The Grammarphobia Blog

Getting to the bottom of pants

Q: I was watching the BBC show Blandings when the Earl was discomforted by an American’s use of “pants,” until it was explained that the reference was to trousers, not underpants. Is the meaning of “pants” still different in the US and the UK? If so, when did it diverge?

A: Yes, “pants” is one of those words that distinguish American from British usage. The usual meaning is “underpants” in the UK and “trousers” in the US. However, a secondary meaning in the US is “underpants.”

The word first appeared in the US in the early 1800s as a clipped version of “pantaloons,” close-fitting men’s breeches common in the 19th century.

The longer term, which showed up in its trousers sense in the 17th century, is ultimately derived from Pantalone, a silly old man in Italian commedia dell’arte whose thin legs were encased in long tight trousers, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest example for “pants” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger: “In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

In American English, according to the OED, “pants” originally referred to men’s trousers, but in the 20th century the term “extended to include those worn by both men and women.”

In the late 1800s, “pants” showed up in British usage as “underpants.” Ayto suggests that this meaning was “perhaps influenced by pantalets, a 19th-century diminutive denoting ‘women’s long frilly drawers.’ ”

The earliest OED example for the underwear sense of the word is from the Nov. 8, 1880, issue of the Daily News in London: “Pants and shirts sell rather freely, and jerseys are still in request.”

The OED‘s latest citation is from a 1999 issue of Watt’s On, the student newspaper at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland: “The University seems to be asking us to choose between wearing no underwear … and wearing damp pants.”

While the OED says this is “chiefly” a British usage, it does occur in American English, as we mentioned. Many standard dictionaries in the US recognize “underpants” as a secondary sense. And Pat recalls that “pants” meant underwear as well as trousers when she was growing up in Iowa.

The American novelist Thomas Sterling uses the word both ways in his thriller The House Without a Door (1950), as seen in these two examples:

(1) “She chose her blue underwear, trimmed with sand-colored lace, which she had ordered from an advertisement. She laid the pants and brassière on her bed and placed a plain blue slip beside them.”

(2) “He walked down the stairs, struggling for change in his pants pocket.”

The OED says “pants” also has the slang sense of “nonsense” in British English, especially in the expressions “a pile of pants” and “a load of pants.”

The first citation for the slang usage is from the Sept. 22, 1994, issue of the Guardian: “It’s all a bit embarrassing because Mayo (catchphrase: ‘It’s a pile of pants!’) fails to recognise her at first.”

The word “pants” is used colloquially in various other expressions. Here are some cited in the OED and the dates of their earliest examples:

to wear (also put on) the pants: to be the dominant member of a household, relationship, partnership, etc.,” 1898.

to be caught with one’s pants down: to be surprised in an embarrassing situation; to be caught off guard,” 1922.

to beat (also bore, scare, etc.) the pants off (a person): to beat (bore, scare, etc.) completely, utterly, or beyond the point of endurance,” 1925.

to keep one’s pants on: to keep calm,” 1928.

to get into someone’s pants: to have sexual intercourse with (a person),” 1937

by the seat of one’s pants: by instinct and experience rather than logic, expert knowledge, or technical aid,” 1938.

In case you’re interested, we ran a post in 2015 on the use of “pant” for “pants” in the fashion world, and a post in 2012 on why some items of clothing are singular and some plural.

As for Blandings, we haven’t watched the BBC series. But we’re big fans of P. G. Wodehouse’s novels and stories, so we’re familiar with Lord Emsworth, the Empress (his prize pig), and the other residents of Blandings Castle.

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Munch on, crunch on, nuncheon!

Q: I came across “nuncheon” in my paperback of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It apparently refers to a meal of some sort, and I wonder if it’s a misprint for “luncheon.”

A: No, “nuncheon” is an actual word—an archaic term that’s heard now only in regional dialects in England. It refers to a between-meals snack, not a regular meal like “luncheon.”

The word, spelled “noonschench” when it showed up in the Middle Ages, began as a compound of elements meaning “noon” and “drink.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nuncheon” as “a drink taken in the afternoon; a light refreshment between meals; a snack.”

While it seems to have meant a drink early on, in later citations it clearly meant a snack, taken in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a medieval account book of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. A Latin entry, dated circa 1260-75, includes the Middle English “noonschench.”

For centuries, as OED citations show, it was spelled many different ways: “nonesenches,” “nunseynches,” “nunchions,” “noonshun,” “noonchin,” “nunchun,” and others. The spelling with the “-eon” ending was likely influenced by the old words “puncheon” and “truncheon,” Oxford says.

Jane Austen spelled it “noon-chine” in her novel Sense and Sensibility (1811): “I left London this morning at eight o’clock, and the only ten minutes I have spent out of my chaise since that time, procured me a noon-chine at Marlborough.”

However, editions of Sense and Sensibility published since Austen’s death in 1817 usually spell the word either “nuncheon” or “nunchion.”

Robert Browning spelled it “nuncheon” in his poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842): “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, / Breakfast, dinner, supper, luncheon!”

And the OED has this example from A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Wiltshire (1893), by George Edward Dartnell and Edward Hungerford Goddard:

“About Salisbury Nuncheon is between 10 and 10.30 a.m., and again at 4 p.m., and is a very small meal.”

Why did the word fall out of everyday use? Our guess is that it was no longer needed, or that the British replaced it with other words—like “elevenses” for the mid-morning break and “tea” for the mid-afternoon.

As for “luncheon,” it didn’t start out as the name of a meal.

In the late 16th century, when both “luncheon” and “lunch” were first recorded, they meant a piece, hunk, or lump, as of bread or cheese or meat. In fact, the OED suggests, “lump” may be their etymological source.

While the longer form was recorded earlier—“luncheon” in 1580 and “lunch” in 1591—it’s not certain what their exact relationship was. Perhaps “lunch” was a clipped form of “luncheon.” Or perhaps “luncheon” was an extended form of “lunch.”

At any rate, in the mid-1600s “luncheon” became the name of a meal, originally “a slight repast taken between two of the ordinary meal-times, esp. between breakfast and mid-day dinner,” the OED says.

But in the meantime, “lunch” continued to mean a hunk or lump (usually of food). It wasn’t until the 1820s that “lunch” became a synonym for the “luncheon” meal, and it is now the dominant term.

Today, as the OED says, “with those who ‘dine’ in the evening, luncheon denotes a meal (understood to be less substantial and less ceremonious than dinner) taken usually in the early afternoon.”

