The Grammarphobia Blog

Yankees fleeced! Mets licked!

Q: These sentences appeared recently in a news roundup in the NY Times: “Red Sox fleece Yankees” and “Phillies lick Mets.” Are these poorly conceived puns by sportswriters?

A: Both “fleece” and “lick” are commonly used in a figurative way to describe getting the better of somebody. These usages are very common and we can’t blame baseball writers for them, since they’ve been in use for many centuries.

In fact, figurative uses of these two verbs probably preceded the literal ones—at least in written English. Here’s the story, beginning with “fleece.”

The verb was derived from the noun “fleece,” the word for an animal’s wooly pelt, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The noun descended from old Germanic terms and was first recorded in Old English sometime before the year 1000.

In its literal sense, of course, to “fleece” a sheep is to strip it of its wool, a meaning first found in writing in the 17th century—but even then it was used metaphorically.

In fact, the OED’s earliest use of “fleece” in its sheep-shearing sense uses the word in a metaphor: “A Clergy, that shall more desire to fleece, Then feed the flock” (from George Wither’s long poem Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628).

And almost a century earlier the verb was used figuratively in the sense of “to obtain by unjust or unfair means” or “to take toll of, take pickings from.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a letter sent by King Henry VIII on Feb. 25, 1537, in which he chews out his Lord Deputy and Council in Ireland:

“Good counsailors shuld, before their oune private gaynes, have respecte to their princes honor, and to the publique weale of the cuntrey whereof they have charge. A greate sorte of you (We must be plain) desire nothing ells, but to reign in estimacion, and to flece, from tyme to time, all that you may catche from Us.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

And in the late 1500s, a figurative construction that’s common today showed up in English writing.

The OED defines this use of “fleece” as “to strip (a person, city, country, etc.) of money, property, etc., as a sheep is stripped of its fleece; to make (any one) pay to the uttermost; to exact money from, or make exacting charges upon; to plunder, rob heartlessly; to victimize.”

So the verb was practically made to order for sportswriters looking for more vivid words than “defeat” or “beat” or “rob of a victory.”

Why do figurative uses of the verb “fleece” predate and outnumber the literal senses of the word?

Our guess is that “shear,” a verb that’s been in English writing since the late 800s, has always been the more common literal term for removing a sheep’s wool.

Similarly, the verb “lick,” another word from old Germanic sources, has had both literal and figurative meanings since its first appearances in 10th-century manuscripts

The principal sense of “lick,” to pass one’s tongue over something, was first recorded in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s.

But figurative uses of “lick” are even older.

To “lick the earth (or ground)” was to suffer defeat, a usage first recorded in an illuminated manuscript believed to have been created some time in the early 900s.

Here’s the citation, from the Paris Psalter: “His feondas foldan liccigeað.” (“His enemies licked the ground”).

The usage (similar to “bite the dust,” 1749) also shows up in John Wycliffe’s translations of the Psalms and Micah in the 1380s: “His enemys the erthe shul licken,” and “Thei shuln lick dust as the serpent.”

In other usages, to “lick one’s knife” (circa 1400) was to be parsimonious. To “lick one’s lips (or fingers)” (c 1500) was to display “keen relish or delighted anticipation of some dainty morsel,” the OED says.

And to “lick into shape,” meaning “to mould” or make presentable, alludes “to the alleged practice of bears with their young,” Oxford notes.

This expression could be as old as 1413, but the earliest definitive citation is from George Chapman’s comedy The Widdowes Teares (1612): “He has not lickt his Whelpe into full shape yet.”

Finally, the figurative usage we see in sports headlines, in which “lick” means to beat or punish, appeared in writing in the late 16th century.

The OED’s earliest example for this sense of the word comes from A Caueat for Commen Cursetors (1587), Thomas Harman’s pamphlet about tramps and vagabonds.

In the booklet, Harman defines the word “lycke” as meaning “to beate.”

So “lick,” like “fleece,” was a natural for sportswriters!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Oust, ouster, oustered?

Q: I’ve read and heard the word “oustered,” but I can’t find it in dictionaries. Is this really a word? Enquiring minds want to know! (Ten bonus points if you know the reference off the top of your head.)

A: The word “oustered” isn’t in the six standard dictionaries we usually check. Nor is it in the Oxford English Dictionary.

All seven reference books have entries for the verb “oust” (whose past tense and past participle is  “ousted”) and for the noun “ouster.” But nowhere did we find an entry  for a verb “ouster,” let alone a past tense and past participle “oustered.”

Nevertheless, we’ve found examples for “ouster” used as a verb since the late 1960s and “oustered” used since the early 1970s.

A 1968 report by New York State investigators refers to getting councilmen “to ouster” an official in Troy, NY.

And a 1972 article in the journal Intellect says a university chairman “is elected, appointed, or roundly oustered, largely at the behest of his colleagues.”

Although the verbing of the noun “ouster” has increased somewhat in recent years (a Google search for “oustered” gets about 1,700 hits), the usage is still rare, which explains why you can’t find it in dictionaries.

Is “oustered” really a word? Well, it’s a word—a unit of written or spoken language—for the people who use it. But lexicographers don’t think it’s word-y enough to include in their dictionaries.

As for the etymology here, the verb “oust,” the oldest of these words, showed up in the early 1400s as a legal term meaning to eject or dispossess.

English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from obstare, Latin for to stand in the way of.

The earliest example in the OED is a 1420 entry from the records of the Court of Chancery, an equity court in England and Wales:

“We wol and charge you that … ye see and ordeyne that oure saide tenant … be not wrongfully ousted by maintenance of lordship ner other wyse.”

In the late 1700s, the verb took on its usual contemporary sense of “to expel or drive out from a place or position,” according to OED citations.

The first example in the dictionary for this sense is from an Oct. 8, 1787, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jay: “”An intrigue is already begun for ousting him from his place.”

When the noun “ouster” showed up in the early 1500s, according to the OED, it referred to “ejection from a freehold or other possession; deprivation of an inheritance.” (A freehold is a lifetime possession of an estate.)

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1531 book by Christopher St. Germain, featuring a dialogue between a clergyman and a barrister about conscience and common law: “To saue them selfe fro confessynge of an oustre.”

In the late 1700s, according to Oxford citations, the noun came to mean “dismissal or expulsion from a position.”

The first citation given is from The Biographical History of Sir William Blackstone (1782), compiled by “a gentleman of Lincoln’s-Inn,” a k a “D. Douglas”:

“Whenever the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal is removed from his high office, be the same by resignation or ouster; that he should be immediately … created a peer of the realm.”

