The Grammarphobia Blog

One never knows, do one?

Q: Why do people use “one” instead of “I” or “me”? I would love to know the history of this one.

A: As you might guess, “one” is among the earliest words in recorded English.

In early Old English, it could be a noun or an adjective (expressing the simple numeral) as well as an indefinite article (an early version of “a” or “an”).

In later Old English, “one” took on various pronoun senses in which it could stand for a single person or thing.

But the usage you’re asking about represents a function of “one” that goes beyond any of these senses. In this usage, “one” is a third-person substitute for a first-person pronoun—that is, “one” stands in for the speaker.

At first, this “one” had a very broad sense and could mean anybody. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of the pronoun:

“Any person of undefined identity, esp. one considered as representative of people in general; any person at all, including (esp. in later use) the speaker himself or herself; ‘you, or I, or anyone’; a person in general.”

People have been using “one” as a generic pronoun in writing since the early 1300s, according to OED citations. But this later example, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), will be more familiar: “Why Romeo may one aske?”

And here’s a 20th-century example from a favorite author of ours, Nancy Mitford: “One is not exactly encouraged to use one’s brain over here, you know.” (From her 1931 novel Highland Fling.)

The use of “one” to mean oneself exclusively—that is, the speaker instead of just anyone—is a further refinement of the pronoun. And we use “refinement” deliberately, since the use of “one” to mean “I” or “me” strikes many people as over-refined.

This narrower use dates from the 18th century and, according to the OED, is “associated esp. with British upper-class speech, and now freq. regarded as affected.”

The earliest example cited in Oxford is a line spoken by an affected young lady in The Provok’d Husband (1728), a play by Colley Cibber and John Vanbrugh:

One has really been stufft up in a Coach so long, that—Pray Madam—could not I get a little Powder for my Hair?”

This more recent citation is from Frank Johnson’s Out of Order (1982), a collection of political sketches: “How to persuade the Telegraph that … one was a man of immense culture? (Saying ‘one’ when you mean ‘I’ would do for a start, I decided.)”

But whether you use “one” to mean “I/me” or an indefinite someone, it’s a third-person singular pronoun. So grammatically it’s treated like “he/him” or “she/her,” even when it implies “I/me.”

The possessive form of the pronoun is “one’s,” and the reflexive is “oneself.” Those forms, however, as well as “one” used as an object rather than a subject, are more characteristic of British than American speech.

As the OED explains, the forms “his, him, himself … are still usual in the U.S.; thus, ‘If one showed oneself (himself) to one’s (his) townsmen, they would know one (him).’ ”

Incidentally, we once heard from a reader who was bugged by the use of “you” as an indefinite pronoun in place of “one”, as in “You meet all kinds” instead of “One meets all kinds.” As we replied in a post, this use of “you” is standard English.

Finally, we’d like to expand on our comment at the beginning that “one” was an early version of “a” or “an.”

In addition to its numerical sense, the Old English word for “one” (written an, aan, ane, etc.) had a sense that was indistinguishable from the indefinite article (“a” or “an”) in modern English.

For example, an fugel meant both “a fowl” and “one fowl”; ane burh meant both “a fortress” and “one fortress.” The words for the indefinite article and the adjective weren’t differentiated until the Middle English period.

In fact, as we’ve written on our blog, “one” still serves as an indefinite article in some varieties of English, mainly in India, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and parts of the US South.

Oxford gives several examples, including this one from the Indian English Supplement to the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (5th ed., 1996): “I met one lady the other day.”

In the immortal words of Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

[Note, Dec. 28, 2014. A reader writes: “I always thought the use of ‘one’ as a pronoun had to be related to the French pronoun on, which means essentially the same thing.  Is this etymologically significant?” Our reply: The evolution of “one” as an indefinite generic pronoun developed in late Middle English, and some have suggested that it may have been influenced by Anglo-Norman (hom, on, un), or by Old or Middle French. But as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “this is not regarded as a necessary influence by some scholars.” In other words, the developments could have been parallel.]

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Let’s talk turkey

Q: How did our native Thanksgiving bird get named for a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia?

A: Yes, turkey, the main event at Thanksgiving dinners in the US, is native to the Americas.

The big bird came to the attention of Europeans in 1518 when the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva encountered it in Mexico. The following year, Hernán Cortés found the turkeys being domesticated by the Aztecs.

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Spanish soon transplanted the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) to Europe.

