The Grammarphobia Blog

The ivied origins of ‘Ivy League’

Q: The Morrises say “Ivy League” comes from the 19th century, when a football league comprising four schools was  designated the “IV League.” This sounds too good to be true. As arbiters of usage, what say you?

A: The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2d ed., 1988), written by William and Mary Morris, presents two theories about the origin of the phrase “Ivy League”—one that it describes as “the more widely accepted” and that we accept too, and one that it calls “fairly plausible” and that we consider an etymological myth.

Let’s look at the facts first. (We’ll discuss the myth briefly later on.)

The term “Ivy League” showed up in writing in the 1930s as a noun phrase for a group of eight long-established colleges and universities in the eastern US: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. In early examples, the phrase was used figuratively for an unofficial sports league representing the colleges.

Most of the dictionaries we’ve consulted trace the usage to the ivy growing on older college buildings. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, explains it this way: “So called because of the ivy-covered older college buildings.”

In fact, the adjective “ivied” and the noun “ivy” were used much earlier to describe the walls of colleges and universities.

Here’s an “ivied” example from “A Reasonable Doubt,” a poem in the January 1888, issue of the Haverfordian, a literary magazine at Haverford College:

“When, from the ivied College Hall / The lights begin to glimmer, / And forth they stroll at even-fall / To watch the starlight shimmer.”

And this “ivy” example, from Red and Black, a 1919 novel by the American writer Grace S. Richmond, describes a country doctor as he prepares to leave for a college reunion:

“He had his ticket and a sleeper reservation—it was fifteen hours’ journey back to the old ivy-covered halls which had grown dearer in his memory with each succeeding year of his absence.”

The earliest known use of the phrase “ivy college,” according to The Yale Book of Quotations, is from an Oct. 14, 1933, football article by Stanley Woodward in the New York Tribune:

“A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.”

The first written example we’ve seen for “Ivy League” used in reference to the eight colleges is in the headline and text of a Feb. 7, 1935, Associated Press sports article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Headline: “Brown Seems To / Have Been Taken / Into ‘Ivy League.’ ” First paragraph: “The so-called ‘Ivy League’ which is in the process of formation among a group of the older eastern universities now seems to have welcomed Brown into the fold and automatically assumed the proportions of a ‘big eight.’ ”

All the examples for “Ivy League” in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 1930s and ’40s use the term in the sense of a sports league. But by the early 1950s, the citations show, the phrase was being used to identify the colleges collectively and to describe the characteristics of the group or the characteristics of its students and graduates.

Here are two OED examples for the new senses from J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye (1951): “My father wants me to go to Yale, or maybe Princeton, but I swear, I wouldn’t go to one of those Ivy League colleges” … “The jerk had one of those very phoney, Ivy League voices, one of those very tired, snobby voices.”

Although the eight colleges had competed against each other in various sports since the 19th century (some since the mid-1800s), it wasn’t until 1945 that their presidents signed the first Ivy Group Agreement, setting  academic, financial, and athletic standards for football teams. In 1954, the presidents voted to extend the agreement to all intercollegiate sports.

As for the myth you asked about, the Morrises cite a single Columbia College graduate as the source of the erroneous belief that the phrase “Ivy League” is derived from the use of a Roman numeral in the phrase “IV League” in reference to a 19th-century sports league that included four teams: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton.

We haven’t found a single written example of “IV League” in newspapers and books from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Representatives of the four schools did meet on Nov. 23, 1876, in Springfield, MA, and agreed on rules for football, according to Football, the American Game (1917), by the football historian Parke Hill Davis. Three of the schools formed The Intercollegiate Football Association, but Yale didn’t join.

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When a bomb goes boom

Q: I’ve come across a cartoon online that raises a good question: If “tomb” is pronounced TOOM and “womb” is pronounced WOOM,” why isn’t “bomb” pronounced BOOM?

A: In the past, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” and probably pronounced that way too. In fact, a “bomb” was originally a “boom,” etymologically speaking.

The two words have the same ancestor, the Latin bombus (a booming, buzzing, or humming sound). The Romans got the word from the Greek βόμβος (bómbos, a deep hollow sound), which was “probably imitative in origin,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Latin noun produced the words for “bomb” in Italian and Spanish (bomba), French (bombe), and finally English, where it first appeared in the late 1500s as “bome,” without the final “b.”

