The Grammarphobia Blog

Pardon my French, revisited

Q: Have you ever looked into “pardon my French”? I think it would make an interesting, and perhaps titillating, item for the blog.

A: As a matter of fact, we ran a post about “pardon my French” back in 2008, but we think it’s time for an update.

Robert A. Simon, a novelist, librettist, and New Yorker critic, seems to have been the first person to use “pardon my French” in writing to excuse swearing or other questionable language.

The earliest example of the usage we’ve found in a search of Google Books is from Simon’s 1923 novel Our Little Girl:

“ ‘Hell, you don’t want anybody to impress you!’

“Mrs. Loamford stiffened. Harper noted the reaction.

“ ‘Pardon my French, Mrs. Loamford,’ he apologized.”

However, similar expressions have been used since the mid-1800s, soon after English speakers began using the term “French” euphemistically for bad language, according to written examples in the OED.

We’ve found even earlier examples of “pardon my French” used literally to excuse the use of a French expression in conversation, either because the listener might not understand or because the usage might be taken as pretentious.

Here’s an example from Randolph, an 1823 novel by John Neal: “I do not believe that I am yet ‘une fille perdue!’ Pardon my French. You know that I am not very ostentatious of such things.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of “French” used for bad language is from Adventures in New Zealand, an 1845 book by Edward Wakefield: “The enraged headsman spares no ‘bad French’ in explaining his motives.”

The dictionary’s first citation for an expression similar to “pardon my French” used to excuse questionable language is from Marian Rooke, an 1865 novel by Henry Sedley: “Excuse my French.”

The latest Oxford example uses “pardon my French” to excuse an attack on another kind of bad English—academese.

In the May 12, 2005, issue of the New York Times Book Review, a book is described as “a welcome change from theory-infected academic discourse, pardon my French.”

The adjective “French,” of course, has been used in a negative way in English for hundreds of years.

A 1503 citation in the OED, for instance, refers to venereal disease as the “Frenche pox.” The French, naturally, referred to it as the mal des Anglais. Touché!

And “French” has been used since the mid-18th century to describe racy novels and pictures. As an example, here’s an excerpt from Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister (1842):

Or, my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.

Belial was the personification of evil in the Old Testament and a fallen angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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Thready or not

Q: Having a grammar insurrection in a non-grammar thread on the Lost Des Moines Facebook site. Hence a question about etymology. How did “thread” come to be used in this way?

A: The word “thread” has been used this way in writing since the 1980s, according examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says this use of “thread” means “a linked sequence of posts or messages relating to the same subject on a newsgroup or (now more usually) an Internet forum.”

The earliest examples in the dictionary are, naturally, from newsgroup postings.

The first appeared on May 30, 1984, in a Usenet group, net.news, under the heading “Beta Testers for Readnews Replacem. Wanted.” The relevant sentence reads:

“When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.”

Later that same year, a second example appeared in another Usenet group, fa.info-mac, under the heading “Re: Macintosh Devel. Techniques.”

The message, posted on Dec. 4, 1984, reads: “This would be a very interesting thread for experienced Mac programmers on info-mac.”

The term was so useful that it was bound to catch on. Here’s another example from the OED: “A self-described ‘overpackaholic’ started a thread in the Travel Forum.” (From CompuServe Magazine, 1994.)

We should note that “thread” had an earlier and much more technical meaning in the terminology of computer programming.

The OED says this sense of the word, which dates to the early 1970s, means “a programming structure or sequence of operations formed by linking a number of separate elements or subroutines; esp. each of the parts of a program executed concurrently in multithreading.” (Got that?)

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example, from Proceedings of the First European Seminar on Computing With Real-Time Systems (1972):

“The present research is aimed at investigating the costs of using a common program for different machines, and this leads to the concept of ‘single-thread programming.’ ”

The less technical sense of “thread”—a linked series of messages on the same subject—is just the latest figurative use of an extremely old noun.

“Thread” came from old Germanic sources and was first recorded around the year 725 in a Latin-Old English glossary.

Nearly 1,300 years later, its literal meaning remains basically unchanged—a fine cord of fibers of some material spun or twisted together.

Figurative usages have abounded over the centuries, Oxford says, with “thread” used metaphorically to mean “something figured as being spun or continuously drawn out like a thread.”

The figurative spinning out can refer to the course of a life, a conversation or argument, one’s thoughts, a persistent or recurring theme, and so on.

Finally, on a less poetic note, “threads” has been American slang for “clothes” since the Roaring Twenties.

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A senior moment

Q: When did “seniors” take over the playing field as a replacement for “the elderly” or “the aging” or “retirees”? And why? Can’t stand that usage. Never have, even during my working years. Seems condescending when it isn’t applied to students.

A: The noun “senior” was used to mean an old person or an elder long before it was applied to students. In fact, this was the original sense of the word, but 600 years ago it didn’t have quite as broad a meaning as it has today. 

Back in the Middle Ages, when “senior” was first recorded in writing, it was a noun meaning an elderly person of a particular kind—someone who was not merely aged, but respected or venerated for that reason.

The noun’s original sense, the Oxford English Dictionary says, was “one superior or worthy of deference and reverence by reason of age; one having pre-eminence in dignity by priority of election, appointment, etc.”

The term, according to OED citations, first appeared in writing in the works of the 14th-century theologian and philosopher John Wycliffe. In a religious tract from around 1380, Wycliffe used “seniours” to mean church elders.

We found a few examples that are more secular. In his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden wrote: “Arriv’d, he first enquir’d the founder’s name / Of this new colony; and whence he came. / Then thus a senior of the place replies.”

Another poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, used the term in a similar way in his Threnody (1842-44): “Each village senior paused to scan, / And speak the lovely caravan.”

But it appears that “senior” wasn’t used much as a general noun for any elderly person until fairly recently. Our guess is that the wider usage has become popular because of the ubiquitous “senior citizen,” a euphemism born in pre-World War II America.

Oxford’s first citation for “senior citizen” is from a 1938 issue of Time magazine: “Mr. Downey had an inspiration to do something on behalf of what he calls, for campaign purposes, ‘our senior citizens.’ ”

As the OED says, this “term for an elderly person, esp. one who is past the age of retirement,” is frequently used “in official communications and by the media as a euphemism for ‘old-age pensioner.’ ”

(Speaking of euphemisms for the elderly, Pat recalls that back in the 1970s the phrase “super adult” made a brief appearance. Mercifully, it passed away, except in reference to porn movies and disposable diapers.)

Though “senior citizen” originated in the US, it’s established in the UK as well. The examples in the OED include several from British books and periodicals of the 1960s and ’70s.

We can only speculate that, as we said above, the popularity of “senior citizen” may have revived the old use of “senior,” but in a wider sense.

On the other hand, the current use of “senior” as a noun for anyone who’s elderly could be regarded merely as short for “senior citizen.”

We were about to close this post when we remembered that we hadn’t discussed the academic use of the noun “senior.”

(We may have had a “senior moment,” which the OED defines as a humorous colloquialism dating from the mid-1990s and meaning “an instance or short period of forgetfulness or confusion, such as might be experienced by an elderly person.”)

Anyway, the noun “senior” was first used in the early 17th century to mean an upper-level student. Today’s definition, according to the OED, is “one of the more advanced students” or, in American usage, a fourth-year student.

Appropriately, Oxford’s earliest example of this usage is from a schoolmaster. In his book Ludus Literarius; or, The Grammar Schoole (1612), John Brinsley wrote: “That the two or fowre Seniors in each fourme, be as Vshers in that fourme.”

