The Grammarphobia Blog

The truth about truism

Q: Vivian Gornick wrote this in the NY Times Book Review: “It is a truism that every great book survives the literary and cultural conventions of its time and place because the emotional intelligence in it speaks to a reader a hundred years down the road.” My dictionary says a truism is something too obvious to mention, but I found Gornick’s statement very much worth mentioning. Your thoughts?

A: We agree with you that Vivian Gornick’s comment in the Feb. 14, 2016, issue of the Times Book Review was well worth making. We’ll go further and say that it was indispensable to her essay—complete with the word “truism.”

On a literal level, a “truism” is an obvious or self-evident truth, and many standard dictionaries give that definition first. But they usually add that it “especially” means a statement so obvious as to be  unimportant.  Some other dictionaries, in fact, give that as the only definition, but we think that’s too narrow a view.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A self-evident truth, esp. one of minor importance; a statement so obviously true as not to require or deserve discussion. Also: a proposition that states nothing beyond what is implied in any of its terms.”

We think that in her “Critic’s Take” column, Gornick used “truism” in the sense of a statement that’s self-evident: A book survives the limits of its own time because it has meaning to a later time.

Such a statement is certainly obvious, but it has a special significance in Gornick’s essay, which takes a fresh look at the novel Howards End in light of what we now know of E. M. Forster.

We know that when his novel appeared in 1910, Forster, then  31, “was a closeted homosexual and a virgin who knew nothing of how erotic relations worked—with any combination of partners,” Gornick writes. His time and place “terrorized him into picking up a pen forever dipped in code.”

“It was this sense of frozen solitariness, I now realized, that had colored all of Forster’s thought and feeling, and in time supplied him his signature concern: ‘Only connect!’ Rereading Howards End, it was now easy to see that it is the writer’s own arrested development that haunts Forster’s work, and that makes it moving.”

So a truism that’s obvious may help us understand a truth that isn’t so obvious.

But let’s get back to “truism” and its origins. As the OED explains, the word was “formed within English, by derivation” from the adjective “true,” which is Germanic in origin.

The earliest written use recorded in Oxford is dated 1714: “I abhor Tyranny … and upon this Subject could vent as many Truisms as Mr. St— —le  hath done upon Liberty.” (From an anonymous political pamphlet, “Hannibal Not at Our Gates.”)

And here’s the OED’s most recent example: “It is a television truism that, when we wish to celebrate a national event, we loyally turn to the BBC.” (From the British magazine Private Eye, 2012.)

Separately, Oxford lists another use of “truism”: as a mass noun (rather than a specific example).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from sometime before 1770: “Nonsense, truism, falsehood, and absurdity, are so curiously blended in every part of the pamphlet.” (From an essay on ruptures and trusses by Timothy Sheldrake.)

And here’s a modern example: “Rather than playing down the melodrama … it heightens it, with words that hover dangerously close to truism.” (From a British newspaper, the Independent, 2009.)

We’ll conclude with the definition of “truism” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “An undoubted or self-evident truth; especially: one too obvious or unimportant for mention.”

Especially, but not always. Even truths that are self-evident are sometimes worth stating.

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A sneak peek

Q: I’ve always used “at” with “sneak peek,” as in “I had a sneak peek at episode 8.” Lately, I’ve heard people use “of” instead of “at.” That sounds wrong to my ear, perhaps only because of what I’m used to. Is there a preference?

A: There are differences of opinion here. Our research shows that most people prefer “sneak peek at,” but a sizable number would choose “sneak peek of” instead.

Our own preference is for “at.” To our ears, “Take a sneak peek at this” sounds more natural than “Take a sneak peek of this.”

But as we’ve written many times before, the use of prepositions is highly idiomatic, and common usage ultimately determines what is considered standard English.

Why, for instance, do most of us say “a glance at” but “a glimpse of”? Chalk it up to common usage. As with “sneak peek at/of,” we can only examine preferences; we can’t declare one usage right and the other wrong.

Writers of books seem to support our own preference for “sneak peek at” by a wide margin. It’s also preferred among the population as a whole, but not by as wide a margin.

The Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books, shows “sneak peek at” outnumbering “sneak peek of” by a margin of about seven to one as of 2008, the latest year available.

The graph tracks each phrase as a percentage of all three-word sequences.

It also shows that “sneak peek at” (like the narrower phrase “sneak peek”) first showed up in books in 1951, and that “sneak peek of” followed in 1988.

As you can see, by 2008 the line for “sneak peek at” was sharply higher than that for “sneak peek of.”

We also did ordinary Google searches, which are broader and more up to date but don’t include as many books as the Ngram Viewer. The result is that “sneak peek at” leads “sneak peek of” by a margin of roughly five to four.

The numbers are very fluid, changing from hour to hour, but they always show “sneak peek at” in the lead.

We wondered why the “at” version seems more idiomatic to most people, and we found a couple of hints in the Oxford English Dictionary.

While the OED has no separate entry for the noun phrase “sneak peek,” it has one for the noun “peek,” defined as “a peep, a glance; a quick or furtive look.”

And if you substitute “a peep” or “a glance” or “a furtive look,” the following preposition in the sense we’re discussing would normally be “at” and not “of.”

Furthermore, none of the OED’s citations for the noun “peek,” which was first recorded in 1636, show it accompanied by “of.” When there’s a preposition at all, the noun appears with “at,” “in,” “into,” “through,” or the compound preposition “out of.”