The word is now “somewhat formal,” the dictionary adds, so “lunch” is “the usual word exc. in specially formal use.”

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Pay her a call? Or call her up?

Q: How did “call” evolve from a visit in person (“call on her”) to a visit by telephone (“call her up”)?

A: The use of “call” in telephone terminology developed from the age-old sense of a shout or a loud cry, not from the sense of a social visit.

In the 1870s, when first used in reference to telephones, a “call” meant the noise made by a telephone demanding to be answered, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And this sense of “call,” the OED says, was descended from the earliest meaning of the noun back in the 1300s: “a cry, shout, or other sound.”

In the telephone sense of the word, a “call” was originally defined as “an audible signal indicating that a person is trying to contact another by telephone,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1878 issue of the journal Design and Work, describing an apparatus “to enable the sound of the voice while singing to be heard all over a room, and which I use as a ‘call,’ instead of an electric bell.”

And this example is from 1879: “It being necessary to keep the vibratory bells at each station in circuits, in order that the calls may be heard.” (From George B. Prescott’s book The Speaking Telephone, Electric Light, and Other Recent Electrical Inventions.)

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the OED says, the notion that a “call” meant the sound of a ringing phone was “weakened or lost,” and a “call” came to mean a phone conversation or an attempt to reach someone by phone.

The dictionary has this example from the Jan. 11, 1929, issue of the Morning Post in London: “The charge for a three-minute call between London and Warsaw will be 15s. 3d.”

Meanwhile, the verb “call” in its telephone sense has always been used much as we use it today. Oxford’s earliest definition still applies:

“To contact or attempt to contact (a person, organization, building, etc.) by telephone; to connect with (a number) in this way; to phone.”

The dictionary’s earliest examples are from the 1870s. In this one, the verb is used transitively (that is, with a direct object):

“Pressure on the sending push serves to call the corresponding station.” (From an 1879 translation of Théodose Du Moncel’s book The Telephone, the Microphone, and the Phonograph.)

And here it’s used intransitively (without an object): “We run a branch line from the line of the station calling, to a suitable terminal, x.” (From M. Daniel Connolly’s 1879 US Patent #222458, for a telephone exchange system.)

The original verb “call,” from which the noun is derived, dates back to Old English and is probably inherited from Scandinavian languages, the OED says.

The verb first meant to cry out loudly and forcibly. The 19th-century use of the verb in relation to the telephone is derived from “senses in which summoning, invoking, or requesting is the primary meaning,” according to Oxford.

So ultimately, to “call me” by phone is to summon me. It’s notable that “ring me,” a similar use of a noisy word in reference to telephoning, means the same.

Now on to the other use of “call” that you mention—the noun and verb referring to a brief visit. Interestingly, they’re also probably derived from that original sense of a shout or loud cry.

Originally, the use of “call” in the sense of “to make a visit to a house or premises” probably included “the notion of calling aloud at a person’s door to make one’s presence known,” the OED says.

In early use, the dictionary adds, to “call” was sometimes “limited in reference to speaking to a person who answers a call, knock, ring, etc., without entering the premises (the notion of entering being originally encompassed by to call in).”

The earliest written uses of “call” in this sense are from Shakespeare: “To day as I came by I called there” (Richard II, 1597) … “You are to cal at all the alehouses” (Much Ado About Nothing, 1600).

The noun use came later, in the mid-1600s, the OED says, when a “call” came to mean “a short social or formal visit,” and “to pay a call” meant “to make a brief visit.”

The dictionary’s earliest example was published in 1648 in Mercurius Aulicus, a Royalist newspaper published in Oxford: “I’le pay your tooth-less pipkin, you wizzend-chapt a call; and teach your leather eares prick-song.”

This more demure example is from Ann Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey (1847): “Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls.”

The characters in old novels always seem to be making, or paying, or receiving “calls.” This use of “call” is still with us, as in the OED’s more modern examples. Here’s a selection:

“When a major underworld figure dies, FBI agents pay a call at the national headquarters of the Florists’ Transworld Delivery Association.” (Nation’s Business, March 1974.)

“What is it you want, Fan? I don’t suppose this is a social call.” (From Eileen Dunlop’s novel The Maze Stone, 1982.)

“South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, paid a call on Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s beleaguered dictator.” (New York Review of Books, June 2008.)

The verb we use along with the noun “call” makes a big difference. “Give me a call” means a phone call, but “Pay me a call” means an in-person visit.

[Update, Dec. 28, 2016. A reader reminds us of an episode of The Honeymooners in which two meanings of “call” were used to comic effect:

“Alice: I won’t be long, Killer.  I call you ‘Killer’ ’cause you slay me.

“Ralph: And I’m calling Bellevue ’cause you’re nuts!”]

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Does your sweetheart stink?

Q: I remember reading a book by Wilfred Funk that says the verb “stink” was once a compliment. That has got me into some trouble of late. Could you please clear this up for me?

A: In Six Weeks to Words of Power (1955), the lexicographer and publisher Wilfred J. Funk writes: “In the days of long ago the phrase that rose stinks meant that its odor was pleasant. You stink was a compliment.”

That’s right, more or less. For a few hundred years in Anglo-Saxon times, the verb meant simply to give off an odor. The odor could be pleasant, disgusting, or something in between.

That old sense is now obsolete, and it would be considered offensive today to tell someone—your sweetheart, for example—that she stinks.

When the verb showed up in Old English in the early 700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “to emit a smell or vapour of any kind; to smell (sweetly or otherwise).”

The earliest OED example for this sense—from an Anglo-Saxon glossary dated at around 725—translates flagrans, Latin for “smelling” or “sweet smelling,” as stincendi, Old English for “stinking.”

The dictionary’s next example is from a grammar written around 1000 by the Benedictine scholar and abbot Ælfric of Eynsham: “Ic stince swote” (“I stink sweetly”). This is the only example in the OED for “stink” used in a positive sense to refer to a person.

A third citation is from the Ormulum, a biblical commentary by the medieval monk Orm: “To strawwenn gode gresess þaer Þatt stunnkenn swiþe swete” (“To strew good grasses there that stink very sweetly”). A question mark in front of the citation suggests that the OED may be uncertain about the date. The dictionary dates it at around 1200, while some scholars believe it was written as early as the mid-1100s.