Now, according to Oxford, the noun is chiefly used to mean removal from a place or situation.

Here’s an example of this extended use from the Dec. 20, 1973, issue of the Listener, a defunct BBC magazine:

It is the hope … that enough damning evidence would be found to force the ouster of the President overnight—to make him resign.”

As for your pop quiz, hand over those 10 bonus points. We’re well aware that “Enquiring minds want to know” was a catchphrase used by the National Enquirer in TV ads in the 1980s.

The expression itself, as we found after making a few digital inquiries, is a lot older, and uses the more common spelling of the first word.

The earliest example we’ve found in online searches is from an Aug. 16, 1856, letter by Frances Baroness Bunsen:

“I rejoice in the accounts of your meeting people, and being stimulated the more to write what inquiring minds want to know.”

Note: Although “enquiring” shows up more in the UK than the US, three of the four British dictionaries we’ve checked list “inquiring” as the primary spelling for UK English.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Turkey Day

(Note: This post originally appeared on the Grammarphobia Blog on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.)

Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?

A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.

A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)

In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.

In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.

And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?

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

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”

In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:

“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”

As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.

As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.

During the 20th century, however, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

On tilling and tills

Q: Your post about “no money in the till” made me wonder whether “till,” the cash box, is related to “tilling” the fields to make money. Or perhaps not make money if the till is empty. 

A: No, the verb “till” (to cultivate land) and the noun “till” (a money box) aren’t related, though they both have ancient Germanic roots.

When the verb showed up in Old English (spelled “tilian”) in the late ninth century, it referred to “striving to obtain a goal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto explains that the Old English word is ultimately derived from a prehistoric Germanic term, reconstructed as tilam, meaning “aim, purpose.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I: “He sceal tilian ðæt he licige” (“He shall strive that he please”).

This sense of striving or exerting oneself toward a goal evolved over the next few centuries to mean to cultivate the land, according to citations in the OED.

By the 12th century, the citations show, the verb “till” was being used in the agricultural sense of “to bestow labour and attention, such as ploughing, harrowing, manuring, etc., upon (land) so as to fit it for raising crops.”

The OED’s first example for this sense is from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200: “Þat lond heo lette tilien” (“That land he delayed tilling”).

By the late 14th century, it was also being used specifically in reference to plowing the land. The first Oxford example is from William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (1377):

“My plowman Piers … for to tulye treuthe a teme shal he haue” (“My plowman Piers … shall have a team [of oxen] to plow true”).

Now for the cash box. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the noun “till” is derived from tylle, Anglo-French for a compartment, and tille, Old French for a compartment as well as a shelter on a ship.

In Old Icelandic, the dictionary notes, thilja meant a plank or floorboard, a usage that can be traced back to theljon, a reconstructed proto-Germanic term for a flat surface.

When the noun “till” showed up in English writing in the 15th century, it referred to a closed compartment located within a chest or cabinet and used for keeping all sorts of valuables, not just money.

The OED’s first citation is from Munimenta Academica (1452), a collection of documents relating to the University of Oxford that were compiled by the Rev. Henry Anstey. This example is primarily in Latin, with the Middle English “le tylle” showing its French origins:

“Prout patet in scriptis indenturis positis in ‘le tylle’ in studio meo Oxoniæ” (“Insofar as it can be seen in the written indentures placed in ‘the tylle’ in my Oxford study”).

In the late 17th century, the noun “till” took on its usual modern sense, which the OED defines as “a drawer, money-box, or similar receptacle under and behind the counter of a shop or bank, in which cash for daily transactions is temporarily kept.”

The first example of this usage in the dictionary is from a 1698 entry in the London Gazette: “Lost out of Mr. Wray’s Shop in Little-Britain, a Til.”

Getting back to your question, are the verb “till” and the noun “till” related?

No. While they both have prehistoric Germanic roots, the verb ultimately comes from a term for an aim or a purpose, while the noun comes from a word for a flat surface.

If you haven’t had your fill of “till,” you might be interested in a post we wrote in 2006 on “’til,” “till,” and “until.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Enniched, inurned, and entombed

Q: I beg to disagree with you about the use “inter” for ashes placed in a columbarium. Actually, the proper verb is “enniche” because “cremains” are placed in a niche. Just sayin’.

A: Our “Burial Ground” post was about whether the verb “inter” could be used for remains placed in a niche in a columbarium.

We also mentioned the verb “inurn,” a term favored by many in the funeral or cemetery business. Perhaps we should have mentioned “enniche,” another example of morticianese, and “entomb,” a more established term.

The four standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree that to “inter” means to place in the earth or a tomb (most add “or the sea”).

All four also have entries for “inurn” in the sense of to place cremated ashes in an urn. However, none of them have entries for “enniche,” and the verb barely exists in literary, news, and more general databases.

One of the few examples we’ve found is on a Toledo, Ohio, cemetery website that offers “The Right Place for the Right Price,” as well as this piece of advice:

“A common misconception that people often have when they purchase the right of internment [sic] in a cemetery is that they have purchased the land itself, when in fact what they have really purchased is the right to be interred (also referred to as buried, entombed, enniched or placed) on or in that particular piece of property.”

As we noted in our post, a tomb can be either above the ground or entirely or partly below. So there’s no contradiction in using “inter” for placing ashes in a columbarium.

These days, of course, the funeral industry, like so many other enterprises, has fancier terms for its services.

We suspect that “enniche” (to put remains—or “cremains,” as if we needed to be reminded of the method—into a columbarium) is simply trade jargon.

And we doubt that “enniche” will ever become a term in common usage. Two things should be noted about this verb.

(1) People would disagree on the pronunciation and look askance at one another. As we wrote on our blog in 2009 and 2010, the traditional pronunciation of “niche” is NITCH.

The industry, we’ll bet, prefers the newer, Frenchified NEESH. No funeral director wants to sound as though he’s saying “an itch.”

(2) There was once an old verb “enniche,” which the OED says is now obsolete and which was used in a different, semi-humorous way. The meaning of this now defunct verb was “to set up in a niche, as a statue.”

Oxford gives an example of the usage from Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1761): “He … deserves to be en-nich’d as a prototype for all writers.”

Finally, in case you’re interested, we wrote on the blog a few year ago about why “bury” is pronounced like “berry.” It all began back in Anglo-Saxon times.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

On ignorance and stupidity

Q: As I understand it, “ignorance” is a lack of knowledge about something, while “stupidity” is doing something when you know it’s a mistake. I ascribe a sort of willfulness to “stupidity.” Is my view reasonable?  Is there a better word for this concept of stupidity?

