The Grammarphobia Blog

When verb forms are the object

Q: In my ESL class, I wrote the following sentence: “I was sick yesterday, so all I did was resting at home.” My teacher said I should have written “rest,” not “resting,” but he couldn’t give a grammatical explanation. He said his native ear informed him. Was he correct?

A: Your teacher was right. That construction calls for an infinitive, “rest,” as a direct object, not a gerund.

He was also right in saying that there’s no good explanation why some verbs take a gerund as a direct object, some take an infinitive, and some take both, as we wrote on our blog in 2010 and 2014. The only way to know which take what is through experience.

As you already know, an infinitive is the bare form of a verb (like “rest”), while a gerund is the infinitive plus “-ing” (“resting”).

Because infinitives and gerunds can act as nouns, they can be the direct objects of verbs. Some verbs (“learn,” “like,” and “prefer,” among others) can have both infinitives and gerunds as direct objects.

For instance, one can say either “I learned to knit” (infinitive) or “I learned knitting” (gerund) … “I like to read” or “I like reading” …  “I prefer to rest at home” or “I prefer resting at home.”

But other verbs—“decide” and “finish” are examples—take either one or the other: “She decided to go” (not “She decided going”) … “He finished dressing” (not “He finished to dress”).

When the verb is a form of “to be,” the story varies. Sometimes the direct object is an infinitive, sometimes a gerund, and sometimes they’re interchangeable.

For example, we say, “What he did was walk” (bare infinitive), not “What he did was walking.” But we also say, “His hobby is skiing,” not “His hobby is to ski.” And we can say either “Her passion is vacationing in Tahiti” or “Her passion is to vacation in Tahiti.”

So the verb “to be” is unpredictable, which is why that sentence was mysterious to you and why even linguists have never cracked the code (if there is one).

In case you’re interested, we wrote posts in 2017 that discussed the use of infinitives versus gerunds after “interested” and after “intend.” You can find other relevant posts by putting the words “infinitive” and “gerund” in the search box of our blog and clicking the magnifying glass.

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Jenny Kiss’d Me

[Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and to mark the occasion we’re republishing a post from July 20, 2012, about a point of grammar in Leigh Hunt’s poem “Jenny Kiss’d Me.”]

Q: I was browsing through a collection of “best loved poems” the other day and came across the charming rondeau “Jenny Kiss’d Me,” a favorite of mine. Once upon a time I even had occasion to memorize it (wrongly as it turns out). Two of its lines are: “Time, you thief, who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in!” I remembered it as “who loves to get,” which sounds better to me. I’m certainly not the one to correct Leigh Hunt, but I would be interested in any comment you might have.

A: You can find published versions of Leigh Hunt’s poem (originally published in the November 1838 issue of the Monthly Chronicle) with either “love” or “loves.” But most of them use the second-person singular “love,” which is appropriate, as we’ll explain.

The earliest version of “Jenny Kiss’d Me” that we could find online was from an 1847 collection of Hunt’s prose writings. In one of the essays, he mentions that a rondeau written by Pope inspired him to write this one of his own:

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.

(We’ve used the punctuation from Hunt’s essay.)

Why does Hunt uses “love,” not “loves,” in his poem? Because the line is addressed to “Time, you thief!” so the second-person verb—the form used with “you”—is correct.

Similar second-person constructions (as in “you who love,” “you who say,” “you who are,” and so on) can be found throughout English literature, whenever the writer addresses a subject referred to subsequently as “who.”

Here’s an example from a sermon by John Wesley: “And as to you who believe yourselves the elect of God, what is your happiness?”

And here’s another, found in a letter written from Italy by Lord Byron in 1819: “All this will appear strange to you, who do not understand the meridian morality, nor our way of life in such respects.”

By analogy, Hunt might have written, “Time! You who love to get / Sweets into your list, put that in.”

Hunt’s poem, commonly known as “Jenny Kiss’d Me,” is actually entitled “Rondeau,” though it’s technically not a rondeau. It has only one stanza and it doesn’t have the typical rhyme scheme of a rondeau. But it does, like a rondeau, begin and end the same way.

Who, you may ask, was Jenny and why did she kiss him? Here’s Hunt’s explanation:

“We must add, lest our egotism should be thought still greater on the occasion than it is, that the lady was a great lover of books and impulsive writers: and that it was our sincerity as one of them which obtained for us this delightful compliment from a young enthusiast to an old one.”

The Carlyle Encyclopedia, edited by Mark Cumming, identifies Jenny as Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the historian Thomas Carlyle. Her nickname was “Jenny,” according to the encyclopedia, and she kissed Hunt on learning that he’d recovered from one of his many illnesses.

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Can an outcome be foregone?

Q: Is it proper to use “foregone” like this: “the outcomes are foregone”? I know the phrase “foregone conclusion” is common, but that doesn’t seem quite the same.

A: Our answer: “Why not?”

As we’ll explain below, people today don’t routinely use “foregone” to modify nouns other than “conclusion.” But nobody would misinterpret the phrase “foregone outcome,” so we see no reason to avoid it.

We’ve written posts about “forego” (to precede or go before) and “forgo” (to do without) on our blog, most recently in 2014. And as we said, the past participles of those verbs—“foregone” and “forgone”—aren’t used much today.

However, the participial adjective “foregone” is still familiar, and we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

He’s credited with coining not only “foregone” but the expression “foregone conclusion,” which means an inevitable result or an opinion already formed. Today, “foregone” in the sense of predictable or predetermined is seldom used apart from this phrase.

Shakespeare was also the first to record “foregone” in a much lesser-known sense: previous or in the past.

The first appearances of “foregone” in each of its two senses are difficult to pin down, since most of Shakespeare’s works were composed several years before they were published.

But it’s likely that he first used “foregone” in referring to times gone by. The Oxford English Dictionary says this sense of the adjective means “that has gone before or gone by; (of time) past.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from Sonnet 30, the familiar poem that begins “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”

The poem, probably written sometime between 1595 and 1600, includes the line “Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon”—that is, “grieve at grievances foregone,” or past sorrows.

In subsequent OED examples, the adjective appears in phrases like “foregone ills” (past sufferings, 1656), “foregone authority of law” (legal precedent, 1794), “the foregone meal” (a reference to leftovers, 1824), and “lives foregone” (the dead, 1870).

Though standard dictionaries still include this meaning of “foregone,” at least one, Oxford Dictionaries Online, labels it archaic.

The other sense of “foregone”—preconceived or predictable—is also seldom used, except with “conclusion.”  The OED’s first example of “foregone conclusion” is from Othello, believed to have been written around 1603.

Shakespeare uses the expression at a dramatic moment in the play. The scheming Iago tells Othello that he’s heard Cassio, a trusted lieutenant, talking in his sleep about Desdemona, Othello’s wife: “In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hide our loves! … Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!’ ”

When the credulous Othello cries, “O monstrous! Monstrous!” Iago sees that he has achieved his end, and he demurs: “Nay, this was but his dream.” Othello replies, “But this denoted a fore-gone conclusion.”

As the OED says, Shakespeare’s use of “foregone conclusion” has been “variously interpreted by commentators.” The noun “conclusion” has had a variety of meanings over time: a result, experiment, arrangement, or agreement. So Othello may have meant that Cassio’s dream referred to an already accomplished adultery.

The original use is still being debated, but the OED says that today “foregone conclusion” is used for (1) “a decision or opinion already formed before the case is argued or the full evidence known” and (2) “a result or upshot that might have been foreseen as inevitable.”

“Foregone” is occasionally seen modifying words other than “conclusion,” as in this example from the Daily Beast, March 14, 2014: “In his home state, Brian Sandoval is a foregone lock to be reelected governor.” We’ve also found examples of “foregone result” and “foregone outcome.”

Sometimes the word is even used alone, to mean the same thing but in an elliptical manner. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers this usage note:

“The word foregone is occasionally used by itself as a truncation of the phrase a foregone conclusion, as in It is by no means foregone that the team will relocate to Baltimore next season. But the usage has not gained broad acceptance.”

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A new ‘Woe Is I’ for our times

[This week Penguin Random House published a new, fourth edition of Patricia T. O’Conner’s bestselling grammar and usage classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing the Preface to the new edition.]

Some books can’t sit still. They get fidgety and restless, mumbling to themselves and elbowing their authors in the ribs. “It’s that time again,” they say. “I need some attention here.”

Books about English grammar and usage are especially prone to this kind of behavior. They’re never content with the status quo. That’s because English is not a stay-put language. It’s always changing—expanding here, shrinking there, trying on new things, casting off old ones. People no longer say things like “Forsooth, methinks that grog hath given me the flux!” No, time doesn’t stand still and neither does language.

So books about English need to change along with the language and those who use it. Welcome to the fourth edition of Woe Is I.

What’s new? Most of the changes are about individual words and how they’re used. New spellings, pronunciations, and meanings develop over time, and while many of these don’t stick around, some become standard English. This is why your mom’s dictionary, no matter how fat and impressive-looking, is not an adequate guide to standard English today. And this is why I periodically take a fresh look at what “better English” is and isn’t.

The book has been updated from cover to cover, but don’t expect a lot of earthshaking changes in grammar, the foundation of our language. We don’t ditch the fundamentals of grammar and start over every day, or even every generation. The things that make English seem so changeable have more to do with vocabulary and how it’s used than with the underlying grammar.

However, there are occasional shifts in what’s considered grammatically correct, and those are reflected here too. One example is the use of they, them, and their for an unknown somebody-or-other, as in “Somebody forgot their umbrella”—once shunned but now acceptable. Another has to do with which versus that. Then there’s the use of “taller than me” in simple comparisons, instead of the ramrod-stiff “taller than I.” (See Chapters 1, 3, and 11.)

Despite the renovations, the philosophy of Woe Is I remains unchanged. English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. It’s practical, too. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any “rule” of grammar that seems unnatural, or doesn’t make sense, or creates problems instead of solving them, probably isn’t a legitimate rule at all. (Check out Chapter 11.)

And, as the book’s whimsical title hints, it’s possible to be too “correct”— that is, so hung up about correctness that we go too far. While “Woe is I” may appear technically correct (and even that’s a matter of opinion), the lament “Woe is me” has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use “I” instead of “me” here. As you can see, English is nothing if not reasonable.

(To buy Woe Is I, visit your local bookstore or

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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 the new, fourth edition of her bestselling grammar book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

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The raison d’être of raison d’être

Q: My dictionary defines “raison d’être” as “reason for being,” but I frequently see it used as a substitute for “reason.” Is this ever correct?

A: We don’t know of any standard dictionary or usage manual that considers “raison d’être” a synonym for “reason.”

But as you’ve noticed some people do treat it that way, a usage that Henry W. Fowler criticized as far back as 1926 in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. To show “how not to use” the expression, he cites an example in which it means merely a reason: “the raison d’être is obvious.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, one of the nine standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, typically defines “raison d’être” as the “most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence,” and gives this example: “seeking to shock is the catwalk’s raison d’être.”

Some writers italicize “raison d’être,” but we (along with The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.) see no reason to use italics for a term in standard English dictionaries. However, all the dictionaries we’ve seen spell it with a circumflex.

As for the pronunciation, listen to the pronouncer on the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed “raison d’être” from French in the mid-19th century. The expression ultimately comes from the Latin ratiō (reason) and esse (to be).

The earliest citation in the OED is from a March 18, 1864, letter by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Modes of speech which have a real raison d’être.” The latest example is from the October 1995 issue of the British soccer magazine FourFourTwo: “Players, managers and supporters—the people for whom football is their raison d’etre.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s usage manual, notes that since “raison d’être” means a reason for being, not just a reason, “it does not make a great deal of sense to modify it with words such as main, primary, etc.,” as in this example: “The main raison d’être for the ‘new police’ was crime prevention by regular patrol.”

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Why early religions are ‘pagan’

Q: I love reading and watching documentaries about archeology, but not when they belittle the religions of previous civilizations as “pagan.” This gives us airs that we are more civilized than earlier cultures.

A: It’s true that “pagan” is a negative term in that it has always defined people as what they are not, rather than what they are. So it carries a connotation of “not like us.”

The word (both noun and adjective) has been part of English since the 1400s, and historically it’s been used to dismiss or even condemn people.

But today “pagan” has four principal meanings, not all of them derogatory. Here’s what it means in modern English, according to standard dictionaries.

In speaking of past civilizations, “pagan” refers to the polytheistic people and religions of ancient times, before the Judeo-Christian era. This is how archeologists and historians use the term. And in our opinion, this isn’t a demeaning usage—or at least it isn’t labeled as such in standard dictionaries.

In speaking of the present, “pagan” is used for believers and beliefs that fall outside the mainstream religions, as in contemporary Druidism, nature worship, and such (more on this later). That use isn’t considered demeaning either.

However, many dictionaries say that “pagan” is “disparaging,” “derogatory,” or “offensive” when used in reference to contemporaries who are neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim—that is, “heathen” in the missionary’s sense of the word. This use of “pagan,” however, is labeled “dated” or “historical” in some dictionaries.

And “pagan” is derogatory when it refers to someone who behaves in an irreligious, unorthodox, or uncultivated way. As some dictionaries note, this usage can be meant humorously.

Ultimately, of course, any word can be taken amiss, since offense is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. And certainly “pagan” has been used disparagingly in past centuries—especially in Christian religious tracts.

Interestingly, the ancestral roots of “pagan” have nothing to do with religion. The ultimate source of “pagan” is the classical Latin pāgus, meaning a rural district (it’s also the source of “peasant”).

From pāgus were derived the classical Latin noun and adjective pāgānus, which had two meanings to the Romans, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally referred to country dwellers (that is, rustics as opposed to city dwellers), but in later classical Latin it more commonly referred to civilians (as opposed to soldiers).

Religion entered the picture in early Christian times, when pāgānus acquired a new meaning. In post-classical Latin, probably in the fourth century, the OED says it came to mean “heathen, as opposed to Christian or Jewish.”

So how did a word for a rustic or a civilian come to mean a heathen in the later Latin of the early Christian era? The development isn’t clear, but there are competing theories, according to the OED. We’ll condense them here:

(1) The earlier “country dweller” meaning may be responsible, because the towns and cities of the Roman Empire accepted Christianity before the rural villages and hamlets. Or it may be that the “country dweller” meaning was interpreted as “not of the city,” and thus came to mean an outsider.

(2) The later “civilian” meaning may be the key, since “Christians called themselves mīlitēs ‘enrolled soldiers’ of Christ, members of his militant church,” Oxford says. So non-Christians were those “not enrolled in the army.”

The OED doesn’t take sides here, and neither does the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. But John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, comes down on the side of #2. The post-classical sense of pāgānus as a heathen, he says, arose from its “civilian” meaning, “based on the early Christian notion that all members of the church were ‘soldiers’ of Christ.”

