The Grammarphobia Blog

When “we” is “you”

Q: It bothers me to be addressed by a clerk or server as “we” instead of “you.” For example, “Are we enjoying our meal?” or “Are we ready to check out?” I find this a putdown. It reminds me of how some people speak to a child. I know the server means no offense, but I am bothered. Am I unreasonable? Is this usage new? I can’t find it on your blog.

A: We’ve written about this usage, but it’s at the end of a post about the various singular uses of the pronoun “we.” Your question gives us a chance to expand on the subject.

You’re not the only person bothered by this. Anthony Bourdain, the chef, author, and TV personality, was asked a few months ago about things he loves and hates. Among the hates: Servers who say, “How are we enjoying our food?” His response: “Leave me alone.”

We find the usage annoying too, though it’s far from new. The pronoun “we” has been used for “you” since the early 1700s—confidentially, humorously, cheerfully, amiably, mockingly, or reproachfully, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The False Friend, a 1702 comedy by the English dramatist John Vanbrugh. “Don John: ‘Well, old acquaintance, we are going to be married then? ’Tis resolved: ha!’ / Don Pedro: ‘So says my star.’ ”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage refers to two of the most common versions of the usage as “the kindergarten we (We won’t lose our mittens, will we?)” and “the hospital we (How are we feeling this morning?).” Merriam-Webster’s attributes the two terms to the Writer’s Guide and Index to English (1972), by Porter G. Perrin and Wilma R. Ebbitt.

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, authors of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, don’t use those terms, but they give examples of the medical usage (“How are we feeling feeling this morning? Have we taken our medicine?”) and the schoolhouse usage (“teacher to pupil: We need to practice our scales”).

The Cambridge Grammar notes that the usage “runs the risk of being construed as patronising,” and is sometimes intended “to convey mockery,” as in “Oh, dear, we are a bit cranky this morning, aren’t we?”

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), cites a “playful use of this convention” in response to an annoying use of it.

We’ve expanded the citation, from Vacant Possession, a 1986 novel by Hilary Mantel:

“ ‘Don’t you wear a bra?’ she said. Muriel shook her head. The nurse smiled. ‘We don’t want to droop, do we?’

“ ‘I don’t know what we’re talking about,’ Muriel said. ‘Our head hurts.’ ”

Burchfield also has citations for a hairdresser speaking to a customer (“Do we have the hair parted on the left as usual, sir?”) and for an army officer addressing a recruit (“Not quite professional soldier material, are we?”)

Sidney Greenbaum notes in the The Oxford English Grammar that “we” and “us” are sometimes used in place of “I” or “me” in “situations of unequal relationship; for example, a doctor or dentist speaking to a patient or a teacher speaking to a student. The intention is to display a friendly tone, although it is increasingly regarded by some as patronizing.”

Greenbaum gives several examples of the usage, including these: “Well we’ll just check your blood pressure” … “Let’s have a look at your throat just now.”

Is it unreasonable for you to be bothered when clerks and servers use “we” instead of “you”?

No, but there’s not much you can do about it other than to respond rudely to someone’s misguided attempt at friendliness.

As we’ve said, the usage has been around for quite a while in one form or another. And it’s probably here to stay.

We’ll end with an OED example from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “ ‘Well, my dear ma’am, and how are we?’ inquired [Doctor] Wosky in a soothing tone.”

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Keeping up with the Joneses

Q: I read an article by John Updike in an old New Yorker that says the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” is believed to come from the lavish lifestyle of the family of Edith Wharton (née Jones). Is that true?

A: No, Edith Wharton’s family is not responsible for the expression. In fact, that erroneous belief is relatively new and apparently didn’t show up in print until dozens of years after Wharton died.

The earliest citation for the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the April 1, 1913, issue of the Globe and Commercial Advertiser, a New York City daily better known as the Globe: “(Comic-strip title) Keeping up with the Joneses—by Pop.”

The comic strip, created by Arthur R. Momand, known as “Pop,” ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1940. It features the McGinnis family’s efforts to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses, who never actually appear in the comic.

Momand based the Joneses on his neighbors in Cedarhurst, NY, when he and wife were newlyweds living beyond their means in one of Long Island’s upscale Five Towns, according to Robert Hendrickson, author of The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.

Hendrickson quotes Momand as saying that he first thought of calling the strip “Keeping Up with the Smiths,” but “finally decided on ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ as being more euphonious.”

