The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “wussy” milder than “pussy”?

Q: You might have mentioned in your recent “pussy” post that “wuss” and “wussy” are common substitutions to make the sense of a weak person more acceptable.

A: We didn’t mention “wuss” and “wussy” in our post about “pussy,” but etymologists think these words may be related.

The noun “wuss” is perhaps a blend of “wimp” and “puss,” and the noun and adjective “wussy” could be a combination of “wimp” and “pussy.”

Here “wimp,” first recorded in American slang in 1920, means “a feeble or ineffectual person,” or “one who is spineless or ‘wet,’ ” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

And, as we discussed in our earlier post, the popular slang senses of “puss” and “pussy” convey, among other things, notions of cowardice, weakness, and effeminacy.

Both the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang propose these senses of “pussy” as the possible sources of “wuss” and “wussy.” But while Green’s is more positive, the OED says the exact etymology remains uncertain.

It appears that “wuss” and “wussy” were products of 1970s American college slang. Oxford labels them “colloquial”—that is, found more often in speech than in formal writing.

The two words are defined similarly in the OED, but with a slight (or not so slight) difference.

“Wuss” means simply “a  weak or ineffectual person,” the OED says. But “wussy” has an extra component.

The adjective “wussy” can mean either “weak, ineffectual” or “effeminate,” according to the dictionary, while the noun “wussy” can mean “a weak or ineffectual person” or “an effeminate man.”

It strikes us that “wuss” or “wussy” is milder, and less offensive, than “pussy” because it doesn’t seem to convey the genital association of “pussy.”

The OED’s earliest citations for “wuss” are dated November 1976. They were recorded in a typescript entitled “Campus Slang,” compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.”

Later American citations include these:

“You ought to meet her first, you wuss” (from Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High).

“Everybody thinks I’m a wuss. And I don’t impress any of the stunt women at all” (from the Washington Post, August 1984).

But the usage is exclusively American no longer. The OED includes this Australian example: “Give us y’lunch, Hooper, you great wuss!” (a caption in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, January 1996).

The OED’s citations for “wussy” begin at around roughly the same time as “wuss,” and in college slang. We’ll begin with the adjective:

“Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” (from the Harvard Crimson, September 1977).

“They [New Zealanders] really don’t have any sense of what American football is. They think it’s a wussy sport because you put on helmets and pads. They say real men play rugby” (Washington Post, January 1985).

And here are some citations for the noun, beginning with the earliest:

“Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 1981).

“Those pampered, effete, ungrateful, deodorant-averse European wussies” (Vanity Fair, March 2003).

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PEE-a-nist or pee-A-nist?

Q: When I was growing up, almost everyone pronounced “pianist” as PEE-a-nist. But these days, even on classical music stations, it’s pee-A-nist. Is this a misguided attempt to avoid saying something that sounds slightly rude?

A: The word “pianist” has been pronounced both PEE-a-nist and pee-A-nist since the 19th century.

Today, American dictionaries include both pee-A-nist and PEE-a-nist as standard pronunciations, while British dictionaries list only PEE-a-nist.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Jan. 5, 1820, issue of the Times (London): An accomplished Theorist, emphatic Pianist, and elegantly chaste Articulative Vocalist.”

The oldest dictionary we’ve found that includes the term is Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which gives PEE-a-nist as the only pronunciation.

However, most of the other dictionaries we’ve seen from the 19th and early 20th centuries give pee-A-nist as the only pronunciation.

For example, A Dictionary of the English Language Exhibiting Orthography, Pronunciation and Definition of Words (1861), by Arnold J. Cooley, gives the pronunciation as pee-A-nist.

Similarly, the Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (1874), by James Stormonth and P. H. Phelp, has pee-A-nist.

A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1881), by John Walker, with a 5,000 word supplement by Edward Smith, gives the pronunciation as pee-A-nist.

And a 1904 edition of the Stormonth-Phelp dictionary, updated by William Bayne, also offers only the pee-A-nist pronunciation.

Two of the most important standard dictionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—The Century Dictionary (1889-91) and Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)—also pronounce “pianist” as pee-A-nist.

However, James Murray’s early version of the Oxford English Dictionary lists PEE-a-nist as the only pronunciation.

Murray included the pronunciation in his June 1906 “Ph-Piper” fascicle, or installment, of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which became the first edition of the OED. (Volume VII of the NED, covering the letters O and P, was published in 1909.)

Interestingly, the “pianist” entry in the online OED, which was updated in 2006, still accents the first syllable, PEE-a-nist, though the vowels are slightly different in the US and UK versions.

Finally, we’ve seen no evidence that prudery has had anything to do with the pee-A-nist pronunciation. A more likely influence may have been the pronunciation of the instrument itself, pee-A-no.

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Is there evil in Eve?

Q: Could there POSSIBLY be a linguistic connection between “Eve” and “evil”? Or is it just too slick an idea?

A: Nope, there’s no connection between “evil,” which comes from old Germanic sources, and the name “Eve,” which is derived from Hebrew. The similarity in sound is purely coincidental.

“Evil,” written as yfel in Old English, was definitively recorded as a noun around the year 825 and as an adjective in 897, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But it could be even older, since the plural form ylfa occurs in Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as 725.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500), the word was written as iuele, uvel, üvel, and finally evel, predecessor of the modern spelling.

It appears that in English, “evil” acquired a worse reputation than it had in the Germanic languages it came from.

The word has been traced to an Indo-European root, reconstructed as upo-, one of whose meanings was “over.” In prehistoric Proto-Germanic, this root developed into ubilaz, or “excessive.”

“Considering these original usages, as meaning ‘over’ and ‘excessive,’ ” Hajime Nakamura writes in A Comparative History of Ideas (1992), “it is not too surprising that some of the world’s greatest traditions developed concepts of a ‘mean’ (nothing to excess) as the absence of evil.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the ancient ancestors of “evil” conveyed notions of  “either ‘exceeding due measure’ or ‘overstepping proper limits.’ ”

Originally, the English word “seems to have signified nothing more sinister than ‘uppity,’ ” John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto notes that “in the Old and Middle English period it meant simply ‘bad’; it is only in modern English that its connotations of ‘extreme moral wickedness’ came to the fore.”

