The Grammarphobia Blog

A forbidden usage?

Q: ​I have an ongoing dispute with the blogger Eugene Volokh​ over his use of “forbid from,” as in “You are forbidden from selling marijuana.” To me, the acceptable formulation is “You are forbidden to sell marijuana.” That seems to concord with the KJV Bible.

A: In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.), Pat takes your side. But usage here is shifting, and she intends to reconsider it in any further editions of the book.

Writers have been using “forbid” with “from” plus a gerund since the early 1500s, though the use of an infinitive construction has been much more common, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first example of the “from” usage in the OED is in The Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by the English monk William Bonde: “I forbede all singular persons from the studyeng of this treatise.”

(For what it’s worth, Bonde’s Pylgrimage was written nearly a century before the King James Version, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611.)

And here’s an Oxford example from Edward William Lane’s 1841 translation from Arabic of One Thousand and One Nights: “He forbade both men and women from entering them.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English cites several 20th-century examples of the usage, including this one from a February 1971 paper published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions:

“The Vatican issued an order forbidding all Catholic clergy from participating in Illich’s Center.” (The reference here is to a research center set up by Ivan Illich, an Austrian priest and social critic.)

Finally, we found this more recent example in the July 23, 2015, issue of Newsweek: “Surely no one really thought the Iranians were going to agree to a deal that would forbid them from enriching uranium indefinitely.”

OK, the usage has a history, but is it legit?

Henry W. Fowler, writing in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), called it “an unidiomatic construction,” perhaps influenced by “prevent from” or “prohibit from,” two standard usages.

Ernest Gowers, who edited the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s usage guide, agreed. But R. W. Burchfield, editor of the revised third edition (2004), said “the tide seems to turning in favor” of using “forbid” in a “construction with from + verbal form in –ing.”

“While the matter is unresolved, however, it is probably sensible to use alternative constructions or the verb prohibit instead,” Burchfield recommended.

We think the tide has turned even more in favor of the “forbid from” construction since Burchfield (who died in 2004) published the revised third edition.

Although “forbid to” is still more popular, “forbid from” seems to be closing the gap. Here are the results of two Google searches: “forbid you to,” 347,000 hits, versus “forbid you from,” 175,000.

Of the seven standard dictionaries we’ve checked, four include examples of the “forbid from” construction without comment, indicating it’s considered a standard usage.

In fact, Oxford Dictionaries online uses this construction in all but one of the five examples it gives for “forbid” in the sense of prohibit. Here’s an example: “I was forbidden from leaving Russia.”

What do we think? Well, we generally use the infinitive construction, but who are we to forbid someone from using a construction accepted by so many standard dictionaries?

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Publicly vs. publically

Q: In a recent post, you used the word “publically” (a typo, I hope). It got me wondering why “publicly” is the only adverb formed from an adjective ending in “-ic” that doesn’t use “-ally” (at least it’s the only one I can think of). Is there a historical reason?

A: Well, some standard dictionaries do include “publically” as a variant spelling, but it’s described as less popular than “publicly.” In fact, “publicly” outnumbers “publically” by more than 100 to 1 in Google searches.

More to the point, we prefer “publicly” to “publically,” and we’ve changed that post. We should have known better, since our blog once touched on this subject.

As we wrote in 2010, the adverb form of an adjective ending in “-ic” almost always ends in “-ically.” The notable exception is “publicly.”

As we’ve said, some dictionaries recognize “publically” as a variant, but its acceptability depends on which dictionary you consult.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, labels “publically” a “nonstandard variant of publicly.”

But the entry in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognizes “publicly, also publically.” This use of “also” means that M-W considers the variant standard English though it “occurs appreciably less often.”

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Publically is an occasionally used variant spelling of publicly. It is either based on the obsolete publical or, more likely, simply on analogy with many other –ically adverbs.”

The mention of “publical” is significant, because obviously any adjective ending in “-ical” will have the “-ically” ending when it becomes an adverb.

And as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “it can frequently be unclear” how an “-ically” adverb was formed.

Was “-ly” added to an adjective ending in “-ical,” like the rare “publical”? Or was “-ally” added to an adjective ending in “-ic,” like “public”?

The question is relevant because at one time many adjectives had both “-ical” and “-ic” forms, as with “rustical/rustic,” “romantical/romantic,” “athletical/athletic,” “optimistical/optimistic,” “scenical/scenic.”

Sometimes there were briefly two corresponding adverbs, as with “rustically/rusticly,” “romantically/romanticly,” “phlegmatically/phlegmaticly.” But generally the “-ically” adverbs were more common.