As for Edith Wharton (1862-1937), she was the daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. Her father’s family, especially two of her aunts, was indeed rich and had lavish homes in Manhattan and upstate New York.

However, we couldn’t find a single written example published during Wharton’s lifetime for the expression used in reference to her Jones relatives.

In fact, the earliest example we’ve found is in “Of Writers and Class,” an article by Gore Vidal in the February 1978 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

“The Joneses were a large, proud New York family (it is said that the expression ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ referred to them).” An edited version of Vidal’s article appeared later that year as the introduction to The Edith Wharton Omnibus, a selection of her works.

Interestingly, the name “Jones,” especially the plural “Joneses” (often misspelled as “Jones’s”), has been used since the 1870s “to designate one’s neighbours or social equals,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example of the name used in this generic sense is from Ernest Struggles (1879), a memoir of life as an English station master written anonymously by Ernest J. Simmons:

“There is a considerable amount of importance attached to this public place of meeting—the railway station. The Jones’s [sic] who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr. Jones would not like the station master to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice.”

Note: Simmons’s qualifications for his first railway job included the ability to translate 50 lines of Ovid, speak French, carry a sack of beans, break a horse, and write a tolerable hand.

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The light and dark of language

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

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

A: This is a tall order!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hope some of this is useful to you.

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Breaking the ice

Q: How did “break the ice” come to mean get a conversation going? Does it have something to do with the ice cubes in a drink at a cocktail party?

A: No, this figurative use of the expression “break the ice” doesn’t have anything to do with scotch on the rocks or any other drink with ice cubes.

It ultimately comes from breaking ice to clear the way for a vessel to get through a frozen waterway. However, the figurative sense apparently showed up in English more than a century before the expression was used literally.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “break the ice” is an Anglicized version of the medieval Latin expression scindere glaciem, which Erasmus added in 1528 to his Adagia, Greek and Latin adages that he collected from 1500 to his death in 1538.

Erasmus, writing in Latin, says the figurative meaning of scindere glaciem is “to open the way and be the first to carry out a task.” He says this sense is derived from sending a crewman of a boat ahead to break up the ice and open the way on a frozen river.

In The Adages of Erasmus (2001), William Barker says the figurative sense in medieval Latin cited by Erasmus isn’t found in classical Latin literature.

Barker notes that Erasmus attributed the figurative usage to the 15th-century Italian humanist Franceso Filelfo, who used glaciem fregi (“I have broken the ice”) in his  Epistolae.

When the expression first showed up in English, according to the OED, it meant to “make a beginning in an undertaking or enterprise, esp. in the face of difficulty or resistance.”

The earliest Oxford example is in a 16th-century passage about John Fisher, a Roman Catholic bishop and theologian executed by Henry VIII:

“This reuerend father … chaunced … to be one of the first that brake the yse, and [showed] … the inconvenience that followed [the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon].”

(The passage, which the OED tentatively dates at 1553-77, is cited in The Life of Fisher, a 1921 biography by Richard Hall and the Rev. Ronald Bayne.)

The dictionary’s next example, which uses the expression to mean “to prepare the way for others,” is from A Briefe Treatise of Testaments and Last Willes (1590), by Henry Swinburne:

“The authour therefore in aduenturing to breake the yse to make the passage easie for his countrymen, failing sometimes of the fourd [ford or crossing], and falling into the pit, may seeme worthie to be pitied.”

The first literal example in the OED is from a 1710 article in the Tatler by Richard Steele: “The Ice being broke, the Sound is again open for the Ships.” (Steele, who founded the magazine with Joseph Addison, wrote under the pen name “Isaac Bickerstaff Esquire.”)

The use of the sense you’re asking about is defined in the dictionary as to “break through cold reserve or stiffness, esp. facilitating conversation or social ease.”

The first example in the OED is from the English writer Samuel Jackson Pratt’s Gleanings Through Wales, Holland and Westphalia (1795):

“Notwithstanding … there is an air of distance, reserve, and even coldness, they are all … replete with an anxious desire to break the ice.”

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Drones, bees and otherwise

Q: I would have thought that the word “drone” in reference to a remote-controlled plane was a recent neologism. However, I found “droneplane” in a New York Times crossword puzzle from 1953 as an answer to the clue “Remote-controlled aircraft.” How long has “drone” actually been used for an unmanned aircraft?

A: The word “drone” has a long history, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, but its use for a remote-controlled aircraft is relatively new, not showing up in print until the mid-1940s.