The name “Eve,” on the other hand, is derived from biblical Hebrew, where the name of the first woman is given in Genesis 3:20 as hawwa. This name became “Eva” in Latin and Greek translations of the Bible, and “Eve” in later French and English translations.

As for what the original Hebrew name means, that’s been the subject of much scholarly debate over the years.

A common suggestion is that hawwa means “life” or “living” or “life giver,” assuming a connection with the Hebrew haya (to live) or hay (living).

However, biblical scholars have questioned such a connection, saying there’s no direct linguistic link between hawwa and the other two words.

Some scholars say hawwa may have been a play on those other Hebrew words, or perhaps the words were indirectly connected through other Semitic languages.

“In sound but not derivation, the name Eve in Hebrew resembles the Hebrew word for ‘life,’ ” Leila Leah Bronner writes in her book From Eve to Esther (1994).

But etymologies relying on only sound, she writes, “are popular rather than scientific. Instead of attempting to derive its linguistic root, they create puns around it, relying on its sound to invent its sense.”

Some commentators seeking etymological explanations for hawwa have noted resemblances with an Aramaic word for “serpent,” an Arabic verb meaning to “be empty” or “fail,” and hivi, Hebrew for the Hivites, a Canaanite tribe.

The scholar Victor P. Hamilton, in his biblical commentary The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, says that as many as 10 etymological explanations have been offered.

Another scholar, Scott C. Layton, an authority on ancient Semitic languages, says some names in the Hebrew Bible are grounded in symbolism rather than etymology (“On the Canaanite Origin of Eve,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, January 1997).

“Symbolic names form part of the rich fabric of biblical narrative by expressing their bearers’ fate, character, or role in the story,” Layton writes.

Sometimes biblical texts themselves, he says, “provide popular or folk etymologies, on the basis of Hebrew, for names whose original meanings lie at the margins of the Hebrew lexicon, or even outside it.”

“Certainly hawwa falls into this category,” Layton says, “and it occasions no surprise that modern scholars have offered several different interpretations of this name.”

That’s all about “Eve.” However, we should mention the other “eve,” the noun for the close of day. It’s short for “even,” an Old English word that meant the same thing—the day’s end.

In ordinary usage, both “eve” and “even” have been replaced by “evening,” which etymologically means the coming on of the eve, the OED says.

The noun “eve,” like “even” in times past, means not only the end of a day, but also the night (often the day as well) before a particular event—as in Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallows Eve, and so on.

All these words can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European base with the general meaning of “lateness,” according to Ayto.

Speaking of which, it’s time for us to get to the next question in our inbox.

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Hats off to the boggins

Q: I’m from upstate NY, but I’ve lived in NC for almost 20 years. When native North Carolinians use the word “toboggan,” they’re talking about a hat. When I use it, I’m talking about a sled. Who’s right?

A: You’re right, but so are your North Carolina neighbors. In American usage, a “toboggan” can be either a sled or a snug knitted cap—one suitable for a chilly toboggan ride.

“Toboggan” is a word with roots deep in the North American wilderness, from a time before Europeans arrived on the continent.

The word comes from “a North American Indian name in Canada of a sleigh or sledge,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED mentions two principal Native American languages with the name: Micmac (tobakun) and Abenaki (udabagan).

Similar words in “other allied Algonquian languages,” the OED says, are the Montaignais word utapan, the Cree otabanask, and the Ojibwa odaban-ak.

The French in Canada adopted the word in the late 1600s, spelling it tabaganne, and it appeared in English writing in the early 1800s.

In English, according to the OED, the word originally meant “a light sledge consisting of a thin strip of wood turned up in front, used by the Canadian Indians for transport over snow.”

Today, the dictionary adds, “toboggan” can mean “a similar vehicle, sometimes with low runners, used in the sport of coasting (esp. down prepared slopes of snow or ice).”

The OED’s earliest English version, spelled “tobogin,” was recorded in Sir George Head’s Forest Scenes and Incidents in the Wilds of North America (1829):

“After leaving Fredericton there was no town nor village at which the required articles could be procured: namely, a couple of tobogins, a tobogin bag, a canteen … two pairs of snow shoes.”

The “toboggan” spelling didn’t arrive until half a century later, in the 1870s. Here’s one example, cited in the OED:

“The little hand-sledge … which the English have christened by the Canadian term ‘toboggan.’ ” (From John Addington Symonds’s Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece, 1874.)

In the mid-1800s, soon after the noun “toboggan” came into English, people began using it as a verb. So to “toboggan” meant to ride a toboggan. And what did one wear while tobogganing? Read on.

By the late 19th century, people were using the term “toboggan cap” (and slightly later “toboggan hat”) to mean a stocking cap, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

DARE’s examples begin with “toboggan cap” in 1870 (from Minnesota), “toboggan cap” in 1886 (Ohio), and “toboggan hat” in 1908 (Ohio).

As the OED reports, the former item was even offered for sale in a 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog, which advertised “Toboggan Caps or Toques.”

In the 1920s term for the cap was shortened to “toboggan,” which the OED defines as an American term for “a long woollen cap.”

The OED’s earliest citation for “toboggan,” meaning the cap, is from a 1929 issue of the journal American Speech: “Toboggan, a woolen cap.” The journal gives the example “Take off your toboggan.”

Oxford’s most recent example is from a 1975 issue of the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, in a description of a burglar: “He was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants, police said.”

While the OED doesn’t say the term for a cap is chiefly used in the South, that seems to be the case.

DARE describes this use of “toboggan” (along with “toboggan cap” and “toboggan hat,” plus the shorter “boggan” and “boggin”) as “chiefly South, South Midland; also Inland North.”

We’ll close with another quote from the Raleigh News & Observer, this one from 1995 and cited in DARE:

“What once were tobogganing caps became, over the years, simply ‘toboggans.’ Except we pronounce them, in our own uniquely Southern way, ‘toe-boggins’ or sometimes, in the privacy of our own homes, merely ‘boggins.’ ”

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¿Why isn’t English like Spanish?

Q: Why does the question mark and exclamation point appear at the end of a sentence in English? To my mind, it would make more sense if they were at the beginning. Or at the beginning and end, as in Spanish, though I’ve read that this convention is falling out of favour, no doubt under the influence of that mongrel language from perfidious Albion.

