock” (let’s get moving), and that the expression took on a special significance for Americans after Sept. 11, 2001. During the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, Todd Beamer and other passengers worked out a plan to overcome the hijackers and regain control of the plane. Beamer’s last words, overheard on an open phone line, were “Are you guys ready? OK, let’s roll.” The OED says the use of “roll” to mean get started, get moving, or take action dates back to 1931.]

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Empire State-ments

Q: Why do we (OK, New Yorkers) pronounce the “Empire State Building” with emphasis on “State,” while we emphasize “Empire” when the words are just “Empire State”?

A: We’ve had this thought ourselves. When people (and not just New Yorkers) say the “Empire State,” they emphasize the first word over the second: “EMPIRE State.”

Similarly, residents of Connecticut refer to the “NUTMEG State,” Californians to the “GOLDEN State,” New Jerseyans to the “GARDEN State,” and so on.

So why does the principal stress shift to the second word when people say “the Empire STATE Building”?

In 2006, on the building’s 75th anniversary, the novelist Benjamin Kunkel wrote a small piece for the New York Times commenting on “our curious pronunciation of those four words.”

“Let’s say you had a building named, as ours would seem to be, after the Empire State, New York,” Kunkel wrote. “In that case, the usual way for a native speaker of American English to pronounce the two middle words of the name would be as a dactyl: ‘EM-pire state,’ you’d say. But we don’t say it like that. Instead we employ what in prosody is called an anapest: ‘em-pire STATE,’ with the accent, that is, on the word ‘state’ rather than on the word ‘empire.’ Say it and see for yourself: it’s ‘em-pire STATE build-ing,’ not ‘EM-pire state build-ing.’ ” 

But Kunkel didn’t offer a good reason why.

Generally, when an identifying adjective modifies “building,” the adjective is emphasized over the noun (“office building,” “apartment building,” etc.).

The same is true when a building has a proper name—the modifier gets the emphasis: “CHRYSLER Building,” “FLATIRON Building,” “WOOLWORTH Building,” “SEAGRAM Building,” and so on.

When “Building” is preceded  by a compound, then the principal emphasis falls on the word that’s normally emphasized in that compound: “Time-LIFE Building,” “LEHMAN Brothers Building,” “New York LIFE Insurance Building,” “Manufacturers Hanover TRUST Building,” “WARNER Brothers Building,” “Universal PICTURES Building,” “New York TIMES Building.”

So if we emphasize the first word in the phrase “EMPIRE State,” why don’t Americans call it the “EMPIRE State Building”? 

We have to admit that we don’t have an answer. And neither, apparently, does anyone else.

We did find a discussion of this subject on a respected language website, but it wasn’t much help.

The linguist Mark Lieberman, writing on the Language Log, noted that when “Building” is modified by a compound,” the main stress generally falls on the expected main stress” of that compound.

“Thus,” he wrote, “what used to be the Field Building in Chicago is now the LaSalle National Bank Building—and I assume (without ever having heard it pronounced) that the main stress ought to be on bank.”

He went on to say that “since New York is the Empire State—with main stress on state—it follows that the Empire State Building ought also to have main stress on state.”

But as we’ve said, and as some readers of the Language Log pointed out, the stress in the two-word phrase “Empire State” is on “Empire,” not on “State.” So that leaves us back where we started.

Of course, “Empire STATE Building” is easier to say than one strong syllable followed by five weak ones: “EM-pire-state-build-ing.” And yet, a string of unaccented syllables doesn’t seem to bother people who say (or used to say) “LEH-man-broth-ers-build-ing.”

Dictionaries aren’t much help here, either. The Collins English Dictionary says the phrase “Empire State Building” is pronounced with accents on the first syllables of “Empire” and “Building.” Well, perhaps by some English speakers, but not by Americans.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online gives “Empire STATE Building” for both the British and the American pronunciations.

If we do find an answer to this mystery, you’ll be the first to know!

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Here’s Johnny

Q: What do you call it when you add a name before a country of origin to make a sort of derisive term like “Jack Burma,” “Johnny Turk,” “Johnny Reb,” “Billy Yank,” and so on?

A: Terms like these have been referred to variously as “national personifications,” “collective pseudonyms,” or “collective nicknames.”

They were never the names of real people; they’re just symbols that collectively represent a nation or its citizens.

In military use, some names refer fondly to a country’s own forces, but some represent the enemy. 

During the American Civil War, for example, Northerners referred to Confederate soldiers as “Johnny Reb” (short for “rebel”), while Southerners called Union soldiers “Billy Yank” (for Yankee).

After the war, such terms lost their bitterness. The Oxford English Dictionary cites one such usage that appeared in a trade magazine, Realty & Building, in 1948:

“Colonel John was a Johnny Reb who delighted in telling of the exploits of the boys in gray.”