(Columbus may have come across the bird in Honduras in 1502 on his fourth voyage, but it’s unclear whether the fowl that he referred to as gallina de la tierra, or land hen, was actually a turkey.)

But why, you ask, is the bird called a “turkey”? The reason is that Europeans confused it with the  guinea fowl, an African species that was very briefly referred to as a “turkey” because it was thought to have been imported into Europe by way of Turkey.

The word “turkey” first began showing up in English as the name of the bird in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For example, Thomas Tusser’s book Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry Vnited to as Many of Good Huswiferie (1573) suggested that the Christmas table should include “shred pies of the best … & Turkey wel drest.”

The turkey is a noble bird, and in 19th-century North America the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

For instance, to “talk turkey,” an expression first recorded in 1824, means to speak openly or frankly.

But pejorative uses of “turkey” eventually crept in.

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The OED’s first example is from the American magazine Vanity Fair in 1927: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

The slang expression was soon extended to other kinds of failures and disappointments.

This example comes from James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce (1943): “The beach … was studded with rocks and was therefore unsuitable to swimming. For all ordinary purposes it was simply a turkey.”

Later, in the early 1950s, “turkey” became a slang word for a stupid or inept person.

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering why the leg of a turkey or chicken is called the “drumstick,” check out a blog post we wrote in 2012.

No matter which part of the turkey you prefer, we hope that you and all our other readers will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with your families tomorrow, a holiday that’s often referred to as “Turkey Day.”

The expression was first recorded, the OED says, in the Nov. 23, 1870, issue of the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

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Queues and lines

Q: I am given to understand that what is referred to as a “line” of people in the US is called a “queue” in the UK, though both Americans and British use “queue” the same way in its computer sense. How did all this come about?

A: Broadly speaking, you’re right—people ranked in an orderly sequence and waiting for something will be called a “line” in the US and a “queue” in the UK.

In Britain, violators who don’t take their turn are “jumping (or barging) the queue.” In North America, those who cheat are “cutting in line.”

However, the division between “line” and “queue” isn’t as clear as all that. The British used “line” for “queue” in the distant past, and some Americans have begun to use “queue,” probably influenced by British usage rather than by computer terminology.

But how did that broad general rule come to pass? Here’s the story.

“Line” is an extremely old word, dating back as far as the 600s in Old English. This word, like the equally ancient “linen,” has its source in the Latin linum (flax), and the earliest sense of “line” was flax—either spun into thread or woven into cloth.

So etymologically, a “line” is a linen thread. Even in Latin, the word linea (line), a derivative of linum, originally meant a linen thread, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Later senses of the word in English preserved this notion of a “line” as something stringlike—a narrow mark resembling a long string; a row of letters set into type; a string of objects or people, and so on.

The written use of “line” to mean a row of people dates to the late 16th century, the OED notes.

Shakespeare used “line” this way in Macbeth (circa 1606) in reference to a procession of ghostly kings: “What will the Line stretch out to’ th’ cracke of Doome?”

This sense of the word persists in American English, but the British replaced it in the 19th century with “queue,” a French word that originally meant “tail” and has roots in the Latin cauda (tail).

In English, “queue” didn’t originally mean a line of people. It was used in the 1400s to mean a band of parchment or vellum attached to a letter, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

And in the 1500s, as John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “queue” appeared in descriptions of heraldic shields and meant the tail of a beast.

Imaginative metaphorical uses appeared in the 1700s, etymologists say, when the word came to mean a braid (or “pigtail”), and a billiard stick (spelled “cue”).

Meanwhile, the French too were using their word queue in imaginative ways. In the 1790s, the OED says, French speakers began using queue to mean a “line or sequence of people waiting their turn to proceed or to be attended to.”

This usage leaped across the Channel in the following century. The OED’s earliest written example in English is from Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (1837):

“That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People.”

Oxford says this use of “queue” is “chiefly British,” and the Dictionary of Word Origins says it “has never caught on in American English.” That explains why Chicagoans stand in a “line” while Liverpudlians form a “queue.”

The Americans, of course, are “lining” up. But how is the British participle spelled? Both “queuing” and “queueing” are correct, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.).

[Update, Dec. 16, 2014. A reader from New Zealand writes to comment: “Here in NZ, and I suspect the UK, we use both ‘queue’ and ‘line (up).’ While obviously related, there is a distinct difference between the two. We ‘queue’ as a way for many people to wait to receive service in an orderly fashion, while we ‘line up’ in order to proceed as a structured group. So we ‘queue’ to make a deposit at a bank, but we ‘line up’ to enter a classroom or to begin a parade. ‘Queue’ implies waiting your turn, while ‘line up’ implies organising prior to moving as a unit.”]