A: Your question requires a brief look back at medieval English, where the earliest punctuation marks were intended as verbal cues for one reading to an audience.

In the medieval church, reading was something done aloud, and punctuation showed the lector where to pause for breath and how to modulate his voice to convey the meaning of the words.

The first marks seen in English writing indicated pauses in a sentence: brief pauses in mid-sentence (voiced with a rising intonation), versus a longer, final pause at the end (a falling intonation).

In Beowulf, an Old English poem written as early as 725, the basic mark of punctuation is a simple point, according to A Critical Companion to Beowulf (2003), by Andy Orchard, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

The English marks identifying a sentence as a question or an exclamation developed later, the linguist David Crystal writes in Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (2015).

The interrogative mark, according to Crystal, was recorded in Old English around the year 1000, and the mark of exclamation or admiration appeared in the 1500s in early Modern English. (Versions of both were recorded earlier in medieval Latin.)

The early interrogative and exclamation marks in English were the precursors of our modern question mark and exclamation point, though they looked nothing like today’s versions and didn’t get their modern names until centuries later.

From the beginning, however, they were always found at the end of an English sentence. Yes, they offered vocal cues (if a bit late in the sentence). But like the period, they  showed stopping points—almost as if they were variations on the period.

In fact, during the late 19th and early 20th century, these marks were sometimes called “question stop” and “exclamation stop,” just as today the British call the period a “full stop.”

In his book, Crystal says that “the question mark, like the exclamation mark and the period, acts unambiguously as a sign of separation—to show where one sentence ends and the next begins. That’s why a period was included within the symbol (and reflected in the term question-stop).”

In Spanish, too, the question mark and exclamation point originally came at the end of a sentence, not the beginning.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the Spanish Academy suggested adding them, upside down, at the front too, as in ¿Quien sabe? (“Who knows?”).

As the Academy explains in a treatise published in 1754, “one can use the same sign of interrogation, inverting it before the word that has the first interrogative intonation, in addition to using the regular question mark to signal the end of the clause.” The exclamation mark was treated the same way.

Why the change? Because, as you suggest, placing a mark at the beginning is a cue to the reader that a question or exclamation is coming.

To some Spaniards, a solitary mark at the end “was felt to be inadequate for the requirements of Spanish pronunciation,” Alexander and Nicholas Humez write in their book On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World (2008).

“It did not provide a reader with enough information to enable him to express adequately the full significance of a question in long sentences,” they add.

“Following its own prescription,” the Humez brothers write, “the Adademia put this into practice in the books published under its auspices, and other publishers eventually followed suit.”

Interestingly, the 16th-century English educator John Hart suggested in An Orthographie (1569) that the interrogation mark (he called it “the asker”) and the exclamation mark (“the wonderer”) should be used at the beginning and end of a sentence.

And at least one 18th-century commentator made a similar suggestion. In a letter to Noah Webster, dated Dec. 26, 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

“We are sensible that when a question is met with in reading, there is a proper variation to be used in the management of the voice. We have therefore a point called an interrogation, affixed to the question in order to distinguish it. But this is absurdly placed at its end; so that the reader does not discover it, till he finds he has wrongly modulated his voice, and is therefore obliged to begin again the sentence. To prevent this the Spanish printers, more sensibly, place an interrogation at the beginning as well as at the end of a question.” (From The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1809.)

The practice never took hold in English. And as you’ve noted, some Spanish-language writers (notably the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda) have abandoned such marks. However, we doubt that Neruda, an ardent Communist, was influenced much by perfidious Albion.

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The light and dark of language

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on the blog on Dec. 16, 2009.)

Q: I teach cultural anthropology at the City University of New York. Some of my students have asked when the negative association with the color black first arose, as in “black sheep” or “black day” or “Black Death.” In other words, why is “angel food cake” white and “devil’s food cake” black? HELP!

A: This is a tall order!

It’s easy enough to say when some of the phrases you mention came into English. But it’s harder to tackle the notion of blackness or darkness as negative. This idea predated English and probably predated written language.

The word “black” has been in English since the earliest days of the language. In Old English in the eighth century it was written as blaec or blec, a word that was often confused with blac (white or shining).

The two words were even pronounced similarly at times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Middle English (spoken roughly between 1100 and 1500), they were “often distinguishable only by the context, and sometimes not by that.”

The etymological history of “black” is difficult to trace, according to the OED, but it may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. We can only speculate here. A prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bhleg meant “burn.”

The oldest definition of “black” cited in the OED is the optical one: “the total absence of colour, due to the absence or total absorption of light, as its opposite white arises from the reflection of all the rays of light.” This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in Beowulf in the 700s.

In the 1300s “black” was first used to mean soiled or stained with dirt, which the OED describes as a literal usage.

It wasn’t until the late 1580s that “black” was used figuratively to mean “having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister,” according to the OED.

The published usages include “black curse” (1583); “black name” and “black Prince” (1599, Shakespeare); “blacke edict” and “blacke victory” (1640); “black moment” (1713); “black enemy” (1758); and “black augury” (1821, Byron).

Around the same time, “black” took on other negative meanings, including horribly wicked or atrocious, as in “blacke soule” (1581); “blacke works” (1592); “blackest criminals” (1692); “blackest Calumnies” (1713); “black ingratitude” (1738, Macaulay); “the blackest dye” (1749, Fielding); and “black lie” (1839).

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, “black” also became identified with sorrow, melancholy, gloom, and dire predictions; a “black” outlook was pessimistic, whereas “bright” meant hopeful.

The word “blackguard” originally referred to dirtiness rather than to evildoing. It originated about 1535, and according to the OED it was first used first to refer to a scullery or kitchen worker, someone who had charge of pots and pans.

“Blackguard” was later used to describe a street urchin who worked as a shoe-black. In 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote of “The little black-guard / Who gets very hard / His halfpence for cleaning your shoes.”

And a 1785 slang dictionary described a “black guard” as “a shabby dirty fellow; a term said to be derived from a number of dirty tattered and roguish boys, who attended at the horse guards … to black the boots and shoes of the soldiers, or to do any other dirty offices.”

