The Grammarphobia Blog

When “bad” means “good”

Q: I understand the difference between “feel bad” and “feel badly,” but “love so bad”? Wouldn’t that be best stated as “love so badly”? Perhaps I hear the wrong phrase so often that my mind is muddled.

A: In slang usage, the adjective “bad” means “good,” as we mentioned in a post we wrote some time ago about the influence of African-American slang on English.

The surprising thing about this use of “bad”—apart from the reversed meaning—is that it’s not recent. It dates back to the 19th century, as we’ll explain later.

But in an expression like “love so bad,” the word is an adverb, not an adjective. It’s being used as an intensifier—that is, to intensify the verb it modifies—with the result that “so bad” means “so greatly” or “so much.”

We know what you’re thinking—“bad” as an adverb? Is that legal?

Well, here’s another surprise. The adverb “bad” isn’t new either. It’s been around since the 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the earliest adverbial uses, “bad” wasn’t an intensifier. It was used more literally and meant “badly” or “not well.”

The OED’s earliest example is from George Turberville’s The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking (1575): “He … frames his moode, according as his hawke doth well or bad.”

But by the latter half of the 1600s, “bad” was being used intensively, to emphasize the preceding verb, in the same way that we use “much.”

This 17th-century example is from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus, a book on witches and apparitions that was written sometime before 1680: “Haunted almost as bad as Mr. Mompesson’s house.”

In the 18th century, Joseph Bellamy wrote in True Religion Delineated (1750): “We hate him so bad, that we cannot find it in our Hearts to love him.”

And in the 19th century, John Russell Bartlett included in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1859) the expression “I want to see him bad.”

The OED also includes a citation from a British novel, Under the Chilterns (1895), written under the pen name Rosemary: “Las’ week there was a job doin’ up at the squire’s, an’ I wanted to go bad.”

Today, in the OED’s estimation, this sense of “bad” as an intensifier is colloquial and nonstandard, and it appears “chiefly” in North American usage. American language authorities, however, aren’t as critical.

As we’ve written before on the blog, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage maintains that the adverb “bad” is interchangeable with “badly” after the verbs “want” and “need.”

Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an entry for the adverb “bad” defined as “badly,” and includes the example “doesn’t want it bad enough.” This dictionary treats the usage as standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t go quite that far. It says the adverbial use of “bad” as in “his tooth ached so bad” is “common in informal speech but is widely regarded as unacceptable in formal writing.”

Although the OED considers it nonstandard to use “bad” as an intensifier meaning “greatly” or “very much,” it accepts without reservation the use of “badly” in this way.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the slang use of the adjective “bad.” As we mentioned above, the use of “bad” to mean “good” dates back to the 19th century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that, especially in African-American English, “bad” is used to mean “wonderful; deeply satisfying; stunningly attractive or stylish; sexy.”

The dictionary’s earliest reference is from George Ade’s Pink Marsh (1897): “She sutny fix up a pohk chop ’at’s bad to eat.” (The book is a collection of sketches about a fictional black shoe-shine man named William Pinckney Marsh, a k a Pink.)

Random House also cites this line from a 1927 review in Variety: “In Duke Ellington’s dance band Harlem has reclaimed its own. … Ellington’s jazzique is just too bad.”

The OED also includes this usage, which it labels as slang. Here “bad” is used, the dictionary says, “as a general term of approbation” and means “good, excellent, impressive; esp. stylish or attractive.”

Oxford’s citations begin with George Ade in 1897 and continue into the present day.

Among them are this definition of “bad” in Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1955): “Bad, adj. Good. (This reverse adjectival procedure is commonly used to describe a performance.)”

The OED also includes this 1980 example, from an article in Time magazine: “Bad as the best and as cool as they come, Smokey is remarkably low key for a soul master.”

But “bad” was used further back in a slightly different and possibly unrelated slang sense.

Both Oxford and Random House have entries for “bad” meaning “formidable” and hence “formidably skilled,” with examples dating from the 1840s and ’50s.

We find some of these early citations ambiguous; the speaker’s meaning isn’t always clear-cut. As far as we can tell, the first example in which this “badness” is clearly viewed with admiration appeared in the 1870s.

Random House gives an example from The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878), an autobiography by Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.

In this passage, Flipper quotes from a newspaper article that mocked his post-graduation homecoming in 1877:

“A darkey would approach the young man, cautiously, feel of his buttons and clothes, and enthusiastically remark: ‘Bad man wid de gub-ment strops on!’ ” (The newspaper article included this among “expressions of admiration.”)

American Heritage has an interesting note on the positive uses of “bad,” which the dictionary says “illustrate a favorite creative device of informal and slang language—using a word to mean the opposite of what it ‘really’ means.”

“This is by no means uncommon; people use words sarcastically to mean the opposite of their actual meanings on a daily basis,” the dictionary says.

“What is more unusual is for such a usage to be generally accepted within a larger community,” the note continues. “Perhaps when the concepts are as basic as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ this general acceptance is made easier.”

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Is “pussy” a dirty word?

Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.” Why can’t we use this word?

A: To recap, on Dec. 7, 2015, Ralph Peters, a Fox Business analyst, called President Obama “a total pussy,” and Stacey Dash, a Fox News cultural commentator, said, “I felt like he could give a shit” about terrorism.

Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox, then suspended Peters and Dash for two weeks, saying “the comments were completely inappropriate and unacceptable for our air.”

As to your question, get serious. Unless you’re emailing from Alpha Centauri, you must know that the noun “pussy” can refer to a woman’s genitals as well as a coward or a sissy.

Did Fox overreact about the use of “pussy”? In our opinion, no. Dictionaries generally label the the first of these slang senses as vulgar and the second as offensive.

