The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t dis “disinterest”

Q: A recent photo caption in the NY Times reads: “Lizeth Chacon of Aurora, Colo., who signs up Latinos to vote, reports growing disinterest in registration.” I was taught that “disinterest” means impartiality, not lack of interest. Is this meaning now accepted, or are people just forgetting their junior high grammar?

A: The use of the noun “disinterest” in that March 31, 2014, caption in the Times is entirely legitimate. We’ll get to the adjective “disinterested” (the word you were probably taught about) later.

For most of its history, which began in the 1600s, the noun “disinterest” has meant impartiality. But in the late 19th century people began using it to mean indifference or lack of interest, and today standard dictionaries accept that newer sense of the word.

The two dictionaries we use most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—give two definitions of “disinterest”: lack of interest as well as lack of bias.

Other sources also accept both meanings, including Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and the Collins English Dictionary.

In fact, a couple of dictionaries have dropped the word’s original meaning altogether. The online Macmillan and Cambridge dictionaries, in their British and American editions, define “disinterest” solely as a lack of interest.

In short, “absence of interest” isn’t merely an acceptable definition of “disinterest.” For some authorities it’s the only definition. And remarkably, this shift has taken place in only a little over a hundred years.

Why? Because there’s no other everyday negative noun with “interest” as its root. The nouns “uninterest” and “noninterest” are rare or nonexistent. It was inevitable that a noun we do have—“disinterest”—would fill the gap.

However, the adjectival form “uninterested” does exist, and thereby hangs a tale.

Today, sticklers—who are neither impartial nor indifferent on the subject—insist that “disinterested” means one thing (impartial) and “uninterested” means another (not interested).

But the history of  these adjectives is long and tangled, and they’ve swapped meanings over time. The original meaning of “disinterested” was “not interested,” and the original meaning of “uninterested” was “impartial.”

Long story short: nowadays, standard dictionaries accept two meanings for “disinterested.”

American Heritage says in a usage note that “despite critical disapproval, disinterested has come to be widely used by many educated writers to mean ‘uninterested’ or ‘having lost interest,’ as in Since she discovered skiing, she is disinterested in her schoolwork.”

We discussed the dueling meanings of “disinterested” and “uninterested” in a blog post we wrote way back in 2006, and we wrote about it again in our book Origins of the Specious. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“When it first showed up in print around 1612, ‘disinterested’ meant not interested, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1659, however, another meaning surfaced: impartial. Over the next couple of hundred years, respected writers including Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster merrily used both meanings and nobody seemed to mind.

“It wasn’t till the late nineteenth century that American usage writers decided ‘disinterested’ should mean only one thing: impartial. Why? Because we already had a perfectly good word, ‘uninterested,’ that meant not interested. Our messy language, they figured, would be tidier if the two words had two different meanings. Never mind that ‘uninterested’ had a messy upbringing too. It started out in the seventeenth century meaning impartial, but ended up meaning not interested a century later.

“Forget the inconvenient history. To this day, most usage manuals and style guides will tell you that a juror who falls asleep is ‘uninterested,’ while an impartial judge is ‘disinterested.’ Of course, most of the people who actually speak and write English use ‘disinterested’ both ways. And dictionaries include both meanings, while noting that usage authorities disagree. But, as we all know, in English the majority rules. All those usage experts will eventually come around. In the meantime, what is the conscientious writer to do? You can take a stand, use ‘disinterested’ to mean not interested, and risk being thought an illiterate nincompoop by those who don’t know any better. Or you can take the cowardly way out and use ‘disinterested’ only to mean impartial.”

In conclusion, we say that “it’s better to be understood than to be correct, especially when intelligent people can’t agree on what is correct. If you mean not interested, say ‘not interested.’ If you mean impartial, say ‘impartial’ (or ‘objective,’ ‘unbiased,’ ‘unprejudiced,’ ‘fair,’ ‘nonpartisan,’ ‘judicious,’ ‘incorruptible,’ and so on).”

However, it’s your decision and you may come to a different conclusion—you can go along with the lexicographers, who write dictionaries, or with the authors of usage guides, who are generally more conservative. 

But the fact that the noun “disinterest” has become so readily accepted in its newer role is bound to affect the fortunes of “disinterested.”

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Voir dire

Q: I recently served on a jury and one of the attorneys explained that jury selection is called “voir dire.” He said the term comes from French and means to look inside and speak up. This didn’t sound accurate to me, so I looked it up and learned it’s a false etymology. So what is the true etymology?

A: The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines “voir dire” (pronounced vwahr deer) as “a preliminary examination to determine the competency of a witness or juror.”

The dictionary describes it as an Anglo-French expression derived from Old French, the French spoken in the Middle Ages. The ultimate source of the usage is the Latin verus (truth) and decire (to speak).

So etymologically the phrase doesn’t mean “look and speak,” but “speak the truth.”  

The earliest example of the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1676 record from the Office of Clerk of Assize: “Such person so produced for a witness, may be examined upon a Voire Dire.”

An OED citation from White Kennett’s 1701 revision of Cowell’s Interpreter, a 1607 law dictionary written by John Cowell, explains the expression this way:

“When it is pray’d upon a Trial at Law, that a Witness may be sworn upon a Voir dire; the meaning is, he shall upon his Oath speak or declare the truth.”

The online version of Black’s Law Dictionary offers the following definition:

“This phrase denotes the preliminary examination which the court may make of one presented as a witness or juror, where his competency, interest, etc., is objected to.”

We’ll end with an example of voir dire from the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny:

District Attorney Jim Trotter III: “Ms. Vito, what is your current profession?”

Mona Lisa Vito: “I’m an out-of-work hairdresser.”

DA: “An out-of-work hairdresser. In what way does that qualify you as an expert in automobiles?”

Lisa: “It doesn’t.”

DA: “Well in what way are you qualified?”

Lisa: “Well my father was a mechanic. His father was a mechanic. My mother’s father was a mechanic. My three brothers are mechanics. Four uncles on my father’s side are mechanics …”

DA: “Miss Vito, your family is obviously qualified. But have you ever worked as a mechanic?”

Lisa: “Yeah, in my father’s garage, yeah.”

DA: “As a mechanic. What did you do in your father’s garage?”

Lisa: “Tune-ups, oil changes, brake relining, engine rebuilds; rebuilt some trannies, rear end …”

DA: “OK, OK.”

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Booty treatment

Q: My trainer has a group exercise class that she refers to as “booty camp.” I assume the class is intended to reduce the habitus of the gluteus, and thus it’s not another way of referring to a “booty call.”

A: The phrase “booty camp” is relatively new and still a work in progress, according to our searches of literary and news databases.

Since showing up in the late 20th century, it’s been used for a variety of things—an all-male sex party, a video of big-bottomed women, a yoga session (yes, yoga booty camp), toilet training for toddlers, and so on.

The use of “booty camp” for an exercise class, especially one that focuses on the hind quarters, showed up in the early years of the 21st century.

In the Jan. 13, 2003, issue of US News & World Report, for example, an article headlined “Booty Camp” reports that the “fitness biz has bold new ways to trim your butt (and build muscles).”

So how did a word originally used to describe plunder taken from an enemy in war find its way into the battle against flabby abs, hips, calves, and butts?

The noun “booty” (meaning plunder, gain, or profit shared by victors) first showed up in the 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example comes from The Game and Playe of Chesse, William Caxton’s 1474 translation of a Latin treatise on morality: “So shold the dispoyll and botye be comune vnto them.”

(In the work, one of the first books printed in English, the chessboard and pieces are used figuratively to represent the king and his subjects.)

By the 16th century, according to the OED citations, the term “booty” was being used loosely to refer to plunder taken by common robbers and thieves as well as warriors.

The word took an unexpected twist in the early 20th century, when it became an African-American slang term for sexual intercourse, a female sex object, or the female genitals. In early examples, it’s spelled “boody.”

Oxford describes the usage as “probably an altered form of botty,” a 19th-century slang term for a baby’s bottom. But the dictionary adds that it might also have been influenced by the plunder sense of “booty.”

The first citation is from Nigger Heaven, a 1926 novel by Carl Van Vechten: “Now … now … that you’ve gone white, do you really want … pinks for boody?” (The ellipses are in the book.)

And here’s an example from a song in Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1935 collection of folklore: “Go to Ella Wall / Oh, go to Ella Wall / If you want good boody / Oh, go to Ella Wall.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

In the 1950s, the term “booty” took on another meaning, “the buttocks,” according to the OED. Here’s an example from Frank London Brown’s 1959 novel, Trumbull Park: “Getting kicked in the booty would be mighty discouraging too.”

The phrase “booty call,” which showed up in the 1990s, refers to “a visit made to a person for the (sole) purpose of having sexual intercourse; an invitation to have sexual intercourse.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Dazzey Duks, a 1993 album by the rap duo Duice. The title of one cut is “Booty Call.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from the June 2001 issue of Cosmopolitan: “A guy I’d been seeing made a booty call. Afterward, he said, ‘High five!’ and reached out his hand to slap mine.”