Boys who picked up odd jobs in the streets were also called “blackguards,” and in 1736 the term was first used to mean a scoundrel.

“Blackmail,” first recorded in 1552, originally meant protection money.

The OED defines its first meaning as “tribute formerly exacted from farmers and small owners in the border counties of England and Scotland, and along the Highland border, by freebooting chiefs, in return for protection or immunity from plunder.”

In those days, “mail” meant rent or tribute (its ancestor, the Old English mal, meant payment extorted by threats). But we can’t find any explanation for the “black” in the term, aside from the term’s earlier sense of soiled or dirty.

The phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 1790s; according to legend, there was one in every flock.

The term “blacklisted” was recorded as far back as 1437. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the name indicated “edged with black.” The OED says the “black” in the term is from the negative sense of the word and means disgrace or censure.

However, the OED notes elsewhere that such a list was “often accompanied by some symbol actually black,” as in this 1840 citation from Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge: “Write Curzon down, Denounced. … Put a black cross against the name of Curzon.”

Similarly, a “black mark” (meaning a mark of censure) was originally “a black cross or other mark made against the name of a person who has incurred censure, penalty, etc.,” the OED says. The first published use is from a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845): “Won’t there be a black mark against you?”

As for the great plague of the 1300s, it wasn’t called the “Black Death” at the time. In the 14th century it was called “the pestilence,” “the plague,” “the great pestilence,” “the great death,” etc.

In English, the “black” wasn’t added until the early half of the 1800s, though it appeared in Swedish and Danish in the 1500s and in German in the 1700s.

The OED says it’s not known why the plague was called “black,” but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it was because the disease caused dark splotches on the victims’ skin.

We can’t find anything in standard etymologies about “devil’s food,” but it may get its name either from its original color (red), or from its heaviness and density as opposed to “angel food,” which is weightless and feathery. A website called The Straight Dope has a good entry on the subject.

The metaphors in question aren’t Western notions, either. From what we’ve been able to find out, they’ve been around since the beginning of time, when people first became aware of the division of their world into day and night, light and dark.

From the point of view of primitive people, day brought with it light, sun, warmth, and of course visibility. Night was colder and darker; it was threatening and fearful, full of unseen dangers and hidden threats.

This ancient opposition between day and night, light and dark, became a common motif in mythology. It’s unfortunate that dark-skinned people, merely by the accident of skin color, have become victims of the mythology.

We’ve found an article that might have some ideas for you to share with your students. In it, the psychiatrist Eric Berne explores the folklore of our conceptions of light and dark, black and white, good and evil, clean and dirty, and so on.

The article is “The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore,” published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 72, No. 283 (Jan.-Mar., 1959), pp. 1-13. You can get it through JSTOR, assuming CUNY subscribes to its digital archive. Skip the first page and go to the history, which begins on page 2.

Berne notes that the ideas of light=goodness and dark=badness existed in ancient cultures (including Egyptian and Greek), and can be found in Asia and around the globe.

Joseph Campbell, writing in the journal Daedalus in 1959, says it was the Persian philosopher Zoroaster (circa 600 BC) who put the seal on the concept of darkness being evil.

Zoroaster, Campbell writes, saw a “radical separation of light and darkness, together with his assignment to each of an ethical value, the light being pure and good, the darkness foul and evil.”

The Old and New Testaments are full of such dichotomies. In later Christian writings, the bright angel Lucifer transgresses and is thrown out of heaven (which is, of course, flooded with light), to become the dark lord of night.

In Paradise Lost, Milton writes that the flames of hell produce “No light, but rather darkness visible.”

For what it’s worth, we don’t believe that metaphors identifying lightness as positive and darkness as negative are inherently racist. They certainly didn’t begin that way, though these negative connotations have certainly fed into and reinforced racism over the centuries.

Your students may also be interested in a recent item on The Grammarphobia Blog about the word “nigger” and its evolution (for some African-Americans) into a positive term through a process that has been called semantic bleaching.

The blog entry cites a paper by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at CUNY. We’ll bet he could direct you to other sources of information about the mythology of blackness.

We hope some of this is useful to you.

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Here’s how!

Q: Why is the expression “Here’s how!” used as a toast? Nobody I know has an answer, including my martini-loving 94-year-old mom.

A: The expression is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a formula used in drinking healths,” but there’s no clue about what it means.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the late 19th century, when the toast appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s poetry collection The Seven Seas (1896):

“Yes, a health to ourselves ere we scatter. … Here’s how!”

But Green’s Dictionary of Slang has an older example, from The City of the Saints (1861), by the explorer Richard F. Burton:

“We acknowledged his civility with a ‘here’s how,’ and drank Kentucky-fashion.”

Our own searches turned up an example in an 1895 volume of poetry by Richard Henry Savage. His poem “Going Out” is a soldiers’ drinking song with “Here’s ‘how!’ ” as the refrain:

Fill up with merry hearts, dear friends,
And mock the hours too fleeting,
This night for parting makes amends—
I give my final greeting;
May memories of the olden times
Be ever dear as now—
Stand up and drink it every one—
The old times, boys: Here’s “how!”

We’re sorry that we can’t suggest what the toast means—if anything. Perhaps an examination of the following OED citations, plus a few drinks, may help:

“They now say ‘Bungo!’ instead of ‘Here’s how!’ over cocktails.” (From a Massachusetts newspaper, the Springfield Union, Nov. 20, 1925.)

“ ‘Well,’ said Mr. Hull, holding up his glass … ‘here’s how!’” (From J. B. Priestley’s novel Festival at Farbridge, 1951.)

“Martin was clasping a tumbler half filled with whisky. ‘Here’s how,’ said the fat man.” (From Eric Burgess’s murder mystery Divided We Fall, 1959.)

Elsewhere, the OED has an entry for “here’s” as a way of introducing “formulas used in drinking health.”

Among them, in addition to “here’s how,” are “here’s hoping,” “here’s looking (at you),” “here’s luck,” and “here’s to,” which the dictionary says is “elliptical for here’s a health to).” (We’ve discussed a few of the formulas on our blog.)

The earliest of these cited in the OED is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597): “Heers to my loue.”