When the word appeared in Old English (spelled dran or dræn), it referred to a male bee whose primary role is to impregnate a fertile queen bee.

The earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 1000: “Fucus, dran.” (Fucus is Latin for a drone bee.)

In Middle English, the noun “drone” took on the figurative sense of a “non-worker; a lazy idler, a sluggard,” according to the OED. (In apian terminology, a “worker bee” is a usually sterile female that industriously collects pollen for the hive.)

The first OED citation for the figurative usage is from “Against the Scottes,” a poem by John Skelton written sometime before 1529 about the English victory over Scottish forces at Flodden Field in 1513: “The rude rank Scottes, lyke dronken dranes.”

A few decades later, the noun “drone” took on the sense of a “continued deep monotonous sound of humming or buzzing, as that of the bass of the bagpipe, the humming of a fly, or the like.”

None of the OED citations specifically mention the sound of bees, though a 1751 comment by Samuel Johnson in the Rambler refers to insects “that torment us with their drones or their stings.”

The earliest example in the dictionary for the sense of “drone” you’re asking about is from a 1946 newspaper article cited in the journal American Speech.

Here’s the original newspaper version, which is abbreviated in the OED: “The navy’s Drones will be sent into the cloud by one mother ship, then taken over by other ships and led by radio control, of course to a landing field at Roi.”

Why did the navy choose the word “drone” for an unmanned aircraft?

As the military historian Steven J. Zaloga explains in a letter published in a May 2013 issue of the journal Defense News, the usage was inspired by the British use of the term “Queen Bee” for a remotely controlled aircraft used in gunnery practice:

Drone is one of the oldest official designations for remotely controlled aircraft in the American military lexicon. In 1935, when the chief of naval operations,  Adm. William Standley, visited Britain, he was given a demonstration of the Royal Navy’s new DH 82B Queen Bee remotely controlled aircraft that was used for anti-aircraft gunnery practice. On his return, Standley assigned an officer, Cmdr. Delmer Fahrney at the Radion Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, to develop a similar system for US Navy gunnery training. Fahrney adopted the name drone to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee. Drone became the official US Navy designation for target drones for many decades.”

It seems to us that “drone” is more apt than “Queen Bee” for a remote-controlled vehicle. The linguist Ben Zimmer agrees.

In an article in the July 26, 2013, issue of the Wall Street Journal, Zimmer says: “The term fit, as a drone could only function when controlled by an operator on the ground or in a ‘mother’ plane.”

“During World War II,” he adds, “the Army and Navy stepped up production of ‘target drones’ for practice and ‘assault drones’ for combat. One pioneer in the field was the British actor Reginald Denny, whose model-plane hobby led him to found the Radioplane Company.”

The Army’s version of Denny’s creation was called the OQ-2, according to Zimmer, while the Navy’s version was “the TDD-1, short for ‘Target Drone Denny 1.’ ”

Some etymologists have speculated that the verb “drone” may have played a role in the use of the noun “drone” for an unmanned aircraft, perhaps because of the droning sound of fixed-wing planes. However, we haven’t found any evidence to support this.

When the verb showed up in the early 16th century, it meant to make a monotonous buzzing or humming sound as well as to act in a sluggish or lazy way.

The OED cites several quotations dating back to the early 1500s that suggest these two usages. We don’t want to put you to sleep, so we’ll end with a single examples, from “Of Discretioun in Asking,” a 1513 poem by the Scottish bard William Dunbar:

“And he that dronis ay as ane bee / Sowld haif [should have] ane heirar [hearer] dull as stane [stone].”

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Does a doorway need a door?

Q: I have always used the word “doorway” to describe the opening where a door might be located, whether or not there is a door. For example, a door-less passageway between rooms. Is this correct or should another term be used?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and most of them define “doorway” as an opening with a door. However, several accept a door-less “doorway.” In fact, the two dictionaries we use the most differ on this.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it as “the opening that a door closes; esp. an entrance into a building or room.” However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t mention a door in its definition: “The entranceway to a room, building, or passage.”

Several dictionaries also include a figurative sense of “doorway” as an opportunity for success or a means of access or escape. Oxford Dictionaries online offers “the doorway to success” as an example, while the Collins English Dictionary offers “a doorway to freedom.”

Is it correct, you ask, to use “doorway” for an opening that could have a door but doesn’t? With standard dictionaries divided on the issue, it’s your call.