A: Although the two words are often used interchangeably, standard dictionaries generally define “ignorance” as a lack of knowledge, and “stupidity” as a lack of intelligence.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, defines “ignorance” as “a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education,” and “stupidity” as “the state of being foolish or unintelligent.”

Most of the five dictionaries we checked (including Merriam-Webster’s) add that “stupidity” can refer to a foolish action as well as foolishness, but we could find only one dictionary that defines the two terms somewhat as you do.

Oxford Dictionaries online says “ignorance” is “lack of knowledge or information,” while “stupidity” is “behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment” or “the quality of being stupid or unintelligent.”

You could perhaps defend your view as reasonable by citing Oxford, but we think it would be more sensible to go with the majority on this. The point of language is communicating. Why choose a usage that may be misunderstood?

Is there a better word, you ask, for the quality that leads to willfully doing something stupid?

Well, words like “imprudence,” “incompetence,” and “ineptitude” come to mind, though none of them clearly indicate willfulness. “Rashness” and “recklessness” suggest willfulness but not necessarily lack of intelligence.

Etymology doesn’t help us here. When “ignorance” and “stupidity” showed up in English, they meant pretty much the same as they do today.

English borrowed the word “ignorance” from the Old French ignorance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the ultimate source is ignorantia, Latin for lack of knowledge.

When the word first showed up in Middle English in the early 13th century, the OED says, it meant “the fact or condition of being ignorant; want of knowledge (general or special).”

The earliest Oxford example is from the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), an anonymous guide for monastic women: “Sunne & ignorance. þet [is] vnwisdom & unweotenesse” (“Sin & ignorance. That is, unwisdom and unwitnessing”).

As for “stupidity,” English adapted it in the 16th century from stupiditas, Latin for dullness or senselessness. The ultimate source is the verb stupere (to be stunned or benumbed), which also gave us the word “stupor.”

When “stupidity” first appeared, according to the OED, it meant “dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Robert Copeland’s 1542 translation of a medical treatise by the French surgeon Guy de Chauliac:

“Nowe we must esteme the stupydyte or audacyte of the man. I say the stupidite yf he thynke to say well, and the boldnes yf he fele hym selfe culpable to saye nothynge.”

And here’s a shorter and wittier example from Every Man in his Humor, a 1598 play by Ben Jonson: “I forgiue Mr. Stephen, for he is stupiditie it selfe!”

We’re sorry to disappoint you, but none of the senses for “stupidity” in the OED suggest willfulness.

However, an obsolete sense that’s not applicable got our attention: numbness, as in “stupidity of the teeth,” an English version of a late Latin expression, stupor dentium.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Brighton Rock fixes

Dear Readers,

There were several errors in today’s post about Brighton Rock slang. We fixed them in the late morning, so if you read an earlier version, check out the latest.

Pat and Stewart

The Grammarphobia Blog

Brighton Rock slang

Q: In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s characters use “polony” and “buer” for a woman of loose morals, but I can’t find the terms in dictionaries. I know that if I use them in Scrabble I will get challenged!

A: You can find both words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “buer” as a woman, especially “one of loose character,” and “polony” (a variant spelling of “palone”) as “a young woman” or “an effeminate man.”

The OED has a citation from Brighton Rock (1938) that includes both of the words: “ ‘What about that polony he was with?’ ‘She doesn’t matter,’ the Boy said. ‘She’s just a buer.’ ”

The earliest Oxford example for “palone” (also spelled “paloni,” “pollone,” and “polone”) is from Cheapjack, a 1934 memoir by Philip Allingham, the brother of the mystery writer Margery Allingham:

“I’d rather ’andle a man any day than a lot of these silly palones.”

The dictionary describes “palone” as “slang (derogatory),” and most of the citations use the the term along the lines of such slang words as “broad,” “chick,” “doll,” and “dame.”

The OED says “palone” is of uncertain origin, but may be a variant of “blowen,” slang for a wench.

Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, cites theories that the term may have come from Italian words for a chick or a straw mattress.

As for “buer,” the OED describes the term (also spelled “bure,” “buor,” and “bewer”) as “north. dial. and Tramps’ slang” of unknown origin.

Green’s Dictionary suggests that “buer” might have originated as a word for “tramp” in Shelta, a language spoken by Irish Travellers (itinerants in Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere).

The OED’s first citation for “buer” is from an 1807 poem by John Stagg: “A bure her neame was Meg, / A winsome weel far’ word body.”

We should mention here that “polony” has another meaning. In the UK, it may refer to a “Bologna sausage,” which Americans usually call “bologna” or “baloney.”

Oxford says “polony” in the sausage sense is “probably an alteration of Bologna.” John Camden Hotten, in The Slang Dictionary (1913), explains that it’s a Cockney version of “Bologna.”

The earliest citation in the OED for “polony” used in this sense is from a 1654 issue of a smutty journal, Mercurius Fumigosus:

“A Lady of Pleasure voiding a Worm in the Coach-box, bigger then a Polony Sassage.” (The term “Worm” here refers to a dildo.)

In researching your question, we came across a Brighton Rock glossary on the collaborative website Book Drum. However, the definitions for “buer” and “polony” differ somewhat from ours, and we can’t vouch for the rest of the entries.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is the “s” in “pants” out of style?

Q: I’ve been waging a losing battle over the creeping use of  “pant” vs. “pants.” As far as I’m concerned, “pant” is what a dog does on a hot day, not something I’d wear. If you feel I’m a cranky, persnickety nitpicker and should just start wearing skirts, I’ll abide by your ruling.

A: Keep your pants on. We’ve also noticed this use of “pant,” especially—perhaps exclusively—among people in the fashion world.

Anybody who shops, whether in stores or through catalogs or websites, will know what we mean. Apparently, plurals regularly drop when we shop. It’s enough to get one’s knicker in a twist.

And it’s not just a “pant” thing. Fashionistas are singularly using “jean” and “trouser” as well, along with “pajama,” “short,” “legging,” “brief,” “tight,” and “panty.”

Yes, “panty”! We’re reminded that we once answered a reader who asked why his wife put on a “pair of panties” but not a “pair of bras.”

Getting back to your complaint, this “s”-dropping tendency goes against the grain.

As we wrote on the blog in 2012, words for leggy items of clothing are generally plural—“pants,” “jeans,” “shorts,” “trousers,” “breeches,” “overalls,” “long johns,” “drawers,” “briefs,” “panties,” “jodhpurs,” etc.

The same goes for footwear, which more obviously comes in twos: “shoes,” “boots,” “slippers,” “espadrilles,” “sneakers,” “socks,” “moccasins,” and so on. All of these wearable plurals are accompanied by plural verbs.