Here are the relevant citations: “one peeke into heaven” (1636); “I jest give a peak in for a minit” (1844); “frequent ‘peeks’ through the slide” (1869); “a peek into the … brooding-room” (1884); “take an occasional peek at these other guys’ hands” (1938); “a sneak peek out of the window” (1969); “get a peek at the land register” (1993).

Similarly, the OED’s entry for the verb “peek,” which showed up in the 14th century, suggests that “at” is the preferred adverb.

Here’s the verb’s definition: “to look through a narrow opening; to look into or out of an enclosed or concealed space; (also) to glance or look furtively at, to pry.” (Note the “at” in italics.)

None of the dictionary’s examples show the verb followed immediately by “of.” The citations, which date back to 1390, show it used with “about,” “at,” “in,” “into,” “in at,” “inside,” “on” (Middle English), “out,” “out of,” “out from beneath,” “over,” “up,” “up in,” and “upward.”

In summary, we’re not surprised that people sometimes take sneak peeks “of” things like movies and games and apps. But for our part, we’ll stick with the “at” version.

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When an omen isn’t ominous

Q: An “omen” can be “auspicious,” but something that’s “ominous” can’t be. Any insight about this surprising divergence?

A: An “omen” has always been neutral—it can be good news or bad—but something that’s “ominous” is a bummer. In fact, by definition “ominous” means inauspicious.

How did this come to be? Blame the Romans.

In classical Latin, an ōmen was “something that foreshadows an event or the outcome of an event,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And ōminōsus meant “inauspicious, portentous.”

When adopted into English in the late 16th century, the two words retained their Latin meanings—one neutral, the other negative.

“Omen,” first recorded in 1582, was (and still is) a neutral word for a prophetic sign. Here’s the OED’s definition: “An event or phenomenon regarded as a portent of good or evil; a prophetic sign, an augury.”

Oxford’s most recent example is positive: “Unlike lots of people I like spiders. They have always been an omen of luck to me.” (From the Weekly News, Glasgow, 1989.)

Yet “ominous,” first recorded in 1589, has always been unequivocally negative. There’s nothing good in the OED’s earliest definition: “Of ill omen, inauspicious; indicative or suggestive of future misfortune.”

This is still among its meanings, as shown in a modern OED example: “The ominous prospects of war could not dampen the enthusiasm of Karen Horney and her group for their new undertaking.” (From Susan Quinn’s A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney, 1988.)

Within a few years of its first appearance, “ominous” took on wider negative senses unrelated to prophecy.

Oxford has citations beginning in 1593 for the word used to mean “menacing,” “awful,” or “unsettling” in reference to an appearance, a sound, an atmosphere, and so on.

The word is used this way even now, as in this OED citation: “There was an ominous, slow-motion replay of McVeigh’s ‘perp walk’ intercut with victims in agony.” (From the New York Times Magazine, June 2001.)

Only rarely (and briefly, from the 1590s to the 1670s) was “ominous” ever used in a positive sense, a usage the OED says is now obsolete.

We can’t explain why “omen” can be good or bad but “ominous” is only bad.

There’s no clue in Latin, according to the OED, which says the etymology of ōmen is unknown.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the ō- of ōmen comes from a prehistoric Indo-European root meaning “to believe, hold as true.” But this doesn’t explain the different characters of “omen” and “ominous.”

We do know how “auspice” and “auspicious” developed. It all started with a word from Roman history, auspex, a contraction of avispex (a watcher of birds, from avis, bird, and –spex, an observer).

In Roman times, the OED says, an auspex was “one who observed the flight of birds, to take omens thence for the guidance of affairs.” Consequently, it also meant “a director, protector; and esp. the person who superintended marriage ceremonies.”

(The word “auspex” has been used in English only in reference to ancient Rome. In ordinary English, such a person is an “augur,” a word also derived from the Latin avis and one that we wrote about in 2011.)

In Latin, the word for what the auspex did—the divination or foretelling—was auspicium. And auspicium, the OED explains, gave French the noun auspice in the 14th century.

“Auspice” came into English from French in the 1530s, when it was used in the old Roman way. Here’s the OED’s earliest sense of the word: “An observation of birds for the purpose of obtaining omens; a sign or token given by birds.”

By the mid-17th century “auspice” was used in a more general and more positive way: “Any divine or prophetic token; prognostic, premonition; esp. indication of a happy future.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is a reference to “happy auspices” (1660), and the latest is to “fairest auspices” (1885).

The sense in which we use the word today—usually in the plural—came along in the early 1600s.

This meaning, which is entirely positive, is defined in the OED as a “propitious influence” or “patronage,” especially in the phrase “under the auspices of.”

So it’s no surprise that since its beginnings in the early 1600s the adjective, “auspicious,” has almost always meant of good omen, propitious, or favored by fortune.

We’ll close with a couple of quotes from Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about portents.

“Thou ominous and fearful owl of death, / Our nation’s terror and their bloody scourge!” (King Henry VI, Part 1, circa 1591.)

“Then go thou forth; / And fortune play upon thy prosperous helm, / As thy auspicious mistress!” (All’s Well That Ends Well, c. 1605.)

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A progressive future

Q: I’m an American living in London. When I take the tube and approach a station closed for repairs, a message over the PA says: “This train will not be stopping at the next station.” It makes me wince. Is this passive usage British?

A: The usage you’ve noticed is common to both British and American English. It’s quite ordinary, not remarkable at all.

Here the speaker uses the future progressive tense, “will not be stopping,” instead of the simple future tense, “will not stop.” And it’s not a passive construction, as we’ll explain later.