Regardless of how its “heathen” sense developed, pāgānus was adopted into English in the early 1400s as “pagan.” This is the OED’s earliest known use of the noun:

“I sall … euer pursue the payganys þat my pople distroyede” (“I shall ever pursue the pagans that destroyed my people”). From a manuscript, dated circa 1440, of Morte Arthure, a medieval poem that was probably composed some time before 1400.

And this is Oxford’s earliest use of the adjective:

“More deppyr in the turmentis of helle shall bene … the crystyn Prynces than the Pagan Pryncis, yf they do not ryght to al men” (“More deeper in the torments of hell shall be … the Christian princes than the pagan princes, if they do not do right by all men”). From a manuscript, dated sometime before 1500, of James Yonge’s 1422 translation of the Secreta Secretorum (“The Secret of Secrets”).

In its entries for “pagan,” the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t differentiate between two of the uses given in standard dictionaries—the neutral, pre-Christian sense used in reference to antiquity, versus the outdated, pejorative use of the term for religions other than one’s own.

This is the OED definition of the noun (the one for the adjective is similar): “A person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society; spec. a heathen, a non-Christian, esp. considered as savage, uncivilized, etc.”

The dictionary says this use of “pagan” is now chiefly historical, meaning that it refers to people and cultures of the past, not the present. Here, for example, is a modern citation:

“Religion helped structure the networks of power that shaped or informed the relationships between pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greek East” (from Douglas R. Edwards’s book Religion and Power, 1996).

However, the OED does have entries for the other two definitions found in standard dictionaries—referring (sometimes humorously) to the uncultivated, and to modern religions that are outside the mainstream.

This is how Oxford defines the “uncultivated” sense of the noun “pagan” (the adjective closely corresponds): “A person of unorthodox, uncultivated or backward beliefs, tastes, etc.; a person who has not been converted to the current dominant views of a society, group, etc.; an uncivilized or unsocialized person, esp. a child.”

Some of the dictionary’s examples, which date from the mid-16th century, are almost affectionate, like these:

“Said t’was a pagan plant, a prophane weede / And a most sinful smoke” (a reference to tobacco, from George Chapman’s 1606 play Monsieur D’Olive).

“That bloodless old Pagan, her father” (from Macleod of Dare, an 1879 novel by William Black).

“So much like wild beasts are baby boys, little fighting, biting, climbing pagans” (from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, John Muir’s 1913 memoir).

Finally, the dictionary’s definition for the modern religious use is “a follower of a pantheistic or nature-worshipping religion; esp. a neopagan,” and the adjective’s definition is similar. Here’s the latest OED example for the noun:

“Paganism … is a belief in which nature is revered and its views on ecology are very attractive to teenagers. Pagans and witches recycle, are against GM foods and are likely to be vegetarian” (from the Express on Sunday, London, Feb. 4, 2001).

A final word about modern paganism (or neopaganism), which is more widespread than you might think and which some standard dictionaries define more specifically than the OED.

For example, Oxford Dictionaries Online defines today’s “pagan” as “a member of a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, especially nature worship.”

The phrase “outside the main world religions” would mean principally a faith that is not among the Abrahamic (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í), the Dharmic (Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain), or the East Asian families of religions (Taoist, Confucian, Shinto, and others).

These newer pagan religions are very diverse (ranging from Wicca and Neo-Druidism to Goddess worship and varieties of religious naturalism), and they often defy definitions. But scholars of religion generally categorize them under the umbrella of Contemporary Pagan or Neopagan.

And adherents generally do not feel belittled by such labels. For instance, the current president of Latvia, the Green Party member Raimonds Vējonis, identifies himself as a Baltic Neopagan.

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The ‘H’ in ‘Jesus H. Christ’

Q: What does the “H” stand for in “Jesus H. Christ”? It’s obviously not a middle initial, so why is it there?

A: We’ve seen a lot of theories about the source of the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ,” one of many expletives or exclamations that use a name for God. The most likely suggestion is that it comes from a monogram made of the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus.

In Greek, “Jesus” is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in uppercase letters and Ἰησοῦς in lower. The first three letters (iota, eta, and sigma) form a monogram, or graphic symbol, written as either IHS or IHC in Latin letters.

Why does the monogram end with an “S” in one version and a “C” in another? The sigma has an “S” sound, but it looks something like a “C” in its lunate (or crescent-shaped) form at the end of a lowercase word.

For example, the sigma in Ἰησοῦς is σ in the middle and ς at the end. In classical Latin, Jesus is iesus.

The IHS version is more common than IHC, which The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as a rare “learned abbreviation.”

The symbol, which is also called a Christogram, can be seen in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. It’s also the emblem of the Society of Jesus, the religious order of the Jesuits.

As far as we can tell, “Jesus H. Christ” first appeared in writing in the late 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the February 1885 issue of Wilford’s Microcosm, a New York journal about science and religion.

The publication cites an apparently humorous use of the expression in an unnamed Texas newspaper: “At Laredo the other day Jesus H. Christ was registered at one of the hotels.”

The next example we’ve found is from The Creation, a satirical verse play in the June 13, 1885, issue of the Secular Review, an agnostic journal in London. Here’s an exchange between the Adam and Eve characters in a scene set in the Garden of Eden:

Wife. O Lord! How them apples is pecked!
And fruit that is pecked by the birds
Is always so nice, I am told.

Man. If Jesus H. Christ hears your words,
He’ll tell, and his Father will scold.

The expression was undoubtedly used in speech earlier. Mark Twain recalled hearing it when he was a printer’s apprentice in Missouri in the mid-1800s.

“In that day, the common swearers of the region had a way of their own of emphasizing the Saviour’s name when they were using it profanely,” he says in a section of his autobiography dictated on March 29, 1906.

Twain recounts an incident in which a fellow apprentice shortened “Jesus Christ” to “J.C.” in a religious pamphlet, and when chided for using an abbreviation, “He enlarged the offending J.C. into Jesus H. Christ.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “Jesus H. Christ” is used as “an oath or as a strong exclamation of surprise, disbelief, dismay, or the like.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1924 issue of the journal Dialect Notes: Jesus Christ, Jesus H. Christ, holy jumping Jesus Christ.”

The OED doesn’t comment on the origin of the expression, but the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang say it’s probably derived from the monogram IHS or IHC.

DARE’s first example is from that 1906 entry in Mark Twain’s Autobiography, which was published in 1924, 14 years after the author’s death, with an introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine.

The earliest Random House example is from a folk song dated 1892, “Men at Work,” collected by Alan Lomax in Folk Songs of North America (1960). To give the expression its proper context, we’ll expand the citation:

About five in the morning the cook would sing out,
“Come, bullies, come, bullies, come, bullies, turn out.”
Oh, some would not mind him and back they would lay.
Then it’s “Jesus H. Christ, will you lay there all day?”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed many other expressions that refer or allude to God, including posts in 2015, 2012, 2011, and 2008.

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‘Enthralled to’ or ‘in thrall to’?

Q: An article in the Daily Mirror quotes Lady Colin Campbell as telling Channel 5 in the UK that Prince Harry “is completely beguiled by Meghan and completely enthralled to her.” Shouldn’t it be “enthralled with” + person?

A: We suspect that the reporter who wrote that Daily Mirror article or the transcriber who took down Lady Colin Campbell’s remarks may have misconstrued the phrase “in thrall to” as “enthralled to.” What she probably said was “Harry is completely beguiled by Meghan and completely in thrall to her.”

The verb “enthrall” usually means to captivate, fascinate, or beguile in contemporary English, while the phrase “in thrall” means enslaved, controlled, or influenced. If Lady C, as the British press calls her, did indeed mean that Prince Harry was under the spell and influence of the Duchess, it was proper to say he was “beguiled by her” and “in thrall to her.”

You’re right that “enthralled to her” is unusual in contemporary English. The usual preposition would be “by” or “with,” as in these examples from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “Any reader would be enthralled by the story and find themselves rapidly taking it in” … “He can enthrall you with a story from his past.”

However, “enthralled” is often followed by the infinitive marker “to,” as in this example in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Pat was not enthralled to find she was carrying the extra weight of things like carpets, headrests, and other bits and pieces.” (From Harnessing Horsepower, a 2011 book by Stuart Turner about the rally driver Pat Moss Carlsson.)

The verb “enthrall” now usually means to captivate, as we mentioned above, but it meant to enslave or subjugate when it showed up in Middle English in the 15th century—and it’s still sometimes used that way.

The earliest OED citation for the verb, dated 1447-48, is from the letters and papers of John Shillingford, mayor of Exeter: “The sute [about tax assessments] made by the saide Mayer and Comminalte for to have oppressed and enthralled the saide Bisshop, Dean and Chapitre.” The letters and papers, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore, were published in 1871.

The dictionary’s most recent example is from Vikings, a 2012 BBC documentary written and presented by Neil Oliver: “Historians differ in their opinions of just how many individuals might have been enthralled, taken and traded by Vikings.”

Oxford Online, a standard dictionary that focuses on contemporary usage, labels this sense of “enthrall” as archaic. The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t go that far, but says “to captivate, fascinate, hold spellbound” is “now the usual sense.”

In addition, the OED has an entry for the adjective “enthralled” used to mean enslaved or subjugated, and notes: “In predicative use frequently with to.” The dictionary’s latest example is from a March 24, 2012, article in the Financial Times about a scheduled performance of The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet:

“In Fokine’s version the 13 maidens enthralled to the wicked wizard Kaschei are mild and virginal, playing catch with apples.” We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Michel Fokine’s original choreography for the ballet.

The ultimate source of the verb “enthrall” and the adjective “enthralled” is þrǽl, the Old English noun for “one who is in bondage to a lord or master,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Mark 10:44 in the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950): “And sua huæ seðe wælle in iuh forðmest wosa bie allra ðræl” (“And whoever will be the first among you shall be the slave of all”).

Getting back to your question, when “enthralled” (past tense, past participle, or adjective) is followed by a preposition and an object, the preposition is usually “by” or “with.” But “to” does show up once in a while in mainstream publications, especially when “enthralled to” is used in the sense of “in thrall to.”

This usage does have a history, but “by” and “with” are now overwhelmingly more popular than “to” as prepositions for “enthralled.”

Here are the results of our recent searches in the News on the Web corpus, which tracks newspaper and magazine websites: “enthralled by,” 2,390 results; “enthralled with,” 913; “enthralled to,” 147. (Some of the “enthralled to” results include infinitive markers.)

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The upper crust

Q: Why is the highest social class referred to as the “upper crust”? Is it because the top crust on a loaf of bread is often better than the bottom, which may be burnt?

A: The adjective “upper” has been used literally since the 14th century to describe ground that is elevated, and figuratively since the 15th to describe people who are elevated in rank.

That early figurative sense may have inspired the use of “upper crust” as a metaphor for social and other elites. There’s no evidence that a loaf of bread had anything to do with it.

The earliest literal example for “upper” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Kyng Alisaunder, an anonymous Middle English romance, believed written in the late 1300s, about the life of Alexander the Great:

“Þe kyng þennes went forþ … in to ynde in þe norþ, Þat is ycleped … þe vpper ynde” (“The king then went forth … into the district in the north, that is called … the upper district”).

The first figurative example is from a 1477 entry in the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, Scotland: “That Alexander … be continevit vpper and principale maister of wark” (“That Alexander … be continued as the upper and principal master of work”).

When the noun “crust” appeared in the early 14th century, it referred to the “outer part of bread rendered hard and dry in baking,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Otuel a Kniȝt, a Middle English romance about the conversion of a Saracen knight to Christianity: “Anawe of Nubie he smot, / That neuere eft crouste he ne bot” (“Anawe of Nubia he slew / That a crust would nevermore renew”). Oxford dates the romance at some time before 1330.

Over the years, the word “crust” took on many figurative meanings, including a scab on the body (1398), the outer portion of the earth (1555), and a hard coating or deposit on the surface of something (1619).

When the phrase “upper crust” appeared in writing in the 15th century, it referred literally to the top crust on a loaf of bread. The first OED citation is from The Boke of Nurture (1460), by John Russell, a manual on manners, food, and dress: “Kutt þe vpper crust [of the loaf] for youre souerayne.”

Russell, a senior servant to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is describing how a domestic should wait on his master, or sovereign. There’s no reason to believe this little-known comment inspired the use of “upper crust” to mean the elite—a usage that showed up more than three and a half centuries later.

The earliest example we’ve seen for “upper crust” used figuratively to mean the aristocracy is from an 1823 dictionary of sports slang by Jon Bee, a pseudonym of the English sports writer John Badcock: “Upper-crust—one who lords it over others, is Mister Upper-crust.”

The first OED citation is from The Clockmaker (1837), an account of the fictional adventures of Sam Slick, by the Nova Scotian writer Thomas C. Haliburton: “It was none o’ your skim-milk parties, but superfine uppercrust real jam.”

The dictionary’s next citation, which we’ve expanded, is from another Haliburton book, The Attaché (1843), a collection of Sam Slick adventures in England: “I want you to see Peel, Graham, Shiel, Russell, Macaulay, old Joe, and so on. These men are all upper crust here.”

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A pretty little girl

Q: Your post about the use of “pretty” to mean “rather” got me wondering about a sentence like this: “She is a pretty little girl.” Not knowing her, how am I to tell if she’s rather little or pretty and little? Would a comma after “pretty” indicate that it’s an adjective, not an adverb?

A: As we mentioned in that post, “pretty” has been used as an adjective in the sense of “attractive” since the 1400s and as an adverb meaning “rather” since the 1500s.

Because it has these dual uses, “pretty” can be ambiguous. A phrase like “a pretty little girl” most likely means a girl who’s both pretty and little. But in a discussion of children’s growth rates, it could mean a girl who’s pretty little.

In other words, how are we to know whether “pretty” is an adjective (helping to modify “girl”) or an adverb (modifying “little”)? The answer is that without additional context, there’s no way to know for sure.

And a comma won’t help. This is because a comma would not normally be inserted between “pretty” and “little” to show that both were meant as adjectives. Here’s why.

Certain classes of adjectives always occur in a certain order when they’re used together in a series, and with no commas separating them. And “pretty little girl” is a good example.

We wrote in 2010 about the order of adjectives in a series, and again in 2017 about strings of adjectives that need no commas.

Our advice about commas: if it’s not idiomatic to use “and” to separate adjectives in a series (as in “a pretty brick house”), don’t use commas either.

But if it’s reasonable to use “and” between adjectives, then a comma is appropriate: Examples: “a pretty, well-mannered girl,” “a pretty, graceful girl,” “a pretty, intelligent girl.”

Often, idiomatic usage (or your ear) can tell you how “pretty” is being used.

In the case of “a pretty little girl,” we believe that most people would interpret both modifiers as adjectives, unless there was some reason to think otherwise. When “pretty” and “little” occur together before a noun, this is usually the case.

But when “pretty” appears with “big,” “good,” and some other modifiers, it’s most often an adverb: “a pretty big house,” “in pretty good company,” “a pretty long journey,” “a pretty bad location,” “a pretty loud noise.” Nobody misunderstands combinations like those.