We’d describe the Fox decision to suspend the two contributors for using “shit” and “pussy” on the air as a matter of prudence rather than etymology.

Etymologically, the noun “pussy” has referred to a woman’s genitals for hundreds of years. And it probably comes from Germanic sources, not from pusillanimis, the Latin source of “pusillanimous.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a naughty reference in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by the English writer Thomas D’Urfey:

As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.”

The noun “pussy” has also referred to a sweet man, or to an effeminate one, for more than a hundred years. The OED’s first citation is from God’s Good Man, a 1904 novel by the British writer Marie Corelli: “I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”

And this example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith: “You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, this sense of “pussy” evolved to mean a coward or a weakling, according to examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new sense is from Pimp: The Story of My Life, a 1969 memoir by Iceberg Slim, the street name of Robert Beck:

“Look Preston, I got lots of heart. I’m not a pussy. I been to the joint twice. I did tough bits, but I didn’t fall apart.”

And here’s an example from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a 1973 memoir by Tim O’Brien about his experiences in Vietnam: “You afraid to be in the war, a goddamn pussy?”

As “pussy” came to mean a coward, its sexual sense changed. Before then, the word had appeared in family publications and (in the words of the OED) referred to “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man.”

Since around 1970, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter says in an Aug. 17, 2005, posting on the Linguist List, there’s “little doubt of its misogynistic genital origin.”

That explains why The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “pussy” as “informal” if it refers to a cat, “vulgar” if it means the vulva, and “offensive” if it refers to man regarded as weak, timid, or unmanly.

When the noun “pussy” showed up in writing in the 1500s, it referred to “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), an attack against the customs of the times, by the social reformer Philip Stubbes:

“You shall haue euery sawcy boy of x, xiiij, xvi, or xx yeres of age, to catch vp a woman & marie her … so he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not, for that is the only thing he desireth.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

The dictionary says “pussy” is derived from a somewhat earlier noun “puss,” which it defines as “a conventional proper or pet name for a cat” that’s often “used as a call to attract its attention.”

The OED’s first citation is from a 1533 comedy by the English playwright John Heywood: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.”

The feline meaning of “puss” is somewhat of a mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“It appears to have been borrowed from Middle Low German pus, but there the trail goes cold,” Ayto says. “Since it is basically used for calling cats, it may have originated simply in an exclamation (like pss) used for gaining their attention.”

He suggests that “pussy the slang term for ‘cunt’ may be of Low German or Scandinavian origin (Low German had puse ‘vulva’ and Old Norse puss ‘pocket, pouch.’ ”

As for the other unfortunate remark on Fox, we’ve discussed “shit” several times on our blog, including posts in 2009 and 2007. We’ve also written about “cunt” and “twat,” but not about the naughty senses of “pussy.” We did, though, discuss the feline sense of the word in 2009.

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Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

(We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 26, 2006.)

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

The first recorded use of the letter “X” for “Christ” was back in 1021, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But don’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for Christ while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

It turns out that the Greek word for Christ begins with the letter “chi,” or “X.” It’s spelled in Greek letters this way: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. In early times the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” together (“XP”) and in more recent centuries just “chi” (“X”) were used in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.” Sometimes a cross was placed before the “X” and sometimes it wasn’t.

Thus for nearly ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “XP” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.” The OED’s first recorded use of “X” in Christmas dates back to 1551.

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.

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One mustache or two?

Q: In John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, a colonel appears, “his waxed mustaches bristling with fury.” I often see “mustaches” in old books, but not in newer ones. Was the plural standard at one point? If so, when did the singular come along?

A: When the term showed up in English in the 1500s, both “mustache” and “mustaches” could mean the growth of hair above a man’s upper lip.

English borrowed the term from French, where moustache and moustaches were used in the same way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The French got the word from mustaccio, Naples dialect for the Italian mostaccio, but the evolutionary trail takes us back to mystax, Doric Greek for the upper lip or mustache, and menth-, a reconstructed Indo-European root for “chew.”

We should mention here that the term is usually spelled “mustache” in the US and “moustache” in the UK, though dictionaries on both sides of the Atlantic once preferred “mustache.”

As the OED explains, “earlier British dictionaries (Johnson, Walker, Smart) and most American dictionaries prefer the semi-anglicized form mustache.” (The references are to the lexicographers Samuel Johnson, John Walker, and Benjamin H. Smart.)

We haven’t found any authoritative explanation why a man’s “mustache” is often referred to as his “mustaches” in old books.

We’re only speculating here, but a mustache with long bristles is often brushed from the middle to each side to keep the hair above the mouth and out of the gumbo. That may account for the sense of duality.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “moustache” (it uses the British spelling) has two meanings:

(1) “A (cultivated) growth of hair above (and sometimes extending to either side of) a man’s upper lip.”

(2) “Either half of such a growth of hair. Freq. in pl. (esp. in pair of moustaches): = sense 1.” In other words, the plural can mean the same as the singular.

Although the use of “mustaches” for a “mustache” is more common in older writing, it’s not unknown today.

A photo caption in the Dec. 20, 2013, issue of Newsweek, for example, refers to a demonstrator in Kiev with “his mustaches painted in yellow-and-blue Ukrainian national flag colors.”

As for Dos Passos, we’ve found examples in the U.S.A. trilogy, published in the 1930s, for “mustache” and  “moustache,” as well as “mustaches” and “moustaches,” in reference to one man’s facial growth.

This lack of consistency is actually consistent with the way the word has been used since it showed up in English in the 16th century, according to citations in the OED.

The earliest two examples in the dictionary, from Thomas Washington’s 1585 translation of a book by the French geographer Nicolas de Nicolay, use both “mustaches” and “moustaches” in reference to multiple facial growths.