As for the computer sense of “queue,” the OED defines it as “a list of data items, commands, etc. stored so as to be retrievable in a definite order, usually the order of insertion.”

However, the earliest citation in the dictionary (from Automatic Data Processing, a 1963 book by F. P. Brooks and K. E. Iverson) refers to a queue in which the items are retrievable in the reverse order of insertion:

“The queue of components in the pool therefore obeys a so-called last-in-first-out, or LIFO discipline.”

[Update, Jan. 12, 2015. A reader notes that the Brooks and Iverson citation “was written in 1963 when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the terminology was still in a state of flux. What they describe as a ‘queue’ is what we would call a ‘stack’ in today’s jargon.”]

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How healthy is “healthcare”?

Q: Here’s a headline from an editorial in the journal Health Care Management Review: “It’s health care, not healthcare.” What are your thoughts?

A: With Ebola still in the news, we’re seeing a lot of this term, and it’s written every which way—sometimes one word and sometimes two, sometimes with a hyphen and sometimes without.

Standard dictionaries are all over the place, but in our opinion the term is well on its way to being accepted by lexicographers as a solid word.

It’s not there yet, though, so our advice is to go with whichever dictionary or style manual you usually follow.

The style guides of the New York Times and the Associated Press, for example, recommend separating “health care.” The Times adds that the phrase shouldn’t be hyphenated when used adjectivally.

However, the one-word version is the only one listed in the online Oxford Dictionaries and the Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

“Healthcare” is also the more common version given in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), with the two-worder listed as an acceptable variant.

On the other hand, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives “health care” as the more common form, with “healthcare” as a variant. When the term is used adjectivally, a third variant, “health-care,” is added.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) sticks with “health care” as the noun. It adds, though, that the term is “usually hyphenated” as an attributive adjective (as in “health-care standards”).

And here’s an oddity. The online Macmillan Dictionary, in its British and its American editions, lists “health care” as the noun and “healthcare” (no hyphen) as the adjective derived from it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the noun usage as “health care,” but the dictionary notes that its overall “health” entry “has not yet been fully updated.”

The OED says the compound noun, which it defines as “care for the general health of a person, community, etc., esp. that provided by an organized health service,” originated in the US.

The earliest Oxford  citation is from a pamphlet, Health Care for Children, published by the United States Government in 1940: “State and local agencies will need to make available to the staff information in regard to the facilities for health care.”

The attributive adjective is hyphenated in the OED examples: “health-care systems” (1973) and “health-care workers” (1985).

However, we’ve found much earlier examples of “health care” and “health-care.”

An 1883 issue of Popular Science Monthly referred to a paper entitled “The Health Care of Households, with Especial Reference to House Drainage,” presented at a conference the previous year by Dr. Ezra M. Hunt.

And in the early 20th century, the hyphenated term appeared in the titles of two books by Dr. Louis Fischer, The Health-Care of the Baby (1906) and The Health-Care of the Growing Child (1915).

The single word version, “healthcare,” seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. The earliest examples we could find in a search of Google Books date from the mid-1990s.

In Legal and Healthcare Ethics for the Elderly, a 1996 book by George Patrick Smith, for example, the author proposes a “new healthcare delivery ethic for the elderly.”

As we’ve said, our guess is that “healthcare” will one day be more widely accepted. Why? Because familiar nouns that are compounds tend to become joined over time, as with “daycare,” “childcare,” and “eldercare.”

In fact, our Google searches suggest that “healthcare” is already somewhat more popular than “health care.”

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Aunt-ing and uncle-ing

Q: When a possessive pronoun like “my” is used with a title like “aunt” or “uncle,” is the title capitalized? Example: “At 10, my uncle Bob (or my Uncle Bob) will arrive by train.” My students like concrete answers. Ha!

A: This is a matter of style rather than grammar, so we’ll go to a style guide for an answer.

In the example you give, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), “uncle” should be lowercased: “At 10, my uncle Bob will arrive by train.”

The reason for this can be confusing. Normally, a kinship word like “uncle” is capitalized if it appears just before a personal name, as in this version: “At 10, Uncle Bob will arrive by train.”

But your example is different because of the “my.” In that case, the noun phrase “my uncle” and the personal name “Bob” are in apposition—that is, they’re equivalent, with one explaining the other.