The OED also cites an American example from The Customs of Harvard College, a 1741 manuscript copy of rules for new students. “No Freshman shall be saucy to his Senior.”

By the way, this amusing manuscript was eventually printed as part of A Collection of College Words and Customs, an 1851 book by Benjamin H. Hall. If you have any spare time, the manuscript makes fascinating reading.

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Highest minded

Q: I have a question about this statement: “He’s a bigot of the highest order.” The meaning here is that he’s the worst type of bigot. Shouldn’t the superlative be “lowest”?

A: The phrase “of the highest order” doesn’t always mean “the best of its kind.” It can also mean “the worst of its kind.” The expression can be used to characterize something that’s excessively or surpassingly bad.

For instance, the phrase is emphatically negative in these recent examples from news websites:

“political malpractice of the highest order” (Washington Post);

“a prickly misfit of the highest order” (New York Times Book Review);

“schemers of the highest order” (Huffington Post);

“a brain explosion of the highest order” (Sidney Morning Herald);

“stupidity of the highest order” (Britain’s Daily Mail);

“a mummy’s boy of the highest order” (the Guardian);

“hypocrisy of the highest order” (the Australian);

“stalemate of the highest order” (NBCSports.com).

Journalists aren’t alone in using the expression this way. Other writers on the Web have described instances of “treason,” “betrayal,” “disgrace,” “arrogance,” “self-abuse,” “tomfoolery,” “insecurity,” “problems,” and “deceit” as being “of the highest order.”

The word “highest” here is an adjective of degree rather than of quality, so it can apply to traits that are highly positive or negative. Think of the phrases “of the highest magnitude” and “to the nth degree,” which can be used with descriptions either good or bad. 

The Macmillan Dictionary defines “of a high/the highest order” as meaning “of the best or worst type,” and gives examples of both: “The job calls for problem-solving skills of a high order. … It was economic lunacy of the highest order.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t specifically discuss “of the highest order,” though a search of its files turns up several uses of the phrase.

Here’s a negative example, from Warren St. John’s book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer (2004): “Finebaum has been a relentless badgerer of Mike Dubose, a man he has adjudged an incompetent of the highest order.”

This expression resembles another that’s used for comparisons—“of the first water,” a phrase that originated in the jewelry trade.

In the early 17th century, when the phrase was first recorded, gems of the finest transparency and luster were described as being “of the first water,” the OED says.

“The three highest grades of quality in diamonds were formerly known as the first water, second water, and third water,” the OED explains. This use of “water” in the sense of luster or splendor may have come from Arabic, Oxford notes.

In the late 18th century, people began using “of the first (or finest, purest, rarest) water” in a figurative sense.

Originally, these figurative usages were positive, since the implied comparison was to a fine jewel, but by the early 19th century, negative uses also crept in.

Today, as Oxford says, the expression is used “following a personal designation (often of reproach) with the sense ‘out-and-out,’ ‘thorough-paced.’” 

The dictionary quotes this out-and-out condemnation from an 1826 entry in Sir Walter Scott’s journal: “He was a … swindler of the first water.”

It also cites this one from William B. Boulton’s Thomas Gainsborough (1905), a biography of the painter: “He … assumed the airs of a beau and lady-killer of the first water.”

No, the reference isn’t to Gainsborough, but to his landlord, John Astley, who by all accounts was a womanizer, a fortune-hunter, and a rogue of the highest order.

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How fast is Godspeed?

Q: When Phil Everly died the other day, Nancy Sinatra tweeted, “I love you Phillip–Godspeed.” I’ve always assumed “Godspeed” is short for something like “May God speed you on your way.” But why speed? Why the hurry?

A: The “speed” in “Godspeed” has nothing to do with quickness. In fact, the word “speed” itself didn’t mean quickness when it first showed up in Anglo-Saxon times almost 1,300 years ago.

The noun “speed” (spelled spoed in Old English) originally meant “success, prosperity, good fortune; profit, advancement, furtherance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED cites this early example from a glossary, written around the year 725, of Latin and Old English terms: “Successus, spoed.”

Similarly, the verb “speed,” which showed up in the late 900s, meant to succeed or prosper. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The Battle of Maldon, an Old English poem dating from 993.

Here’s the citation in Modern English: “No need to slaughter each other if you speed [are generous with] us.”

Although the “success” sense of “speed” is now considered obsolete or archaic except in Scottish English, according to the OED, the usage lives in the term “Godspeed” (also written “God-speed” and “God speed”).

The “Godspeed” usage first showed up in the 1300s in verbal phrases like “God spede me” and “God spede thee,” meaning “May God give you success” (or “prosperity” or “good fortune”).

The OED’s earliest citation is from Sir Tristrem, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330: “He may bidde god me spede.”

And here’s an example from around 1385 in the “The Knight’s Tale,” the first story in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: “God spede yow go forth and ley on faste.”

In the 1500s, according to the OED, people began bidding one another “God speed,” especially “to express a wish for the success of one who is setting out on some journey or enterprise.”

The dictionary’s first example of this usage is from the Tyndale Bible of 1526: Yf ther come eny vnto you and bringe not this learninge him receave not to housse: neither bid him God spede.”

And here’s a 1597 example from Shakespeare’s Richard II: “A brace of draimen bid, God speed him wel.”

By the way, don’t confuse “Godspeed” with the old phrase “good speed.” (The word “good” was sometimes spelled “god” in Old English and Middle English.)

The expression “good speed” is a separate usage, in which “speed” in the old sense of success was coupled with adjectives like “good” or “evil.”

Among the OED citations is this line from Daniel Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720): “The King wished us good Speed.”

So when, you’re probably wondering, did “speed” get its speedy sense?

The noun “speed” took on its sense of quickness a few hundred years after it showed up in Old English meaning success, prosperity or good fortune.

The OED’s earliest example of “speed” used in the sense of quickness is from an Old English manuscript of Genesis believed to have been written sometime around the year 1000.

The citation begins after God promises the elderly Abraham and Sarah that they will soon have a son. Here it is in modern English: “Then at once after the speech they departed with speed, eager to be gone.”

Oxford‘s earliest example of the verb “speed” used in this sense (Egipte folc hem hauen ut sped) is from a manuscript of Exodus, dating from around 1250, in which the Egyptians speed the Israelites—that is, force them to flee in haste.

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On smarm and snark

Q: The commentariat can’t seem to stop talking about “smarm” and “snark.” Where did these two words come from?

A: Yes, there has been a lot of talk in the media about “smarm” and “snark,” especially since Isaac Fitzgerald, the newly appointed book editor of BuzzFeed, told Poynter.org in November that he wouldn’t publish negative reviews.

We won’t contribute to the cultural finger-waggery in the “smarm”-versus-“snark” debate, but we’re happy to discuss the evolution of these terms.

The latest incarnations of these words are still works in progress, taking on different shades and spins and tones each time they’re used.

In general, though, “smarm” is being used now to mean smug, disapproving self-righteousness and “snark” to mean scornful, dismissive nastiness.

You won’t find the latest senses of these shifty words in most standard dictionaries, but “smarm” and “snark” have etymological roots that date from the 19th century.

The noun “smarm” is derived from a colloquial verb that showed up in the mid-1800s and meant to smear or bedaub, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary says the verb “smarm” first showed up (spelled “smawm”) as an entry in A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (1847), by James Orchard Halliwell: “Smawm, to smear. Dorset.”

By the early 1900s, according to OED citations, “smarm” was being used to mean “treat in a wheedling, flattering way” or “behave in a fulsomely flattering or toadying manner.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of this Uriah Heepish sense is from the March 1902 issue of Little Folks, a magazine for children: “You can go and smarm him over if you want to.”