Today, many of the “-ical” adjective forms have died out, but despite that, the surviving adverb forms “almost always” end in “-ically,” the OED says.

This is true even when only the adjective ending in “-ic” is currently used, Oxford adds, “as in athletically, hypnotically, phlegmatically, rustically, scenically.”

And where both adjectives (“-ical” and “-ic”) exist today, the corresponding adverb ends in “-ically,” as with “comically” (for “comical” and “comic”), “poetically” (for “poetical/poetic”), and “historically” (for “historical/historic”).

The elephant in the room is “publicly.” And that’s the form we generally use on the Grammarphobia Blog—except when we forget.

It’s always been the predominant form, and it’s much older. It was first recorded, according to the OED, in 1534, more than 250 years before “publically” showed up in writing in the late 18th century.

The Merriam-Webster’s usage guide concludes its entry on “publically” with this advice: “You can use it if you like, but we do not really recommend it, because it will look unfamiliar to many who encounter it.”

Note: Some dictionaries include “franticly” as an acceptable variant, but the usual adverb is “frantically.”

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Smart talk

Q: I’m curious about how “smart” came to mean intelligent as well as stylish. Which came first?

A: The adjective “smart” has meant fashionable since the 1700s and intelligent since the 1500s, but it’s meant painful much, much longer—since Anglo-Saxon days.

When the adjective first showed up, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant biting or stinging, like the pain from a rod or whip. The verb “smart” (to hurt or sting) appeared about the same time.

The earliest example of the adjective in the OED is from Sermo ad Populum Dominicis Diebus, an Old English homily: “Ic wylle swingan eow mid þam smeartestum swipum” (in Modern English, “I want to beat you with that smart whip”).

Although “smart” can still mean painful (“a smart slap in the face”), it’s used more often these days in the sense of intelligent, fashionable, neat, impertinent, or technically advanced (like a smart phone or a smart missile).

Some standard dictionaries describe the intelligent sense as chiefly American and the neat sense as chiefly British, though both usages can be heard on either side of the Atlantic.

Middle English writers widened the original painful sense of the adjective to include mental as well as physical pain.

In The Book of the Duchess (1369), for example, Chaucer writes: “Hym thought hys sorwes were so smerte” (“He thought his sorrows were so smart”).

Around the same time, the adjective took on a new sense—fast, rapid, brisk. Why? We haven’t seen an explanation, but it could be because the sting of a whip prompts a riding horse or a draft animal to speed up.

The earliest OED example of this speedy sense is from an English law, written sometime before 1325, that discusses novel disseisin, an old legal remedy to recover dispossessed lands:

“Þer nis no writ … ware-þoru þe plaintifs habbez smarttere riȝt þane þoru þe writ of nouele disseisine” (“There is no writ through which plaintiffs have faster justice than through the writ of novel disseisin”).

Later in the 1300s, the adjective “smart” came to mean lively, active, or prompt. And by the start of the 1400s, it meant forward, impudent, cheeky, or pert.

As you can see, the sense of being quick of foot was quickly evolving to mean quick of mind. By the 1570s, according to OED citations, the evolution was complete.

The dictionary’s first example of “smart” used to mean intelligent is from a 1571 poem by the Scottish ballad writer Robert Sempill: “Smart in my schuitting [shooting] & singular in my Science.”

This later example is from Argenis, a 1628 book by the Scottish satirist John Barclay: “For he, a smart young man, and of great iudgement … held vp the Kings side.”

In the early 1700s, the adjective took on the sense of neat and stylish. The OED’s first citation, referring to a stylish wig, is from The Lying Lover, a 1704 comedy by the Irish writer Richard Steele: “What shall I do for Powder for this smart Bob.”

In a few years, “smart” was being used in the sense of fashionable, elegant, and sophisticated. The first example in the OED is from a description of a painting in the March 27, 1719, issue of the Free-Thinker:

“In the rising Scale is a Cluster of smart Men, in tawdry Dresses, with little Rapiers, cocked Hats, and tied Wigs; holding divers Sorts of Mathematical instruments.”

In this better-known example, from Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), Edward Ferrars is speaking to Mrs. Dashwood:

“I always preferred the church as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me.”

So how did an adjective meaning painful and intelligent come to mean fashionable?

Our guess is that it might have evolved along the lines of “cute,” an abbreviated version of “acute” that progressed from clever, sharp, and shrewd to attractive, pretty, and charming.

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A usage to hate on?

Q: An MSNBC host used “hate on” the other day. My teen-age son and daughter use it too. This seems to be a recent thing—a clunky product of social media, I think. Is it grammatically sound?

A: You ask whether the verbal phrase “hate on” is grammatically sound. A better question might be whether it’s standard English.