We see nothing wrong with this casual use of “doorway” for a door-less opening between rooms. But in formal English it might be better to use a word like “entry,” “entrance,” “opening,” “entranceway,” or “exit” for such a passageway.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “doorway” as the “opening or passage which a door serves to close or open; the space in a wall occupied by a door and its adjuncts; a portal.”

The earliest example for the usage in the OED is from “The Ruined Cottage,” a 1799 poem by Robert Southey: “I remember her / Sitting at evening in that open door-way / And spinning in the sun.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)

As you would imagine, the word “door” is much older, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, when it was written duru in Old English.

The oldest example in the OED is from Beowulf, which is believed to date from the early 700s: “Duru sona onarn fyrbendum fæst” (“The door, fastened with fire-forged bonds, swung open at once”).

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How French is “Des Moines”?

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the city of Des Moines got its name from a Native American word for a path. I always thought the French named it for the monks, or moines, in the area.

A: No, the monk story is a popular myth, or as historians call it, “a spurious etymology.” It’s true that moine means “monk” in French, but that wasn’t the source of the name.

The city was named for the Des Moines River, which was indeed named by French explorers. However, they got the name in the 1600s from a Native American term that sounded to them like “Moingona,” and which they eventually shortened to “Moin,” historians say.

In the indigenous Miami-Illinois language, moingona meant a road or a portage (a path for carrying a boat and supplies between waterways).

The word referred specifically to a path that a local tribe of the Illinois nation (also called the Moingona) used to circumvent rapids on the river near where it joins the Mississippi at the southeastern corner of Iowa.

As the city’s official website notes, opinions about the origin of the name have varied over the years.

But “the consensus seems to be that Des Moines is a variation of Moingona, Moingonan, Moingoun, Mohingona, or Moningounas, as shown on early maps.”

(We’ve also seen the spelling “Mou-in-gou-e-na,” apparently an attempt to reproduce the original native pronunciation.)

In the 1670s, two French explorers, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, were the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi River Valley, and hence the first to set foot in what is now Iowa.

They encountered the Moingona people near a large tributary on the west bank of the Mississippi, and later French explorers adapted the name of the tribe, shortening it to Moin, and named the tributary des Moins (“of the Moins”), according to historical accounts.

A 1681 French map, based on the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, shows a Moingona village, marked as Moingwena, along a river that runs into the Mississippi. And later French maps and journals, from the early 1680s to the 1780s, refer to this tributary as Rivière Des Moingona, le Moingona R, r des Moingona, Moin, and River des Moins.

English speakers used the name as well. In the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the name is recorded as “the river Demoin” (1804), and in the journals of the English explorer Thomas Nuttall it’s “the river des Moins, or Moingona” (1819).

An article entitled “The French Impress on Place Names in the Mississippi Valley,” by John Francis McDermott, published in August 1979 in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, remarks on the ”constant habit of abbreviation” by the French.

“No monks ever had anything to do with the Des Moines River in the present state of Iowa,” McDermott writes. “The Moingona tribe of Indians lived there and the French merely cut their name down to Moin; traders went to le pays des Moins.” (That is, “the land of the Moins.”)

The historian Virgil J. Vogel has much the same explanation in his book Iowa Place Names of Indian Origin (1983). He quotes from an early 19th-century account of the meeting of Marquette, Joliet, and the Moingona people:

“The travellers, having halted within hailing distance, were met by the Indians, who offered them their hospitalities, and represented themselves as belonging to the Illinois nation. The name which they gave to their settlement was Mouin-gouinas (or Moingona, as laid down in the ancient maps of the country), and is a corruption of the Algonkin word Mikonang, signifying at the road; the Indians, by their customary elliptical manner of designating localities, alluding, in this instance, to the well-known road in this section of country, which they used to follow as a communication between the head of the lower rapids and their settlement on the river that empties itself into the Mississippi, so as to avoid the rapids.”

Later on, the account continues, the French “adopted this name; but with their custom (to this day, that of the Creoles) of only pronouncing the first syllable, and applying it to the river, as well as to the Indians who dwelt upon it; so that they would say ‘la rivière des Moins’—‘the river of the Moins’; ‘aller chez les Moins’—to go to the Moins (people).”

So how did “Moines” get its “e”? The account explains that later inhabitants came to believe that the word was derived from the French term for “monks” (moines), assuming incorrectly that monks must have lived in the area.