The progressive tenses emphasize that an action is, was, or will be continuous and ongoing for a period of time in the present, past, or future.

The usage in that announcement in London refers to an action (in this case, a nonaction) that will be taking place during a period of time in the future.

The future progressive is often heard in travel announcements. Airplane pilots, for example, may say, “We will be landing at …” instead of “We will land at ….”

And we can recall hearing this tense routinely in the New York City subway system: “This train will be making all express stops” … “This train will not be stopping at 14th Street.”

The progressive tenses all include a form of the verb “be” plus (in the active voice) a present participle. Here are the progressive tenses in the active voice (we’ll put the negative in brackets):

present progressive: “This train is [not] stopping.”

past progressive: “This train was [not] stopping.”

future progressive: “This train will [not] be stopping.”

present perfect progressive: “The train has [not] been stopping.”

past perfect progressive: “The train had [not] been stopping.”

future perfect progressive: “The train will [not] have been stopping.”

As we’ve mentioned, none of those are passive constructions. Here, finally, are some passive examples (which use the past participle):

simple future: “This train will not be stopped.”

present progressive: “This train is not being stopped.”

past progressive: “This train was not being stopped.”

There’s no idiomatic way of using the future progressive, the tense that made you wince, in the passive voice.

The result would be a train wreck: “This train will not be being stopped at the next station.”

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Paying your dues

Q: How did the expression “pay your dues” come to mean overcome difficulties to achieve success?

A: To begin at the beginning, the word “due” has referred to a financial or moral debt since it first showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, originally as an adjective, later as a noun, and eventually as an adverb.

English borrowed “due” from the Old French deü, but the ultimate source is the Latin verb dēbēre (to owe), which has also given us the words “debt,” “debit,” and “duty.”

The earliest example for “due” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325, which uses the phrase “dew dett” for a financial debt that is owed.

And the earliest example for “due” used in the moral sense is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a poem by John Gower about the confessions of an ageing lover, which uses the phrase “due love” in reference to something that deserves to be loved.

The noun “due,” which referred to a financial or moral debt when it appeared in the 15th century, has been used in various expressions since then.

Two of them—“give someone his due” (treat him fairly or acknowledge his merits) and “give the devil his due” (acknowledge the good qualities in a bad person)—are in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 1 (1598):

“No, ile giue thee thy due, thou hast paid all there” … “He was neuer yet a breaker of prouerbes: he will giue the diuell his due.”

The earliest examples that we could find for “pay one’s dues” date from the 1600s, when paying dues meant meeting one’s financial or moral obligations.

In The Anatomie of Melancholy (1632), Robert Burton’s advice for coping with depression includes “Give chearfully. Pay thy dues willingly. Be not a slave to thy mony.”

And here’s an example from a 1685 religious tract by John Norris: “For if even when the Laws enforce men to pay their dues to their Ministers, they yet continue so backward in the discharge of them.”

The expression was used in its literal financial or moral sense until the 20th century, when a pair of figurative meanings developed in the US: (1) to suffer the consequences of an act; (2) to undergo hardships before achieving success.

The OED labels these usages slang, but the American version of Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity from the OED) lists them without comment—that is, as standard English.

Oxford Dictionaries has several examples for each of the new usages, including (1): “he had paid his dues to society for his previous convictions” and (2) “this drummer has paid his dues with the best.”

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online agrees with Oxford Dictionaries and includes the two new senses without comment.

Finally, the use of “due” in referring to points of the compass (the only surviving adverbial sense) showed up in the early 1600s, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (circa 1601): “There lies your way, due West.” We can’t sign off without mentioning another “due” or two.

There’s the adjective meaning expected (“the baby is due in September”), which showed up in the 19th century, and the one meaning proper or adequate (“driving with due care”), which appeared in the 14th century.

Then there’s “due to,” often used to mean “because of.” As we wrote in a 2012 post, it’s widely used but frowned upon by sticklers (who might even say it’s “not due form”).

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Neat and tidyish

Q: When Matthew Goode said “neat and tidy-ish” on Downton Abbey, I thought it unlikely that this phrase could be THAT old. Can you tell me anything about it?

A: As far as we can tell, the phrase “neat and tidy-ish” (with or without the hyphen) is relatively new, showing up less than 10 years ago. However, the expression “neat and tidy” dates from the late 1700s, and the word “tidyish” has been around almost as long.

So Henry Talbot, the character played by Matthew Goode in the TV series Downton Abbey, could conceivably have used the phrase “neat and tidy-ish” with his wife-to-be, Lady Mary Crawley, in a scene set in London on May 18, 1925:

Mary (referring to her son’s well-ordered prospects): “So it’s very neat and tidy.”

Henry: “Neat and tidy-ish.”

As for the etymology here, the adjective “neat” meant elegant and simple when it showed up in in the 15th century. “Tidy” meant in good condition, attractive, or timely when it appeared in the 14th century.

“Neat” is ultimately derived from nitidus, Latin for elegant or shiny, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, while “tidy” is a derivative of “tide,” which referred to time in Old English, where it was spelled tid.

(An unrelated Old English noun of Germanic origin, neat, meant a cow, ox, or other bovine, but the usage is rarely seen today except in neat’s-foot oil, made from the feet and shin bones of cattle.)

The adjective “neat” came to mean orderly and clean in the late 16th century, while “tidy” took on those senses in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The earliest example that we could find for “tidy-ish” or “tidyish” is from an 1825 article in the American Farmer that refers to “tidyish meat” (that is, meat in good condition).