And here’s an example from Widdershins, a 1911 collection of ghost stories by the English novelist Oliver Onions: “It had been the usual thing, usual in those days, twenty years ago—smarming about Art and the Arts.”

In the 1920s, according to OED citations, the adjective “smarmy” showed up, meaning “ingratiating, obsequious; smug, unctuous.”

Here’s an example from The Deductions of Colonel Gore (1924), a mystery by Lynn Brock: “Don’t you be taken in by that smarmy swine.”

The noun “smarm” appeared in the 1930s, meaning “an unctuous bearing; fulsome flattery; flattering or toadying behaviour,” according to the OED.

Oxford’s first example is from Clunk’s Claimant, a 1937 detective story by the English author Henry Christopher Bailey: “That smarm of holiness … was pretty near the ruddy limit.”

The dictionary’s latest example, from the Feb. 19, 1978, issue of the Guardian Weekly, uses “smarm” in that same toadying sense: ‘George’ did this, ‘George’ did that, all the way through. ‘George’ is the victim of bonhomie and smarm.”

Most standard dictionaries still define “smarmy” and “smarm” in terms of obsequious flattery or excessively ingratiating behavior, though the Cambridge Dictionaries Online website includes “disapproving” as an informal sense of “smarmy.”

The disapproving, self-righteous sense of “smarm” is a relatively recent phenomenon. We haven’t pinned down exactly when the obsequious “smarm” got its disapproving sense, but the usage took off after BuzzFeed’s declaration that negative reviews were a no-no.

In an article last month entitled “On Smarm,” for example, Tom Scocca, the features editor at Gawker, offered this definition of the term:

“What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

“Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”

The noun “snark” first showed up as an imaginary creature in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876), but the word we’re talking about here is derived from a verb that appeared a decade earlier.

The OED describes the verb “snark” as a dialectal term “of imitative nature” that means to snore or snort.

The earliest citation for the verb in Oxford is from an 1866 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “I will not quite compare it [a sound] to a certain kind of snarking or gnashing.”

In the early 1880s, according to the dictionary, the verb took on a new sense: to find fault with or to nag.

The OED’s first example of the new usage is from an 1882 edition of Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, which defines “snark” as “to fret, grumble, or find fault with one.”

In the early 1900s, this fault-finding sense of the verb “snark” gave us the adjective “snarky,” which Oxford defines as “irritable, short-tempered, ‘narky.’ ” (“Narky” is a British and Australian term for being irritable or sarcastic.)

The OED’s first example of “snarky” is from The Railway Children (1906), a children’s book by the English author Edith Nesbit: “Don’t be snarky, Peter. It isn’t our fault.”

The related noun “snarkiness” showed up in the 1960s, according to Oxford, but we’ve found only one passing reference to it in eight standard dictionaries. The abbreviated noun “snark” hasn’t made it into the OED or standard dictionaries.

Like “smarm,” the noun “snark” is a relative newcomer. One of the earliest examples we’ve seen is from an essay on book reviewing by the author and editor Heidi Julavits.

In the March 2003 issue of The Believer, a literary magazine she co-edits, Julavits discusses reviews that display “wit for wit’s sake,” “hostility for hostility’s sake,” and a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt.”

“I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community,” she writes.

In the article, she uses the terms “snark,” “snarkiness,” or “snarky” 15 times (no “smarm,” however).

Yes, that’s a lot of snark. But David Denby has written a whole book about it, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation (2009).

The New Yorker writer considers snark “a nasty, knowing strain of abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.”

“It’s the bad kind of invective—low, teasing, snide, condescending, knowing; in brief, snark—that I hate,” he writes.

Enough “snark” hunting! We’ll let Charles Dodgson and his Snark hunters have the last word:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

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Words of passage

Q: Why was Ectopistes migratorius called a “passenger pigeon”? Was the “passenger” a message like those carried by homing pigeons?

A: No, the word “passenger” here has nothing to do with carrying messages. It’s an old term (originally spelled “passager”) for a migratory bird—that is, a bird of passage.

English adapted the word “passenger” in the 1300s from passager and several similar “n”-less terms in Anglo-Norman and Middle French for a ferry, a ferryman, or a passenger on a ferry or other vessel.

Why an “n” in the English version of the word? The Oxford English Dictionary explains that it’s an example of “the development of an intrusive n before g found chiefly in loanwords from the late Middle English period onwards.”

The OED cites several similar words of French origin, including “messenger” and “harbinger,” in which an “n” was inserted during the Middle English period (from the late 12th to the late 15th centuries).

From the 1300s to the 1500s, the English term “passenger” developed several senses: a pilot of a ferry, a ferry or ship that carries passengers, a passenger, and a traveler.

In the late 1500s, “passenger” came to mean a migratory bird. The earliest OED citation for this usage, minus the “n,” is from Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives:

“Which hathe geuen some occasion to holde … that the vulters are passagers, and come into these partes out of straunge countryes.”

The intrusive “n” shows up in the next OED citation, from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), by John Smith:

“Sometimes are also seene Falcons … but because they come seldome, they are held but as passengers.”

The OED says the use of the word “passenger” in the migratory sense is now obsolete, but the usage lives on in the terms “bird of passage” and “passenger pigeon.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “bird of passage” used to mean a migratory bird is from a 1717 entry in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

In the citation, flamingos are said to “sometimes visit us here in Europe, and so may be accounted amongst the Migratory Kind, or Birds of Passage.”

Oxford suggests that the use of “bird of passage” in this sense may have been influenced by the Middle French term oiseau de passage, which dates from 1549.

The dictionary’s first citation for “passenger pigeon” is from a 1772 entry in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: “Passenger Pigeon, Faun. Am. Sept. 11. Severn River, No 63.”

The term “passenger pigeon” is defined in the OED as “a long-tailed North American pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, noted for its former abundance, rapid and sustained flight, and mass migrations.”

The dictionary adds that the passenger pigeon (once commonly known as the wild pigeon) “was relentlessly hunted to extinction, the last individual dying in captivity in 1914.”

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On naming names

Q: The New York Times Book Review says former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “is naming names” in his new memoir. I’ve always thought that to “name names” is strangely redundant, but you hear it all the time. Does anyone question it nowadays?

A: Is the verb phrase “name names” redundant? No, though a lot of people online seem to think so.

Just because a verb and a noun sound the same doesn’t make using them together redundant. A redundant word is superfluous. The phrase “name names” would lose its meaning if you eliminated either word.

The fact that the phrase has an interior rhyme is probably responsible, at least in part, for its popularity.

Many people believe “name names” is a 20th-century creation, perhaps inspired by crackdowns on organized crime or even the McCarthy hearings.

But in fact this verb phrase is more than 300 years old.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “name names” means “to specify the names of people, esp. those involved in a discreditable or illegal incident, etc.; to incriminate or implicate people.”

Frequently, the OED says, the phrase is used “in negative contexts, as to name no names, without naming names, etc.”

“It may often be the case,” Oxford notes, “that only one person is alluded to, despite the use of the plural names.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from a comic play by Thomas Sotherne, The Wives’ Excuse (1692): “No naming Names, good Wellvile.”

However, our own searches turned up an earlier example. In a treatise entitled The Case of Kneeling at the Holy Sacrament, Stated and Resolved, published in London in 1685, the English rector John Evans wrote: “but it’s uncivil to name names.”