In sentences like these, the kinship word is lowercased, according to the Chicago Manual. Here’s how Chicago explains the rule:

“Kinship names are lowercased unless they immediately precede a personal name or are used alone, in place of a personal name. Used in apposition, however, such names are lowercased.”

The Chicago Manual gives these examples, among others:

(1) “Let’s write to Aunt Maud.”

(2) “She adores her aunt Maud.”

(3) “I believe Grandmother’s middle name was Marie.”

(4) “Please, Dad, let’s go.”

Now let’s look at each of those examples.

In #1, the kinship name (“Aunt”) is capitalized because it comes right before the personal name.

But in #2, “aunt” is lowercased because the phrase “her aunt” is in apposition to “Maud”—it explains who she is. (The presence of a possessive pronoun like “my” or “her” is a tipoff that the kinship word is probably an appositive.)

In #3 and #4, the kinship word is used alone in place of a personal name, so it’s capitalized.

As you know, a kinship word used in a generic way is lowercased, much as we would use “child” or “brother” or “daughter.” Examples: “Fred’s uncle is a teacher” … “Tell your uncle that dinner is ready” … “My friend’s aunt and uncle moved to Ireland” … “Maud is my favorite aunt.”

In many ways, kinship names are treated much as we treat other kinds of titles. As we’ve written before on our blog, the trend is to lowercase words like “mayor” and “president” except as part of a name.

Here, too, the title is lowercased when it’s used in apposition, according to the Chicago Manual.

Chicago uses these examples: “Joe Manchin, governor of the state of West Virginia,” and “Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago.”

However, many newspaper style guides recommend capitalizing “governor” and “mayor” in those two examples.

Sorry if this answer is not concrete enough for your students. Ha!

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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: On Thanksgiving tables, New World foods with Old World names. If you miss the program, you can listen to the show  on Pat’s WNYC page.
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A little black dress

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “little black number,” synonymous with Coco Chanel’s “little black dress”? Why is it called a “number”?

A: The word “number” is often used in ways that have nothing to do with arithmetic, and this is one of them. Since the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “number” has been used to mean “an article of clothing.”

The OED’s earliest citation comes from The Real Charlotte (1894), a novel by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross. It has a passage describing shop windows that “had progressed … to straw hats, tennis shoes, and coloured Summer Numbers.”

The OED’s next two examples appear to use “number” to mean, more specifically, a dress:

“Deedee had swathed herself in an afternoon number” (from the Ladies’ Home Journal, 1935), and “an exquisite but throat-high ‘little number’ redeemed by lumps of jade” (from Marguerite Steen’s novel Anna Fitzalan, 1953).

So “little black number” is another way of saying “little black dress,” a phrase from the 19th century that’s almost a cliché in the fashion world today.

Here are just a few of the many references to a “little black dress” that we’ve found in Google searches:

“Then her aunt went to a wardrobe which stood at one end of the room, and brought out a parcel, which she opened, and inside Rosalie saw a beautiful little black dress very neatly and prettily made.” (From A Peep Behind the Scenes, an 1877 novel by Mrs. O. F. Walton.)

“All the time she was braiding my hair, and fastening my little black dress, I was growing sick with dread.” (From “Ma’amselle Fèlice,” a short story by Julia Schayer, published in January 1884 in Swinton’s Story-Teller, a New York literary magazine.)

“Look at her little black dress—rather good, but not so good as it ought to be.” (From Henry James’s novel The Awkward Age, 1899.)

“She wore a simple little black dress that had cost her thirty guineas, and was quite right. She had not been in the Hall ten minutes before bright-eyed Anna Kays had made some very useful mental notes of the simple little black dress.” (From Lindley Kays, a 1904 novel by the British humorist Barry Pain.)

But “little black dress” wasn’t an only child—it had a sister with the same meaning, the “little black frock.” The OED dates “little black frock” back to 1898, when it appeared in an issue of the Manchester Times:

“If I lived in such a place as Northtowers for a continuance, I would buy a little black frock, and when that was worn out I would buy another little black frock, and when that was done with I would build another on the same pattern.”

And, as the OED notes, this clever garment also made an appearance in Henry James’s novel The Wings of the Dove (1902): “She might fairly have been dressed tonight in the little black frock … that Milly had laid aside.”

Until the end of World War I, all such references (whether to a dress or a frock) simply meant a dress noted for being little—the implication is unfussy—and black. But the fashion industry of the 1920s changed all that.

In the world of designer fashion, “little black dress” came to have a more specific meaning, one identified with the fashion houses of Edward Molyneux and Coco Chanel.