And here’s an example that uses “tidyish” to mean attractive, from a comedy by Delia Caroline Swarbreck, Who Could Believe It? (1830): “Oh a tidyish looking young woman, my lady.”

In “The War Correspondent,” a short story from the June 16, 1877, issue of the English literary magazine Once a Week, “tidyish” is used in the orderly sense.

Here the narrator is interviewing an English soldier-of-fortune working for the Turkish Sultan: “ ‘But you’ve got your army in pretty good order, have you not?’ I said. ‘Tidyish—tidyish, my son. They haven’t much stomach for fighting, unless there’s something to be got by it.’ ”

The word “tidyish” is used in this case to mean sort of tidy—a qualified tidy. That’s the way it’s generally used in the examples we’ve found in searches of online databases. And that’s the way  Henry Talbot seems to be using it in Downton Abbey.

The suffix “-ish” has been added to adjectives since sometime before 1400 to mean “of the nature of, approaching the quality of, somewhat,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest example that we’ve seen for “neat and tidy” is from The Sunday-School Catechist, a 1788 book by Sarah Trimmer about how to run a Sunday School for poor children.

A girl should be encouraged to do housekeeping, Trimmer writes, so her mother will be comforted “when she returns home from a hard day’s work to find her own little place neat and tidy.”

And the earliest written example we’ve seen for “neat and tidyish” (hyphenated or hyphenless) is from a Nov. 12, 2007, comment on Zoids Evolution, a fansite based on the Zoid animated series and collectibles:

“Because I was actually curious as to what my collection consisted of, I compiled a list with some help and made it all neat and tidy-ish.”

A linguist would refer to “neat and tidy” or “neat and tidyish,” two words paired together in an idiomatic expression, as a binomial pair or an irreversible binomial.

Sir Ernest Gowers, who edited the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has referred to these pairs, joined by the conjunctions “and” or “or,” as Siamese twins.

The pairs can be made up of nouns (“fish and chips”), adjectives (“quick and dirty”), verbs (“win or lose”). Some pairs consist of synonyms (“cease and desist”) while others consist of antonyms (“back and forth”).

Gowers writes that the abundance of synonymous pairs in English “is perhaps partly attributable to legal language, where the multiplication of near-synonyms is a normal precaution against too narrow an interpretation.”

He adds that the wording in the Book of Common Prayer, “seldom content with one word if two can be used, may also have had something to do with it.”

Gowers recommends breaking up or rephrasing pairs of synonyms that are merely redundant. Is “neat and tidy” redundant? We don’t think so. “Neat and tidy” strikes us as more conversational, more friendly, than either “neat” or “tidy.”

A pedant would insist on a “neat” desk or a “tidy” one. Ours is “neat and tidy.” Or, rather, “neat and tidyish.”

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A “bona fide” pronunciation?

Q: A supercilious acquaintance looked down his nose at me when I pronounced “bona fide” as BOH-nuh-fied. He says the authentic pronunciation of this phrase borrowed from Latin should be boh-nuh-FEE-day. How would YOU pronounce it?

A: Like you, we say BOH-nuh-fied, as do most Americans. Your snooty friend’s pronunciation may be heard in Latin classes, but it isn’t found in English dictionaries in either the US or the UK.

The two most common English pronunciations of “bona fide,” according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, are BOH-nuh-fied (the end rhymes with “fried”), and boh-nuh-FYE-dee (the end rhymes with “tidy”).

The three-syllable version is more common in the US. In fact, it’s the default audible pronunciation given online by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

To hear it, go to their sites and click on the little loudspeaker icons.

The four-syllable pronunciation is standard in the UK, according to all the British dictionaries we’ve checked. To hear it, go to the UK English version of Oxford Dictionaries online.

Although the three-syllable pronunciation is more common in the US, American dictionaries also accept the four-syllable version, as well as some less common variations. The first vowel can also sound like the “o” in “bonnet,” for example. And the final vowel in the four-syllable version can sound like the “e” in “the.”

But while boh-nuh-FYE-dee is accepted by American dictionaries, it may not be advisable.

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), it’s “pedantic outside the law and precious even in legal contexts.”

Your friend’s pronunciation, boh-nuh-FEE-day, roughly corresponds to the Latin, but we’re talking about English here. (We doubt that your friend pronounces “Caesar” as KYE-zar or “vice versa” as WEE-keh WARE-sah, as the Romans once did.)

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its etymology of “bona fide,” says that even “classical scholars sometimes preserve the Latin quantity of the vowels … without the Latin vowel sounds.”

In Latin, bona fide means “with good faith.” In English, the OED says, it was originally an adverb meaning “genuinely,” “with sincerity,” or “in good faith.”

The adverb dates back to the time of Henry VIII, the dictionary says, when it was recorded in the Acts of Parliament for 1542-43: “The same to procede bona fide, without fraude.”

But “bona fide” has also become an English adjective meaning “genuine,” “sincere,” or “done in good faith.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the adjective is from John Joseph Powell’s An Essay Upon the Learning of Devises (1788): “Act not to extend to bonâ fide purchasers for a valuable consideration.”

“Bona fides,” the noun version, came into English in the mid-19th century. (The usual pronunciation, in both the US and the UK, is boh-nuh-FYE-deez. However, American dictionaries also accept a less-common, three-syllable variation whose ending rhymes with “tides.”)

The OED describes “bona fides” as a singular noun used in the law to mean “good faith” or “freedom from intent to deceive.” The dictionary’s only two examples are from 19th-century legal usage.