So what’s up with the shift to the singular in reference to a pair?

It would appear that this is the fashion industry’s notion of creative marketing. An unusual word—like “pant” where the customer expects “pants”—is supposed to make us think the item so named is more stylish (or “on trend”).

In Fabulously Fashionable (2012), her novel spoofing the British fashion world, Holly McQueen comments on this linguistic tendency.

“These people do not speak about clothes the way ordinary people do,” she writes. A word like “pants” is, “more often, a pant. Similarly, shoes are always a shoe; jeans are usually a jean.”

And in 2013, Rachel Braier wrote about this singular trend in the Guardian. The letter “s,” Braier writes, “appears to have become redundant in the lexicon of fashion and style. It’s as if an edict has been issued from Vogue HQ banning its use.”

Does this usage have a future? Braier has this to say: “Well, you may think, what’s the problem? The world of fashion is all about novelty and affectation—this won’t filter down into everyday parlance.” But, she warns, “Don’t be so sure.”

As she explains, “The whole raison d’être of fashion is to influence—it’s why we no longer wear a boot-cut jean or a square-toed shoe (see how naturally I’m doing it). If fashion dictates that we no longer need plurals, ‘s’ will be condemned to the linguistic discount bin quicker than you can say ‘boho-inspired shrug.’ ”

In fact, the usage is beginning to influence some lexicographers.

Of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, three include entries for the singular noun “pant” for clothing, but they note that it’s “usually” or “often” used in the plural.

One of the three, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), adds this: “The use of the singular pant is largely confined to the fields of design, textiles, and fashion.”

The dictionary gives this example: “The stylist recommended that the model wear a pant with a checkered print.”

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the singular “pant” is largely confined to the rag trade. Its description says the singular is “in current sense chiefly used in the retail clothing industry.”

But, as OED citations show, this retail use of “pant” isn’t new. Apart from a lone sighting in 1832, the OED‘s examples begin with uses in the garment industry in the early 1890s.

Here’s a citation from Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi, an 1893 book by Hubert Anthony Shands:

“Pant … an abbreviation of pantaloons, used by clerks in dry-goods stores. They say: ‘I have a pant that I can sell you,’ etc. Of course, pants is a well-known abbreviation, but I think pant is rather a new word.”

From the late 19th century onward, the singular usage appeared steadily in retailing, as in this line from a 1962 L. L. Bean catalog: “A practical and well made pant for general sportswear.”

So in the case of “pant,” the use of the singular isn’t new to the clothing business—just perhaps more widespread lately.

And, as we’ve written before on the blog, the singular is commonly used in an adjectival way, as in “pantleg” and “pantsuit.”

As for the etymology, we can thank San Pantaleone, the patron saint of Venice, for the word  “pants,” according to the OED.

He was so identified with the city that Venetians came to be known as pantaloni and a stock character in commedia dell’arte was a rich miser known as Pantalone.

This character typically wore “spectacles, slippers, and tight trousers that were a combination of breeches and stockings,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the 17th century, etymologists say, French linked the character with a style of trousers that came to be known as pantaloons in English.

The word “pantaloons” was eventually shorted to “pants” in the US. The earliest Oxford example for the new usage is from an 1835 issue of the The Southern Literary Messenger:

“In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

Well, it’s time for us to walk our dogs, Pat in her flats and Stewart in his baggy pants.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language. 

The Grammarphobia Blog

Plantation mentality

Q: After reading your post about the “master” controversy at Yale, I was shocked to be driving by an Ivy League campus in upstate NY and seeing a sign that pointed the way to “Cornell Plantations.”

A: It’s interesting that you should write to us about this, since Cornell University is even now reconsidering the name “Cornell Plantations” and may end up changing it.

More about that later, and about how Cornell’s arboretum and gardens got that name 70 years ago. But first let’s examine the word “plantation.”

To many Americans, this is a loaded word. In a country that still bears the scars of slavery, “plantation” evokes images of the antebellum South, whose economic system depended upon slave labor.

But even before its use in America, the word had meanings connected with colonialism and the domination of defeated countries. This is because from its earliest appearance in English, “plantation” has had dual meanings.

The ultimate source of “plantation” is the classical Latin plantātiōnem, propagation from cuttings, which was derived from plantāre, to propagate by cuttings.

In medieval Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, plantātiōnem came to mean “something that has been planted,” as in a plant, a foundation, an institution, a nursery, or a colony.

Meanwhile, plantāre gave early Old English the verb “plant,” which had two sets of  meanings: (a) to set a seed or plant into the ground; and (b) to found something like a colony or church, or to instill an idea, emotion, belief, etc.

These dual senses of the verb “plant” were first recorded at the same time, in King Ælfred’s 9th-century translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

When “plantation” appeared in English in the early 1400s, the OED says, it was a product of both the medieval Latin plantātiōnem  and the Old English verb “plant.” Consequently it had two broad meanings—the establishment of an institution or a colony, or the placing of a seed or shoot in the soil.

The sense of “plantation” that was recorded first, according to OED citations, was “something that has been founded, established, or implanted, as an institution, a religion, a belief, etc.”

This sense of the word first appeared in the Foundation Book of St. Bartholomew’s Church, Hospital and Priory in London, which the OED dates at around 1425. The manuscript refers to St. Bartholomew’s as “this new plantacioun.”

(Sir Norman Moore, who published a history of the 12th-century hospital in 1918, places the date of the manuscript at “about the year 1400.”)

The next recorded meaning of “plantation” is defined by the OED as “the action of planting seeds or plants in the ground.”

This sense first appeared around 1429 in an anonymous book, Mirour of Mans Saluacioune: “Aarons ȝerde [rod] fructified without plantacioune.” (In the biblical Book of Numbers, Aaron’s rod sprouted buds and produced almonds.)

Both of those early senses of “plantation” are now obsolete, the OED says, but they evolved into these later meanings in the 16th and 17th centuries:

(1) “A cultivated bed or cluster of growing plants of any kind,” or “an area planted with trees, esp. for commercial purposes.”

(2) ”A settlement in a conquered or dominated country; a colony.” This usage, the OED says, is found “chiefly with reference to the colonies founded in North America and on the forfeited lands in Ireland in the 16th-17th centuries; also with reference to the ancient colonies of Greece, etc.”

(3) “An estate or large farm, esp. in a former British colony, on which crops such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco are grown (formerly with the aid of slave labour).”

An extended use of that last meaning, the OED says, developed in the 1950s: “any institution regarded as exploitative or paternalistic, esp. in fostering an environment of inequality and servitude reminiscent of slavery.”