Here’s the OED’s definition of this chic fashion classic: “a simple black one-piece garment regarded as an important item of a woman’s wardrobe, suitable for wearing at most kinds of relatively formal social engagement.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1928 issue of the Times (London): “For the afternoon there are simple little black dresses with frilled and draped skirts.”

And here’s the word from Woman & Beauty magazine in 1951: “Invest your all in one good little black dress.”

The phrase became so much a part of the apparel world that it earned a definition in Janey Ironside’s book A Fashion Alphabet (1968):

Little black dress. This highly useful garment was at first almost the trademark of the British designer, Molyneux, who perfected it as an ‘after 6’ look in the cocktail party era between 1920 and 1939. The ultimate in sophistication then, it is still much in demand.”

When Vogue ran a feature on Chanel’s little black dress in 1926, the magazine referred to the LBD as “Chanel’s Ford,” a reference to the popular Model T car, according to The Little Black Dress, a 1998 book by Amy Holman Edelman.

Interestingly, a Newsweek review of Coco, a 1969 Broadway musical, uses both “dress” and “number” in describing a musical routine that featured one of Cecil Beaton’s costumes as “the ‘little black dress’ number.”

In case you’re wondering why the adjectives in “little black dress” appear in that order (not “black little dress”), we once wrote a post on the subject.

But before leaving your original question, about “little black number,” we should point out that we owe “number” to the classical Latin word numerus (sum, total, numeral, number). It has been part of English since around 1300.

And as we noted above, “number” has had many nonmathematical meanings. Here are some of them, along with the dates they were first recorded in the OED:

A single issue of a publication (1728); a person’s fate or doom, as in “his number is up” (1804); a character assessment, as in “to get someone’s number” (1853);  an item in a musical program (1865); a theatrical routine (1908); any person or thing referred to colloquially, as in “that corkscrew is a nice little number” (1903); a reefer or other quantity of marijuana (1963); and an adverse effect, as in “to do a number” on someone (1968).

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A doozy of an etymology

Q: Do you have any information on the word “ripstaver”?

A: A “ripstaver” is an impressive person or thing—a beaut, a corker, a crackerjack, a doozy, a humdinger, a knockout, a lollapalooza, a jim-dandy, or a ripsnorter.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as a colloquialism that originated in the US in the early 19th century and is now archaic.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from an 1828 issue of the Bower of Taste, a short-lived magazine in Boston: “She beheld him striding down the street, lustily exclaiming to himself, ‘She’s a ripstaver, so help me Davy Rachel!’ ”

The dictionary’s next citation is from the anonymously published Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett of West Tennessee (1833): “In ten minutes he yelled enough, and swore I was a ripstavur.”

Although the OED describes the usage as archaic, it has three 20th-century citations, including this one from Maggie: A Love Story, a 1993 memoir by the author John B. Sanford about his marriage to the screenwriter Maggie Roberts:

“That was one ring-tailed roarer he singled out, and no mistake, a regular rip-staver, a pure jim-dandy.”

The dictionary says the noun “ripstaver” is derived from two verbs: “rip” (to tear in a forceful way) and “stave” (to break up a cask into staves). The later noun “staver” (1860) refers to an energetic person—that is, one who is continually staving about.

The phrasal verb “stave off” now means to hold off or repel. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives this example from the New York Times:

“For 12 years, we’ve sought to stave off this ultimate threat of disaster.”

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How to capitalize food names

Q: I’m never sure about how food names are capitalized. Is it “Waldorf salad” or “waldorf salad”? “Swiss cheese” or “swiss cheese”? “French fries” or “french fries”? And so on.

A: The one thing we can tell you for sure is that the generic noun in these dishes—the “salad,” the “fries,” and so on—is lowercased.

But should the other part of the name be capitalized if it’s derived from a proper name, like “Waldorf” or “French” or “Caesar”? On that point, dictionaries and usage guides disagree. In some cases, their policies have more holes than swiss cheese.

We’ll start with the argument against capitals, which can be found in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.):

“Personal, national, or geographical names, and words derived from such names, are often lowercased when used with a nonliteral meaning.” Note that the manual emphasizes the word “nonliteral.”

For example, the editors write, “the cheese known as ‘gruyère’ takes its name from a district in Switzerland but is not necessarily from there; ‘swiss cheese’ (lowercase s) is a cheese that resembles Swiss emmentaler” but doesn’t come from Switzerland.