As the dictionary notes, two such expressions are found in Ernest Hemingway’s only full-length play, The Fifth Column (1938): “Here’s looking at you” and “Here’s how.”

But Hemingway outdid himself in one of his short stories, “Up in Michigan,” in which we found a litany of boozy toasts:

“Well, here’s looking at you” … “Here’s all the ones we missed” … “Here’s how” … “Down the creek, boys” … “Here’s to next year.”

In its entry for “mud,” the OED mentions another such expression, “here’s mud in your eye” (or “here’s mud” for short).

It’s described as “an informal salutation before drinking,” along the lines of “Here’s to you!” or “Good health!” or simply “Cheers!”

Why “mud”? Some slang lexicographers have suggested the phrase could have originated in military usage, perhaps as a reference to the muddy trenches of World War I.

But there’s no evidence to support this. Oxford’s earliest citation is from Henry Vollam Morton’s In Search of England (1927): “ ‘Here’s mud in your eye!’ said one of the modern pilgrims, tossing down his martini.”

In fact, most of these bibulous expressions don’t seem to have any deeper meaning. By their very nature, they’re humorous and a bit silly—like “Here’s to the skin off your nose,”  which Green’s Dictionary of Slang has traced to 1914.

That last one—or a version of it—was a favorite of P. G. Wodehouse, whom we like to quote whenever possible, so here goes:

“ ‘Skin off your nose, Jeeves.’ ‘Mud in your eye, sir, if I may use the expression.’ ” (The Mating Season, 1949.)

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Does that bikini still fit?

Q: Is there a term for the overly familiar and presumptuous use of “that” and “those” in advertising? For example, “Organize that messy closet” or “Get rid of those unsightly stains in your sink.” It’s as if the ad writers have peered into our homes.

A: You’ve raised an interesting question, one that highlights something most of us are all too aware of: Advertisers use language in ways that ordinary people don’t.

“That” and “those” are good examples.

In your examples, “that” and its plural, “those,” are demonstrative adjectives (some prefer the term “demonstrative determiners”). They modify a  noun, in effect pointing at it, demonstrating which one (or ones) the speaker is referring to.

In ordinary sentences like “Sam misses that dog” and “Those sneakers belong to Janet,” the demonstrative adjectives point to the nouns, as if to demonstrate which dog Sam misses, which sneakers belong to Janet.

But in the ad slogans you mention, “that” and “those” aren’t used as in ordinary English.

Normally, “that” and “those” (like “this” and “these”) refer to nouns that actually exist—“that dog,” “those sneakers.” Their existence is a fact, something the speaker and the audience take for granted.

But an anonymous, impersonal voice telling you to “organize that messy closet” or “get rid of those unsightly stains” isn’t pointing to an actual condition in your house.

Instead, the speaker is presupposing its existence and treating it as a fact. So the slogans are examples of what a linguist would call “presupposition.”

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “The information contained in a presupposition is backgrounded, taken for granted, presented as something that is not currently at issue.”

In these ad slogans, the presupposed information is that you have a messy closet and a sink with unsightly stains.

In a study entitled “Presupposition, Persuasion and Mag Food Advertising” (2012), Tamara Bouso uses the example “Do you expect to fit into that beach bikini in the New Year?”

This sales pitch presupposes not only that the consumer has such a bikini but that she’s probably too fat to wear it.

Another author, Judy Delin, says presupposition “plays an important role in the construction of advertising messages in general” (The Language of Everyday Life, 2000). The use of demonstrative adjectives, she says, is one form of presupposition.

You ask whether there’s a name for demonstrative adjectives used in this presumptuous way. As a matter of fact, a couple of names have been proposed.

In a 2006 paper, “That’s That: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Demonstrative Noun Phrases,” the linguist Lynsey Kay Wolter calls such terms “emotive demonstratives.”

Why “emotive?” Because, Wolter writes, such terms convey a sense that both speaker and listener “share some relevant knowledge or emotion about the referent of the demonstrative”—that is, the noun it points to.

And writing on the Language Log in 2008, the linguist Mark Liberman calls these words “affective demonstratives.” Like “emotive,” the term “affective” implies an emotional element—in this case familiarity or shared experience.

“Affective demonstratives,” Liberman says, “invite the audience onto a common ground of shared knowledge (or perhaps I should say, ‘that common ground of shared knowledge’).”

In response, one Language Log contributor writes, “I’ve noticed this type of device in advertising a lot,” and provides this example:

“By earning more income through our work-at-home program, you’ll be able to afford that new car, to finally take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of!”

It’s no mystery why advertisers are so fond of demonstrative adjectives. Like the definite article “the,” these words presuppose that the accompanying nouns actually exist.

So they hint that the speaker knows you: “that messy closet” points at your closet. In this way, demonstrative adjectives can create a false sense of familiarity, of intimacy with the consumer.

It’s interesting to note that in the neutral examples we mentioned earlier (“Sam misses that dog” and “Those sneakers belong to Janet”), you could say the same thing less demonstratively by substituting “the” for “that” or “those”:

“Sam misses the dog” and “The sneakers belong to Janet.”

But “the” works only when the audience knows which dog or sneakers are referred to. “The” wouldn’t work in the advertising examples, unless the nouns had been mentioned before.

The ad writers would have to use an indefinite article (“organize a messy closet”) or nothing at all (“get rid of unsightly stains”). But then, of course, they’d lose the familiar tone they’re trying to cultivate.

This forced intimacy can strike listeners as intrusive or annoying, especially those with tidy closets and spotless sinks. A presupposition that’s wrong can backfire.

As Lynsey Wolter says in her paper, “Consider a situation in which the speaker assumes that an emotion is shared, but the addressee resists this assumption. In these circumstances an emotive demonstrative … feels intrusive or patronizing.”

As we said above, demonstrative adjectives point to things. And this isn’t always appropriate. After all, weren’t we taught that it’s not polite to point?

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Extrovert or extravert?

Q: I make a point of using “extravert,” not “extrovert,” because that’s how Myers-Briggs spells it. I did the personality test and learned I’m neither an “introvert” nor an “extravert.” I’m right on the line—I call myself an “ambivert.” Your thoughts?

A: We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and all of them list “extrovert” as the principal spelling for someone with an outgoing or gregarious personality, though five include “extravert” as an acceptable variant.