The upshot? If there’s a chance of misunderstanding, a writer should avoid using “pretty” as an adverb before an already modified noun. A less ambiguous word—“rather,” “quite,” “very,” “somewhat,” “awfully”—would work better.

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Why slap + stick = slapstick

Q: The word “slapstick” appears a couple of times in the New Yorker’s review of Stan & Ollie, the new film about Laurel and Hardy. Where does “slapstick” come from?

A: The word “slapstick” comes from a paddle that made a loud, slapping noise when whacking someone in the rowdy comedies of the past. And not quite the past. Punch still carries a slapstick in Punch and Judy puppet shows. And percussionists use slapsticks for sound effects.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, the “object from which the word slapstick derives” originated in 16th-century Italy, when Harlequin, a stock character in Renaissance comedy, “was given to wielding a paddle which was designed to make a terrible noise when he hit someone.”

“This paddle was eventually known in English as a ‘slapstick,’ and it became a symbol of that type of highly physical comedy,” the dictionary adds. “The word slapstick then came to refer to the comedy itself.”

The original slapstick carried by Arlecchino, who wore a diamond-patterned costume in Commedia dell’arte, was called a batacchio, the Italian word for a knocker on a door

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a slapstick as “two flat pieces of wood joined together at one end, used to produce a loud slapping noise; spec. such a device used in pantomime and low comedy to make a great noise with the pretence of dealing a heavy blow.”

The earliest OED example for “slapstick” uses the word in its paddle sense: “What a relief, truly, from the slap-sticks, rough-and-tumble comedy couples abounding in the variety ranks.” (From the July 4, 1896, issue of the New York Dramatic News.)

The sense of “slapstick” in that citation seems obscure to us. The next cite is clearer: “The special officer in the gallery, armed with a ‘slap-stick,’ the customary weapon in American theatre galleries, made himself very officious amongst the small boys.” (From the Weekly Budget, Oct. 19, 1907.)

The dictionary’s first citation for the term used adjectivally is from the Oct. 10, 1906, issue of the New York Evening Post: “It required all the untiring efforts of an industrious ‘slap-stick’ coterie … to keep the enthusiasm up to a respectable degree.”

The earliest OED example for “slapstick” as a noun meaning “knockabout comedy or humor, farce, horseplay” is from a 1926 issue of the journal American Speech: “Slap-stick, low comedy in its simplest form. Named from the double paddles formerly used by circus clowns to beat each other.”

Although people aren’t being whacked with slapsticks in comedy routines these days, percussionists use them to imitate the sound of slaps, whip cracks, gunshots, and so on.

If you’d like to see one in action, we came across a video online that demonstrates the use of a slapstick to make sound effects.

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How tolerant is tolerance

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on the blog on Sept. 9, 2016.)

Q: The word “tolerance” seems to suggest something at least one step short of acceptance. To me, it carries the connotation of a superior agreeing not to actively work against someone clearly not regarded as an equal. Has the meaning changed or am I simply a curmudgeonly stickler or could both be true?

A: Most standard dictionaries define “tolerance” as accepting beliefs or behavior that one may not agree with or approve of. In other words, putting up with them.

This is, as you say, at least a step short of acceptance in the usual sense. It also reflects the Latin origin of the word. English borrowed “tolerance” in the 15th century from French, but the ultimate source is the Latin tolerāre (to bear with or endure).

Is “tolerance,” you ask, evolving in English? Perhaps.

We were recently driving behind a car with a bumper sticker displaying “tolerance” spelled out with a cross, a peace symbol, a star of David, a star and crescent, and other images.

The driver of that car apparently sees “tolerance” as something like respect or consideration for the views of others.

In fact, we’ve seen many examples of the word used that way, including this one from a speech by Trudy E. Hall, the former head of school at the Emma Willard School in Troy, NY:

“What is tolerance? Tolerance is the acceptance and celebration of the full range of emotions, learning preferences, political opinions, and lifestyles of those in community.”

However, we could find only one standard dictionary with such a definition. The entry for “tolerance” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this as its primary sense: “The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.”

When “tolerance” showed up in English writing in the early 15th century, it meant “the action or practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship; the power or capacity of enduring; endurance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes that sense as obsolete, but similar senses survive today, such as in “tolerance” to a toxin or an allergen or the side effects of a drug.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “tolerance” is from Troy Boke (1412–20), John Lydgate’s Middle English poem about the rise and fall of Troy:

“For as to a fole it is pertynent / To schewe his foly, riȝt so convenient / Is to þe wyse, softly, with suffraunce, / In al his port to haue tolleraunce” (“For as a fool plainly shows his folly, the wise man, for his part, shows gentle sufferance and tolerance”). We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

Similarly, “tolerate” meant to endure or sustain pain or hardship, and “toleration” meant the enduring of evil or suffering, when the two words showed up in the same book in the early 16th century.

Here are the two relevant Oxford citations from the The Boke Named the Gouernour, a 1531 treatise on how to train statesmen, by the English diplomat Thomas Elyot:

“To tollerate those thinges whiche do seme bytter or greuous (wherof there be many in the lyfe of man).”

“There is also moderation in tolleration of fortune of euerye sorte: whiche of Tulli is called equabilite.” (“Tulli” refers to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.)

In the 16th century, the verb “tolerate” and the noun “toleration” took on the sense of putting up with something that’s not actually approved, as in these OED citations.

“He can … be none other rekened but a playne heretyque … whome to tolerate so longe doth sometyme lytle good.” (From Debellation of Salem and Bizance, 1533, a theological polemic by Thomas More.)

“The remission of former sinnes in the toleration of God.” (From the Rheims New Testament of 1582.)

When the adjective “tolerant” appeared in the 18th century, it referred to bearing with something. The OED’s earliest example is from a 1784 sermon at the University of Oxford by Joseph White, an Anglican minister and scholar of Middle Eastern languages:

“His [Gibbon’s] eagerness to throw a veil over the deformities of the Heathen theology, to decorate with all the splendor of panegyric the tolerant spirit of its votaries.”

Over the years, “tolerance” and company have taken on various other meanings, such as referring to variation from a standard (“The part was made to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch”) or the decrease in a drug’s effectiveness after prolonged use (“The body builds up a tolerance to allergy medications”).

What does the sense of “tolerance” you’re asking about mean today?

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “willingness to accept beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” The dictionary gives this example: “This period in history is not noted for its religious tolerance.”

Cambridge has similar definitions for “tolerate,” “toleration,” and “tolerant.”

However, some scholars argue that “tolerance” is a less judgmental term than “toleration.”

In “Tolerance or Toleration? How to Deal with Religious Conflicts in Europe,” an Aug. 12, 2010, paper on the Social Science Research Network, Lorenzo Zucca says that “non-moralizing tolerance should be distinguished from moralizing toleration and should be understood as the human disposition to cope with diversity in a changing environment.”

And Andrew R. Murphy, in “Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition,” a 1997 article in the journal Polity, sees “tolerance” as a more personal term than “toleration.”

“We can improve our understanding by defining ‘toleration’ as a set of social and political practices and ‘tolerance’ as a set of attitudes,” he writes.

In a June 2, 2008, post on his blog, the linguist David Crystal says “tolerance” is a more positive term than “toleration.”

Tolerance has more positive connotations (a desire to accept) than toleration, which can mean ‘we have to put up with this,’ ” he writes. “Compare the phrase religious tolerance with religious toleration. The country which practises the former is more likely to be enthusiastically supporting religious diversity than the latter.”

Of the two terms, “tolerance” is far more popular today, but “toleration” was more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a search with Google’s Ngram viewer.

So language changes! And we wouldn’t be surprised if other standard dictionaries eventually follow American Heritage’s lead and define “tolerance” less judgmentally than “toleration.”

Note: The reader who asked this question later reminded us of Tom Lehrer’s satirical 1965 song about tolerance, “National Brotherhood Week.” It seems an appropriate accompaniment to this political season.

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Why ‘speedometer’ has an ‘o’

Q: Why is it a “speedometer,” not a “speedmeter”? That thing on the side of my house is a “gas meter,” not a “gasometer,” and the electrician has an “ohm meter,” not an “ohmometer.”

A: The letter “o” appears frequently as a connective or linking element in English compounds where at least one of the parts is of Greek origin.

The English construction can be traced back to the use of the omicron (o) at the end of the first part of a compound in classical Greek. For example, δημο-κρατία (demo-cratia, rule of the people), ϕιλο-σοϕία (philo-sophia, love of knowledge), and νεκρo-πολις (necro-polis, city of the dead).

In ancient Greek, nouns that ended with an omicron and a sigma (-ος, or os in the Latin alphabet) formed compounds by dropping the sigma and keeping the omicron as a connective. Classical Latin used the letter o similarly in compounds borrowed from Greek as well as some that originated in Latin. Later, French and the other romance languages inherited these compounds from classical or medieval Latin. English, in turn, adopted many of them from French or Latin.

Although the omicron in classical Greek was often the final letter in the first part of a compound, it’s frequently treated in modern English as the first letter in the last part of a compound, especially if the first part is a native English word that ends in a consonant.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the connective “-o-” in some compounds “tends to be treated as if it were part of the termination, particularly where the latter is combined with an English first element which ends in a consonant.”

The term “speedometer” is a good example of this. It’s a compound made up of the noun “speed,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, the connective “-o-,” and the combining form “-meter,” which comes from the Greek -μέτρον (-metron, or measure).

However, there are a lot of exceptions, as you’ve noticed. Many standard dictionaries, for example, have entries for both “gas meter” and “gasometer,” though the two terms have different meanings. A “gas meter” is a device for measuring the amount of gas used at a property, while a “gasometer” is a tank for storing and measuring gas.

The measuring devices named after the German physicist Georg Ohm and the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta have been written several different ways over the years—as two words, hyphenated, and as one word, sometimes with the connective “-o-” and sometimes without it. Most standard dictionaries now list the device for measuring electrical resistance as an “ohmmeter” and the device for measuring electrical potential as  a “voltmeter.”

Interestingly, we’ve seen the two-word term “speed meter” used once in a while in writing to refer to the radar and laser devices used by police to catch speeders, though the usage hasn’t made its way into standard dictionaries.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has separate entries for the combining forms “-meter” and “-ometer” as well as for the “-o-” connective. The connective entry treats “-ometer” as a two-part term made up of “-o-” and “-meter.”

The “-ometer” version was the first to show up in English. As the OED explains, “Words containing this terminal element are first attested in English in the 17th cent., the earliest significant example being thermometer n., modelled on the earlier French thermomètre; the next is barometer n., an English formation (French baromètre is recorded almost contemporaneously).”

“In the early formations the ending is always appended to Greek noun stems or combining forms [ending] in -o,” the dictionary says, but during the 18th century “formations begin to appear in which the initial element could be of Latin or other origin.”

The earliest example with an English initial element, according to the OED, “is the humorous word passionometer n. (mid 18th cent.); this is succeeded in the 19th cent. by a small number of similar rarely-used humorous words, e.g. foolometer n., obscenometer n.”

“Speedometer,” the word you asked about, appeared in the early 20th century. The first OED citation is from the Aug. 4, 1904, issue of the Times (London): “His ‘speedometer’ … showed he was going at only ten miles an hour.”

Getting back to your question, there’s no definite reason why the instrument that measures the speed of a vehicle is a “speedometer” while the device that measures the use of gas in a house is a “gas meter.”

As we’ve said in other posts, the development of English has not been tidy. We’re reminded of that nearly every day as we translate Old English and Middle English into Modern English.

Take the noun “speed” for example. In Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150), the noun was spelled spoed or sped. In Middle English (roughly 1150-1500), it was spede, speede, spied, speid, spyd, spyde, speed, and so on. Not until the 17th century did “speed” emerge from the pack and become the dominant spelling—a process that wasn’t too speedy.

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Who, me?

Q: In Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, she uses this sentence to describe the sacrifices her parents made in raising her and her brother Craig: “We were their investment, me and Craig.” Surely that should be “Craig and I.”

A: Not necessarily. We would have written “Craig and I.” But the sentence as written is not incorrect. It’s informal, but not ungrammatical.

Here the compound (“me and Craig”) has no clear grammatical role. And as we wrote in 2016, a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t the subject or object of a sentence—is generally in the objective case.

In our previous post, we quoted the linguist Arnold Zwicky—the basic rule is “nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise.” In other words, when the pronoun has no distinctly defined role, the default choice is “me,” not “I.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note: “I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb. Me occurs in every other position.” The examples given include “Me too” … “You’re as big as me” … “It’s me” … “Who, me?”

“Almost all usage books recognize the legitimacy of me in these positions,” M-W says.

As we said, we think the compound “me and Craig” has no clear grammatical role. But digging deeper, we could interpret it as placed in apposition to (that is, as the equivalent of) the subject of the sentence: “we.” And technically, appositives should be in the same case, so the pronoun in apposition to “we” should be a subject pronoun: “I [not “me”] and Craig.”

That’s a legitimate argument, and if the author were aiming at a more formal style, she no doubt would have taken that route.

On the other hand, the same argument could be made against “Who, me?” Those two pronouns could be interpreted as appositives, but forcing them to match (“Whom, me?” or “Who, I?”) would be unnatural.

In short, the choice here is between formal and informal English (not “correct” versus “incorrect”), and the author chose the informal style.

By the way, as we wrote in 2012, the order in which the pronoun appears in a compound (as in “me and Craig” versus “Craig and me”) is irrelevant. There’s no grammatical rule that a first-person singular pronoun has to go last. Some people see a politeness issue here, but there’s no grammatical foundation for it.

That said, when the pronoun is “I,” it does seem to fall more naturally into the No. 2 slot. “Tom and I are going” seems to be a more natural word order than “I and Tom are going.” This is probably what’s responsible for the common (and erroneous) use of “I” when it’s clearly an object—as in “Want to come with Tom and I?”

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Latinx, Latino/a, Latin@

Q: I’ve just seen the phrase “African-American and Latinx voters” in a New Yorker article about Evangelicals. In the article, male speakers are identified as “Latino” and female speakers as “Latina,” while the collective adjective is “Latinx.” First I’ve seen it. Have you?

A: You can find the term “Latinx” (pronounced la-TEEN-ex) in several standard dictionaries, though its use as a gender-neutral or nonbinary term for someone of Latin American origin is controversial.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says “Latinx” is an adjective describing people “of, relating to, or marked by Latin American heritage—used as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina.” The dictionary’s examples include “the oldest of three girls in a tightknit Latinx family” and “the district’s primarily Latinx community.”

The online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a similar adjectival definition and suggests that the “x” in “Latinx” is derived “from the use of x as a variable or an unspecified factor, as in mathematics.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online says “Latinx” can be a noun as well as an adjective. The dictionary’s noun examples include both “Latinx” and “Latinxs” as plurals: “a career network for Latinx who are looking for jobs” … “the books share stories of the civil rights struggle for African Americans, Latinxs, and LGBTQ people.”