The editors at the few standard dictionaries that include “hate on” disagree on how standard the phrase is.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes the usage as “slang,” which it defines as “coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms.”

The online Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries describe the usage as “informal,” which they define as conversational or relaxed language. Neither one suggests that it’s nonstandard.

There isn’t much written evidence for “hate on” before the late 1990s, though contributors to discussion groups say they recall hearing it in the early ’90s in black English.

The phrase began cropping up in the late ’90s in hip-hop lyrics. The 1999 single “Hate Me Now,” recorded by the rapper Nas, has the lines “Hate on me … but I’m still the same ol’ G.”

Some academics have taken note, suggesting that the usage may involve complaining publicly rather than stewing in silence, and that it may include an element of jealousy.

Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California, discusses “hate on” in his book The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop (2003).

“In hip hop, verbs often function in a very active way,” Boyd writes. “To ‘hate’ on someone is to use the expressive powers of negativity to cast an aspersion on those who are visibly successful.”

The form “hate on,” Boyd suggests, “becomes more than simply an attitude or silently held feeling of contempt. It is the active usage of that word. It is now common to hear people talk about someone hatin’ on them.”

The anthropologist Marcyliena Morgan, in her book Language, Discourse and Power in African American Culture (2002), says that in black English the phrasal verb “hate on” carries an element of envy, “as in Don’t be hatin’ on my hair.”

More than a decade later, the usage is no longer limited to what linguists often refer to as African American Vernacular English, and has apparently become a general slang term among younger Americans.

Keep in mind, too, that English has always made liberal use of prepositions and adverbs to form new versions of old verbs.

This is how the 17th-century phrase for changing one’s habits, “turne the leafe,” eventually became “turn over a new leaf.” (The “leaf” here, by the way, means a page in a book, not a tree leaf.)

Getting back to “hate on,” here are two examples of the usage from the standard dictionaries that discuss it.

Cambridge: “These kids get hated on for no good reason at all.”

Oxford: “I can’t hate on them for trying something new.”

The expression reminds us of “brag on,” which we wrote about on the blog last March and which means to praise or boast about.

While the verbal phrase “hate on” is fairly recent, a similar usage in which “hate” is a noun existed in the 1940s—to “have (or take) a hate on” someone. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines it as “to dislike intensely; hate.”

The slang dictionary’s earliest sighting is from the Jan. 22, 1949, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: “The brightest boy in the class cannot get by forever if everyone takes a hate on him.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has an example from earlier in the ’40s of a similar usage in Australian slang: to “have a hate against” someone or something.

The OED cites this entry from A Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang (1941), by Sidney John Baker: “Have a hate against, actively to dislike a person or thing.”

Random House’s latest citation for the usage is from a 1992 episode of the television crime drama Likely Suspects: “He had a hate on for Breen.”

But the expression “to have a hate on” is still with us today. This headline ran on the BloombergBusiness website in 2014: “Does Bill Ackman Have a ‘Hate-On’ for Allergan?”

And here’s an example from the June 22, 2015, issue of the Toronto Star: “Twenty per cent of Canadians are peeved by tailgaters while 19 per cent have a hate on for those who drive too slowly.”

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Miser, miserly, and miserable

Q: I assume that “miser” and “miserly” are relations of “miserable,” but how exactly are they related?

A: All three are ultimately derived from miser, a Latin adjective meaning wretched or unfortunate.

The use of the “adjective in the sense ‘miserly’ is not recorded in Latin, but may have existed,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the OED says, the Romans sometimes used miser in the sense of “wretched in one’s social or financial circumstances.” Could those “financial circumstances” have sometimes been “miserly”?

The words “miserable” and “miser” both showed up in English around the same time in the 15th century.

The OED’s earliest example of “miserable,” meaning living in a wretched condition, is from a poem by Thomas Hoccleve written around 1422: “To helle goon tho soules miserable.”

However, the dictionary has a question mark in front of the Hoccleve citation, indicating that it’s not sure of the exact meaning of “miserable” here.

The OED’s first definite example—written sometime in the 1400s and cited in Liber Pluscardensis, a history of Scotland—refers to the “mynd of miserabile humanite.”

When “miser” first showed up in English, according to Oxford, it was as an adjective meaning miserly or parsimonious, but that sense of the word is primarily heard now in Scottish.

The dictionary’s first example, also from the 1400s, is a citation in the Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, a German literary and linguistic journal:

“Of his plentevous bloode he was not misser, / For he sufferd his manhod to be slayne.”