The two spellings showed up in writing at about the same time, “extravert” in 1916 and “extrovert” in 1918, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Etymologically, “extravert” is the term one would expect. In Latin, extra means outside and vertere means to turn. So an “extravert” turns outward.

So where did the “extro-” spelling come from? As the OED explains, it’s “a quasi-Latin prefix” influenced by the “intro-” suffix of the term “introvert.”

Despite the questionable etymology of “extrovert,” speakers of English overwhelming prefer it to “extravert,” which explains why “extrovert” is the principal spelling in standard dictionaries.

The term “extravert” is more at home in the literature of psychology. That’s why the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the personality questionnaire you filled out,  lists “extraversion,” not “extroversion,” as a psychological preference.

As Oxford Dictionaries online explains, “The original spelling extravert is now rare in general use but is found in technical use in psychology.”

In fact, standard dictionaries generally define the term one way in the language of psychology and another way in common usage.

In psychology, according to the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it refers to “one whose attention and interests are directed wholly or predominantly toward what is outside the self.”

In general usage, however, it simply refers to “a gregarious and unreserved person,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

However, the principal spelling in dictionaries is “extrovert,” whether the word is used in the psychological or the general sense.

As for the history of these words, let’s begin with the verb “introvert,” which appeared in the mid-1600s, when it meant to turn one’s thoughts inward in spiritual contemplation.

The first example in the OED, using the past participle, is from Abraham Woodhead’s 1671 translation of the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila: “The Soul being straight, introverted … into itself, and easily conforming to God’s will and time.”

At about the same time, the verb “extravert” showed up in chemistry in the sense of to turn outward and make visible the latent parts of a substance.

The first OED example is from Hydrologia Chymica, a 1669 book by William Simpson: “It is not the moist air that extraverts any preexistent nitrous parts from the body of the minerals.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that “introvert” and “extravert” appeared as nouns with their modern meanings in psychology and common usage. (A noun “introvert” appeared in the late 19th century as a scientific term for a body part that can turn inward.)

The nouns “introvert” and “extravert” showed up for the first time in the same sentence in Constance Ellen Long’s 1916 English translation of the papers of Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology:

“An Extravert can hardly conceive the necessity which compels the Introvert to conquer the world by means of a system.”

The adjectival use of the past participles “introverted” and “extraverted” appeared a bit earlier in a 1915 paper that Jung wrote for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology:

“An extraverted individual can hardly understand the necessity that forces the introverted to accomplish his adaptation by first formulating a general conception.”

The OED’s first citation for the “extrovert” spelling is from a paper by Phyllis Blanchard in the April 1918 issue of the American Journal of Psychology:

“Jung’s hypothesis of the two psychological types, the introvert and extrovert,—the thinking type and the feeling type.”

An Aug. 31, 2015, post on Scientific American’s Beautiful Minds blog suggests that Blanchard’s spelling of “extrovert” was “an innocent mistake.”

However, another psychologist, William McDougall, used the same spelling a few years later in An Outline of Abnormal Psychology (1926):

“The characteristic neurosis of the extrovert is hysteria, while that of the introvert is neurasthenia or psychasthenia.”

The author of the Scientific American post is bugged by “extrovert” because it doesn’t conform to Jung’s spelling and to the Latin roots of the word.

But it’s silly to expect an English word, no matter what its origin, to conform to the rules of another language. When English adopts a word from a foreign language, the word develops a life of its own.

That’s why words like “agenda,” “candelabra,” “erotica,” “insignia,” “opera,” “stamina” and “trivia” have become singular in English despite their plural foreign roots. And why we use “perfume” instead of the French parfum or the Old Italian parfumo.

Yes, some words derived from other languages (“rendezvous,” “piñata,” and “zeitgeist,” for example) look and sound pretty much the same as the originals. But we don’t tell the barista at Starbucks that we want “two cappuccini.”

Today, as we’ve said, “extrovert” is the usual spelling while “extravert” is primarily seen in psychological writing.

In fact, all the examples for “extravert” in the OED are from the world of psychology, as is this citation from Psycho-Analysis for Normal People (1926), by Geraldine Coster:

“The extravert goes out to people and things, enjoying contacts and shrinking from solitude and meditation.”

Although “extrovert” is now far more popular than “extravert” in writing, “extraversion” is more common in books than “extroversion,” according searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, perhaps because of its prevalence in technical literature.

“Extraversion” first appeared in the 1915 paper that Jung wrote for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology: “I called the hysterical type the extraversion type and the psychasthénic type the introversion type.”

The “extroversion” spelling showed up in Arthur George Tansley’s The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life (1920): “Extroversion is the thrusting out of the mind on to life, the use of the mind in practical affairs, the pouring out of the libido on external objects.”

As for “ambivert,” a person with a balance of “extrovert” and “introvert” features, the term showed up in writing not long after the other words we’ve discussed.

The earliest example in the OED is from Kimball Young’s Source Book for Social Psychology (1927).

After describing people who are introverted some of the time and extroverted at other times, Young writes: “It is these I have called ambiverts.” (We’ve gone to the original to put the Oxford citation in context.)

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Can “once” mean “when”?

Q: Many people use “when” and “once” interchangeably, as in “We can focus on polishing the text once the content is closer to being final.” I know they sort of sound alike, but is it correct to use “once” when you mean “when”?

A: The short answer is that the two words overlap somewhat and both can be used as conjunctions to mean “as soon as” or “after,” though “once” seems a bit more emphatic than “when” here. Now for the longer version.

The word “once” has worn many hats since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. It’s been an adjective, an adverb, a noun, and a conjunction.

When “once” first appeared in Old English more than a thousand years ago, it was an adverbial form of the noun “one,” and meant “at one time only.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary (with “once” spelled “ænes”) is from the Lambeth Psalter (circa 1000), a manuscript with Latin and Old English text from the Book of Psalms:

Semel iuraui in sancto meo : ænes ic swor on minum halgan” (“once have I sworn in my holiness”).

The spelling evolved gradually from “ænes” to “ones” to “once.” As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, the modern “c” spelling reflected “the fact that that once retained a voiceless s at its end, whereas in ones it had been voiced to z.”