Oxford Dictionaries adds that the use of “Latinx” as “a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina” was “perhaps influenced by Mx,” a nongendered alternative to “Mr.” and “Ms.” The term “nonbinary” refers to people who identify as neither male nor female.

“Latinx” is one of several similar terms that have been coined in recent years by people who object to the traditional male and female sexual identities. Others include “Latino/a,” “Latine,” and “Latin@” (with the @ symbol interpreted as a combination of the feminine “a” and masculine “o” endings).

(The older, more established noun and adjective “Hispanic” is gender neutral, but some people of Latin origin object to it, associating the term with the Spanish conquest of the Americas.)

“Latinx” is the only one of the recent coinages to make it into standard dictionaries. As far as we can tell, “Latinx” began appearing in print in 2015, though the term was being googled as far back as September 2004, according to Google Trends, which tracks search queries.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “Latinx” is from a July 17, 2015, Targeted News Service report about plans for a Green Party rally a week later across from police headquarters in Ferguson, Mo. One of the scheduled speakers is identified as “Andrea Merida, co-chair of the Green Party of the United States and member of the party’s Latinx Caucus.”

As we’ve said, the use of “Latinx” is controversial, especially among people familiar with Spanish, a gendered language in which nouns have masculine and feminine endings, and the masculine plural is used when genders are mixed. Some Spanish speakers have complained that the “x” ending is grating, linguistically illegitimate, or elitist.

However, we’re discussing the use of “Latinx” in English here, not Spanish. English is a nongendered language in which “x” endings are unusual but not unknown—for example, “jinx,” “lynx,” “minx,” and “sphinx,” not to mention “fix,” “nix,” “lox,” and “box.”

We wonder, though, whether standard dictionaries may have moved too quickly to accept a term that showed up in print only a few years ago and that is still unknown to most English speakers.

The courtesy title “Mx.” (usually pronounced MUX, MIX, MEX, or EM-EX) has been seen in writing since the late 1970s, though it’s better known in the UK than the US.

The honorific, which appears in several American and British standard dictionaries, is widely accepted in the UK by government offices, universities, and businesses. It can be used on British passports, drivers’ licenses, bank documents, mail, and so on. As is the general rule with honorifics, “Mx.” has a period in American dictionaries but not in British.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, explains that “Mx was originally offered as an alternative to Mr, Mrs, Miss, and Ms, as a means to avoid having to specify a person’s gender.”

But in later years, the dictionary adds, the honorific “has frequently been adopted as a title by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female (e.g. transgender or intersex people).”

The earliest gender-neutral example for the honorific in the OED is from a short story by Pat Kite in the April 1977 issue of The Single Parent magazine: “Maybe both sexes should be called Mx. That would solve the gender problem entirely.”

The OED’s first nonbinary example is from an Oct. 19, 1998, post to a Usenet diet newsgroup in the UK: “Occasionally I have used the title ‘Mx’ before my name, with the idea that it leaves in question whether I [am] a woman or a man or somethinng [sic] in between.” (The bracketed interpolations are part of the Oxford citation.)

As for “Hispanic,” the OED describes it as a noun or an adjective for a “Spanish-speaking person, esp. one of Latin-American descent, living in the U.S.” The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun is from the Sept. 24, 1972, issue of the New York Times Magazine:

“The fictional melting pot has become a pousse-café in which every layer is jealous of, or hostile to, every other layer; in a fever of ethnicism, Italians, Jews, Orientals, Blacks, Hispanics and others have withdrawn into themselves.” (A pousse-café is an after-dinner drink of various liqueurs poured in layers of different colors.)

The dictionary’s first example for the adjective is from a 1974 Congressional report: “For statistical or policy purposes Hispanic Americans do not presently exist in most agencies of the government.” (From “Economic and Social Statistics for Spanish-Speaking Americans,” a report on hearings before the House Subcommittee on Census and Statistics of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service.)

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Most important … or importantly

Q: It seems to me that a majority of radio and television pundits use “most important” where I would use “most importantly.” Would you please clear up for me which phrase would be correct at the beginning of a sentence or clause.

A: Either “most important” or “most importantly” (as well as “more important” or “more importantly”) can be used to introduce a sentence or a clause.

In cases like this, “important” and “importantly” are interchangeable, and one is no more “correct” than the other.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, both “important” and “importantly,” when “preceded by an adverb of degree, as more, most, etc.,” can be “used to modify a clause or sentence.”

The OED describes “importantly” here as a “sentence adverb” that’s “used to emphasize a significant point or matter.” And it describes “important” as part of “a supplementive adjective clause used to modify a clause or sentence.”

We discussed this in a post more than 10 years ago, but it never hurts to take a new look at an old topic.

Examples of both usages date from the 19th century. Here’s the OED’s earliest example using “importantly” in this sense:

“She had been brought up partly by religious parents, but more importantly as it affected her ideas and manners, in the house of a very worthy gentlewoman.” (From an Edinburgh periodical, the Scottish Christian Herald, Oct. 2, 1841.)

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest corresponding use of “important”:

“The loss … of efficiency in the transformers, and, even more important, the great cost of that part of the equipment, would both be avoided.” (Popular Science Monthly, September 1894.)

In constructions like these, the adjective “important” can be compared to “significant” or “remarkable” or “surprising.” And the adverb “importantly” can be compared to “significantly” or “remarkably” or “surprisingly.” All are used with “more” and “most” to modify entire sentences or clauses.

We’ve written before about sentence adverbs, but we haven’t discussed what might be called sentence adjectives.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), by Randolph Quirk et al., uses these examples in discussing adjectives that can modify an entire sentence: “Most important, his report offered prospects of a great profit” and “More remarkable still, he is in charge of the project.”

These adjective constructions, according to Quirk, behave “like comment clauses introduced by what.” (That is, they can be regarded as elliptical for “What is most important” and “What is more remarkable still.”)

Furthermore, the book says, with a few such adjectives, the “corresponding adverb can be substituted for the adjective with little or no difference in meaning.”

Nevertheless, Quirk adds, “Objections have been voiced against both most important … and most importantly. Some usage books recommend the one construction, some the other.”

Today that’s no longer the case. While many English speakers may be divided on their preferences, writers of usage guides now accept both.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield) has this to say about “important” and “importantly”:

“Preceded by more or most, both words comment on the sentence or clause containing them.” Both, Butterfield notes, “work perfectly well” and are standard. “Choose whichever you prefer, and whichever reads better in your specific context.”

Another guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), notes that “more important as a sentence-starter has historically been considered an elliptical form of ‘What is more important …’ and hence the -ly form is sometimes thought to be less desirable.”

However, Garner’s says, “criticism of more importantly and most importantly” has dwindled and can now be “easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.”

A final note about terminology.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, would categorize each version, “more important” or “more importantly,” as an “evaluative adjunct,” an element that precedes a statement and “expresses the speaker’s evaluation of it.” The first version would be an “evaluative adjective,” the second an “evaluative adverb.”

The authors themselves use both “more important” and “more importantly,” in case you have any lingering doubts.

In a section about punctuation, Huddleston and Pullum write, “More important, there is some significant regional variation, most notably with respect to the interaction between quotation marks and other punctuation marks.”

And in a discussion of “many,” “few,” “much,” and “little,” they write: “More importantly, all four are gradable, and have inflectional comparative and superlative forms.”

When linguistic superstars use both versions, so can you.

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Is it self-titled or eponymous?

Q: Is “self-titled” becoming an accepted synonym for “eponymous”? As an editor, I used to blue-pencil it from music reviews back in the ’80s. But “self-titled” is used all over now—I’m seeing it in the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Billboard, even the New Yorker.

A: The short answer is that “self-titled” is already an accepted synonym for “eponymous”—at least in music journalism, where it’s used to describe an album named after the artist.

The only standard dictionary that includes this usage is Oxford Dictionaries Online, which defines the adjective “self-titled” this way: “(of an album, CD, etc.) having a title that is the same as the performer’s name.”

It’s also included in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. The OED definition is similar: “of an album, CD, etc.: having a title that is the same as the performer’s or group’s name.”

We find the term “self-titled” a little odd, since it seems to imply that the album gave itself a title. But odd or not, music journalists since the 1970s have used both “self-titled” and “eponymous” to refer to albums named after the artists.

For a while, the terms were equally common in music writing, but “self-titled” surged in popularity in the mid-1980s and is now the more popular term.

The OED’s earliest example of “self-titled” used in this way is from a review of an album by Loudon Wainwright III in a California newspaper: “His first two records on Atlantic Records, the self-titled one and Album II, were purely acoustic” (Arcadia Tribune, Nov. 16, 1972).

The OED has no examples for “eponymous” used musically, though we’ve found many dating back to 1977. For instance, the Library Journal’s review of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (1977), compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, commented: “Minor irritant: overuse of adjectives ‘eponymous’ and ‘seminal.’ ”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer shows that the phrases “self-titled album,” “self-titled debut,” and “self-titled record” have handily outscored the versions with “eponymous” since the mid-1980s.

The Ngram viewer tracks terms published through 2008 in digitized books, which include compilations from periodicals. A cursory search of more recent usage suggests that the trend has continued in music journalism.

Outside of music writing, however, the picture is reversed. In ordinary usage, “eponymous,” a word we wrote about in 2010, is far and away more common than “self-titled,” as Ngram and more recent searches show.

At least in part, this is probably because in the wider world, “eponymous” has two meanings. It can refer to something named after a person (“the eponymous state of Pennsylvania”) or to the person after whom it’s named (“William Penn, its eponymous founder”).

Since we’ve written about “eponymous” before, most recently in 2010, we’ll touch on its history only briefly here. The adjective “eponymous” and the corresponding noun “eponym” both came into English in the mid-19th century, adopted from the Greek ἐπώνυμος (eponymos, formed of epi for “upon” and onoma for “name”).

Originally, both noun and adjective referred to the source of the name—that is, an “eponym” was a name-giver, and “eponymous” described the name-giver. But these words have dual meanings now.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “we can speak of ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan Show’ as well as ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan.’ ”

Before “eponymous” started appearing in music writing of the ’70s, it was often used in other kinds of arts reporting—like book, drama, and film reviews. It was commonly (and often unnecessarily) used in the phrases “eponymous hero” and “eponymous heroine,” meaning the character for whom a book or play or film is named.

But before “self-titled” started showing up in music journalism, it didn’t mean “eponymous.” Since the late 18th century, “self-titled” had referred to people who gave titles to themselves, and it was almost always used critically to suggest that the titles were undeserved.

The earliest example in the OED is from a London journal, The World, July 22, 1788: “The bad Whigs of Old England, about the bad-bottom’d Whigs, A self-titled set, a vile prostitute clan.” (This play on words contrasts the establishment Whigs with a more inclusive party faction calling itself “the Broad Bottom.”)

“Self-titled” in its original sense, a meaning that’s still alive today, is defined in the OED as “having assumed or adopted a given title or status for oneself.” And as we mentioned, it’s generally been used in a derogatory way. Here are some other early examples we’ve found:

“the self-titled Queen of Madagascar” (1845, about a despotic ruler who fraudulently seized the throne); “John Bull, the self-titled ‘lord of the seas’ ” (1857, with “John Bull” referring to England); “self-titled aristocrats” (1861); “self-titled ‘friend of the people’ ” (1865); and “the bluff, money-minded, woman-fancying ‘scoundrel’ Major (self-titled) Parkington” (1945).

So why did record reviewers start using “self-titled” in place of “eponymous,” which would be more precise in the sense of an album named for the performer? (After all, an album doesn’t name itself.)

Some journalists apparently regarded “eponymous” as too highbrow in writing about popular culture.

In an interview published in 2000, Tim Bannon, who was the Chicago Tribune’s entertainment editor at the time, said that “eponymous” was heavily used by music reviewers because “so many albums are named after the bands.”

But he added: “I’ve always disliked that word. It seems somehow pretentious or inappropriate for pop music stories. I’ve changed it to ‘self-titled,’ which is clunky, too.” (From “Hip Eponymous,” by E. J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, May 14, 2000.)

In the same article, Jack Kroll, then a senior editor and drama critic at Newsweek, took the opposing view and defended “eponymous”:

“Obviously, it’s a word you won’t find hip-hoppers using or the teen culture using. It’s used by a certain class of people. But the work that it does is done by no other word in the English language. … It’s a useful word the way synonymous or anonymous are useful.”

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Is Shakespeare relatable?

Q: Let me throw this one out to you. The highest compliment my college students can offer regarding a play is that it’s relatable. It speaks to them by addressing lives like their own. A TV sitcom is relatable, but not Hamlet.

A: The adjective “relatable” has had several related senses since it first appeared in English nearly 400 years ago. The latest, the one favored by your students, showed up half a century ago. Here’s the story.

The adjective originally meant capable of being told or suitable for telling, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example, which uses the term negatively to mean inexpressible, is from the first English prose romance written by a woman, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621), by Lady Mary Wroth:

“Ah sweet Philistella, had you seene the vn-relatable exquisitenesse of his youth, none could haue blam’d me, but euen chid me, for not instantly yeelding my passions wholly to his will; but proud ambition, and gay flatterie made me differ and loue your brother.” We’ve expanded the citation to give our readers a better feeling for Urania. A prose romance, as you know, is an early form of the novel, sometimes referred to as a proto-novel.

In the 19th century, the adjective came to mean capable of being related to something or brought into relation with it. The first OED example is from The Science of Knowledge, Adolph Ernst Kroeger’s translation of the work of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte: “It is also an act of the Ego, and, hence, relatable to the Ego.”

The sense of “relatable” you’re asking about (approachable because of similarities to one’s own life) showed up in the mid-20th century. The earliest OED example refers to teachers that students can identify with:

“The research indicated that boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable.’ ” (From a 1965 issue of the journal Theory Into Practice.)

The next citation refers to shopping-mall reenactments of a television show, The Newlywed Game: “It’s relatable humor, the kind that takes place in every home.” (The Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1981.)

The latest Oxford example is from the New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007: “This is what’s going on in sex and in college right now, and these are real people, and you’re more relatable if you’re a real person.” (The reference is to the models in Boink, a defunct college sex magazine.)

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Gaslighting: The ‘in’ word?

Q: It seems to me that the “in” word right now may be “gaslighting.” People are in an awful hurry to use it. Your take?

A: Well, “gaslighting” is definitely an “in” word now, but we wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the “in” word.

The verbal noun “gaslighting” was a runner-up for the Oxford Dictionaries 2018 word of the year (“toxic” was the winner).

And the verb “gaslight” won the Most Useful/Likely to Succeed category in the American Dialect Society’s 2016 word-of-the-year competition (“dumpster fire” was the overall winner).