As Ælfric was finishing his grammar, which was used to teach Latin to Old English speakers at the turn of the 11th century, the verb “stink” began losing its pleasant or neutral senses. By the late Old English or early Middle English periods, only the negative sense of “stink” seems to have survived.

Used negatively, according to the OED, the verb “stink” meant “to emit a strong offensive smell; to smell foully.” The dictionary’s first citation is from Old English Leechdoms, a medical work dated at around 1000: “Eal se lichoma stincð fule” (“That corpse stinks quite foully”).

The next example, dated around 1200, is from a document in the Trinity Cambridge Manuscript: “stincð fule for his golnesse” (“stinks foully due to his lasciviousness”).

And here’s one from Mirk’s Festial, a collection of homilies for the liturgical festivals, by John Mirkus, an Augustinian canon: “How his brethe stinkyth.” (The OED dates Mirk’s Festial at around 1450, but some scholars say it may have been written as early as the 1380s.)

The verb “stink” is ultimately derived from the reconstructed West Germanic term stiŋkwan, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. Ayto notes that another form of the prehistoric term, stiŋkw-, gave English the word “stench.”

By the time the noun “stink” showed up in the 14th century, according to the OED, the word was clearly negative, and meant “a foul, disgusting, or offensive smell”—that is, a stench. The first example in the dictionary—”The stynk of hym”—is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.

Over the years, the verb and noun took on several other meanings, including “to be abhorrent” (1303), as in “His money stinks”; “a row or fuss” (1819), as in “Don’t make a stink about it”; and “to be incompetent” (1934), as in “I stink at tennis.”

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Toothsome dishes

Q: The other day I heard “toothsome” used to describe an attractive woman. What is the origin of this usage? Is there some connection to calling someone “a real dish”?

A: “Toothsome” has meant tasty—in the literal sense of good to eat—since the 16th century.

But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the sexier sense of “toothsome” (think of a luscious or delicious morsel) was applied to attractive people.

Here’s how all these meanings evolved.

To begin with, the words “tooth” and “teeth” are extremely old, as you might expect. They were recorded in Old English writing as far back as the early 700s, as tóþ and téþ (the runic letter þ represented a “th” sound).

“Tooth” came into English through the Germanic languages, but it can be traced to prehistoric Proto-Germanic and even further back to ancient Indo-European. It’s notable that the word for “tooth” in Indo-European, reconstructed as dont, is derived from a base (ed-) that meant to eat.

Since teeth and eating are so closely connected—etymologically as well as in everyday life—it’s not surprising that “tooth” has long had figurative meanings related to the sense of taste.

From the Middle Ages until well into the 19th century, for example, the expression “to (or for) one’s tooth” meant to one’s taste or liking, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest known figurative use in writing is from Chaucer, where it’s found in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (circa 1386): “I wol kepe it for youre owene tooth.” (Here the raunchy Wife of Bath is speaking not of food but of her body.)

These 17th-century examples also illustrate the use of “tooth” to mean one’s liking:

“A wanton tooth is the harbinger to luxurious wantonnesse.” (From Bishop Joseph Hall’s Contemplations, 1615.)

“And keep the best o’ th’ meat (forsooth) / For your own Worships dainty tooth!” (From Charles Cotton’s Burlesque Upon Burlesque, 1675.)

The OED’s sole 19th-century example is from an English magazine, Beck’s Florist, Fruitist and Garden Miscellany (September 1851): “What a tooth for fruit has a monkey!”

“Palate,” another word for a part of the mouth, has also been used figuratively to mean taste or liking. And the adjective forms, “palatable” and “toothsome,” both originally meant tasty.

The tasty sense of “toothsome” was first recorded in the 16th century, and the OED’s definition (“pleasant to the taste, savoury, palatable”) is still current today.

Oxford’s earliest example is from an account of a slave-trading expedition: “We … found water, which although it were neither so toothsome as running water … yet did we not refuse it.” (From John Sparke’s Sir John Hawkins’ 2nd Voyage, circa 1565.)

And here are examples from each of the next three centuries:

“The Patattoes, which they eate as a delicate and toothsome meate.” (From Edward Grimeston’s 1604 translation of José de Acosta’s The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies.)

“I began to find a Craving … for more solid and Toothsome Food.” (From the physician George Cheyne’s The English Malady, 1733, a book about nervous diseases.)

“Hard to please if they cannot select something toothsome from the menu.” (From Edward Callow’s Old London Taverns, 1899.)

At the same time, from about the mid-1500s, “toothsome” was also used figuratively to mean pleasant in general, a usage that is less common today but is still found.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from 1551: “Speaking thinges nothing tothsome.” (Thomas Wilson’s The Rule of Reason.)

The OED’s most recent example is from 1805: “Elegant and toothsome sermons were most in request.” (John Ramsay’s Scotland and Scotsmen in the 18th Century.)

As for the “toothsome” that means sexually alluring, it apparently came into use in the early 20th century. The usage was probably inevitable, since similar taste-related words, like “luscious,” “delicious,” “scrumptious,” “delectable,” and even “yummy,” are also used in a semi-humorous way to describe sexually attractive people.

The OED has no citations for this sense of “toothsome,” but in our own searches we’ve found examples dating from 1930. Here’s the earliest:

“Another [advertisement] shows a very toothsome miss revealing her shapely limbs far above the knees. I have just discovered that, in the small type occupying one-fourth of the copy, she is supposed to advertise a certain brand of cathartic.” (From a brief item published in the “News of the Week” column of the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, January 1930.)

We’ve also found examples from the 1940s onward.

A catalog of 1944 copyrights for advertising slogans included these, intended to promote tooth powder and other dental products: “Tall, Dark and Toothsome” … “Toothsome Joe” … “Dates Galore for Toothsome Lenore” … “Most Toothsome Ensign at Headquarters” … “Word for the Sergeant Is Toothsome.” (No doubt the models in the illustrations were displaying toothy grins, and the use of “toothsome” for alluring was a pun.)

The adjective appears in Anya Seaton’s novel Foxfire (1950), in a conversation between lovers: “‘You look toothsome as always,’ said Tim, examining her, ‘but a trifle blurred, my darling. I prefer the ultra-golden locks and that’s the wrong shade of lipstick, should be darker.’ ”

And a review of Stanley Kubric’s film Fear and Desire, published in Variety in January 1953, refers to the actress Virginia Leith as “a toothsome dish.”

