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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A precipitous drop for the better?

Q: I keep seeing “precipitous decline” used for a drop that’s beneficial. For example, “a precipitous decline in the deficit” during the Obama administration (Daily Kos), or “a precipitous decline in Covid-19 cases” in New York (USA Today). Isn’t a drop that’s “precipitous” supposed to be alarming or dangerous?

A: In our opinion, “precipitous” describes a decrease that’s both steep and negative. Like you, we’ve occasionally seen news stories that use “precipitous” in a positive way, but we think a better word for a beneficial decrease would be “dramatic” or “sharp” or “steep.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, is on our side. “The core, literal meaning of precipitous is ‘sheer like a precipice; dangerously high or steep,’ ” Fowler’s says. “Derived from this is a metaphor to describe a change for the worse in a situation or condition, i.e., meaning ‘dramatic.’ ”

Notions of disaster are built into the word. Etymologically, as we’ll explain, someone or something whose fall is “precipitous” has been thrown off a cliff.

Of course, a word’s etymological meanings don’t always survive into modern times or influence how it’s used now. But we think that even today, a “precipitous” fall implies a change for the worse, not for the better.

The word came into English in the early 1600s when it was borrowed from French (precipiteux), the Oxford English Dictionary says. The French adjective had two general senses—(1) rash, impetuous, abrupt, and (2) steep or vertical.

It was derived from the Latin adjective praeceps, meaning not only steep but also headlong. (The literal sense of the Latin word is “head first”; it’s formed from the prefix prae- for “before” and caput for “head.”)

The OED’s earliest written example of “precipitous” is from 1646, but we’ve found more than a dozen earlier ones, all used in the sense of impetuous, rash, ill-advised, overly hasty, and so on. A few of the early sightings, including the first one, imply danger as well as haste.

Here’s the oldest use we’ve found so far: “Mankind runneth head longe to sinne when it is forbidden him; For euen as a torrent or land-floud [flood] running a violent and precipitous course, and meeting with any stop by the way becomes the more furious, and with redoubled force makes selfe way, and beareth downe al before it.” From The First Part of a Treatise Concerning Policy, and Religion (1606), by Thomas Fitzherbert.

Here are a few more of the early uses we’ve found: “rash & precipitous censure” (1609); “an act of extreme impiety or precipitous arrogancie” (1612); “so precipitous & inconsiderate” (1620); “Folly, lightnesse, unadvisednesse, and a precipitous nature” (1622); “the precipitous nature of the Prince, and the ill offices he had done already” (1632); “not precipitous a whit to attempt any thing unadvisedly” (1632); “the assaultes of a most precipitous Death” (1632); “a precipitous torrent, which when it rages, over-flows the plaines” (1640); “their precipitous hastinesse” (1644).

A slightly earlier form of the word was “precipitious” (sometimes spelled “praecipitious”), which was borrowed from the classical Latin adjective praecipitium (precipice-like). Originally, in the early 1600s, “precipitious” had dual meanings, according to the OED: (1) “acting or done in excessive haste; rash, unthinking”; (2) “involving risk of sudden fall or ruin; dangerous, precarious.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from 1612, but we found an earlier one in a book about the sin of pride. The author warns against boasting of great bodily strength, because strength is slow in ascending to its height, “but the descent is precipitious” (The Arraignment of Pride, 1600, by William Gearing).

And in this 1613 example, “precipitious” seems to mean disastrous: “glory and honour to the victor, euer deare and honest to the winner, precipitious and shamefull to the looser” (Sir Antony Sherley His Relation of His Trauels Into Persia, 1613).

We’ve also found an early use of “precipitously,” the adverb derived from “precipitous.” This appeared in a 1619 translation, from Italian, of the life of the Florentine Carmelite nun Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi: “For sometimes the Diuell [Devil] strocke her ouer the head, sometymes he cast her downe precipitously.”

In fact, “precipice” itself once had twin meanings. In its earliest uses, the OED says, it meant (1) “a headlong fall or descent,” used mostly in a  figurative way for “a fall into a disastrous situation or condition” (1606), and (2) “a high and vertical or very steep rock face; a crag, a cliff” (1607).

However, we’ve found an earlier use from 1603, in which the word (spelled “praecipice”) is used figuratively to mean the brink of disaster: “the deere Lord and treasure of my thought … / To such a headlong praecipice is brought.” (From The Tragedie of Darivs [Darius], a drama in verse by the Scottish poet William Alexander, first Earl of Stirling.)

It’s no surprise that “precipice” meant disaster early on, since it had that meaning in the languages it came from.

It was borrowed into English partly from Middle French and partly from Latin. In Middle French in the 1500s, précipice meant danger or disaster as well as a steep place. And in classical Latin, the noun praecipitium meant both a “steep place” and a “fall or jump from a great height,” the OED says, while in post-classical Latin it also meant ruin or disaster.

A couple of other English words starting with “precip-” had ominous beginnings, “precipitation” and “precipitate.” Both come from the Latin verb praecipitare, meaning to cast down or throw headlong.

In the 1400s, “precipitation” was a form of murder or capital punishment; it meant throwing someone (or being thrown) from a great height. In the 1500s, it took on other meanings, like abruptness and rashness; the weather senses—rain, snow, and so on—came along in the late 1600s.

And in the 1500s, to “precipitate” someone meant to throw him over a cliff, while the participial adjective “precipitate” meant “hurled downwards, as over a precipice,” the OED says. (In the same century, the verb and adjective “precipitate” also had meanings related to haste, speed, and rashness, similar to the senses they still have today.)

So as you can see, English words descended from Latin and beginning with “precip-” have long had a dual sense, implying both a sheer vertical drop and a hasty, headlong fall. And “precipitous” has retained those dual connotations, which is why you found it jarring when used to describe a sharp change for the better.

But what do current dictionaries say? Is a “precipitous” decline necessarily a bad one?

In their entries for “precipitous,” all of the 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult include definitions like overly hasty, abrupt, or done without thought. And all but one of the dictionaries indicate either directly or indirectly that a “precipitous” change is also dangerous or bad.

Three British dictionaries are the most specific about the negativity of “precipitous.” In their definitions, Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include “dangerously high or steep,” and Lexico adds: “(of a change to a worse situation or condition) sudden and dramatic.” Collins says it can mean “very steep and often dangerous” as well as “sudden and unpleasant.”

Six of the remaining seven dictionaries say something “precipitous” resembles a “precipice,” which in addition to its literal meaning of a steep rock face or high cliff is described as a dangerous situation in the following definitions:

“a greatly hazardous situation, verging on disaster” (Webster’s New World); “the brink of a dangerous or disastrous situation” (American Heritage); “a dangerous situation that could lead to harm or failure” (Cambridge); “a situation of great peril” (Dictionary.com); “the brink of disaster” (Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged). Collins, mentioned earlier, has a similar reference to “precipice.”

By the way, we sometimes see “precipitous” used to describe a steep rise (as opposed to a drop). Is this legit? Well, it’s a little odd but we haven’t found any evidence that it’s not acceptable in standard English.

Most dictionaries don’t address that question in their definitions, though their examples almost always describe falls, declines, drops, decreases, slides, and collapses. (Two examples to the contrary illustrate increases that are changes for the worse: “the precipitous cost increases at state universities,” in Longman, and “a precipitous increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce,” in Lexico.)

The definitions in only a couple of dictionaries specifically say that rises as well as falls can be “precipitous.”

Here’s Merriam-Webster, which seems to accept “precipitous” rises in only a literal (that is, geological) sense: “very steep, perpendicular, or overhanging in rise or fall” … “having a very steep ascent” (our underlining). All the examples given apply to a place or a geological feature. So clearly, you could justify saying that a street or slope or rock face had a “precipitous” ascent (or rose “precipitously”) to a great height.

Cambridge goes further and accepts figurative rises in its definition: “If a reduction or increase is precipitous, it is fast or great.” But no examples of precipitous increases are given.

A final word. For over 400 years, the adjectives “precipitous” and “precipitate” have been used to mean overly hasty or ill-considered. No one objected to this use of “precipitous” until the 1920s, so if you’ve heard such objections, ignore them. All ten standard dictionaries say “precipitous” and “precipitate” can be used synonymously.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Jiggs dinner

Q: I would be interested to know where the term “Jiggs dinner” comes from. I grew up in Newfoundland, where it referred to a boiled salt-beef dinner, though my family never used the term.

A: The expression “Jiggs dinner” comes from Bringing Up Father, a comic strip created by the cartoonist George McManus in the early 20th century. The strip, which ran from Jan. 12, 1913, to May 28, 2000, featured Jiggs and Maggie, an Irish-American couple. Jiggs’s favorite meal, corned beef and cabbage, became known as a “Jiggs dinner.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines the terms “Jiggs” and “Jiggs and Maggie” as “corned beef and cabbage,” and says the usage was popularized in the comic strip. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a Wisconsin newspaper: “ ‘Jiggs’—corned beef and cabbage” (Waukesha Freeman, Jan. 24, 1940).

However, we’ve found several earlier examples, such as a produce ad in a Colorado newspaper for “ ‘Jiggs’ Dinner Necessaries,” including “Cabbage, per lb., 5c,” “Parsnips, 4 lbs., 25c,” “Rutabagas, 8 lbs., 25c,” and “Carrots, 7 lbs., 25c” (Montrose Daily Press, Jan. 22, 1920).

The Canadian Encyclopedia website says “Jiggs’ dinner is a staple of outport (rural) Newfoundland cuisine. It is also called boiled, cooked or Sunday dinner, as it is usually served on Sunday.” It adds that “Jiggs” here “is a reference to the protagonist” of Bringing Up Father.

“Jiggs was an Irish immigrant living in America who regularly ate corned beef and cabbage, a precursor to the Newfoundland dish,” the dictionary says. “Much of the settlement in Newfoundland came from Irish immigration, so it is not surprising that so much of the food and culture has Celtic ancestry.”

The encyclopedia includes this recipe for Jiggs dinner with pease pudding, or porridge, on the side:

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Notional agreement

Q: Is “one percent” singular or plural in this clause: “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty [was/were] conservative”? For what it’s worth, I believe it’s singular, but I’d like to hear your take.

A: “Percent” can be used with both singular and plural verbs. Generally, it takes a plural verb when followed by “of” plus a plural noun, and a singular verb when followed by “of” plus a singular noun. Example: “Sixty percent of the cookies were eaten, but only twenty percent of the milk was drunk.”

However, “percent” can go either way with a singular collective noun like “faculty.” A collective noun, as you know, takes a singular verb when you’re talking about the group as a unit, and a plural verb when you’re talking about the individuals in the group.

What’s at work here is the principle of notional agreement. This is how Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains the principle: “when the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”

As you can imagine, there may be some wiggle room as to whether a collective noun is singular or plural. Getting back to your specific example, we agree with you. We’d use a singular verb with the adjective “conservative.” However, we’d use a plural verb with the noun “conservatives.”

So we’d write “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty was conservative” but “the students believed that only one percent of their faculty were conservatives.” In the first example, “faculty” is viewed as a unit; in the second, as individuals.

We’ve borrowed much of this from a post we wrote 10 years ago.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Pronunciation Usage Writing

Something wicked this way comes

Q: We were reading Shakespeare, and wondered about the pronunciation of the final “-ed” in words like “beloved” and “blessed.” I just assumed that people in Elizabethan England spoke that way, but my partner thought it was merely a poetical device to fill out a metrical line. What do you say?

A: When the “-ed” suffix first appeared in Old English writing, according to scholars, it sounded much like the modern pronunciation of the last syllable in adjectives like “crooked,” “dogged,” and “wicked.”

In Old English, spoken from the mid-5th to the late 11th centuries, the “-ed” suffix was one of several endings used to form the past participle of verbs and to form adjectives from nouns. For example, the past participle of the verb hieran (to hear) was gehiered (heard). And the adjectival form of the noun hring (ring) was hringed.

The “-ed” syllable was still usually pronounced in Middle English, which was spoken from around 1150 to 1450, but writers occasionally dropped the “e” or replaced it with an apostrophe, an indication that the syllable was sometimes lost in speech. The Old English gehiered (heard), for instance, was variously hered, herrd, herd, etc., in Middle English writing.

It’s clear from the meter that Chaucer intended the “-ed” of “perced” (pierced) to be pronounced at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales (1387): “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote [its showers sweet] / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”

As far as we can tell, the word “pierced” was two syllables in common speech as well as poetry when Chaucer was writing, but a one-syllable version showed up in writing (and probably speaking) by the mid-1500s.

Here’s an example, with the past participle written as “perst,” from “The Lover Describeth His Being Stricken With Sight of His Love,” a sonnet by Thomas Wyatt:

“The liuely sparkes, that issue from those eyes, / Against the which there vaileth [avails] no defence, / Haue perst my hart, and done it none offence” (Songes and Sonettes, 1557, a collection of works by Wyatt, Henry Howard, Nicholas Grimald, and various anonymous poets).

In the early Modern English period, when Shakespeare was writing, the “-ed” ending was often contracted in writing to “-d” or “-t,” indicating that this was the usual pronunciation. Here are a few examples from Shakespeare:

“O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d, / Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, believed written in the mid-1590s).

“I remember the kissing of her batlet [butter paddle] and the cow’s dugs [uddders] that her pretty chopt hands had milked” (As You Like It, circa 1599). The adjective “chopped” here meant cracked or chapped.

“This would have seem’d a period / To such as love not sorrow” (King Lear, early 1600s).

However, writers in the early Modern English period tended to keep the full “-ed” ending in many words where the syllable is still heard now, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“To cipher what is writ in learned books, / Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks” (The Rape of Lucrece, 1594).

“And the stony-hearted villains know it well enough” (King Henry IV, Part I, late 1500s).

“O heaven, the vanity of wretched fools!” (Measure for Measure, early 1600s).

“Something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth, early 1600s).

Although people began dropping the “e” of “-ed” in writing and apparently pronunciation in early Modern English, the full syllable was still being written and pronounced in the 18th and 19th centuries in some words where it’s now lost.

In A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), John Walker says the adjectives “crabbed,” “forked,” “flagged,” “flubbed,” “hooked,” “scabbed,” “snagged,” “tusked,” and others are “pronounced in two syllables.” An 1859 update of the dictionary, edited by Townsend Young, adds “hawked,” “scrubbed,” “tressed,” and a few more.

However, writers continued to drop the final syllable of “-ed” words despite the objections of lexicographers and pronunciation  guides. In the early 18th century, one of the sticklers, Jonathan Swift, condemned the loss of the final syllable in verbs written as “drudg’d,” “disturb’d,” “rebuk’d,” and “a thousand others, everywhere to be met with in Prose as well as Verse.”

In a 1712 letter to Robert, Earl of Oxford, Swift argued that “by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.” Yes, “wondred” used to be a past tense of the verb “wonder,” which was originally wondrian in Old English and wondri or woundre in Middle English. Thus language changes.

Today, the “-ed” suffix is used in writing for the past tense and past participle of regular (or weak) verbs, for participial adjectives, and for adjectives derived from nouns. It’s usually not pronounced as a syllable, but there are some notable exceptions.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “this -ed is in most cases still retained in writing, although the pronunciation is now normally vowelless.” The dictionary says “-ed” is usually pronounced as either “d” (as in “robed”) or “t” (“reaped”). The “t” sound follows a voiceless consonant, one produced without the vocal cords.

The OED says the “full pronunciation” of “-ed” as a syllable (pronounced id) “regularly occurs in ordinary speech only in the endings -ted, -ded” (that is, after the letters “t” and “d” as in “hated” and “faded”).

“A few words, such as blessed, cursed, beloved, which are familiar chiefly in religious use, have escaped the general tendency to contraction when used as adjectives,” the OED says, adding that “the adjectival use of learned is distinguished by its pronunciation” as two syllables. Additional exceptions include the adjectives “aged,” “jagged,” “naked,” “ragged,” “wretched,” and others mentioned in this post.

As we said at the beginning, the suffix “-ed” was used in Old English  to form the past participle of verbs and to turn nouns into adjectives.

The past participle of a weak verb was formed by adding “-ed,” “-ad,” “-od,” or “-ud” to the stem. The past participle of a strong verb (now commonly called an irregular verb) was formed by changing the stressed vowel or by adding the suffix “-en.”