Oxford says this sense appears “chiefly in African-American usage,” and all of its citations are from African Americans. Among them is this one from Miles Davis’s Autobiography (1989):

“All the record companies were interested in at the time was making a lot of money and keeping their so-called black stars on the music plantation so that their white stars could just rip us off.”

This OED example appeared a decade later in the New York Times: “Civil rights groups advocated a boycott of Twins games and the future Hall of Famer Rod Carew said he did not want to keep playing for Griffith’s ‘plantation.’ ”

However, we’ve found many examples of “plantation” used pejoratively by whites as well as blacks, especially in politics.

In September 2014, a Republican Congressman, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, said that Democratic Senator Harry Reid “runs the Senate like a plantation.” Cassidy added, “It is his personal, sort of, ‘It goes if I say it does, if not it stops.’ ”

Cassidy was then running for a Louisiana Senate seat, and his rival, Rep. Rob Mannes, the Tea Party candidate, jumped all over him for using the word:

“Congressman Cassidy may not realize this,” Mannes said, “but the language he used included a term that is incredibly offensive to many Americans and he should immediately apologize.”

As many journalists noticed, the controversy was reminiscent of a similar remark by Hillary Clinton in 2006, when she was a senator. She accused Republicans of running the House “like a plantation … in a way so that nobody with a contrary view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard.”

But she wasn’t the first. In 1994 Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, said the Democrats “think it’s their job to run the plantation” and “it shocks them that I’m actually willing to lead the slave rebellion.”

Black public figures have even used the term against one another. In 2013, the scholar Cornel West called the Rev. Al Sharpton “the bonafide house negro of the Barack Obama plantation.”

Similarly, the phrase “plantation politics” has been used since the early 1960s to describe the control that a small, select few can exercise over a much larger group.

The term was apparently coined by the sociologist and historian Timuel Black, who used it to describe how Chicago’s mayor used black ward bosses to control the black vote.

When Black ran for the Chicago City Council in 1963, he “took on the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, accusing him of ‘plantation politics’—a phrase that garnered national attention,” according to a page honoring him on the University of Chicago’s website.

While the OED has no entry for the phrase “plantation politics,” it does have one for “plantation mentality.”

Oxford describes this as a “derogatory” term for “an attitude likened to that which was prevalent on plantations operating with slave labour, esp. in accepting or condoning racial inequality or paternalism.” We’ll quote a couple of the citations, beginning with the earliest:

“The plantation mentality still prevails and policy tends too strongly toward rehabilitation of the bankrupt planter.” (From the Journal of the Royal African Society, 1936.)

“The continuation of the plantation mentality in both blacks and whites, the white student activists told us, has got to stop.” (From Black Power and Student Rebellion, 1969, by James J. McEvoy and Abraham H. Miller.)

The six standard dictionaries we’ve checked don’t mention slavery in their entries for the noun “plantation.” They use terms like “resident labor” or “resident workers” to describe the people cultivating crops on a large estate or farm.

Considering all the evidence, though, we believe that more Americans associate the word “plantation” with its slave past than with its purely horticultural meaning.

This brings us back to Cornell University, which named its vast complex of arboretum, gardens, and nature preserves “Cornell Plantations” in 1944. Why that name?

This use of “plantations,” according to university websites, was an attempt to cleanse the term and re-establish its purely horticultural sense.

Don Rakow, a former director of the Cornell Plantations, said the name “Cornell Plantations” was coined by the botanist and horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, the first dean of the Cornell College of Agriculture.

“We believe that Bailey purposely chose to dismiss older associations of the word ‘plantations’ with slavery in favor of its proper meaning: ‘areas under cultivation or newly established settlements,’ ” Rakow said in a 2011 interview with the Ithaca Times.

Bailey (along with his father) was named “Liberty” because his grandfather was “an ardent abolitionist, one of the earliest in Vermont,” according to a 2011 article in Verdant Views, the Cornell Plantations magazine.

“When it came time in 1944 for Bailey to name Cornell’s newly established botanical garden and arboretum,” the magazine says, “it was perhaps this history and his own passion for democracy and education that led him to choose Cornell Plantations. He purposely chose to dismiss old associations with slavery in favor of the proper meaning of the word.”

Apparently this linguistic rehabilitation never came to pass, at least not in the view of A. T. Miller, Cornell’s associate vice provost for academic diversity.

“There have been rather steady expressions of surprise and objections to the name by individuals since 1944 itself, when there were clearly misgivings,” Dr. Miller told us in an email.

We heard much the same thing from Prof. Edward E. Baptist.  “I have also noted the weirdness of this name in my own lectures,” said Dr. Baptist, who specializes in 19th-century American history, particularly the history of slavery in the South.

But as we mentioned above, change may be in the air.

Christopher P. Dunn, current director of the Cornell Plantations, said in an email that the institution has begun a process that “will determine if our current name does or does not support our brand, vision, mission, and values.”

He announced this “rebranding” in a column he wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun on Oct. 8, 2015:

“There is one key element that all botanic gardens have in common: celebrating, displaying and studying the rich diversity of the world’s plants,” he wrote. “Yet to be truly effective, this celebration of natural diversity must also embrace human diversity.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

The thing about thing

Q: I’m accustomed to the use of “thing” with a modifier to mean a fad (“X is the next big thing” or “I’m sick of this X thing”), but now I’m seeing it used by itself in that sense (“X is now a thing”). Your thoughts?

A: We discussed the history of the word “thing” in a post a few years ago, but we didn’t mention the usage you’re asking about.

As far as we can tell, the use of “thing” by itself to mean a fad or trend cropped up in print in the mid-1980s. But before getting into all the trendy senses of “thing,” let’s look at the origins of this very adaptable word.

The noun “thing,” as we said in our earlier post, has roots that go back into pre-history, before written language, when a Germanic root reconstructed as thingam is believed to have referred to time.

In the Germanic languages, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, this ancient  term came to mean “appointed time” and then evolved into a “judicial or legislative assembly.”

That was the meaning of the word when it showed up in Old English, a sense that’s still seen in other Germanic languages. The Icelandic parliament, Ayto notes, “is known as the Althing (literally ‘general assembly’).”

“In English, however, it moved on through ‘subject for discussion at such an assembly’ to ‘subject in general, affair, matter’ and finally ‘entity, object,’ ” Ayto says.

All those senses—and many more—developed back in Anglo-Saxon times, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has Old English examples for “thing” as subject, business, concern, matter, affair, deed, circumstance, fact, event, experience, incident, statement, idea, object, and so on.