This one, from 1885, is a good illustration of the legal use: “It was said that this shewed bona fides on their part” (from Law Reports, Chancery Division).

In the mid-20th century, the noun “bona fides” developed a plural sense that the OED defines as “guarantees of good faith.”

The first example in the dictionary is from a 1944 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “I notice in one of our best sellers the remark ‘If Mina’s bona fides are once questioned.’ ”

The OED regards this plural usage as a mistake: “Erroneously treated as pl. form of bona fide (assumed to be n. sing.)”

However, Oxford Dictionaries (a different entity from the OED) describes the usage as informal and gives this example: “‘Now, however, the bona fides of some of those ordinations are in question.”

And most of the other standard dictionaries we’ve checked accept without reservation the use of “bona fides” as a plural noun meaning good intentions, authentic credentials, proofs of legitimacy, and so on.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate has this example: “the informant’s bona fides were ascertained.” And American Heritage has an example that describes a singer whose “operatic bona fides were prominently on display.”

In addition, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has citations that mention phrases like “the bona fides of a Soviet defector,” “social bona fides,” “literary bona fides,” and “his bona fides on this issue.”

In “this now-established new meaning,” the M-W usage guide says, the noun “very often occurs in contexts where it does not govern a verb.”

But when it is the subject of a verb, M-W adds, “the verb is usually plural,” as in this example: “Fritz Kolbe’s bona fides were unambiguously established” (from the New York Times Book Review, 1983).

OK, this use of “bona fides” is legit. But why use it at all? In our opinion, “bona fides” is a stuffy noun, and a word like “credentials” or “authenticity” or “legitimacy” would do a better job.

Bryan Garner, in his usage guide, agrees that the plural term has an “air of affectation.” And he adds: “Making bona fides singular sounds pedantic; making it plural is likely to offend those who have a smattering of Latin.”

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Is “if you will” a verbal tic?

Q: Is there any legitimate use for the phrase “if you will,” which I hear overused and abused on TV and radio? I’ve been wondering about this since hearing John Sununu repeatedly use it as filler the other day.

A: We once wrote a post in which we mentioned a few expressions that are “used to death in the media.” We included “in the final analysis,” “hit the ground running,” “on the ground,” “when all is said and done,” “at the end of the day,” and “if you will.”

We jokingly used the last one in a sentence: “First I take off my left shoe, and then, if you will, my right.”

Joking aside, “if you will” is much overused by interview subjects on the air and in print. The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum, writing on the Language Log, has compared it to the use of “like” as a filler.

In his article, Pullum plucks more than a dozen sentences from the Wall Street Journal, containing what seem to be “quotes from educated and prosperous middle-aged persons—CEOs and so on.” And in each case he replaces the speaker’s “if you will” with “like.”

For example, the statement “They are, if you will, this country’s governing body” becomes “They are, like, this country’s governing body.” You get the idea: “if you will” is to pompous baby boomers what “like” is to their kids.

As Pullum says, “The people who grouse about like are myopic old whiners who haven’t looked at their own, like, linguistic foibles, if you will.”

In fact, “if you will” isn’t always empty filler. Before it became the annoying and meaningless tic it often is today, it had a legitimate usage (and it still does, among more careful speakers).

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression is “sometimes used parenthetically to qualify a word or phrase” and can be interpreted as “if you wish it to be so called” or “if you choose or prefer to call it so.” (The OED doesn’t comment on the use of the phrase as mere throat-clearing.)

Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “if you will” as meaning “if you wish to call it that,” and gives a literary example: “a kind of preoccupation, or obsession if you will” (Louis Auchincloss).

This is not the “will” that’s an auxiliary of the future tense. This is the verb that means to desire or wish, as well as to intend or propose “that something be done or happen,” as the OED says.

This sense of “will” is a remnant of an obsolete or archaic use that dates back to the 10th century in writing, one in which “will” is used transitively—that is, with an object (as in “she willed him to speak” or “your father wills it”). However, in the case of “if you will” the object is unstated.

The OED has this late 17th-century example: “Gravity … depends entirely on the constant and efficacious, and, if you will, the supernatural and miraculous Influence of Almighty God” (from William Whiston’s The New Theory of the Earth, 1696).

This 19th-century example is from the works of John Ruskin: “Very savage! monstrous! if you will” (from St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, 1876).

Notice how the writers in those examples use “if you will” to qualify words, like “supernatural” and “monstrous,” that a reader might otherwise find startling. In effect, the meaning is “you might even say supernatural,” “you might even say monstrous.”

But “if you will” is also used in other ways, as in polite formulas like “Pass the salt, if you will,” “Imagine, if you will, a rustic cottage,” and “Tell the jury, if you will, where you were on the night of ….”

In those examples, “if you will” means something like “if you please.” (The OED’s definitions of “if you please” include “if it be your will.”)

Finally, “if you will” can be used in the sense of “if you desire” or “if you wish.”

The OED has an example from Sir Walter Scott. In a scene from the novel Kenilworth (1821), the Earl of Leicester’s wife makes a wish—that he would don the russet-brown cloak of a peasant. The Earl replies: “The sober russet shall be donned to-morrow, if you will.”

This usage is a cousin to a couple of old phrases in which the verb “will” has only an implied object: “if God will” and the later “God willing.”

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When “I don’t care” means “Yes”

Q: I came across a startling idiom while living in southern Missouri. If I asked someone a favor, the response would be “I don’t care,” but the meaning would be “I’m willing.” Can you help clarify?