And as we said earlier, the use of “-ed” to turn nouns into adjectives has also been around since Anglo-Saxon times. Nevertheless, some language commentators objected to the usage in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Samuel Johnson, for example, apparently considered the usage new and was surprised to see it in these lines from “Ode on Spring” by Thomas Gray: “The insect youth are on the wing, / Eager to taste the honied spring.” Here’s Johnson’s comment:

“There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives derived from substantives, the termination of participles; such as the cultured plain, the daisied bank, but I was sorry to see, in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the honied spring” (from Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 1779-81).

We’ll end with a grumpy comment about the adjective “talented,” written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on July 8, 1832. This is from Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1836), edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge, a frequent visitor to his uncle’s home:

“I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented, stealing out of the newspapers into the leading reviews and most respectable publications of the day. … The formation of a participle passive from a noun is a licence that nothing but a very peculiar felicity can excuse. If mere convenience is to justify such attempts upon the idiom, you cannot stop till the language becomes, in the proper sense of the word, corrupt. Most of these pieces of slang come from America.” (The OED’s earliest examples for the adjective “talented” used to mean “possessing talent” come from British sources.)

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Veterans Day

How Sin Buster got a Silver Star

[Note: We’re marking Veterans Day with an article that Stewart wrote more than 49 years ago as a war correspondent for United Press International.]

By STEWART KELLERMAN

FIREBASE RIFLE, Vietnam, June 2, 1971 (UPI) —  Jimmy Young, aka Sin Buster, was fast asleep in his foxhole, curled up on a camouflage poncho, when the first mortar round shook the orange earth around him.

The 36-year-old army captain rubbed his hazel eyes, buttoned his jungle fatigues, and stood up in dusty combat boots. In the light of the exploding mortars it would just be possible to make out the cross on his left lapel and the Bible bulging inside his right breast pocket.

“When you’re in a situation like that you don’t have a chance to pull out seven textbooks on morality to decide what to do,” said Chaplain Young, who prefers to be called Chap or Sin Buster.

The chaplain, who described the battle later to a reporter, did just about everything but pull a trigger to turn back a Communist attack against the US Army Engineers building Firebase Rifle on a mountaintop 15 miles southeast of Hue.

Young, a Methodist, won a Silver Star for his efforts, but he’s not so sure how churchmen back home will take to a man of God leading troops in battle.

“I feel I acted right,” he said, crossing his legs and puffing on a filter-tip cigarette. “My conscience is clear. If what I did was morally wrong then God will be my judge.”

Sin Buster used his hands, his eyes, and his face to accentuate his words. His closely cropped black hair was graying, but he still had a boyish grin.

“Why did I do it?” he asked. “I don’t know for sure. Maybe I can explain it by telling a story about when my daughter was two or three years old. I saw this rattlesnake near her and there wasn’t enough time to yell out. I did the only thing I could. I ran my lawnmower over it.”

Chap stumbled out of his foxhole just before midnight into a night lit up by explosions and tracer rounds. A soldier limped toward him, blood rushing from his face, back and arms.

“Over there,” the GI said, pointing to American bunkers 50 yards away. “They need help there. You better hurry.”

The chaplain put the wounded man on the ground beneath the protection of the steel bed of a five-ton truck and rushed off to help the others.

Communist gunners were firing mortars into the base and sappers were advancing up the mountainside, tossing grenades and satchel charges. Chap dived after the explosives and threw each of them back down the mountain. Some blew up only seconds after leaving his hands.

He hurried back and forth carrying wounded GIs to safety under the bed of the truck. He was about ready to drop from exhaustion himself, but before he had a chance to rest a soldier screamed out, “They’re in the bunkers, they’re in the bunkers.”

The chaplain ran back toward the bunkers. He picked up three GIs on the way and asked them to go with him from bunker to bunker to clear out the Communists. He told one soldier to crouch at the front of a bunker with an M-16 while he and another GI covered the back.

“Okay, let them have it,” Chap shouted, and the GI up front stuck his rifle inside and blasted away. A Communist hiding inside was blown apart. “You might say he had his whole day ruined,” Sin Buster said.

“Over there, over there, get him,” Chap shouted when a Communist carrying a grenade launcher stepped into the open. One of the soldiers cut the sapper down with a burst of automatic rifle fire.

The chaplain spotted two more Communists crawling on the ground near one of the bunkers. “Get them, get them,” he yelled out. And one of his men opened up with a machinegun.

Sin Buster helped the wounded US soldiers aboard medical helicopters when the fighting came to an end. One American was killed and 11 were wounded in the attack. The three GIs he led accounted for four of the seven Communists killed by the base’s defenders.

“I believe in the sacredness of human life,” Chap said. “I value human life highly. I guess that some of those people we killed might believe in God and go to church. But I’ve got to stick by my parishioners. I can’t help caring more about them than about the Communists. If somebody’s got to get it, I don’t want it to be one of my boys.”

Chap, who has been in the Army for three years, will be leaving Vietnam next month after one year in the war zone. His next assignment will be Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

“Don’t get the idea I’m some sort of Patton of the chaplain corps,” he said. “I believe war is totally immoral. I don’t see anything right about it. But a soldier’s job is to fight and my job is to have him do what he’s trained to do.”

Sin Buster tapped the Bible inside his right breast pocket, uncrossed his legs, and then crossed them again.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Margaret Thatcher’s bottom

Q: In an expression like “He has bottom,” what does “bottom” mean and where does it come from?

A: Your question about “bottom” reminds us of a 2012 post we wrote on “side.” Both are terms, mainly in British usage, for personal qualities or character traits, one positive and the other negative.  Someone with “side” is arrogant or stuck-up, while someone with “bottom” has courage and strength of character.

This use of “bottom” was first recorded in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as  “physical resources, stamina, staying power; substance, strength of character, dependability.” The OED says the usage is “now colloquial and somewhat archaic.”

It’s also labeled “archaic” in the British dictionary Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries online), which describes this sense of “bottom” as a “mass noun” meaning “stamina or strength of character.” The example given: “whatever his faults, he possesses that old-fashioned quality—bottom.”

The term is found in only a couple of standard American dictionaries. Webster’s New World defines it as “endurance, stamina,” and Merriam-Webster Unabridged says it means “vigorous physical qualities combined with stamina,” “capacity to endure strain,” or “spirit.” The Unabridged adds that the term is “used especially of horses and dogs,” as in “a breed of dogs outstanding for bottom.”

Our guess is that in the US the word is more common in regional than in general usage. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples dating from 1843 to 1968 in the West, the Great Plains, and the South, with the term applied to people as well as horses and dogs.

In Britain, where this sense of “bottom” originated, the usage first appeared in print as a sporting term in boxing, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Capt. John Godfrey’s A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence (1747), a book on swordplay that also includes observations on boxing and on famous boxers of the day. We’ll expand the OED citation to give more of the context:

“I have mentioned Strength and Art as the two Ingredients of a Boxer. But there is another, which is vastly necessary; that is, what we call a Bottom. We need not explain what it is as being a Term well understood. There are two things required to make this Bottom, that is, Wind and Spirit, or Heart, or wherever you can fix the Residence of Courage.”

The author mentions “bottom” in many such passages, as in these remarks about a fighter known as George (“The Barber”) Taylor: “if he had a true English Bottom (the best fitting Epithet for a Man of Spirit), he would carry all before him,” and “if he were unquestionable in his Bottom, he would be a Match for any Man.”

Godfrey also uses the word as an adjective, as when he describes two famous fighters as “the best Bottom Men of the modern Boxers.”

It’s interesting that Godfrey says the term was already “well understood” when he wrote his book. So it was certainly around earlier in speech, perhaps in relation to sports involving horses or dogs. Subsequent published examples in the OED refer mostly to horses and dogs, but also to people. Here are a few examples, extending into our own time:

“Although the savages held out and, as the phrase is, had better bottoms, yet, for a spurt, the Englishmen were more nimble and speedy” (a reference to the endurance of Native Americans, from Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774).

“They … have their manes and tails cropped … under the supposition that it adds to their strength and bottom” (from a description of Barbary horses in the Penny Cyclopaedia, 1835).

“William Whitelaw … and Geoffrey Howe … had simply not had the bottom to take on Edward Heath. She [Margaret Thatcher] had had that bottom” (the Independent, Nov. 30, 1989).

“Both sides envisioned in their horses the qualities that had made their regions distinct—the brilliance of untamed southern speed, the resolve of northern ‘bottom,’ or stamina”  (John Eisenberg’s The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports Spectacle, 2006).

The term isn’t common today, in either British or American English. We suspect that Eisenberg used it in The Great Match Race (and in quotation marks) because he was writing about a contest that took place in 1823, when the usage was familiar. And we suspect that a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s “bottom” would evoke quite a different image today.

As you might think, “bottom” is among the oldest words in the language. Like its distant relative “deep,” it’s existed in writing since early Old English and was inherited from Germanic sources but goes back to prehistoric Proto-Indo-European.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the ancient ancestors of “bottom” and “deep” were bhudh– and dheub-, “which already in Indo-European were doublets by inversion, referring to ‘bottom,’ ‘foundation,’ ‘depths.’ ” (Doublets are etymological twins, in this case with the consonant sounds inverted.)

“Bottom” in its original sense—the lowest part of something—first appeared in writing in a Latin-English manuscript known as the Third Cleopatra Glossary, which scholars say originated in the 700s. It was then spelled botm, which remained the usual spelling throughout the Old English period, the OED says.

Over the centuries it has had a great many meanings, which generally fall into three broard categories:

(1) The lowest part of something, whether a physical thing, a place, or a list or ranking or some kind. These uses of the word gave us the figurative phrase “rock bottom” (1866), as well as the buttocks sense of “bottom” (circa 1550). The OED says that last one is now considered “a euphemistic alternative to words such as arse, bum, butt, and numerous synonyms.”

(2) The deepest or most inner part of something, literally or figuratively. The expression “the bottom of one’s heart” (early 1400s) comes from these senses of the word, as do usages like “the bottom of the garden” (1715), referring to the furthest point.

(3) An underlying support, foundation, or base, physical or metaphorical. The use of “bottom” that we’re discussing here, meaning stamina, pluck, endurance, and so on (1747), falls within this category.

Another meaning of “bottom” that we should mention also falls into the third category. It’s a sense defined in the OED as “the fundamental character, essence, or reality.”

This meaning of the word has given us such expressions as “to get to the bottom of” (to investigate fully or find the truth of, 1683); “at bottom” (basically, late 1600s); and “to be at the bottom of” (to be the hidden source or instigator, usually referring to something you’d rather not be blamed for, 1550).

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On ‘willy-nilly’

Q: Your “willy-nilly” entry (from 2006) dates it at 1608. Mightn’t it come from Hamlet, which was written a few years earlier? From Act V, Scene 1: “If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he nill he, he goes.” Just my 2 cents.

A: Thanks for drawing our attention to that 2006 post about “willy-nilly,” one of the oldest posts on our blog, and one in need of an update. So here goes.

As it turns out, early versions of “willy-nilly” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, seven centuries before the usage appeared in Shakespeare. In Old English, forms of the verbs wyllan (to want something) and nyllan (to not want it) were combined in various expressions meaning “whether (one) will or not; willingly or unwillingly; voluntarily or compulsorily,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although “willy-nilly” usually means haphazardly or carelessly today, that early sense (willingly or unwillingly, whether you like it or not) is included in all 10 of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

For example, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) defines “willy-nilly” as (1) “in a disorganized or unplanned manner; sloppily” and (2) “whether one wishes to or not; willingly or unwillingly.”

The earliest Old English ancestor of “willy-nilly” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is “sam we willan sam we nyllan” (whether we wish to or wish not to). Here’s the citation from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“we sceolon beon nede geþafan, sam we willan sam we nyllan, þæt he sie se hehsta hrof eallra goda” (“We must grant, whether we wish to or not, that He is the crowning pinnacle of all things good”).

A shorter version, “wille we, nelle we” (willingly or unwillingly, one way or another) showed up a century later:

“forðan þe we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, wille we, nelle we” (“Therefore we are sinners and shall be humble, willingly or unwillingly”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

A reverse version of the expression, “nil we, wil we,” showed up a few hundred years later in Middle English:

“ded has vs wit-sett vr strete; nil we, wil we, we sal mete” (“Death surrounds us in all places; one way or another, we shall meet”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300.

Shakespeare, who apparently liked the expression, used it at least twice—first in The Taming of the Shrew, believed written in the early 1590s,  and then in Hamlet, said to be written in the late 1590s or early 1600s.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio tells Katherine that he’ll marry her, whether she wants to or not: “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

In the passage from Hamlet that you mentioned, a gravedigger comments on whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial after a suspicious drowning. The expression “will he nill he” isn’t in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest published version of the play, but it’s in the Second Quarto (1604-5) and the First Folio (1623.)

Here’s an expanded version from the Second Quarto of the gravedigger’s remarks: “if the man goe to this water & drowne himselfe, it is will he, nill he, he goes, marke you that, but if the water come to him, & drowne him, he drownes not himselfe.”

The earliest example in the OED for “willy-nilly” spelled the usual modern way (but minus the hyphen) is from Salmagundi, a 19th-century satirical periodical created and written by Washington Irving and others. Here’s an expanded version of the April 25, 1807, citation:

“Woe be to the patient that came under the benevolent hand of my aunt Charity; he was sure, willy nilly, to be drenched with a deluge of decoctions: and full many a time has my cousin Christopher borne a twinge of pain in silence, through fear of being condemned to suffer the martyrdom of her materia medica.”

We suspect that the “willy-nilly” spelling may have caught on because of its similarity to two other reduplicative usages, “wishy-washy” (1693) and “shilly-shally” (1700). As we’ve noted several times on the blog, reduplication is the complete or partial repetition of linguistic elements.

Interestingly, the OED’s entry for “willy-nilly,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1926, cites an early 17th-century satirical play as the first written example of the expression: “Thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille nille” (from A Trick to Catch the Old-One, 1608, by Thomas Middleton).

The Old English and Middle English passages that we’ve cited as early versions of “willy-nilly” are from the dictionary’s entries for the verb “will” and the archaic verb “nill.” We assume that the OED will eventually note the earlier usages in an updated “willy-nilly” entry.

As of now, the dictionary doesn’t have any examples of “willy-nilly” in the usual modern sense of haphazardly. As far as we can tell, the expression took on that meaning in the mid-19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the English poet Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

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On Main St. and in the High St

Q: Any wisdom on why Americans say “on Main Street” and the British say “in the High Street” for, well, the main street in a town?

A: “High Street,” a chiefly British term for the main shopping road in a town or city, is much older than “Main Street,” its American counterpart.

(If you’re wondering why “Main St.” has a period in the title of this post and “High St” doesn’t, the first illustrates American usage and the second British usage.)

When the British term “high street” showed up in Anglo-Saxon days, it wasn’t the name of a specific street, but merely referred to “a main road, either in a town or city or constituting a principal connecting route,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “high” here meant chief, principal, or main.

The first OED example is from an Old English land charter that describes boundary markers in the village of Whittington in Worcestershire: “andlang sices þæt to þære hæhstræte, andlang stræte þæt in langan broc” (“along the stream to the high street, along the street with the long brook”). Published in Worcestershire Anglo-Saxon Charter-Bounds (1990), edited by Della Hooke.

Since “high street” was originally a descriptive term, it was often accompanied by a definite article and lowercased, as in “the high street.” In later use, the OED says, the term was capitalized as the name of “the main street of a town or city,” chiefly “the main shopping street.” And “in some (esp. British) towns, names of this type still retain the definite article.”

The term came to mean a specific road in Middle English. Oxford says it “is apparently earliest attested unambiguously with reference to a particular street in an English town (Oxford)” in this citation: “Þoruȝ al þe heiȝe strete” (“through all the high street”). From The Life of St. Edmund Rich (circa 1300), in The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann.

And here’s a late 14th-century citation from Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem by William Langland: “Riȝt as syȝte serueth a man to se þe heighe strete” (“right as sight serveth a man to see the high street”).

We’ve expanded this 20th-century example in the OED: “ ‘Maureen is sometimes quite coarse,’ said Marjorie to Jack over carré of lamb from the butcher in the High Street who delivered, and put frills on the cutlets.” From “Rode by All With Price,” a short story by Jane Gardam in London Tales (1983), a collection edited by Julian Evans.

As for “main street,” the earliest Oxford citation for the term is from an Italian-English dictionary published in London: “Rióne, a maine streete, a high way.” A Worlde of Words, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), by John Florio.

Although the term first showed up in London, Oxford defines “main street” now as “the principal street of a town, esp. in North America. Frequently without article, and as a proper name”—thus capitalized.

The first American citation is from a 1687 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a judge in Massachusetts: “At night a great Uproar and Lewd rout in the Main Street.” Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.