All this preceded the existence of the city, of course. In 1843, a military post was established in central Iowa where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers intersect. The post was named Fort Des Moines. The city that grew up on the site was named “Fort Des Moines” when incorporated in 1851, and shortened to “Des Moines” six years later.

Not long after, an unincorporated town about 40 miles upstream on the Des Moines River was named Moingona, and to this day it bears the original Indian name.

Here’s another interesting aside. The original proposal was to name the military post “Fort Raccoon,” a choice that was rejected by higher-ups in the army.

The War Department, in the person of Gen. Winfield Scott, declared that “Fort Raccoon” was not a dignified name for a fort. Instead, it was named “Fort Des Moines.”

So if it hadn’t been for General Scott, the state capital would probably be known as “Raccoon.”

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When “old chestnut” was new

Q: You’ve used the expression “old chestnut” on your blog, but you’ve never explained its origin. Where does it come from?

A: There’s no definite answer here, but all the evidence points to an origin in 19th-century show business.

Before going on, we should mention that the word “chestnut” was spelled “chesnut” for much of its life, but we’ll use the modern spelling except when quoting an early source.

Since the 1800s, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “chestnut” has been used figuratively to mean “a story that has been told before, a ‘venerable’ joke.”

In extended use, the dictionary says, a “chestnut” means “anything trite, stale, or too often repeated.” The adjective “old” was added along the way for emphasis.

But what’s the literal connection? Did the stale old “chestnut” originally refer to the tree, to the nut, or perhaps to a chestnut-colored horse?

The OED’s formal answer: “origin unknown.” However, the dictionary offers a possible explanation.

The usage may have been inspired by an early 19th-century melodrama, William Dimond’s The Broken Sword, which includes a scene featuring a chestnut tree.

The comic relief in the play, first performed in London in 1816, is provided by Captain Zavior, a character who monotonously retells his old exploits, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering servant Pablo, who knows them by heart.

Here’s the scene involving the chestnut tree (we’ll expand the OED’s citation):

Zavior: Let me see—aye! it is exactly six years since, that peace being restored to Spain … I mounted a mule at Barcelona, and trotted away for my native mountains. At the dawn of the fourth day’s journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree—

Pablo: (Jumping up.) A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut.

Zavior: Bah! you booby, I say, a cork.

Pablo: And I swear, a chesnut—Captain! this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.

Zavior: Did I? Well, a chesnut be it then. But, take your seat again.

Pablo: Willingly—Only out with the cork, and I’m your man for sitting.

Zavior: Well then—from the thick boughs of a chesnut, suddenly slipped down a little boy, who cast himself on his knees in the path before me. … I dismounted, fasten’d my mule to the—the—

Pablo. (Eagerly.) Chesnut.

Zavior. Well, well, the tree that stood next me.

The play, forgotten now, was very popular in its day. It got rave reviews, had long runs in London and New York, and was a favorite with touring theatrical companies.

So it’s “plausible,” as the OED puts it, that “chestnut” became show-biz slang for a worn-out story and, by extension, anything trite, stale, or too often repeated.

Unfortunately, the dictionary’s first citation for the figurative use of “chestnut” doesn’t appear until many decades later—1880.

But we’ve found what might be an early figurative use—a pun from 1826 playing off the “chestnut” that’s a joke against the “chestnut” that’s a horse.

Here’s the passage, from Charles Dibdin’s comic poem “My Kingdom for a Horse.” He italicizes words for horse colors that have other meanings:

“No critic can carp at the bays,
Though jokes on each chestnut he cracks,
And, should he look blue at the grays,
Molineaux will stand up for the blacks.”

(From Universal Songster: Or, Museum of Mirth, London, 1826. Tom Molineaux was an African-American prizefighter who toured professionally in Britain in the early 1800s.)