The expression (along with its variants) certainly has staying power, since it’s been used steadily ever since. The OED has many other examples, including these:

1696: “Don’t press me then to name Names” (from John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Relapse);

1763: “without naming any names” (a letter in The Gentleman’s Magazine);

1792: “She desired he would name no names” (from the novelist Fanny Burney’s journal);

1843: “Naming no names, and therefore hurting nobody” (from Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit);

1888: “I will name no names” (from Rudyard Kipling’s story collection Soldiers Three);

1908: “I name no names” (from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows).

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Not that big of a deal?

Q: It sounds wrong to me, but just about everybody inserts an unnecessary “of” in an expression like “It’s not that big of a deal.” How big a deal is this? Is it incorrect?

A: This “of a” usage is a subject that readers of our blog have often raised, and it’s one that we wrote about in 2007.

Back then, we were pretty dismissive of the usage, which some linguists have called the “big of” syndrome.

But this is such a common American colloquialism that it deserves a closer look, so we’ll expand on what we wrote before.

We’ve often said (as we did in a post last summer) that not all redundancies are bad. An extra word can be justified if it serves an emphatic or supportive purpose, as in “first time ever” or “three different times.”

But as we noted in 2007, the unnecessary “of” in “not that big of a deal” doesn’t seem to add any particular emphasis or color (though it might add informality).

We speculated that this usage could have been influenced by phrases like “a whale of a good time,” “a monster of a party,” and so on.

In those constructions, with a noun described in terms of another noun, the “of” is standard English: “a prince of a man” … “a devil of a time” …“that rascal of a boy” … “a little jewel of a cottage”  …“a hell of a mess.”

This is a time-honored English usage. Among literary examples, the Oxford English Dictionary cites “his little concubine of a wife,” from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922).

And evidence in the OED shows that noun phrases with “hell of a …” and “devil of a …” have long been part of the language, dating back to the 1680s and 1740s, respectively.

So that construction—noun + “of a” + noun—is standard English, acceptable even in the best writing.

However, when an adjective is part of the pattern—adjective + “of a” + noun—some usages are standard and some aren’t.

In standard English, we commonly use certain adjectives of quantity—“much,” “more,” “less,” “enough”—in this way, as in “enough of a problem” and “too much of a drive.”

 But with adjectives of degree—“good/bad,” “big/small,” “long/short,” “old/young,” “hard/easy,” “near/far,” and so on—the “of a” pattern is not considered standard English.

With that class of adjectives, the “of”-less versions are regarded as standard: “not that big a problem,” “too long a drive,” etc. But the “of” versions are regarded as dialectal: “not that big of a problem,” “too long of a drive.”

While this dialectal usage is nonstandard, it shouldn’t be called incorrect—just inappropriate in formal English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage summarizes this dialectal construction as “a fairly recent American idiom that has nearly a fixed form: that or how or too, or sometimes as, followed by an adjective, then of a and a noun.”

The usage guides traces its appearance to the early 1940s, but says it’s probably “somewhat older.”

M-W cites examples from television interviews involving sports figures, newscasters, mayors, and others: “that difficult of a shot” … “that long of a speech” … “that big of a mess” … “too good of a loser” … “how good of a shape,” and so on.

“This current idiom,” M-W says, “is just one of a group of idioms that are characterized by the presence of of a as the link between a noun and some sort of preceding qualifier.”

What’s different about this more recent usage is that the preceding qualifier is one of degree, as we said above, rather than quantity.

The linguist Arnold M. Zwicky commented on this difference in a 1995 paper entitled “Exceptional Degree Markers.”

“This use of of,” Zwicky noted, “is presumably an extension of the rule for NPs [noun phrases] with quantity (rather than degree) modifiers like more, less, enough, and a bit, in combination with singular count nouns: more of a liar, enough of a linguist, a bit of a charmer.”

Kenneth G. Wilson, writing in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English in 1993, made much the same point. He wrote that although “how hard of a job” is nonstandard English, it’s analogous to “how much of a job,” which is “clearly idiomatic and Standard.”

Wilson also suggested—two decades ago—that nonstandard “of a” usages “could achieve idiomatic status before too long, despite the objections of many commentators.”

Until then, he said, they should be left out of “your Planned and Oratorical speech and your edited English.”

Has that time arrived? Well, these dialectal “of a” usages are becoming acceptable idioms in casual speech and informal writing. However, we still wouldn’t recommend them in formal English, written or spoken.

In fact, this dialectal construction—like “how long of a drive”—isn’t found much in print anyway, except in the most casual writing.  

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) calls it an informal oral usage that’s confined, so far, to American English.

Merriam-Webster’s says the same: “Our evidence shows the idiom to be almost entirely oral; it is rare in print except in reported speech.”

As M-W concludes: “The only stricture on it suggested by our evidence is that it is a spoken idiom: you will not want to use it much in writing except of the personal kind.”

It would be an understatement to call this idiom common in American speech. One linguist has written that for lots of speakers, it’s more than common—it’s preferred. 

“Many speakers of American English would never say too big a tree but rather too big of a tree,” Edward L. Blansitt Jr. wrote in his paper “Non-Constituent Connectives” (1983).

For such speakers, Blansitt wrote more than 30 years ago, “of is simply a boundary marker between the preceding descriptive adjective and following indefinite article.”

Since spoken English is the English that’s quoted in print and heard on the news, you can expect  to encounter “that big of a deal” for many years to come.

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Hairsplitting: blonde vs. brunette

Q:   Why do we say a blonde has blonde hair, but we never say a brunette has brunette hair? It’s always brown. Also, most nouns that describe people by hair color, certainly blonde and brunette, apply to women exclusively.

A: In answer to your first question, each of these words—“blond” (or “blonde”) and “brunet” (or “brunette”)—is both a noun and an adjective, according to standard dictionaries.

So it’s legitimate to say a person has “brunet” (or “brunette”) hair, although the word is used mostly as a noun (“She is a brunette”), and less often as an adjective (“She has brunette hair”).

Why isn’t “brunet” or “brunette” used more often as an adjective? Probably because “brown,” a good old Anglo-Saxon word, does a better job (“She has brown hair”). It’s a simpler, more familiar adjective, so there’s little need for “brunet” or “brunette.”

“Blond” or “blonde,” on the other hand, is an indispensable adjective, since there’s no better substitute.

Besides, it covers a lot of territory, from platinum to light chestnut, unlike some of the wordier alternatives: “yellow-haired,” “golden-haired,” “flaxen-haired,” “sandy-haired,” etc.

Now, about those spellings. The pairs are pronounced alike, but the different endings reflect the masculine and feminine forms in French.

In American English, according to dictionaries and usage guides, the nouns “blond” and “brunet” are used in reference to boys and men, while “blonde” and “brunette” are applied to girls and women.

The adjectives may or may not reflect gender—some guides recommend “blond” and “brunet” for both sexes, while some call for gendered adjectives.

 In modern British usage, the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the form blonde is now preferred in all senses.”

As we hinted above, these words came into English from French, but their earlier sources were not Gallic.

The French blond (feminine blonde) can be traced to the medieval Latin blondus or blundus (yellow).

The origin of the medieval Latin is uncertain, according to the OED, but other etymological sources suggest convincingly that it’s ultimately Germanic.

The French brunet (feminine brunette) is a diminutive of brun (brown), a word that came into French around 1100 from Germanic sources—“brown” was brun in Old English.

So when modern English borrowed “brunet” and “brunette” from French, it was simply borrowing a form of a word it already had—at least as an adjective.

In English, “blond”/“blonde” was first on the scene, and “brunet”/“brunette” came later.

An adjective spelled “blounde” was recorded a couple of times in the 1480s, but it soon disappeared. The adjective was re-introduced into English from modern French in the 17th century in masculine and feminine forms.