When “miser” showed up as a noun in the 16th century, it referred to “a miserable or wretched person,” but that sense is now obsolete, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Apophthegmes of Erasmus: “So did the philosophier call hym a miser, that had no qualitee aboue the commen rate of manne.”

It wasn’t until the late 16th or early 17th century that the noun took on its modern meaning of someone who hoards his wealth or is stingy.

The earliest Oxford example is from Shakespeare’s Henry V. In the play, written around 1600, the King of France’s son says stinting on defense “Doth like a Miser spoyle his Coat, with scanting / A little Cloth.”

Finally, the adjective “miserly” meant stingy and parsimonious from the moment it first showed up in print, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED’s earliest example is from Christ’s Teares Ouer Ierusalem, a 1593 work by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe:

”If there were any that had dudgen-olde coughing miserly Fathers they could not endure.”

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This usage is legit, no?

Q: Is there any grammar rule that forbids using the word “no” at the end of a question?

A: No! English speakers often end a sentence with “no?” to make it a question, especially in casual speech.

One might say, for example, “You enjoyed it, no?” to mean “You enjoyed it, didn’t you?” Notice how the addition of “no?” turns an ordinary declarative sentence into a casual question. (In fact, “yes?” is sometimes used in the same way.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “no” is being used here as a “question tag” to mean something like “is that not so?” or “am I not correct?”

The OED labels this usage “colloquial,” meaning it’s more characteristic of everyday speech than more formal language.

Oxford’s examples of the usage are all fairly recent, dating from the 1930s. The first is from a British novel, Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street (1932):

“He was at one of those big schools, where they all live together. A public school they call it, no?”

This more contemporary example is from a 1998 article in the Independent (London): “The people who make Watchdog and Esther will now also be in charge of all the features at Radio 4—inspires you with confidence, no?”

The OED’s latest citation is from a Canadian novel, Anil’s Ghost (2000), by Michael Ondaatje: “Look—the rubbish here in the halls. This is a hospital, no?”

Sometimes, Oxford says, this “no” is used “in representations of the speech of those for whom English is not a first language, corresponding to French n’est-ce pas?, Spanish no?, etc.”

This citation, from E. G. Webber’s comic novel Johnny Enzed in Italy (1945), is an example of the dialectal use: “All this us der merry laugh gives, no?”

But many native speakers of English use this question-tag “no” routinely, so if it was ever considered broken English, it is no longer.

As we mentioned, the adverb “no” at the end of a sentence is a relatively recent usage, according to the OED.

But “no” at the front is many centuries old, and dates back to Middle English. (Again, we’re talking about the adverb, not the adjective, as in “No dessert for you, young man!”)

Oxford’s earliest written citation is from “The Clerk’s Tale” (circa 1395), by Geoffrey Chaucer: “I ne heeld me neuere digne in no manere / To be youre wyf. No, ne youre chambrere.” (I never held me worthy in any way / To be your wife. No, nor your chambermaid.)

John Keats used this “no” in his obscure drama “Otho the Great,” written around 1819: “No, not a thousand foughten fields could sponge / Those days paternal from my memory.”

By now this construction is so common that it’s unremarkable. One of its more familiar variations is in the expression “No you don’t.”

The OED’s examples begin with this stagey citation from Frederic Reynolds’s comedy Fortune’s Fool (1796): “No—you don’t—you shan’t quit the room.”

We’ll conclude with the most recent OED citation, a scrap of dialog from the film script of South Park (1999), by Trey Parker and others:

Satan: I am the dark master! Kyle’s mother: Oh no you don’t!”

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This boot’s not made for walkin’

Q: Your recent post about “my foot” has left me wondering about another expression involving feet: “to boot.” Your thoughts?

A: The “boot” in the phrase “to boot” has nothing to do with footwear or feet. It’s entirely unrelated to the more recent English word “boot,” the one that may give you blisters.

The original “boot” is an extremely old noun that was used in Anglo-Saxon times to mean “advantage,” “good,” “profit,” or “remedy,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word is long dead, for the most part. It survives in the adjective “bootless” (helpless or ineffectual) and the phrase “to boot,” which the OED defines as “to the good,” “to advantage,” “into the bargain,” “in addition,” “besides,” and “moreover.”

“Boot” appears in many Old English manuscripts and may date from as far back as the early 700s. But its ultimate source is older than written language.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this “boot” can be traced to a prehistoric Germanic root, reconstructed as bat-, which is also the source of the Old English betera (“better”) and betest (“best”).

That same ancient root is also the source, the OED says, of the obsolete verb “beet,” which once meant to make good or make amends, and of the old noun “bot,” meaning compensation.

From earliest times, this “boot” was used alone as well as in the phrase “to boot.”