There are also plenty of examples from academic and literary journals. Examples are so numerous that we’ll give just one per decade:

“We think Webster clever when the Duchess of Malfi reveals that she is pregnant by asking for an apricot, and we are as baffled as Troilus when toothsome, wenchy Cressid is in the arms of Diomede in the Greek camp.” (From “A Literary Correspondence,” by Edward Dahlberg and Herbert Read,  the Sewanee Review, summer 1959.)

“The same drama may take place aboard a steamer: a traveler (the Normal Lecherous Male) in a deck chair shakes a dozing neighbor to make sure he doesn’t miss a toothsome blonde in toreador pants.” (From an article, “The Last Gospel: Cartoons and Christianity,” by Bill Casey, Southwest Review, winter 1963.)

“This presentation must be more responsible than commercial weather news need be, where toothsome girls and half-inebriated aging boys cavort before maps and satellite photos.” (From “U.S. Government Documents: A Mazeway Miscellany,” by Joe Morehead, published in the journal RQ, summer 1974.)

“Kimball reminds himself sternly that this wonderful creature before him, this toothsome woman, is merely somebody’s daughter.” (From “Real Time,” a story by Al Gowan, Ploughshares, 1981.)

“At the same time, a strong bias towards the colloquial language is felt throughout, with many phrases of the type … ‘a toothsome (sexually attractive) blonde’ – sdobnaja (colloquial) blondinka.” (From a review of an English-Russian phrasebook in the Slavonic and East European Review, January 1997.)

“Suppose the late Ian Fleming had got End-Times religion and built on it a portentous Scripture-based epic in 007 style, only with a certain paucity of toothsome women.” (From “Millennial Sideshow,” an essay by J. C. Furnas, American Scholar, winter 2000.)

“Certainly ‘The Libertine’ is as lavish—with its sumptuous illustrations of luscious Rococo nudes and other toothsome lovelies—as an 18th-century bal masqué.” (From a review by Caroline Weber of The Libertine, a collection of 18th-century French erotica edited by Michel Delon, New York Times Book Review, Dec. 8, 2013.)

As you can see, this use of “toothsome” is alive and well. But sometimes the adjective is misused in place of “toothy” to describe someone with a big smile.

As William Safire wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1982, “Toothsome does not mean ‘toothy,’ any more than fulsome means ‘full,’ or noisome means ‘noisy.’ Fight cavities; stop the decay of a good word.”

More than 30 years later, Safire is still right. No standard dictionary recognizes the use of “toothsome” to describe someone with a generous mouthful of teeth.

By the way, while a “toothsome” person can be called a “dish,” there’s no etymological relationship. But there’s a semantic connection; both  “dish” and “toothsome,” terms for good things to eat, have been applied to sexy people.

Shakespeare may have been the first to use “dish” in this figurative way, in reference to sexy Cleopatra: “He will to his Egyptian dish againe.” (From Antony and Cleopatry, 1606.)

But this was probably just a passing metaphorical use. It wasn’t until the 1920s that “dish” came to be used this way in general English.

The earliest modern example in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is from Variety, that fountainhead of American slang: “She ought to be a swell-lookin’ dish in tights” (Nov. 25, 1921).

The OED has this hardboiled example from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929): “He turned his half-wit’s grin on me and said: ‘What a swell dish you are.’”

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Isn’t that a coinkydink?

Q: A delightful teenager in my life just texted the word “coinkydink.” I used this term for a coincidence at her age (circa 1975). Any idea when it was coined? I have a vague memory of hearing it in some old black and white movie.

A: The earliest example we’ve found for “coinkydink” (often spelled and pronounced “kawinkydink”) is from the June 1952 issue of Trolley Topics, a publication of the San Francisco Municipal Railway. The term appears in an “Office News” item about trolley employees:

“Just after bowling his massive 696 series in the Association sweepstakes, Jimmy ‘The Arm’ Dickinson reached into his wallet for a look at a raffle ticket that he holds. Lo and behold, the number it bore was 696 also! A charming ‘coinkydink,’ as Jim Pagee says.”

The Random House Dictionary of American Slang describes “coinkydink” as an “intentional malapropism” used jocularly to mean a coincidence. (A malapropism, as we wrote on the blog in 2007, is an unintentionally comic misuse of a word.)

The earliest example for “coinkydink” in Random House is from a 1969 episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC-TV: “Isn’t that a coinkydink?” This may have been the source of your vague memory of having heard it in an old movie.

We haven’t found “coinkydink” (also spelled “coinkidink” and “kwinkydink”) in any standard dictionary, though readers have submitted the term to Merriam-Webster Online‘s Open Dictionary as well as to the collaborative Urban Dictionary. And the popular online reference Wiktionary describes it as a “jocular alteration of coincidence.”

The use of “coinkydink” for “coincidence” is sometimes referred to as “eye dialect,” though that term (coined by the language scholar George P. Krapp in 1925) usually refers to the literary use of a nonstandard spelling to indicate the pronunciation of a poorly educated speaker.

The lexicographer Grant Barrett, in an April 2, 2008, post entitled “Saying it wrong on purpose,” says he and his wife, a linguist, often mispronounce words deliberately, as do many other English speakers.

“People speak that way because saying a word wrong on purpose is a form of wordplay,” he writes. “It adds variety, colour, and whimsy to our speech. It’s a common characteristic of slang, which is partly built upon fooling around.”

Barrett says he and his wife “sometimes say chimbly instead of ‘chimney,’ fambly instead of ‘family,’ and liberry instead of ‘library,’ ” among other deliberate mispronunciations.

“Many Americans also say coinkydink instead of coincidence,” he adds. “It’s sometimes spelled kwinkydink or kawinkydink and is almost always used in a light-hearted or goofy way. It refers to when two or more things happen in the same way, at the same time, at the same place, or to the same people in a way that is surprising. Although you know they’re not related, they seem to be. Coinkydinks are interesting but unimportant.”

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How hip is a hippie?

Q: I’m working on a story about a “hippie” from the 1960s, and need some insight on the origin the term. I’ve searched your blog and your book Origins of the Specious, without finding it. Elsewhere, there’s a plethora of guesses. I need something more certain.

A: “Hippie” has led two lives, which may account for some of the lexical confusion.

When the word showed up in the 1950s, it was a disparaging term for a “hipster,” someone up on the latest trends, especially in jazz.

But in the ’60s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “hippie” came to mean a young person characterized by such things as long hair, unconventional clothes, drug use, and countercultural values.