“[They] let their mustaches grow very long.”

“[They] suffered no haire to grow, but only the moustaches betwixt the nose & the mouth.”

The OED’s next citation, from a 1587 grammar book by the Scottish scholar James Carmichael, translates the singular Greek mystax as “moustaches” in English.

An Oxford citation from Honours Conquest, Henry Roberts’s 1598 biography of Edward of Lancaster, uses the singular “mustache”:

“For the Page they ordained Turkish attire, and him furnished very orderly, with a counterfeit mustache.”

And an example from Seeing Is Believing, an 1860 collection of essays by Charles Allston Collins, uses the singular “moustache”: “He was a little, middle-aged gentleman … with … a dyed moustache.”

The use of “mustaches” for “mustache” was common in literary writing well into the 20th century.

Here’s an example from Stamboul Train, a 1932 novel by Graham Greene: “The old fellow with the moustaches—he was ill all the time.”

And here’s one from World Enough and Time, a 1950 novel by Robert Penn Warren: “Crawford stood at the foot of the ladder, more gaunt than ever, his mustaches more frazzled and stained, his respectable black coat more threadbare.”

Although English borrowed “mustache” from French, it got “mustachio” from Italian and Spanish, according to the OED.

Interestingly, “mustachio” showed up in English a few decades earlier than “mustache.” The first citation in the OED is from William Thomas’s 1551 translation of Travels to Tana and Persia, a book by the Venetian explorer Giosafat Barbaro:

“They suffer their mostacchi to growe a quarter of a yarde longer than their beardes.” A margin note adds: “Mostacchi is the berde of the vpper lyppe.”

The first example for the word spelled the usual way is from a 1603 pamphlet written by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker: “The Souldier … had brisseld vp the quills of his stiffe Porcupine mustachio.”

The noun “mustachio,” like “mustache,” has often been used in the plural for the hair above one man’s upper lip. When used in the plural today, according to Oxford Dictionaries online, the two words refer to a large or elaborate mustache.

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Is “me neither” legit?

Q: When someone says, “I don’t like beef,” it’s apparently incorrect to respond, “Me neither,” since “me” is an object, not a subject. But I’ve never heard, “I neither,” only “Me neither” or “Neither do I.”

A: “Me neither” is technically incorrect here, but a lot of people use it idiomatically. In fact, English speakers have been using it since the late 19th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “me neither” for “nor I” (and, we’d add, for “neither do I”) as colloquial—more suited to conversation than to formal English.

The OED says the usage originated in the US, but two of its four citations are from British sources.

The earliest example is from the Feb. 6, 1882, issue of the Marion (OH) Daily Star: “  ‘When I get out I’m not going to tamper with any more proverbs,’ remarked No. 2. ‘Me neither,’ responded No. 1.”

And this is an example from You Can’t Win, a 1926 memoir by Jack Black about his itinerant life of crime: “ ‘I wouldn’t plead guilty to anything if I were you,’ I advised him. ‘Me, neither,’ said his partner.”

The OED’s latest citation is from Sharking, a 1999 novel by the British writer Sophie Stewart: “ ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I said finally. … ‘Me neither,’ said Lucinda.”

Getting back to your question, “Me neither” is an elliptical (or incomplete) version of a longer reply.

When someone says “I don’t like beef,” you can respond with a full sentence if you like. You might say, for example, “I don’t like it either,” “Neither do I like it,” or “Nor do I like it.” But the last two sound stilted.

Then there are various elliptical versions of those responses: “I don’t either,” “Neither do I,” “Nor do I,” and the even more clipped “Nor I.” All of these are technically correct, because “I” is proper as the implied object of an elliptical sentence.

In our own usage, we prefer “I don’t either” or “Neither do I” in conversation. We find “Nor do I” and “Nor I” too formal for speech, though we might use them in writing.

As for “Me neither,” we don’t bat an eye when someone uses it in speech or casual writing. (“Me too” is commonly used in response to positive statements, as we’ve written before on the blog.)

But “I neither” is seldom (if ever) heard in response to a negative statement like “I don’t like beef.” It’s simply not idiomatic—that is, not commonly used by native speakers.

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When the postman came twice

Q: In editing a book on tramways in Australia, I came across a puzzling phrase in old correspondence: “in response to yours of even date.” I finally worked out that the response was to a letter sent the same day—that is, “of today’s date.” This reminded me of when we used to have two mail deliveries a day.

A: Yes, the phrase “of even date” means “of the same date” or “of today’s date,” according to the Collins English Dictionary.

Here the sense of “even” is equal in magnitude, number, or quantity—not “even” as in divisible by two.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase as “common in U.S.; in England chiefly in legal language.”

Common in the United States? This is news to us, since we’ve never come across it before. Our guess is that it’s always been confined to legal or business language.

In fact, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (3rd ed.) would like to see “even date” less common in legal usage too.

Bryan A. Garner, a lexicographer and lawyer, writes that the usage “originated in commercialese but has affected lawyers’ writing as well. The best practice is to name the date a second time or to write the same date.”

Written examples for the usage date back at least as far as the mid-17th century. The earliest we’ve been able to find is from a legal document entitled “The Commission for Discoveries,” written by Oliver Cromwell and published in 1656:

“We have by Our Letters of Privy Seal, bearing even date with these presents, given full Warrant and Authority in that behalf, to the said Commissioners of, and for Our Treasury to allow and pay the same accordingly.”

The use of the phrase “even date” in the sense of “today’s date” or “the same date” was probably common in commercial writing during Cromwell’s time.

It was familiar enough to be included at least seven times in a clerical manual of the same era, The Clerk’s Tutor for Writing (1667), by Edward Cocker.