The “bome” spelling was a translation of the Spanish term. It was first recorded in Robert Parke’s 1588 English version of a history of China written by Juan González de Mendoza. Here’s the OED citation:

“They vse … in their wars … many bomes of fire, full of olde iron, and arrowes made with powder & fire worke, with the which they do much harme and destroy their enimies.”

After that, however, the word disappeared for almost a century, reappearing as a borrowing of the French bombe, complete with the “b” and “e” at the end.

The earliest English example we’ve found is from A Treatise of the Arms and Engines of War, a 1678 English translation of a French book on war by Louis de Gaya. A section entitled “Of Bombes” begins:

“Bombes are of a late Invention. … They are made all of Iron, and are hollow … they are filled with Fire-works and Powder, and then are stopped with a Bung or Stopple well closed; in the middle of which is left a hole to apply the Fuse to.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest “bombe” example appeared a few years later: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece” (from the London Gazette, 1684).

The first appearances we’ve found of the modern spelling “bomb,” without the “e” on the end, are from a 1680 edition of The Turkish History, by Richard Knolles. The word “bomb” appears more than a dozen times, as both noun and verb.

Here’s a noun example: “twenty of them were killed that day by one Bomb.” And here’s one with the verb: “the Captain General form’d all the Trenches and Traverses for an Attack, and Bomb’d the Town with twenty Mortar-pieces.”

By the mid-1690s the “bomb” spelling had become established enough to appear in an English-to-French dictionary, Abel Boyer’s A Complete French Mastery for Ladies and Gentlemen (1694): “a bomb, une bombe.” That final silent “b” remained in the word, probably for etymological reasons, forever after.

The pronunciation of “bomb” has varied over the centuries, and it still does. Today three pronunciations are considered standard, according to the OED.

The dictionary, using the International Phonetic Alphabet, gives them as /bɒm/, /bʌm/, and /bɑm/, which we might transcribe as BOM, BUM, and BAHM (the first two are British, the third American).

The three vowels sound, respectively, like the “o” in “lot,” the “u” in “cup,” and the “a” in “father.” Furthermore, the British pronunciations are short and clipped in comparison with the American, which is more open and drawn out.

The second British pronunciation, BUM, was “formerly usual” in the British Army, Oxford says. And it apparently was widespread in the 18th century, since it’s the only pronunciation given in several dictionaries of the time, including the most popular one, John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791).

As for the BOOM pronunciation, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” or “boomb,” suggesting that it was pronounced that way too. The OED cites both spellings in an anonymous 1692 diary of the siege and surrender of Limerick: “600 Booms” … “800 Carts of Ball and Boombs.”

And the dictionary points readers to rhymes in poetry, where “bomb” is sometimes rhymed with “tomb” and “womb,” which were pronounced TOOM and WOOM at the time.

Here’s an Oxford citation from “The British Sailor’s Exultation,” a poem Edward Young wrote sometime before his death in 1765: “A thousand deaths the bursting bomb / Hurls from her disembowel’d womb.”

We’ve found a couple of additional examples in poetry of the 1690s.

In a 1692 poem written in rhyming couplets and based on Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, John Crown rhymes “bomb’d” with “entomb’d.” Here are the lines: “The wealthy Cities insolently bomb’d, / The Towns in their own ashes deep entomb’d.”

And Benjamin Hawkshaw’s poem “The Incurable,” written in rhyming triplets, rhymes “womb,” “tomb,” and “bomb.” These are the lines: “It works like lingring Poyson in the Womb, / And each Day brings me nearer to my Tomb, / My Magazin’s consum’d by this unlucky Bomb.” (From Poems Upon Several Occasions, 1693.)

What’s more, the word “boom” (for a loud hollow noise) was sometimes spelled “bomb” or “bombe,” which suggests that the pronunciations occasionally coincided.

This example, cited in the OED, is from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, a natural history, or study of the natural world, published in 1627, a year after his death:

“I remember in Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, there was an Vpper Chamber, which being thought weake in the Roofe of it, was supported by a Pillar of Iron … Which if you had strucke, it would make a little flat Noise in the Roome where it was strucke; But it would make a great Bombe in the Chamber beneath.” (We’ve expanded the citation to give more context.)