Americans continued using the definite article with “Main Street” in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to OED citations, but began dropping the article in the 19th century. Here’s a 20th-century example, which we’ve expanded, from The Bear, a short story in William Faulkner’s collection Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories (1942):

“Twenty years ago his father had ridden into Memphis as a member of Colonel Sartoris’ horse in Forrest’s command, up Main street and (the tale told) into the lobby of the Gayoso Hotel where the Yankee officers sat in the leather chairs spitting into the tall bright cuspidors and then out again, scot-free.”

As for “in the High Street” versus “on Main Street,” the preposition “in” is standard with such constructions in Britain, while “on” is standard in North America, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). The OED notes that “on” is also used with streets in British regional and Irish English.

In fact, “on” was sometimes used in the sense of “in” in Anglo-Saxon days, “almost to the elimination of the preposition in from West Saxon and the dialects influenced by it,” Oxford notes. And “in early southern Middle English,” according to the dictionary, “on still included the sphere of both ‘on’ and ‘in.’ ”

Since “on” has been encroaching on the territory of “in” since Old English and Middle English, it’s not at all surprising that in Modern English a British tea shop is “in the High Street” while an American coffee shop is “on Main Street.”  

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‘I’m so not coming here again’

Q: In a TV film I caught, an American teenager expostulates, “I’m so not coming here again.” I’ve been dimly aware of this “so not” construction for about 10 years, but till now I’ve never asked myself where it comes from and what it’s doing.

A: The “so not” in statements like this means “emphatically not,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The “so” is an intensifier that emphasizes the “not.”

You could paraphrase “I’m so not coming here again” as “I’m sure not [or definitely not or certainly not] coming here again.”

The usage has been found in published writing since the late 1990s, but it was undoubtedly heard sooner in casual speech. And as we’ll explain later, this use of “so” is a variation on a theme. In earlier incarnations, “so” is used similarly but without “not.”

The OED’s earliest example of “so not” in this kind of statement is “Napoleons are so not fun to eat” (New York Magazine, Aug. 25, 1997). The next two citations are both from novels:

“We guess communism just got buried in the rubble there somewhere. And those Ceauşescus? So not missed” (Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999).

“You’ve seen the carousel and it’s so not cool to be seen here if you’re over nine years old” (Jan M. Czech’s Grace Happens, 2005). Note that the author uses italics to emphasize “so,” reflecting the way the word is pronounced in this usage.

The OED includes those “so not” examples within a broader category, one in which “so” is used as “an intensifier, forming nonstandard grammatical constructions.” It describes these constructions as “slang” and “chiefly U.S.”

In the earliest such uses, the OED says, the word means “extremely, characteristically,” and modifies a noun, adjective, or adverb that “does not usually admit comparison.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, an outlier, is from Ronald Firbank’s 1923 novel The Flower Beneath the Foot: “What can you see in her? … She’s so housemaid.” Oxford calls this “an isolated use, apparently without influence on later development of the sense.”

The dictionary’s continuous examples begin with this one from the screenplay of Manhattan (1979), written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman: “Yale: ‘He’s a big Bergman fan, you know.’ Mary: ‘Oh, please, you know. God, you’re so the opposite! I mean, you write that absolutely fabulous television show.’ ”

The next citation, also from a film script, is a line in Heathers (1988), written by Daniel Waters: “Grow up, Heather. Bulimia’s so ’86.”

In the next variation on the theme, “so” is used to mean “definitely” or “decidedly” and modifies verbs, Oxford says. This usage was first recorded in the early 1990s, and again the OED’s earliest examples are from scripts—the first from a shooting draft for a film and the second for an eventual TV series:

“Oh thank you, Josh, I so need lessons from you on how to be cool” (Clueless, written by Amy Heckerling, 1994).

“We so don’t have time” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, written by Joss Whedon in 1996).

An article in Brill’s Content in August 2000 summed up expressions like these as “the sort of slangy, informal use of so you might hear a teen of the MTV set employ, as in: ‘Omigod, I would so marry Carson Daly if he asked me.’ ”

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A few negative thoughts

Q: How do you interpret a negative construction with “or” rather than “and”? For example, “A pie without strawberries or cherries is awful”? Does it mean a pie needs both strawberries and cherries to not be awful? Or that just one or the other is necessary?

A: Most negative constructions with “or” and “and” are pretty straightforward. Here’s the difference:

“A pie without strawberries or cherries is awful” means both “A pie without strawberries is awful” and “A pie without cherries is awful.” In other words, a pie without one or the other is awful. The use of “or” indicates that the two coordinates, the strawberries and the cherries, are to be considered separately.

“A pie without strawberries and cherries is awful” means that a pie without both of them is awful. The use of “and” indicates that the two coordinates are to be considered together as a unit.

You may be thinking of the complications that arise when the word “both” appears in certain kinds of negative constructions. Here’s how Pat treats this problem in the 4th edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

BOTH . . . NOT/ NOT BOTH. Using both and not in the same sentence is asking for trouble. That’s because saying something negative about both can be ambiguous. When you say, Both children did not get the flu, do you mean both escaped it? Or that just one—not both—got it? Put the negative part where it belongs: One of the children, not both, got the flu. Or drop both and use neither instead: Neither child got the flu.

In fact, any negative statement with both should be looked on with suspicion. A sentence like There are no symptoms in both children probably won’t be misunderstood. But it would be clearer and more graceful to drop both and use either: There are no symptoms in either child.

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Hard of sleeping?

Q: After reading your article about “hard” and “hardly,” my thoughts wandered to “hard of hearing.” Where did this originate? Would the opposite be “soft of hearing”? Why don’t we talk about “hard of seeing,” “hard of tasting,” etc.? I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about this. Am I hard of sleeping?

A: The phrase “hard of” has been used in this way since the early 14th century. And yes, it’s been used for other things that some people find hard to do—like seeing, believing, and understanding. Here’s the story.

Since Old English, “hard” has been both an adjective (firm, solid, unyielding, difficult to do) and a noun (for a difficult experience or difficult times), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “hard,” in the sense of a hardship or difficult times, was often linked with “nesh” (something soft). So the expression “in nesh and hard” meant in all circumstances—that is, in easy times and hard.

The OED’s first citation for the noun is from a riddle in a 10th-century poem: “Him on hand gæð heardes and hnesces” (“Into its hand goes hard and soft”). From Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn in The Red Book of Darley, MS 422, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

(In the riddle, Saturn asks “what is the wonder” that feeds on “all that dwell on the ground, fly in the air, swim in the sea”? Solomon answers, “Old age is powerful over all things on earth.” It “destroys the tree,” “defeats the wolf,” “outwits the rocks,” “bites iron with rust,” and “does the same to us.”)

In the early 14th century, writers began using the noun in various phrases with the sense of a difficulty, hardship, misfortune, and so on, the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330 or earlier: “Y com fram Lombardy, Of hard y-schaped for þe maistrie” (“I come from Lombardy, from hardship of the highest degree”).

Of course, the noun today is used much less than the adjective, which is where your question comes in.

In its earliest uses, the adjective meant firm and unyielding, as in heard ssweord (hard sword), a phrase recorded in Beowulf, possibly written as early as the 700s.

Here’s a similar use, from a collection of Old English medical remedies copied into a 10th-century manuscript known as Bald’s Leechbook:

“Wiþ heardum swile þæs magan” (“For a hard swelling of the stomach”). The title of the manuscript comes from its Latin colophon, or publication details: “Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit” (“Bald owns this book, which he ordered Cild to compile”).

At the same time, the adjective was being used to mean difficult or hard to accomplish, as in this OED citation: “Þa þuhte me swiðe heard & uneaðe” (“That seems to me very hard & not easy”). From Bishop Wærferth’s translation, done in the late 800s or early 900s, of Gregory’s Dialogues, which were written in Latin the sixth century.

And in Middle English, the combination “hard + of” took on the sense you’re asking about. Oxford says the adjective was coupled with “of” (also sometimes “to” or “in”) to describe a person “not easily able to do something or capable of doing something”—a usage that survives today (excepting humorous examples) only in the phrase “hard of hearing.”

The dictionary’s earliest known example for “hard of” is in the anonymous Middle English poem Cursor Mundi, written sometime before 1325: “Men sua herd of vnder-stand” (“Men are hard of understanding”).

The phrase “hard of hearing” appeared in writing more than two centuries later: “The testatrixe was hard of hearinge.” From a deposition in a 1564-65 case about a will, cited in Child-Marriages, Divorces, and Ratifications, etc. in the Diocese of Chester, 1897, edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.

Finally, here are a few unusual “hard of” usages from the OED:

“To those that are dull and hard of vnderstanding, or long time besieged with euill customes, the rust of their mindes must be rubbed off” (from The Workes of Lucius Annæus Seneca, 1614, translated from the Latin by Robert Lodge).

“They are hard of digestion, causing nauseating eructations” (Dictionnaire Oeconomique; or, The Family Dictionary, 1725, by Richard Bradley). The subject is radishes.

“In Portugal men are melancholy, sanguine, and robust, but slow and hard of intellect” (Werner’s Magazine, January 1896).

“Riots, too, are a form of language in which the voiceless get the attention of those who are ‘hard of listening’ ” (The Drama of Social Life, 1990, by T. R. Young).

May you be soft of sleeping the next time 3 a.m. comes along.

[Update, Oct. 24, 2020. A reader sent this excerpt from “The Smelly Car” episode of Seinfeld, first aired April 15, 1993: “Jerry: ‘Boy, do you smell something?’ Elaine: ‘Do I smell something? What am I, hard of smelling?’ ”]

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Like as the waves

Q: I have a question about this passage from Shakespeare: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore.” I’ve never seen “like as” used this way before. Is it a poetic usage? Or was it once more common?

A: The use of “like as” to introduce a clause, a group of words with its own subject and verb, was once fairly common, but it’s now considered colloquial, nonstandard, obsolete, or rare.

When “like as” introduced a clause, the word “like” was “an emphatic modifier” of “as,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the dropping of “as” from “like as” probably contributed to the use of “like” by itself to introduce a clause, a usage often criticized by sticklers.

As the OED explains, “the use of like as a conjunction,” which was “often deprecated by usage writers and prescriptivists during the 19th and 20th centuries,” was probably influenced by “an ellipsis of as in the phrasal conjunction like as.”

(As we note in a 2013 post, “like” had introduced clauses for hundreds of years before language commentators began objecting to the usage.)

When the phrase “like as” first appeared in the late 14th century (spelled “lich as,”), it meant “as if” or “as though,” a usage that the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels colloquial or nonstandard now.

In the first Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, the Roman Emperor Constantine is suffering from leprosy. But as he’s baptized, his skin lesions fall off and lie in the water like fish scales:

“And evere among the holi tales / Lich as thei weren fisshes skales, / Ther fellen from him now and eft / Til that ther was nothing beleft.” From Confessio Amantis (circa 1391), a Middle English poem by John Gower.

In the early 15th century, “like as” came to mean in the manner that, to the same extent as, just as, etc., senses that are now obsolete. The OED cites a 1414 entry in the rolls, or records, of Parliament:

“We … ne oughte not to answere lyk as bondemen of byrthe shulde, for the whiche the forseide Statut was made.” From Rotuli Parliamentorum (1767-77), edited by John Strachey.

A bit later in the 15th century, “like as” began being used “for emphasis or clarity” when introducing a subordinate clause “preceding the main clause introduced by anaphoric so,” according to Oxford. (The anaphoric so here refers readers to the subordinate clause).

The OED, which describes the usage as rare now, cites a manuscript, circa 1425, at the British Library: “Like as lecteture [a lecture] put thyng in mende [mind] / Of lerned men, ryght so a peyntyde fygure / Remembryth [reminds] men unlernyd in hys kende” (from Cotton MS Julius B. XII in Reliquiæ Antiquæ, 1845, edited by Thomas Wright et al.).

The passage from Shakespeare that you’re asking about introduces a subordinate clause at the beginning of Sonnet 60: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end.”

We’ll end with an expanded OED citation from Agnes Grey (1847), Anne Brontë’s first novel. Here Nancy Brown uses “like as” in the sense of “as if” as she tells Agnes about hearing Edward Weston, the curate, read to her:

“An’ then he took that Bible, an’ read bits here and there, an’ explained ’em as clear as the day: and it seemed like as a new light broke in on my soul; an’ I felt fair aglow about my heart, an’ only wished poor Bill an’ all the world could ha’ been there, an’ heard it all, and rejoiced wi’ me.”

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What’s up with ‘below’?

Q: Merriam-Webster describes “below” as an adverb in these two examples: “gazed at the water below” and “voices from the apartment below.” My understanding is that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. But “below” here is modifying two nouns, “water” and “apartment.” So what am I missing?

A: You raise a very good question. As it happens, linguists have asked themselves the same thing, and in the last few decades they’ve abandoned the traditional thinking about the status of “below” and similar words that express spatial relationships.

Traditionally, “below” has been classified as either a preposition or an adverb. It’s a preposition if an object follows, as in “the water below the bridge” and “the apartment below ours.” It’s an adverb if it doesn’t have an object, as in “the water below” and “the apartment below.” As far as we can tell, that’s been the thinking among grammarians since the late 18th century.

But as we’ll explain later, linguists now regard “below” solely as a preposition, a view reflected in recent comprehensive grammar books but not yet recognized in popular grammars and standard dictionaries.

Of course, for all practical purposes the word hasn’t changed, either in its meaning or in the way it’s used. In the scholarly comprehensive  grammars, the word has merely shifted in some cases from one lexical category (adverb) to another (preposition).

Standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up to this new way of thinking about “below.” The 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult say it can be either an adverb or a preposition in constructions like those above.

Cambridge, for example, calls it a preposition in “below the picture” but an adverb in “the apartment below.” The dictionary adds: “When the adverb below is used to modify a noun, it follows the noun.” (We know what you’re thinking: An adverb modifying a noun? Stay tuned.)

Despite the differing labels, the adverb and the preposition have virtually the same meaning. By and large, the standard dictionaries that define them say the adverb means “in or to a lower position” or “beneath,” while the preposition means “lower than” or “beneath.”

And in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, the broad definitions for the adverb and the preposition are identical: “Expressing position in or movement to a lower place.”

As we mentioned above, this view of “below” and words like it has a long history. Some similar words of this kind, prepositions that have traditionally been called adverbs when used without an object, include these:

“aboard,” “about,” “above,” “across,” “after,” “against,” “ahead,” “along,” “around,” “before,” “behind,” “below,” “beneath,” “besides,” “between,” “beyond,” “by,” “down,” “for,” “in,” “inside,” “near,” “off,” “on,” “opposite,” “out,” “outside,” “over,” “past,” “round,” “since,” “through,” “throughout,” “to,” “under,” “underneath,” “up,” “within,” “without.”

For example, Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795), says that in some instances a preposition “becomes an adverb merely by its application.” The word “since,” he says, is a preposition in “I have not seen him since that time” and an adverb in “Our friendship commenced long since.”

Murray also says, “The prepositions after, before, above, beneath, and several others, sometimes appear to be adverbs, and may be so considered,” giving as an example “He died not long before.” But when a complement follows, he writes, the word is a preposition, as in “He died not long before that time.”

A generation later, the philosopher John Fearn echoed Murray, referring to “the known Principle” that prepositions at the end of a sentence “become Adverbs by Position.”

Fearn also distinguishes between prepositions that require an object (like “with” and “from”) and those that don’t (like “through”). Those in the second group, he says, are “prepositional adverbs” when they’re used without an object (as in “He went through”).

(From Fearn’s Anti-Tooke: Or an Analysis of the Principles and Structure of Language, Vol. II, 1827, an extended argument against the language theories of John Horne Tooke.)

As we said above, the traditional view persists in standard dictionaries but is no longer found in up-to-date comprehensive grammar. Thinking began to change in the late 1960s, when some academic linguists began questioning the “adverb” label and widening the definition of “preposition.”

In the early ’90s, the linguist Ronald W. Langacker gave four examples of “below” as a preposition—“the valley below; the valley below the cliff; A bird flew below; A bird flew below the cliff.” (From “Prepositions as Grammatical(izing) Elements,” published in the journal Leuvense Bijdragen, 1992.)

Note that in those examples “below” is classified as a preposition (1) whether it’s used alone or with a complement, and (2) whether it follows a noun or a verb—thus resembling an adjective in one case (“valley below”) and an adverb in the other (“flew below”).

Most linguists today would agree with that interpretation: “below” and words like it are prepositions. Used with a complement, they’re said to be “transitive prepositions”; used without one, they’re “intransitive prepositions.”