As it turns out, “gaslight” and “gaslighting” aren’t especially new. The two terms have been used for dozens of years to describe the psychological manipulation of people into questioning their sanity.

The ultimate source of the usage is Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, which inspired the 1940 British film Gaslight and the better-known American version of 1944.

In the American Gaslight, directed by George Cukor, a husband (Charles Boyer) tries to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) crazy by insisting that the flickering gaslights in their house don’t really flicker. A detective (Joseph Cotten) comes to the rescue.

However, the words “gaslight” and “gaslighting” aren’t actually used in the play or the films, as contributors to the ADS mailing list pointed out in an early 2017 discussion initiated by the language commentator Ben Yagoda.

The linguist Ben Zimmer, for example, noted the use of “gaslight” as an adjective in “Gracie Buying Boat for George,” an Oct. 30, 1952, episode of The Burns and Allen Show.

“At 16:20 in the YouTube video,” Zimmer wrote, “Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’ ”

(Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, 2017, cites the adjectival usage in Burns and Allen as well as in the ’50s sitcom Make Room for Daddy and the ’60s series Car 54, Where Are You?)

Zimmer also pointed out the use of “gaslight” as a verb (in “The Grudge Match,” a Nov. 12, 1965, episode of the sitcom Gomer Pyle: USMC):

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the Sarge we can get through to the Chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?

Duke: I mean psychological warfare.

Gomer: Huh?

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

Stephen Goranson, a library assistant at Duke University, noted the use of the verb “gaslight” as a psychological term in Culture and Personality, a 1961 book by Anthony F. C. Wallace:

“It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness.”

Goranson also cited the use of the verbal noun “gaslighting” in Culture and Personality: “While ‘gaslighting’ itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame.”

So if “gaslight” and “gaslighting” are dozens of years old, why have they showed up in recent word-of-the year competitions?

Yagoda, the language writer who initiated the ADS discussion, suggests that the recent prominence of the terms may have been inspired by President Trump’s behavior.

In a Jan. 12, 2017, post on Lingua Franca, the language blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, he writes:

“The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say X and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, ‘I did not say X. In fact, I would never dream of saying X.’ ”

Yagoda cites several headlines tracked down by Zimmer, including these two—the first published shortly before the President was elected and the second a month after:

“Donald Trump self-sabotage gambit: He’s used ‘gaslighting’ in place of apologies for his actions” (Salon, Oct. 16, 2016), and “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” (Teen Vogue, Dec. 10, 2016).

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Is a smirk but a smile?

Q: I keep finding “smirk” used as a simple synonym for “smile.” How do you distinguish between these two words?

A: One can smile in a pleasant or an unpleasant way. A smirk is an unpleasant smile—irritatingly smug or affected, often with the lips crooked and closed.

Although a smirk is indeed a smile, we wouldn’t use the word “smirk” as a synonym for either the noun or the verb “smile.”

When “smile” is used without qualification, it suggests a pleasant smile, as in these examples from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “she greeted us all with a smile” … “he smiled at Shelley.”

The dictionary says the noun and verb refer to a “pleased, kind, or amused facial expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed.”

The word “smirk,” according to the dictionary, refers to “a smug, conceited, or silly smile.” It gives these examples for the noun and verb: “Gloria pursed her mouth in a self-satisfied smirk” … “he smirked in triumph.”

We’ve consulted half a dozen other standard dictionaries and all have similar definitions for “smirk.” But as you’ve noticed, “smirk” is sometimes used as a synonym for “smile.”

For example, the collaborative Urban Dictionary, with definitions written by readers, has a dubious April 12, 2014, contribution that defines “smirk” as “a smile that finds something funny, not necessarily in a scornful way.”

Interestingly, the verb “smirk” did indeed merely mean to smile when it showed up in Old English (as smearcian). The verb “smile” appeared several hundred years later in Middle English (smīlen).

The two words are ultimately derived from the same prehistoric root, reconstructed as smei- (to laugh or smile), according to The American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots.

The earliest example for the verb “smirk” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ: “Ða ongon he smearcian & cwæð to me” (“At this she began to smile and speak unto me”).

The verb “smirk” continued to mean “smile” in Old English (spoken from about 450 to 1150) and Middle English (roughly 1150 to 1450). It wasn’t until the late 15th century (the early days of modern English) that “smirk” took on its negative sense.

The first negative OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from “The Thewis off Gud Women” (“The Virtues of Good Women”), an anonymous treatise written sometime before 1500:

“And our all thinge kep her in kirk / To kek abak, to lauch, or smyrke” (“And over all things let not herself in church / Peek backward, laugh, or smirk”). The treatise was published in an 1870 collection, Ratis Raving, and Other Moral and Religious Pieces, in Prose and Verse, edited by J. Rawson Lumby.

When the noun “smirk” showed up in the 16th century, the OED says, it meant (as it does now) an “affected or simpering smile; a silly, conceited, smiling look.” The dictionary’s first citation is from The Disobedient Child (1560), by the English dramatist Thomas Ingelend: “Howe many smyrkes, and dulsome kysses?”

The latecomer “smile” showed up in the early 14th century as a verb meaning “to give to the features or face a look expressive of pleasure or amusement, or of amused disdain, scorn, etc.” The first OED example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that may have been composed as early as 1300.

“ ‘Thar þe noght in hethyng smylle.’ Sco said, ‘for soth smild i noght.’ ” (“ ‘Thee need naught smile in scorn.’ She said, ‘forsooth I smiled naught.’ ”) The citation describes the biblical episode in which the aged Sarah is chided for doubting the Lord’s promise that she’ll bear a son, and her lie about not smiling.

Finally, the noun “smile” appeared in the mid-16th century. The earliest OED citation is from A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood: “Better is the last smile, than the first laughter.”

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Hair of the dog

Q: I have a question that you might want to run on New Year’s Eve. (I won’t be in any condition to read your answer on New Year’s Day.) Why does the expression “hair of the dog” refer to treating a hangover with more of the same?

A: The expression for an alcoholic drink taken to cure a hangover is a shortening of “a hair of the dog that bit you,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins (2nd ed.), by Julia Cresswell.

Cresswell writes that the expression is derived “from an old belief that someone bitten by a rabid dog could be cured of rabies by taking a potion containing some of the dog’s hair.”

When the expression is used to mean a hangover cure, she explains, it “suggests that, although alcohol may be to blame for the hangover (as the dog is for the attack), a smaller portion of the same will, paradoxically, act as a cure.”

“There is, it should be added, no scientific evidence that the cure for either a hangover or rabies actually works,” she writes.

As far as we can tell, the idea that a potion made from a rabid dog’s hair could cure rabies originated in classical antiquity. The earliest example we’ve found is in the writings of the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder.

In Naturalis Historia, he writes: “When a person has been bitten by a mad dog, he may be preserved from hydrophobia by applying the ashes of a dog’s head to the wound.” Pliny adds that one could also “insert in the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite.”

(From book 29, chapter 32, “Remedies for the Bite of the Mad Dog,” in an 1855 translation by John Bostock and H. T. Riley in the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University.)

Although the belief that a rabid dog’s hair could cure rabies originated in classical times, the English expression “a hair of the dog that bit one” didn’t show up in writing until the 16th century. And from the beginning it was used figuratively to mean a hangover remedy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood:

“I praie the leat me and my felowe haue / A heare of the dog that bote vs last nyght” (“I pray thee let me and my fellow have / A hair of the dog that bit us last night”).

The only OED citation for the expression used literally for a rabies treatment appeared in the 18th century: “The hair of the dog that gave the wound is advised as an application to the part injured.” (From A Treatise on Canine Madness, 1760, by Robert James.)

The dictionary’s first example for the short version of the expression is from a caption in the Jan. 5, 1935, issue of the New Yorker: “Your hair of the dog, sir.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples, including this one from the Oct. 5, 1853, issue of the Wabash Express (Terre Haute, Ind.), about a man with “talent and genius of a high order” who “has thrown them all away to gratify his inordinate thirst for strong drink”:

“Prof. K., mistaking the character of the house we kept, called at our sanctum on Monday and asked for ‘a little bitters.’ We told him we did not keep the article, and as he was very full, advised him against taking any more. He said he had been sick, and that ‘the hair of the dog would not do him any further harm.’ ”

We’ll end with a nonalcoholic hangover concoction found in “Jeeves Takes Charge,” a P. G. Wodehouse story published in the Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 18, 1916. Here’s a description of the brainy valet’s first encounter with Bertie Wooster, who’s feeling the aftereffects of “a rather cheery little supper with a few of the lads”:

“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”

I’d have preferred an undertaker; but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. … He had a grave, sympathetic face as if he, too, knew what it was to sup with the lads; and there was a look in his eyes, as we stood there giving each other the mutual north-to-south, that seemed to say: “Courage, Cuthbert! Chump though you be, have no fear; for I will look after you!”

“Excuse me, sir,” he said gently.

Then he seemed to flicker and wasn’t there any longer. I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass in his hand.

“If you would drink this, sir,” he said with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the dark meat-sauce that gives it its color. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

“You’re engaged!” I said as soon as I could say anything.

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A biting commentary

Q: My daughter recently texted “bite me” after I texted a suggestion she didn’t care for. While I understand the emotion she intended to convey, I find the phrase not only counterintuitive but just plain weird. Any idea of its source?

A: Your daughter was telling you, more or less, to leave her alone, but you knew that already. What you may not have known is that “bite me” is generally a variation on “bite my ass.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang says that “bite me!” (many dictionaries print it with an exclamation point) means the same as “bite me in the ass.” The dictionary says it originated on American college campuses in the 1980s, and labels it an exclamation of a generally derogatory or dismissive nature.

Another source, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, lists “bite me” among expressions equivalent to “go to hell” or “fuck you” and that are “usu. considered vulgar.”  Included in the list are “bite my butt” (which Random House dates from 1958) and “bite me in the ass” (1963).

Some slang dictionaries interpret “bite me” as an invitation to fellatio. But unless there’s some reason to think otherwise, it’s likely that what’s supposed to be “bitten” is the butt.

The oldest examples in Green’s date from the late 1980s and early ’90s:

“The insult category consisted of … gaywad, bite me, doofy, dork, mutt” (from With the Boys, a 1987 study by the sociologist Gary A. Fine).

“Ah, bite me!” (from the 1991 screenplay of Wayne’s World, written by Mike Myers et al.).

The earliest example in Random House is from a 1992 episode of the sitcom Married With Children. Here’s the exchange: “Drop dead.” “Bite me!”

The linguist Pamela Munro’s Slang U. (1991), a book about campus colloquialisms, likens “bite me!” to “bite my ass.” She illustrates it with this example: “After Joe told Michele that he wanted to see other girls, all she said was, ‘Bite me!’ ”

Munro, a professor at UCLA, gives the expression a broad variety of meanings: “Shut up! You make me sick! Get out of here! Kiss my ass! Fuck you!” And she characterizes it as a usage that “may be offensive” and “should be used only with discretion.”

Publishers of standard American dictionaries don’t include “bite me” (with or without exclamation mark). Some British publishers have entries for it, but they give no literal definition, saying only how the phrase is used. And they label it “offensive” or merely “informal” rather than “vulgar” (as Random House does).

Cambridge Dictionaries online describes “bite me!” (including exclamation mark) as an American idiom that’s “offensive” and is “used to say to someone that they have made you feel angry or embarrassed.”

Another British dictionary, Longman’s, says “bite me!” is a “spoken informal” expression of American origin, “used to show that you are offended by something someone has just said about you.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online also labels “bite me” as “informal.” It’s used, the dictionary says, “to express defiance against or contempt for someone,” and this illustration is given: “it’s just my opinion; if you don’t like it, bite me!”

We agree that “bite me” has lost much of its old vulgarity. It’s rude and therefore offensive, but not dirty. In fact, it’s used quite often as a book title with no offense intended. Google it and you’ll find the phrase emblazoned unabashedly on the covers of books about cooking, dieting, and vampires.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet taken note of “bite me,” but it includes a couple of other “bite” idioms.

Used alone, the OED says, the verb “bite” means the same thing as “suck” in North American slang: “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the September 1975 issue of the National Lampoon: “The activities on campus really bite.”

And in North American slang, Oxford adds, to “bite the big one” has two meanings that date from the 1970s: (1) “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant,” and (2) “to die.” Here are the OED‘s earliest examples (their meanings will be obvious from the context):

“I’m a big fan of society … but this bites the big one” (from David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, 1974).

“Larry’s not with us any more, he went on y’know. … He bit the big one” (the drummer Terry Bozzio, speaking during “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World,” a brief cut on Frank Zappa’s 1979 album Sheik Yerbouti).

As for its more distant etymology, “bite” came into early Old English (bítan) from Common Germanic, the OED says. And its original meaning is still the principal sense today: “To cut into, pierce, or nip (anything) with the teeth.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use of the verb is from the epic poem Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725.

In the passage cited, the man-eating monster Grendel emerges from the misty moors by night and attacks a company of warriors quartered in a castle: “He gefeng hraðe … slǽpendne rinc … bát bánlocan” (“He quickly seized … a sleeping warrior … bit into his body”).

Grendel obviously would have interpreted “bite me” literally.

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King Arthur … or King Artur?

Q: A few years ago, the host at a bed and breakfast in Ireland introduced my wife and me to his new puppy, “Artur.” It took me a bit to realize that the dog’s name was “Arthur.” I assume that pronouncing “th” as “t” is historical, though I still hear it from the Irish and Scots. What’s the history?

A: You’re right in suggesting that the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English dialects may be an obsolete usage that was once common.

In fact, “th” used to be simply “t,” and pronounced that way, in older spellings of “authentic,” “orthography,” “theater,” “theme,” “theology,” and “throne,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the “t” was once “th” in “treacle” and “treasure.”

In the Middle Ages, the name “Arthur” could be spelled with “th” or only “t,” suggesting that it may have been pronounced both ways. In early versions of the Arthurian legends, for example, King Arthur’s name is spelled with “t” or “th” or runic letters representing the “th” sound.

Even today, it’s standard in the US and the UK to pronounce the “th” as “t” in “Theresa,” “Thomas,” “Thompson,” and “thyme.” And the “th” of “Thames” is pronounced with a “t” in England and Canada, though the river in Connecticut is generally pronounced with a “th.”

The “th” we’re talking about is called a digraph, by the way, a combination of two letters that represent one sound (like the “ch” in “child” or the “sh” in “shoe”).

However, not all “th” combinations are digraphs. The two letters also appear together in some compounds that include words ending in “t” and beginning with “h,” such as “foothill,” “outhouse,” and “knighthood.” In such compounds, the “t” and “h” are pronounced as separate letters. A group of adjacent consonants like that is sometimes called a consonant cluster or consonant compound.

The digraph “th” is generally seen today in words originating in Old English and Greek. It’s used to represent what were the letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) in Old English (spoken from roughly from 450 to 1150), and the Greek theta (θ), which was originally pronounced as an aspirated “t”—a “t” sound accompanied by a burst of breath.