The manual is a collection of mock legal documents that illustrate the proper forms clerks should follow. Wherever one document refers to another of the same date, the phrase “bearing even date with these presents” is used—a formula that’s still found in legal writing today.

The OED cites only two examples of the expression “even date.” The earliest is from a document dated March 10, 1681: “Reciting an Indenture of even date therewith.”

Oxford also has this 19th-century example: “By deed of even date he covenanted to pay all calls in respect of the shares.” (From the Weekly Notes, London, 1885.)

In closing, we’ll quote a poem that appears, with many flourishes, in the front of that 17th-century clerks’ manual:

Your book, arme, pen, right forward place.
Your breast from board, yo[ur] head vpright.
Your fingers strait, minde every grace.
Move your pen freely, beare it light.
Full, small, height, depth, & distance mark.
These, with proportions, make a Clerk.

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Are your duds a dud?

Q: How did “duds” become slang for clothes?

A: We wouldn’t describe the use of “duds” for clothing as slang. The five standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it as informal or include it without comment—that is, as standard English.

In fact, the word has referred to clothes for hundreds of years, since the Middle Ages, when a “dudde” was “a cloak or mantle,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The earliest example we could find is from a 1307 entry in Boldon Buke, a survey ordered by Bishop Hugh Pudsey of church possessions in Durham, England:

“xxvj duddis emptis ad pauperes” (“26 duds bought for the poor”).

And here’s a felonious example from Lanthorne and Candle-Light, a 1609 pamphlet by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker:

“We will filch some duddes: we will filch some clothes.”

Chambers says the word is “of uncertain origin.” The English philologist Walter William Skeat has said it’s probably of Scandinavian origin, though preserved only in dúða, an Icelandic word for swaddling clothes.

In the early 1500s, the English plural “duds” also came to mean ragged clothing, according to the dictionary, and in the early 1900s the singular “dud” took on the sense of an inefficient or useless person or thing.

Here’s an example from the Jan. 28, 1908, issue of the Westminster Gazette for the useless sense: “A ‘dud’ car is a worthless contraption.”

In World War I, Chambers says, the word “dud” came to mean “a shell which failed to explode; hence, failure.”

The earliest example for the military sense in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Between the Lines, a 1915 book about the war by Boyd Cable, pen name of Ernest Ewart: “One of these [shells] was a dud an’ didn’t burst.”

The OED’s first example for “dud” used in reference to a human failure is from the Sept. 1, 1920, issue of Punch: “He … has … been irritated by his school-boy son derisively addressing him as an ‘old dud.’ ”

Note: Although standard dictionaries accept “duds” (used to mean clothes) as informal or standard English, the  OED describes it as slang or colloquial. However, the OED notes that its entry hasn’t been fully updated.

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As the passive progressed

Q: I’ve recently noticed a construction in Emma that doesn’t occur in modern English. When Frank Churchill and Emma entered Ford’s, “the sleek, well-tied parcels of ‘Men’s Beavers’ and ‘York Tan’ were bringing down and displaying on the counter.” Is this a common usage from Jane Austen’s era?

A: You’ve stumbled across a very interesting old usage, from a time when houses were “building” instead of “being built,” portraits were “painting” instead of “being painted,” and boots were “mending” instead of “being mended.”

People used this now-archaic construction, which grammarians call the passival, because the passive progressive tense—“was being built,” “is being painted,” and so on—hadn’t yet come into English.

Although a few examples of the passive progressive were recorded in Jane Austen’s day, the usage was rare at the time.

Austen  wrote that the gloves “were bringing down and displaying” instead of “were being brought down and displayed” because the latter construction was probably unknown to her.

Emma was published in late 1815, when only one form of the verb “be” was commonly used as an auxiliary in standard English.

It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that people began regularly combining two forms of the verb “be” (as in “is being,” “was being,” “were being”) to form the passive progressive tense.

In searches of literary databases, we’ve found many illustrations of the older construction, which uses the active voice to describe what is passive in meaning.

Austen uses it in this Feb. 8, 1807, letter to her sister Cassandra: “Our garden is putting in order, by a Man who bears a remarkably good Character, has a very fine complexion & asks something less than the first.”

She also uses it in Northanger Abbey, which was written in the late 1700s, revised several times in the early 1800s, and published after Austen’s death in 1817:

“The bustle of going was not pleasant. The clock struck ten while the trunks were carrying down, and the general had fixed to be out of Milsom Street by that hour.”

We’ve found many other examples of the usage. In this one, hymns are “singing” instead of “being sung”:

“He saw the [them] al kneele down, and whilest each Gloria Patri, &c. was singing, they al fell prostrat on their faces.” (From An Admirable Method to Love, Serve, and Honour the B. Virgin Mary, written in Italian by Alexis de Salo and published in English in 1639.)

In this humbler example, a “house of office” (that is, a privy) is “emptying” instead of “being emptied”:

“So from thence home, where my house of office was emptying, and I find they will do it with much more cleanness than I expected.” (From a July 28, 1663, entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary.)

In this passage, ships are “mending” instead of “being mended”:

“Here we found Ruy Freira with part of his Ships, of which some were mending.” (From The Travels of Sig. Pietro della Valle, a Noble Roman, Into East-India and Arabia Deserta, published in English in 1665.)

And here we find a bridge that’s “finishing” instead of “being finished”:

“For whilst the Bridge was finishing with incredible Expedition, some Soldiers for Spyes swam over to the other side.”  (From The History of the Turks, by Sir Paul Rycaut, 1700.)