And we found this example in a work that discusses sound production, Walter Charleton’s A Fabrick of Science Natural (1654): “As in all Arches, and Concamerated or vaulted rooms: in which for the most part, the sound or voyce loseth its Distinctness, and degenerates into a kind of long confused Bombe.”

In short, it’s safe to say that that “bomb” was probably pronounced BOOM by some educated speakers in the 17th century.

As we’ve noted, the word didn’t appear until 1588, during the modern English period. As far as we know, the final “b” was never pronounced. But the other words you mention, “womb” and “tomb,” are much older, and the “b” in their spellings was originally pronounced.

In the case of “womb,” a Germanic word that dates back to early Old English, it originally had a different vowel sound, too. But beginning in the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1500), the “oo” vowel sound developed and the “b” became silent.

As for “tomb,” a Latin-derived word that English borrowed from the French toumbe around 1300, it came with the “oo” vowel sound, and the “b” became silent in later Middle English. The “b” remained in the spelling, though in the 16th and 17th centuries the word occasionally appeared as “toom” or “toome,” according to OED citations.

Several other words ending in “b” (“lamb,” “dumb,” “comb,” “climb,” “plumb”) originally had an audible “b,” but it became silent during the Middle English period. Linguists refer to this shift in pronunciation from “mb” to “m” as an example of “consonant cluster reduction.”

We wrote a post in 2009 about other kinds of spelling puzzles—why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme, and why silent letters appear in words like “sword” and “knife.” And in 2017 we discussed “-ough” spellings (“enough,” “ought,” “though,” “through,” etc.), which are pronounced in many different ways.

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A verb to be suspicioned?

Q: I recently saw this pitch online for a silk throw: “Comes complete with the Hyena label to show you really are as cool as your friends had suspicioned!” I can’t believe that use of “suspicion” as a verb is ever correct. Or am I just behind the times? (I’m almost 65.)

A: You can find the verb “suspicion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, as well as in several standard dictionaries.

However, the usage is variously described as informal, dialectal, colloquial, or substandard. We’d add unidiomatic—that is, not natural for a native speaker of standard English.

The use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect” appeared in English in the early 1600s, according to the OED, but this early sighting “appears to be a fortuitous occurrence unrelated to later uses.”

Here’s the early outlier: “Suspicioning of himselfe, that if he should grow negligent, he might come to loose his magnanimity” (from the English scholar Nicholas Ferrar’s translation, sometime before his death in 1637, of a treatise by the Spanish religious writer Juan de Valdés).

The usage, described as “dialect and colloq.” in the OED, reappeared in the early 1800s on the other side of the Atlantic, and it’s been found since then in both American and British English.

The earliest US example we’ve seen, cited by the Dictionary of American Regional English, is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, a New Englander, about his travels in the South and West:

“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense … as … to suspicion one.” (Knight, who later became an Episcopal clergyman, published a collection of his letters in 1824 under the pseudonym “Arthur Singleton, Esq.”)

The OED’s first 19th-century British example (from Frederick Marryat’s Diary in America, 1839) quotes an American: “I suspicion as much.”

The next one is from Stanton Grange: or, At a Private Tutor’s (1864), by John Christopher Atkinson: “They suspicioned all wasn’t reet” (“right” was pronounced “reet” in some British dialects).

DARE describes the usage as “old-fash.” and says it’s especially found in the  South and South Midland regions of the US.

The regional dictionary has more than two dozen US examples. The latest four, dated 1986, are from Tennessee (“They suspicion he did it”), Georgia (“Where you might be suspicioned”), Arizona (“It was suspicioned”), and Florida (“They sort of suspicioned”). DARE cites the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States: Concordance, edited by Lee Pedersen, for these four examples.

The OED citations indicate that the verb “suspicion” is usually transitive (with an object), as in Mark Twain’s 1876 novel Tom Sawyer: “Anybody would suspicion us that saw us.”

But the verb is occasionally intransitive, as in “An Habitation Enforced,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling in the August 1905 issue of Century Magazine: “An’ d’you mean to tell me you never suspicioned?”