The thorn and the eth, both of which represent the voiceless “th” sound in “bath” as well as the voiced sound in “bathe,” were gradually replaced by the digraph “th” in Middle English (spoken from about 1150 to 1450).

Here are a few Old English words and their modern English versions: cláðas (“clothes”), broþor (“brother”), þæt (“that”), þyncan or ðyncan (“think”), and þicce (“thick”).

In Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, King Arthur’s name is spelled with an eth: “Arður; aðelest kingen” (“Arthur, most admired of kings”).

In later Middle English poetry, the king’s name is spelled with either “th” or “t” alone. In the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Geoffrey Chaucer refers to “kyng Artur,” while in the alliterative Morte Arthure (circa 1400), it’s “kyng Arthur.”

As for words originating in Greek, the Romans used “th” to represent the theta in Greek loanwords. Then English borrowed many of these Greek terms from Latin or the Romance languages. As far as we can tell, the Latinized Greek “th” terms first appeared in Middle English.

Here are a few Middle English examples: “theatre,” from the Latin theātrum and the Greek θέᾱτρον (theātron); “theologie,” from Latin theologia and Greek θεολογία (theologίā); and “throne,” from Latin thronus and Greek θρόνος (thrónos). A few early “throne” examples are spelled with “t” instead of “th.”

As we’ve mentioned, the spellings and pronunciations of English words originating in Greek have varied quite a bit over the years. The theta has sometimes been represented by a “th” and sometimes by a “t.” And the “th” has sometimes been pronounced as a “t.”

We suspect that the confusion can be traced to medieval Latin, when the “th” sound in Greek loanwords began being pronounced as “t.” French then adopted this “th” spelling and “t” pronunciation, while the other major Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian) used “t” for both the spelling and the pronunciation.

French, the major source of loanwords in English, has had a big influence on our spelling and pronunciation. In fact, the OED attributes the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English words to the influence of French. But English speakers usually pronounce the “th” digraph today much as the Anglo-Saxons pronounced the thorn and the eth in Old English.

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Christmas, 1971, Vietnam

(Note: We’d like to share a brief article that Stewart wrote for United Press International 47 years ago when he spent Christmas with American troops in Vietnam.)

Christmas in Vietnam, and Dreams of Home


XOM ONG, Vietnam (UPI) Dec. 24, 1971—It’s a time for dreaming. Thoughts of home. Logs crackling in the fireplace. The big tree, the gaily wrapped gifts. The tinsel and glittering stars and colored lights.

Then, back to reality. A tank caked with mud. A can of C ration boned turkey. The sun and the jungle. The danger once in a while and the boredom the rest of the time.

“It’s not Christmas at all when you’re over here,” Spec. 4 Larry Morse, 19, of Salina, Okla., said. “It’s just another day. Like any other. That’s why it’s so bad. You just sit around and do nothing, like always.”

Morse sat on top of a Sheridan tank, his boots splattered with yellow mud and his brown hair blowing in the morning wind. He and the other GI’s in F troop of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment were setting up camp in chest-high elephant grass 25 miles northeast of Saigon.

It’s no fun on Christmas for the 159,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. It’s especially tough for an estimated 15,000 grunts still out in the field in combat.

U.S. commanders arranged hot turkey dinners Saturday for GI’s in Vietnam, but some troops out in the boondocks expected to get their Christmas meals a couple of days late.

Morse, a tank gunner, said he had only one Christmas wish and he didn’t expect Santa Claus to grant it —“I’d like to get out of here, right now, right this minute.”

“I’m sick and tired of this place,” he said, his shirt open and a copper cross dangling from a black bootlace around his neck. “What I’d like is some snow. Christmas doesn’t mean anything to me without snow.”

Spec. 4 William Harper, 20, of Cookeville, Tenn., stood on top of an APC and decorated a wilting Christmas tree the chaplain had sent to F troop. His unbuttoned fatigue shirt flapped in the breeze outside his trousers.

“I guess we just got to be here,” he said. “But it won’t be nothing like home. That’s where I’d like to be now. Back home. There it is.”

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A throne for the king of the band

Q: Your drumstick post sparked this thought: How did the stool used with a drum set become known as a “throne”? As a drummer, I’ve assumed it’s because, you know, I’m king of the band.

A: Any percussionist can tell you a drummer sits on a “throne.” The term has been used in the music business for more than 80 years, according to our searches, yet the usage doesn’t appear in any standard English dictionaries.

However, the collaborative reference Wiktionary, whose definitions are contributed by readers, does recognize this usage. Among its definitions of “throne,” Wiktionary includes “a type of stool used by drummers.”

We can’t tell you who came up with the usage or why—though we’ll bet a drummer was responsible. The image makes a lot of sense. A band drummer occupies a kingly position, often on a raised platform overlooking the other performers.

What a drummer means by “throne” is an armless stool, usually foldable and adjustable in height, with three to five legs and a revolving seat. It may or may not have a small backrest attached. The word “throne” has been used to describe such a stool since the big-band era.

The earliest uses we’ve found in writing are from late-1930s catalogs of the Chicago drum manufacturer Ludwig.

In its 1937 catalog, the company included a foldable, adjustable “Drummer’s Throne” with three metal legs (“Available with or without back rest”), somewhat resembling a photographer’s tripod with a seat. Ludwig has used the term “throne” ever since.

In 1942, the firm began including in its drum sets an instruction book called Swing Drumming (1942), by William F. Ludwig Jr., in which the term “throne” appeared three times.

Ludwig may have been ahead of the curve in using “throne” this way. Another big American drum maker, Gretsch, sold similar stools in its 1941 catalog but called them “Drummers’ Chairs.” (Later in the ’40s, Gretsch switched to “Drummers’ Thrones.”)

A third major manufacturer, Slingerland, began carrying a rigid canister-style seat in 1941 that it called a “throne.” But the company continued to call its tripod-type metal stool a “Drummer’s Chair” until the late 1950s, when it switched to “Drummer’s Throne.”

By the 1960s, other manufacturers had adopted the word.

In a column devoted to new products, the November-December 1963 issue of the Music Educators Journal noted, “A NEW ‘DRUMMER’S THRONE’ is being introduced by Rogers Drums.”

And the February-March 1964 issue included a notice about a manufacturer of orchestra furniture: “The company [Wenger] is also offering its new #45 Drummer’s Throne. Cushion swivel seat accommodates tympani, bass drum, cymbal, and glockenspiel players. Throne adjusts for sitting and semi-standing positions.”

Today, the term is common among manufacturers and is almost universally used in magazines aimed at musicians.

The company Roc-N-Soc, which describes itself as a maker of “drum thrones and guitar stools,” boasts that “Roc-N-Soc thrones are designed and constructed with the musician in mind. We guarantee our thrones will give you the best comfort and flexibility.”

Modern Drummer magazine consistently uses “throne” to describe a drummer’s stool, and earlier this year the magazine Music Critic featured “The 10 Best Drum Thrones.”

For concert percussionists, there are timpani thrones. These brags are from a couple of manufacturers’ websites:

“Pearl’s Timpani Throne provides a new standard of stability and adjustability.”  …  “The Steve Weiss Liberty One 1000T timpani throne features a comfortable round seat-top and four legs for extra stability.”

Oddly, we haven’t found many early swing- or jazz-era examples of “throne” used by drummers themselves, though it’s the usual term today.

The drummer Mel Lewis, who died in 1990, wrote in an unfinished memoir, “A jazz drummer generally sits at the rear of the bandstand or stage on a high stool called a throne.” (Quoted in a 2014 biography, The View from the Back of the Band, by Chris Smith.)

As for the etymology of “throne,” the word entered Middle English around 1200 from Anglo-Norman or Old French. Its ultimate sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are the classical Latin thronus (chair of state) and the ancient Greek θρόνος (thrónos, seat, chair, chair of state).

Originally, “throne” in English meant the heavenly seat of God, though it soon came to mean an ornate ceremonial seat occupied by a high official (like a monarch or pope) and by analogy the office itself.

The OED has no mention of the “throne” a drummer occupies. It does include the outdated 19th-century use of “throne” for the chair where a portrait painter placed his sitter or model.

The only colloquial meaning in the OED is one found in all slang dictionaries—the jocular use of “throne” for a toilet, a usage dating from the 1920s.

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PAINS-taking or PAIN-staking?

Q: I often hear “painstaking” pronounced PAIN-staking, but prefer PAINS-taking. Any thoughts?

A: Both PAINS-taking and PAIN-staking are standard pronunciations in the US, while PAINS-taking is the standard pronunciation in the UK, according to the American and British dictionaries we’ve checked.

Etymologically, the PAINS-taking pronunciation makes more sense. The word “painstaking” originally meant (and still means) taking pains—that is, care and effort—to do something.

When the noun “pain” appeared in the 13th century, it had two meanings: “trouble taken in accomplishing or attempting something” and “physical or bodily suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citations for both senses are from Of Arthour and of Merlin, a Middle English romance that scholars date to the late 1200s.

Here’s the example for taking trouble: “Harans biseged and dede his peine, Þe cite to winne of Dorkeine” (“Harans besieged Dorkeine and took pains to capture the city”).

(Harans is a Saxon king in Arthurian legend. We haven’t been able to identify Dorkeine, though it may refer to what is now Dorking in Surrey, which was occupied by Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries.)

And here’s the example for physical pain:”What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”).

“Painstaking” showed up in English as a noun in the 16th century and as an adjective in the 17th. The OED defines the noun, a combination of the plural “pains” plus the verbal noun “taking,” as the “taking of pains; the application of careful and attentive effort towards the accomplishment of something.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun is from a 1545 will that authorizes the executor to collect the funds when “a payre of indentures” come due: “And that fynysshed and doon … he shal have for his paynes taking.” (Abstracts From the Wills of English Printers and Stationers, 1903, by Henry Robert Plomer.)

The first Oxford citation for the adjective is from a collection of poems and criticism by Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon, written sometime before his death in 1685:

“He opposes the pains-taking Women of the first Times, to the fine, lazy, voluptuous Dames of his own Age.” The quotation is from a note about an English translation of an ode by the Roman poet Horace.

Finally, here’s a recent example from the Nov. 29, 2018, issue of Time magazine: “Peter Jackson on His New WWI Documentary, a Painstaking Labor of Love.” (The headline on an interview with the New Zealand director about his film They Shall Not Grow Old.)

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Look ahead … or look forward?

Q: The words “forward” and “ahead” mean similar things, but “looking forward” to something seems to be more enthusiastic than “looking ahead” to it. Can you explain?

A: You’re right. You wouldn’t say, “I look ahead to our date tomorrow night.” To “look ahead” is neutral, but to “look forward” implies eagerness.

With verbs that indicate position or motion, the adverbs “forward” and “ahead” are used more or less interchangeably: “face forward”/“face ahead,” “walk forward”/“walk ahead,” “go forward”/“go ahead,” “move forward”/“move ahead,” and so on.

But with the verb “look,” when it means to anticipate something in the future, “forward” and “ahead” aren’t normally interchangeable.

To “look ahead” is “to think of and decide about the future,” according to Cambridge Dictionaries online, but to “look forward (to something)” is to “to feel pleasure because an event or activity is going to happen.”

This wasn’t always the case. In the anticipating sense, the phrasal verb “look forward” once meant simply to await or consider future events. But much later, “look forward” developed a more particular meaning—to anticipate eagerly. An element of pleasurable expectation entered the picture.

Here’s how and when all this happened.

The phrasal verb “look forward” was first recorded, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 16th-century religious commentary referring to omens that are expected to come true:

“When Abel slewe his sacrifices … he looked forward too the thing yt was signified.” (From A Postill, or Exposition of the Gospels, Arthur Golding’s 1569 translation of a Latin work by the Danish Lutheran theologian Neils Hemmingsen.)

Similarly, this Shakespearian citation in the OED from the early 17th century uses “look forward” to mean merely “expect”: “Looke forward on the iournie you shall go.” (From Measure for Measure, first performed in 1604).

And this example is from the following century: “One, who can look forwarder than the Nine Days of Wonder.” (From Samuel Richardson’s 1741 novel Pamela; a “nine days’ wonder” means a short-lived sensation.)

The dictionary defines those uses of “look forward” as “to anticipate, expect, consider (an event in) the future.”

But an additional sense, “to await eagerly,” appeared in the late 18th century, as in these OED examples:

“Banish your fears, and let us look forward, my love.” (From Samuel Foote’s stage comedy The Devil Upon Two Sticks, written sometime before 1777.)

“They looked forward to the time when firmness and perseverance would force their enemies to grant honourable terms.” (From William Lothian’s The History of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, 1780.)

In the decades to come, the sense of eagerness in “looking forward” became more firmly established, as you can see from these 19th-century OED examples:

“His visit to the hall was looked forward to with interest.” (Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Venetia, 1837.)

“They … looked forward to the speedy expulsion of the intruders.” (The History of British India, 1848, edited by Horace Hayman Wilson.)

“The way in which we looked forward for letters from our bride and bridegroom.” (William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Adventures of Philip, 1862.)

“We were looking forward to a merry time.” (The London magazine Temple Bar, November 1892.)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the early 19th century, as “look forward” became increasingly optimistic, the more neutral “look ahead” came into use. English speakers began using the two phrasal verbs—“look forward” and “look ahead”—for different purposes.

The OED’s earliest use of “look ahead” in the sense “to anticipate, consider, or plan for the future” was recorded in a British newspaper:

“That ambition must be short-sighted, indeed, which did not look ahead beyond two, or even six, years.” (The Daily National Intelligencer, May 25, 1820.)

And when used with “to,” the dictionary says, “look ahead” means “to await, consider or plan for a particular future event.” This example is from a 19th-century American novel:

“You’ve got to look ahead to the time when she regrets the lack of husband and children.” (Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, by Hamlin Garland, 1895.) The expression is used here to anticipate a lost opportunity and an empty life.

Jumping ahead to our own time, the OED gives this example: “Schuster and Finkelstein … seem to be looking ahead to what is essentially a post-tenure academic world dominated by the contingent academic workforce.” (The New York Review of Books, Jan. 13, 2011.)

Certainly, “looking forward” would give the wrong impression in that sentence, since the authors are predicting a decline in teaching standards. Generally, “looking ahead” tends to be used in a neutral or negative way, while “looking forward” is positive.

However, we should mention that in the corporate world, “looking forward” is used neutrally. In business and management usage, Oxford says, “looking forward” merely means “in or for the future” or “looking ahead” or “starting from now.”

Here’s one OED example: “Looking forward, earnings before interest depreciation and amortisation are growing at 25pc a year and are expected to hit £7.2 billion by 2002.” (The Daily Telegraph, March 8, 2001.)

In corporate language, “looking forward” is often used in much the same sense as “going forward” and “moving forward.”