In an account of a trial for seditious libel, the sentence is “reading” instead of “being read”:

“Whilst his sentence was reading he appeared sometimes to mutter against it.” (From The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transactions in and About the Low Countries, originally written in Low Dutch in 1703 and published in English in 1722.)

Finally, in a usage found often in 17th- and 18th-century writing, tea is “preparing” instead of “being prepared”:

“Tea was preparing. Sir Charles took his own seat next Lord L. whom he set into talk of Scotland.” (From Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison, 1753.)

This use of “preparing” survived until well into the 19th century: “They were seated in the coolest seats on the piazza, and melons and other fruit brought while tea was preparing.” (From an unsigned story in the January 1836 issue of a New York monthly, the Ladies Companion.)

Jane Austen was among the last generation of writers to use the old verb form without the passive “being.” Later writers made greater use of “being” as they shifted to the new passive progressive tense (or “aspect,” a term many linguists prefer).

But the transition wasn’t a smooth one. As the OED notes, early 19th-century grammarians condemned the new usage.

Oxford cites criticism from David Booth’s An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language (1830): “For some time past, ‘the bridge is being built,’ ‘the tunnel is being excavated,’ and other expressions of a like kind, have pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

That passage does not appear in the original, 1805 edition of Booth’s book, so the new construction must have come to his attention sometime between then and 1830.

The linguist Mark Liberman, in a Jan. 11, 2013, post on the Language Log, notes that the new usage was still being criticized in the second half of the 19th century.

The literary critic Richard Grant White, for example, wrote in Words and Their Uses (1870) that the construction served “to affront the eye, torment the ear, and assault the common sense of the speaker of plain and idiomatic English.”

But there were good reasons why the passive progressive developed, as we’ll see.

Long before Austen’s time, in fact since the late 1300s, people had been combining the old preposition “a” with gerunds used passively to describe an action in progress.

Here’s an example from the King James Bible (1611): “In the dayes of Noah while the Arke was a preparing.”

Here, “preparing” is a gerund—essentially, a noun—rather than a present participle. The “a” preposition, the OED says, was used with a gerund in “expressing process,” and meant “in process of, in course of,” or “underdoing (some process)” such as making, building, mending, etc.

“On,” and “in” had been used the same way. So a theoretical 16th-century writer might say that court papers were “on preparing” or “in preparing” or “a preparing” and mean the same thing—the papers were in preparation.

By Austen’s time, the prepositions had mostly fallen away. But eventually these “-ing” usages led to ambiguity, since in identical constructions one “-ing” word was a participle and the other a gerund.

Someone might write, for example, that his lawyers “were preparing” papers (participle), but also that the papers themselves “were preparing” (gerund).

For an extreme example of the confusion this might cause, take a look at this OED citation from Henry More’s An Antidote Against Atheisme 1653): The shreeks of men while they are a murdering.”

The writer didn’t mean that the men shrieked as they murdered people. He meant that they shrieked as they were being murdered: “a murdering” here meant undergoing murder. But only the context would tell the reader which meaning was intended.

Obviously, English needed a new tense—one combining a form of “be” + “being” + past participle, as in “were being murdered.”

The OED’s earliest use for the new tense is dated 1772, in a letter written by the Earl of Malmesbury: “I have received the speech and address of the House of Lords; probably, that of the House of Commons was being debated when the post went out.”

Two later examples are cited from the 1790s, also from private letters. But it wasn’t until after Jane Austen’s time that the passive progressive became common.

Remnants of the old usages are still with us today. We still say “time’s a-wasting” for “time is being wasted.”

And we still say “nothing doing,” a leftover from the Middle Ages when people said that things were “doing” instead of “being done.”

As the OED says, the old passive construction “to be doing” meant “to be in the course of being done, to be happening.”

Here’s the old usage in action: “Little thought false Reyner what was doing at Canterbury, whiles hee was trotting to Rome.” (From The History of Great Britaine Under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans, by John Speed, 1614.)

And here’s one with a very modern sound, quoted in the OED: “He always says there is nothing doing.” (From a letter written by the Earl of Manchester in 1700.)

Eventually, in the 19th century, the phrase became simply “nothing doing.” The OED gives this example:

“A friend of mine hailed an outfitter the other day, ‘How is business?’ ‘Nothing doing.’” (From a Liverpool weekly, the Porcupine, 1870.)

And in the first decade of the 20th century, the meaning changed. “Nothing doing” became “an announcement of refusal of a request or offer, failure in an attempt, etc.,” Oxford says.

The dictionary gives this example from the Dec. 13, 1910, issue of the New York Evening Post: “Spottford offered the porter a dime. The negro waved it aside and said: ‘Nothing doing; my price is a quarter at least.’ ”

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Whole lotta trepidatin’ goin’ on

Q: Hey, I’ve just referred to a group of workmates as “trepidated,” and I hereby record for posterity that I came up with it. Or did I?

A: Nope, you’re nearly a century late. “Trepidated” has been used adjectivally since the early 1800s to mean shaken, fearful, agitated, or disturbed.

Furthermore, several related words with a similar meaning—“trepidat,” “trepidating,” and “trepidatious”—have been around for quite some time too, with the oldest dating back to the early 1600s.

However, all these words are relatively rare or obsolete. The only one you’ll find now in standard dictionaries is “trepidatious,” and not many dictionaries have it.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Oxford Dictionaries online have entries for “trepidatious” (M-W also includes the alternative spelling “trepidacious”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t have a separate entry for “trepidatious,” but it lists the word as an adjectival form in its entry for the noun “trepidation.”

All of these words of agitation are ultimately derived from trepidare, a Latin verb meaning to hurry or bustle, as well as to be agitated or alarmed.