The adjective “once” showed up in the mid-1500s, but it wasn’t until the early 1600s that it took on its modern sense of “former.”

The first example in the OED is from Swetnam the Woman-Hater (1620), an anonymous comedy about a misogynist tried by a court of women:

“Magnanimous Ladie, maruell not, / That your once Aduersary do’s submit himselfe / To your vnconquer’d beautie.”

The noun “once” showed up in writing around the same time. The first Oxford example is from A Newyears Gifte, a 1579 poetry collection by Bernard Garter: “Once is no custome.”

The conjunction “once,” the usage you’re asking about, showed up before both the adjective and the noun. The earliest citation in the OED is from Ordinal of Alchemy (circa 1477) by Thomas Norton: “Metalle ons metalle shal not more encrese.”

And here’s an example from Ludus Literarius, a 1612 book by John Brinsley about education: “Once gotten, they were easily kept by oft repetition.”

Finally, this example is from Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1747): “No peremptoriness, Clary Harlowe! Once you declare yourself inflexible, I have done.”

We won’t get into the etymology of “when” now, except to note that it’s ultimately derived from an ancient interrogative root reconstructed as qwo-, according to Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto adds that the ancient root has also given English the word “quandary,” which is the source of many of the questions that we answer on our blog.

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Are your socks breathing?

Q: My understanding is that the “-able” or “-ible” suffix refers to a passive condition, the ability to have something done to it. Good air is “breathable,” food is “edible,” etc. In television commercials, though, I hear “breathable” used for fabrics that “breathe.” Should I be bothered by this?

A: “Breathable” can go either way because it has both active and passive meanings—capable of breathing as well as fit to be breathed.

When first recorded in 1731, “breathable” was used passively and meant fit to be breathed or inhaled.

This 19th-century citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is a good example: “How breathable the atmosphere!” (from Blackwood’s Magazine, 1839).

In the mid-20th century, people began using “breathable” in an active sense to describe material or clothing that, in the OED’s definition, “admits air to the skin and allows sweat to evaporate.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1937 issue of the Hammond (Indiana) Times: “Breathable suede jackets. Water repellent. They’re new!”

Later on, the verb “breathe” itself was used in reference to such nonliving things as uncorked wine (1950s) and materials that let air pass through (1960s).

Naturally these things weren’t actually inhaling; they were said to “breathe” because they absorbed air or allowed it to move freely.

But returning to your question, it’s not true that adjectives ending in “-able” and “-ible” are always used in a passive sense or in reference to a passive condition.

Some denote a capacity for being subjected to something (passive), while others denote a capacity for doing something (active). Not many of these adjectives do both, like “breathable.”

Examples of passive adjectives include “credible” (said of something that can be believed), “audible” (something that can be heard), “preferable” (a thing that’s to be preferred), and “bearable” (something can be borne).

Examples of the active ones include “comfortable” (said of something that comforts), “durable” (a thing that endures), “horrible” (something that horrifies), and “possible” (a thing that can happen).

You may be curious about why some of these adjectives end in “-able” and some in “-ible.” The reasons are rooted in Latin, where verbs with different endings were given different adjectival suffixes (-abilis or -ibilis).

Both kinds of endings passed on into Old French (-able, -ible), but the distinction became muddled when French replaced most of the –ible endings with –able.

The result is that English has both kinds of “-ble” adjectives, but as we wrote in a blog post in 2007, the “-able” words far outnumber the “-ible” words. It’s easy to see why.

For one thing, most of the “-ble” adjectives that English acquired from French end in “-able.”

So do most of those that were formed from native English words. So if a word existed in Old English and later formed one of these “-ble” adjectives, it’s probably an “-able” (like “knowable,” “walkable,” “foreseeable,” “drinkable,” “unspeakable,” “doable,” etc.).

In fact, new adjectives formed in modern English, despite their etymological roots, almost always end in “-able,” like “danceable” (first recorded in 1859), “buildable” (1927), “microwaveable” (1977).

All things considered, it’s a wonder we have as many “-ible” adjectives as we do.

Finally, a point that may surprise you. The suffix “-able” is no relation to the adjective and adverb “able.” So resist the temptation to interpret every “-able” adjective in terms of “able to,” especially the passive ones.

Strictly speaking, “unspeakable,” means unfit to be spoken of, not unable to be spoken of. “Drinkable” means “fit to drink,” not “able to be drunk.” And “eatable” means “fit to be eaten,” not “able to be eaten.”

Though both have come down from Latin, the word “able” and the suffix “-able” are etymologically unrelated.

The word “able” ultimately comes from the verb habere (to hold). The suffix “-able,” as we mentioned, comes from the Latin suffix –abilis, which was used to forms adjectives from verbs ending in –are.

But, as the OED says, an “early association with the adjective able” probably encouraged the notion that a word like “eatable,” with its “-able” suffix, “could be reapprehended as ‘able to be eaten.’ ”

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What’s in a nameplate?

Q: I have often wondered about the period at the end of the Wall Street Journal’s presentation of itself on page one. Is this a pure design choice, by an artist or like person?  Or is there a usage I could learn about?

A: Periods were once common at the end of newspaper names appearing on page one, called “nameplates” or “flags” in American newspaper jargon.

The tradition-minded Wall Street Journal simply kept its period while other newspapers dropped theirs.

The New York Times, no slouch at minding traditions, kept a period at the end of its nameplate until well into the 1960s.

And the Hartford Courant, considered the oldest continuously published paper in the US, revived its old period for a while in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

We’ll have more to say later about those periods at the Journal, the Times, and the Courant, but first let’s look at the evolution of punctuation in nameplates at American newspapers.

The American colony’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which was shut down by the British after its initial issue on Sept. 25, 1690, didn’t have a period after the nameplate but it had one at the end of the subtitle, “Both Forreign and Domestick.”

A British-subsidized weekly, the Boston News-Letter, the first continuously published newspaper in the colony, had a period at the end of its nameplate when it appeared on April 24, 1704.

The next paper to appear, the Boston Gazette, had a period at the end of the nameplate when it began publishing on Dec. 21, 1719. It later changed the period to a comma and added a subtitle, then alternately used a period, a comma, or nothing after the subtitle.