A: What you heard in Missouri is an American regionalism that dates from the early 20th century, but it has roots in a usage that showed up in England in the 1500s.

To begin at the beginning, the verb “care” has meant, among other things, to be concerned about something since it appeared in Old English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may date from as early as 700: “Na ymb his lif cearað” (“Nor cares about his life”).

We still use the verb “care” that way. The latest OED example is from Play Therapy, a 1947 book by the psychologist Virginia Mae Axline: “Fall on the floor, damn you! See if I care.”

In the early 16th century, the verb in negative constructions took on a sense similar to the one you’re asking about.

“Not to care,” according to the OED, came to mean “not to mind (something proposed); to have no disinclination or objection, be disposed to.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by the English monk William Bonde: “Some for a fewe tythes, with Cayn, careth nat to lese the eternall ryches of heuen [heaven].”

The OED adds that when the usage is seen now “care” is accompanied by the preposition “if” or “though.” However, the dictionary’s most recent citation is from the mid-19th century.

Here’s an “if” example from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 (1600): “I care not if I doe become your phisitian.”

And here’s one from Clarissa, a 1748 novel by Samuel Richardson: Will you eat, or drink, friend? … I don’t care if I do.”

As for the usage you heard in Missouri, the Dictionary of American Regional English says the verb “care” is used in the negative to mean “to be willing, to be pleased,” usually “in response to an invitation.”

So in this sense, “I don’t care to” would mean “I’m willing to” or “I’d be pleased to” or simply “Yes.”

DARE identifies this as a regionalism of the Midlands section of the country. Here are the examples on record, with the locations listed first.

Southern Indiana: “People might think you were brash if you answered straight out ‘Yes’ to an offer of food or drink, so to be polite you said ‘I don’t care.’ ” (From 1980 DARE records of a usage current “as of c1900.”)

Southeast Missouri: “Care…. In negative ‘not to care’; a common expression denoting consent. ‘Will you go to dinner with me?’ ‘I don’t care.’ (Not meant to be indifferent.)”  (From the journal Dialect Notes, 1903.)

Northwest Arkansas, southeast Missouri, southeast Kentucky: “Care (with negative)…. To be willing. ‘If I had a horse and carriage I wouldn’t care to take you to Boring.’ ” (From Dialect Notes, 1907.)

Central Kentucky: “I hope to live my life out so people won’t care to look at me, and I won’t care to meet nobody…. You don’t have to be hateful. You can be kind. And people don’t care to look at you.” (From Ellesa Clay High’s Collection of Terms Recorded in the Red River Gorge, 1981, describing a usage current “as of c1930.”)

West Virginia mountains: “ ‘Come and set?’ ‘I wouldn’t keer to.’ The rising inflection of the guest’s voice indicated her willingness, so together they dropped down in the cool grass.” (From Alberta Hannum’s novel Thursday April, 1931.)

Western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee: “ ‘She don’t care to talk’ [means] she doesn’t mind talking, i.e. she is a great talker.” (From the Joseph Sargent Hall collection of dialect materials, 1937.)

West Virginia: “One of the most baffling expressions our people use … is ‘I don’t care to….’ To outlanders this seems to mean a definite ‘no,’ whereas in truth it actually means, ‘thank you so much, I’d love to.’ ” (From West Virginia History, 1969, at the state Department of Archives and History.)

And this is an example from much farther north: “Maine Circumlocutions … such as, ‘I don’t care for him’ when the meaning is, ‘I have no objection to him.’ ” (From Down East: The Magazine of Maine, 1971.)

The verb “mind” has been used similarly in negative constructions to mean “to care, trouble oneself,” according to the OED.

Here’s an example from Foreign Parts, a 1994 novel by Janine Galloway: “We can sit here for a while if you like. Whatever, Cassie said. I don’t mind. Whatever.”

Finally, we have the negative use of “mind” in the expression “I don’t mind if I do,” which the OED defines as “a humorous circumlocution accepting an invitation, esp. the offer of a (usually alcoholic) drink.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Round of Wrong, an 1847 play by William Bayle Bernard: “Reu. You’ll have some tea? / Duc. Well, I don’t mind if I do.”

And this alcoholic example is from Charlotte Brontë’s 1849 novel Shirley: “ ‘Take another glass,’ urged Moore. Mr. Sykes didn’t mind if he did.”

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In kilter or out of it?

Q: I was lying in bed last night when I started thinking about the phrase “out of kilter.” I deconstructed it mentally, wondering whether something could be in kilter as well as out of it. Do you have any insights about this one?

A: It’s nice to know that other people toss around in bed trying to decipher English phrases!

The short answer is that things can be “in kilter” or “out of kilter,” though they’re usually out of it. Here’s the longer version.

The noun has been spelled both “kilter” and “kelter” since it showed up in the early 1600s, but “kilter” is now the spelling in standard dictionaries in the US and the UK.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary whose entry for the word hasn’t been fully updated, still uses “kelter” as its principal spelling.

The OED defines the term as “good condition, order; state of health or spirits,” and says it’s used “in the phrases out of kelter, in (good, high) kelter, to get into kelter.”

Only 2 of the 15 Oxford citations use the term positively (the last positive example is from the early 1820s). And only one of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked has a positive example.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes an example that refers to efforts to bring the “country’s economy back into kilter with the Western economic system.”

Etymologists have been stumped about the origins of “kilter.” The OED says says the etymology is obscure, but adds that the usage is “widely diffused in English dialect from Northumbria and Cumberland to Cornwall.”