That’s the short answer, and it’s generally true, but it’s hard to tell from some written examples in the early ’60s whether “hippie” is being used to mean someone up on the latest trends or an unconventional young person.

In other words, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty as to when the first life of “hippie” ended and the second began. And things get even more uncertain when one looks for the ultimate origin of the term. Now for the longer answer.

The “hippie” story begins in the early 20th century with the adjectives “hip” and “hep,” both meaning “in the know,” “up to date,” or “knowledgeable.” As we’ve said in a 2010 post on the blog, the two terms showed up in print around the same time—”hip” in 1902 and “hep” in 1903.

With written citations so close together, it’s hard to say definitively whether “hip” or “hep” showed up first in spoken language.

Jonathan Lighter, editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, suggests that “hep” may have been first, saying the alteration of “e” to “i” in the word “is phonologically perhaps more likely than the reverse.”

The earliest example for “hip” in Random House is from a 1902 cartoon by T. A. Dorgan that shows a boy carrying a sign reading “Joe Hip / For Congress / Son of old man Hip.”

The slang dictionary’s next citation, which also appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, is from Jim Hickey, a 1904 novel by George Vere Hobart, in which a character says, “Say, Danny, at this rate it’ll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)

The earliest Random House example for “hep” (initially spelled “hept”) is from the May 9, 1903, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Modern Slang Glossary … Hept — To get wise or next.” [As a slang term, “next” meant “in the know.”]

The following citation, with the usual spelling, is from a 1904 T. A. Dorgan cartoon: “Take it easy now fellers, one of you stay behind so that no one will get hep.”

The ealiest example for “hep” in the OED is from the Dec. 5, 1908, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

During the first half of the 20th century, the two words took on many senses related to their original “in the know” or “up to date” meaning, according to Random House, including “shrewd,” “sophisticated,” “smart,” “in fashion,” “splendid,” “enjoyable,” and “infatuated.”

As for the ultimate etymology here, both the slang dictionary and the OED list the origin of “hip” and “hep” as unknown. Chambers agrees.

Lighter, the Random House editor, notes that “hip” has been more common than “hep” since about 1960. And he adds that “hip” was the common form of the term “much earlier among blacks, esp. jazz musicians.”

Joey Lee Dillard, in his book Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States (1972), says it’s “a commonplace of the jazz language that hep is a white man’s distortion of the more characteristically Negro hip.”

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, writing in Slate, has explored the word’s etymology and debunked a theory that “hip” came from a West African language.

When “hip” first appeared, Sheidlower points out, the word meant merely “aware” or “in the know,” and “it was not widely used by African-Americans.”

“It wasn’t until the late 1930s and early 1940s, during the jive era,” he writes, “that the modern senses—‘sophisticated; currently fashionable; fully up-to-date’—arose. (These senses did arise among African-Americans.)”

As for the noun “hipster,” the earliest example in Random House is from the Nov. 7, 1940, issue of Current History and Forum: “A hipster never teaches a square anything.”

The dictionary defines the term as someone who is or tries to be hip—that is, in the know or with it—especially a fan of swing or bebop music.

When “hippie” first showed up, according to the slang dictionary, it had pretty much the same meaning as “hipster,” but it was “often used derisively.”

The first Random House citation is from Flee the Angry Strangers, a 1952 novel by George Mandel about the drug world: “Every junkie and hippie came to sit around her table.”

The next example, from the Aug. 18, 1957, issue of the New York Times Magazine, offers a colorful definition: “Hippy—Generic for a character who is super-cool, over-blasé, so far out that he appears to be asleep when he’s digging something the most.”

In the third citation, “Madison Avenue hippies” are on the cutting edge of culture: “Upper Bohemia, tired of Van Gogh, Italian movies, charades, and sex, and so ready to try anti-art, anti-sex, anti-frantic non-movement.” (From “The American as Hipster,” an essay by Herbert Gold, originally published in the February 1958 issue of Playboy as “The Beat Mystique.”)

A few years after “hippie” showed up in its first incarnation, the term “beatnik” arrived on the scene for a member of the Beat Generation, and more generally for someone leading an unconventional life.

In “The Origin of Beatnik,” a 1975 paper by Richard Rex in American Speech, the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen is credited with coining the term.

Caen’s April 2, 1958, column in the San Francisco Chronicle, has this item: “Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.’s beat generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles’ free booze. They’re only beat, y’know, when it comes to work.”

The columnist said later, according to a Nov. 26, 1995, article in the Chronicle, that the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite—launched on Oct. 4, 1957— must have been spinning around in his subconscious when he came up with the term.

In the early 1960s, the word “hippie” took on its second life, as an updated version of “beatnik.” Jonathan Lighter, the slang lexicographer, has this all-encompassing definition for the new sense:

“A usu. young, longhaired person who dresses unconventionally, holds various antiestablishment attitudes and beliefs, and typically advocates communal living, pacifist or radical politics, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs.” Lighter adds that the term is “usu. used disparagingly.”

The two earliest examples in Random House for this new sense of “hippie” are from books published in 1966:

“The poundage of LSD swallowed by college ‘hippies’ is … a minuscule amount.” (From LSD on Campus, by Warren Young and Joseph Hixson.)

“Ah, the Harvard hippie. I knew him well. Ready to prove that Kennedy and Dostoevsky and Holden Caulfield have not lived in vain. He defies his parents by sleeping with his girl friend, his neighbors by letting his hair grow, and his university by smoking pot.” (From 1 in 7: Drugs on Campus, by Richard Goldstein.)

We’ve found quite a few earlier examples in which it’s unclear whether “hippie” is being used in the old sense or the new.

For example Earl Wilson wrote in his syndicated “It Happened Last Night” column on June 8, 1960, that “Bobby Darin, a hippie from New York City, Tonsil No. 1, in the ‘New Noise’ sweeping America, completely conquered all the New York hippies.”

However, Dorthy Kilgallen does appear to use the term in the new way in her syndicated “Voice of Broadway” column on June 11, 1963: “New York hippies have a new kick—baking marijuana in cookies.”

And the following year the entertainer Jean Shepherd used it to mean someone with an unconventional spirit. Here he’s quoted in the Dec. 6, 1964, issue of the New York Times, commenting on his audience at the Limelight coffee house in Greenwich Village:

“You find the squarest people with beards and carrying guitars. And the little old grandmother from Circleville can really be a hippie.”