Getting back to “booty camp,” the usage was undoubtedly influenced by the use of the phrase “boot camp” for a base where military recruits are trained, a usage that the OED dates to Word War II.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Boot: A Marine in the Making (1944), by Cpl. Gilbert P. Bailey: “Marine inductees are called ‘Boots’ and it is Marine Corps custom to send them all through a grim process called ‘boot camp.’ “

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Vape gets in your eyes

Q: The e-cig crowd has coined the word “vape” to distinguish the vapor from electronic devices from the smoke of burning tobacco. Just curious, but is there by any chance some ancient usage of “vape” or “vaping”?

A: “Vape” and “vaping,” as you say, are to e-cigarettes what “smoke” and “smoking” are to the tobacco versions.

No, these words weren’t around in ancient times. Like the technology that ushered them in, they’re new, so they have the field all to themselves. (We’re not counting science fiction, in which “vape” sometimes means to vaporize an enemy.)

They’re apparently derived from the noun “vapor” (or “vapour” in British usage), which has been part of English since the 1300s. Its source is the Latin noun vapor (steam) and verb vaporare (to become vapor, or evaporate).

The terms “vape” and “vaping” showed up in the early 21st century in reference to the use of a vaporizer to inhale marijuana. Here’s an example from a May 22, 2003, posting to a discussion group for pot smokers:

“With my vaporizer the quality isn’t as important. Don’t get me wrong, vaping beatifully [sic] cured organically grown buds is waaaaay better. But this way I can go economy class if needed, and not hack up a lung.”

And here’s an example from the June 20, 2005, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle:

“In the past two years, more than a dozen manufacturers have sprung up as vaporizers have wafted to the surface of the culture. Which explains the bumper sticker in an Oakland cannabis cooperative: ‘Got vape?’ ”

As e-cigarettes grew in popularity, the terms “vape” and “vaping” came to be used in reference to smokeless cigarettes by the end of the first decade of the new century. Here’s an example from a Jan. 7, 2009, contribution to an e-cigarette discussion group:

“I left behind 2 of my 3 batteries over the holidays on accident, and thus got a pack of smokes. I have been vaping only for a month and a half, and going back to cigs for a few days was disgusting! They tasted awful, stank, and gave me an instant headache and nausea!”

Not surprisingly, standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up with “vape” and “vaping.” No doubt they soon will.

This definition of “vape” is from the online Urban Dictionary: “To inhale vapor from E-cigarettes.” It comes with this example: “I’m able to vape in a movie theater.”

And this definition of “vaping” is from the same source: “The process by which one inhales vapour from a personal vaporiser, or e-cig.” The example: “Obama really ought to quit smoking and start vaping.”

Contributors to Urban Dictionary logged both of those entries in 2009, the same year that “vape” and “vaping” began showing up in newspaper databases.

Five years later, e-cigarettes are hot news, and the terms “vape” and “vaping” are on their way to becoming common usage.

The lexicographer Grant Barrett, writing in the New York Times last December, defined the verb and adjective “vape” this way:

“To smoke electronic cigarettes, which use moisture to deliver nicotine without tobacco. Vape lounges are places where e-cigarette supplies can be bought and used.”

In late March, the NPR program All Things Considered ran a segment entitled “OK to Vape in the Office? Cities, Feds and Firms Still Deciding.”

To give you an idea how fast the terminology is changing, the Times ran a front-page article in early March about all the devices—variously called “hookah pens,” “e-hookahs,” “vaping pens,” “vape pens,” “vape pipes,” and so on—that are “part of a subgenre of the fast-growing e-cigarette market.”

But “vape pen” seems to be the term of choice—at least for devices shaped like pens. 

High Times magazine published its “2014 Vape Pen Buyer’s Guide” last December, offering detailed reviews of 32 devices “based on their durability, versatility, hit/pull, stealth, style and ease of fill,” and broken into categories by size (standard, short, minis, cigars, and slims).

The folks at High Times also use “vape” as a noun: “We hope that the information provided will make it easy for you to choose the right vape for you.”

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Are you down on “escalate”?

Q: I have a colleague who insists on using the word “escalate” this way: “I cannot help you with your query/complaint so I will escalate it to somebody who can offer assistance.” Is it correct to use the word “escalate” like this?

A: We’re not fond of this “customer care” usage, as you can tell from our post in 2009 on the jargony use of “escalate” in the business world.

In its newish biz-speak sense, “escalate” means something like “pass along to the next stage.” This usage cropped up relatively recently (perhaps within the last decade) and it isn’t yet recognized in standard dictionaries.

We won’t say it’s “incorrect,” merely that it’s an adaptation of the verb “escalate” that hasn’t yet entered common, everyday (that is, non-corporate) speech.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has no citations for this use of “escalate.” (In fact, it doesn’t even have an entry for “customer care,” though it includes the phrase in a couple of other contexts.)

Even in its original sense, “escalate” is a recent verb. It entered English, the OED says, in 1922, when it meant “to climb or reach by means of an escalator” or to travel on one.

The verb is what’s known as a back-formation, a word formed by dropping part of an existing one. “Escalate” was formed by dropping part of the noun “escalator” (a moving staircase), a word first recorded in 1900.

The verb acquired a figurative meaning in the atomic age—to increase by stages, especially, as the OED says, “to develop from ‘conventional’ warfare into nuclear warfare.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this new sense is from a 1959 issue of the Manchester Guardian: “The possibility of local wars ‘escalating into all-out atomic wars.’ ”

Most of the OED’s examples for this figurative sense are references to war, though a handful forsake the battlefield, including these from the 1960s:

“The wish of the author to magnify or escalate (favorite new word in Washington) the importance of a trivial utterance by grandiloquent terminology”—from Horizon magazine, 1963.  

“Only a tiny percentage of cannabis-smokers escalate to heroin”—from the Listener, 1967.

Even peacetime uses of “escalate” tend to be negative. The “escalating” is often from bad to worse (as in “health costs are escalating”). This makes us wonder why the word was attractive to the jargonistas of the business world.

As we’ve said, standard dictionaries haven’t yet recognized the customer-care sense of the word, in which to “escalate” a complaint means to pass it on to a higher level.

However, the online source Wiktionary has this definition: “In technical support, to transfer a telephone caller to the next higher level of authority.” 

Only time will tell whether this usage escalates from corporatese to common usage. However, we wonder if a word that summons doomsday images can ever inspire customer confidence!

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Mogo on the gogo

Q: What in God’s name is “mogo on the gogo”? I heard it the other day while watching Spellbound. Did Hitchcock (or, rather, his screenwriter) coin the phrase?

A: The expression “mogo on the gogo” didn’t originate with Alfred Hitchcock or with Ben Hecht, the main screenwriter on the 1945 film Spellbound.

It was apparently a catchphrase in certain Hollywood circles in the 1930s and ’40s, though it had much earlier show-biz origins in vaudeville, burlesque, and minstrel shows.

The expression is hard to define since it isn’t in any of our slang dictionaries. But it’s generally used as a comic phrase for a mental or physical malady, like lovesickness or an exotic fictional disease.

The expression crops up several times in the works of Hecht, who wrote the screenplay along with Angus MacPhail.

In the script, the man posing as Dr. Edwardes (actually an amnesia patient played by Gregory Peck), delivers the “mogo on the gogo” line to a psychologist, Dr. Petersen (played by Ingrid Bergman).

The two are discussing the psychological aspects of love, and Dr. Petersen is tossing around psychoanalytic theories on the subject. Below the surface, a mild flirtation is developing. 

So when Edwardes says, “Professor, you’re suffering from mogo on the gogo,” the line can be read in two ways: (1) he’s poking fun at all the psychobabble, or (2) Dr. Petersen has sex on the brain.

In his other works, Hecht seems to have regarded “mogo on the gogo” as meaning infatuation of one kind or another.

The expression apparently means lovesickness in The Great Magoo (1933), a play Hecht wrote with Gene Fowler.

In one scene, a character says: “You meet some guy—get mogo-on-the-gogo. Finis! Listen, Julie, this is just a friendly tip. Lay off that stumblebum if you wanna get somewhere. He’s just a lot of dog-meat.”

Hecht used the phrase again in his novel I Hate Actors! (1944): “You’re just a typical half-baked artistic goop—with nothing but mogo on the gogo. You’re a sweet kid in many ways but as an artist you’re still wet behind the ears.”