We’ve found four standard dictionaries that include the use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect.” It’s labeled “informal” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), “chiefly dialectal” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “Informal or Dial.” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), and “chiefly substandard” in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

As for the etymology, the noun and verb “suspicion” as well as the noun, adjective, and verb “suspect” ultimately come from suspicĕre, classical Latin for “look up to,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As Ayto explains, suspicĕre “evolved metaphorically along two lines: ‘look up to, admire,’ which has since died out, and ‘look at secretly,’ hence ‘look at distrustfully,’ which has passed into English.”

The English word “suspect” comes from suspect-, the past participial stem of suspicĕre, while the English word “suspicion” comes from suspectio, a medieval Latin derivative of suspicĕre.

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When writing is ‘boilerplate’

Q: Why are standard clauses in contracts and stock phrases in speeches called “boilerplate”? I can’t see what this usage has to do with boilers or plates.

A: When “boilerplate” first appeared in mid-19th-century English, it referred literally to the rolled iron plates used to make steam boilers.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from an 1860 history of coal mining and iron making by William Fordyce:

“The Staffordshire iron-masters enjoyed almost exclusively the advantages conferred by the rolling-mill in the production of various descriptions of Iron, such as nail-rods, boiler-plates, hoop and sheet iron, wire &c.”

And this example is from Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines (1875), by Robert Hunt and Frederick William Rudler:

“Boiler Plate: ‘Sheets of iron used for making boilers, and now largely employed for constructing railway bridges, ships, tanks, &c.’ ” The OED uses a different example from Ure’s Dictionary.

In the late 19th century, according to Oxford citations, the term “boilerplate” also took on the sense of “syndicated matter issued to the newspaper press.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an Aug. 18, 1893, item in the Congressional Record about the use of political handouts as news: The country weeklies have been sent tons of ‘boiler plates’ accompanied by … letters asking the editors to use the matter as news.”

But we’ve found several earlier examples. In the two earliest, an Arizona newspaper, the Daily Tombstone, calls a competing paper “the ‘boiler plate’ ” because of its reliance on syndicated material.

In its April 10, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The vandal who edits the ‘boiler plate’ around the corner … uses the columns … to vent his spleen upon the Irish, and continues to do so in every issue.”

And in its April 23, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The ‘boiler plate’ this morning uses language … which is unfit for publication, let alone to go into families where there are young children.”

We also found this example from the July 19, 1888, issue of the Stark County Democrat in Canton, OH: “It is conceded that our esteemed evening contemporary is printed largely from boiler plate matter, and not from type set up by home labor in the home office.”

So why was syndicated news copy referred to as “boilerplate”?

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “The syndicates delivered that copy on metal plates with the type already in place so the local papers wouldn’t have to set it. Printers apparently dubbed those syndicated plates boiler plates because of their resemblance to the plating used in making steam boilers.”

“Soon boilerplate came to refer to the printed material on the plates as well as to the plates themselves,” M-W adds. “Because boilerplate stories were more often filler than hard news, the word acquired negative connotations and gained another sense widely used today: ‘hackneyed or unoriginal writing.’ ”

In our research, we came across an interesting description of boilerplate editing in the 19th century:

“In these days of ‘boiler plate’ most of the editing … is done with an axe and a saw. The ‘plate’ matter is cut so as to fill whatever space is allotted to it, and after that is done the paper is ready for the press.” (From the Oct. 20, 1894, issue of Our Paper, the newspaper at a reformatory in Concord Junction, MA.)

It’s hard to tell exactly when the term “boilerplate” came to mean formulaic writing. Many of the examples we’ve seen in searches of digitized books and newspapers could be using the term for either syndicated material or formulaic writing.

The earliest definite example that we’ve found is from Influencing Human Behavior, a 1925 book by the American writer and lecturer Harry Allen Overstreet: “The inveterate cliché-ist is apt to be the inveterate platitudinarian. He is animated boiler plate.”

Finally, the use of “boilerplate” for standard legal clauses apparently showed up in the second half of the 20th century. We haven’t seen an earlier legal example than this expanded OED citation from Doll, a 1965 novel in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of police procedurals:

“The rest of the will was boilerplate. Meyer scanned it quickly, and then turned to the last page where Tinka had signed her name.”

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‘Whatever’ or ‘what ever’?

Q: Is the one-word or two-word form correct here? Or are both correct? If not, which is preferred? And why? (1) Whatever happened to so-and-so? (2) What ever happened to so-and-so?