The word “hippie” was clearly a work in progress during the first half of the ’60s. A perfect example was a Sept.10, 1964, article in the Village Voice, headlined “Baby Beatniks Spark Bar Boom on East Side,” in which the terms “hippie,” “beatnik,” and “hipster” seem to be used interchangeably.

Sorry we can’t be more certain about the beginnings of “hippie,” but this word for an unconventional person doesn’t seem to have a conventional origin. As more texts are digitized, though, we may learn more.

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The whole nine yards, again

Q: When a World War II .50-cal. gunner was asked during training if he shot the whole belt of cartridges, he answered: “Yes, the whole 9 yards.” The ammo belt was 27 feet. Now you know.

A: “The whole nine yards” is a whole lot older than World War II, which clearly rules out that popular theory about the origin of the expression.

Other debunked theories claim it originated with cement mixers, nuns’ habits, Scottish kilts, ships’ sails, shrouds, garbage trucks, a maharaja’s sash, a hangman’s noose, and so on.

Now for a few facts.

The expression has definitely been traced to the early 1900s, with possible roots in the 1850s. As more old documents are digitized, even older examples may show up.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “the whole nine yards” used figuratively to mean “everything” or “all of it” is from the June 4, 1908, issue of the Mitchell (IN.) Commerce:

“Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads. He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.”

A similar version of the expression (with “full” instead of “whole”) showed up a year earlier in the May 2, 1907, issue of the same Indiana newspaper:

“The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.”

In both of those examples, the expression is being used metaphorically, much like “the whole ball of wax” (which showed up in 1882), “the whole kit and caboodle” (1888), or “the whole enchilada” (1960).

The OED also has a citation from the Jan. 30, 1855, issue of another Indiana newspaper, the New Albany Daily Ledger, for “the whole nine yards” used literally—for nine yards of cloth.

A comic story in the newspaper, with the headline “The Judge’s Big Shirt,” includes this passage:

“What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!”

The OED sees the later figurative use of the expression as “apparently originating in the frequently repeated comic story” that uses it literally.

We’ve also found the story in other newspapers in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as in Yankee Notions, a magazine published in New York City.

However, all these literal examples were published in 1855, half a century before the earliest known figurative examples.

Did that early literal usage inspire the figurative sense, as the OED suggests? We don’t know. Perhaps researchers will eventually fill in the gap with more examples.

One word sleuth, Richard Bucci, has discovered a tantalizing usage that predates the 1855 story.

Bucci, an editor for the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, found two examples in the Dec. 4, 1850, issue of the Bowling Green (MO.) Democratic Banner in which “nine yards” is used to mean a lengthy verbal account. Here’s one:

“I will not attempt to follow you through your ‘nine yards’ in all its serpentine windings, but confine myself to one or two points more, and compare.”

Fred R. Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, has described Bucci’s findings on the Linguist List forum, adding, “I think it likely that this is a surprisingly early precursor of ‘the whole nine yards.’ ”

Other researchers have found that cloth was often sold in multiples of three yards during the 19th century, and “nine yards” was a common measurement.

Here’s an example from a fabric advertisement in the March 29, 1856, issue of the Cambridge Chronicle: “Prints, nine yards for a dollar.”

And researchers have also found a comic story published in the 1870s and 1880s in which “nine yards to the dollar” is used figuratively to mean honest and straight talking.

In a version from the June 1870 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, a lawyer describes his client as “No. 1, extra inspected, scaled and screened, copper-fastened, free from scoots, silver-steel, buck-horn handle, nine yards to the dollar, thread thrown in!”

As more examples are discovered, we could finally learn the whole nine yards about “the whole nine yards.”

Still, this may not convince all the readers out there who have pet theories about the expression but no evidence to support them.

[Note: The person who wrote us about the machine-gun theory had this response to our answer: “You’re really full of shit.”]

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The circularity of dials

Q: In a recent post, you say the noun “dial” evolved from the Latin word for “day.” So how did it become a circular item for measuring or adjusting? My guess is that the round clock face had something to do with it. Am I close?

A: Not all dials are circular, of course. The dial on a radio for example, may be a horizontal or vertical panel. But as you’ve observed, many dials are indeed round.

As for your guess, the round face of the traditional analog clock probably had something to do with the circular sense of the noun “dial.” But a much earlier influence may have been the belief in the ancient world that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

As we say in our “Dial A for anachronism” post, the word “dial” is ultimately derived from diēs, classical Latin for “day,” but the more immediate sources were in Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and post-classical Latin.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites two words in the medieval Latin that was used when “dial” showed up in English in the early 1400s: dialis (daily), and diale (clock face).

The English word may also have been influenced by the medieval Latin phrase rota dialis, or daily wheel, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The phrase rota dialis apparently referred to the rotating face of an early mechanical clock with a fixed hand, as in the following example.

In a 1368 poem, the medieval author Jean Froissart, writing in Middle French, compares the revolving dial on such a clock to what was believed in his geocentric era to be the Sun’s revolution around the Earth:

“And this dial is the daily wheel that in a natural day makes one precise turn, just as the sun makes its own turn and encircles the earth in a single day” (Et ce dyal est la roe journal / Qui, en un jour naturel seulement, / Se moet et fait un tour precisement, /  Ensi que le soleil fait un seul tour / Entour la terre en un seul jour.)

As we know now in our heliocentric age, the Earth’s rotation on its axis and its elliptical orbit around the Sun create the impression that the Sun is moving across the sky. And the position of the Sun overhead produces the shadows that have revolved around sundials since ancient times.

In fact, the classical Latin term for a sundial was solarium, from sol, or “sun.” And the Latin term was used for a sundial in English until the end of the 16th century, according to our searches of the database Early English Books Online.

The earliest example for “sundial” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the English lexicographer John Minsheu’s 1599 update of A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, by Richard Percyvall: “Relox del sol, a sunne diall.”

The OED’s first example for “dial” itself is from a 1410-12 nautical inventory in which the term “dyoll,” according to the dictionary, “is likely to refer to a sandglass.” On the other hand, the Chambers Dictionary as well as John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins assert that the earliest use of “dial” in English referred to a sundial.

Whether “dial” originally referred to a sundial or to an hourglass, we suspect that the circular sense of the word was influenced by the circular shape and movement of medieval clock faces as well as the pre-Copernican belief that the Sun revolved around the Earth once a day.

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December nine: A cardinal sin?