The first written use of the word, according to Oxford, is in a 1628 letter cited in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation:

“Hithertoo ye Indeans of these parts had no peeces nor other arms but their bowes & arrowes, nor of many years after; neither durst they scarce handle a gune, so much were they affraid of them; and ye very sight of one (though out of kilter) was a terrour unto them.” (We’ve gone to the original and expanded the OED citation for context.)

It’s interesting that Bradford uses “out of kilter” in reference to firearms, because some other early mentions also concern them. Here are a couple of examples, including a positive one:

“Their Gunnes they … often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter” (from Roger Williams’s Key Into the Language of America, 1643).

“Mending, cleansing and keeping in good kelter the firelocks left with his Honour” (from Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 1722).

Any association with firearms may simply be coincidental, though, since “kilter” and “out of kilter” were used early on in reference to other things as well.

An early definition reads this way:  “Kelter or Kilter, Frame, order.” It comes from John Ray’s A Collection of English Words, Not Generally Used (1674). We should note here that “in frame” was an old expression for “in order” or “in good form.”

This sampling from Oxford’s citations, which includes the last positive one, shows how widely these expressions have been used:

“If the organs of Prayer are out of kelter, or out of tune, how can we pray?” (from a sermon by the English theologian Isaac Barrow, delivered sometime before 1677).

“The seats some burned and others out of kilter” (from a 1681 quotation given in an 1898 article in New England Magazine).

“I found all of my family well excepting the poor pale Johnnie; and he is really a thing to break one’s heart by looking at—yet he is better. The rest are in high kelter” (we’ve expanded this citation from a May 20, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott).

“I must rest awhile. My brain is out of kilter” (from a letter written in 1862 by James Russell Lowell).

“Jack’s death sort of knocked you out of kilter” (from The Four of Hearts, an Ellery Queen mystery, 1938).

“There [in Northern Ireland], an allotment of 12 seats at Westminster is based upon electoral quotas wildly out of kilter with the quotas for England, Scotland, and Wales” (from the Times, London, 1973).

We’ll end with a modern example of “kilter” used positively. In Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (2008), George Vecsey describes the reaction of baseball junkies to the Yankees’ victory over the Braves in the 1996 World Series:

“Yankee fans were relieved to find the moon and stars finally back in kilter, but Yankee-haters, in their own tortured way, felt relieved to finally be oppressed again in familiar fashion.”

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Baby, it’s cold outside

Q: Greg Easterbrook recently complained in the NYT about “freezing temperatures.” In his words, “Temperature is a mathematical measure:  Numbers don’t freeze.  Temperatures can be high or low; air is what’s hot or cold.” Greg’s a smart guy, but is he right?

A: No, Greg is wrong. Sometimes people of a literal bent go to ridiculous extremes, throwing common sense out the window. Our advice to Greg: Chill out.

Writers, including scientists, have been using “freezing temperature” or “freezing temperatures” for hundreds of years to mean the degree of coldness at which something freezes.

What’s not to understand here? In weather parlance, this generally means a temperature at which water is converted to ice.

Oxford Dictionaries online defines “temperature” as the “degree or intensity of heat present in a substance or object, especially as expressed according to a comparative scale and shown by a thermometer or perceived by touch.”

In medicine, according to Oxford, the term refers to the “degree of internal heat of a person’s body,” and, informally, to a “body temperature above the normal; fever.”

The dictionary says “temperature” can also mean the “degree of excitement or tension in a discussion or confrontation.”

Oxford gives these numberless examples: “strong winds and freezing temperatures” … “I’ll take her temperature” … “he was running a temperature” … “the temperature of the debate was lower than before.”

Although “temperature” is often expressed numerically, a number isn’t necessary. One can say, “My temperature is normal” or “My temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit” … “The temperature outside is freezing” or “The temperature is 0° Celsius.”

In its entry for “freezing,” Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online says the adjective means “being at or below freezing point,” and it gives this example: “the temperature is freezing.”

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s offers a second definition in which “freezing” is used loosely to mean merely “very cold,” a usage that we found in four other standard dictionaries.

So lexicographers don’t seem to mind referring to “temperatures” as “freezing.” And they don’t have a mental picture of numbers turning to ice.

We use “boiling” in the same way: “The water in the teapot often reaches boiling temperature within five minutes.” Here the adjective “boiling” means sufficient to make something boil.

People commonly use “-ing” participles adjectivally. Every day we use perfectly normal English constructions like “frying pan,” “playing field,” “walking pace,” “crying shame,” and so on.

We don’t mean that the pan is frying, that the field is playing, that the pace is walking, or that the shame is crying.

In searches of online databases, we’ve found many examples for “freezing temperature” or “freezing temperatures” in scientific and other writing dating back to the 18th century. Here are a few early examples:

“When the air was at or near the freezing temperature, the logarithmic differences gave the real height,” from Observations Made in Savoy (1777), a treatise by Sir George Shuckburgh on measuring the height of mountains.

“When salt-water ice floats in the sea at a freezing temperature, the proportion above to that below the surface, is as 1 to 4 nearly,” from the April 11, 1818, issue of the Literary Gazette in London.

“We also know that eggs from perfectly healthy worms, if they be kept at one time in a warm place, and at another in a very cold place, sometimes in warm stove rooms, then in cold, freezing temperatures … will be very certain to produce worms subject to the yellows,” from an 1839 issue of the Journal of the American Silk Society.

By the way, the noun “temperature” had nothing to do with heat or cold, whether expressed numerically or not, when it showed up in English in the mid-1500s.