But getting back to normal usage, most people imply eagerness when they say they’re “looking forward” to something. We can’t resist citing this OED example, from Owen John’s 1970 novel The Diamond Dress, because it mentions one of our favorite dishes:

“I’d been looking forward to some delicious spaghetti alla carbonara and a bottle of Frascati.”

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From ‘anti-vac’ to ‘anti-vaxxer’

Q: Who makes up terms such as “anti-vaxxer”?

A: We’re all responsible. English is a flexible language, and English speakers like to flex their lexical muscles by coining new terms. For more than two centuries, we’ve been coining various terms for someone opposed to vaccinations.

The first one, “anti-vaccinator,” appeared in the early 19th century and referred to critics of smallpox vaccinations. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book review in an 1806 issue of the Philosophical Magazine, a British scientific journal:

“This popular work is a very fair exposure of the unprincipled means to which the anti-vaccinators have resorted to turn the prejudices of the ignorant into a source of dishonest emolument to themselves.”

The term “anti-vaccinationist” emerged later in the 19th century. The oldest example we’ve found is from an 1876 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:

“This gentleman confessed himself an anti-vaccinationist, but as the law required vaccination, he submitted to the law in his own family, and would have others also submit to it.”

In the late 19th century, people began using the short versions “anti-vac” and ”anti-vacc” as adjectives or nouns for opponents of vaccination.

Here’s an “anti-vac” example from a July 4, 1877, letter in the journal of the National Anti-Compulsory-Vaccination League, founded in London in 1867:

“In so far as the Anti-vaccination movement has yet become national, our League is entitled to be considered national, all known Anti-vac’s having been invited to the Conference which formed it, and the conference having been attended by delegates from all parts of the country.”

And this “anti-vacc” example is from a book review in A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature (1895), by the British publisher, editor, and bibliographer William Swan Sonnenschein: “Divested of its anti-vacc. bias, the book is full of valuable material.”

As far as we can tell, the informal shortenings “anti-vaccer,” “anti-vax,” and “anti-vaxxer” emerged only in the last 10 years in reference to opponents of influenza, MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), and other vaccines.

Here’s an “anti-vaxxer” example from a headline on a letter to the editor in the March 9, 2009, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “ ‘ANTI-VAXXERS’ ARE PUTTING MANY AT RISK.”

The letter describes Andrew Wakefield, a discredited British medical researcher, as “the ‘father’ of the anti-vaxxer movement.” Wakefield was found to have falsified a 1998 paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism.

And here’s an “anti-vaccer” example from an April 24, 2009, comment on the Discover Magazine blog: “I find it horrible to think that it will take a major epidemic & children dying of easily preventable diseases to make people wake up and take notice what these anti-vaccer/pro-disease people are doing.”

In an Oct. 29, 2009, broadcast, the CNN journalist Randi Kaye used both “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer” in describing comments by bloggers opposed to influenza vaccinations:

“Some anti-vaxxers, as they’re called, linked the swine flu vaccine today to the 1976 swine flu vaccine which left some paralyzed. Now anti-vax bloggers suggest the vaccine isn’t safe for children and pregnant women because of a preservative in the vaccine called thimerosal.”

Kaye noted that the Centers for Disease Control says thimerosal “is safe and all that preservative does actually has caused a little redness and maybe some swelling at the injection spot.”

Of the various shortenings, the only ones that have made it into standard dictionaries are “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax,” the two most popular spellings in our searches of digital databases.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary includes only the noun “anti-vaxxer,” which it defines as “a person who opposes vaccination or laws that mandate vaccination.” It lists the term without comment—that is, as standard English.

Oxford Dictionaries Online includes the noun “anti-vaxxer” as well as the adjective “anti-vax,” and labels the two terms “informal.”

It defines the noun as “a person who is opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who does not wish to vaccinate their child,” and gives this example: “experts say several diseases that are avoidable are making a comeback due to anti-vaxxers who refuse to vaccinate their kids.”

And it defines the adjective as meaning “opposed to vaccination,” giving this example: “One doctor isn’t afraid to point a finger right at the anti-vax movement.”

Why are the spellings “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax” more popular than “anti-vaccer” and “anti-vac”? Our guess is that English speakers prefer “xx” and “x” because it’s natural to pronounce them like the “cc” of “vaccine,” while “cc” and “c” could be pronounced like the “c” of “vacuum.”

Finally, the usual term now for someone who vaccinates is “vaccinator,” as in this Oxford example: Each round requires vaccinators to get the polio drops into the mouths of 50 million children.”

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Don’t quote me

Q: I hear the expression “don’t quote me” in the news almost every day. It seems so much a part of contemporary politics. Imagine my surprise to see it in The Semi-Attached Couple, an 1860 novel by the English writer Emily Eden.

A: Yes, the usage showed up in writing in the 19th century, and one of its earliest appearances was in The Semi-Attached Couple, which features a middle-aged husband and wife who have been compared to the Bennets in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Indeed, it’s possible (though this is speculation) that the expression may even have appeared in an early, unpublished version of Emily Eden’s novel. Here’s the story.

Eden wrote an early draft of The Semi-Attached Couple in the 1830s, but the final, revised version wasn’t published until a year after the successful publication in 1859 of her novel The Semi-Detached House.

In an 1863 letter to her great niece Violet Dickinson, Eden says, “The ‘Semi-Attached Couple’ was written in that little cottage at Ham Common”—a rental cottage she stayed in for a few months in 1834. And in a preface to the published novel, she suggests that she changed it very little.

However, we don’t know whether the original draft included the relevant passage: “Lord Teviot is one of the worst specimens of the class dandy I ever saw; and I am much mistaken if his temper will not be a sad trial to poor Helen. However, don’t quote me.”

The earliest confirmed example we’ve seen for “don’t quote me” is from Christmas Festivities, an 1845 collection of stories and sketches by the English playwright John Poole:

“I’ll give you my opinion of that horse, but remember you don’t quote me afterwards—I’d rather not be thought critical about horses.”

The first example for “don’t quote me” in the Oxford English Dictionary (from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote on Oct. 1, 1927) uses the uncontracted “do not” in the expression:

“Clara was looking much better than when she came over and Virginia was looking very badly. But please do not quote me on this.”

The OED’s first contracted example is from A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), a Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie:

“You’ve no idea, Neele, how tired one gets of the inevitable weed-killer. Taxine is a real treat. Of course, I may be wrong—don’t quote me, for Heaven’s sake.” (We expanded the comment by Professor Bernsdorff, a pathologist, to Inspector Neel about the poison taxine.)

In that example, Bernsdorff uses “don’t quote me” to indicate he’s not yet sure whether taxine (a substance from the leaves, shoots, or seeds of the English yew) is the poison that killed the businessman Rex Fortescue.

The expression is now used in that hesitant sense as well as just to indicate literally that the speaker doesn’t want to be quoted.

When the verb “quote” showed up in English in the 14th century, according to the OED, it meant “to mark (a book) with numbers (as of chapters, biblical verses, etc.)” or to make marginal “references to other passages or texts,” but those senses are now obsolete.

English borrowed the verb in part from the medieval Latin quotare and in part from the Middle French quoter, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin quot (“how many”), which explains the early numerical sense.

In the mid-16th century, Oxford says, the verb took on its modern meaning: “to reproduce or repeat a passage from (a book, author, etc.); to repeat a statement by (a person); to give (a specified person, body, etc.) as the source of a statement.”

The first OED example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin: “The text [of the Bible] is throughout coted in the margin [of this book].”

(The OED cites the 1548 edition, but we haven’t been able to find it there. The passage was added in the 1552 edition, according to the historian John Craig in his 2002 paper “Forming a Protestant Consciousness? Erasmus’ Paraphrases in English Parishes, 1547-1666.”)

We’ll end with a more recent example from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita:

“Wow! Looks swank,” remarked my vulgar darling squinting at the stucco as she crept out into the audible drizzle and with a childish hand tweaked loose the frock-fold that had stuck in the peach-cleft—to quote Robert Browning.

Nabokov isn’t literally quoting Browning here. He may be alluding to Browning’s various uses of “peach” in Pippa Passes, as in: “From a cleft rose-peach the whole Dryad sprang.” Nabokov may also be making a sly allusion to Browning’s mistaken use of the word “twat” in the same poem, an innocent blunder that we discussed in 2011.

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Playing the bass

Q: Why is the fishy “bass” spelled the same as the musical “bass” but pronounced differently? Are there other such words?

A: Words that are spelled alike but have different meanings and pronunciations are called heteronyms, a 19th-century term derived from the Greek heteros (different) and onoma (name).

Seen alone in print, a heteronym is ambiguous; we can’t tell which meaning is intended unless the word is pronounced or used in context.

Most heteronyms are etymologically related, like the words pronounced CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb), IN-va-lid (noun) and in-VAL-id (adjective).

Related heteronyms that are derived from the same etymological source are not rare. As we wrote on the blog in 2016, there are scores of them.

The rarer and more interesting heteronyms are like the two words spelled “bass,” which are linguistic accidents. They developed independently, one (the fish) from Germanic and one (the deep sound) from Latin. Their similar spellings in modern English are merely coincidental.

The fishy “bass” (rhymes with “grass”) arrived much earlier than the musical “bass” (rhymes with “grace”), so we’ll discuss the fish first.

The word for the fish was first recorded in Old English (then spelled bærs) around the year 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a corrupted form of barse, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates back to “about 700,” and which still survives in some dialects.

The OED defines this “bass” as “the Common Perch (Perca fluviatilis), or an allied freshwater species.” The fish probably got its name (first barse, then bærs, and eventually “bass”) because of its spiny, bristly fins.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Old English bærs to a prehistoric root that’s been reconstructed as bhars– and means a projection, point, or bristle. The same root, the dictionary says, is the ancestor of “bristle” and “bur” in English and similar words in other Germanic languages.

So how did bærs become “bass”? As Donka Minkova writes in A Historical Phonology of English (2013), the “r” sound in bærs was no longer pronounced by the early 1300s. And the dropping of the “r” changed the sound of the vowel.

The loss of an “r” sound after a vowel and before a sibilant (like “s”) was not a widespread development, but did occur with some words, according to linguists.

In their book The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that the “older barse ‘fish’ by such loss became bass.” The same “r” loss is heard in some colloquial usages. By this process, the authors write, “arse became ass.”

After the “r” in bærs fell away in the 1300s, spellings of the word evolved sporadically from “bace” (1400s), to “bas” and “base” (1500s), then “basse” and “bass” (1600s and onward).

The OED’s earliest citation for the modern spelling is from the early 19th century, but we found an example in a 17th-century ship’s log. This entry was written on Oct. 16, 1663:

“Several Indian came on Board, and brought us great store of Fresh-fish, large Mullets, young Bass, Shads, and several other sorts of very good well-tasted Fish.” (From A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida, an account of a voyage aboard the ship Adventure, which sailed from Barbados in August 1663. The account, by Cmdr. William Hilton, Capt. Anthony Long, and Peter Fabian, was published in London in 1664.)

We’ve found several more uses of “bass” from the 17th and 18th centuries. In an English clergyman’s account of a visit to four colonial settlements, for example, the fish is mentioned eight times. Here’s one instance:

“The Bass is one of the best Fishes, being a Delicate and fat Fish.” (From Samuel Clarke’s A True and Faithful Account of the Four Chiefest Plantations of the English in America, published in 1670.)

Now we’ll leave the fish and turn to the “bass” that rhymes with “grace” and refers to a deep note or a musical instrument.

This “bass” appeared in English in the 15th century as both a noun and an adjective, according to OED citations.

The musical word “bass” is “simply a modified spelling” of the adjective “base” (meaning low), John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

In other words, the “base” that means low—borrowed in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman baas, bace, or bas—later came to be spelled “bass” in the sense of deep-sounding or a low note.

What influenced the spelling change to “bass” from “base,” Ayto says, was the Italian musical term basso. But though the spelling changed, the OED notes, the word was “still pronounced as base.”

The adjective “bass,” defined in the OED as “deep-sounding” or “low in the musical scale,” was first recorded in an anonymous musical treatise written sometime before 1450: “This same rwle [rule] may ye kepe be-twene Dsolre, Dlasolre, & al oþer [other] base keyys.”

(Explanation: For medieval singers, pitch was flexible, not fixed. In a notational system developed in Italy in the early 11th century and designed for chant, notes had names like “dsolre” (or “D3,” for D + sol + re) and “dlasolre” (or “D4,” for D + la + sol + re), representing the values a singer might place on the note.)

The noun “bass” in the musical sense has several meanings. It can mean “the lowest part in harmonized musical composition,” the OED says, or “the deepest male voice, or lowest tones of a musical instrument, which sing or sound this part.”

The word “bass” can also refer to an instrument that principally plays bass notes. The noun “bass” can be short for a double-bass or a bass guitar, and the word appears adjectivally in noun phrases like “bass saxophone,” “bass clarinet,” “bass trombone,” “bass drum,” and so on.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun (used in the sense of a low tone) is in an English carol from sometime before 1500: “Whan … bulles of the see syng a good bace.”

Here are some instruments whose names include “bass,” along with the earliest dates given in the OED:

“bass viol” (possibly 1594; called “bass” for short in 1702); it was also known as a “bass violin” (1602) and is now the modern “violoncello” (1724) or “cello” (1848);

“bass trumpet” (1724);

“double-bass” (1728; also known as a “string bass” or “bass” for short, both dating from 1927;

“bass drum” (1789);

“bass clarinet” (1831);

“bass guitar” (1855; “bass” for short in 1937);

“bass trombone” (1856);

“bass flute” (1880).

The musical noun, the OED notes, is “erroneously” assumed by some to be derived from the noun “base” that means a foundation or bottom, but there is “etymologically no connection.”

The “base” that means a foundation is from the classical Latin basis; the “base” that means low, as well as the musical “bass,” can be traced to the post-classical Latin bassus.

So much for the two very different (and different sounding) words spelled “bass.”

We wrote a post a couple of years ago about another pair of unrelated heteronyms, the two nouns spelled “sewer.” They’re as different as sewing and sewage.

Other heteronyms that are etymological strangers to one another include these:

  • the noun “dove” (a bird) and the verb “dove” (a past tense of “dive”);
  • the noun “lead” (a metal) and the verb “lead” (to conduct);
  • the noun “number” (a sum) and the comparative adjective “number” (more numb);
  • the noun “row” (for a disturbance) and the verb “row” (to propel a boat);
  • the noun “sow” (a mama pig) and the verb “sow” (to plant seed);
  • the two different nouns spelled “tear” (a rip; a droplet from the eye), along with their respective verbs;
  • the “wind” (air current) and the verb “wind” (to twist).

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Can ‘clear’ mean ‘clearly’?

Q: Is “clear” an adverb as well as an adjective? Can one say “I speak clear” or is it always “I speak clearly”?

A: The word “clear” can be an adverb as well as an adjective, but it’s not used adverbially in quite the same way as “clearly” in modern English.