The first of them to appear in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an adjective spelled “trepidat” or “trepidate.” The earliest example in the OED is from John Dove’s A Confutation of Atheisme (1605):

“The celestiall spheres in continuall volubilitye … their diurnall or daylye course from the East to the West, their retrograde and vyolent motion from the West to the East, their trepidat motion from the South to the North.”

Not many years later, the verb “trepidate,” meaning to shake or tremble with fear or agitation, showed up in writing.

The first citation in the OED is from a 1623 dictionary of “hard English words” compiled by Henry Cockeram: “Trepidate, to tremble for feare.”

The noun “trepidation,” meaning tremulous agitation or alarm, appeared soon after.

The earliest OED citation is from a 1625  essay by Francis Bacon: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the present participle “trepidating” used as an adjective is from The Light of Nature Pursued, a seven-volume philosophical opus by Abraham Tucker that was published 60 years after his death in 1774:

“A calm and steady alertness … never anxious nor trepidating.”

The dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the past participle “trepidated” used as an adjective, but we’ve had no trouble finding examples in digital databases.

The earliest is from “The Fatal Prophecy,” an 1838 story by Edward Stirling in the Monthly Magazine, a British periodical that published some of Charles Dickens’s Boz sketches:

“With a voice trepidated and wavering he called off his fierce tribe, and ’spite of their discontent and mutterings, he led them away from the scene of their guilt and carnage.”

The latecomer, “trepidatious,” meaning apprehensive or nervous, showed up in the early 20th century.

The first example in the OED is from The Sirdar’s Oath: A Tale of the Northwest Frontier, a 1904 novel by Bertram Mitford:

“Hilda looked up from the papers she had been busy with as he entered—in fact, made a guilty and trepidatious attempt at sweeping them out of sight.”

We’ll end with a romantic use of the verb from The Travels of Antenor in Greece and Asia, an anonymous 1799 English version of a Greek manuscript found at Herculaneum:

“At first she attacked me by ogling me with amorous glances and languishing looks, to which I politely answered by some little strokes of gallantry, till, by insensible degrees, a kind of attachment began to be formed on both sides, and our hearts reciprocally trepidated with love.”

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We are met on a great blog

Q: Watching a recent rebroadcast of “The Civil War” on PBS, I was struck by this sentence in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” Is “we are met” just a poetic usage? Or is something else going on?

A: “We are met” is a present-perfect construction, parallel to “we have met.” The usage dates back to the Middle Ages, but by Lincoln’s time it was considered archaic and poetic.

You can still hear it today, though the usage sounds unusual to modern ears because it combines “met” (the past participle of “meet”) with a form of “be” as the auxiliary verb instead of the usual “have.”

So, for instance, a speaker uses “we are met to honor him” in place of “we have met to honor him”—or, to use the simple present tense, “we meet to honor him.”

The poetic “we are met” gives the message a solemnity and gravity it wouldn’t otherwise convey.

Here “met” is used in the sense of “assembled” or “gathered” or “brought together.” And the auxiliary “be” is possible only when this sense of “met” is used intransitively—that is, without a direct object.

In its entry for “meet,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in intransitive use the perfect tenses were freq. formed with the auxiliary be in Middle English and early modern English; subsequently this became archaic and poetic.”

The OED has citations from the 14th century onward, including this Middle English example from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Complaint of Mars” (circa 1385): “The grete joye that was betwix hem two, / When they be mette.”

This one is from Thomas Starkey’s A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, written sometime before 1538: “Seying that we be now here mete … accordyng to our promys.”

And here’s a poetic 19th-century use from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Virginians (1859): “The two gentlemen, with a few more friends, were met round General Lambert’s supper-table.”

Today, we’re more likely to encounter this usage on solemn occasions, as when people gather for religious worship or funeral eulogies.

Lincoln isn’t the only American politician to use “we are met” in elevated oratory. In 1965, in a speech before Congress in support of equal voting rights, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:

“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

A somewhat similar use of “met” with the “be” auxiliary is also antiquated today. This is the expression “to be well met,” first recorded in the 15th century and meaning to be welcome or well received.

This is the source of the old expression “hail fellow well met,” which evolved in the late 16th century from the slightly earlier phrase “hail, fellow!”

“Hail, fellow!” was a friendly greeting of the 1500s that was also used adjectivally, the OED says, to mean “on such terms, or using such freedom with another, as to accost him with ‘hail, fellow!’ ”

We’ll quote 19th-century examples of the shorter as well as the longer adjectival phrases, courtesy of the OED:

“He crossed the room to her … with something of a hail-fellow bearing.” (From Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886.)

“He was popular … though not in any hail-fellow-well-met kind of way.” (From H. Rider Haggard’s novel Colonel Quaritch, V.C., 1888.)

We’ll close with a more contemporary example we found in a letter to the editor of the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 2012:

“The most exciting thing about the Republican National Convention was the hurricane. … Where is the enthusiasm, the fire they need to capture the voters? Where is the ‘Hail fellow, well met’? This convention was a snore fest.”

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Lexical summitry

Q: A review of the 3-D movie Everest in The New Yorker says climbers on the world’s highest peak have “an indomitable urge to use the word ‘summit’ as an intransitive verb.” When was the noun “summit” first used as a verb? Who gets the credit?

A: Believe it or not, the first person to verb the noun “summit” in writing was apparently Chaucer—back in the 1300s!

At that time, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb meant to submit or subject. This sense ultimately comes from submittere, Latin for (among other things) to lower or diminish.

Here’s one of the dictionary’s two examples of the usage from Chaucer’s Middle English translation (circa 1374) of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae:

“Þanne summytten ȝe and putten ȝoure self vndir þo fouleste þinges” (“Then to submit and put yourself under those foulest things”).