It appears yet again in Hecht’s memoir A Child of the Century (1954). Here Hecht recalls a dinner conversation with John Barrymore near the end of the actor’s life:

“ ‘In my early years,’ said Barrymore, ‘when I was still callow and confused, and still a-suckle on moonlight—I used to prefer Romeo and Juliet to all the other plays. But, as my ears dried, I began to detest the fellow, Romeo. A sickly, mawkish amateur, suffering from Mogo on the Gogo. He should be played only by a boy of fifteen with pimples and a piping voice. The truth about him is he grew up and became Hamlet.’ ”

Where did the expression come from? As we said, it probably came from the touring burlesque and minstrel shows of the previous century.

For example, Al Jolson, who played the minstrel circuit early in his career, was known to use the phrase.

“Al had a vocabulary all his own,” Herbert G. Goldman writes in his book Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life (1988). “Anything bad was ‘mogo on the gogo.’ ”

And W. C. Fields used variations on the phrase too. Fields got his start at the turn of the century as a vaudeville juggler on the Keith and Orpheum circuits, both of which booked minstrel acts at the time.

Later, in his films, Fields used “mogo on the gogogo” to mean a fictitious disease.

In The Bank Dick (1940), where he plays the immortal Egbert Sousè, Fields warns another character about “Malta fever, beriberi and that dreaded of all diseases—mogo on the gogogo.”

Fields himself wrote the screenplay for The Bank Dick, under the alias Mahatma Kane Jeeves—as in “My hat, my cane, Jeeves.”

He probably got “mogo on the gogogo” from the stage musical that gave him his Broadway debut, The Ham Tree (1905).

The three-act show, which ran on Broadway for two seasons, is about the adventures of a touring vaudeville troupe and contains a minstrel act as a sort of show within the show. 

In Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields (1997), Simon Louvish writes that the minstrel routine included this passage:

“If we come across a ham tree don’t touch a ham without it’s got the cover [wrapper] on. If you do you’ll get that disease called more-go on the go-go.”

The lines, Louvish writes, came directly from the 19th-century minstrel sketch that was the basis for the musical. 

He goes on to explain that the original sketch, also called  “The Ham Tree,” was developed around 1874 by a famous 19th-century vaudeville partnership, James McIntyre and Tom Heath.

The pair, portraying tramps in blackface, performed their act on the minstrel circuit for more than 50 years, touring virtually every part of the country until well into the early 1900s.  

It’s possible that a phrase sounding like “more-go on the go-go” was an African-American expression. McIntyre and Heath, according to Louvish, claimed that “their stories and dances were taken from genuine black sources.”

But as historians have written, many white minstrel performers made similar claims. Until further evidence crops up, a black origin for this phrase can only be conjectured.

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“Healthy” vs. “healthily”

Q: My question concerns eating habits—that is, how to describe them. Does one eat “healthy” or “healthily”?

A: You’re asking about adverbs, but let’s first discuss adjectives, a subject we wrote about in 2012 and 2006.

Most readers of the blog are probably familiar with the traditional view on the adjectives: a food is “healthful” while a person who eats it is “healthy.” This is a distinction that was invented (for no good reason) in the late 19th century.

But as we said in those blog posts, language authorities haven’t insisted on that for many years. It’s become almost universal to refer to “healthy food,” as well as to “healthy people.”

Today, the usage is considered standard English. Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) explains it in a usage note:

“In fact, the word healthy is far more common than healthful when modifying words like diet, exercise, and foods, and healthy may strike many readers as more natural in many contexts. Certainly, both healthy and healthful must be considered standard in describing that which promotes health.”

And as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, “If you ignore the distinction” between the two adjectives, “you are absolutely correct, and in the majority.”

Both “healthy” and “healthful,” not to mention “healthily,” are derived from haelth, Old English for soundness of body. (We’ve replaced the runic letter thorn with “th.”)

All three words ultimately come from a prehistoric German ancestor of the English word “whole,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. Thus “health,” Ayto says, is etymologically the “state of being whole.”

So is “healthy” making inroads on “healthily” as well as “healthful,” and becoming accepted as an adverb? Apparently the change is beginning, but it’s not yet firmly established.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t recognize the usage. It has citations for “healthy” as an adjective going back to the 16th century, and for “healthily” as an adverb dating from the 17th century.

However, American Heritage now accepts “healthy” as an adverb meaning “so as to promote one’s health” or “in a healthy way.” The dictionary gives this example: “If you eat healthy, you’ll probably live longer.”

Nevertheless, seven of the eight standard dictionaries we checked don’t accept the usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), like the other dictionaries we consulted, hasn’t yet made the leap. M-W’s entry for “healthy” gives only adjectival uses.

But it’s only a matter of time, in our opinion, before “healthy” is recognized as an adverb. That’s because the word is already widely used this way in common practice.

The phrase “eat healthy” gets more than twice as many Google hits (2.4 million) as “eat healthily” (1 million). As we’ve said many times, popular usage eventually wins out.

So go ahead and “eat healthy.” Our guess is that “eat healthily” will begin to sound stuffy before long, if it doesn’t already. 

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Soul searching

Q: In following the story of the missing Malaysian airliner, I’ve noticed that a lot of articles refer to the 239 “souls” aboard. I only hear this usage in the context of tragedies. Is there a reason for it, besides trying to not be repetitive by saying “people” over and over?

A: Your question reminded Pat of a vivid image from her past, back when she was an editor at the Des Moines Register in the late 1970s.

Like many other newspapers, the Register devoted a corridor in its headquarters to a display of famous front pages.

One was dated April 16, 1912, and it carried a headline that Pat remembers to this day: MIGHTY TITANIC, HIT BY ICEBERG, GOES DOWN WITH 1200 SOULS.

If the headline had used “people” instead, would she remember it today? Probably not. The use of “souls” was what made it so unforgettable. (In fact, the losses were even worse than first reported; more than 1,500 people died.)

It’s true, as you say, that the use of “souls” in this sense is more likely to occur in chronicles of extraordinary human loss.

Many news organizations used “souls” in reporting on the Malaysian Airlines disaster. For example, this headline appeared in the Australian, a newspaper based in New South Wales:

“Terrorism fears as plane vanishes with 239 souls.”

And a great many articles around the word referred to the “239 souls on board.”

Why “souls” instead of “people” or “persons”? In our opinion, the use of a poetic image helps to acknowledge the humanity behind the numbers.

But the word “soul” wasn’t always as poetic as it seems to us today. In Old English, “soul” had a much wider range of meanings, including some that were quite down to earth.

One’s “soul” could refer to many different levels of existence: the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, and the moral, as well as the spiritual.

The word, which came from old Germanic sources, has three very broad meanings in English, all of them around a thousand years old.

(1) An animating force or principle necessary for existence; this is what gives life to a body and dies with it. 

(2) A spirit that lives on after death (this category includes the religious meanings).

(3) A person or individual.

You might say that in #1, the soul inhabits the living body; in #2 the soul is separate from the body; and in #3 the soul is the body.

The last meaning is the one we’re seeing in those news stories. The Oxford English Dictionary says that in the physical sense, “soul” means a person, an individual, or a living thing.

And as the OED says, this meaning is still current today, as when “soul” is “applied to the number of people on board a ship or other large vehicle.”

The dictionary gives examples ranging from Old English to the present, but we’ll provide just a handful of the citations:

“Erthe and soulis that thereon dwelle.” (From Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules, circa 1381.)

“All maner of soules yt crepe vpon earth.” (From the Coverdale Bible of 1535.)

“Below the middle part, there was but one body, and aboue the middle there was two liuing soules, each one separated from another.” (A description of an “unnaturall Childe,” from William Lithgow’s 1614 memoir of his travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa.) 

“There were about three hundred souls on board.” (From Lord Wolseley’s The Life of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to the Accession of Queen Anne, 1894.)

“In Woodilee there was signing of the Covenant by every soul that could make a scart with a pen.” (From John Buchan’s novel Witch Wood, 1927. A “scart” is a scratch or mark.)

“Some immense airliner with hundreds of souls on board.” (From the Times of London, 1983.)

“In the early days … the Jewish community in Buenos Aires comprised just fifteen hundred souls.” (From Isabel Vincent’s book Bodies and Souls, 2005.)

We also use “soul” to mean a person when we say things like “not a soul was around” or “don’t tell a soul.” This has been common usage since the 16th century, the OED says.  

Similarly, a “soul” means a living person in expressions like “poor soul,” “honest soul,” “dull old soul,” and so on.

This construction—“soul” appearing with an adjective to mean a person having that character or quality—was first recorded in the late 15th century, the OED says.

Despite all these long-established uses of “soul” to mean a person, its use in news stories about loss of life does strike some people as odd.

We’ve found dozens of questions in online forums from people who apparently think a “soul” is one thing and a person is entirely another.

But there’s no conflict here. The Latin noun for “soul,” anima, has a similar range of meanings, as the OED points out.

Cassell’s Latin Dictionary translates anima as meaning “the breath of life, the vital principle, soul (anima, physical; animus, spiritual).”