In short, “thing” can mean almost anything. And some of its trendy contemporary meanings sound similar to senses that were around in the days of Ælfred the Great, the scholar-king who used the word quite a few times himself.

We don’t have the time or the stamina to discuss all the meanings of “thing” (it takes us more than 60 screenfuls to scroll through the OED’s online entry).

So let’s begin with the first usage you mentioned, “the next big thing,” which the OED defines as “the latest popular sensation; the newest trend in a particular field.”

The earliest Oxford example for the expression used this way is from a July 9, 1977, issue of Sounds weekly: “Chelsea mainman Gene October sez that the next big thing will be up and coming band New Hearts.”

However, we’ve found examples for “the next big thing” dating back to the late 1800s, when it originally referred to an important theatrical production.

The earliest example in our searches of online databases is from the June 2, 1883, issue of Punch: “I promised to put him into my next big thing.”

The modern sense of “the next big thing” as a fad or trend first showed up, we’ve found, in an 1894 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

“The next ‘big thing’ to which I call attention, is the nostrum vendor. This dare-devil worries me; every mail brings some of his diabolical literature or some of his infernal stuff, ‘all free gratis and for nothing.’ ”

A 1912 article in the International Socialist Review, entitled “The Next Big Thing,” uses it to mean “big and important” campaigns that “chase each other off the stage of life” with “the speed of a quick change artist.”

And an April 24, 1922, article in the American Dyestuff Reporter describes radiotelephony as “beyond a doubt, ‘the next big thing.’ ”

In this phrase, the meaning of “thing” clearly has a lot in common with those Old English examples in the OED that we mentioned above.

And it brings to mind a sense of the word that appeared in the early 1700s—the use of the phrase “the thing” to mean “the embodiment or epitome of stylishness.”

The OED’s first citation for “the thing” is from a 1734 essay by Alexander Pope, but we prefer this example from Distress Upon Distress, a 1752 play by George Alexander Stevens:

“Cæsar had certainly something smart about him: Mark Anthony was a very jemmy Fellow, and Cleopatra quite the Thing to be sure.”

The OED also has citations dating back to the early 1900s for the colloquial use of “thing” after a noun, noun phrase, or adjective to mean “the matter or business which pertains to or is associated with the specified place, phenomenon, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Skidoo! (1906), a collection of comic sketches by Hugh McHugh, the pen name of George V. Hobart, a director, producer, and writer on Broadway:

When it comes to that poetry thing he thinks he can make Hank Longfellow beat it up a tree.”

The OED’s most recent citation is from the March 2003 issue of the gadget magazine T3: “There’s an FM/MW tuner inside to pick up any slowcoaches who haven’t cottoned on to the digital thing yet.”

Contributors to the Language Log website pointed out in 2011 that “thing” here is sometimes used to dismiss the subject as unimportant. One example cited is a quote, attributed to former President George H. W. Bush: “Oh, the vision thing.”

However, this OED citation, from a May 18, 1955, letter by Flannery O’Connor, is a more clear-cut example of the term used dismissively: “I will be real glad when this television thing is over with.”

Finally we come to the use of “thing” by itself to mean a fad or a trend. The earliest example we’ve found is from an article in the November 1984 issue of Musician magazine.

In the article, Garry Tallent, the bassist for the E Street Band, comments on a People magazine piece that compared the “clean-living” band to the Hardy Boys.

“It’s true,” Tallent is quoted as saying, “but, especially since People magazine, it’s become a thing.”

Tallent was ahead of the curve, since most of the examples we’ve found for the usage are from the last few years, as in this May 5, 2015, headline from the Huffington Post: “If ‘Dadbod’ Is a Thing, What About Mombod?”

What, you ask, are our thoughts about all this thinginess?

Well, the word “thing” has been doing its own thing since Anglo-Saxon days. And the thing about “thing” is that the newest incarnations often aren’t all that new.

In fact, the modern-sounding expression “do your thing” (or “do your own thing”) first showed up in an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“But do your thing and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”

Emerson knew a thing or two.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Can you listen askance?

Q: What’s the deal with “askance”? It’s invariably used with “look” (or “watch”), as in “They looked askance at her unorthodox proposal.” Would it be correct to say someone “listened askance”?

A: It’s possible to read too much into a word, as you’ve done here. In the case of “askance,” you’re taking a figurative usage a bit too far.

The adverb “askance” literally means sideways or obliquely or askew. So on a strictly literal level, to “look askance” means to look out of the corner of one’s eye.

Of course, we all know that a sidelong glance can express skepticism or mistrust. That’s why for nearly 500 years the expression “to look askance” has had the figurative meaning “to be skeptical or mistrustful.”

Because this figurative usage is so well established, dictionaries (though not the Oxford English Dictionary) now define “askance” as meaning with skepticism, suspicion, or disapproval.

What some standard dictionaries fail to say is that in modern English, “askance” is rarely used except with verbs of seeing—as in “look askance,” “view askance,” or “eye askance.”

Only about half the dictionaries we’ve checked say specifically that “askance” is used in describing a look or a glance.

However, all of them, both British and American, use verbs of seeing to illustrate the use of the word: “tourists are looking askance” … “they eyed the stranger askance” … “the company may view askance your plan for early retirement,” and so on.

So the answer to your question is no—“askance” is not normally used with a verb like “listen.”

Figurative usages generally retain some element of reality, and people generally don’t listen sideways. Modifying such verbs with “askance” would stretch the figurative usage all out of shape.

“Askance” is interesting to etymologists because nobody knows for sure where it came from. Most sources, including the OED, date “askance” from the early 16th century and say its etymology is unknown.

However it developed, etymologists agree that the adverb meant sideways or askew when it first showed up.

The OED’s earliest example (written as “a scanche”) appeared in a French-English dictionary published in 1530. The English “a scanche” was defined in French as “de travers, en lorgnant” (askew, eying).

Another early literal usage cited by Oxford is this one from a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, written sometime before his death in 1542: “For as she loked ascaunce, vnder a stole she spied two stemyng Ise [glowing eyes] In a rownde hed.”

While the adverb has been used throughout its history with verbs related to looking or viewing, it has occasionally been used with others, mostly in poetry. The OED has these examples, both from long poems:

“He bid his Angels turne ascanse / The Poles of Earth” (from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667).

“They meet, they dart away, they wheel askance” (from James Beattie’s The Minstrel, 1771).

And the OED has a lone example of the adverb used with “speak” to mean “with a side or indirect meaning.” It comes from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Erechtheus, 1876):  “Journeying to the bright God’s shrine / Who speaks askance and darkling.”