The noun first showed up in the 1820s in the feminine form. The earliest OED citation, from an 1822 issue of the Edinburgh Review, refers to “Brenda, the laughing blue-eyed blonde.”

The dictionary defines the term as “a person with blond hair; one with light or ‘fair’ hair and the corresponding complexion; esp. a woman, in which case spelt blonde.”

The adjective “brunette” was first recorded in English in 1712, the noun in 1713. But the masculine “brunet” wasn’t recorded until the late 19th century, Oxford says, the adjective in 1887 and the noun in 1890.

Those dates should tell you something. Even in olden times, a woman was more likely to be called a “blonde” or “brunette” than a man was to be called a “blond” or a “brunet.”

And today, as you suggest, when we hear those nouns we assume that a woman is being referred to, not a man.

We’ve seen some scholarly studies on hair-color stereotypes, but nothing on this specific subject. However, we assume that sexual stereotyping is responsible for the tendency to characterize women, but generally not men, in terms of hair color.

Seldom do we hear a short man with red hair described as “a petite redhead,” or a tall man with brown hair called “a leggy brunet,” or a buff, light-haired guy characterized as “a shapely blond.” 

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Pedal to the mettle?

Q: A recent mini-review of a film on the New York Times television page used the expression “pedal to the mettle.” I’ve always thought it was “pedal to the metal.” Is the former a proper usage?

A: The recent TV brief that caught your attention quotes the first sentence of an Aug. 23, 2012, review in the Times of the movie Premium Rush, a screwball thriller about a New York City bicycle messenger:

“Pushing pedal to the mettle and its breezily thin, goofy story to the breaking point, ‘Premium Rush’ provides just about all the late summer air-conditioned relief you could hope for.”

You’re right that the correct expression is “pedal to the metal,” but the Times reviewer may have deliberately taken creative liberties here, inspired by the mettle of the biker, who runs “a gantlet of darting cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians” while dodging a crooked cop.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial expression “pedal to the metal,” which originated in the United States in the 1970s, was used first “in the context of driving, later also in extended use.”

In a literal sense, the “pedal” in the expression is a vehicle’s gas pedal, and the “metal” is the floorboard. (Putting the pedal to the metal is the same as “flooring” it.)

This may have started as a Citizens Band radio term used by truckers. We found the expression in a glossary of CB lingo published in the July 1976 issue of Popular Mechanics: “Pedal to the metal: Accelerator to the floor.” 

It also appears in books on CB radio published that year, and we found one mention from the year before, suggesting that the usage was well established in the CB world by the mid-70s. 

The phrase is used both literally and figuratively as an adjective, an adverb, and a verb.

The OED defines the adjective phrase—usually hyphenated, “pedal-to-the-metal”—as meaning “high-speed, fast-paced; reckless, unrestrained.”

The adverbial phrase—often worded as “with the pedal to the metal”—means “at top speed; headlong, recklessly,” according to Oxford.

And the OED defines the verb phrase (“to put the pedal to the metal”) as meaning “to accelerate, to drive at top speed; (in extended use) to proceed very rapidly or recklessly; to perform to one’s full capacity.”

The OED’s earliest published citation for the phrase is from a 1976 issue of Time magazine: “Up to 3,500 fans will … watch these two ‘pedal-to-the-metal’ drivers bump fenders as they scream around the track.”

Another 1976 citation, this one from the National Lampoon, uses the phrase as a verb: “Once again D.D. puts the pedal to the metal.”

This 1987 quotation, from Jon Franklin’s book Molecules of the Mind, uses the phrase as an adverb: “Our world was an eighteen-wheeler full of dynamite, careening down the highway with the pedal to the metal.”

This more figurative sense of the phrase comes from the Chicago Tribune (1998): “[He] is heading pedal-to-the-metal into matrimony.”

When expressions are used figuratively, people sometimes lose sight of the original meaning of the words, which accounts for phrases like “pedal to the mettle” used mistakenly—not in jest.

Although “mettle” is sometimes misused for “metal,” the opposite is true too, as when we read of someone “on his metal” or “showing his metal.”

The proper phrases are “on his mettle” (prepared to do his best) and “testing his mettle” (showing his best qualities).

The noun “mettle” means a combination of qualities—spirit, determination, courage, strength of character, and so on. As the OED says, it’s “the ‘stuff’ of which one is made, regarded as an indication of one’s character.”

Interestingly, “metal” and “mettle” have separate meanings now, but they began life as different spellings of the same word.

“Mettle” first showed up in the 16th century as a variant spelling of the much older term “metal,” which English borrowed from Old French in the 1200s.

But by the early 18th century “mettle” had become established as the proper spelling for the metaphorical sense of “metal,” meaning “the material from which a person is made,” to quote the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

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Is fun infectious or contagious?

Q: A mentor of mine, an MD, taught me that a contagious disease spreads by contact between people while an infectious one doesn’t need contact. This would suggest that laughter or fun is “contagious,” not “infectious.” Other usage gurus are a bit vague, but I hope to find your usual precision on this one.  

A: Medline Plus, the online medical dictionary from the National Institutes of Health, generally agrees with your mentor. It defines “contagious” as “communicable by contact,” and “infectious” as “capable of causing infection.”

Of course the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. As William Arthur Hagan explains in The Infectious Diseases of Domestic Animals (1943), “All contagious diseases are also infectious, but it does not follow that all infectious diseases are contagious.”

Although many people use the two terms interchangeably, the definitions for “contagious” and “infectious” in standard dictionaries are similar to those in medical references.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “contagious” as “transmissible by direct or indirect contact,” and “infectious” as “capable of causing infection.”

However, both terms have strayed from those senses when used figuratively, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.).

The lexicographer R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s, discusses the figurative evolution of “contagious” and “infectious”:

“In figurative uses, contagious tends to be used of both pleasant and unpleasant things (in the OED and OED files of corruption, folly, guilt, panic, and suffering, but also laughter, shyness, and vigour), whereas infectious is mainly restricted to pleasant things (enthusiasm, good humour, laughter, sense of fun, simple delight, virtue, and zeal).”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agrees that in recent figurative usage “contagious can be used of pleasant and unpleasant things, but infectious is almost always used of pleasant things.”

So, “laughter” and “fun” can be described as either “contagious” or “infectious,” though they’re more likely to be called “infectious.”

Now, let’s look at the history of these two adjectives.

English adapted the word “contagious” from the Old French contagieus in the 1300s, but the ultimate source is the Latin noun contagion, which refers to touching and contact as well as contagion.

In the OED’s earliest example, from Chaucer’s 1374 translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ, “contagious” is used to describe the corruption of the soul by being in contact with the body:

“Whan I lost my memorie by the contagious coniunccioun of the body with the soule.” (We’ve replaced the runic letter thorn with “th” throughout.) 

By the early 1400s, the adjective was being used in its medical sense. in Lanfranc’s Science of Cirurgie (circa 1400), leprosy is referred to as “oon of the syknessis that ben contagious.” (We’ve replaced a thorn here with “th.”)

In the 1600s, according to OED citations, people began using “contagious” figuratively to describe all sorts of things “communicated from one to another or to others.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A Treatise of Seraphic Love (1660), by Robert Boyle: “If our Friends do not allay our Love or Affection by unwelcome Actions, or their contagious Sufferings.”

The next citation is from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Well understood Of Eve, whose Eye darted contagious Fire.”

As for “infectious,” English adapted the term from Anglo-Norman and Middle French in the 1500s, but the ultimate source is inficere, Latin for to dye, stain, infect, imbue, or corrupt.