The newer interpretation has only gradually made its way into major books on English grammar.

For example, the old view persisted at least through the publication in 1985 of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al. It uses the terms “postmodifying adverb” and “prepositional adverb” for “below” and similar words in constructions like these.

A “postmodifying adverb,” according to the Comprehensive Grammar, is identical to a preposition except that it has no complement and modifies a preceding noun. Examples given include “the sentence below” … “the way ahead” … “the people behind.”

A “prepositional adverb,” the book says, is identical to a preposition but has no complement and modifies a verb. Examples include “She stayed in” … “A car drove past.

The word is a preposition, according to Quirk, only if a complement is present (and regardless of what it seems to modify). Examples include “below the picture” … “She stayed in the house” … “A car drove past the door.

The Comprehensive Grammar doesn’t use the words “transitive” and “intransitive” for prepositions, but it comes close: “The relation between prepositional adverbs and prepositional phrases may be compared to that between intransitive and transitive uses of certain verbs.”

The next exhaustive grammar book to come along, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), does use those terms. In this book, words that Quirk had previously classified as either postmodifying adverbs or prepositional adverbs are newly categorized as prepositions. The Cambridge Grammar uses “transitive” for prepositions that have a complement, “intransitive” for those that don’t—and it’s the first important English grammar to do so.

The book calls “in” and “since” intransitive prepositions here: “He brought the chair in” … “I haven’t seen her since.” And it calls them transitive prepositions here: “He put it in the box” … “I haven’t seen her since the war.”

The authors of the Cambridge Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, don’t discuss “below” at length, but they do say that it “belongs only to the preposition category.” It’s also included among a list of prepositions that are used with or without a complement, and these examples show it without one: “the discussion below” … “the room below.

Huddleston and Pullum essentially redraw the boundary between prepositions and adverbs, defining prepositions more broadly than “traditional grammars of English.” In this, they say, they’re “following much work in modern linguistics.” And they give two chief reasons why they  reject the traditional view and reclassify words like “below” as prepositions.

(1) The traditional view “does not allow for a preposition without a complement.” The Cambridge Grammar argues that the presence or absence of a complement has no bearing on the classification. So “the traditional definition of prepositions,” one that says they require a complement, is “unwarranted.”

The book makes an important point about these newly recognized prepositions. Their ability to stand alone, without a complement, “is not a property found just occasionally with one or two prepositions, or only with marginal items,” the book says. “It is a property found systematically throughout a wide range of the most central and typical prepositions in the language.”

(2) The “adverb” label is inappropriate for words like “below” because they don’t behave like adverbs. In “The basket is outside,” for instance, the word “outside” is traditionally defined as an adverb. But as the authors point out, typical adverbs, such as those ending in “-ly,” aren’t normally used to modify forms of the verb “be.”

That role is normally played by adjectives, or by prepositions of the kind we’re discussing—“inside,” “outside,” “above,” “below,” and so on. And such words, the authors write, “no more modify the verb than does young in They are young.”

[Here you might ask, Then why aren’t these words adjectives? “Below” certainly looks like an adjective in uses like “the water below.” The Cambridge Grammar discusses this at length and gives reasons including these: Prepositions can have objects but adjectives can’t. Prepositions are fixed, while adjectives can be inflected for degree (as in “heavy,” “heavier,” “heaviest”) or modified by “very” and “too.” As we wrote on the blog in 2012, the adjectival use of “below” premodifying a noun, as in “Click on the below link,” is not generally accepted.]

In summary, Huddleston and Pullum suggest that if an “-ly” adverb cannot be substituted for the word, then it’s not an adverb. And if a complement could be added (as in “The basket is outside the door”), then it’s not an adverb.

The next influential scholarly grammar to be published, the Oxford Modern English Grammar (2011), written by Bas Aarts, reinforces and builds on this distinction between transitive and intransitive prepositions. And it includes “below” in a list of prepositions that can be used either way—with or without a complement.

Aarts also discusses prepositions that follow a verb and can either stand alone or have a complement: “We might go out” or “We might go out for a meal “I shall probably look in” … or “I shall probably look in at the College.”

In short, modern developments in linguistics have given “below” a new label—it’s a preposition, and only a preposition. The traditional view lives on in dictionaries, and no doubt it will persist for quite some time. But in our opinion, the new label makes more sense.

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When ‘even’ looks odd

Q: I was reading this verse in the King James Version of the Bible: “Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and pourtray upon it the city, even Jerusalem.” Ezekiel 4:1. What does “even” mean here? Is it an adverb?

A: In that biblical passage, “even” is an adverb meaning “namely,” “truly,” “that is to say,” or “in other words.” Here’s the verse with modern English in brackets:

“Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and pourtray upon it the city, even [namely] Jerusalem.”

The usage is now archaic, but as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “even” was once “prefixed to a subject, object, or predicate, or to the expression of a qualifying circumstance, to emphasize its identity, or to reinforce the assertion being made about it.”

Although the phrase “the city, even Jerusalem” is used in the King James Version and “a city, even Jerusalem” in the English Standard Version, some other translations of the Bible don’t use “even” but make clear in other ways that the city mentioned is Jerusalem.

Here, for example, is the passage in the New International Version: “Now, son of man, take a block of clay, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it.” And here is the passage in the New American Standard Bible: “Now you son of man, get yourself a brick, place it before you, and inscribe a city on it, Jerusalem.”

This prefixed use of “even” first showed up in Old English, with “even” spelled efne. The earliest OED citation is from an account of the life of St. Guthlac of Crowland, an Anglo-Saxon warrior who became a Christian monk and later a hermit on an island in the fens, or marshland, of Crowland in eastern England:

“He fyrngewyrht fyllan sceolde þurh deaðes cyme, domes hleotan, efne þæs ilcan þe ussa yldran fyrn frecne onfengon” (“He must accept his fate to gain glory through the coming of death, even [that is to say] the same fate our parents of old accepted”). From Guthlac B, an Old English manuscript based on Vita Sancti Guthlaci (Life of Guthlac), an 8th-century Latin work by Felix of Crowland, an East Anglian monk.

Although the OED considers this use of “even” archaic, it still shows up occasionally in modern fiction that strives for a feel of ancient times. The most recent Oxford citation, for example, is from The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), by J. R. R. Tolkien: “Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even [truly] thou shalt find it.”

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post a few years ago about some modern uses of the word “even.”

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Come hell or high water

Q: I was wondering if you know the origin of the expression “come hell or high water.” I just used it to say I intend to vote in November come hell or high water. I must have learned it from my mother, who used many colorful sayings that I don’t hear anymore

A: Before getting to that expression, let’s look at the word “hell,” which has been used in a hell of a lot of ways since it first appeared in Old English writing, first as the dwelling place of all the dead, then as a place where the wicked were punished after death.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Vespasian Psalter, a ninth-century manuscript in Latin and Old English that uses the term to mean “the abode of departed spirits” and “a place of existence after death.”

In the citation, the Latin passage “veniat mors super illos et descendant in infernum viventes” is translated in Old English as “cyme deað ofer hie & astigen hie in helle lifgende” (“let death come upon them and descend into the living hell”).

The first OED citation for “hell” used in the sense of “the dwelling place of devils and condemned spirits” and “the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death” appeared in the 10th-century Blickling Homilies:

“Se gifra helle bið a open deoflum & þæm mannum þe nu be his larum lifiaþ” (“The greedy hell is open to the devil and the men who now live by his teaching”).

Notions of hell have inspired many expressions over the years, including “until hell freezes over” (meaning never, 1832); “to hell and back again” (a very long way, 1844); “raise hell” (cause great trouble, 1845); “to hell and gone” (to ruin or destruction, 1863); and “not a hope in hell” (impossible, 1923).

The expression you’re asking about—“come hell or high water,” meaning despite all obstacles—first appeared a century and a half ago in a somewhat different form. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a congressional report on a disputed 1870 House race in Arkansas.

In testimony on May 25, 1871, a witness notes that Gov. Powell Clayton intended to run for the US Senate, and quotes him indirectly as saying, “they might fight him as much as they were a mind to, but he was going there in spite of hell and high water.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the exact phrase you use is from Land Below the Wind, a 1939 memoir by Agnes Newton Keith about her life in North Borneo (now Sabah). Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“Too puny a voice mine to say, like Queen Victoria, ‘Let empires be built!’—and, come hell or high water, they build ’em. Likewise too untutored a mind mine to attempt the argument, ‘Let empires be destroyed!’—and, come hell or high water, they blast ’em.”

Although your version of the expression is the usual one, the OED notes that the conjunction linking “hell” and “high water” is sometimes “and,” “also,” or “nor.”

Getting back to the early beginnings of “hell,” John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says that etymologically it means “a hidden place.” Its ultimate source is a prehistoric Proto-Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as kel- (cover, hide).

Ayto says the “cover” sense of the ancient root gave English the word “hall” while the “hide” sense gave it “hell,” so “hall and hell were originally ‘concealed or covered places,’ although in very different ways: the hall with a roof, hell with at least six feet of earth.”

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How to say ‘satiety’

Q: We grew up pronouncing “satiety” as SAY-she-uh-tee, which is very close to the French it comes from. The influence of Spanish is forcing the pronunciation to suh-TIE-uh-tee. I like the way we learned it as children.

A: We haven’t seen any evidence that Spanish is responsible for the usual modern pronunciation of “satiety” (suh-TIE-uh-tee) or that French inspired the less common pronunciation (SAY-she-uh-tee). In fact, the Spanish version of the word (saciedad) doesn’t have a “t” sound, and the French version (satiété) doesn’t have an “sh” sound.

English has had quite a few different spellings and pronunciations of “satiety” (the state of being filled with food, drink, etc.) since it adopted the word from Latin and Middle French in the 16th century. In fact, the Latin and Middle French versions of the term were also spelled and pronounced in different ways.

In classical Latin, the term was satietas (sufficiency, abundance), but in post-classical Latin it was sacietas as well as satietas, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Middle French, it was satieté and sacieté. And in Anglo-Norman, which greatly influenced Middle English, it was sacieté and sazietet. The “c” in these terms was pronounced like “s” before the vowel “i.”

When “satiety” showed up in the early modern English writing in the 1500s, the second syllable could begin with either a “t” or a “c.” Here are some of the 16th-century spellings cited in the OED: “saciete,” “sacietee,” “sacietye,” “satietie,” and “satiety.” Before spelling was formalized in modern English, words tended to be spelled as they were pronounced.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, “satiety” was usually pronounced suh-SIGH-uh-tee in the late 18th century, according to the lexicographer John Walker, who nevertheless thought it should be pronounced suh-TIE-uh-tee.

In A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), Walker says “the second syllable has been grossly mistaken by the generality of speakers” and pronounced like “the first of si-lence, as if written sa-si-e-ty.” So ”satiety” sounded at the time much like “society.”

The pronunciation of “satiety,” according to Walker, was “almost universally confounded with an apparently similar, but really different, assemblage of accent, vowels, and consonants” in “satiate” (pronounced SAY-she-ate) and similar words.

In other words, Walker believed that the pronunciation of “satiate” was influencing that of “satiety.” And as we say in a 2010 post, we suspect that this influence inspired the SAY-she-uh-tee pronunciation of “satiety.”

In modern English, the OED notes, the letter “t” has an “sh” sound “in the combinations -tion, -tious, -tial, -tia, -tian, -tience, -tient, after a vowel or any consonant except s.”  (The words “nation,” “militia,” and “patience” are good examples.) But “t” is not usually pronounced “sh” in the combination “-tie” (as in “satiety”).

Eight of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult offer only one pronunciation for “satiety,” either suh-TIE-i-tee or suh-TIE-uh-tee. The remaining two, Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged, add SAY-she-uh-tee as a “secondary variant” that “occurs appreciably less often.”

Our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (a predecessor of the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged), includes only one pronunciation, suh-TIE-eh-tee, which suggests that SAY-she-uh-tee showed up in the last six decades.

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The polka in polka dots

Q: I’m wondering if the “polka dot” pattern has any connection to the “polka” dance.

A: Yes, we can connect the dots here. The term “polka dot” comes from the dance in 2/4 time (two quarter notes per bar), which was especially popular in the 19th century. During the polka craze, the name was often attached to fabrics, clothing, and fashion accessories as a marketing tactic.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “The use of polka as a commercial name developed in the 1840s due to the huge popularity of the dance in that period.”

The name of the dance, according to the dictionary, was used “prefixed to or designating various items, esp. textiles, fashion accessories, or articles of clothing, as polka hat, polka pelisse, etc.”

Elsewhere in its entry for the noun “polka,” the dictionary mentions “polka jacket,” “polka gauze,” and “polka curtain-band” (for looping up curtains). The OED adds that the usage is “now historical except in polka dot.”

The first Oxford citation for “polka” used as a commercial prefix is from the Nov. 8, 1844, issue of the Times (London): “Splendid and magnificent novelties … the Czarina, the Polka Pelisse, and Marquise Pelerine.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “polka dot,” which we’ll expand here, is from the May 1857 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine published in Philadelphia: “Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear. It is surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots; two full volantes, or flounces are edged with the same.”

As for the dance, it originated in the Czech region of Bohemia in the 19th century, according to the OED, and spread through Europe and the US. The dictionary says the name ultimately comes from polka, a Czech term for a Polish woman; it’s the feminine form of polák, Czech for Pole.

Oxford says the dance was “probably so named as an expression of sympathy with the Polish uprising of 1830-1” against the Russian Empire, but it adds that “the earliest English examples present difficulties.”

Although the dance may have been named for the Polish cadets who rose up against the Russians, the term “polka” had appeared a few years earlier in the US, apparently in reference to a musical composition used to accompany a dance rather than to a dance itself.

The dictionary says the use of “polka” for “a piece of music typically written in 2/4 time as the accompaniment to a characteristic dance” appeared first in Miss George Anna Reinagle Music Book for Fancy Tunes, an 1825 manuscript by Pierre Landrin Duport at the Library of Congress. The citation consists of the word “polka” alone. Duport was a French-born musician and dancing teacher in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

The OED’s first clear example of “polka” used for the dance itself is from a letter written in 1837 by Mary Austin Holley, author of the first known English-language history of Texas. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“It was announced that a Mr. Karponky & his scholars would dance the grand Polka. He is a Pole—has taught 3,000 persons the Polka in these U.S.” From Letters of an Early American Traveller: Mary Austin Holley, Her Life and Her Works (1933), by  Mattie Austin Hatcher.

Finally, here are a couple of obsolete polka terms cited by the OED, along with their earliest appearances: “polkery,” a noun for a polka dance party (“Morning polkeries in Grosvenor-square,” 1845) … “polkaic,” an adjective meaning polka-like (“He thought Offenbach too polkaic,” 1884).

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Cue up or queue up a video?

Q: When you’re readying a video for viewing, do you cue it up or queue it up?

A: Although both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in the mainstream media in the sense of to prepare an audio or video recording to play, the language authorities who’ve commented on the issue prefer the phrasal verb “cue up.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “To cue up a videotape, an audio tape, a compact disc, or a DVD is to have it ready for playing at a particular point.” Garner includes these two examples from the news media:

  • “His brother cued up the tape, the rousing theme song from ‘Rocky’ ” (Hartford Courant, Sept. 17, 1996).
  • “You can bet your remote control clicker that every network has already cued up video of the glowering Dole, eyes flitting, hanging that warmonger tag on an astonished Mondale” (Boston Globe, Oct. 4, 1996).

As we’ll show later, this use of “cue up” is at least as old as the 1970s. Of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult, four of them include this sense of “cue up,” while none mention a similar use of “queue up.”

American Heritage says one meaning of the verb “cue” is “to position (an audio or video recording) in readiness for playing.” It gives this example: “cue up a record on the turntable.”

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, says “cue” can mean to “set a piece of audio or video equipment in readiness to play (a particular part of the recorded material).” The dictionary has this example: “there was a pause while she cued up the next tape.”

Longman describes “cue something up” as a phrasal verb meaning “to make a record, CD, DVD etc be exactly in the position you want it to be in, so that you can play something immediately when you are ready.” Example: “The DVD player’s cued up and ready to go!” And Webster’s New World defines “cue” as “to ready (a recording) to play back from a certain point: often with up.”

But, as we said above, both spellings are seen in the media, as in these examples:

  • “It’s why he could cue up the video and manage an uncomfortable smile” (from an article in the July 14, 2020, issue of Newsday on the Yankee pitcher Masahiro Tanaka’s recovery after getting hit in the head by a line drive).
  • “First, queue up the video you want to play and start a Zoom meeting” (from “How to Host a Virtual Watch Party,” Wired, July 4, 2020).