And Cassell’s adds that anima is “also used in other senses of the English ‘soul,’ ” namely “as a living being” and “as the rational soul.”

Each of the three broad meanings of “soul” we mentioned above can be broken down into many more specific senses, and these sometimes blur the division between the physical and spiritual.

For example, since early Old English, the #1 sense (the animating force of life) has included notions of the “soul” as the seat of consciousness, intelligence, character, one’s nature, even “the central or inmost part of a person’s being,” in the words of the OED.

These are all inherent in the living person, of course, but they’re sometimes contrasted with life’s purely physical side and spoken of in spiritual terms.

The #1 sense of “soul” includes a contemporary usage that isn’t as new as you might think. In fact, it dates back to Shakespeare’s time.

This is the sense of the word we often find in reference to artistry, aesthetic qualities, deep feelings, intellectual power, and the like (as in “Billie sings with a lot of soul”).

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from Othello (written around 1603): “Those fellowes haue some soule.”

Closer to our own time is this OED citation from Henry T. Finck’s book Grieg and His Music (1906):

“He put into his playing so much soul, so much emotional intensity, that he came back into the artists’ room completely exhausted.”

As we all know, this use of the term became identified with African-American culture in the mid-20th century.

The OED has this early example from a 1946 issue of Ebony magazine: “He uses a bewildering, unorthodox technique and his playing is full of what jazzmen refer to as ‘soul.’ ” 

We mentioned above that “soul” came from Germanic sources, but we didn’t say how it got its meaning. Apparently there’s some uncertainty here.

In the late 19th century a German etymologist, Friedrich Kluge, suggested the source of “soul” was a Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as saiwalo, which meant coming from or belonging to the sea.

The rationale, as the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, is that the sea “was supposed to be the stopping-off place of the soul before birth and after death.”

The OED is doubtful, however, saying “the evidential basis for this is extremely slender.”

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A canine ripple effect

Q: I breed Golden Retrievers and have a question about the proper use of a word in a puppy’s name. Should it be “Ripple Affect (or Effect) of Kindness”? I have had so much input on this that I am no longer sure. HELP please!

A: The usual phrase is “ripple effect,” and it refers to the spreading influence of an action or event—in this case, the spreading (or rippling) influence of kindness.

The noun “effect” refers to a result, while the less-common noun “affect” is a psychological term that refers to feeling or emotion.

So the traditional way of referring to the puppy would be “Ripple Effect of Kindness.” However, people often take liberties in the use of language when naming dogs.

We suppose that “Ripple Affect of Kindness” could be seen as a creative play on words that refers to the rippling or spreading feeling of kindness.

But the use of “ripple affect” in this sense would undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows among sticklers. They would assume it was a mistake.

Another negative is that “affect” is often used in an unfavorable sense, as in “The psychiatrist says the suspect displays a lack of affect.”

And don’t forget that the two nouns are pronounced differently: “affect” is AFF-ect, while “effect” is ih-FECT (the “i” sounds like the one in “pit”).

When the term “ripple effect” first showed up in the late 1800s, it referred to physical rippling, such as the effect of moonlight on water or the movement of a skirt.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase used in the usual modern sense is from the Feb. 14, 1966, issue of the Wall Street Journal:

“Price-boosting already is producing a ‘ripple effect’ in which companies pass on increased costs in higher price tags on their own products.”

In case you’d like to read more, we ran a post on our blog a few years ago about the use of the words “affect” and “effect.”

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Few and far between

Q: In Jane Smiley’s novel Duplicate Keys, Alice muses about the “fewness” of the friends in her social circle. I drew a blank when I looked up “fewness” in my dictionary. Did this “Pulitzer Prize-winning author” have a copy editor who was asleep at the switch, or is my dictionary inferior?

A: “Fewness” is a very old noun that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, but you have to search a bit to find it in many modern dictionaries.

The two dictionaries we consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “fewness” as a noun form under their entries for the adjective “few.”

Only a handful of standard dictionaries—Merriam-Webster Unabridged, Random House Unabridged, and Collins—have separate entries for “fewness,” which they define as the state of being small or few in quantity.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which describes “fewness” as “the quality or fact of being few,” dates it from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 900), where the word is feanis in Old English.

The word “few” is even older, first recorded in the Vespasian Psalter (c. 825), an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, where it’s fea in Old English.

Similar words are found in other Germanic languages, but the original source of “few” is believed to be the Indo-European root pau-, denoting smallness of quantity or number, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Although “few” is spelled with an “f” in English and other Germanic languages, Ayto notes, the p of pau survives in French (peu), Spanish (poco), and Italian (poco).

In fact, Ayto adds, the Indo-European root can still be seen in the English words “paucity,” “pauper,” “poor,” and “poverty.”

The expression “few and far between,” meaning few in number and seldom found, showed up in the mid-1600s.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a July 13, 1668, letter by Sir Ralph Verney: Hedges are few and far between.” The letter is cited in Margaret M. Verney’s Memoirs of the Verney Family During the Civil War, published in 1899.

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Did “ta” beget “ta-ta”?

Q: Years ago, I read somewhere that the Cockney “ta” actually stood for “thanks awfully.” It then evolved into “ta-ta” as an exit term because humans love to play around with (and repeat) sounds. Just wanted to offer that theory.

A: No, “ta” is not an acronym for “thanks awfully,” it’s not Cockney, and it didn’t beget “ta-ta” (more on this later). However, it does have a connection with “thank you.”

The interjection “ta,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated as “an infantile form of ‘thank-you’ ” that was first recorded in the late 18th century.

We expect that since the word was used as intimate nursery babble, it was around for many years before it was recorded for posterity in writing.

It got its start in British usage and is still more common in the UK than in the US.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) identifies “ta” as a British expression. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels it “chiefly British,” and describes it as a “baby-talk alteration of thank you.”  

The OED’s earliest example is from a letter written in 1772 by Mary Granville, better known as Mrs. Delany: “You would not say ‘Ta’ to me for my congratulation.” (It appears in her memoir, Life & Correspondence, which wasn’t published until 1861.)

Mrs. Delany’s note was written to her one-year-old great-niece on the occasion of her first birthday, so the “ta” here was intended to echo a babyish version of “thank you.”

Here’s another childish example, from Israel Zangwill’s novel Children of the Ghetto 1892): “Give it me. I’ll say ‘ta’ so nicely.” (In this party scene, adults use baby-talk jokingly while a man teases his lover with an engagement ring.)

As the OED says, this infantile “ta” has passed into colloquial use among adults. Oxford gives a few modern examples, including these:

“ ‘Ta,’ he said, slipping the card into the back pocket of his jeans.” (From Richard Gordon’s novel Doctor on the Boil, 1970.)

“ ‘You know your way, don’t you?’ ‘Ta, love.’ ” (From Douglas Clark’s mystery The Longest Pleasure, 1981.)

So while “ta” isn’t an acronym for “thanks awfully,” it’s close in meaning.

As for “ta-ta,” the other expression you’ve asked about, it’s another adult usage to graduate from nursery school. 

As we’ve written before on our blog, “ta-ta” originated as an infantile form of “goodbye.” It was first recorded in the 1820s, and soon passed into colloquial (that is, spoken) adult usage.

An expanded version, “ta-ta for now,” became a popular British catchphrase in the 1940s, and was shortened in the later ’40s to the initialism “TTFN.”

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Pour English

Q: Are there too few English majors nowadays? A recent headline on CNN.com: “Volunteers pour over satellite images.” Hmm. I prefer maple syrup on my satellite images. What about you?

A: It shouldn’t take an English major to tell the difference between “pour” and “pore.” Yet many people, even in news organizations, write “pour over” when they mean “pore over.”

The verb “pour” means flow or cause to flow, as when a river “pours” over its banks, troops “pour” over a border, or you “pour” maple syrup over your waffles.

The other verb, “pore,” means to examine or study closely.

As Pat writes in Woe is I, “You pore over an engrossing book, but it’s gross to pour over one.” She uses this example: “While Charlotte pored over a steamy novel, the bathtub poured over.”

CNN wasn’t the only news organization to use “pour over” instead of “pore over” in reference to volunteer efforts in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. This passage is from the Telegraph of Calcutta:

“The approach is a kind of crowdsourcing, but not one in which volunteers pour over satellite images, like they have in search of Flight 370.”

The verbs “pour” and “pore” have been part of English since the Middle Ages, but they’re unrelated and probably come from different sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says “pour,” first recorded around 1330, is of uncertain origin but perhaps is derived from the Middle French verb purer, which meant “to decant, pour out (a liquid).”

Over the centuries, “pour” has been widely used in transferred or figurative senses.

This OED citation from a 1995 issue of the British magazine Sugar is a good illustration: “If you want to cause a stir on the beach just pour yourself into a gorgeous swimsuit.”

In fact, “pour” has so many figurative uses that it’s hard to count them.