Originally, according to the OED, the English term referred to “causing or spreading disease, esp. of an epidemic nature.” Later, it came to be used more widely to mean capable of “causing or transmitting infection.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “infectious” is from a 1534 treatise on epidemic disease by Thomas Paynell, an English friar who wrote on literary and medical subjects:

“For from suche infected bodies commethe infectious and venemous fumes and vapours, the whiche do infecte and corrupte the aire.”

Soon, according to OED citations, the term was being used figuratively to mean “tending or liable to infect or contaminate character, morals,” but that sense is now considered rare.

By the early 1600s, the adjective took on its modern figurative sense of “having the quality of spreading from one to another; easily communicable.”

The earliest Oxford example is from The Maid’s Tragedy, a 1619 play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: “She carries with her an infectious griefe, / That strikes all her beholders.”

The next citation, from John Dryden’s Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), uses the term positively: “Through the bright Quire th’ infectious Vertue ran. All dropp’d their Tears.”

We’ll end with a more recent example from a 1988 issue of Rugby News: He’s very infectious and the sort of guy people want to follow.”

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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: “lost” words—words that once had a literal meaning but are now used only in their metaphorical senses.  If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.
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Get me rewrite!

Q: I am wondering if this sentence is grammatically correct and clear: “After touching his cloak, that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter hurt a little.”  

A: That sentence isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it’s certainly unclear. Let’s call it overly literary. A reader shouldn’t have to read a sentence twice (or three times) to get the meaning.

The word “that” is a conjunction here. It introduces the subordinate clause that’s the subject of the sentence.

The verb is “hurt,” and the subject of the verb is the clause “that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter.”

The sentence is hard to read because in this kind of construction, the verb isn’t generally left until the end.

Here’s a rephrasing that makes things a bit clearer: “After touching his cloak, it hurt a little that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter.”

That rewording inserts “it” as an anticipatory “dummy” subject. The logical subject is still “that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter.”

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about subordinate clauses introduced by “that”:

“The subord. clause as subject is most commonly placed after the verb and introduced by a preceding it, e.g. ‘it is certain that he was there’ = ‘that he was there, is certain.’ ”

We recently wrote a post that referred to a similar construction: the use of “it” as a dummy subject when the logical subject is an infinitive.

Example: “It was futile to resist his manly charms.” (Without the dummy subject: “To resist his manly charms was futile.”)

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A foregone conclusion

Q: Here’s a quickie query. What’s the past tense of “forego”?

A: The past tense of “forego” is “forewent.” But do you mean “forego” or “forgo”?

These are two different verbs. Traditionally, “forego” means to precede, while “forgo” means to do without.

However, some dictionaries now list “forego” as an alternate or variant spelling of “forgo,” and “forgo” as an alternate or variant spelling of “forego.” Yikes!

Life is complicated enough, so we’ll stick to the traditional spellings.

The two verbs have separate histories dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. And as Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) puts it, “their meanings are so different that it’s worth preserving the distinction.”

We’ll return to the history of these verbs later, but first let’s get back to your question. Here’s the quickie answer, with the traditional spellings:

● “forego” (to go before): past tense, “forewent”; past participle, “foregone.”

● “forgo” (to do without): past tense, “forwent”; past participle, “forgone.”

Obviously, the past tenses aren’t exactly household words. We’d forgo using either one, and go with something like “preceded” or “went before” for the first verb and “did without” or “abstained” for the second.

The past participles aren’t seen much either, except for the first one, “foregone.” It’s  used adjectivally in the familiar expression “foregone conclusion,” meaning an inevitable result or a conclusion formed in advance.

(The OED‘s earliest example of “foregone conclusion” is from Shakespeare’s Othello (circa 1603): “But this denoted a fore-gone conclusion.”)

Now, on to the history of “forego” and “forgo.”

Both appeared in Old English religious writing: “forego” in The Vespasian Psalter (circa 825) and “forgo” in The Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 950), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the OED says, “forego” was written as foregán, a combination of the prefix “fore-” and the verb gán (go), while “forgo” was forgán, the prefix “for-” plus gán.

The two prefixes are entirely different: “fore-” means “before” or “in front,” while “for-” (a prefix that’s now obsolete) implies a sense of “off” or “away.” (This is the same prefix that survives in “forlorn,” “forget,” “forbid,” and “forbear.”)

The word “forego” has meant to precede since its early days, but “forgo” has had a few twists and turns before arriving at its modern meaning of to do without.

When “forgo” appeared in The Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript from an English monastery, it meant “to go away, go past, pass away,” according to the OED.

Over the next few centuries, it came to mean to go by, pass over, leave alone, neglect, overlook, avoid, overreach, forsake, and deceive, but all those senses are now considered obsolete, archaic, or rare.

In the 1100s, according to Oxford, “forgo” (sometimes spelled “forgoo” or “forgoe”) took on its modern meaning of “to abstain from, go without, deny to oneself,” and so on.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the new usage is from The Cotton Homilies (a manuscript from sometime before 1175), but we’ll skip ahead to this exchange between Achilles and Hector in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1609):

Achilles: Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set; / How ugly night comes breathing at his heels: / Even with the vail and darking of the sun, / To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.

Hector: I am unarm’d; forgoe this vantage, Greek.

Achilles: Strike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.

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How canny are canines?

Q: Sometimes I feel as if my dog (a canine pet) is exceptionally canny. Is there any chance that the term “canny” has an etymological relationship to “canine”?

A: Daisy and Willy, our two Golden Retrievers, are pretty canny too, but the terms “canine” and “canny” aren’t related.

The word “canine” is derived from canis, Latin for “dog,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, while “canny” ultimately comes from a now obsolete sense of the verb “can,” which once meant to know.

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that “canine” entered English in the early 1600s as an adjective meaning doglike as well as an adjective describing pointed teeth.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that “canine” came to be a noun meaning a dog. Of course we already had a couple of common canine nouns, “dog” and “hound,” with roots dating back to the days of Old English.

The word “hound” (hund in Old English) first showed up in Beowulf, which may date from as early as 725, according to Chambers. The dictionary says it’s derived from the proto-Germanic root hundas.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that “hound” was the main word in English for a dog “until superseded around the 16th century by dog.”

Although “hound” now has a more specific sense in English, Ayto says, its relatives in other Germanic languages (hund in German, Swedish, and Danish, for example) still refer to a dog in general.

As for “dog,” Ayto describes it as “one of the celebrated mystery words of English etymology.”

He points out that “dog” appeared only once in Old English (spelled docgena), “but its use does not seem to have proliferated until the 13th century.”

“It has no known relatives of equal antiquity in other European languages, although several borrowed it in the 16th and 17th centuries for particular sorts of ‘dog,’ ” Ayto says.

In French, for example, a dogue is a mastiff, while in Swedish a dogg is a bulldog, according to Ayto.

Getting back to the other part of your question, “canny” first appeared in Scottish English in the 1600s, meaning knowing, prudent, cunning, or wily, according to citations in the OED.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from a 1637 letter by the Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford: “Men’s canny wisdom, who, in this storm, take the nearest shore and go to the lee and calm side of the Gospel.”

The ultimate source of the word, Ayto says, is probably the “know” sense of the verb “can.” As he explains, “can” and “know” share the same Indo-European root: gn-.

“The underlying etymological meaning of can is thus ‘know’ or more specifically ‘come to know,’ which survived in English until comparatively recently,” he writes.

Ayto offers this relatively late example of “could” (the past of “can”) used in the sense of “knew” or “came to know,” from Ben Jonson’s 1632 comedy The Magnetick Lady: “She could the Bible in the holy tongue.”