In a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, “cue up the video” appeared, but not “queue up the video.” And in searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of terms from online newspapers and magazines, “cue up the video” edged out “queue up the video,” though the results for both were scanty.

In contemporary English, the verb “cue” has several meanings: (1) to use a cue in pool, billiards, or snooker; (2) to prompt someone or something; (3) to insert (usually “cue in”) something in a performance; (4) to prepare (usually “cue up”) a recording to play.

The word “queue” also has several senses today. The verb can mean to arrange or form a queue (a waiting line), and to line up or wait in such a line, a usage that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as chiefly British.

In the computer sense, the OED says, the noun “queue” means “a list of data items, commands, etc. stored so as to be retrievable in a definite order, usually the order of insertion,” and the verb means “to place (data, tasks, etc.) in a queue.”

One could argue, of course, that to prepare a recording to play at a specific time is similar to putting it in a waiting line or a queue of data, which may account for why both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in this sense in some edited publications. For now, though, “cue up” seems to be the preferred usage.

(We wrote a post in 2014 on the use of “queue” in the UK and “line” in the US to mean a line of people. As it turns out, the British once used “line” for what they now call a “queue.”)

As for the etymology, the use of the verb “queue” to mean line up is derived from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French term for a tail (spelled variously keu, kue, que, queue, and so on). In Old French, an animal’s tail was a cue.

When the noun showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant a tail-like band of parchment used to seal a letter. The earliest example in the OED refers to a “dowbylle queue” (a forked or double tail). It’s from “Gregory’s Chronicle” (circa 1475), published in The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (1876), edited by James Gairdner.

The next OED citation refers to a forked tail in heraldry: “Gold ramping Lion queue doth forked hold” (from The True Vse of Armorie Shewed by Historie, and Plainly Proued by Example, 1592, by William Wyrley).

In the early 18th century, the noun “queue” came to mean “a long plait of hair worn hanging down at the back, from the head or from a wig; a pigtail,” according to the dictionary. The earliest known use is from a newspaper advertisement for “All Sorts of Perukes” (wigs) including “Qu-Perukes and Bagg-Wiggs” (Dublin Gazette, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 1724).

The next Oxford citation has the usual spelling: “The largeness of the doctor’s wig arises from the same pride with the smallness of the beau’s queue” (An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774, by Oliver Goldsmith).

By the early 19th century, the noun was being used to mean a lineup: “That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People” (The French Revolution: A History, 1837, by Thomas Carlyle).

When the verb “queue” appeared in the 18th century, it meant to tie up the hair in a pigtail, a usage that the OED describes as obsolete or rare now.

In the early 20th century, the verb took on its modern sense of to form a line or wait in a line. The dictionary’s first example is from the Oct. 7, 1920, issue of the Times (London): “Taxi-Cabs queued up for their supplies of ‘Shell.’ ”

A half-century later, the verb was being used in its computer sense: “checking for transmission errors, and storing and queuing the messages received” (from Interactive Computing in BASIC, 1973, by P. C. Sanderson).

The OED doesn’t have any examples of “queue” used in the sense of preparing an audio or video recording to play. The earliest use we’ve found of the verb spelled this way is from 86’d, a 2009 novel by the American writer Dan Fante: “The rap disc I chose was by a singer named Sam’yall K. I’d never heard of the guy but I queued the disc up and pressed play on low to test my selection.”

As for “cue,” the sense you’re asking about is derived from the word’s use as a noun to mean a theatrical prompt. Originally, according to Oxford, it referred to “the concluding word or words of a speech in a play, serving as a signal or direction to another actor to enter, or begin his speech.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the mid-16th century (note how the word is spelled): “Amen must be answered to the thanksgevyng not as to a mans q in a playe.” (From a 1553 reference, published in Ecclesiastical Memorials, 1721, by the English historian and biographer John Strype.)

The OED says the source of this sense of the noun “cue” is uncertain, but there’s no evidence that it comes from “queue.” A more likely explanation is that it’s derived from the use of “Q,” “q,” and “qu” in the 16th and 17th centuries “to mark in actors’ copies of plays, the points at which they were to begin.” The term is said to be short for the Latin qualis (what) or quando (when).

However, the verb “cue” had nothing to do with prompts when it first appeared in English in the 18th century. It originally meant to twist hair into a pigtail, a usage that did indeed come from “queue.”

The OED cites this passage from an Aug. 20, 1774, entry in the journals of Capt. James Cook about the hair of indigenous people on a Pacific island: “They separate it [their hair] into small locks and wold [wind] or cue them round with the rind of a slender plant.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the verb “cue” took on the sense of to prompt. The first OED example is from the February 1928 issue of Melody Maker, a British music magazine: “The 1st alto had melody cued-in.”

The dictionary’s next citation is a definition from a glossary of early radio terms: “Cue someone, to give a signal indicating ‘proceed with the pre-arranged routine.’ ” (From “Radio Dictionary,” by Leonard Lewis, published first in the April 1937 issue of Printer’s Ink Monthly and later as a booklet.)

As of now, the OED doesn’t have an entry for “cue” or “cue up” used to mean prepare an audio or video recording to play. However, the usage appears in a 1975 citation for the noun “VJ,” someone who introduces and plays music videos: “VJs, or video jockeys, at MTV’s studio cue up as many as 13 videos an hour” (from American Way magazine, June 1983).

We’ve found several earlier examples, including this one from a short story in the November 1974 issue of Boys’ Life: “Pushing aside some debris, he cued up the record, carefully lowered the needle, made a little bow, and stepped back” (“The $20 Guitar,” by A. R. Swinnerton).

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Are you teed off?

Q: I assume that when you’re “teed off” at someone, the usage comes from golf, but I can’t for the life of me see a connection. What’s the story?

A: Yes, the metaphorical use of “teed off” to mean angry or annoyed comes from golf. We’ve seen two theories as to how it got from there to here.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes it among figurative uses of “tee off” (literally, to hit a ball from the tee in golf), and labels the usage North American slang. The OED says the golfing metaphor probably originated as a “euphemistic alteration” of “peed off” used in the sense of “pissed off.”

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary says “teed off” in the sense of angry or annoyed probably comes from the informal verb phrase “tee off on,” which it defines as “to speak about (someone or something) in an angry way.”

In either case, our guess is that people thought whacking a golf ball from a tee was a pretty good figure of speech for being angry.

The figurative use of the verbal phrase “tee off on” showed up in the 1930s as sporting jargon meaning to attack. The first example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “The Giants teed off on the Mississippi cat, Guy Bush, and his successor, Charlie Root, for six runs in the third inning” (San Bernardino Sun, July 19, 1934).

By the early 1940s, “tee off on” was being used in the sense of a political attack. We found this example in a Texas newspaper: “Attorney General Gerald Mann teed off on both O’Daniel and Johnson” (Borger Daily Herald, June 22, 1941). Mann was a candidate in a special election in which Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel narrowly defeated Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson for a Senate seat.

The use of the adjectival phrase “teed off” to mean angry appeared a few months later in the diary of an American pilot who served with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China during World War II:

“Apparently the old man was still teed off about Ricketts’s landing yesterday, for no flying was scheduled today.” From a Nov. 19, 1941, entry in A Flying Tiger’s Diary (1984), by Charles R. Bond Jr. with Terry H. Anderson, a Texas A&M historian. (The pilot mentioned had damaged a plane when landing with the wheels only half down.)

The use of “tee” for the wood or plastic peg from which a ball is hit at the start of each hole in golf began life in Scottish English in the early 17th century. It was originally spelled “teaz” and referred to a small heap of earth or sand.

The earliest OED citation is from a Latin grammar book using sporting examples: “Statumen, the Teaz” (statumen is Latin for a support). From Vocabula cum Aliis Latinae Linguae Subsidiis, written sometime before 1646 by David Wedderburn, a schoolmaster at Aberdeen Grammar School.

The dictionary’s first example with the usual spelling, which we’ve expanded, is from an early 18th-century Scottish poem: “Driving their baws frae whins or tee / There’s no nae gowfer to be seen” (“Driving their balls from rough or tee, / There’s nary a golfer to be seen”). From “An Ode to Ph—” (1721), by Allan Ramsay.

The OED describes “tee” as “apparently a clipped form of teaz, used in 17th cent., the origin of which is not ascertained.” The dictionary compares the development of “tea” from “teaz” to that of “pea” from “pease,” a subject we discussed in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions:

The singular “piose” (from the Latin pisum) entered English in Anglo-Saxon days, eventually becoming “pease,” as in this 1580 quotation: “As like as one pease is to an other.” But people began mistaking “pease” for a plural, so a singular had to be invented. That’s how “pea” burst from its pod in the 1600s. The old “pease” lives on, however, in a nursery rhyme many of us remember from childhood:

Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.

Split-pea soup is a relative of pease porridge (or pease pudding), a thicker dish made from dried peas, boiled and mashed. It’s often served in northeastern England and Newfoundland.

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On the status of status quo

Q: As a judge, I would like to know about the origins of “status quo” and statu quo, the former in English and the latter in French legal language.

A: “Status quo” and statu quo, English and French terms meaning “the present state of affairs,” are both believed to come from an expression in post-classical Latin, in statu quo.

In Latin, status and statu are different forms of the same noun. As a subject (in the nominative case), it’s status; as an object of a preposition (in the ablative case), it’s statu.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, status quo (Latin for the state in which) showed up in the fifth century in the writings of Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine), and was “probably extrapolated from in statu quo” (in the state in which).

Although “status quo” is the usual spelling of the phrase in English whether it’s a subject or an object, “statu quo” is sometimes seen in English writing in the expressions “in statu quo” and “in statu quo ante,” prepositional constructions that are generally used adverbially. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) defines both as “in the same state of affairs that existed earlier.”

The OED says a subject version of that last construction, “status quo ante” (the former state of affairs), was “perhaps formed within English, by clipping or shortening” the expression status quo ante bellum (modern Latin for the state of affairs before the war) or perhaps by extrapolation from the post-classical Latin in statu quo.

All of the dictionary’s early English examples for “status quo” and its relations italicize the expressions. In the OED’s first citation for “in statu quo,” from the early 17th century, it’s part of the expression “in statu quo prius” (in the same as the prior state of affairs):

“The seculars are but in statu quo prius, and cannot be in a worse then they are in at this present.” From Decacordon of Ten Quodlibeticall Questions (1602), a religious treatise by William Watson, an English Roman Catholic priest who was executed for treason in 1603. (A “decachord” is a 10-stringed musical instrument; “quodlibetical” means purely academic.)

The OED’s earliest English example for the phrase “status quo” is in a collection of British trial records from the late 14th to the early 18th century. The passage cited is from the 1678-85 impeachment proceedings against Thomas, Earl of Danby, for high treason:

“The Impeachments, Appeals, &c. and the Incidents … should stand in Statu Quo; so that (as is already observed) the Status Quo (as to him) he again said, was to put him into a State of Liberty.” From A Compleat Collection of State-Tryals and Proceedings Upon Impeachment for High Treason and other Crimes and Misdemeanours (1719). Danby was imprisoned in the Tower of London for five years.

The first Oxford citation for “status quo ante” is from an anonymous play printed at the beginning of the 19th century: “I know nothing I can do, but give security, on my estates in Andalusia, for, I fear, it is too late to expect the status quo ante.” From The Systematic or Imaginary Philosopher: A Comedy, in Five Acts (1800).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “status quo ante bellum” is from an 18th-century political tract by the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke about divisions among Whigs in Britain over the French Revolution:

“My Lord Grenville [William, Baron Grenville] truly described the relative state of the Contracting Parties, when he made the uti possidetis the basis of the Negotiation on the part of the French, whilst the British were obliged to submit to the status quo ante bellum.”

In Burke’s 1791 tract, An Appeal From the New to the Old Whigs, the Latin uti possidetis is short for uti possidetis, ita possideatis (as you possess, so may you possess), a principle in international law that territory held at the end of a war remains with the possessor, unless otherwise stipulated by treaty.

The OED cites several other modern Latin expressions that may have influenced the development of “status quo,” including in eum statum quo ante bellum fuerant (in the conditions that had existed before the war, 1625 or earlier) and quo ante bellum fuerant (which had been before the war, 1772 or earlier),

Finally, here are a couple of relatively rare humorous terms cited in the dictionary: “statu quo-ism” (“partiality for, or inclination to maintain, the existing state of affairs,” 1834) and “statu quo-ite” (“a person who favours the existing state of affairs; spec. one who believes that human society remains in more or less the same state throughout history, neither progressing nor deteriorating”).

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Can sex or gender be ‘assigned’?

Q: The terms “gender assignment” and “sex assignment” give me pause. The use of the verb “assign” and noun “assignment” in this sense strikes me as off-pitch. Assigning is what the Sorting Hat does in sending a Hogwarts student to one of the school’s four Houses. Is there an interesting story here?

A: The use of the terms “sex assignment” and “gender assignment” for designating the sex of a newborn child is relatively rare, though an etymological case could be made for this sense of “assignment.”

We’ve found only 42 examples of “sex assignment” and 100 of “gender assignment” in recent searches of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.

None of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have entries for “gender assignment” and only one includes “sex assignment.” Dictionary.com, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines it as “the determination or assignment of a baby’s sex, based on the appearance of external reproductive organs, and, sometimes, chromosomal testing.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include either term, though it has examples dating back to the 14th century of the verb “assign” used to mean determine, designate, specify, classify, categorize, and so on. Here are a few examples:

“And til seynt Iames be souȝte þere, I shal assigne / That no man go to Galis” (“And till Saint James be sought there, I shall assign [specify] that no man go to Galicia” (Piers Plowman, 1377, by William Langland). We’ve expanded the OED citation.

“Folke whom I neyther assigne bi name, nor as yet knowe not who they be” (The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance, 1533, by Thomas More).

“Who all assign its Altitude to be but about 27 inches” (Experimental Philosophy, 1664, by Henry Power).

And here are a few examples from contemporary standard dictionaries:

“assigned the new species to an existing genus” (American Heritage).

“However, further investigations are needed before assigning these Mexican specimens to a new status” (Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online).

“Though assigned male at birth, she appears most comfortable and in her element wearing a skirt and high-heeled sandals when riding a big-wheel or playing with a tea set” (Merriam-Webster). The dictionary includes this among examples in which “assign” means to “fix or specify.”

The use of “sex assignment” or “gender assignment” for determining the sex of a newborn is relatively new. And the subject can be controversial, especially when the evidence is ambiguous, as in the earliest example we’ve found. This passage was published in the 1950s in a medical paper on intersexuality, having both male and female sexual organs or characteristics:

“Equally clearly the medical practitioner and the paediatrician need to be helped to form a correct opinion in the first place on the sex assignment and rearing of the intersexed infant.” From “Psychosexual Identification (Psychogender) in the Intersexed,” by Daniel Cappon, Calvin Ezrin, and Patrick Lynes, in the Canadian Psychiatric Journal, April 1959.

The first example we’ve seen for “gender assignment” uses the phrase in the linguistic sense—that is, in reference to languages that use gender to classify nouns, pronouns, and related words:

“Of course there may be dialect differences in the gender assignment of nouns” (from Plains Cree: A Grammatical Study, by the linguist H. Christoph Wolfart, published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, November 1973).

And here’s the earliest example we’ve seen of “gender assignment” used in the sense you’re asking about: “Gender assignment is based on the existing anatomy and a full understanding of the pathologic and endocrinologic reasons for the ambiguity” (Practical Gynecology, 1994, by Allan J. Jacobs and ‎Michael J. Gast).

By the way, all but one of the standard dictionaries we consult have entries for “sex reassignment” or “gender reassignment,” commonly known as “sex change.” Some add the word “therapy” or “surgery” to the term.

The OED defines “gender reassignment” as “the process or an instance of a person adopting the physical characteristics of the opposite sex by means of medical procedures such as surgery or hormone treatment.”

The earliest Oxford example is from the late 1960s: “After gender reassignment surgery, some previously rejecting fathers become very affectionate” (“The Formation of Gender Identity,” by Natalie Shainess, Journal of Sex Research, May 1969).

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss words of the pandemic.

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Dead-on balls accurate

Q: My friend uses the phrase “dead-on balls accurate,” which I looked up because of its ridiculousness. I know it was in My Cousin Vinny. Do you guys have any idea when “balls” was added? Was it in the movie or sometime before that?