Today people “pour out their hearts,” “pour money” into causes, “pour into” hot vacation spots, and “pour themselves” into their jobs. And when lavishly praising or criticizing, they “pour it on” (a usage the OED dates from the late 1940s).

But the uses of the other verb, “pore,” are much more limited. It still means roughly what it did when first recorded around 1300, the OED says: “to look intently or fixedly, to gaze.”

“Pore” is of unknown origin, the dictionary says, but may be related to a now obsolete Middle English verb, “pire,” meaning to peer or look closely.

This long-dead verb, “pire,” bears some similarity to a regional usage in Low German, piren, meaning “to search closely, to collect carefully,” the OED says. But we’re getting into speculation here, and there’s no definite connection to the modern “pore.”

The most common use of “pore” today is one that developed in the late 1300s. The OED defines this sense as “to examine a book, map, etc., with fixed attention; to study or read earnestly or with intense concentration; to be absorbed in reading or study.”

In this sense, “pore” is frequently used with prepositions, especially “over” the OED says. And only occasionally do we find “pore” used in any other sense.

The OED says it’s sometimes used when we speak of meditating or thinking intently, as in this 1982 example from the Financial Times: “The Treasury clearly does not spend all its time poring over macro-economic issues.”

Generally, “pore” is used literally in its original sense, as Gretel Ehrlich did in her essay collection Islands, the Universe, Home (1991): “We pore over maps, chart our expeditions.”

In summary, volunteers definitely wouldn’t want to “pour over” those satellite pictures—especially if they were pouring something sticky. They’d want to “pore over” the images.

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Embarrassment of prepositions

Q: I heard this usage at least a half-dozen times in an episode of the sitcom New Girl: “She is embarrassed of me.” Rarely have I heard such an awkward phrase repeated in a scripted context. Is “of” wrong here? If not, why does it sound so awful?

A: We can’t say that “embarrassed of” is wrong, but scriptwriters who were older or more tradition-bound would probably have used “embarrassed by” instead.

Like “bored of,” which we wrote about in 2013, “embarrassed of” has recently become more common. 

For now, “embarrassed by” is still the favorite combination, with 1.6 million Google hits. The runner-up is “embarrassed for,” with 1.2 million. And trailing distantly are “embarrassed about,” with 656,000 hits, and “embarrassed of,” with 523,000.

So “embarrassed by” is three times as popular as “embarrassed of.” (We ruled out the 1.8 million hits for “embarrassed to,” since with infinitives there’s no choice—“embarrassed to ask,” “embarrassed to be,” and so on.)

While “embarrassed of” is trailing at the moment, it’s gaining fast. Searches with Google’s Ngram viewer show a sharp spike in the use of the phrase between 1980 and 2008.

We’re not talking here about uneducated speakers. A university professor, writing on the American Dialect Society’s discussion group in 2007, said that “of” was becoming the “default preposition” among students in his linguistics courses.

He reported seeing usages like “poking fun of” and “self-conscious of” in student writing since the 1980s.

In fact, many prepositions used after adjectives are starting to defy their traditional roles.

“It begins to look as if preposition replacement is becoming an occasional but significant feature of the language,” Robert Burchfield writes in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.). “It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, though at present still regrettable, that some people (esp. children) are now usually bored of instead of bored with.”

In fact, it isn’t always “of” that muscles its way in. Sometimes “of” is muscled out by another preposition.

Burchfield cites the linguist Dwight Bolinger, who found that as words like “of” are used in growing numbers of idiomatic phrases, their meanings fade and other prepositions start to replace them.

For example, Bolinger observed that “about” was replacing “of” in certain phrases: “conscious of” was becoming “conscious about”; “wary of” was becoming “wary about,” and so on.

He also found that “enamored of” was becoming “enamored with,” and that “free of” was becoming “free from.”

Unfortunately, it’s easier to observe this kind of trend than it is to explain why it happens. Who knows? Perhaps “embarrassed of” emerged by analogy with “ashamed of” and “afraid of.”

Clearly, prepositions are a handful—in more than one sense. They comprise a relatively small set of words, but it’s often difficult to choose among them or to explain why one is better than another.

We answer lots of mail about prepositional usage, from new learners of English as well as from native speakers.

In 2012, for instance, we wrote about why people say “in the newspaper” but “on the Internet.” In 2008, we discussed why “to luck out” means “to luck in.”

In 2011, we ran a post on why English speakers say “in 2001” but “on Monday.” And in 2008, we had an item on why prepositions are used so differently in British and American English.

The answers aren’t cut-and-dried, because the choice of one preposition over another is mostly idiomatic and becomes habitual. That being the case, preferences emerge (or subside) based on common usage.

This is why prepositions often defy labels like “correct” and “incorrect.” They express relationships, so their meanings are often abstract. It’s better to speak of the “customary” or “dominant” preposition than the “right” one. 

In his book The Careful Writer (1965), Theodore M. Bernstein writes, “The proper preposition is a matter of idiom; and idioms, if they do not come ‘naturally,’ must be either learned or looked up.”

And what if a particular idiom can’t be found in a usage manual or dictionary? “The only thing to do,” Bernstein says, “is to consult three knowing friends and get a consensus.”

However, unless the “three knowing friends” are all roughly the same age, you probably won’t get a unanimous verdict.

You could seek an answer in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which devotes several pages to prepositions that complement adjectives.

The book discusses “about,” “at,” “by,” “for,” “from,” “in,” “of,” “on/upon,” “to,” “towards,” and “with.” And while the lists of corresponding adjectives aren’t exhaustive, some are implied in the explanations.

For example, the book notes that “by” is used only with “adjectives deriving from past participles in their passive use.”

This would include “embarrassed” as well as “bored,” because (1) they’re identical to the past participles of the verbs they’re derived from, “embarrass” and “bore”; and (2) they’re used passively, as in “I was embarrassed” or “they were bored.”

Some adjectives aren’t limited to one preposition. For example, Cambridge separately lists “bored” among those that can take “with.”

And some adjectives can take either “at” or “about.” These often denote “a psychological reaction” to what’s expressed in the complement, Cambridge says: “annoyed,” “pleased,” “aghast,” “indignant,” and so on.

What all this boils down to is that prepositions are unpredictable.

“Language is nothing but a set of human habits,” Otto Jespersen wrote in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933). “As with other habits it is not to be expected that they should be perfectly consistent.”

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Graduate school

Q: In the recent New Yorker piece about the father of the Sandy Hook killer, Andrew Solomon writes that Adam Lanza’s older brother “moved to New Jersey after graduating college.” GRADUATING COLLEGE?  Shouldn’t that be FROM college?

A: We read the same article in the March 17 issue and had the same thought: How did “graduating college” make it through the New Yorker’s copydesk?

Pat’s feeling was that copy-editing standards at the New Yorker might have slipped a notch. But Stewart wondered if the construction had passed into standard English usage since we discussed the issue on the blog eight years ago.

We decided that we ought to reexamine this subject. So in the interest of open-mindedness, here goes.

Back in 2006, we said the verb “graduate” had evolved over the last two centuries, but not enough for this sentence to be considered standard English: “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

Traditionally, according to our original post, there would be three proper ways to express that sentence:

● “Stanford graduated him in 1986.”

● “He was graduated from Stanford in 1986.”

● “He graduated from Stanford in 1986.”

Most of the usage guides we’ve consulted still object to a sentence like “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

Why? Because the verb “graduate” originally meant to award a degree, not to receive one. The school graduated the student, not the other way around.

Over the years, the verb “graduate” has evolved, but usage authorities generally believe that the use of “graduate” in that disputed sentence strays too far from the original meaning of the verb. Here’s the scoop.

When the word first showed up in the late 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “graduate” was a transitive verb meaning to confer a university degree.

(A transitive verb is one that needs an object to make sense: “Stanford graduated him.” An intransitive verb is one that can make sense without an object: “He graduated.”)

The OED’s earliest example is from Robert Parke’s translation of The Historie of the Great and Mightie Kingdome of China (1588), by Juan González de Mendoza: “To commence or graduate such students as haue finished their course.”

And here’s a passive construction of the same transitive verb, from an 1884 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “The class of ’76 was graduated with six men.”

So in the earliest, transitive uses of “graduate,” it was standard to say either (1) that the school “graduated” the student, or (2) that the student “was graduated” by the school.

But in the early 1800s, the OED says, “graduate” underwent a significant change. It acquired an intransitive sense, meaning to take a degree or diploma.

In the intransitive sense (in which the verb has no direct object), the student is the one doing the graduating—that is, taking a degree or diploma.

Oxford has a several examples, starting with one from the poet Robert Southey’s Letters From England (1807): “Four years are then to be passed at college before the student can graduate.”