But these days, “askance” is used almost exclusively in figurative expressions that include verbs related to sight. This is how the OED explains the usage:

“In the fig. phrases to look, eye, view askance the idea expressed has varied considerably, different writers using them to indicate disdain, envy, jealousy, and suspicion. The last of these is now the prevalent idea, and to look at, eye, view askance = to look at with mistrust.”

The earliest example for the figurative use of “askance” is from Edmund Spenser’s poem The Shepheardes Calender (1579): “That scornefully lookes askaunce.”

And Ben Jonson used the expression in his comic play Every Man Out of His Humor (1600): “Nay boy, neuer looke askaunce at me for the matter.”

Not all of the figurative examples in Oxford come from literature, though. In his book The Life and Growth of Language (1875), William Dwight Whitney wrote about “words … which come to be looked askance at and avoided.”

We mentioned above that the origin of “askance” has never been pinned down with any certainty.

The OED mentions some suggestions by philologists over the years: that it comes from the Italian a schiancio (“bias, slanting, sloping or slopingly, aslope, across”); or the Old Norse á ská (“askew”); or the Jutlandish ad-skands or West Frisian skân, schean, which could have a connection with the Dutch schuin (“sidewise, oblique”).

As Oxford explains in a note, “there is a whole group of words of more or less obscure origin” beginning with “ask-,” including “askance,” “askant,” “askew” and others that are now long dead: “askie,” “askile,” “askoye,” and “askoyne.”

These “ask-” words are “more or less closely connected in sense,” they appeared “mostly in the 16th or end of the 15th” century, and they “seem to have influenced one another in form,” the OED says.

But none of them can be “certainly” traced back to Old English, Oxford says. And “though they can nearly all be paralleled by words in various languages, evidence is wanting as to their actual origin and their relations to one another.”

A dissenting view comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, which suggests that “askance” has a longer history.

Chambers maintains that the adverb developed from a late 14th-century conjunction found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—“ascaunce,” meaning “as if, pretending that.”

This word, Chambers says, “appears to be an alteration of earlier ase quances meaning ‘in such a way that, even as.’ ”

And Chambers traces “ase quances,” which appeared in the early 1300s, through Old French quances (as though) back to the Latin quasi (as if, as it were, almost).

While acknowledging that this explanation is “contrary to most sources,” Chambers says it “follows the semantic and structural evidence of the Middle English Dictionary.”

So “askance” may have originated as a 14th-century Latinate conjunction or it may have appeared as a 16th-century adverb traveling incognito. We’ll say only that etymologists disagree, and leave it at that.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

When a waiter waits

Q: Have you ever addressed the issue of “wait tables” rather than “wait on tables”? The dropping of the preposition gives me indigestion.

A: There’s no reason to get heartburn over this. The two versions showed up around the same time in the 19th century. And the one you prefer is itself a clipped version of a longer expression that appeared in the 1500s. Here’s the story

When the usage first showed up in English, it was “wait at the table” or “wait on the table,” according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example (with the preposition “at”) is from The Arbor of Amitie (1568), a collection of Thomas Howell’s poetry: “Yee and ich can, if neede be than, waight at the table well.”

The first “on” example is from Glasse of Governement, a 1575 play by George Gascoigne about the Prodigal Son: “Wee should haue beene fayne to wayte on the table, and to bee contented with their leauings after supper.”

By the early 1800s, the shortened version “wait at table” was being used. The first example in the OED is from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813): “She had not prudence enough to hold her tongue before the servants, while they waited at table.”

An even shorter, preposition-less version, “wait table,” appeared later in the 1800s. The earliest Oxford example is from St. Ives, a novel that Robert Louis Stevenson left unfinished when he died in 1894:

We had a good many pleasant passages as she waited table or warmed my bed for me.”

However, we’ve found several earlier examples of “wait table,” including this caption on an engraving in The Eccentric Traveler, an anonymous 1826 novel published in London: “James waiting Table at Don Gallina’s.”

Here’s another example, from The Laird of Fife, an 1828 novel by an anonymous author: “By the bye, didn’t you wait table there last Tuesday?”

And this one is from The Adventures of Barney Mahoney (1832), a novel written by Marianne Nicholson Croker and published under her husband’s name, Thomas Crofton Croker:

“Two maids an’ a man it is she keeps, an’ you’re to be the man, Barney,—that’s if yees gets it; an’ to clane plate, an’ knives, an’ shoes, an’ windy’s, an’ run errants, an’ wait table, an’ go out wid de carriage, an’ —”

All the examples we’ve seen so far—the longer as well as the shorter—use the singular “table,” probably because the expression had been used up until this time in reference to a domestic servant waiting at a single table in a home.

The two plural expressions you’ve asked about, “wait on tables” and “wait tables,” didn’t appear until well into the 1800s.

The earliest example we’ve found for “wait on tables” is in the transcript of an 1837 debate in Cincinnati between Alexander Campbell and the Rev. John B. Purcell about the Roman Catholic religion:

“The apostles exercised various functions—I admit it. But they substituted the deacons to wait on tables, and distribute the alms, so do their successors; Christ gave them powers adequate to every emergency.”

And here’s a more worldly example from an 1884 issue of New Peterson magazine, an American periodical intended for women: “How was I to know that gentlemen in white gloves ever wait on tables?”

Finally, this is from an 1894 issue of the Methodist Magazine: “Since you like so well to wait on tables, I’ll set you at that, though I doubt you are swift-footed enough for a waiter.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the “on”-less “wait tables” is from Memoir of Jane Martin and Her Little Brother (1843), a novel written anonymously by “A Lady”:

“She made no reply, but in answer to my asking what attendance I could have, she said that her daughter had been accustomed to attend her lodgers, and added in an under tone, ‘but perhaps she was too godly now to wait tables or tidy rooms.’ ”

This example comes from a July 3, 1879, advertisement in the New York Herald: “Smart boy—wait tables—make himself useful [in] restaurants, and old man to carry signs.”

And this one appeared in a help-wanted ad from the Feb. 7, 1895, issue of the Omaha World Herald: “Wanted—boys to wait tables for their board. Webster hotel, 16th and Howard.”

Nowadays, when waiters do their table-waiting in restaurants, the plural “tables” is more common.

Here are the results of a few Google searches: “wait tables,” 225,000 hits; “wait at table,” 77,900; “wait on tables,” 72,300; “wait table,” 28,900, and “wait at tables,” 23,100.

We’ve found examples for all these usages cited without reservation in the “wait” entries of standard dictionaries, though none of the dictionaries include all of them.

In Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2005), Christopher Davies describes “wait on tables” as American English and “wait at tables” as British. That’s generally true, but not always, especially in the UK.