A: As far as we can tell, “dead-on balls accurate” showed up for the first time in My Cousin Vinny. In the 1992 comedy, Mona Lisa Vito (played by Marisa Tomei) uses the expression in an argument with Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) over whether she’s properly closed a dripping faucet. We’ll have more on the film later.

In fact the “balls”-free version, “dead-on accurate,” apparently appeared in print only 15 years before the movie, though “dead” had been used to mean utterly or absolutely since the 16th century and “dead-on” to mean quite certain or sure since the 19th.

Your friend isn’t the only person to use the longer version, which shows up every once in a while in various contexts. Here, for instance, is the headline of a Jan. 1, 2019, customer review on Amazon.com: “Dead on balls accurate! Excellent thermometer!”

The word “balls” in the expression is an intensifier, a word that adds emphasis, like “absolutely,” “extremely,” or “incredibly.” You can see this more clearly if we replace “balls” with a more common vulgar slang intensifier: “dead-on fucking accurate.”

As it turns out, the intensive use of “balls” is relatively rare. We couldn’t find it in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.  However, the collaborative Wiktionary defines “balls” used adverbially as “(slang) Very, Intensifier,” and has this example: “It is balls cold out there.”

None of our etymological or slang dictionaries have entries for the use of “balls” as an intensifier, but several include entries for the phrase “balls naked,” where “balls” is used intensively to mean completely.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, cites Somebody Up There Likes Me, a 1955 memoir by the middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano, written with Rowland Barber: “I’m on the scales, balls naked.”

And Random House notes a similar and much earlier usage in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), where “bollock,” a term for testicle that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, is used as an intensifier: “See them there stark bollock-naked.”

The earliest example for “balls naked” in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from Go-Boy! Memories of a Life Behind Bars, a 1978 prison memoir by Roger Caron: “The two rascals disappeared … emerging a moment later balls naked.”

Green’s has an earlier, expanded version of the expression from The Run for Home, a 1958 novel by Leland Frederick Cooley, who once wrote and produced The Perry Como Show: “I see this miserable shit, balls-ass naked, hanging by his hands from an overhead beam.”

When the noun “ball” first appeared in writing in the 12th century, spelled bal in early Middle English, it meant a hill or a spherical object in a game. This ball-playing example in the OED is from the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Al þe wa of þis world is ieuenet to helle alre leaste pine, al nis bute bal plohe” (“all the woe of this world compared to the very least pain of hell is nothing but ball play”).

By the 13th century, “ball” was being used to mean a testicle. The first OED citation, which we’ll expand here, is from a plainspoken passage in The Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice written in verse around 1250:

“Þe maide þat ȝevit hirsilf alle / oþir to fre man, oþir to þralle / ar ringe be ſet an honde, / and pleiit with þe croke and wiþ þe balle, / and mekit gret þat erst was smalle, / Þe wedding got to sconde. / ʒeve þi cunte to cunnig, and crave affetir wedding, quod hending” (“the maid that giveth herself all / either to free man or thrall [serf] / ere ring be set on hand, / and playeth with the crook [penis] and with the ball, / and maketh great what once was small, / the wedding is a shame. / ‘give thy cunt with cunning / and crave after wedding,’ quoth Hending”).

In other words, a woman should wait for Mr. Right to say “I do.”

Getting back to the movie, Vinny isn’t Mr. Right and Lisa hasn’t waited, but she’s cunning about getting what she craves. Here’s a transcript of the scene in which Vinny and Lisa squabble over whether she’s properly turned off a dripping faucet:

Vinny: Is that a drip I hear?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Weren’t you the last one to use the bathroom?
Lisa: So?
Vinny: Well, did you use the faucet?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Why didn’t you turn it off?
Lisa: I did turn it off.
Vinny: Well, if you turned it off, why am I listening to it?
Lisa: Did it ever occur to you that it could be turned off and drip at the same time?
Vinny: No, because if you turned it off, it wouldn’t drip.
Lisa: Maybe it’s broken.
Vinny: Is that what you’re saying? It’s broken?
Lisa: Yeah, that’s it; it’s broken.
Vinny: You sure?
Lisa: I’m positive.
Vinny: Maybe you didn’t twist it hard enough.
Lisa: I twisted it just right.
Vinny: How can you be so sure?
Lisa: If you will look in the manual, you will see that this particular model faucet requires a range of 10 to 16 foot pounds of torque. I routinely twist the maximum allowable torquage.
Vinny: How can you be sure you used 16 foot pounds of torque?
Lisa: Because I used a Craftsman model 1019 Laboratory edition, signature series torque wrench. The kind used by Cal Tech high-energy physicists and NASA engineers.
Vinny: In that case, how can you be sure that’s accurate?
Lisa: Because a split second before the torque wrench was applied to the faucet handle, it had been calibrated by top members of the state and federal Departments of Weights and Measures, to be dead-on balls accurate. Here’s the certificate of validation. (She tears a page from a magazine)
Vinny: Dead-on balls accurate?
Lisa: It’s an industry term.

[Note: The appearance of “cunt” in the Proverbs of Hendyng is the first written example of the word used for the female genitals. But as we say in a 2014 post, the term was used earlier within surnames and street names in red-light districts.]

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A vast minority?

Q: John Campbell, a YouTube celebrity offering Covid advice, has said a “vast minority” of young people are not observing social distancing. Although “vast majority” is a common collocation, I had never heard “vast minority” before. Did Campbell invent it, or does it have a history?

A: No, Campbell didn’t coin the phrase “vast minority.” It appeared in writing more than two centuries earlier.

The oldest example we’ve found is from an anonymous 19th-century religious tract ridiculing a writer who had referred to Roman Catholics as “a large portion of the inhabitants” of Ireland:

“you ought to have called the Papists, at once, the vast minority of the inhabitants: you could not gain less credit.” (A Vindication of the Most Rev. John Thomas Troy, D.D., Roman Catholic Archbishop in the Church of Dublin, 1804, by “a Roman Catholic of Dublin.”)

And here’s an example from a letter in the October 1839 issue of the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine that uses the expression in reference to Protestants:

“The press in Baltimore, with but few exceptions is a political press, and yet under the guise of preserving the peace of the city, they advocate the cause of the minority; yes a vast minority, a minority of more than three hundredths, for the protestants in wealth and number exceed the sum of the Catholics as a hundred to three.”

In a more recent appearance, the expression describes fans of the singer Mel Tormé: “Carlos Gastel, his longtime manager, told Tormé in 1947, ‘you will never be the mass star you want to be, but there is a vast minority of people out there who will always support your work.’ ”

(From an article by Terry Teachout in Commentary, December 2014. The phrase was also in the title and text of a March 9, 1981, profile of Tormé in the New Yorker.)

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have a citation for “vast minority.” The dictionary’s first example of “vast majority” is from the early 18th century:

“The People of the Earth, that is, a vast Majority of Mankind, are represented by Moses, as voluntarily journeying from one part of the Earth to another.” (The Original and Institution of Civil Government, Discuss’d, 1710, by Benjamin Hoadly.)

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A slave named Smith

[In observance of Labor Day, we’re republishing a post from May 20, 2016,  that discusses family names derived from occupations.]

Q: Why is “Smith” more common than “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and other names derived from occupations?

A: “Smith” is the most common family name in the US (according to the 2010 census) as well as in the UK. Why is it more common than some other surnames derived from occupations, such as “Cooper,” “Potter,”  “Weaver,” and so on?

Well, the word “smith” has been used in the occupational sense since Anglo-Saxon days, far longer than “cooper” (circa 1415), “potter” (c. 1200), and “weaver” (1362) have been used in that sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several Old English citations for the word “smith,” including this one from the epic poem Beowulf, which scholars say may have been written as early as the 700s:

“Swa hine fyrndagum worhte wæpna smið” (“As it was made for him by a weapon smith in days of old”).

In addition to being old, “smith” has referred to a wider variety of jobs than those other terms.

When it showed up in Old English, the OED says, a “smith” was someone who worked “in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier; a forger, hammerman.” It was also used in compounds like “coopersmith,” “goldsmith,” “gunsmith,” “locksmith,” and “silversmith.”

“Smith” may have been used as a personal “byname” before any of those other occupational words even showed up in English. (Bynames or nicknames, used to identify individuals and to distinguish one John or Alfred from another, were the precursors of the inherited family names that developed after the Norman Conquest.)

A document from the late 900s granting freedom to a slave named “Ecceard smith” may be the earliest example of such a byname.

A slave? Yes, there was slavery in medieval Britain.

In Cartularium Saxonicum (Vol. 3, 1887), a collection of charters relating to Anglo-Saxon history, the British historian Walter de Gray Birch includes a section on manumissions, documents granting formal release from slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from a manumission that the author dates from the late 10th century:

“Geatfleda geaf freols for Godes lufa & for heora sæpla,  þæt is Ecceard smið, & Ælstan  & his wíf & eall heora of sprinc boren & unboren. & Arcil, & Cole, & Ecferð,  Aldhunes dohter, & ealle þa men þe heo nam heora heafod for hyra mete on þam yflum dagum.”

(“For the love of God and for the need of her soul, Geatfleda has granted freedom to Ecceard smith, and AElfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter, and all those people whose heads she took for their food in the evil days [and all those people she bought in the evil days].”)

In transcribing the Old English above, we’ve replaced the Anglo-Saxon symbol for “and” (it looks like a 7) with an ampersand, and modified some of the punctuation to make the Old English more readable.

Some scholars have translated the Old English “Ecceard smið” as “Ecceard smith,” treating “smith” as a byname, while others have translated it as “Ecceard the smith,” treating “smith” as an appositive that refers to Ecceard by his occupation.

We lean toward considering “smith” a nickname or byname here. As we noted, such names weren’t generally passed on from generation to generation until well into the Middle Ages.

Percy Hide Reaney and Richard Middlewood Wilson, authors of A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd ed., 1991), note that surnames were constantly changing in the Middle Ages.

“Today, surnames mean an inherited family name; originally it meant simply an additional name,” the authors write.

In The Birth of the West (2014), Paul Collins provides additional details about the freeing of the slaves mentioned above, noting that a great famine in 975 forced some Anglo-Saxons to sell themselves into slavery to keep from dying of hunger.

“Geatfleda, a wealthy woman in Durham, heard that a group of people with children had sold themselves into slavery to survive,” Collins writes. “She then bought them and granted them freedom when the famine had ended.”

In The Old English Manor: A Study in English Economic History (1892), the historian Charles McLean Andrews says that “in cases of great poverty and distress it was not uncommon for freemen to sell themselves into slavery.”

“Frequently it might happen that violence or fraud would force a freeman into slavery, an enforcement, which, while not legally recognized, would become practically a fact, and of legal importance in relation to the posterity of the unfortunate freeman, for of course all children of slaves remained slaves,” Andrews writes.

We could speculate more about the popularity of the name “Smith,” but it would be mere conjecture.

As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990), a lot of medieval genealogy is guesswork:

“It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

You may also be interested in a post we wrote about colors used as surnames, as in “Mr. Gray” and “Ms. White.”

We’ll end with these anonymous lines that we came across in our readings for this post:

“From whence came Smith, all be he Knight or squire
But from the Smith, that forgeth at the fire?”

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Tawk of the Town

[Pat’s review of a book about New York English, reprinted from the September 2020 issue of the Literary Review, London. We’ve left in the British punctuation and spelling.]

* * * * * * * * * * * *

PATRICIA T O’CONNER

You Talkin’ to Me? The Unruly History of New York English

By E J White. Oxford University Press 296 pp

You know how to have a polite conversation, right? You listen, wait for a pause, say your bit, then shut up so someone else can speak. In other words, you take your turn.

You’re obviously not from New York.

To an outsider, someone from, say, Toronto or Seattle or London, a conversation among New Yorkers may resemble a verbal wrestling match. Everyone seems to talk at once, butting in with questions and comments, being loud, rude and aggressive. Actually, according to the American linguist E J White, they’re just being nice.

When they talk simultaneously, raise the volume and insert commentary (‘I knew he was trouble’, ‘I hate that!’), New Yorkers aren’t trying to hijack the conversation, White says. They’re using ‘cooperative overlap’, ‘contextualization cues’ (like vocal pitch) and ‘cooperative interruption’ to keep the talk perking merrily along. To them, argument is engagement, loudness is enthusiasm and interruption means they’re listening, she writes. Behaviour that would stop a conversation dead in Milwaukee nudges it forward in New York.

Why do New Yorkers talk this way? Perhaps, White says, because it’s the cultural norm among many of the communities that have come to make up the city: eastern European Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers. As for the famous New York accent, that’s something else again.

White, who teaches the history of language at Stony Brook University, New York, argues that ‘Americans sound the way they do because New Yorkers sound the way they do’. In You Talkin’ to Me? she makes a convincing case that the sounds of standard American English developed, at least in part, as a backlash against immigration and the accent of New York.

Although the book is aimed at general readers, it’s based on up-to-the-minute research in the relatively new field of historical sociolinguistics. (Here a New Yorker would helpfully interrupt, ‘Yeah, which is what?’) Briefly, it is about how and why language changes. Its central premise is that things like social class, gender, age, group identity and notions of prestige, all working in particular historical settings, are what drive change.

Take one of the sounds typically associated with New York speech the oi that’s heard when ‘bird’ is pronounced boid, ‘earl’ oil, ‘certainly’ soitanly, and so on. Here’s a surprise. That oi, White says, was ‘a marker of upper-class speech’ in old New York, a prestige pronunciation used by Teddy Roosevelt and the Four Hundred who rubbed elbows in Mrs Astor’s ballroom. Here’s another surprise. The pronunciation is now defunct and exists only as a stereotype. It retired from high society after the First World War and by mid-century it was no longer part of New York speech in general. Yet for decades afterwards it persisted in sitcoms, cartoons and the like. Although extinct ‘in the wild’ (as linguists like to say), it lives on in a mythological ‘New York City of the mind’.

Another feature of New York speech, one that survives today, though it’s weakening, is the dropping of r after a vowel in words like ‘four’ (foah), ‘park’ (pahk) and ‘never’ (nevuh). This was also considered a prestige pronunciation in the early 1900s, White says, not just in New York City but in much of New England and the South as well, where it was valued for its resemblance to cultivated British speech. Until sometime in the 1950s, in fact, it was considered part of what elocutionists used to call ‘General American’. It was taught, the author writes, not only to schoolchildren on the East Coast, but also to aspiring actors, public speakers and social climbers nationwide. But here, too, change lay ahead.

While r-dropping is still heard in New York, Boston and pockets along the Eastern Seaboard, it has all but vanished in the South and was never adopted in the rest of the United States. Here the author deftly unravels an intriguing mystery: why the most important city in the nation, its centre of cultural and economic power, does not provide, as is the case with other countries, the standard model for its speech.

To begin with, White reminds us, the original Americans always pronounced r, as the British did in colonial times. Only in the late 18th century did the British stop pronouncing r after a vowel. Not surprisingly, the colonists who remained in the big East Coast seaports and had regular contact with London adopted the new British pronunciation. But those who settled inland retained the old r and never lost it. (As White says, this means that Shakespeare’s accent was probably more like standard American today than Received Pronunciation.)

Posh eastern universities also helped to turn the nation’s accent westward. Towards the end of the First World War, White says, Ivy League schools fretted that swelling numbers of Jewish students, admitted on merit alone, would discourage enrolment from the Protestant upper class. Admissions practices changed. In the 1920s, elite schools began to recruit students from outside New York’s orbit and to ask searching questions about race, religion, colour and heritage. The result, White says, was that upper-crust institutions ‘shifted their preference for prestige pronunciation toward the “purer” regions of the West and the Midwest, where Protestants of “Nordic” descent were more likely to live’. Thus notions about what constituted ‘educated’ American speech gradually shifted.

Another influence, the author writes, was the Midwestern-sounding radio and television ‘network English’ that was inspired by the Second World War reporting of Edward R Murrow and the ‘Murrow Boys’ he recruited to CBS from the nation’s interior. Murrow’s eloquent, authoritative reports, heard by millions, influenced generations of broadcasters, including Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and Dan Rather, who didn’t try to sound like they had grown up on the Eastern Seaboard. The voice of the Midwest became the voice of America.

This book takes in a lot of territory, all solidly researched and footnoted. But dry? Fuhgeddaboutit. White is particularly entertaining when she discusses underworld slang from the city’s ‘sensitive lines of business’ and she’s also good on song lyrics, from Tin Pan Alley days to hip-hop. She dwells lovingly on the ‘sharp, smart, swift, and sure’ lyrics of the golden age of American popular music – roughly, the first half of the 20th century. It was a time when New York lyricists, nearly all of them Jewish, preserved in the American Songbook not only the vernacular of the Lower East Side but also the colloquialisms of Harlem and the snappy patois of advertising.