Late in the 19th century, we see intransitive examples with the institution added in a prepositional phrase (“from Stanford,” “from college,” etc.). The OED, which finds nothing objectionable in this construction, gives a couple of examples:

“In 1837 he graduated from Yale College” (the Times of London, 1892), and “Dwight was … able to graduate from High School at the premature age of fourteen” (Harold Nicolson’s biography Dwight Morrow, 1935).

About the time when people started adding “from” plus the institution, some usage commentators started to object that “graduate” was moving too far from its transitive roots.

In fact, the critics wanted to take a step back and abandon the intransitive usage altogether. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains:

“The critics argued that since the college conferred the degree on the student, graduate should only be used transitively with the student as its object or in the passive construction ‘He was graduated from college.’ ”

But as we know, “graduate” was already firmly established as an intransitive verb (as in Southey’s “before the student can graduate”). In hindsight, it was only natural that people would start adding prepositional phrases: “from college,” “from high school,” etc.

Despite the critics, this use of “graduate” was soon accepted and the criticism has long since disappeared. Today nobody thinks twice about a sentence like “Spot graduated from obedience school.”

But in the 20th century, the use of “graduate” shifted once again and a fourth usage emerged. This is the one we’re reexamining here, in which “from” is dropped (“he graduated college”).

What do the experts say about this newest wrinkle? So far, the disputed usage isn’t yet recorded in the OED, so we find no opinion there one way or the other. But most of the other sources we checked are holding the line against it. 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), says the use of “graduate” in the sense “to receive an academic degree from” is a “usage problem.” It gives this example “How many chemists graduated the Institute last year?”

The dictionary notes that this newest use of the verb, “in which the student is the subject and the institution is the object, as in She graduated Yale in 2010,”  was rejected by 77 percent of the American Heritage usage panel.

Another source, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), includes this use of the verb (with the example “to graduate college”), but labels it “informal.”

Looking further, we find that Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), says the “newish” transitive use in American English, as in “he graduated Yale in 1984,” is much more controversial and is best avoided.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) seems to agree with Fowler’s. “In the mid-20th century,” Garner’s says, “usage began to shift further toward an even shorter transitive form: students were said to graduate college (omitting the from after graduate). This poor wording is increasingly common.”

On Garner’s “Language-Change Index,” this new use of “graduate” is rated Stage 3, for “widespread but ….” (A rating of Stage 1 means “rejected”; Stage 5 is “fully accepted.”)

We found only a couple of clear votes in favor of “graduated college.”

The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary lists this among its definitions: “to receive a degree or diploma from: to graduate college.”

A usage note in Random House adds that “although condemned by some as nonstandard,” this sense of the verb “is increasing in both speech and writing: to graduate high school.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) finds no problem with the disputed usage either and labels it standard English.

Merriam-Webster’s accepts, without qualification, the use of “graduate” in the sense “to earn a degree or diploma from (a school, college, or university).” It gives the example “she graduated high school.”

The editors at M-W provide their own usage note on the subject. They note the historical shifts in the uses of the verb, then go on to say that it’s the “newer transitive sense,” as in “she graduated high school,” that’s now condemned by some critics.

The dictionary says the newer usage remains “the least common,” while the one with “from” is the most common. But all of them “are standard,” M-W concludes.

Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “This use of graduate without from has been cited as an error” by usage commentators since 1957.

Nevertheless, it’s “probably established by now,” the guide continues, though “it appears to be more frequent in speech than in writing and is not nearly as frequent as the longer established intransitive”—the one with “from.”

 A rough Google search—“graduated college” versus “graduated from college”—confirms this. The version without “from” got 1.5 million hits, compared with 24.3 million for the version with “from.”

A search of Google Books is perhaps more significant in terms of written usage: 35,500 hits for the “from”-less version versus 3.6 million for the one with “from.” 

Our feeling is that “graduated college” still hasn’t made it into the Ivy League, though it may get there one of these days.

We’d call it informal. It’s OK in conversation, but until the usage is more established, we’d recommend tossing in a “from” when writing.

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Kicks in the closet

Q: I have a question that occurred to me while reading your article about “kick the can down the road.” This isn’t life-altering or profound, but what is the origin of the slang use of “kicks” to mean shoes?

A: The use of “kicks” for shoes originated in 1890s American slang, and judging from the earliest examples, it had unsavory beginnings among tramps and thieves. 

The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Jack London tale, “The Frisco Kid’s Story” (1895), which is narrated by a “road kid” or tramp: “Dere wuz nothin’ left but his kicks, I mean shoes.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has another early example, from an 1897 article in Popular Science Monthly on the subject of criminal lingo.

In the article, “The Language of Crime,” the writer A.B.F. Crofton discusses “the general tendency of the criminal to reduce the abstract to the concrete, to denote the substantive [the noun] by one of its attributes.”

Crofton goes on to give a few examples: “Thus a purse is a leather; a street car is a short, comparing its length with a railroad car; a handkerchief is a wipe; and a pair of shoes a pair of kicks.” (We’ve expanded the Random House citation to provide more context.)

So there’s the likely explanation: shoes are used to kick, hence the noun “kicks.” It makes a lot of sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the phrase originated in the US, but doesn’t hint at the connection between shoes and kicking.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a prison memoir, Life in Sing Sing (1904), whose author, identified only as “No. 1500,” defines many jailhouse terms including this one: “Kicks, shoes.”

After a few decades, “kicks” gradually lost its underworld associations and became more widely used for “shoes” in the general population.

Random House has several examples of this wider usage, including one from a 1927 story by S. J. Perelman: “Beige lizard kicks are being worn a good deal this season.”

And a 1932 article in the journal American Speech said “kicks” was being used for “shoes” among students at Johns Hopkins University. 

This slang term is still with us, though it now has a more specific meaning. In street language and in youth culture generally, “kicks” means sneakers or athletic shoes.

Random House has several examples of this newer usage, including one from a 1984 issue of USA Today: “Here at the Roxy Roller Rink, sneakers are called ‘kicks.’ ”

The slang dictionary also has two 1993 citations: U.C.L.A. Slang II, edited by Pamela Munro, says students use “kicks” to mean “athletic shoes.” And the rap song “I Got It Goin’ On,” recorded by Us3, has the line “Sport the dope threads and the $100 kicks.”

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Is “not that” a no-no?

Q: A friend says “that” is incorrect in this sentence: “Leonardo DiCaprio’s never winning an Oscar isn’t that surprising when you realize Stanley Kubrick never won one either.” I say it’s an informal usage. We thought why not ask you guys.

A: Some language authorities would agree with you that this use of “that” (especially the negative “not that”) is informal, but we see nothing wrong with using it in formal as well as informal contexts.

Film buffs, however, would object to the sentence you’re asking about: Kubrick did win an Oscar—for visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In your example, the adjective “unfair” is qualified by “that.” In this construction, “that” is a demonstrative adverb meaning “so much,” “so,” or “to that extent or degree,” a usage the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the 1400s.

Oxford adds that the negative version “not that”—the version in your sentence, with “not” contracted—is a colloquial usage that means “not very.” (A colloquial usage is one that’s more common in spoken than in written English.)

Among the OED’s citations are both positive and negative examples, including these:

“Charles Paris found it difficult to get that excited.” (From Simon Brett’s 1980 novel The Dead Side of the Mike.)

“The forgiveness of sin isn’t just an easygoing matter, as if to say: ‘Well, you sinned, but it doesn’t matter all that much—I forgive you.’ ” (From a 1981 issue of the Listener.)

As we’ve said above, we think this usage, negative as well as positive, is acceptable in all kinds of English. To be fair, we’ll give you two additional views on the subject.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) would say we’re jumping the gun. It describes the usage as still informal, though close to becoming formal.

Fowler’s says constructions with “that” as a demonstrative adverb of “the type ‘I was that angry,’ i.e. ‘so angry, very angry,’ and its negative counterpart, ‘things aren’t really that bad,’ have been slipping into and out of standard use since similar uses were first recorded in the 15c.”

“It would seem that both the positive and the negative types are common now,” Fowler’s says, “but in the written language are normally used in plainly informal contexts.”

The usage guide gives these published examples of informal use, both positive and negative: “I’ve been that worried. I thought I’d lost you,” and “Shut up. … It’s not that funny.”

But the manual acknowledges that all this “is only a short step away from reasonably formal territory, to judge from the following example: ‘The questioning attitude that comes naturally at student age is not that easily abolished.’ ”

Another authoritative source, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, says both uses of “that”—positive as well as negative—are “common and widespread.”

But the “most common current use,” the book adds, “is in negative statements in which that is reduced more or less to an intensifier.”

The book’s published examples include sentences like these: “It is not that easy” … “The movie is different, but not that different” … “He did not think that they were that close to a treaty.”

M-W concludes that this use of “that,” in both positive and negative constructions, is “standard in general prose.”

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The saucy source of “liaise”

Q: The word “liaison” has been around for quite some time, but at a recent lunchtime meeting someone offered to “liaise” with others. This usage makes me cringe, but what’s your take on it?