Thus the manual’s list of terms derived from proper names includes these lowercase examples: “brie,” “brussels sprouts,” “cheddar,” “dutch oven,” “frankfurter,” “french dressing,” “french fries,” “scotch whisky,” “stilton,” and “swiss cheese” (not made in Switzerland).

The Chicago Manual doesn’t specifically mention the salads named for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the chef Caesar Cardini. We assume from its guidelines that Chicago would recommend “waldorf salad” and “caesar salad.”

The style guide acknowledges that while it prefers to lowercase proper names “in their nonliteral use,” some such names “are capitalized in Webster’s.”

Sure enough, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), like the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, has entries for both “Waldorf salad” and “Caesar salad.”

M-W Collegiate doesn’t seem as consistent here as the Chicago Manual. For example, the dictionary lowercases “napoleon” (the pastry gets its name from Naples, not from the emperor).

It also lowercases “crêpes suzette” (named after a real Suzette), as well as “brussels sprouts” and “french fries,” but notes that in these cases the parts derived from proper names are “often cap.”

And in one rather baffling entry, the M-W Unabridged has “Baked Alaska,” with “baked Alaska” given as a lesser alternative. (Why the folks at M-W would prefer to capitalize “baked” is beyond us.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) leaves us scratching our heads, too. It capitalizes the first term in “Brussels sprouts” and “French toast,” but lowercases “french fries” and “caesar salad.”

Our former employer, the New York Times, recommends in its style guide that “crêpes suzette,” “napoleon” (the pastry), “brussels sprouts,” and “baked alaska” be lowercased. But it capitalizes the first word in “Bavarian cream” and always capitalizes “French” in food names (“French fries,” “French dressing,” “French toast,” etc.).

The conclusion? If you want to be consistent, pick one route or the other: (1) Always capitalize food terms derived from proper names, or (2) lowercase them when there’s no longer a literal connection.

In the end, there’s no right or wrong here. This is a stylistic issue, and if lexicographers can’t agree, the rest of us shouldn’t lose sleep over it. Bon appétit!

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The “c” word in fact and fiction

Q: In Colleen McCullough’s historical novel Fortune’s Favorites, one of the characters mentions the Latin term cunnus, which I found means vagina. So Latin is apparently the source of the dirtiest word in the English language, right?

A: No, the word “cunt” is not derived from Latin—it came into English from ancient Germanic sources.

It’s possible that the Latin and Germanic words came from the same Indo-European root, but the Oxford English Dictionary is doubtful because of the presence of the letter “t” in the Germanic words, but not in Latin.

The OED says the “t” in Old Frisian kunte, Old Icelandic kunta, Middle Low German kunte, and other Germanic sources “would not be easy to explain.”

On the Internet, you’ll find lots of nonsense about the origins of “cunt,” including suggestions that it’s an ancient word for “goddess.”

We discussed “cunt” in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions. Here’s what we had to say:

“The usual story, which is quoted from one end of the blogosphere to the other, goes something like this: ‘cunt’ is a sacred ancient word derived from the terms cunti or kunda, titles of the Hindu goddess Kali.

“The truth is more down-to-earth. There’s no evidence that ‘cunt’ comes from the title of a goddess, Hindu or otherwise. It’s a very old English word going back to the Middle Ages, when it meant, as it does today, ‘the female external genital organs,’ according to the OED. The earliest surviving reference (spelled ‘cunte’) appeared around 1325 in the Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice from the 1200s and perhaps earlier. In one of the precepts (I’m roughly translating the Middle English), women are advised to ‘Give thy cunte wisely and ask for marriage.’

“Language researchers have discovered even older references within English surnames and street names. The last name Sitbithecunte (sounds like a spoof, doesn’t it?) appeared in 1156 in the Norfolk public records. And Gropecuntelane was a red-light district in London around 1230. It was later called Grub Street (Samuel Johnson lived there), then Milton Street, near what is now the Barbican Centre for performing arts.

[A March 2014 update in the third edition of the OED has even earlier sightings of the use of “cunt” in personal names and place names. The earliest (cuntan heale) is in a land charter recorded in 960.]

“The source of all these words, according to the OED, is believed to be a prehistoric Germanic root that linguists have reconstructed as kunton. That’s about all we can say for sure about the origin of ‘cunt.’ Everything else is speculation, some of it more plausible than the rest. The most unlikely theory is that ‘cunt’ comes from a similar-sounding word like cunti or kunda in Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu holy books.”