You Talkin’ to Me? is engrossing and often funny. In dissecting the exaggerated New York accents of Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, White observes that ‘Bugs even wielded his carrot like Groucho’s cigar’. And she says that the word ‘fuck’ is so ubiquitous in Gotham that it has lost its edge, so a New Yorker in need of a blistering insult must look elsewhere. ‘There may be some truth to the old joke that in Los Angeles, people say “Have a nice day” and mean “Fuck off,” while in New York, people say “Fuck off” and mean “Have a nice day.”’

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Let’s confer

Q: I saw a bio on a haiku website that says the subject “was conferred with a certificate for being one of the top 100 haiku poets in Europe.” Why does that use of “confer” sound wrong to me?

A: It sounds off-kilter because “confer” in the sense of to give or to present is a transitive verb (that is, it needs a direct object), and the proper object here is the thing given. You confer a certificate on someone or a certificate is conferred on someone.

The  verb “confer” has two very different meanings: (1) to give or present, which is the sense we’re talking about, and (2) to speak together, as in having a conference. The first is transitive and requires a direct object; the second is intransitive and never has an object.

This sentence illustrates both uses: “The trustees, after conferring on Monday, voted to confer three honorary degrees next May.”

Both senses of “confer” came into English in the 16th century and are derived from the same Latin verb, conferre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Latin verb, combining con– (together) and ferre (to bear or bring), also has two meanings: (1) to give or bestow, and (2) to bring together, join, gather, consult together, and so on.

When “confer” first came into English in the early 1500s, it had some meanings that have since disappeared—to collect, to comprise, to compare, and others. Today, the verb has only those two meanings mentioned above—to give, and to speak together.

The “confer” that you’re asking about is defined in the OED as “to give, grant, bestow, as a grace, or as the act of a qualified superior.” And there’s always an object—the gift or honor that’s being given.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1570 act of Parliament in England: “No Title to conferr or present by Lapse, shall accrue upon any Depryvation ipso facto” (Act 13 of the Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I).

These are among the dictionary’s later examples, and we’ll underline the objects of the verb: “Sacraments containe and conferre grace” (before 1600); “honour thus conferr’d” (1633); “favour you are then conferring” (1716-17); “conferring degrees in all faculties” (1725); “title … which the king is pleased to confer” (1765-69); “benefits conferred” (1858); “degrees were then conferred” (1891).

And in these examples, an honor is conferred “on” or “upon” a recipient, and again we’ll underline the object: “Power conferred on them” (1651); “the favour he had conferred upon him” (1841); “the great benefits we confer on them” (1861).

Oxford notes the similar use of “bestow” in the sense of “to confer as a gift, present, give,” a usage that also dates from the 16th century. In this sense “bestow,” like “confer,” is transitive, and the object of the verb is the thing bestowed.

This is among the dictionary’s later examples: “He bestowed on him a pension of a hundred crowns a year.” From A Short History of the English People (1874), by John Richard Green.

The other “confer”—the one that does not take an object—is defined in the OED as “to converse, talk together.” In modern use, the dictionary says, the verb always implies “on an important subject, or on some stated question: to hold conference, take counsel, consult.”

The OED’s citations date from the mid-16th century and include this cozy domestic example from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (early 1590s): “They sit conferring by the Parler fire.” So in early use, to “confer” could mean simply to chat or gossip.

This 18th-century example illustrates the modern use of the verb: “A certain number … should meet, in order to confer upon the points in dispute.” From The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), by William Robertson.

That example raises a point we’d like to make. When you’re wondering whether a verb is transitive or intransitive—that is, whether it does or does not require an object—don’t be misled by prepositional phrases. In that example, “confer” is followed by a prepositional phrase, “upon the points in dispute.” But “points in dispute” is not the object of “confer.”

In fact, “confer” in that sentence has no object, and the prepositional phrase there could just as well be omitted—grammatically, it’s unnecessary.

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What’s a mook?

Q: There’s a poolroom scene in the film Mean Streets that revolves around someone being called a “mook.” I can’t find the word in my dictionary. Where does it come from? Did Martin Scorsese invent it?

A: In that scene from Mean Streets, one character calls another a “mook” and nobody in the pool hall knows what it means. Jimmy, the target of the insult, is baffled: “A mook. I’m a mook,” he says. Pause. “What’s a mook?” Movie fans have wondered too.

But contrary to legend, Scorsese didn’t make it up. “Mook,” a term that’s more or less synonymous with “jerk” or “dope,” is at least 90 years old and may come from a 19th-century word for a donkey. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

“The term was undoubtedly popularized both in the United States and elsewhere by its use in the film Mean Streets (1973), directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese. The fact that, in the context of the script, the word is unfamiliar to most of the protagonists has led viewers to believe (wrongly) that the word was coined there.”

The OED has examples of “mook” dating from 1930 and defines it this way: “An incompetent or stupid person; a contemptible person (esp. with reference to low social status).” Oxford labels it a “colloquial and derogatory” term found in American and Caribbean English.

The word is also found, with similar definitions, in leading slang dictionaries. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says a “mook” is “an ineffectual, foolish, or contemptible person.” And Green’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as “a general term of abuse, a foolish person.”

All three dictionaries cite a humor piece by S. J. Perelman for the earliest known example: “Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.” From the Feb. 1, 1930, issue of Judge, a satirical weekly published in New York.

The OED’s later examples include one from the Yale Alumni Magazine: “This type of student, rigorously following a daily assignment schedule and graphing his grades on the wall, is a never common but somewhat frequent phenomenon. The ‘grind,’ ‘mook,’ or ‘weenie’ superficially seems to satisfy the demands of Yale, but in many ways he is not alive to the spirit of the place” (Jan. 21, 1958).

Oxford also cites Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (1996), which spells the word as “mook” or “mouk” and defines it as “a gullible person (esp. a man); one who is easily fooled.” Allsopp says the word is found in Guyana, Tobago, and Trinidad.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “mook” is “of uncertain origin” but “perhaps” comes from “moke,” a 19th-century colloquialism that first meant a donkey and soon came to mean a dolt or a fool. (Random House also calls “mook” a probable alteration of “moke.”)

The donkey sense of “moke” first appeared in British slang. Oxford’s earliest example (spelled “moak”) is from a report on crime and policing that was presented to the House of Lords in 1839. The report, entitled Poverty, Mendicity and Crime, includes a glossary with this definition: “Moak, a donkey.” (The report was written by William Augustus Miles, who served on a royal commission that investigated the need for a rural constabulary in England.)

All of the OED’s subsequent donkey examples use the more common spelling “moke,” beginning with this one:

“They might live like gods, have infinite smokes, / Drink infinite rum, drive infinite mokes.” Slang words are italicized in the poem, written in June 1848 by the sculptor John Lucas Tupper. It was published anonymously in the literary journal Art and Poetry, London, March 1850.

Soon “moke” began appearing “in extended use,” as the OED says, to mean “a person who is stupid, awkward, or incompetent; a dolt, a fool.”

This new sense of “moke” was first recorded in writing, the dictionary says, by the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “He has an irreconcilable grudge against a poor moke of a fellow called Archer Gurney.” From a letter Rossetti wrote on Nov. 25, 1855. (The “he” referred to is Tennyson.)

It’s interesting that those last two “moke” citations—one for a donkey and one for a fool—have a connection. Tupper and Rossetti were friends and members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, a group of young artists, poets, and writers who admired Italian art of the 1400s (the “Quattrocento”) and denounced Raphael and his followers.

It was the Pre-Raphaelites who founded the short-lived journal mentioned above, Art and Poetry, whose contributions were unsigned and often satirical. It’s easy to imagine the banter that must have gone on at editorial meetings. Perhaps the Pre-Raphaelites were responsible for the doltish development of “moke” and indirectly for its apparent successor, “mook.”

From the drawing rooms of 1850s London to the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy. Why not?

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Black sheep

Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.

A: We haven’t found any evidence of “black sheep” used as a weaving term, either before or after the phrase came to mean a disreputable member of a group.

In fact, today the undyed wool of so-called “black sheep” (they actually come in various shades of black, brown, and gray) is prized for its beauty and its natural qualities.

However, in earlier times the difficulty of dyeing their wool may have contributed to the “disreputable” usage, along with a biblical reference to black sheep and a negative sense of “black” that dates from Anglo-Saxon days.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:

“Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.” From The Sincere Convert (1640), by Thomas Shepard, an English-born minister of the First Church in Cambridge, MA, and of Harvard College.

We’ve seen several earlier examples of “black sheep” used negatively, though not quite so strongly. An anonymous satirical ballad believed written in the 16th century, for example, uses the term to attack mendicant friars.

Here’s the refrain: “The blacke shepe is a perylous beast; / Cuius contrarium falsum est.” (The Latin means “Which nobody can deny.”)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the negative use of “black sheep” may originally have alluded to passages in English or German translations of Genesis in the 16th century.

It describes the usage as “perhaps originally with allusion to Genesis 30:32, where Jacob selects ‘all blacke shepe amonge the lambes’ ” (from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English translation of the Bible), or perhaps after the German “alles, was schwartz ist vnter den lemmern” (from Martin Luther’s earliest draft of the passage in 1523), or “alle schwartze schafe [vnter den lemmern]” in Luther’s final 1545 German Bible. We added the bracketed German.

The passage from Genesis refers to Jacob’s offer to care for Laban’s flock of sheep if he can keep all the black and spotted lambs as payment. Laban accepts, apparently believing black sheep to be less valuable than white. The passage is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. The King James Version, for example, has it as “all the brown cattle among the sheep.” (“Cattle” was once a collective term for cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and other domestic animals.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed., 2013), by Christine Ammer, suggests that the use of “black sheep” for a disreputable person “is based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”

Writers have commented since classical times on the difficulty of dyeing the wool of black sheep (a more accurate description might be dark sheep).

The earliest remark we’ve seen on the subject is from Historiae Naturalis, an encyclopedic work by the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “lana ovis nigrae, cui nullus alius color incursaverit” (“black sheep whose wool will be dyed no other color”).

Pliny’s work was well known among English scholars. A 17th-century dictionary of English and Latin terms, for example, translates the passage above as “the wool of a black sheep mixed with no other colour” (A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts, 1678, by Francis Gouldman).

Among the various theories about how “black sheep” became a negative term, the pejorative use of the word “black” in English may have played a significant role.

As we’ve said, “black” has had negative connotations since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage that the OED describes as “widespread in other European languages, frequently in an antonymic relationship with senses of words meanings ‘white.’ ”

The dictionary says this usage “became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition” and would “proliferate in the early modern period … probably connected in part with negative cultural attitudes towards black people prevalent in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.”

As we say in a 2009 post (“The light and dark of language”), the word “black” may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. A prehistoric Indo-European root has been reconstructed as bhleg (“burn”).

In Old English, the adjective “black” could mean “very evil or wicked; iniquitous; foul, hateful,” according to the dictionary. The earliest Oxford citation is from a scientific and theological treatise written by a Benedictine cleric in the late 10th century:

“Hig ne þicgeað þæs lambes flæsc þe soð Crist ys, ac þæs dracan þe wæs geseald þam blacan folce to mete, þæt ys þam synfullum” (“they [the faithless] don’t partake of the flesh of the lamb, the truth of Christ, but the Devil was given to provide for those black people that are sinners”). From the Enchiridion (Manual) of Byrhtferð, a monk and priest at  Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire.

Finally, here’s a Middle English example, which we’ve expanded, that uses “black flocks” (“blake flokkes”) much as “black sheep” was later used:

“Whanne þe Romayns were a goo, þanne breke out blake flokkes of Scottes and of Pictes, as wormes brekep out of here holes aʒeinst þe hete of þe  sonne” (“When the Romans were gone, then the black flocks of Scotts and Picts broke out, as snakes break out of their holes anticipating the heat of the sun”). From Polychronicon, John Trevisa’s translation, written sometime before 1387, of a 14th-century Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden.

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On the ‘ob-’ in ‘oblong’

Q: I studied Latin in school decades ago, but I don’t remember the prefix “ob-.” It came up in connection with the word “oblong.” In searching online, “ob-” has a lot of meanings, as is usual with Latin prefixes. Can you clarify how it’s used in referring to an oblong shape?

A: The word “oblong” comes from oblongus, classical Latin for elongated. It combines the prefix ob-, which has a couple of possible meanings here, and the adjective longus, or long. An ancient Roman would have used oblongus to describe something that’s greater in length than in width.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the ob- in oblongus is being used “perhaps in the sense of to or toward but also functioning as an intensive.” However, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The exact force of the prefix in oblongus is unclear: there is no analogous word in Latin.”

As the OED explains, oblongus is an oddball in Latin, where ob- usually combines with verbs and their derivatives. It says the prefix “was rarely combined with an adjective (the chief example being oblongus).”

The prefix is also easy to miss, since its form can change to match the first letter of a combining word. It’s oc- before verbs and derivatives with c as the first letter, of- before f, and op- before p.

The prefix has many meanings in Latin, all of them seen in English. Here are a few: to or toward (as in oboedire, to listen to or obey); against (opponere, to oppose or be against); upon or down (obligare, to bind down); and as an intensifier (obdurare, to harden or persist).

When “oblong” appeared in English in the early 15th century, the OED says, it meant “elongated (usually as a deviation from an exact square or circular form); esp. rectangular with the adjacent sides unequal.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an anonymous Middle English translation of Grande Chirurgie, a 14th-century medical treatise by the French surgeon Guy de Chauliac:

“Somtyme forsoþ it ocupieþ not bot o partie, and þan þingez semeþ of diuerse fourmez, lunarez, i. mone lich, fenestrate & oblonge” (“Sometimes forsooth it [a cataract] occupies not but a part, and then we see things in diverse forms—crescent-shaped, moonlike, fenestrated [with a window-like opening], & oblong”).

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What’s news?

Q: The word “news” looks plural but acts singular. Why is it singular? Was it ever plural?

A: Despite the “s” at the end, “news” is singular in modern English. That’s why we say “The news is good,” not “The news are good.”

Standard dictionaries all treat “news” as a mass (or uncountable) noun that’s used with a singular verb.

Merriam-Webster, for instance, labels the word “plural in form but singular in construction.” Cambridge calls it “an uncountable noun” that “takes a singular verb.” And according to Macmillan, “it is never used in the plural.”

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says “news” and other mass nouns “look plural but are invariably singular.” Examples include “the news is good” and “good news is always welcome.”

But “news” wasn’t always regarded as invariably singular. We’re fans of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, and we’ve noticed that he uses “news” sometimes as a plural and sometimes as a singular:

“The news was soon all about London” (The Eustace Diamonds, 1871); “when the news were first told to Lady Ushant” (The American Senator, 1875).

In fact, when “news” first appeared in the early 1400s, it was exclusively plural. And though the singular use became established only a century later, the plural use persisted in respectable English until well into the 19th century. Here’s the story.

Since early Old English, “new” has been used as both an adjective (meaning recent) and as a noun for a new person or thing (a usage that survives in expressions like “the shock of the new” and “off with the old, on with the new”).

This ancient word was inherited from other Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

But the “news” we’re talking about, as the dictionary explains, was “formed within English” and modeled after the French word nouvelles (new things).

Here’s how “news” is defined in the OED: “The report or account of recent (esp. important or interesting) events or occurrences, brought or coming to one as new information; new occurrences as a subject of report or talk; tidings.”

As we mentioned, the word was originally treated as a plural. The OED’s earliest plural example, a reference to “gracious and joyous newes,” is from an elaborately courtly letter written in 1417 to King Henry V by his Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The phrase cited has a distant plural antecedent.

However, these later OED citations more clearly demonstrate the plural use: “the newes of the seid Lord Malpertuis, which ben [be] these” (1489); “troubled with those newes” (1523); “These newes were sodainly [suddenly] spred” (1581); “these glad newes” (1621); “amazing News of Charles at once were spread” (1685); “all News that come hither” (1717); “news of your health are still worse” (1776); “There are bad news from Palermo” (1820); “There are never any news” (1846).

This plural use of “news,” the OED says, is “now archaic” and is found only in Indian English.

The dictionary includes this modern Indian example: “My news are good.” From Indian and British English, a 1979 handbook by Paroo Nihalani et al. (The same handbook is also cited for the use of “news” as a count noun meaning “a piece or item of news,” a usage the OED says is now found chiefly in Caribbean and Indian English. The quotation: “This is a good news.”)