A sentence like “I speak clearly” is more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than “I speak clear.” However, “I speak loud and clear” is just as idiomatic as “I speak loudly and clearly.” And “I speak clear” would have been unremarkable hundreds of years ago. Here’s the story.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Both clear and clearly are adverbs, but in recent use they do not overlap. Clear is more often used in the sense of ‘all the way.’ ”

The usage guide gives several “all the way” examples, including one from a Jan. 18, 1940, letter by E. B. White (“there is a good chance that the bay will freeze clear across”) and another from Renata Adler in the April 24, 1971, issue of the New Yorker (“a model son who had just gone clear out of his mind”).

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “clear” is also used adverbially to mean distinctly or clearly, as in “loud and clear” and “high and clear.” The OED adds that “in such phrases as to get or keep (oneself) clear, to steer clear, go clear, stand clear, the adjective passes at length into an adverb.”

We’d add the use of “see (one’s way) clear” in the sense of agreeing to do something, as in “Can you see your way clear to lending me the money?”

In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Jeremy Butterfield writes that “it would be absurd to substitute clearly for clear in such phrases as go clear, keep clear, stand clear, stay clear, steer clear, loud and clear, or in sentences like the thieves got clear away.”

However, Butterfield adds, “Clearly is overwhelmingly the more usual adverbial form of the two.”

So how is the adverb “clearly” used in modern English?

It can mean “in a clear manner,” as in this M-W example from At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by the Irish writer Flann O’Brien, pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan: “His skull shone clearly in the gaslight.” And this M-W citation from the November 1982 issue of Smithsonian: “looked clearly at their country and set it down freshly.”

The “-ly” adverb can also mean “without a doubt,” as in this M-W citation from the Oct. 2, 1970, Times Literary Supplement: “He clearly knows his way about the complex and abstruse issues.” And this one from James Jones in Harper’s (February 1971): “walked toward them calmly and sanely, clearly not armed with bottles or stones.”

In addition, the M-W usage guide says, “clearly” can be a sentence adverb meaning “without a doubt,” as in this passage by Sir Richard Livingstone in the March 1953 Atlantic: “Clearly it is a good thing to have material conveniences.” And this citation from Barry Commoner in the Spring 1968 Columbia Forum: “Clearly our aqueous environment is being subjected to an accelerating stress.”

In an adverbial phrase that combines different adverbs, the form of the adverbs is usually consistent: either flat (“loud and clear”) or with a tail (“loudly and clearly”). We’ll cite recent pairs of each that we’ve found in the news.

This “-ly” example is from an opinion piece in the Nov. 5, 2018, Boston Globe: “As concerned citizens committed to our democratic values, we must be willing to stand up and say loudly and clearly that we will not stand for that kind of governance.”

And this tailless example is from a Nov. 11, 2018, report in the Washington Post about President Trump’s recent trip to Paris: “Trump was not making a sound, but his presence could still be heard loud and clear.”

When English borrowed “clear” from Old French in the late 13th century, it was an adjective “expressing the vividness or intensity of light,” according to the OED. It ultimately comes from the Latin clārum (bright, clear, plain, brilliant, and so on).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early Britain written around 1300, perhaps as early as 1297: “a leme swythe cler & bryȝte” (“a light very clear and bright”).

The adverbs “clear” and “clearly” both showed up in writing around the same time in the early 1300s. The adverbial “clear” initially described visual clarity, while “clearly” referred to brightness.

The earliest OED example for “clear” used as an adverb is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “Þe sune … schines clere” (“The sun … shines clear”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “clearly” (clerliche in Middle English) is from the Life of St. Brandan (circa 1300): “Hi seȝe in the see as clerliche as hi scholde alonde” (“He sees on the sea as clearly as he should on land”). The medieval Irish saint, usually called St. Brendan, is known for a legendary sea journey from Ireland to the Isle of the Blessed.

Why do some adverbs have tails while others don’t? Here’s a brief history.

In Anglo-Saxon days, adverbs were usually formed by adding –lice or –e at the end of adjectives. Over the years, the –lice adverbs evolved into the modern “-ly” ones and the adverbs with a final –e lost their endings, becoming tailless flat adverbs that looked like adjectives.

Sounds simple, but things got complicated in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Latin scholars insisted that adjectives and adverbs should have different endings in English, as they do in Latin. As a result, people began sticking “-ly” onto perfectly good flat adverbs and preferring the “-ly” versions where both existed.

Although the adjective “clear” comes from Old French, not Old English, the flat adverb “clear” may have been influenced by the loss of the adverbial –e in native Anglo-Saxon words, first in pronunciation and later in spelling.

As the OED explains, the adverbial use of “clear” arose “partly out of the predicative use of the adjective” and “partly out of the analogy of native English adverbs,” which by loss of the final –e had become identical in form with their adjectives.

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Launderers and laundresses

Q: Enjoyed your post about “stewardess” and other feminized words ending in “-ess.” But you didn’t discuss “laundress.” Is there a nongendered version?

A: Yes, there is a nongendered version of “laundress.” In fact, there are two of them, though they’re now obsolete or rare in the sense you’re asking about.

Before “laundress” came along in the 16th century, someone who washes clothes, male or female, was called a “launder” or a “launderer.”

The noun “launder,” first recorded in the 13th or 14th century but now obsolete, meant “a person (of either sex) who washes linen,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the story of St. Brice in The Early South-English Legendary, a chronicle of the lives of church figures:

“A woman þat his lander was” (“A woman that was his launder”). The Legendary was compiled sometime between the late 1200s and 1350.

A century or so later, the unisex noun appeared in Promptorium Parvulorum (circa 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Lawndere, lotor, lotrix.” (The Latin lotor and lotrix are masculine and feminine nouns for “washer.”)

A little later in the 15th century, “launderer” appeared, meaning “one who launders (linen),” according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Catholicon Anglicum, an English-Latin wordbook written around 1475: “Lawnderer, candidaria, lotrix.”

The term is rarely used in that sense today. Commercial laundries sometimes refer to themselves as “launderers,” but the word is usually used now for a person who launders money, not clothes.

As for someone who works in a laundry, he or she would likely be called a “laundry worker,” rather than a “launderer” or a “laundress.”

Interestingly, the gender-free noun “launder” originated as a contraction of “lavender,” which the OED defines as “a washerwoman, laundress.” Only rarely, the dictionary says, did “lavender” mean “a man who washes clothes, a washerman.”

As the dictionary says, this sense of “lavender,” which first appeared in writing about 1325, came from the Old French nouns for people who do washing—lavandier (masculine) and lavandiere (feminine)—though the ultimate source is the Latin verb lavāre (to wash).

We know what you’re thinking. But no, the obsolete “lavender” that means a washerwoman is probably not related to the other “lavender,” the plant that produces the fragrant pale-purple flowers.

The botanical word “lavender” (later also used for the scent and the color) came into English before 1300 from Anglo-Norman and Old French (lavandre), the OED says.

The original source was a medieval Latin word for the plant, first spelled livendula (or perhaps lividula), and later lavendula. As the OED explains, some etymologists think the ultimate source may be the classical Latin adjective lividus (bluish, livid).

If so, the two “lavenders” aren’t etymologically connected, though they later became associated because of the use of lavender perfumes, oils, and dried flowers in caring for linens.

Meanwhile, the “lavender” that meant a washerwoman existed alongside the neutral “launder” and “launderer” (anyone who does washing) until well into the 16th century, when “laundress”  arrived on the scene.

The OED defines “laundress” as “a woman whose occupation it is to wash and ‘get up’ linen,” and says it was derived from the neuter noun “launder” plus the “-ess” suffix.

The two earliest written uses of “laundress” were recorded in the same year, 1555. It was a time, as we wrote in our post about those other “-ess” words, when English writers were “very freely” inventing words ending in the feminine suffix.

Here are the two 1555 uses, cited in the OED:

“As the dier, blecher or the landres washeth … the foule, vnclenly and defyled clothes.” (From A Spyrytuall and Moost Precyouse Pearle, Miles Coverdale’s translation of a work by Otto Werdmueller.)

“He sent to lande certeyne of his men with the landresses of the shyppes.” (From The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India, Richard Eden’s translation of a work by Peter Martyr of Angleria.)

Shakespeare used the term in a comic scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor, believed to have been written in 1597 or earlier: “Carry them to the Landresse in Datchet mead.” (The reference is to a load of dirty clothes, beneath which Falstaff is concealed in a very large wash basket.)

After “laundress” became established, the similar use of “lavender” disappeared, perhaps because of the popularity of the botanical term. And the gender-neutral “launder” also vanished, probably because washing was almost always done by women or girls. Both words died out in the late 1500s.

It’s notable that the verb “launder” didn’t appear until after the nouns for the workers were established.

The OED defines the verb as “to wash and ‘get up’ (linen),” and says it was derived from the earlier noun “launder,” for a person who does washing.

The OED’s first citation is a figurative usage in Shakespeare’s narrative poem A Louers Complaint (published in 1609 and probably not written earlier than 1590): “Laundring the silken figures in the brine, / That seasoned woe had pelleted in teares.”

This was not long after the noun “laundry” appeared, for the place where the washing is done. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“Hyther [hither] also runnes the water from the Laundry to moist it the better.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of a Latin treatise on farming by Conrad Heresbach.)

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that “laundry” was used as a collective term for the washables themselves. The OED’s first citation is from 1916, but we’ve found earlier examples in 1890s newspaper ads. We’ll cite a few:

“Who Does Your Laundry? We Should Like To,” from the Cambridge (Mass.) Chronicle, Jan. 7, 1893 … “Try the work and you will never again send laundry out of the city,” from the Daily Greencastle (Ind.) Banner and Times, Jan. 1, 1894 … “Bring Us Your Laundry,” from the Quill (La Harpe, Ill.), Jan. 4, 1895.

In the early 20th century, this sense of “laundry” became more common. And new words followed—“laundromat” (we’ve found examples from 1941), and “launderette” (1945).

As the OED explains, laundromat” originated as a proprietary name for a Westinghouse washing machine and later came to mean a coin-operated laundry.

We could go on, but we’re feeling a bit washed out.

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Is ‘hithertofore’ legit?

Q: Is “hithertofore” a traditional English word, a neologism, or what? I need to know because I have used it in my new book and the editor has queried it.

A: As far as we can tell, “hithertofore” has never been recognized as a standard English word, though we’ve found a few hundred written examples (dating back to the early 1700s) in searches of digitized books, newspapers, and magazines.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “hithertofore,” and neither do standard dictionaries, which focus on the modern meanings of words. We’ve checked Merriam-Webster Unabridged and eight other standard dictionaries.

The earliest written example we’ve found for “hithertofore” is from “An Act Concerning Patents and Grants,” a statute approved by the legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania on Oct. 15, 1711, in Philadelphia.

The colonial statute says no property title “shall be adjudged, or taken to be defective … for want of being hithertofore sealed with the Great Seal.”

And here’s a more recent example from an article about the troubled Apollo 13 space mission in the April 24, 1970, issue of the Catholic Transcript:

“The first post-flight comments by NASA officials and the photographs of the damaged service module have already brought home several hithertofore unsuspected perils of the space saga.”

We wouldn’t describe “hithertofore” as a neologism (a newly coined word or expression). We suspect that the writers who’ve used it were simply conflating two long-established terms, “hitherto” and “heretofore,” which both mean “up to this time.”

The earliest example for “hitherto” in the OED is from a medieval manuscript, dated sometime before 1225, about the life of St. Katherine of Alexandria: “Hwucche men þu hauest ihaued hiderto to meistres” (“Which men you have had hitherto as masters”).

The dictionary’s first example for “heretofore” is from William of Palerne, an English translation done sometime before 1375 of a French poem, Guillaume de Palerme (circa 1200):

“For here-to-fore of hardnesse hadestow neuer” (“She had never been used to such hardness heretofore”).

Finally, we wrote a post in 2012 about “heretofore” and other compounds made from two or three smaller words.

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He blued his pocket money

Q: In A Pocketful of Rye, a 1953 mystery by Agatha Christie, Lance Fortescue says, “I blued my pocket money, he saved his.” Lance, the son of a wealthy financier, is comparing his handling of money to that of his brother. Do the British still use “blue” the way Americans use “blow”?

A: The slang use of both “blow” and “blue” to mean squander showed up in Britain in the 19th century, though only the profligate “blow” made it across the Atlantic, as far as we can tell.

Is “blue” still used in the UK for that sense? Perhaps, but not very often. We haven’t seen any published examples since the early 1990s.

Oxford Dictionaries Online describes the use of “blue” to mean “squander or recklessly spend” as a “dated, informal” British usage, and gives this example: “It is again time to break open a bottle of bubbly and to blue our money till kingdom comes.”

The most recent citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Arcadia, a 1992 novel by the English writer Jim Crace: “These were the sort of boys who made their cash like tough old men, and blued it all on sweets, and toys, and cigarettes.”

The OED describes the usage as slang of uncertain origin, but speculates that it may have originated as a pun on “blew,” the past tense of “blow.” The dictionary notes, however, that the use of “blue” for squander showed up in writing before “blow” had that slang sense.

The dictionary’s earliest example for “blue” meaning to squander is from The Swell’s Night Guide (1846), by Lord Chief Baron (pseudonym of the actor-writer Renton Nicholson): “The coves … vot we blues a bob or a tanner to see.”

The next citation is from Caste, an 1867 comedy by the English playwright T. W. Robertson: “D’Alroy: ‘So Papa Eccles had the money—’  Sam: ‘And blued it!’ ” (We’ve expanded the citation, based on an early script of the play.)

The OED says the use of “blow” to mean squander or spend lavishly showed up almost three decades after “blue” appeared in this sense.

Oxford’s earliest example is from an 1874 edition of a slang dictionary originally compiled by the English bibliophile and lexicographer John Camden Hotten: “Blew, or blow … to lose or spend money.”

The next citation is from the Sept. 5, 1892, issue of the Daily News (London): “Sometimes you’ll blow a little money … but another week you may make a lot.”

When the verb “blow” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it meant either to produce an air current or to burst into bloom.

The OED’s earliest air citation (with “blow” spelled bláwan in Old English), is from the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), a translation of the four Gospels from Latin into the West Saxon dialect of Old English: “Þonne ge geseoð suðan blawan” (“When the south wind blows”), from Luke 12:55.

The dictionary’s first blooming citation is from Old English Leechdoms, an Anglo-Saxon medical text dated around 1000: “Ðonne heo grewð & blewð” (“When they grow and blow”).

If you’d like to read more about the horticultural sense of “blow,” we answered a question in 2017 about the phrase “blown rose” in Shakespeare.

When “blue” appeared as a verb in the early 17th century, it meant to make blue in color. The earliest OED example is from Joshua Sylvester’s 1606 translation from French of the poetry of Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas:

“Playd the Painter, when hee did so gild / The turning Globes, blew’d Seas, and green’d the field.”

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