The word is used alone (written bote) to mean a medicinal cure or remedy in the Old English poem Elene, written by Cynewulf sometime between 750 and the late 800s, the OED says.

And it appears (as bot) in Beowulf, which may date from 725, in the sense of compensation paid for injury or wrongdoing.

The earliest citation in the OED for “to boot” (spelled to bote) is from Daniel, an anonymous and undated Old English poem inspired by the biblical Book of Daniel. But these later citations are easier to understand:

“A hundreth knyghtes mo … and four hundreth to bote, squieres of gode aray.” (From the Chronicle of Robert Mannyng, 1330.)

“Bi assent of sondry partyes and syluer to bote.” (From Piers Plowman, by William Langland, 1377.)

“For two books that I had and 6s. 6d to boot, I had my great book of songs.” (From Samuel Pepys’s Diary, 1660.)

As we mentioned above, the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective “good”—that is, “better” and “best”—are derived from the same source as the nearly defunct “boot.”

So while English virtually abandoned the old “boot,” it kept relatives of that word for the comparative and superlative forms of “good.”

That raises a question. Why didn’t English simply adopt “gooder” and “goodest” instead of “better” and “best”? Again, the OED has the answer.

The adjective “good” never did have “regular comparative or superlative” forms in the Germanic languages, Oxford says.

“These were supplied,” the dictionary says, “by formations from the common base of better adj. and best adj.”—in other words, from the ancient Germanic root bat-.

Similar irregular patterns, the OED adds, show up in “adjectives of comparable meaning in other Indo-European languages.” Oxford mentions one such sequence—the classical Latin bonus (good), melior (better) and optimus (best).

In short,“gooder” and “goodest” were never standard in English. However, Oxford says, they did “occasionally occur from early modern English onwards, often in jocular or playful language.”

Now that we’ve gotten to the bottom of “to boot,” you’re probably wondering about the other “boot,” the one that is made for walking.

This “boot” dates from the early 14th century, when it was borrowed from Old French (bote) and meant a sort of shoe, usually of leather, extending above the ankle.

The origins of the French word are uncertain, according to several etymological dictionaries, though there were similar forms in other languages—bota (Provençal, Portuguese, Spanish), and botta (medieval Latin).

A related sense of “boot”—it now means the trunk of a car in British English—is older than you might think.

Since as far back as 1608, according to OED citations, “boot” has been used to mean part of a horse-drawn coach. And since 1781 it’s meant a place to store luggage and cargo.

One final note. The 19th-century noun “bootstrap” is self-explanatory—a strap for pulling a boot on.

What’s interesting is that this noun was used in the early 1950s in computing to mean a fixed sequence of instructions that would initiate the loading of an operating system.

The term was first recorded, according to OED citations, in 1953 in Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers:

“A technique sometimes called the ‘bootstrap technique.’ Pushing the load button … causes one full word to be loaded into a memory address previously set up … after which the program control is directed to that memory address and the computer starts automatically.”

(The computer usage was probably influenced by the expression “pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” or more directly perhaps by Robert Heinlein’s 1941 time-travel short story By His Bootstraps.)

In the 1970s and ’80s the word was eventually shortened to “boot” (both noun and verb), and today it’s a household word—at least in houses that have computers.

If you’d like to read more, we had a post last year that discusses the history of the word “booty” in its various incarnations. One would assume that pirates’ “booty” would be related to the “boot” that means profit, but so far no connection has been proved.

[Update. A reader writes on August 26, 2015: “Thought you might be interested to know that the term ‘boot’ is very much alive in the tax accounting field. When two parties exchange property, ‘boot’ is the additional amount of cash or property one party receives to make the value of the exchange equal.”]

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A kiss, a slap, and a padiddle

Q: When I was growing up in Philadelphia, we used to call a car with only one headlight a “padoodle.” I can’t find it in my Webster’s dictionary. Could this have been some highly local slang?

A: The word you’re thinking of is usually spelled “padiddle,” though it’s sometimes seen as “bediddle,” “padungle,” “perdiddle,” “perdiddo,” and “padoodle,” according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The slang term, which refers to a car with only one working headlight, is also an exclamation shouted in a courting game played by young couples out for a drive.

DARE has examples of the usage from the Midwest, the West, and the East, though we hadn’t heard of the word before you wrote (Pat grew up in Iowa, Stewart in New York).

The regional dictionary has this 1959 explanation of the usage cited in Folklore From Kansas (1980), edited by William E. Koch:

“If a fellow sees a car coming with only one light and says ‘padiddle,’ he may kiss his girl. If she sees it first and says ‘padiddle,’ she may slap the boy.”