This sense of the verb is now obsolete (the last OED citation is from the 1400s), and it’s not related to the verbing of the noun “summit” in mountain climbing and diplomacy—two relatively recent usages.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the verb “summit” used in mountaineering, but it has citations dating back to the early 1970s for the verb used in the diplomatic sense.

In our searches of digital databases, the earliest example we’ve found for the verb “summit” used in the climbing sense dates from the late 1970s, but the usage has been relatively rare until the last few years.

Three of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked have entries for “summit” used as a verb in mountaineering or diplomacy, but only one dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th ed.) includes both senses.

Merriam-Webster’s describes the verb as intransitive in both senses—that is, without an object. Examples: “The foreign ministers will summit tomorrow” … “He summited solo on day 10.”

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Oxford Dictionaries online say the mountaineering verb can be used transitively (with an object) as well as intransitively.

Oxford Dictionaries gives these examples: “in 2013, 658 climbers summited Everest” … “they started climbing at 3:45 a.m. and summited at 8:45 p.m.”

All this lexical summitry began with summum, Latin for highest, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“When the Romans counted up columns of figures they worked from the bottom upwards, and put the total on top—whence the use of the expression res summa, literally ‘highest thing,’ for ‘total,’ ” Ayto writes.

He adds that the Latin phrase “was eventually shortened to summa, which reached English via Old French summe.”

When the noun “summit” (spelled “somette”) showed up in English in the 1400s, it referred to the top of something, specifically the crown of a head.

The first example in the OED is from Le Morte Darthur (1470-85), Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian legend:

“It clefte his hede fro the somette of his hede.” (The citation refers to a bloody battle in which the wounded King Arthur uses his sword Excalibur to slash Emperor Lucius from the top of the head all the way down to the chest.)

At about the same time, according to the dictionary’s citations, the noun “summit” took on the meaning of “the topmost point or ridge of a mountain or hill” as well as “the highest elevation” of a road, a canal, and so on.

The OED’s first example for this sense is from Godeffroy of Boloyne, William Caxton’s 1481 English translation of an Old French version of a Latin work about the Crusades by the 12th-century prelate William of Tyre:

“Syon is toward the weste, on the sommete or toppe theron stondeth the chirche which is named Syon.”

In the 1700s, the noun took on the figurative meaning of the highest degree of something, such as happiness or love or literary achievement.

The first Oxford example is from a letter written sometime before 1717 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “Supposing I was at the very summit of this sort of happiness.”

In the mid-20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations, “summit” took on the specific meaning of the highest level “with reference to politics and international relations.”

The first example is from a comment by Winston Churchill in the Feb. 15, 1950, issue of the Times (London): “It is not easy to see how things could be worsened by a parley at the summit, if such a thing were possible.”

The earliest example for the phrase “summit meeting” is from the May 5, 1955, issue of the New York Times: “I say at this moment I see no reason for that summit meeting.”

And the first example for “summit conference” is from the June 23, 1955, issue of the Times (London): “The senator’s resolution demanding that the United States should refuse to attend the ‘summit’ conference.”

By the 1960s, according to the OED, “summit” was being used elliptically—that is, by itself—to mean a “summit conference” or a “summit meeting.”

Here’s an example from the June 30, 1967, issue of the Spectator: “The most certain result of the Glassboro summit, in fact, is no more than that Mr. Johnson’s standing at home is now rather higher.”

As for the verb “summit,” the dictionary’s first modern example (from the June 5, 1972, issue of Time magazine) uses the verb in its diplomatic sense:

”Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is willing to summit with the chap (probably at the end of the month).”

As we’ve said, the OED doesn’t have an entry for “summit” used as a verb in mountain climbing. The earliest example we’ve found is from a 1978 issue of Antarctic, a publication of the New Zealand Antarctic Society:

“It was then onto Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjero in Tanzania which stands at 5,894 m and which they summited on 17 August, prior to flying to Australia to climb the 2,230 metre high Mt. Kosciusko in New South Wales, on 26 August.”

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Holiday dressing

Q: This question is too late for Thanksgiving, but you may find it useful for Christmas or New Year’s: Is the verb “dress” (to gut a dead deer) related to the noun “dressing” (the stuffing in a turkey)?

A: Yes, to “dress” a deer is etymologically related to the “dressing” that’s stuffed in a holiday turkey. And both senses are related to the verb “dress” (to put on clothes) and the noun “dress” (the garment).

All those senses are ultimately derived from directus, Latin for “straight” and the source of the English word “direct,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

So how did a Latin word for straight, you may ask, twist and turn in English to give us terms for stuffing a turkey and gutting a hunted deer in the field?

When Middle English borrowed the verb “dress” from Old French in the 1300s, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant to straighten, erect, prepare, or arrange. (In Old French, dresser meant to arrange.)

The “prepare” sense of “dress” in Middle English included “preparing for use as food, by making ready to cook” as well as seasoning, according to written examples in the OED.

This example is from Richard Cœur de Lyon, a Middle English romance written sometime before 1400: “Or ye come the flesch was dressyd” (“Before your coming, the flesh was dressed”).

And here’s a 1430 citation from a Middle English cookbook: “Put yn þe Oystrys þer-to, and dresse it forth” (“Put the oysters in [the pot of broth] and dress it”).

This example is from Nicholas Lichefield’s 1582 translation of a book by the Portuguese historian Fernão Lopes de Castanheda: “To dresse their meate with salt water.”

The food sense of the verb “dress” gave us the noun “dressing,” which the OED defines as “the seasoning substance used in cooking; stuffing; the sauce, etc., used in preparing a dish, a salad, etc.”

The earliest Oxford example is a 1504 entry in the Records of the Borough of Nottingham: “For floure and peper, and dressing.”