Q: I’m noticing that TV and radio hosts are getting away from using ordinal numbers for dates. For example, “It’s Thursday, October twenty” instead of “It’s Thursday, October twentieth.” Would you have any thoughts as to why?

A: In speech, people normally use an ordinal number for a date, “October twentieth” or “October the twentieth,” rather than the cardinal version, “October twenty.”

(As we’ve written before on the blog, the ordinal numbers say in what order, like “third,” “sixth,” and 20th. The cardinal numbers say how many, like “three,” “six,” and “20.”)

Although “October twenty” isn’t the form generally heard in speech, it’s not incorrect. This usage got your attention not because it’s wrong but because it’s not the norm.

So why do broadcasters sometimes use it? We can only guess. Perhaps they’re aiming for a more clipped delivery. Or perhaps they’re reading exactly what they see on a script or teleprompter. In writing, dates are usually given in cardinals.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has these comments about the use of dates in writing and in speech:

“In writing, the day and year are normally given in figures.” The examples given illustrate American usage (“June 2, 1980, June 2nd, 1980”) as well as British (“2 June 1980, 2nd June 1980”). The authors add, “In recent times the versions  … with cardinal numbers have become increasingly favored over those with ordinals.”

“The most usual way of giving dates in speech,” the Cambridge Grammar continues, is illustrated by examples like “the second of June, nineteen eighty” and “June the second, nineteen eighty.” (Note the ordinal “second.”)

But, the authors continue, “shorter versions matching the written forms … are also found.” The example given here is “two June nineteen eighty.” (Note the cardinal “two.”)

So while the cardinal form isn’t generally used in speech, it does crop up.

In case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2013 about the use of ordinal numbers in street names.

As we explain, “ordinal numbers are normally used in writing street names, and they’re always used in speech. We never say, for example, ‘I live on Seventy-Two Street,’ or ‘The store used to be on Nine Avenue.’ In speech, we use ‘Seventy-Second Street’ and ‘Ninth Avenue.’ ”

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How the C-section got its name

Q: If Julius Caesar wasn’t delivered by cesarean section, as I’ve read, how did the medical procedure get its name?

A: Let’s begin with the old story that Julius Caesar was born by cesarean section, an urban legend that we discuss in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. (The usual spelling is “cesarean” in the US and “caesarean” in the UK.)

This fiction can be traced back to one sentence in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, a 37-volume work on astronomy, botany, architecture, human physiology, and many other subjects. It was written in the first century.

In discussing human birth, the Roman naturalist says it’s “contrary to nature for children to come into the world with the feet first.”

To make his case, Pliny cites the emperor Nero, who was born with his feet first and “proved himself, throughout the whole of his reign, the enemy of the human race.”

If such children are delivered surgically, he adds, they “are evidently born under more favorable auspices.”

In passing, he notes that the first of the Caesars “was so named, from his having been cut from his mother’s womb (a caeso matris utero).” The Latin caeso comes from caedere, to cut.

As we explain in Origins, Pliny “was plainly referring to the first of the many Caesars who preceded the great emperor. But over the centuries a lot of readers thought the first Caesar was a reference to the emperor himself. Ergo, a myth was born!”

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 12 or 13 in the year 100 or possibly 102 BC. The exact date is uncertain. However, his mother, Aurelia, lived long into her son’s adulthood, which would have been impossible if she’d delivered him by cesarean.

“In ancient times, surgical deliveries were performed only on women who were dead or dying,” we write in Origins. “Back then, the child’s survival was barely possible after such an operation, but not the unfortunate mother’s.”

The first documented case of a mother’s surviving a cesarean apparently took place in Prague on Feb. 25, 1337, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Beatrice of Bourbon, second wife of the King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg, survived a cesarean in giving birth to her only child, Duke Wenceslaus I, according to archival documents found by Czech researchers.

As for the cognomen “Caesar” (a cognomen is the last of a Roman citizen’s three names), its origin is still in dispute. Did it have anything to do with surgery?

It could be that the original Caesar was born surgically and that inspired the cognomen, as Pliny wrote, but several other theories have been proposed.

One of the more interesting comes from a Roman grammarian, Sextus Pompeius Festus, who believed the name came from the Latin word caesaries, or hair, and suggested the first Caesar was born with a full head of hair.

Be that as it may, the author of the earliest example for the term “cesarean section” in the OED apparently based the English usage on Pliny’s account of the surgical birth of the first Caesar.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Mikrokosmographia, a 1615 medical treatise by Helkiah Crooke, the court physician of King James I:

“Concerning this Cæsarian section, Franciscus Rossetus the French Kings Physitian hath set foorth an elegant Booke so beautified with Histories and abounding with good arguments.” (We’ve expanded the citation to put it in context.)

Elsewhere in the treatise, Crooke cites Pliny and says the birth of the first Caesar was by “the cutting of the mothers wombe, from whence the Caesars had their names.”

Finally, we should mention that Julius bears no responsibility for Caesar salad. As we point out in Origins, the king of salads was invented in 1924 by Caesar Cardini, a chef and restaurateur in Tijuana, Mexico.

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Off-putting and down-putting

Q: People who are put off by a remark say it’s “off-putting.” Can a put-down be described as “down-putting”?

A: Would you believe that the word “off-putting” is more than 600 years old? Honest.

In the 1300s, “off-putting” was a noun meaning “the action of reproving,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that “off-putting” became the adjective we know today.

We’ll begin at the beginning.

The OED’s earliest example for the noun (written “of putting” in Middle English) comes from this dramatic passage in the Polychronicon, a historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden and translated later in the century by John de Trevisa:

“Þanne he [Sergius] hym self occupiede þe poperiche. And in wreche of his of puttynge he made hem take up Formosus þe pope out of his grave, and smyte of his heed, and þrewe þe body into Tyber.” (“Then Sergius himself occupied the papacy. And in vengeance for the off-putting of Formosus, he made them take the late pope out of his grave, and cut off his head, and throw the body into the Tiber.”)

That meaning of the noun—a reproval or a rebuke, you might say a “putdown”—is now rare, the OED says.

Also rare is this this wider meaning, which the dictionary says appeared in the late 1400s: “The action or an act of delaying, a postponement, procrastination; a fobbing off, an evasion.”

This sense of the word was in use in Scottish English from the late 1400s until modern times, according to Oxford citations. This 1833 example from Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal has a distinct Scottish flavor: “Weel, mistress, … this off-putting will do nae langer.”