DARE also has examples from California, Washington, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, New Jersey, and Long Island, NY.

The usage seems to have originated in the 1940s. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a US colloquialism of unknown origin.

The OED’s earliest example is from an “Archie” comic strip in the May 23, 1948, issue of the Nevada State Journal:

“Let’s play ‘padiddle.’ … When a car goes by with one headlight if I say padiddle you have to give me a kiss!”

However, we’ve found a Library of Congress catalog that lists the Feb. 10, 1940, copyright for an unpublished song, “Let’s play padiddle; w Donna Mae Carlson,” suggesting that the usage dates at least as far back as the early ’40s.

The word sleuth Grant Barrett has described a less romantic version of the game played by children. In this version, according to an April 16, 2008, post on his blog, “If you shout first, you get the right to punch another passenger on the arm.”

Finally, DARE cites a third version of what happens when a padiddle comes into view, from an unpublished letter to the Newsletter of the American Dialect Society:

“If you see one coming, you’re supposed to kiss any handy members of the opposite sex and pinch any of the same sex.”

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A blindingly obvious oxymoron?

Q: I was reading an article about Edward Snowden in the New Yorker the other day and stopped at the phrase “blindingly obvious.” My first reaction was that the combination of “blindingly” and “obvious” was an oxymoron. But then I thought that maybe “blindingly” was there to emphasize the obviousness. So, what do you think?

A: In discussing the former government contractor who leaked numerous classified documents, the article in the June 3, 2015, issue of the New Yorker says:

“The President and others have praised the U.S.A. Freedom Act, but haven’t mentioned the blindingly obvious fact that without Edward Snowden the law wouldn’t exist.”

No, the phrase “blindingly obvious” isn’t an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory or incongruous words. The word “blindingly” is being used here, as you suspect, as an intensifier.

The word “blind” has had many uses since it showed up in the West Saxon Gospels in the late 10th century as an adjective meaning sightless.

In addition to indicating sightlessness, it’s meant unguarded (as in “blind side”), reckless (“blind fury”), closed at one end (“blind alley”), flying by means of instruments (“blind flying” or “flying blind”), unquestioning (“blind loyalty”), unrevealed (“blind copy”), and so on.

The adverbs “blind,” “blindly” and “blindingly” have similarly strayed in varying degrees from the original sightless meaning of the adjective, giving us such phrases as “blind drunk,” “blindly accept,” and the one you’re asking about, “blindingly obvious.”

Cambridge Dictionaries Online says “blindingly” means extremely in the expression “blindingly obvious,” and Cambridge gives this example: “It’s blindingly obvious that she’s not happy at school.”

The online Macmillan Dictionary defines “blindingly obvious” as completely obvious, and includes this example: “Isn’t it blindingly obvious he’s in love with you?”

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “blindingly,” but it hasn’t been updated since 1887, when the OED was the NED (the New English Dictionary).

The earliest example, from an 1849 sermon by the English theologian Julius Charles Hare, uses the adverb loosely to mean in a blinding manner: “The darkness which lay blindingly on the hearts and souls of mankind.”

Although the OED doesn’t have any citations for “blindingly” used as an intensifier, we’ve found quite a few 19th-century examples in searches of literary databases.

This is from an 1892 article in the New Review, a British literary magazine, about Barrack-Room Ballads, a collection of songs and poems by Rudyard Kipling:

“Only a man of the most blindingly original genius could have written them, and I hope they may win the ear and heart of England, and make England more careful of her gallant children and defenders.”

And here’s an example from Harper’s Chicago and the World’s Fair (1893): “It was frightfully hot in Chicago, it was blindingly hot in the car, and it was hotter still in the country.”

And here’s another, from an 1898 article in the Bookman, a New York literary journal, commenting on the works of the American novelist and short-story writer John Fox Jr.:

“While ‘A Cumberland Vendetta’ is blindingly illiterate, ‘A Mountain Europa,’ truly the best thing he has written, is not.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the exact phrase “blindingly obvious” is from the June 14, 1919, issue of the New Statesman:

“Compared with this terrible and blindingly obvious fact, even the tale of German atrocities sinks into the position of an irrelevancy.”

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A pronouncing primer

Q: I pronounce “primer,” the textbook, to rhyme with “trimmer.” But people I otherwise admire pronounce it to rhyme with “timer.” May I harbor ill will against them? Or are they simply using an acceptable alternate pronunciation?

A: The word for the elementary textbook was pronounced with a short “i” (rhyming with “trimmer”) when it first showed up in English in the 14th century.