Finally, we can’t discuss “canny” without mentioning “uncanny,” which has had many negative meanings over the years—malicious, careless, unreliable, untrustworthy.

The spooky sense can be traced to the late 18th century, when an “uncanny” person was someone “not quite safe to trust to, or have dealings with, as being associated with supernatural arts or powers,” the OED says.

By about 1850, Oxford says, the current meaning of “uncanny” was established: “Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.”

So you might call the legendary hound of the Baskervilles an uncanny canine.

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Plural prose

Q: I know a letter or number gets an apostrophe when made plural: x’s, 9’s, and so on. But what happens when letters make up an abbreviation: CEO, RN, MD, and so on? Does the abbreviation get an apostrophe when made plural?

A: There’s no single “rule” about this, since conventions vary widely from publisher to publisher, usage guide to usage guide.

On our blog, we generally follow The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Here’s what it recommends:

“Capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations usually form the plural by adding s. To aid comprehension, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples: “the three Rs … x’s and y’s … the 1990s … IRAs … URLs … BSs, MAs, PhDs.”

Unlike you, the Chicago Manual would not use an apostrophe with 9s. And as you can see from the examples above, it would not use apostrophes in CEOs, RNs, MDs, and so on.

We’ve had several posts on our blog about this subject, including ones in 2010 and 2009 about  pluralizing abbreviations.

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Are you in our wheelhouse?

Q: I’ve noticed the term “wheelhouse” used (or misused) in strange ways. For example, a boxer is said to be within his opponent’s “wheelhouse” or reach. And a politician’s sphere of influence is his “wheelhouse.” Thanks for any information you can render.

A: The noun “wheelhouse” has had quite a few meanings over the last 200 years. You’ve noticed a couple of recent, figurative usages that emerged in the 20th century.

Are they misuses? No, just idioms, or peculiarities of language, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

The Oxford English Dictionary says “wheel-house” (spelled “wheelhouse” in most American dictionaries) was first recorded in the early 19th century when it meant a building for storing cart wheels.

The dictionary’s only citation for this sense of the word appeared in an 1808 book about agriculture in the English county of Devon: “The wheel-house under the barn, 25 feet square.”

The word’s principal sense emerged in the mid-19th century, when it meant “a structure enclosing a large wheel,” like a steering wheel, water wheel, or paddle wheel.

Thus, a “wheelhouse” could be a pilothouse on a boat or ship, a part of a mill, or “the paddle-box of a steam-boat,” the OED says.

Oxford has several citations for these uses of the word. The earliest is from the American writer Joseph Holt Ingraham’s travel memoir The South-west (1835):

“The pilot (as the helms-man is here termed) stands in his lonely wheel-house.”

In his book When Charles I Was King (1896), Joseph Smith Fletcher uses the term in reference to a structure for a water wheel: “The mill at Wentbridge, where the stream was pouring through the wheel-house like a cataract.”

The OED’s most recent example is this 1976 citation from a newspaper in Southampton, England, the Southern Evening Echo: “On the roof of the main building is a full size replica of a ship’s wheelhouse which is used for training.”

But “wheelhouse” didn’t stop there. December 2013 draft additions to the OED record a pair of 20th-century meanings.  

The first originated in baseball, where “wheelhouse” means “the area of the strike zone where a particular batter is able to hit the ball most forcefully or successfully.” The dictionary describes this usage as North American.

 The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1959 sports story in the San Francisco Chronicle: “He had a couple that came right into the wheelhouse—the kind he used to knock out of sight—and he fouled ’em off.”

Another newspaper, the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald, provided this 1998 example: “It was a great play. … I just gave him a yell and he put it in my wheelhouse and I got a good shot off.”

And H. G. (Buzz) Bissinger used the word in his baseball book Three Nights in August (2006): “He’ll pound any pitch that ventures into his wheelhouse.”

The term leapt from sportswriting to everyday language in the 1980s. In this new, figurative sense, “wheelhouse” means “the field in which a person excels; one’s strongest interest or ability,” the OED says.

Oxford has several colorful examples of this new sense of the word:

1987:  “He told me he … couldn’t play reggae. Of course he could, but it wasn’t his wheelhouse, and he wanted to keep his playing honest” (from the magazine Musician).

1998: “Here was Brooklyn congressman Chuck Schumer speaking at NYU about gun control, his wheelhouse issue” (from New York Magazine).

2004: “When you’re doing a romantic comedy, you’re in Meg Ryan’s wheelhouse” (from Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures).

2010: “ ‘This is right in our wheelhouse,’ said … Apache’s chairman and chief executive, in an interview. ‘This is what we do for a living’ ” (from the Wall Street Journal).

This seems like a logical progression for “wheelhouse”—from a captain’s domain to a hitter’s sweet spot to anyone’s strong suit or chief interest.

As for your examples, the reference to a boxer’s “wheelhouse” seems to be an expansion of baseball’s sweet-spot sense while the use of the term for a politician’s sphere of influence seems to fall under the strong-suit sense.

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When a mess wasn’t messy

Q: How did the word “mess” evolve from a cluttered, untidy condition to a place where the military eats?

A: You’ve got things backwards. The food sense of “mess” came before its untidy sense. Here’s the story.

When “mess” first showed up around 1300 (spelled mes in Middle English), it meant a serving of food or a meal, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman and Old French, the ultimate source is the Latin verb mittere (to send or let go).

What, you’re probably asking, does sending or letting go have to do with food? Here’s how the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains it.

In Late Latin, which dates from the third to the sixth centuries, mittere came to mean to put or place. And missus, Late Latin for a course of dinner, referred to the putting of food on a table.

The OED says the original meaning of “mess” as a serving or a meal is now seen only in regional dialects or historical references.

However, the dictionary notes that another culinary sense of “mess” arose in the 1300s: “A portion or serving of liquid or pulpy food such as milk, broth, porridge, boiled vegetables, etc.”

Oxford points out that “a mess of pottage” appears in some 16th-century versions of the Bible “alluding to the biblical story of Esau’s sale of his birthright (Genesis 25:29–34).”

Here’s a secular example of the usage, from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602): “I had as leeue you should tel me of a messe of poredge.”

And this is a more recent example from Tooth and Claw (1983), by the Australian mystery writer Gabrielle Lord: “She stirred the mess of lentils.”

Let’s back up a bit now for a new twist in the history of “mess.” In the 1400s, the word came to mean a small group of people who sat together at a banquet and were served the same dishes.

This usage evolved a century later into the military sense—at first referring to a group of soldiers, sailors, or marines who take their meals together.

The OED’s earliest example of the military usage, from a 1536 entry in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, refers to expenses for the “meis of marineris, gunnaris, and utheris.”

Later, the term “mess” also came to mean the place where such groups took their meals, especially groups of similar rank. Here’s an 1822 example in the OED from British military regulations:

“Commanding Officers are enjoined, when practicable, to form a Serjeants’ Mess, as the means of supporting their consequence and respectability in the Corps.”

So how did “mess” get its messy sense?

The Chambers etymology dictionary says Alexander Pope’s use of the term “in the sense of a kind of liquid or mixed food for an animal” led to “the contemptuous use of a concoction, jumble, mixed mass.”

In Epilogue to the Satires (1738), Pope refers to hogs eating each other’s excretions: “From him the next receives it, thick or thin, / As pure a Mess almost as it came in.”

It wasn’t until the early 1800s, according to the OED, that “mess” took on the sense of “a dirty or untidy state of things or of a place; a collection of disordered things, producing such a state.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the 19th-century English theatrical producer William Thomas Moncreiff. In Tom and Jerry (1826), a character says he doesn’t use chalk because it “makes such a mess all over the walls.”