But the tradition of military or national nicknames goes much further back. 

In Britain, according to the OED, sailors have been familiarly called “Jack” since the 1600s and “Jack Tar” since the 1700s.

More recently, British soldiers have been called “Tommy”—short for “Thomas (or Tommy) Atkins”—since the 19th century. 

As the OED explains, “Thomas Atkins” wasn’t a real person’s name, but “a familiar name for the typical private soldier in the British Army; arising out of the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward.”

Some of the documents used other names, the OED says, “but ‘Thomas Atkins’ being that used in all the forms for privates in the Cavalry or Infantry, is by far the most frequent, and thus became the most familiar.” The use of “Tommy” for an ordinary soldier first appeared in print in 1881.

We’ve written before on the blog about the use of “Johnny” or “John” as a generic term for a guy or a fellow.

Since the 18th century, the name “John Bull,” according to the OED, has personified “the English nation; Englishmen collectively; the typical Englishman.”

Early in the following century, the name “Johnny (or Jean) Crapaud” was first used to mean a Frenchman, Oxford says. (Crapaud is French for “toad.”)

Similarly, “Johnny Turk” originated in the World War I era as a name for “a Turkish soldier” or “any Turk,” the OED says.  

The Russian equivalent of “John” is “Ivan,” and the use of “Ivan” (or “Ivan Ivanovitch”) to mean a typical Russian soldier, Oxford says, dates from the 1890s.

As for German soldiers, we can trace to World War I the use of “Jerry” or “Fritz” to refer to them, whether individually or collectively. 

We’ll end with “Jack Burma,” a British term for the Burmese. A search of Google Books suggests that it originated in the 19th century during the British occupation of Burma.

In The Burman: His Life and Notions (1882), for example, Sir James George Scott describes how the Burmese travel in bullock carts that “are roomy, and allow ‘Jack Burma’ and his family to loll about as they please.”

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Everyday vs. every day

Q: This one riles me to no end. Even the most intelligent people use “everyday” for “every day.” I began to notice it a couple of years ago, as if it started with one person and caught on like wildfire. Please tell me I’m not mistaken: If you want an adjective, it’s one word. If you mean something occurs every day, it’s two words.

A: You’re not mistaken. Generally the single word is an adjective (“He’s wearing everyday clothes”) and the two-word phrase functions as either a noun (“Every day is an adventure”) or an adverb (“She gardens every day”).

However, the use of “everyday” for “every day” isn’t all that new. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has examples going back more than three decades.

Here’s one from the November 1980 issue of Vogue: “Everyday I see or read about women in similar roles.”

“This form may well get into dictionaries someday,” Merriam-Webster’s editors say, “but for now the two-word styling for the adverbial phrase is still more common.”

In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, Pat gives these examples of “everyday” and “every day” at play: “I just love my everyday diamonds,” said Magda. “That’s why you wear them every day,” said Eva.

We should add here that the single word can also be used as a noun meaning a typical or ordinary day. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, gives these two examples of this less common usage:

“I wore this dress—I wear it for everyday” (Eudora Welty).

“The trite and feeble language of everyday” (Clyde S. Kilby, an American author and educator).

Interestingly, the adjective was actually two words connected with a hyphen when it showed up in English in the 1600s.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The City Madam, a comedy that the English dramatist Philip Massinger wrote sometime before 1640: “Few great Ladies going to a Masque … out-shine ours in their every-day habits.”

Charles Dickens was still hyphenating the adjective two centuries later. Here’s an example from The Old Curiosity Shop (1841): “Mr. Quilp invested himself in his every-day garments.”

The OED’s first example of the adjective written as a single word is from Edward Augustus Freeman’s The History of the Norman Conquest (1868): “Treason is spoken of as an everyday matter.”

Etymology aside, standard dictionaries now list the adjective as one word. And usage guides say the two-word phrase acts as a noun or an adverb.

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The winningest dog

Q: I’m trying to find out the history of the word “winningest.”  Merriam-Webster Online says the first known use of the word was 1972, but it doesn’t give any details. I have a hunch that it was first used to describe my boyhood hero, Richard Petty, the winningest stock car driver of all time. How can I find out if my hunch is correct?

A: The adjective “winningest” has been around for hundreds of years, a lot longer than Richard Petty, but it meant the most alluring or attractive when the word first showed up in the 1600s.

The earliest example we could find in Google Books is from The False One, a play about Caesar and Cleopatra, by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. The work is believed to have been written around 1620.

In Act III, Scene 2, Antony says Cleopatra has “eyes that are the winningest Orators” and “a tongue that can deliver The Oracles of Love.”

We found thousands of other examples of “winningest” used this way over the centuries in books, plays, newspapers, magazines, and so on.