English adopted the word from Latin, where temperāre meant to moderate or mix, and temperātūra referred to moderation or a proper mixture.

That sense of moderation in temperāre and temperātūra has given English the words “temperance” and “temperate,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In English, “temperature” initially referred to mixing and moderating, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete.

The sense you’re asking about (which the OED defines as the “state of a substance or body with regard to sensible warmth or coldness”) didn’t show up until the late 17th century.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the title of a 1670 tract by the chemist and physicist Robert Boyle: Of the Temperature of the Submarine Regions as to Heat and Cold.

The use of “temperature” for a “degree of excitement or tension” showed up in this example from Arthur Penrhyn Stanley’s Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church (1863): “The temperature of the zeal of the different portions of the nation.”

And the use of the word for a fever appeared in Percy White’s 1898 novel A Millionaire’s Daughter : “Do you think I have a temperature?”

The adjective “freezing,” which ultimately comes from the Old English verb fréosan (to freeze), showed up in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (which the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare says was produced as early as 1611):

When we are old as you? when we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December, how,
In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse
The freezing hours away?

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How permission is expressed

Q: It bothers me when a form reads, “By signing this you are giving your express permission for us to use your information.” Shouldn’t that be “expressed permission”?

A: In contemporary English, one usually gives “express permission,” not “expressed permission.”

We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and not a single one includes the adjectival use of the past participle “expressed” in this sense. In fact, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) describes it as a misuse.

All six dictionaries have entries for the adjective “express” used in transportation (“an express train”) and mail (“an express letter”), as well as the meaning you’re asking about and a related sense.

Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, includes these two adjectival senses:

(1) “Definitely stated, not merely implied: it was his express wish that the celebration continue.”

(2) “Precisely and specifically identified to the exclusion of anything else: the schools were founded for the express purpose of teaching deaf children.”

In your example (“By signing this you are giving your express permission for us to use your information”), the word “express” is being used in sense No. 1 to mean definite or explicit.

Although “expressed” is sometimes seen in this sense, “express” is overwhelmingly preferred, according to our online searches. Here’s the Google scorecard: “express permission,” more than 3.3 million hits; “expressed permission,” 356,000.

The Oxford English Dictionary (a historical dictionary that’s a separate entity from Oxford Dictionaries online) does indeed include the adjectival use of “expressed” to mean “express,” but its most recent citation is from the early 1700s.

When the adjective “express” showed up in written English in the 1300s (two centuries before the adjectival use of “expressed”), it meant explicit or definite, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s first two examples are from “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386). Here’s one of them:

“Wher can ye seen in any maner age / That highe God defended mariage / By expresse word?”

And this is a 1765 legal example from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England: “Express contracts are where the terms of the agreement are openly uttered and avowed at the time of the making.”

Finally, here’s an 1877 example from The American Commonwealth, by James Bryce: “Sometimes by express, more often by a tacit understanding.”

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Why “children,” not “childs”?

Q: Your recent post about why “chicken” is singular has left me wondering where “-en” plurals such as “oxen,” “brethren,” “children,” “men,” “women,” and the archaic eyen come from.

A: In Old English, nouns that followed certain patterns formed their plurals with -n rather than –s.

These included the one you mention, eyen (“eyes”), as well as earan (“ears”), tungan (“tongues”), fon (“foes”), housen (“houses”), shoen (“shoes”), treen (“trees”), and oxan (the original plural of “ox”).

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1400), both the –en and the –an plurals that had come from Old English were spelled with –en.

Meanwhile, Middle English writers extended the -en spelling, applying it to words that didn’t originally have plurals ending in –n.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the termination -en came to be regarded as a formative of the plural, and its use was extended in southern Middle English to many other words of Old English and French origin.”

Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw note in The English Language: A Historical Introduction (2nd ed.) that Middle English had “forms like devlen ‘devils’ and englen ‘angels,’ where Old English had deoflas and englas.”

This -en  ending was so popular in Middle English that it was even added to existing irregular plurals, so that brethre (plural of “brother”) became brethren and childer (plural of “child”) became children.

You might say that the –en of “brethren” and “children,” added to words that were already plural, formed in each case a sort of double plural. (The modern “brothers” wasn’t commonly used until the end of the 16th century.)

For a time, –n and –s rivaled each other as the typical plural ending in English, Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write in The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.).

In general, the -n ending was favored in the south of England and the –s in the north.

But nearly all of the –n plurals eventually disappeared as the –s plurals became dominant. By around 1400, say the authors of The English Language, the –s plurals were “almost universal.”

The only original –n plural from Old English that has survived to this day is “oxen.” And even this plural had a run for its money. It competed for a time with “oxes,” which the OED says “has survived only in regional and nonstandard use.”

(The plurals “men” and “women,” by the way, don’t fall into this category. They were formed in Old English by a change of vowel, as is also true of “feet,” “geese,” “teeth,” “mice,” and “lice.”)

We should mention a couple of other points about –en endings in English.

As we wrote in our “chicken” post, the –en suffix has been used to form diminutives. This is the case with the –en of “chicken,” “kitten,” and “maiden.”

And –en has been added to nouns to form adjectives in the sense “pertaining to” or “of the nature of,” the OED says. In Germanic languages, adjectives formed this way “chiefly indicate the material of which a thing is composed,” Oxford adds.

Only a few of these adjectives survive today in English, including “golden,” “wooden,” “leaden,” “oaken,” “woolen,” “earthen,” and “wheaten.”

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