A: We liaise a lot—that is, we work together on matters of mutual concern—but we don’t use the term “liaise” (it sounds like jargon to us).

Nevertheless, the verb “liaise” is standard English, a back-formation that’s been around for nearly a century, and a word with roots in the 1600s.

We’ve written many blog posts about back-formations—words formed by dropping parts of existing ones. New words have been formed this way for many hundreds of years.

Examples of verbs that started as back-formations from nouns include “injure” (from “injury”), “babysit” (from “babysitter”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “curate” (from “curator”), and  “surveil” (from “surveillance”).

We can add the verb “liaise” to the list. It’s a back-formation (from the noun “liaison”) that emerged in British military slang during World War I, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Oxford’s earliest citation comes from C. F. Snowden Gamble’s The Story of a North Sea Air Station, which is about the Royal Flying Corps in 1914-18.

Snowden Gamble’s book was published in 1928, but it includes this 1916 quote by Lord Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet: “I want a soldier … to keep in touch with the Navy and so ‘liaise’ or exchange inventions which may be suitable.”

Apparently “liaise” had staying power, since British military types were still using it in the next war.

The OED cites a comment that appeared in a 1941 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries, remarking on a recent instruction sheet issued by Britain’s Home Guard: “in the event of certain circumstances, it stated, two groups were ordered to ‘liase’ with two others.”

And a year later, in 1942, the New Statesman commented:
“ ‘To liaise’ … was at first frowned on by the pundits: its usefulness … soon came to outweigh its objectionableness.”

The OED defines “liaise” as meaning “to make liaison with or between.” By the 1950s, according to the dictionary’s citations, the usage had been absorbed into civilian usage.

The noun that it came from, “liaison,” can ultimately be traced to the Latin verb ligare (to bind). And when it first came into English, in the mid-17th century, it was decidedly civilian.

The original “liaison” was a cooking term (we’re not making this up). It meant “a thickening for sauces, consisting chiefly of the yolks of eggs,” the OED says.

This noun, which was borrowed from French, also for a time meant “the process of thickening,” Oxford adds.

The dictionary’s earliest citation in English is from a cookbook by an English courtier and intellectual, Sir Kenelm Digby, who died in 1665. (He left his recipes behind, and they were published posthumously in 1669.)

In a recipe for a mutton pot-roast, we find this line: “The last things (of Butter, bread, flower) cause the liaison and thickening of the liquor.” (The noun “liaison” appears several other times in the book, also in connection with a thickened broth or gravy.)

The noun took on new meanings in the early 19th century.

First, it came to mean an intimate (sometimes illicit) relationship or connection; and in 1816 it acquired a military sense, defined by the OED as “close connection and co-operation between two units, branches, allies, etc., esp. during a battle or campaign.”

In the early 20th century, this military sense of “liaison” also became common in corporate, governmental, and other civilian usages.

As you say, “liaison” has been around for quite some time. Our guess is that “liaise” will be with us for a while too, whether we like it or not.

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In the catbird seat

Q: Why is it such a good thing to be “in the catbird seat”? And where did Red Barber get the expression?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “the catbird seat” as American slang for “a superior or advantageous position.”

The OED’s earliest published example of the usage is from “The Catbird Seat,” a 1942 story by James Thurber in the New Yorker: “ ‘Sitting in the catbird seat’ meant sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”

One of the characters in the story is said to have picked up “sitting in the catbird seat” and other colorful expressions while listening to Red Barber do play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions—picked ’em up down South,” the story explains. (We’ve added to the OED citation.)

The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms describes the usage as “a Southern Americanism dating back to the 19th century,” but popularized by Barber and Thurber.

The earliest example we could find in a search of digitized books and newspapers does indeed come from the South, but it dates from the early 20th century, not the 19th.

One of the speakers at the 1916 annual meeting of the Georgia Bar Association says the frustrations of the legal profession make it hard for a lawyer to act like a card player “in the catbird seat as he squeezes an ace-high flush.”

The use of the term “catbird” (for the gray catbird, Dumetella carolinensis) dates from the early 1700s, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The first DARE citation is from John Lawson’s New Voyage to Carolina (1709): “The Cat-Bird … makes a Noise exactly like young Cats.”

The regional dictionary says the phrase “catbird seat” probably refers to the gray catbird’s habit “of delivering its song from a high, exposed position.”

We’ve seen a lot of gray catbirds where we live in New England, and from our experience the birds don’t deliver their cat-like call from a particularly high or exposed position. But maybe Southern catbirds are more uppity.

Where, you ask, did Red Barber get the expression? In Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat, his 1968 biography, the Old Redhead says he first heard it while playing poker with friends in Cincinnati.

Barber describes one hand in which he raised repeatedly, but ended up losing when another player “turned over his hole cards, showed a pair of aces, and won the pot.”

“Thank you, Red,” the winner said. “I had those aces from the start. I was sitting in the catbird seat.”

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A euphemism of a certain age

Q: How old are women of “a certain age”? Are only French women of that age? Can men be of “a certain age” too?

A: The expression “a certain age” is generally used now (often tongue in cheek) as a euphemism to avoid saying a woman is middle-aged or older.

However, masculine and unisex versions are not all that unusual. In fact, the earliest example we’ve found refers to “men of a certain age.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a 1754 issue of the Connoisseur, a short-lived satirical weekly in London, edited by the essayists George Colman and Bonnell Thornton:

“I could not help wishing on this occasion that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.”

The expression is used there to describe an older, unmarried woman, similar to the terms “maiden lady” (1700), “spinster” (1617), and “old maid” (1530). “Spinster,” which dates from the 1300s, originally referred to someone who spins thread or yarn.

The phrase “a certain age” was a work in progress during the 1700s and 1800s, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes referring to women, sometimes men, and sometimes children, animals, or things.

A search of literary databases indicates that the usage first showed up in English in the early 1700s and in French (as d’un certain âge) in the late 1600s.

The earliest English example we could find, from a 1709 book written by a London midwife, refers to “men of a certain age.”

In A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery, Elizabeth Nihell argues against “the utter impropriety” of men, especially young men, examining the “sexual parts” of women:

“It may perhaps be granted that men of a certain age, men past the slippery season of youth, may claim the benefit of exemption from impressions of sensuality, by objects to which custom has familiarized them.”

In the 1700s and 1800s, the expression was generally positive when used to describe men. The Earl of Chesterfield, for example, used it in a June 13, 1751, letter to his son, Philip Stanhope, to refer to men of substance and refinement:

“You would not talk of your pleasures to men of a certain age, gravity, and dignity; they justly expect, from young people, a degree of deference and regard.”

The phrase was sometimes used positively and sometimes negatively to describe women.

In Amatory Tales (1810), Honoria Scott uses it positively: “Mrs. Cleveland was a woman of a certain age, and handsome person; her understanding intelligent and cultivated; she had moved much in the circles of fashionable life.”

But in The Lady of the Manor (1831), Mary Martha Sherwood uses the term to describe “a vain woman who cannot condescend to grow old” and who needs a lot of help to keep up appearances:

“The Comtesse de V was a woman of a certain age, and she therefore owed to her perruquier, her perfumer (who supplied the various washes for her complexion), her milliner, and her femme de chambre, that juvenile appearance which she still had in the eyes of those who beheld her only for the first time.”

In Barnaby Rudge (1841), Dickens does a riff on the expression to describe a house: “A very old house, perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older, which will sometimes happen with houses of an uncertain, as with ladies of a certain age.”

The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto, says “of a certain age” may have been inspired by the French expression d’un certain âge.

We suspect that Ayto is less than definitive here because the French expression showed up only a few decades before the English version.

Ayto offers this contemporary unisex example of the usage from a 2003 issue of Architectural Review: “Text … is in readable white sans-serif type … and happily for clients of a certain age, it’s adjustable with the browser’s View/Text Size command.”

William Safire suggests in his July 2, 1995, language column in the New York Times Magazine that the phrase was “repopularized” for modern readers by Women of a Certain Age, a 1979 book by the psychotherapist Lillian B. Rubin.

“When I wrote the book in 1979,” she told Safire, “the ‘women of a certain age’ were in their late 30’s and early 40’s. I think that has changed with the baby boomers and the lengthening of the life span. I’d say the ‘certain age’ has now moved to the age of 50 or 55.”

Safire’s column was prompted by a reader who’d been surprised by this headline in the paper: “3 Explorers of a Certain Age, Scaling Mountains and More.” The explorers were three men in their 80s.

It’s comforting to think that we may still be of a certain age when we’re in our 80s.

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Deconstructing sports talk

Q: I have been annoyed at sports commentators who seem to ALWAYS put the subject at the end of the sentence. Example: “Since he returned from injury he is a different player, Smith.” Please advise.