Getting back to “dress,” all of the Oxford examples for the culinary sense of the verb refer to the kind of preparation that one would do in a kitchen, not out in the field.

However, the OED has an entry for “field-dress,” which it describes as a “chiefly N. Amer.” verb meaning “to remove the internal organs from (hunted game) soon after the kill, primarily to aid the cooling of the carcass.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the usage is from Game in the Desert, a 1939 book by Jack O’Connor about hunting in the American Southwest and northern Mexico:

“For a hunting knife the sportsman should choose a good substantial pocket knife…. With it he can field-dress his game, bore holes in leather, [etc.].”

The most recent OED example is from the Nov. 6, 2008, issue of the New York Review of Books: Another one of those cool Harvard Law Review cats who can’t field-dress a chicken, much less a moose.”

Although the verbal phrase “field-dress” may be more popular in the US than in the UK, as the OED asserts, we’ve found examples for the verb “dress” itself used in that sense on both sides of the Atlantic since the 1800s.

In Woodstock, an 1826 novel by Sir Walter Scott, for example, poachers “flayed and dressed the deer, and quartered him, and carried him off, and left the hide and horns.”

And in A Snow Storm in Humboldt, a story in the November 1892 issue of the Overland Monthly in San Francisco, a neighbor gives the narrator one of three deer he’s shot.

“He stayed but a few minutes,” the narrator says, “then I washed my dishes, dressed the deer, chopped wood, brought water from the spring, and prepared supper.”

Interestingly, the most common sense now of the verb “dress” (to put on one’s clothes) didn’t show up until the 1600s, according to citations in the OED.

We’ll skip ahead to this example from Henry Fielding’s 1749  novel Tom Jones: “He had barely Time left to dress himself.”

The use of the verb in the sense of dressing someone else, not oneself, showed up earlier. Here’s an example from the York Mystery Plays (circa 1440), a Middle English cycle of religious pageants: “Dresse vs in riche array.”

The noun “dress,” used to mean a one-piece garment worn by women and girls, showed up in the 1600s. The earliest OED citation is from The Fancies, Chast and Noble, a 1638 comedy by John Ford: “Your Dresses blab your vanities.”

Finally, here are some additional meanings for “dress” and “dressing” that evolved from the original senses of the verb in Middle English: to “dress” a wound (1471), to “dress” a garden with manure (1526), to “dress up” (1674), the “dressings” on a wound (1713), to “dress” for dinner (1741), to “dress” a shop window (1843), and to give someone a “dressing down” (1876).

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On the Pequod, and under weigh

Q: Regarding your post about “under way,” please note that as the ship Pequod left port it was “getting under weigh.” This was a nautical metaphor that alluded to the process of pulling up anchor to begin a trip.

A: As we wrote in our 2009 post, the original term for a ship moving through the water was “under way,” not “under weigh.” Strictly speaking, a ship “weighs anchor” before getting “under way.”

The Oxford English Dictionary labels “under weigh” a common variant of “under way” that arose “from erroneous association with the phr. ‘to weigh anchor.’ ”

But a term that lexicographers label a “variant” is merely that. It’s not incorrect, just an alternative spelling.

In most dictionaries, the “variant” label means the spelling is acceptable in standard English, unless a more restrictive label, like “dialect” or “slang” or “offensive,” is also appended.

Both of these nautical expressions date from the 18th century. Oxford’s earliest example of “under way” in English writing is from 1743, and the earliest for “under weigh” is from 1777.

The dictionary describes the earlier “under way” as a nautical term from the Dutch onderweg or onderwegan.

In Dutch, a language from which English adapted many nautical terms, onder means “under, in the course of, etc.,” and weg means “way.” The phrase, the OED says, is “often spelt under weigh.”

What do standard American dictionaries say about “under weigh”?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats “under weigh” as a variant derived “by folk etymology” from “under way.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that the “weigh” here is a variant of “way” that was “influenced by weigh, as in weigh anchor.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) says much the same: in the phrase “under weigh,” the dictionary notes, the use of “weigh” for “way” is a variant spelling “modified by the notion of ‘weighing anchor.’ ”

The online Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary makes no mention at all of “under weigh.” It has only “under way,” and uses the example “The ship is under way.” Elsewhere, Random House defines “weigh anchor” as “to heave up a ship’s anchor in preparation for getting under way.”

In short, many dictionaries accept “under weigh” as a variant. And in our opinion it’s so firmly established in nautical usage that it’s no longer remarkable, though “under way” is preferable on etymological grounds.

As for your comment about Herman Melville’s use of “under weigh” in Moby-Dick, he wasn’t the only literary figure to choose the variant.

As Michael Quinion notes on his website World Wide Words, the usage “has the ghostly support of generations of writers.”

In addition to Melville, Quinion cites William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Frederick Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, and C. S. Forester.

The mistaken spelling was perhaps inevitable. As Quinion says, “Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. “

Here are the two earliest examples for each term, courtesy of the OED:

1743: “To prevent which, we do agree, that when Under-way they shall not separate.” (From A Voyage to the South-Seas in the Years 1740-1, by the shipmates John Bulkeley and John Cummins.)

1751: “We drew up the two boats, and set all hands at work to put the ship under way.” (From Robert Paltock’s novel The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins.)

1777: “I can assure you on the authority of Mr. Sullivan, that he saw him underweigh in the Bessborough and for the East Indies several Weeks ago.” (From a letter written by E. Draper, and later published in the journal Notes and Queries in 1944.)

1785: “This perverse wind has at last … come about to the east, so that we are all in high spirits getting under weigh.” (From a piece by Richard Cumberland, published in the Observer, London.)

As you can see, it didn’t take the variant long to catch on.

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