Americans still pronounce it that way. But in the late 19th century, the British began pronouncing it with a long “i” to rhyme with “timer” and that’s now the usual pronunciation in the UK, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes that the long “i” pronunciation for the textbook “is the primary one given in all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict.” (In 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones published the first edition of his English Pronouncing Dictionary, which has remained in print in various editions.)

We’ve checked the pronunciation of “primer” (used in the textbook sense) in six standard dictionaries. The three British references list it with a long “i” while the three American sources list it with a short “i.”

So which pronunciation is correct? It depends on which side of the pond you call home.

But English speakers on both sides pronounce “primer” with a long “i” (as in “timer”) when it’s used in other senses (such as an undercoat of paint or a cap used to ignite an explosive). We ran a post in 2012 about the use of “primer” in painting.

English adopted “primer” in its learning sense from primarium, medieval Latin for a prayer book. In classical Latin, primarius was an adjective meaning primary.

Such devotional books were often used to teach children to read, which soon led to the use of “primer” for a beginning (or first) school book, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The earliest OED example of the word used in its prayer-book sense is a 1378 reference to one red “primer” in M. T. Löfvenberg’s Contributions to Middle English Lexicography and Etymology (1946).

The earliest example for the textbook sense is from “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): This litel child his litel book lernynge, / As he sat in the scole at his prymer.”

An interesting aside: Daniel Jones, whose pronouncing dictionary we cited earlier, may have been the inspiration for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Henry Sweet, a mentor of Jones, has also been mentioned.

[Note: This item updates and expands on an April 4, 2008, post about the pronunciation of “primer.”]

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When “mow” rhymes with “cow”

Q: I believe Pat misspoke on Iowa Public Radio the other day when she said the noun “mow,” as in “hay mow,” is pronounced the same as the verb. My family on my dad’s side are farmers from Wisconsin, and I’ve always heard it pronounced MAU, rhyming with “cow.” I’ve never heard it pronounced MOE, as in “Mow your yard.”

A: You’re right! Pat mistakenly pronounced the noun, a place for storing hay, as MOE, rather than MAU when she appeared on Talk of Iowa on July 8, 2015. Apologies are in order.

Despite similar spellings, the noun and the verb are pronounced differently. The noun rhymes with “plow” while the verb rhymes with “hoe.” Pat, who comes from Iowa, should have known better.

Why don’t these words sound alike? As it happens, they’ve been different for a very long time, because they come from different sources reaching far back into prehistory.

The “mow” where hay or straw or grain is stored can be traced to an Old English word, muha, dating from before 800, that meant a heap or pile.

The word’s cousins in old Germanic languages meant “crowd,” “flock,” and “common people,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

Ultimately, however, the word goes even further back, to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as muk- (heap, pile), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The other “mow,” the one that means to cut down, has its distant beginnings in another Indo-European root, reconstructed as me– (to cut down grass or grain with a scythe).

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this prehistoric me– gave us three strains of English words:

(1) our verb “mow” (as in reap), which started out as mawan in Old English;

(2) “mead” and “meadow,” which come from words for a mown field;

(3) “math,” a nearly defunct agricultural word for a mowing (it survives today in the word “aftermath,” literally “after mowing”).

The archaic “math,” by the way, has nothing to do with numbers. We wrote about the two words spelled “math” in a 2012 post on the blog.

Given that both versions of “mow”—the noun and the verb—are so strongly associated with farming, one would assume their two pronunciations would have merged into one by now.

But it hasn’t happened. All modern dictionaries, as Pat has learned to her embarrassment, give MAU for one and MOE for the other. Live and learn.

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Nonplussed about “nonplussed”

Q: I’m troubled by the word “nonplussed.” It still means perplexed here in Australia (as it does in England). But in the USA, it’s evolved to have two incompatible meanings. Does this ambiguity render it less usable?

A: The participial adjective “nonplussed” has meant perplexed or disconcerted since it showed up in written English in the early 1600s, but a lot of people—and not just Americans—now think it means the opposite: unfazed or indifferent.

We’ve checked six standard dictionaries—three American, three British—and none of them consider the new usage standard English.

In fact, only two of them (Oxford Dictionaries online and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.) take note of the recent usage, which began showing up in print half a century ago.

Oxford labels this unperturbed sense as “North American informal,” and adds in a usage note, “It is not considered part of standard English.”

American Heritage lists the indifferent sense as a “usage problem,” and notes, “This usage is still controversial and should probably be avoided, since it may well be viewed as a mistake.” In a 2013 survey, a majority of AH’s usage panel rejected this sense.

“Nonplus” began life in the late 1500s as a noun meaning a state of perplexity in which no more can be said or done. In classical Latin, non plus means no more.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1582 treatise by the English Jesuit priest Robert Parsons: “Beynge now brought to a non plus in argueing.”