We go on to say in Origins of the Specious that English has borrowed lots of words from the languages of India (including “candy,” “guru,” “mantra,” “nirvana,” “yoga,” “bandanna,” “cot,” “dungaree,” “juggernaut,” “jungle,” “loot,” “pundit,” and thug”). But no reputable linguist or etymologist has ever suggested that “cunt” is one of them. Here’s why:

“Most of the words that we’ve adopted from India entered the language during the English colonization of the subcontinent, from the early 1600s until the mid-1900s, well after ‘cunt’ was established in England. And the majority of the Indian words either didn’t have English equivalents or were trendy alternatives. It’s unlikely that we would have adopted an Indian word for such a basic body part.

“Granted, cunti and kunda sound like ‘cunt.’ But could a sound-alike in Sanskrit have given birth to that ancient Germanic root kunton, which presumably gave us the c-word? No way, according to linguists who have studied the ancient languages of Europe and Asia.”

As we say in the book, things here get a bit complicated. Read on:

“Way back when, both Sanskrit and ancient Germanic evolved from Indo-European, a prehistoric language that developed in different ways in different parts of the world. An Indo-European word something like peter, for instance, evolved into pitar in Sanskrit and fadar in ancient Germanic, giving us the modern words vater in German and ‘father’ in English. In ancient times, a ‘k’ sound in a Sanskrit word (like kunda) would have been an ‘h’ sound in Germanic. And a ‘k’ sound in an ancient Germanic root (like kunton) would have been a ‘g’ sound in Sanskrit. Linguists call this sound shift Grimm’s Law. In plain English, we couldn’t have gotten ‘cunt’ from cunti or kunda or any Hindu holy word starting with a ‘k’ sound.”

We go on to say that while the root of “cunt” isn’t divine, it’s not smutty either.

“The ‘cu’ sound in Old English (spelled cwe), like the ‘gu’ sound in ancient Sanskrit, stood for the essence of femininity. The Old English cwithe (‘womb’) was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and neither was cwene (‘queen’). Sharing this ancestry is our ‘cow’ and the sacred go (pronounced ‘gow’) in Sanskrit.”

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Is it “shined” or “shone”?

Q: I use “shined” with an object and “shone” without one. But lately I’ve read a lot of books whose authors use “shined” in all contexts. Have you ever written on the difference between those two words?

A: No, we haven’t written about the the verb “shine,” but thanks for giving us the opportunity.

Standard dictionaries generally accept either “shone” or “shined” as the past tense and past participle of “shine.”

However, the dictionaries often note that the past tense and past participle are usually “shone” when the verb is intransitive and “shined” when it’s transitive.

A verb is transitive when it needs an object to make sense (“He shined his shoes”) and intransitive when it makes sense without one (“The sun shone”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), one of seven standard dictionaries we checked, has a good explanation of all this.

“By tradition,” American Heritage says in a usage note, “the past tense and past participle shone is used when the verb is intransitive and means ‘to emit light, be luminous’: The full moon shone over the field.

On the other hand, the usage note continues, “shined” is the form “normally used when the verb is transitive and means ‘to direct (a beam of light)’ or ‘to polish,’ as in He shined his flashlight down the dark staircase or The butler shined the silver.

American Heritage says its usage panel, in a 2008 survey, “found both forms acceptable in transitive literal use (shone/shined the light) and in figurative intransitive use (Carolyn always shined/shone at ribbon-cutting ceremonies).”

However, the usage note says “a larger majority preferred the traditional usages (shined the light; shone at ceremonies) over the nontraditional ones, so maintaining the traditional distinction remains a sensible practice.”

As for the etymology, the verb “shine” first showed up in Old English in the early eighth century, spelled scynan, scine, scaan, and so on.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a glossary of Latin and Old English, dating to around 725: Ardebat, scaan. (Ardebat means burns, glows, or sparkles in Latin.)

The spelling of the past tense roughly evolved from scan and scean in Old English to scean, schon, shoon, etc. in Middle English, to shone and shined in early Modern English (the 1500s).

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written in the 1590s), for example, Hippolyta says: “Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.”

As for the past participle, the OED says early versions of “shined” were popular in Middle English, while “shone” was rarely seen until the second half of the 16th century.

We’ll end with an example of the past participle from Miss Dividends, an 1892 novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter: “His large boots have been very brightly shined by the boot-black on the corner opposite.”

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Overwhelm, underwhelm, whelm

Q: I’ve heard the verb “overwhelm” all my life. In recent years, I’ve been hearing “underwhelm” used in a sarcastic tone. Was “whelm” ever a verb?