We’ll end with a more dramatic example from The Old Front Line (1917), a prose description of the Battle of the Somme by the English poet John Masefield:

“All this mess of heaps and hillocks is strung and filthied over with broken bodies and ruined gear.”

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Crash blossoms

Q: I saw this headline in the Washington Post:  “Boehner Blasts Tea Party Critics.” Until I read the article, I wasn’t sure if he was blasting people in the Tea Party or people critical of it (it’s the former). Should I have known?

A: There’s nothing wrong with your reading comprehension. The fault lies with the headline on that Dec. 13, 2013, article in the Washington Post.

As phrased in the paper’s print edition, “Tea Party Critics” could mean either (1) critics of the Tea Party, or (2) critics in the Tea Party.

The first sentence of the article clarified the picture, explaining that House Speaker John A. Boehner “took direct aim at some of his tea party critics.”

The headline in the paper’s online edition was clearer: “Boehner attacks tea party groups as House approves budget deal.”

We’ve all come across headlines that we’ve had to read twice, or three times, to figure out. And some headlines are so tangled that only the news article itself can enlighten us.

As it happens, there’s a term for ambiguous headlines, some of which can lead to strange or ludicrous interpretations: “crash blossoms.”

The name was inspired by a truly astonishing headline, “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms,” which ran in 2009 in the newspaper Japan Today.

The headline had many readers wondering, What on earth are JAL crash blossoms?

As it happens, the article was about a child whose father had died in the crash of a Japan Air Lines plane more than 20 years earlier. She had since grown up and become a successful violinist.

Eureka! The word “blossoms” was a verb in that headline, not a noun. The violinist, who had a link to that JAL crash, had blossomed. But the headline suggested the existence of some violent floral phenomenon called a “crash blossom.”

Contributors to the discussion group Testy Copy Editors spotted the headline and were so tickled by it that they decided to call this kind of screw-up a “crash blossom.”

Though the term “crash blossom” is relatively new, screwy headlines have been delighting readers for generations.

The linguist Ben Zimmer wrote an On Language column for the New York Times Magazine on the subject in 2010.

“Legendary headlines from years past (some of which verge on the mythical) include ‘Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel,’ ‘MacArthur Flies Back to Front’ and ‘Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans,’ ” Zimmer wrote.

“The Columbia Journalism Review even published two anthologies of ambiguous headlinese in the 1980s, with the classic titles ‘Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim’ and ‘Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.’ ”

When the two of us were editors at the New York Times, newspaper people used to call those things “two-faced heds.” But we like “crash blossoms” better.

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Why is a blond kid a towhead?

Q: I just caught the tail end of Pat’s comments on WNYC about the term “towhead.” I was at a colonial mill in Tarrytown, NY, when the docent explained that the term comes from the light color of flax, which was used to make “towrope” for canal barges.

A: The “tow” in “towhead,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to “the fibre of flax, hemp, or jute prepared for spinning.”

Since flax is light in color, blond people (especially children) are sometimes referred to as “towheads” or “towheaded,” expressions first recorded in the 19th century.

The “tow” in the “towrope” (or “towline”) used to pull a canal barge is a horse of another color. The OED says it’s derived from togian, an Old English word meaning to pull or drag.

As for “towhead” (also spelled “tow head” or “tow-head”) and “towheaded” (also “tow-headed”), Oxford has several citations, including an 1884 reference in Harper’s Magazine to “tow-headed children rolling about in the orchards.”

If you remember, Pat mentioned on the air that mistaken spellings (or hearings) of these “tow” terms can be humorous. She once read of “a cute little two-headed boy.”

A caller to the program said she used to think the expression was “toe headed,” and couldn’t imagine what such a phrase meant. 

The noun “tow” used in the fiber sense came into English in the 14th century, but its earlier sources remain uncertain.

The word is “perhaps related” to the Old Norse noun , which meant “uncleansed wool or flax, unworked fibre of thread,” the OED says.

“The original sense may have been ‘textile fibre’ generally,” Oxford adds.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins ventures another suggestion—that “tow” was borrowed from a word in Middle Low German, touw.

Ayto says the term “probably went back to the pre-historic Germanic base tow-, taw-,” meaning to make or prepare “in the specialized sense ‘make yarn from wool, spin.’ ”

The “towrope” mentioned by the docent at the mill may once have been made of tow fiber, but its name comes from the verb “tow” (to pull), which dates back to about the year 1000.

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An Aramaean walks into a bar

Q: I’m curious if anybody has discovered a link between the English word “barring” and the Aramaic bar. I believe the Aramaic term, which means outside, is the source of the English word. The “bar” in “bar mitzvah” technically means “son of,” which refers to the son being outside the father (bar is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew ben).

A: We’ve discussed the word “barring” on our blog in connection with phrases like “barring fire or flood” and “barring unforeseen circumstances.”

But we didn’t consider the etymology of “barring,” which in the phrases above is a preposition meaning “excluding from consideration, leaving out of account, omitting, excepting, except,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The usage was first recorded in the late 15th century. Three centuries later, people began using the shorter form “bar” in a similar way, as in the common phrase “bar none.”

The OED suggests that this shortening of “barring” to “bar” was influenced by two other prepositions— “save” and “except,” which are shortened versions of “saving” and “excepting.”

The prepositions “bar” and “barring” developed from a similar sense of the verb “bar,” meaning “to exclude from consideration, set aside,” according to the OED.

This sense of the word, dating from the late 15th century, is descended from the original, 13th-century meaning of the verb—to make fast with bars.

The verb “bar” came from the earlier, 12-century noun, which originally meant “a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate, door, hatch, etc.,” the OED says.

Today, the noun has three principal meanings: (1) something, like a rod or band, that’s longer than it is thick or wide; (2) something that obstructs or confines, like the related word “barrier”; and (3) a place enclosed by a rail or barrier, which explains the use of “bar” in reference to courts of law.

That third meaning, according to the OED, also led to the use of “bar” for “an inn, or other place of refreshment.” Initially, the dictionary says, the term referred to a “barrier or counter, over which drink (or food) is served out to customers, in an inn, hotel, or tavern.”

The etymology of the English noun “bar” is a bit skimpy.

The OED says the word (first spelled “barre”) came into Middle English in the 1100s from the Old French barre, which acquired it from the Late Latin barra.

The big question here is, where did the Late Latin barra come from? The OED says it’s “of unknown origin.” And with that, unfortunately, the trail goes cold.

It may be true, as you suggest, that the English “bar” comes from Aramaic (a wide family of related Semitic languages and dialects). But we can’t find any evidence of a definitive connection.

The noun pronounced “bar” in Aramaic means “son” or “son of” and is common in names. Though it appears in Hebrew names and in the phrase “bar mitzvah”—“son of the commandment”—the normal Hebrew equivalent of “son” is ben (the Arabic is ibn).

However, it’s interesting to note that there is a preposition in Aramaic, pronounced “bar min,” and meaning “except for,”  “aside from,” or “outside of.”

You can find the Aramaic preposition (transliterated as br mn), along with citations from ancient texts, in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, which has been a work in progress at the Hebrew Union College since 1986.

Certainly the existence of that Aramaic preposition raises enticing possibilities. But, as we’ve said before, mere similarity is not proof of an etymological connection.

Ancient texts are always being rediscovered, though, and perhaps one of them will someday offer evidence that Aramaic is indeed the source of the Late Latin noun barra. We could then claim an ultimate Aramaic ancestor for the English “bar” and “barring.”

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