A: The construction you mention is very common in live sports commentary. The speaker puts the subject at the end of the sentence almost as an afterthought.

Sometimes there’s a pronoun mentioned first, but sometimes not: “He came up from the  minors like a rocket, Jones,” or  “Up at bat now, Brown.”

It’s as if the speaker assumes at first that the audience will know who “he” is, or will mentally supply the subject. But just to be sure, a name is added.

It could even be that the speaker consciously delays mentioning the name to give himself time to think. (Lots of names to remember!)

In the case of your example, the subject (Smith) is reinserted by name at the end to identify who’s meant by “he.”

This kind of thing is sometimes heard in casual conversation outside the broadcast booth as well.   

A mother might say, “He’s a good boy, Johnny,” just as a sports reporter would say “It was brilliant, that catch.”

The examples are parallel. When an informal sentence has a pronoun (“he,” “it”) as its subject, the speaker sometimes names the subject at the end for clarification.

In elliptical constructions, the verb might be omitted completely: “A good boy, Johnny” … “Brilliant, that catch.”

Or the verb might be repeated: “He’s a good boy, Johnny is” … “It was brilliant, that catch was.”

Here’s another kind of casual sentence, one you might hear at the playground: “Interesting, watching children play.”

The subject is “watching children play,” and the verb (“is”) is missing. Full sentence, transposed and with verb added: “Watching children play is interesting.”

More often, the pronoun “it” is used up front as a dummy subject: “It’s interesting, watching children play.” The true subject—“watching children play”—identifies the mystery pronoun.

As we said, such sentences are common in informal speech. But the habitual use of such constructions—especially when there’s no original pronoun or when the verb is missing—is a hallmark of live sports commentary.

In the broadcast booth, speakers use a telegraphic style in which loose sentence fragments are strung together, often without explicit grammatical connections.

Some linguists call this “parataxis,” a term from Greek in which it means “placing side by side.” In the parataxis of sports commentary, “Outbursts of short, snappy, loosely connected clauses are typical,” Kersti Borjars and Kate Burridge write in their book Introducing English Grammar (2nd ed., 2013).

Sometimes pronouns, conjunctions, even verbs may be missing, as in “Strong bullpen, the Twins.” Or “Needs a walk, Anderson.” It’s almost stream-of-consciousness.

And the faster the live action, the more telegraphed the commentary. And yet the listener understands perfectly—even though the things we ordinarily consider crucial to the English sentence aren’t there.

One bit of commentary given by Borjars and Burridge is certainly elliptical. It consists of a single word, “Unbelievable.” But there’s isn’t a listener alive who wouldn’t understand.

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Why is a shaft a rod or a hole?

Q: How come we use the word “shaft” for two different things: a linear object like an arrow and an open space like a tunnel in a mine? Are these two usages somehow related etymologically?

A: The “shaft” that’s a slender rod and the “shaft” that’s a narrow hole have always been two different nouns in English.

But it’s natural for you to wonder if there’s a link somewhere in their ancient ancestry, since both “shafts” are long, straight columns—the first a solid object and the second a hollow cavity.

Well, there is probably a connection, but scholars disagree on what it is.

The first “shaft”—a smooth, straight stick or pole, like the body of an arrow or spear—was known in Old English as sceaft around the year 1000 or earlier, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

 The other “shaft”—the hole or pit—wasn’t known in Old English. It made its appearance in the 1430s, the OED says, when it meant “a vertical or slightly inclined well-like excavation made in mining, tunnelling, etc., as a means of access to underground workings.”

How did the different “shafts” develop?

The OED says the original, rod-like “shaft” probably got its meaning from the sense of something shaven—that is, scraped and made smooth. (The Old English verb sceafan meant to shave.)

This word has its origins in a prehistoric Germanic root that linguists have reconstructed as skafto-, which has to do with shaving. That ancient root, in turn, comes from an even earlier Germanic word element that has to do with digging.

There are a couple of theories about the origin of the pit-like sense of “shaft” in English. Here are the possibilities: 

(1) In Europe in the early Middle Ages, speakers of Low German simply transferred the word for a rod to mean a pit. The Low German schacht combined both senses of “shaft,” perhaps with “the primitive notion being that of something cylindrical,” the OED says.

In his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991), Hans Henrich Hock suggests that this Low German schacht (in the sense of a pit) may have originated as miners’ jargon, perhaps as early as the late 900s, and later filtered into English as the new noun “shaft.” Many other Low German mining terms made their way into English and other languages, according to Hock.

(2) The two “shafts” developed separately, much further back in their Germanic ancestry. 

As the OED puts it, the prehistoric Germanic root “skafto- represented by Low German schacht, English shaft ‘pit-hole,’ may be a separate formation” of the Germanic root of “shave” in its original sense, “to dig.”

If the last suggestion is true, then the first “shaft” (the rod) is derived from the notion of something shaven and the second “shaft” (the pit) from that of something dug or excavated.

While English got both “shafts” from Germanic sources, we should note that the words have cousins in Latin (scapus, a stem or stalk) and Greek (skapos, a staff or support).

But enough ancient etymology. We don’t want to dig ourselves into a hole here.

The original English “shaft” (the rod) has been used in many ways, figurative as well as literal, to describe all kinds of rod-like things.

Over the centuries, the same “shaft” has been used to describe an architectural column, a beam of sunlight, a bird’s feather, the stem of a wineglass, a rotating mechanism (driveshaft, crankshaft, etc.), and many other objects.

This “shaft” has also given us slang usages, and as you might imagine (given the phallic nature of the word), few of them are respectable.

For example, the penis has been described as a “shaft” since the early 1600s, according to citations in Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

The OED cites this mock-poetic example from a comic song published in 1772: “For Cupid’s Pantheon, the Shaft of Delight Must spring from the Masculine Base.”

And since the early 1950s, the verb “shaft” has meant to give someone a raw deal—to cheat, reject, slight, take advantage of or treat the person unfairly.

Green’s quotes this line from Mickey Spillane’s noir novel The Long Wait (1951): “She’s going to have more on her mind than trying to shaft you.”

Then of course there’s the expression “to get the shaft,” meaning to be on the receiving end of a raw deal. This has also been a common slang usage since the 1950s.

The OED cites this explanation from a 1959 issue of the journal American Speech: “A girl or boy who makes a play for another’s date is snaking. … If he succeeds, the loser gets the shaft (sometimes with barbs), the purple shaft, or the maroon harpoon, depending upon the degree of injury to his pride.”

This more graphic definition of “get the shaft” appeared in 1960 in the Dictionary of American Slang, by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner: “the image is the taboo one of the final insult, having someone insert something, as a barbed shaft, up one’s rectum.”

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How diverse is diversity?

Q: I am helping promulgate the criteria for recruiting new members of a board of directors. At issue is “diversity.” I say it is now a code word for nonwhite or nonmale. That is, a white male, no matter how diverse his experience, doesn’t provide diversity. Others say “diversity,” without elaboration, could refer to experience. What do you think?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries, and none of them restrict the term “diversity” to race or gender.

All the dictionaries define “diversity” in general terms, such as a range of different things or the state of being varied. A few include additional definitions or examples that refer to racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, or social differences.

None of the dictionaries specifically mention either gender or experience, but the more general definitions would encompass those as well as other differences, such as age, sexual orientation, and education.

We’ve also looked at several legal dictionaries, but couldn’t find the term “diversity,” except in a few relatively obscure usages.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a general definition that could encompass just about any difference: “The condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness.”

Although some people believe, as you do, that “diversity” primarily refers to race and gender, lexicographers clearly feel that most people use the term more broadly.

What do we think? If we were writing the criteria, we’d use the word “diversity” by itself, without citing any specific differences.

Some outsiders may misunderstand the term, but we assume that the main reason for the criteria is to guide board members, who should know by now what they mean by “diversity.”

Yes, the directors could cite specific kinds of diversity, especially if they were thinking of more than differences in race, gender, and ethnic origin, but the list would clutter up the criteria and almost certainly be incomplete.

Here, for example, is how the Chancellor’s Committee on Diversity at the University of California, San Francisco, defines the term:

“The variety of experiences and perspective which arise from differences in race, culture, religion, mental or physical abilities, heritage, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics.”

Interestingly, there’s been a diversity of opinion about the meaning of “diversity” since the word entered English in the 1300s. In fact, the differences date from the term’s Old French and Latin ancestors.

In Old French, the term diverseté (or diversité) meant difference, oddness, wickedness, or perversity, according to the OED.

However, the word ultimately comes from the Latin diversus, which means opposite, separate, different, contrary, or hostile, and which is the source of the English word “diversion” (a turning away from the fatiguing and the mundane).

In English, the word “diversity” has meant difference, variety, unlikeness, distinction, perversity, evil, and mischief over the years, not to mention a couple of technical electrical and radio usages. Now, that’s diversity.

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