A: Yes, “whelm” was—and still is—a verb. Though it’s not overwhelmingly popular today, “whelm” is a fine old word with roots that may go back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the word “whelm” showed up sometime before 1300 (spelled quelm or welme in Middle English), it meant to overturn or capsize, but that sense is now obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the Northumbrian poem Cursor Mundi: Quen þe scip suld quelm and drunken (“When the ship should overturn and sink”).

The OED notes that an older verb, “whelve,” dating from around 1200, meant to turn upside down or roll over, but it’s now obsolete except in dialectal use.

Oxford raises the possibility that the original source of “whelm” may have been the Old English word hwelman, or perhaps hwelfan, the Old English source of “whelve.”

In contemporary English, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), the word “whelm” means to submerge or overwhelm.

Oxford Dictionaries online offers this example of “whelm” used in the sense of submerge: “a swimmer whelmed in a raging storm.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this example of the word used in the sense of overwhelm: “whelmed with a rush of joy.”

As for the verb “overwhelm,” it meant “to overturn, overthrow, upset; to turn upside down” when it showed up in the 1300s, but the OED describes that sense as obsolete.

The modern sense of “to bring to sudden ruin or destruction; to engulf; to crush; to defeat utterly or conclusively” appeared in the early 1400s.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Troyyes Book, John Lydgate’s 1425 Middle English poem about the rise and fall of Troy: O ydel fame, blowe up to þe skye, Ouer-whelmyd with twyncling of an eye!

The sense of to overcome or overpower someone with emotion showed up in the early 1500s. The OED’s first citation is from the Coverdale Bible, a 1535 translation of the Bible in modern English: “An horrible drede hath ouerwhelmed me.”

The newcomer here, as you point out, is “underwhelm,” which showed up in the mid-20th century, according to citations in the dictionary.

The OED defines the verb as “to leave unimpressed, to arouse little or no interest in.” However, the dictionary says the word is chiefly seen in its adjectival forms “underwhelmed” and “underwhelming.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from Giant Corporations (1956), by T. K. Quinn. The author, commenting on a price reduction at a time of rising prices, says, “I was underwhelmed, and investigated.”

We’ll end with a dramatic example of “whelm” from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), where Abdiel warns Satan that God “with solitary hand / Reaching beyond all limit, at one blow, / Unaided, could have finished thee, and whelmed / Thy legions under darkness.”

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Fulsome and then some

Q: At a news conference the other day, the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, referred to having “a more fulsome discussion” of Iraq/Syria strategy. Hmmm. Is Admiral Kirby right to use the word this way? I, the traditionalist, think “fulsome” means excessive, not abundant.

A: We discussed “fulsome” on the blog in 2007, but it’s probably time to take another look at this troublesome adjective.

To begin at the beginning, the word “fulsome” meant simply “abundant” when it first appeared in writing back in 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the centuries, it came to mean overdone, cloying, gross, nauseating, disgusting, loathsome, foul, and so on. In the 18th century, in fact, it was sometimes spelled “foulsome.”

Nearly all of those negative senses, the OED says, are now considered obsolete. The dictionary says the adjective “fulsome” is “now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection, or the like.”

However, the dictionary acknowledges that its “fulsome” entry, which was originally published in 1898, “has not yet been fully updated.”

Today, some standard dictionaries include “abundant” as either a standard or an informal meaning of “fulsome.”

The up-to-date Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines “fulsome” as either “complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree,” or “of large size or quantity; generous or abundant.” Both senses are treated as standard English.

The Oxford Dictionaries website site gives this example of the first sense: “the press are embarrassingly fulsome in their appreciation.” And it gives this example of the second: “the fulsome details of the later legend.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also lists the “abundant” sense of “fulsome” as standard while the Collins English Dictionary describes it as informal.

Merriam-Webster’s says in a usage note that the original “abundant” sense of the word “has not only been revived but has spread in its application and continues to do so.”

But M-W cautions that the “chief danger for the user of fulsome is ambiguity,” and unless “the context is made very clear, the reader or hearer cannot be sure whether such an expression as ‘fulsome praise’ is meant” in the sense of “abundant” or “excessive.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) is even more troubled by the “abundant” sense. The dictionary describes it as a “usage problem,” and says a large majority of its usage panel objects to it.

We think the chance of being misunderstood is so great that it’s probably best to give “fulsome” an extended sabbatical.

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