It’s interesting that during much of the time that “news” appeared in the plural (as in “news are”), it was also appearing in the singular (“news is”), a usage that dates from the early 1500s and gradually became dominant.

The OED’s first citation for the singular use is from a letter written in 1532: “news occurraunt in theis partes sence my lait lettres hir is noon [none].” Published in Letters of the Cliffords (1992), edited by R. W. Hoyle.

The dictionary’s later examples of the singular construction include these: “ye newes therof was brought” (possibly 1566); “When Newes is printed” (1631); “there is no News” (1664); “The stocks are as the news is” (1711); “the news was fresh” (1785); “Was there any news?” (1828); “The next news was …” (1897). Singular examples continue up to the present.

Why has the singular usage emerged as standard while the plural has become archaic? This may be because, as the OED says, the singular use today has a wider meaning. Besides just “tidings” or accounts “brought or coming to one as new information,” it also means “now esp. such information as published or broadcast.”

This is particularly apparent in one of the dictionary’s later examples, from a book of political humor: “Most news about government sounds as if it were federally mandated” (Parliament of Whores, by P. J. O’Rourke, 1992).

Media-related uses of “news” proliferated in the 20th century. During World War I, according to OED citations, a usage emerged in which “a person, thing, or place regarded as worthy of discussion or of reporting by the media” was said to be “news.”

The first citation is from “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat,” a short story by Rudward Kipling published in 1917: “The great Baron Reuter himself … flashed that letter in full to the front, back, and both wings of this scene of our labours. For Huckley [the village] was News.”

And beginning in the early 1920s, people began using “the news” (the OED says “the” is usually included) to mean a newsreel or a news-related radio or television broadcast. Many familiar phrases emerged too, including these from the 1930s: “news coverage,” “news media,” and “news conference.”

Of course we can’t forget the “good news … bad news” formula, which is sometimes the setup for a joke. Oxford says it’s used in “expressing an unfortunate or undesirable downside to an otherwise welcome development or state of affairs.”

The OED’s examples begin in the 1950s, but last year the language researcher Stephen Goranson reported a much earlier example to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. It appeared in a humorous anecdote, headlined “A Colloquy,” in the Nov. 3, 1871, issue of the New-Orleans-Republic:

Shortly after it became known that Hon. Thomas W. Conway … was attacked with yellow fever, one prominent citizen said to another whom he met:

“I have some good news to tell you.”

“What is it?” …

“It is that Conway … is very sick with yellow fever.”

The second party then said in rejoinder: “I have some bad news to tell you.”

“What is that?”

“It is that Dr. Holcombe is attending Conway, and he is going to get him well.”

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Lex education

Q: I recently received a list of the finalists in a wordplay contest for lexophiles. The winner: “Those who get too big for their pants will be totally exposed in the end.” So, what can you say about the term “lexophile”? I love a clever turn of aphasia.

A: That wordplay list, which has been making the rounds online, purports to be from an annual New York Times lexophile contest. As far as we know, the Times has never had such a contest. In fact, we couldn’t find the word “lexophile” in a search of the newspaper’s archive.

We also couldn’t find “lexophile” in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. However, we did find it in two collaborative references, the often helpful Wiktionary and the idiosyncratic Urban Dictionary.

Wiktionary defines “lexophile” as “a lover of words, especially in word games, puzzles, anagrams, palindromes, etc.” The elements are Greek: “lex-” from λέξις (lexis, word), and “-phile” from ϕίλος (philos, loving).

One contributor to Urban Dictionary defines “lexophile” as “a lover of cryptic words,” while another defines “lexiphile” as “a word used to describe those that have a love for words.”

A more common noun for a word lover, “logophile,” is found in eight standard dictionaries as well as the OED, which is an etymological dictionary. The element “log-” is from the Greek λόγος (logos, word); both logos and lexis are derived from λέγειν (legein, to speak).

The earliest OED citation for “logophile” is from the Feb. 1, 1959, issue of the Sunday Times (London): “We are pretty sure that since all Sunday Times readers are natural and inveterate logophiles … he [the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield] will get some invaluable assistance.”

We’ve found an earlier example for “logophile” in a California newspaper, but the term was used to mean someone who loves to talk, not someone who loves words: “One who loves to talk, but does not carry it to the point of mania, is a logophile, pronounced: LOG-uh-file” (San Bernardino Sun, Jan. 17, 1951).

Interestingly, the noun logophile appeared in French in the mid-19th century with a similar voluble sense. Dictionnaire National ou Dictionnaire Universel de la Langue Française (1850), by Louis-Nicolas Bescherelle, defines a logophile as “Qui aime à parler, à faire de longs discours.”

Merriam-Webster says the first known use of “logophile” in English was in 1923, but it doesn’t include a citation. We haven’t been able to find any examples earlier than the mid-20th century.

As for your “clever turn of aphasia,” the less said the better.

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How a poke became a pocket

Q: I’ve read that a pocket was originally a small bag tied around the waist. Is this true?

A: Yes, etymologically “pocket” is a small bag. It originated as the diminutive of “poke,” an old term for a bag. And, yes, “pockets” were once tied around the outside of garments, not sewn in or on them.

The word “poke” showed up in English in the late 13th century, perhaps borrowed from or influenced by similar words in Anglo-Norman, Old French, or Old Dutch, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes a possible sighting from the early 13th century, but its first definite example is from an anonymous Middle English romance written at the end of the century: “Hise pokes fulle of mele an korn.” From The Lay of Havelok the Dane (1280-90), edited by Walter William Skeat in 1868 for the Early English Text Society.

The use of “poke” in this sense survives today in the expression “to buy pig in a poke” (to buy something sight unseen, as if in a bag), first recorded in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Ye loue not to bye the pyg in the poke.” From A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood.

The diminutive form, “pocket,” appeared in Middle English writing in the 14th century, borrowed from the Anglo-Norman term for a little bag (spelled poket, pokete, or pochete). In English it originally had a similar sense (little bag), and was sometimes used as a measure of quantity in agriculture. In the 13th century, according to the OED, a “pocket” of wool was a quarter of a “sack,”

The first OED citation for “pocket” (which we’ll expand here) is from a list, dated 1350, of supplies used for maintaining the old London Bridge: “Also, in the Chapel there, in a pokete, 2500 of wyndounail [window nail], at 2s.6d the thousand, 6s.6d.” From Memorials of London and London Life (1868), edited by Henry Thomas Riley.

In the 15th century, the dictionary says, the noun “pocket” came to mean “any small bag or pouch worn on a person.” The earliest citation is from “The Mirror of the Periods of Man’s Life” (circa 1450), a hymn about the rivalry between virtue and vice for the soul of man:

“ ‘Apparaile þe propirli,’ quod Pride, ‘Loke þi pockettis passe þe lengist gise’ ” (“ ‘Apparel thee properly,’ quoth Pride. ‘Look that thy pockets surpass the latest style’ ”). Published in Hymns to the Virgin & Christ (1867), edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.

At first, tie-on pockets were worn outside the clothing of both men and women. But in the 16th century, the pockets began to be concealed, stitched into men’s clothes and worn under the skirts or petticoats of women’s clothes. Women could reach their pockets through slits hidden in the seams or pleats of their skirts.

We’ve found several references in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I for pockets sewn into the clothes of male servants.

In 1575, for example, “a litle blak a More” (an African) was made “a peire of gaskens” (similar to leggings but baggy at the top) with “pockettes of fustian.” And in 1578, the 3-year-old son of a servant was made “a gowne of carnacion satten” with “pockettes of fustian.” (We wrote about “fustian” in 2018.)

The fashion historian Rebecca Unsworth notes that “the fullness of sixteenth-century dress for both men and women gave ample opportunities for the inclusion and concealment of pocket bags without unsightly bulges.” But a century earlier, “the narrower medieval silhouette” would have “restricted the placement of pockets in clothing.”

By the same reasoning, Unsworth writes, the use of tie-on pockets under women’s dresses “fell out of fashion with the adoption of the slender profile and gauzy fabrics of neo-classical dress at the end of the eighteenth century.”

Her article, “Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women’s Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630,” published in the journal Costume (September 2017), has many illustrations of the different pockets used with men’s and women’s clothing during the period.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an online essay, “A History of Pockets,” that includes many illustrations of the various pockets used by men and women from the 17th to the late 19th century. Three images show a Lady Claphan doll from the 1690s in various stages of dress: fully clothed, in her shift, and in her under-petticoat with pockets tied around the waist.

In the 1790s, women began to wear tie-on pockets outside their dresses again, as in the 15th century, or they carried reticules, decorative bags hung over the arm. But in the 19th century, sewn-in pockets began replacing the tie-ons, which were easy prey for pickpockets.

We’ll end with a 19th-century nursery rhyme about a missing pocket:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.

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Henchmen and minions

Q: Have the terms “henchmen” and “minions” always been pejorative, as they seem to be now?

A: No, when “henchmen” and “minions” first came into English, they weren’t pejorative.

In the 14th century, a “henchman” was a highly ranked attendant who waited on royalty or noblemen on ceremonial occasions. And in the 15th, a “minion” was the esteemed favorite of a monarch or other powerful patron.

Eventually, of course, both took on negative connotations in Modern English, “henchman” more so than “minion.”

Today a “henchman” is one who unquestioningly, even violently, acts on behalf of a perhaps corrupt master. And because a king’s “minion” was usually male, “minion” in early times was sometimes used contemptuously to imply a pampered sexual pet; it later came to mean a servile or fawning subordinate.

So both words have come a long way. Here’s a closer look at their histories.

Etymologically, “henchman” is “horseman” (the “hench” part comes from hengest, Old English for a male horse). Spelled “henxstman” in Middle English, it was first recorded in the English royal wardrobe accounts for 1377-80, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A wardrobe item describes livery for one “Hans Wynsele, henxstman.” (Hans Wynsele was probably an attendant to King Edward III, whose reign was 1327-77, or his grandson King Richard II, 1377-99.)

However, since “henchman” is a native English word (Old English hengest + man), it probably was current before the late 1370s. As the OED says, the word was documented earlier in medieval Latin and Anglo-Norman forms that had been borrowed from English: Latin hengsmannus (1345-49), hengestmannus (1360), and Anglo-Norman henxtemen (plural, circa 1370).

The original “henchman,” the dictionary says, was “a high-ranking male servant with the role of attendant or page of honour to a monarch, nobleman, dignitary, etc., esp. one employed to accompany that person when riding in processions, progresses, marches, etc.”

Why would a ceremonial attendant have a title that implies a servant who tends horses?

“Although there appears to be no explicit evidence that the office of henchman involved duties relating to horses,” the OED explains, “the royal henchmen are listed as being under the command of the Master of the King’s Horse in the earliest documentary source for the word.”

The dictionary adds that “groom” and “marshal,” terms for two other “positions of honour in the royal household,” both originally denoted “servants employed to tend horses.”

The OED notes that early henchmen were apparently considered high-ranking servants, while those of the later 1400s and 1500s “were typically the sons of noblemen seeking an education in courtly manners.”

The office of royal “henchman” was abolished by Elizabeth I in the 1560s, but the title survived outside royal households. As the OED says, a “henchman” in later use meant “a liveried page or footman who walks alongside the horse of a Lord Mayor, sheriff, etc., in ceremonial processions.”

Pejorative senses of “henchman” began emerging in the 19th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “a devoted or zealous (male) political supporter, a partisan,” or “a person (usually a man) engaged by a politician to further his or her interests by corrupt or unscrupulous means.”

The earliest use of this sense, the OED says, was recorded in the Times (London) on April 3, 1835: “The moment the Government came into power they allied themselves with the most bitter enemies of those feelings; they placed their henchmen at the head of the state, and they crammed their Privy Council with them.”

An even more negative sense appeared in the US in the early 20th century, the dictionary says: “A male subordinate to a criminal or villain, esp. one who obeys his leader unquestioningly and is prepared to engage in violence or crime on his behalf; an accomplice, heavy, or sidekick.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an American journal: “Strangely enough, Paul Kelly has no police record—he always delegates his duties to a henchman” (Public Opinion, Dec. 5, 1905).

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper: “Demented supervillain The Joker … conducts his reign of terror flanked by trusty henchmen” (Lichfield Mercury, Aug. 4, 2016).

As for “minion,” it showed up later than “henchman” but took much less time to develop negative connotations.

It was first recorded in a 15th-century comic song satirizing the costumes of servants, who often were dressed better than their masters: “Off servyng men I wyll begyne … For they goo mynyon trym.”

The expression “go minion trim” in that song meant to dress like a minion, defined at that time, the OED says, as “a (usually male) favourite of a sovereign, prince, or other powerful person; a person who is dependent on a patron’s favour.”

The word was adopted from the Middle French mignon (darling). At the time “minion” entered English, mignon was used in France as a noun for “a king’s favourite,” as “a term of endearment,” and as an adjective meaning “pretty, delicate, graceful,” according to the dictionary’s etymological notes.

But as the OED says, the English “minion” could also be used for a simple “hanger-on.” So it’s not surprising that very soon “minion” became a pejorative word.

For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was sometimes used “with contemptuous suggestion of homosexual relations,” according to Oxford. Here are some examples:

“So are the hartes of our popishe protestauntes … hardened … in that they looke yea go backe agayne to theyr sodomiticall minion.” From The Hurte of Hering [Hearing] Masse, by the Protestant martyr John Bradford, written in the early 1550s.

“The king is loue-sick [lovesick] for his minion.” From Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, written sometime before 1593. (Some historians have suggested that Edward II had a homosexual relationship with his “favorite,” Piers Gaveston, whom he made 1st Earl of Cornwall.)

As the OED says, in later use the connotation of “favored” disappeared and “minion” arrived at its modern meaning: “a follower or underling, esp. one who is servile or unimportant.”

Oxford has this late 19th-century example: “It is no wonder if he helps himself from the city treasury and allows his minions to do so.” From a description of a “city boss” in The American Commonwealth (1888), by James Bryce, a Scottish viscount who taught civil law at Oxford.

And this citation was recorded a century later in the British magazine Q (October 1987): “Our first glimpse is an overhead shot of him being shaved and manicured, joking genially with pressmen while his minions fawn around him.”

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On ‘capitulate’ and ‘recapitulate’

Q: As much as I dislike the overuse of the phrase, I had a “Wait, what?” moment this morning when I realized that “capitulate” means to yield, so “recapitulate” should mean to yield again, but it doesn’t. How did this happen?

A: When the two words showed up in mid-16th century writing, the usual meaning of “capitulate” was to draw up an agreement or a statement, and the usual sense of “recapitulate” was to summarize the main points of such an understanding.

The two verbs ultimately come from the classical Latin caput (head) and capitulum (little head). In medieval Latin, a capitulum could mean the heading on a major section or chapter of a document, as well as the chapter itself, while capitulare meant to arrange sections of text under separate headings. The Latin usage is the source of our word “chapter.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this early sense of “capitulate” as to “draw up articles of agreement; to propose terms; to treat, parley, negotiate; to stipulate; to come to terms, to agree. Now archaic.”

The first OED example is from a 16th-century translation of Thucyides’ history of the Peloponnesian War: “They determyned … to capitulate and conferre wyth them touchynge the estate of the cytie.” From Thomas Nicolls’s 1550 translation of the Greek historian’s account of the war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC.

The dictionary defines the early use of “recapitulate” this way: “To go through or repeat again, usually in a more concise manner; to go over the main points or substance of (an argument, statement, etc.); to summarize, restate briefly.” (A slightly earlier sense, primarily in reference to Jesus, was “to gather or bring together; to sum up or unite in one.”)

The first Oxford example of “recapitulate” in its summarize sense is from The Spider and the Flie, a 1556 allegorical poem by John Heywood about a clash between Protestant spiders and Roman Catholic flies:

“The flie (after a fewe woordes concerninge appeale) doeth brefely recapitulate theffect passed in the principall case.” Heywood, a devoted Catholic who supported the religious beliefs of Queen Mary, dedicated the 556-page illustrated poem to her.

In the early 17th century, “capitulate” came to mean to surrender, a not surprising evolution from its original sense of drawing up an agreement or negotiating terms. The first OED citation is from the official account, ordered by Queen Elizabeth I, of the trial and execution of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex:

“Hee would not capitulate, but intreat, and made three petitions.” From A Declaration of the Practises & Treasons Attempted and Committed by Robert Late Earle of Essex and His Complices, Against Her Maiestie and Her Kingdoms (1601), by Francis Bacon. Lord Essex was a one-time favorite of Elizabeth and supporter of Bacon.

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