This is from a Dec. 13, 2003, column in the Telegraph (London): “Ben hasn’t had to babysit for slave wages. Or wait on tables for even less.”

And this is from a June 27, 2014, article in the Times (London): “Waiting on tables may be a more lucrative career for the better looking, with 40 per cent of British diners admitting to tipping attractive waiting staff double what they normally would.”

As for the etymology here, the verb “wait” ultimately comes from old Germanic words meaning to watch or guard. When it first appeared in English writing around 1200 in Vices and Virtues, a Middle English religious treatise, it meant to spy upon or lie in wait for.

It took nearly two centuries for “wait” to take on the usual contemporary sense of to remain in place or delay doing something.

The earliest known example is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): Now certes lord, to abiden your persence / Heere in this temple of the goddesse clemence / We haue been waytynge al this fourtenyght.”

And as we’ve noted above it took almost two centuries more for the verb “wait” to mean, in the words of the OED, “To serve as an attendant at table; to hand food and drink to persons at a meal.”

The noun “waiter,” which has had a similar evolution, meant one who watches when it showed up in the Wycliffe Bible around 1382.

It wasn’t until the mid-1600s that it took on the sense of “a man employed, at inns, hotels, eating-houses, or similar places, to wait upon the guests (esp. during meals),” according to the OED.

We’ll end with this modern-sounding example from The Parson’s Wedding, a 1664 comedy by the English dramatist Thomas Killigrew: “The sum is six pounds, and be pleased to remember the Waiters.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

A timely hyphen

Q: When we describe a range of time, we say “from 3 to 4 p.m.” or “between 3 and 4 p.m.” What preposition should we use when there’s a hyphen between the two numbers? For example, “Our shop is open from/between 1-2 p.m.”

A: This is a style issue, and our go-to source for a question like this is The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). The answer?

You don’t use either “from” or “between” when the two numbers are connected by a hyphen.

You use a preposition only when the numbers are connected by “to” or “and” (“open from 2 to 4 p.m.” … “open between 2 and 4 p.m.).

Here are additonal examples: “It was missing from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.” … “It was missing between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.” … “It was missing 10 a.m.-8 p.m.”

We should explain here that most people use a hyphen for this purpose, but a publishing house would prefer a mark called the “en dash.” It got that name in the 18th century because the piece of type used to print it was as wide as the letter “n.”

The en dash is a teensy bit longer than the hyphen but smaller than the usual dash, which is technically called an “em dash” because the type is as wide as the letter “m.” Oh yes, and there are also “2 em dashes,” and “3 em dashes.” Got that?

The Chicago Manual, which is a guide used by publishers, refers to the en dash, not the hyphen, in discussing how to connect numbers in a range:

“For the sake of parallel construction, the word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first element in such a pair; similarly, and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element.”

The book uses these examples: “Join us on Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m., to celebrate the New Year” … “She was in college from 1998 to 2002 (not from 1998-2002).”

When the en dash is used to connect numbers, according to Chicago, it signifies “to,” “up to and including,” or “through.”

Remember, where the Chicago Manual says “en dash,” mentally substitute the word “hyphen.” The average reader can’t tell the difference without a microscope, and frankly, life is difficult enough.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Between two stools

Q: I’ve often wondered if there’s a connection between the “stool” one sits on and the “stool” one evacuates. So I’m asking.

A: The noun “stool” has referred to a toilet seat for hundreds of years. Hence, the use of “stool” for the fecal matter discharged while sitting on the toilet. Here’s the story.

When the word “stool” showed up in Old English in the late 800s, it could refer to “any kind of seat for one person,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s translation of a treatise by Pope Gregory I. The king uses “stole” (the objective form of the Old English “stool”) in translating cathedra, Latin for “chair.”

In case you’re curious, the English word “cathedral” is a shortening of “cathedral church,” which refers to the church housing a bishop’s throne, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED notes that “stool” was often used for “a chair of authority, state, or office; esp. a royal or episcopal throne,” though this sense is now obsolete.

However, a similar term, the noun “see” (from sedes, Latin for “seat”), is now used in reference to the Papacy. In church Latin, the Holy See is Sancta Sedes.

Getting back to that other throne, in the early 1400s, according to Oxford, the term “stool” took on the sense of “a seat enclosing a chamber utensil; a commode; more explicitly stool of ease”—in other words, a potty chair.

The dictionary cites James E. Thorold Rogers’s A History of Agriculture and Prices in England from 1259 to 1793, which includes two 1410 examples that refer to commodes as “close stoles.”

Although you don’t hear “stool” used much now for a commode, many standard dictionaries still include the usage.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says it can mean “a toilet seat” or “a commode.”

The OED notes that the “groom of the stole” originally oversaw “the room containing the king’s close-stool.” And the dictionary’s citations indicate that the position  was often referred to as the “groom of the stool.”

Oxford has examples for this royal usage going back to the mid-1400s, but we’ll skip ahead to this 1526 citation from a collection of royal household ordinances and regulations:

“It is the King’s pleasure, that Mr. Norres shall be in the roome of Sir William Compton, not onely giveing his attendance as groome of the King’s stoole, but also in his bed-chamber.”

And here’s a more interesting citation, from John Harington’s A New Discovrse of a Stale Svbiect, Called the Metamorphosis of Aiax (1596):

“A seuenth (whome I woulde guesse by his writing to be groome of the stoole to some Prince of the bloud in France) writes a beastly treatise, only to examin what is the fittest thing to wipe withall, alledging that white paper is too smooth.”

Over the years, the position of “groom of the stole” evolved to become what the OED describes as “a high officer of the king’s household … ranking next below the vice-chamberlain of the household.”

Although the word “stole” here is sometimes said to be a reference to the royal robe or a stole-like ornament, the dictionary pooh-poohs this “unauthenticated sense” and says “there seems to be little doubt” that “the word is properly a variant of stool n.”

Not surprisingly, the use of “stool” in the potty-chair sense led to the “stool” that means “a discharge of fæcal matter” or “the matter discharged,” as the OED puts it.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1598 translation of Jacques Guillemeau’s Frenche Chirurgie [Surgery]: “His vrine bloodye; his stoels like matter.”

Finally, if you’re wondering, the expression “to fall (or sit) between two stools” showed up in the late 1300s, meaning “to incur failure through vacillation between two different courses of action.”

We’ll end with this OED citation about the quandary facing Lily Dale in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), the final book in Anthony Trollope’s six Barsetshire novels:

“She was like to fall to the ground between two stools—having two lovers, neither of whom could serve her turn.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.