And we’ve come across an anecdote, supposedly from 1867, that was reported in a California newspaper, the Daily Alta, in its issue of April 27, 1885:

“Hanley, Harrigan & Hart’s old theatrical manager … says that the term originated eighteen years ago. He alleges: ‘In 1867 I was traveling through New York, putting an old play called ‘The Broken Sword’ on the stage with Marietta Ravel as leading lady.’ ”

Here the manager summarizes the comic chestnut-tree routine from 1816, with Captain Zavior and Pablo, that we quoted above. He then continues:

“ ‘After the performance in Rochester, P. Connelly, dead now, was in one of the dressing-rooms with others of the company, and he started to get off a funny story. Everybody interrupted with shouts of ‘Chestnut!’ It clung to the company all season, and, of course, was soon caught by the profession.’ ”

The OED’s earliest example for “chestnut” in the sense of something that’s repeated too often is from a May 27, 1880, American diary entry that also has a theatrical connection:

“When he said that the song was ‘Nancy Lee’ we girls nearly fainted! … Really, I thought we should choke with laughter and dismay. Think of doing that awful old ‘Nancy Lee’—such a chestnut!—in a romantic Portuguese opera, and following it up with that hoppy, romping dance!” (From Diary of a Daly Débutante, first published in 1910 and written by Dora Knowlton Ranous, an actress in Augustine Daly’s theatrical company.)

And this 1889 example nicely meshes with the 1867 anecdote above. In Reminiscences of J. L. Toole (1888), by Joseph Hatton, the American actor Joseph Jefferson is quoted on the origin of “chestnut.”

After repeating the relevant lines from The Broken Sword, Jefferson continues:

“William Warren, who had often played the part of Pablo, was at a stage-dinner a few years ago, when one of the gentlemen present told a story of doubtful age and originality. ‘A chestnut,’ murmured Mr. Warren, quoting from the play, ‘I have heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.’ The application of the lines pleased the rest of the table, and when the party broke up each helped to spread the story and Mr. Warren’s commentary.”

From 1880 onward, the OED has citations for this figurative “chestnut”—and the more emphatic “old chestnut” (from 1886)—extending into the late 20th century. The expression has been used for everything from an old repertory piece to a stale idea for advertising copy.

Given the popularity of that old melodrama, it’s reasonable to suggest that the usage began among actors and spread into general usage.

However, another expression involving chestnuts was in the air when William Dimond’s play came along, and it might have given the figurative “chestnut” usage a boost.

This older expression, very popular in its day, was a catch phrase to the effect that a “horse chestnut” is not the same as a “chestnut horse.”

We’ve found scores of published examples, the earliest from an entry in the journal of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall in reference to the 1808 session of the House of Commons. (The entry was included in his memoirs, published posthumously in 1836.)

Here’s the journal entry, from a passage largely devoted to parliamentary business:

“Mr. Matthew Montagu seconded the address to the throne. It was of him that General Montagu Mathew, brother to the Earl of Landaff, said in the last house of commons (upon some mistakes arising relative to their identity, produced by the similarity of their appellations), ‘I wish it to be understood that there is no more likeness between Montagu Mathew and Matthew Montagu, than between a chesnut horse and a horse chesnut.’ ”

When the story was picked up by a Philadelphia literary digest in 1809, it was embellished a little:

“There are two members in the house of commons, named Montagu Mathew, and Mathew Montagu; the former a tall handsome man; and the latter a little man. During the present session of parliament, the speaker, having addressed the latter as the former, Montagu Mathew observed, it was strange he should make such a mistake, as there was as great a difference between them as between a horse chesnut and a chesnut horse.” (From Select Review, and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines.)

That same parliamentary anecdote inspired a humorous poem that ran in the November 1808 issue of The Sporting Magazine, London.

The anonymous poem, “A Chapter on Logic: Or, the Horse Chesnut, and the Chesnut Horse,” was described by the editors as “occasioned by” the incident in the House of Commons.

It’s too long to quote here, but we’ll give you the gist. A young “Eton stripling” who’s a student of logic is invited to spend a fortnight at the estate of his uncle, who is something of a practical joker.

Sir Peter, promising to give his nephew a “chesnut horse,” leads him to a tree, shakes from its branches “a fine horse-chesnut,” hands it to the youth and says, “saddle it and ride.” By the rules of logic, he tells the boy, “a horse-chesnut is a chesnut horse!”

The poem became a popular recitation piece, remaining in print through most of the 19th century.

But apart from its humorous use, the motif of the horse chestnut versus the chestnut horse cropped up frequently in serious 19th-century British and American writing as a rhetorical device for contrasting and comparing. Here’s an example:

“No two things in nature, not a horse-chestnut and a chestnut-horse, could be more different.” (From Maria Edgworth’s novel Harrington and Ormond, 1841.)

As for the etymology of “chestnut,” the word for the tree in Old English, cistenbeam or cystbeam, was derived from Germanic sources.

But the term evolved in Middle English under the influence of Middle French. The Gallic word for the tree (chastaigne) gave Middle English a word spelled various ways, including chesteine, chasteine, and chesten.