An adjectival version of “nonplus” (probably short for “at a nonplus,” according to the OED) showed up in 1589 in Albion’s England, a historical poem by William Warner: “Soone his wits were Non plus, for his wooing could but spell.”

When the term is used adjectivally today, however, it’s usually in the form of the participial adjective “nonplussed.”

The verb “nonplus,” meaning to perplex or confound, first showed up (as a past participle) in Joshua Sylvester’s 1605 translation of the poetry of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, according to OED citations.

We’ll skip ahead, however, to a clearer example from The Historie of the Holy Warre (1639), by Thomas Fuller: “I know it will non-plus his power to work a true miracle.”

The first appearance of the participial adjective “nonplussed” in OED citations is from A Continuance of Albion’s England, a 1606 addition to Warner’s lengthy historical poem: “As lastly did the non-plust Nunne vnto her Charmes agree.”

The OED describes the recent use of “nonplussed” to mean unperturbed rather than perturbed as “orig. and chiefly U.S.” It suggests that the usage probably arose because of confusion with other “non-” words.

The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from the Aug. 2, 1960, issue of the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune: “The Rev. Dr. Braddeley remained nonplussed. ‘I don’t intend to make a habit of going to the races.’ ”

And here’s an example, from Flying (1974), by Kate Millett: “He is nonplussed. Has probably been in this bind a hundred times.”

Although the OED and Oxford Dictionaries online consider the recent usage American (or chiefly American), we’ve found many examples in the British news media.

The website of The Independent, for example, used the term in a recent story about an explosion during the destruction of 10 tons of confiscated beer in Kenya.

As politicians hurry from the scene, the report says, the sign-language interpreter “appears nonplussed by the explosion and barely reacts.”

We’ve even found some examples from Down Under, including a recent report on Nine News Australia about a Canadian pilot who took his four-year-old daughter on a flight of aerial gymnastics.

“Nonplussed at first as she sits strapped in behind her dad, the young girl begins squealing and laughing uncontrollably when her dad guides the aircraft through the sky in thick, undulating loops.”

Why are so many English speakers using “nonplussed” to mean the opposite of the traditional sense?

The linguist Mark Liberman suggested in an Aug. 6, 2008, post on the Language Log that the recent usage may have been influenced by words with meanings similar to those of the traditional and newer senses.

“The other words that mean something similar to the traditional sense of nonplussedperplexed, confounded, confused, addled, befuddled, bewildered, muddled, etc.—are generally un-negated, while there are quite a few words with a sense similar to the new meaning of nonplussed that include a negative element: impassive, unperturbed, nonchalant, unfazed.”

Getting back to your question, is the recent usage making “nonplussed” unusable? Not yet. As we’ve said, we couldn’t find a single standard dictionary that accepts the new sense of “nonplussed” as standard English.

But stay tuned. English is a living language. And words have a way of surprising us.

(Note: This expands and updates a Feb. 2, 2007, post on the Grammarphobia Blog.)

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A hamlet by any other name

Q: Did the word “hamlet” mean a town in Shakespeare’s day?

A: The noun “hamlet” referred to a small village in Elizabethan times. But that sense of the word probably had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s naming of the title character in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

English adopted “hamlet” in the 1300s from Old French, where hamelet was a diminutive of hamel (village), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers notes that hamel itself was a diminutive of ham, a word for home in many old Germanic languages, including Old English. (No, it’s not related to the cut of meat.)

Interestingly, the Old English sense of ham as home survives in such place names as Birmingham and Nottingham, where the term originally referred to a manor.

The two earliest examples of “hamlet” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng. Here’s one citation: “He died at a hamelette, men calle it Burgh bisandaes.”

And here’s an example written in Shakespeare’s day (from The View of Fraunce, 1604, by the travel writer Robert Dallington): “One hundred thirtie two thousand of Parish Churches, Hamlets, and Villages of all sorts.”

As for the title character of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, scholars believe it’s ultimately derived from a legend in Gesta Danorum, a history of the Danes composed in Latin around 1200 AD by the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus.

The protagonist of the legend is Amleth, whose father and uncle are joint rulers of Jutland, the peninsula that forms the mainland portion of Denmark.

In Saxo’s tale, Amleth’s father is killed by his uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother. Amleth feigns madness to keep from being murdered by his uncle, but he eventually avenges his father’s killing and becomes king of the Jutes.

Saxo’s Latin version of Hamlet was printed in Paris in 1514. François de Belleforest translated it into French in 1570 as part of his collection Histoires Tragiques. Both works were available when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600.

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