The fourth paper on the scene, the American Weekly Mercury, had a comma after the nameplate when it began publishing in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1719, but a period had replaced the comma by the time it stopped publishing on May 15, 1746.

In one of the odder examples of nameplate punctuation, the Providence Gazette and Country Journal once had a semicolon after “Gazette,” a colon after “Journal,” and a period after its subtitle. But it later had a more typical 18th-century title.

As you can see, the punctuation in nameplates of American newspapers wasn’t all that consistent in the 1700s. Why a comma or a semicolon after the title? Perhaps because some editors considered the date below the title to be part of the nameplate.

But by the 1800s, most US nameplates probably had periods at the end. That’s what we’ve concluded after examining several dozen front pages in America’s Historical Newspapers, a subscription-only database.

We had similar results in examining a dozen or so front pages in databases available to the general public, including examples from the Richmond Planet, the Washingtonian (Leesburg, VA), the Wabash Express (Terre Haute, IN), and the Morning Clarion (Oxford, NC).

Our searches indicated that newspaper nameplates gradually lost the periods during the 1900s, though some periods lasted until well into the 20th century.

The Cincinnati Post’s period was gone at the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, but the Duluth News Tribune still had a period when the Titanic sank six years later.

The Chicago Daily Tribune still had its period at the start of World War I, but the Indianapolis Star had dropped its period.

The Evening Star in Washington, DC, still had a period in 1920, while the Daily News in New York didn’t in 1921.

The New York Times had a period from its founding on Sept. 18, 1851, until it dropped the punctuation mark on Feb. 21, 1967, to the consternation of some tradition-minded readers.

Although dropping the period was part of a number of design changes intended to give the newspaper a more modern look, the Times let it be known that the move saved the paper $41.28 a year in ink.

A Times history published in 2001 noted one reader’s reaction to the changes. “What has God re-wrought?” said the letter to the editor. “No period in the New York Times masthead? The weather unboxed? ‘All the News’ restyled?”

The Hartford Courant, which began publishing as the weekly Connecticut Courant on Oct. 29, 1764, brought back the period in its nameplate in 1997, and then turned it into the dot of “.com” as part of a short-lived design change in 2008.

In a Sep. 28, 2008, interview with Poynter.org, Melanie Shaffer, the design director at the Courant, discussed the decision to make the nameplate vertical and incorporate the period in “.com”:

“We already had this period sitting at the end of the Hartford Courant nameplate. Yes. It was there on the original nameplate—200 years ago. It sort of disappeared for a while, then we brought it back with the ’97 redesign. We wanted to figure out how to incorporate the dot-com. When you turn the masthead sideways and the dot-com sort of rounds the corner, it made good sense.”

As it turned out, the upside-down vertical headline, with a perpendicular “.com” at the top of the page, made sense to designers but not to readers of the Courant.

The Courant responded to the grumbling by asking its readers in June 2009 to choose from among three different nameplates. The winner was a black-and-white horizontal design with the period gone.

As you can see from the changes at the Times and the Courant, the use of a punctuation mark at the end of a newspaper’s nameplate is a style or design issue, not a matter of grammar or usage.

As for the Wall Street Journal, which began publishing on July 8, 1889, we asked Ashley Huston, the chief communications officer at Dow Jones, why the paper still had its period.

“The period is a holdover from the 1800s when other papers also had a traditional period,” she emailed us. “We have kept it while others gradually dropped it.”

She noted that the subject had come up in a 2012 article in the Journal about the period at the end of “Forward.”—an Obama campaign slogan.

In the article, she said no one at the paper knew why the Journal had kept the period in its nameplate when other papers gradually dropped theirs.

We should mention here that many newspaper headlines, as well as nameplates, used to end with periods, but the practice died out in the 20th century. If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog post on the subject in 2013.

And we ran a post in 2014 about the origins of the word “masthead,” both nautical and journalistic. The one on a ship apparently gave us the one in a newspaper.

You didn’t ask, but some British papers, including the Times (London) once had periods at the end of their nameplates, but the practice wasn’t as common in the UK as in the US.

In the UK, a “nameplate” is referred to as a “masthead,” a term that in the US is generally used for the interior box that lists the publisher, senior editors, and address. This box is known as an “imprint” in the UK.

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New Year’s daze

(We’re repeating this post for New Year’s Day. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2013.)

Q: I have a customer who gives out T-shirts at a New Years party. The back of the shirts has the year. Should the date for the next party be 2013 or 2014? I think it should be 2013 because the party starts on New Years Eve. Is there a grammar rule that would apply here?

A: No, we can’t think of any grammar, usage, or style rule that would apply.

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says only that the terms “New Year’s Eve” and “New Year’s Day” should be capitalized (don’t forget the apostrophes).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “New Year’s Day” as the first day of the year and “New Year’s Eve” as the last day of the year.

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked have similar definitions.

What do we think? Well, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but we think the year on the back of those T-shirts should reflect the new year, not the old one.

From our experience, the main point of a New Year’s party is to celebrate the new year, not the old one, though we imagine that some people would disagree with us.

To the extent that New Year partyers do any serious thinking, it’s to make New Year’s resolutions, which the OED describes as resolutions “to do or to refrain from doing a specified thing from that time onwards, or to attempt to achieve a particular goal, usually during the coming year.”

The earliest written example of “New Year” in the OED is from the Ormulum (circa 1200), a book of biblical commentary that refers to “New Year’s Day” (spelled newyeress dayy in Middle English—we’ve replaced the letter yogh with “y”).

Yes, we know what you’re thinking—where’s the apostrophe?

Although “New Year’s Day” now takes an apostrophe, the use of the punctuation mark here is relatively new.

The earliest OED example of an apostrophe in “New Year’s” is from The New Mirror for Travellers, an 1828 travel guide: “It was new year’s eve, and Douw was invited to see out the old year at Judge Vander Spiegle’s.”

The apostrophe showed up in English in the 1500s, but it was originally used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters in a word (as in a contraction like “can’t”).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “apostrophe” is ultimately derived from prosoidia apostrophos, the classical Greek term for an omission mark—the Greek phrase literally means “accent of turning away.”

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post a few years ago about how the apostrophe became possessive.

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