In 1519, according to the OED, the term “chesten nut” showed up, meaning the nut itself. Later in the 1500s the word “chesnut” appeared in reference to both the tree and the nut.

As the dictionary explains, “Chesten-nut was soon reduced to chestenut, chestnut, and chesnut: the last was the predominant form (82 per cent. of instances examined) from 1570 to c1820.”

The “chestnut” spelling, which was adopted by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary of 1755, “prevails in current use,” according to the OED.

Current standard dictionaries no longer include the old “chesnut” spelling.

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Is red beautiful?

Q: I’m curious about the history of “red” in various languages. In Russia, Red Square was so named because “red” used to mean beautiful. In Spain, Alhambra means “the red one.” Is it also “the beautiful one”? And did “red” ever mean beautiful in English?

A: When the square near the Kremlin in Moscow was named Krasnaya Ploshchad in the 17th century, the Russian meant “Beautiful Square.”

At that time, the adjective krasny (the feminine is krasnaya) could mean either “red” or “beautiful.” Now it just means the color, except in a few old idiomatic expressions, such as krasnaya devitsa (beautiful girl).

So why did the Russian word for “red” once mean “beautiful”? Probably because the Russian for “beautiful” (krasivy) and the Russian for “red” (krasny) are ultimately derived from the same root in reconstructed prehistoric Proto-Slavic.

Interestingly, the Russian square was often referred to as “Beautiful Square” in English in the 19th century, according to our searches of digital databases.

But in the late 19th century, well before the Russian Revolution in 1917, “Red Square” became the usual name for it in English.

The earliest example we’ve seen of “beautiful square” is from Characteristic Anecdotes From the History of Russia, Bernard Lambert’s 1805 translation of a work in French by Heinrich Friedrich C. Clausen.

The translation lower-cases “beautiful square,” but it clearly refers to the square near the Kremlin in Moscow:

“The ancient Russians had a custom of assembling daily, in the beautiful square, at Moscow, from a certain hour in the morning until dinner time, to meet their friends and acquaintances.”

An asterisk after “beautiful square” refers the reader to a note that says “Krasnaja Plosehad before the Kreml.” (We’ve used an ordinary “s” in place of the long “s” that appears in “square” and several other words in the original text.)

In Travels in European Russia, an anonymous 1826 work, the phrase is capitalized: “One of the most striking objects in it is ‘the Beautiful Square,’ 1260 feet long, and in its greatest breath [sic] 434 feet.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “Red Square” is from an article, entitled “Russia,” in the October 1816 issue of The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, citing a report in the St. Petersburg Gazette:

“On the 28th August, the Emperor reviewed troops in the Red Square at Moscow.”

However, most of the early examples we’ve seen use “Beautiful Square,” not “Red Square,” though we’ve found a few from the 19th century that include both “red” and “beautiful” in reference to the square.

Here’s an example with both adjectives, from Russian Pictures Drawn With Pen and Pencil (1889), by Thomas Michell:

“We are now in the great Red (or beautiful) Square, where we are at once struck by the eccentric appearance of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Beatified.”

As for Alhambra, the palace in Granada, the name is derived from the Arabic phrase Al Hamra (“the red one”). The reference is probably to the red clay used to make the building, not to its beauty, according to etymologists who’ve studied the issue.

When the adjective “red” showed up in early Old English as read, it referred to “shades of purple, pink, and orange, which are now distinguished by these distinct colour terms,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, adding, “The term is now applied to shades that vary from bright scarlet or crimson to reddish yellow or brown.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Epinal Glossary, a Latin-Old English glossary dating from as far back as the 600s: “Flauum uel fulfum, read.” (The Latin here refers to golden or reddish yellow.)

The next OED citation is from the Corpus Glossary, which is believed to date from the 700s: “Ruber, read.” (The Latin here refers to red and shades of orange.)

The word “red” in its various spellings (read, rad, rade, ræden, reedde, etc.) has usually referred to color. However, the word has had many other senses over the years, such as angry (as in a “red rage”), superior (as in “red blooded”), Communist (as in “red peril”), and so on.

Has it ever, you ask, meant beautiful in English? Not as far as we can tell.

By the way, we’ve written often on our blog about colors, including a post in 2014 about why some colors are more popular than others in surnames, an item in 2015 about the off-color history of green, and a post in 2011 about which came first, the color orange or the orange that’s eaten.

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