Our searches of Google databases indicate that the adjective “winningest” took on its sporting sense in the mid-20th century.

As owners of two Golden Retrievers who compete in obedience trials, we zeroed in on  this early example from a July 1955 issue of the American Kennel Gazette:

“At present the dog with the winningest way in our club is ‘Cindy,’ that beautiful Golden Retriever owned and shown by Greta Taft. Cindy finished her C.D. in three straight shows in June with enviable scores, and now Greta is keeping her in trim by showing her in Graduate Novice until she is ready for the Open class.”

(A dog that qualifies in three Novice obedience trials earns a “Companion Dog” title. One that qualifies in three Open trials earns a CDX, or Companion Dog Excellent, title.)

Cindy beat out Richard Petty by quite a few years. Petty began his racing career in 1958 and was the NASCAR rookie of the year in 1959. But he and the adjective “winningest” apparently didn’t come together until the 1970s.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an article by Robert F. Jones in the April 9, 1973, issue of Sports Illustrated:

“Of course, Richard is already the winningest driver in NASCAR history (in terms both of races and personality), and his 150 victories over 15 seasons amount to more than double those won by Pearson, his closest rival.” (The reference is to David Pearson.)

We posted a brief item on the blog back in 2007 when a reader complained about the use of “winningest.” Many people are bugged by the adjective and don’t think it’s a legitimate word.

However, you can find “winningest” in many standard dictionaries, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), though some describe the usage as informal.

And as we’ve said, the adjective “winningest” has been around for hundreds of years, first in the sense of most attractive and later in the sporting sense.

The word “winning” first showed up sometime before 1300 as a noun that referred to getting money or wealth, but that sense is now obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the early 1300s, it took on the sense of victory in a game or contest.

When the adjective “winning” appeared in the early 1400s, it had the now-obsolete sense of gaining money or wealth.

In Elizabethan times, the adjective took on the sense of winning in a contest or competition. The earliest OED example of this new meaning is from Shakespeare’s 1599 play Romeo and Juliet: “Learne me how to loose a winning match.”

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The many ways to say nothing

Q: Do we know about when people started saying “oh” in place of “zero”? For example, “Back in oh-four, Bush was president.” I vaguely recall that at the turn of the previous century, “aught” was used in the same manner. Any idea?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary says that both the word “oh” and the letter “O” are nouns representing the figure zero, or “nought,” or “nothing.”

The single letter “O” (usually capitalized) was the first to be used with these meanings.

This use of the letter “O” dates back to the late 1500s, before the word “zero” actually came into English, and it may even go back to the early 1400s.

The OED defines the use of “O” this way as meaning “the figure or symbol zero, 0; nought; (hence) a cipher, a mere nothing.”

(The mathematical symbol 0 showed up in India at least as far back as 876, according to “All for Nought,” an essay by Bill Casselman, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.)

Oxford has one possible, though questionable, citation for the use of the letter “O” as zero from The Crafte of Nombrynge (1425), an early treatise on arithmetic.

The dictionary’s earliest definite example is from 1596, but we’ll skip ahead to this one in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1608): “Thou art an O without a figure, I am better then thou art now, I am a foole, thou art nothing.”

The use of the longer “oh” for this purpose, which the OED calls a “variant” of the other usage, was a much later development. It didn’t appear in print until the early 20th century.

The OED’s earliest published citation is from a 1908 issue of an American magazine, the Railroad Telegrapher: “Wishing one and all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, hoping to see everyone out in nineteen oh nine.”

The OED’s definition notes that the use of “oh” to mean zero or “nought” usually appears “in combination with other numerals.”

The spelling of this “oh,” Oxford notes, is modeled after the spelling of the earlier interjection “oh!” 

And as it happens, the interjection written as “oh!” originated as a 16th-century variant of the Old English interjection written as one letter, “O.” The longer spelling, the OED says, was “probably intended to express a longer or stronger sound.”

But getting back to those little nothings, the word “zero” came into English in the early 17th century, either from the French word zéro or its source, the Italian zero, the OED says.

The Italian word is short for zefiro, which Oxford says came into that language from the Arabic word çifr (empty, nought, cipher).

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the Arabic word came from Sanskrit, in which sunya meant “empty place, desert, naught, a cipher.”

You mentioned the use of “aught” in dates, but what you’re actually hearing is spelled “ought” (as in “nineteen-ought-four”).

The OED says the use of  “ought” to mean “a nought, zero, cipher,”  dates from the 1820s and is probably a variant of “nought.”

Here’s a contemporary citation, from William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed (1979): “Strawberry Bill had played left field for Toronto in ought eight when Francis played third.”

The noun and pronoun spelled “nought” (or “naught”) means “nothing.” It’s the negative form of “aught,” which means “anything.”

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