Today we almost never find “off-putting” used as a noun. In the sense of a delay or an evasion, English speakers are likely to use “this putting off” instead of “this off-putting.”

As an adjective, “off-putting” originally meant procrastinating or delaying, a sense chiefly used in Scottish English and now rare, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from 1808, when a Scottish dictionary said the term meant “delaying, trifling, dilatory.” As late as 1931, the Scottish National Dictionary gave this lively example: “Gan’ away and dae yer work, ye affputting slut.”

As we said above, the adjective “off-putting” didn’t take on its modern sense until the mid-20th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “that puts one off; unpleasant, disconcerting, repellent.”

The term is derived, the OED says, from the phrasal verb “to put off,” which since the late 1300s has meant not only to defer or postpone but also to drive away or repel.

Oxford’s earliest example of “off-putting” in its modern sense is from a 1930s novel: “Your face isn’t in the least off-putting, except when you’re cross.” (From Illyrian Spring, 1935, by Mary Dolling, writing under the name Ann Bridge.)

The dictionary has these among its other examples:

“‘Shut up about Ronald,’ Tim said. ‘It’s jolly off-putting.’ ” (From Muriel Spark’s novel Bachelors, 1960.)

“The only off-putting factor is the price.” (From the Classical Review, 1986.)

“Kyle finds it a little offputting, especially when he’s only wearing his boxers.” (From Cult Times, February 2001.)

You ask whether “down-putting” is similarly becoming an adjective, perhaps derived from the phrasal verb “to put down” or from the noun “put-down,” which dates from the 1930s.

So far, no. The only examples of “down-putting” we’ve found used adjectivally are humorous uses online.

The OED has two lone examples of “down-putting,” but both are nouns and very old.

One is dated circa 1440 and uses “down-putting” in the sense of “abasing”: “Downe puttyng and a-lowenge of his euencristen” (“Down-putting and lowering of his fellow Christian”).

The other is from circa 1556 and uses the noun to mean “downfall): “To them who were the occasion of his down-putting.”

But the OED does have examples of “put-down” used as an adjective “intended to humiliate or put a person down.” The earliest is from a 1973 issue of the New York Times: “He [Trudeau] doesn’t rise to bait—with choice epithets and that put-down Gallic shrug of his.”

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You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

Q: A post about the word “rat” as it relates to despicable, disloyal, or deceitful people would be interesting, don’t you think?

A: When “rat” showed up in Old English (as ræt) it meant the rodent that we’re all familiar with. It didn’t refer to human rats until hundreds of years later. Here’s the story.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English translation (“Raturus, ræt”) in the Antwerp-London Glossaries, a collection of 11th-century manuscripts derived from earlier texts.

Similar words for the rodent appeared in other Germanic languages (Old Saxon ratta, Old Swedish rotta, Old High German rato, etc.), as well as in medieval Latin and Romance languages.

“The word was probably spread with the reintroduction of rats to Northern Europe during the Viking Age,” the OED notes. (The Norse seafarers raided and traded from the 8th to the 11th centuries.)

The relationship between the Germanic and Latin terms for “rat” is murky. As the OED explains, “It is uncertain whether the Latin and Romance words are cognate with the Germanic words, or whether they were borrowed from Germanic, or vice versa.” (Cognates are related linguistically.)

The dictionary notes that there’s no written evidence for any of the Latin or Romance words “before the end of the first millennium.”

The word’s “ultimate origin is uncertain,” the OED says, but it offers a creepy suggestion: the usage is “perhaps imitative of the sound of gnawing.”

English speakers began using the word “rat” for people in the 16th century, at first for someone who was dishonest, contemptible, or worthless, especially in a romantic relationship.

The first example in the OED is from A Chronicle of All the Noble Emperours of the Romaines (1571), by Richard Reynolds:

“He was a scourge to the Enuches, and lasciuious Courtiars, he called them the moathes and rattes of Princes Courtes.” (“Moath” was used figuratively for a person dangerously drawn to temptation, as a moth to a flame.)

In the 17th century, a “rat” came to mean a disorderly person—at first a rowdy arrested for drunkenness, and later any disruptive or troublesome person.

The OED has a questionable citation from 1607. The first definite example for the new sense is from Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (1662), an anonymous biography of a cutpurse, or pickpocket:

“A Shoomaker … being then Constable … was pleased for all my faire Words and Account to send me to the Counter for a Rat.” (A “counter” was a prison attached to a court. We’ve expanded the Oxford citation to add context.)

In the 18th century, according to the OED, “rat” took on the political sense of someone “who deserts his or her party, side, or cause; a person who puts personal considerations before political principles, departs radically from the official party line, or adopts the political beliefs of a rival party.”

The dictionary attributes this figurative sense of the word to “the belief that rats leave a ship about to sink or a house about to fall down.”

The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from “A Dialogue Between X, Y, and Z,” by Benjamin Franklin, published in the Dec. 18, 1755, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette:

“Z. For my Part, I am no Coward; but hang me if I’ll fight to save the Quakers. X. That is to say, you won’t pump Ship, because ’twill save the Rats,—as well as yourself.”

In the early 19th century, “rat” adopted the slang sense of a “person who gives information, esp. of an incriminating nature, on another person to the police or other authority, an informer.”

The OED’s first example is from The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), an epistolary novel in verse, by Thomas Moore: “Give me the useful peaching Rat; / Not things as mute as Punch, when bought.”

(Around this same time, “stool pigeon” also became a slang term for an informer, as we wrote in 2008.)

Soon afterward, “rat” also came to mean a “person who refuses to strike, or takes the place of a striking worker” as well as “a non-union worker” or “a person who works for lower wages than the usual or trade union rate.”

Here’s an example from the March 6, 1824, issue of the Microscope, a weekly in Albany, NY: “Loren … Webster, chief ink-dauber in a rat-printing office at the west. Ralph Walby, nothing at all but a rat-printer.”

We should mention here that James Cagney never used the exact phrase “you dirty rat” despite all the Cagney imitators using it on YouTube. The closest he came was “that dirty, double-crossing rat” in Blonde Crazy (1931) and “you dirty, yellow-bellied rat” in Taxi! (1932).

There are several other less common meanings of “rat” in the human sense, but we’ll skip them and end this post with the old expression “to smell a rat”—that is, to suspect deception or foul play.

The first OED citation is from The Image of Ipocrysy, a poem by John Skelton from around 1540: “Yf they smell a ratt, / They grisely chide and chatt.”

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