A: The compound words formed with the adverb “ever” were originally two separate words, though today they’re nearly always written as one: “whoever,” “however,” “wherever,” and so on.

But in the case of “what” + “ever,” you have a choice when asking a question. “Whatever” is more common, but “what ever” is also used to underscore the emphatic nature of “ever” (as in “What ever do you mean?” or “What ever could have happened?”).

Most standard dictionaries don’t include a separate entry for “what ever.” The few that do say “what ever” is more emphatic than “whatever.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, says “what ever” is “used for emphasis in questions, typically expressing surprise or confusion,” and it gives this example: “What ever did I do to deserve him?”

The online Macmillan Dictionary says the two-word version is “used for emphasizing a question, especially when you are surprised or upset,” and gives this example: “What ever gave you that idea?”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has no separate entry for “what ever,” but mentions it in a usage note in its entry for “whatever”:

“Both whatever and what ever may be used in sentences such as Whatever (or What ever) made her say that? … In adjectival uses, however, only the one-word form is used: Take whatever (not what ever) books you need.”

We mention “whatever” (also “whatsoever”) in a 2011 post we wrote about similar two- and three-word compounds. Among the other words we discuss are “albeit,” “heretofore,” “inasmuch,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and “notwithstanding.”

Most of the “ever” combinations came along during the Middle English period—roughly from the late 11th to the late 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Although they started out as phrases, they’re now “usually” or “always” written as single words, depending on where you look in the OED.

As the dictionary explains, “ever” is used “following interrogative adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions (e.g. how, what, when, where, who, why), to intimate that the speaker has no idea of what the answer will be.”

So the “ever” in “whatever” lends emphasis to a question that could very well be asked with “what” alone. (In fact, “whatever” is sometimes called an emphatic interrogative pronoun.)

And the two-word “what ever,” which isolates and underscores the “ever” part of the compound, further accentuates the note of surprise, bewilderment, or disbelief.

The earliest “ever” compound, and the only one known to have existed in Old English, was the pronoun “whoever” (written hwa æfre), according to Oxford citations.

The others, along with the dates they first appeared, include the pronoun and adjective “whatever” (written “what euer,” early 1300s); the adverb “however” (“hou-euer,” c. 1380); the adverb and conjunction “whenever” (“whanne evere,” c. 1380), the adverb and conjunction “wherever” (“ware euere,” c. 1275); and the adverb “why ever” (1660), the only one still generally written as two words.

The OED’s earliest citation for “whatever” is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “But what euer he had in þouȝt” (“But whatever he had in thought”). Here the word is a pronoun introducing a clause.

Soon the compound was also being written as one word, as in this OED example: “Son, what may al this noys be … Whateuer sal it sygnyfy?” (From a manuscript of The Seuyn Sages that probably dates from around 1330.) Here the pronoun is interrogative.

The OED has many examples of both “whatever” and “what ever” over the centuries. And the two-word version is still around, as in this citation from Vanity Fair in November 2013: “What ever happened to style?”

“Whatever” is also used following a noun to mean something like “at all,” in which case it behaves like an adverb. The examples range from 1623 (“more withered and dry than … any other Tree whateuer”) to 1884 (“had no chance whatever”). In this usage, it’s always one word.

And as we all know, “whatever” is also used as an interjection in a sometimes dismissive way, as in “Yeah, whatever.”

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker’s reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.”

Oxford labels the usage colloquial and says it originated in the US. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1965 episode of the TV series Bewitched.

As fans of the sitcom will recall, Samantha’s mother, Endora, persisted in mispronouncing her son-in-law’s name. Here’s the exchange cited in the OED:

Endora. “Good morning, Derwood.”
Samantha. “Darrin.”
Endora. “Whatever.”

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What the rooster useter do

Q:I run a class for language-obsessed retirees in Australia, where “useter” is commonly used for “used to,” as in “I useter drive a Volvo” or “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” May I ask you to write about this usage?

A: The word spelled “useter” represents the way some people pronounce “used to”—same meaning, different spelling. And it’s found in the US and Britain as well as in Australia.

So a sentence spoken as “I useter drive a Volvo” would be written more formally as “I used to drive a Volvo.” And the question “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” would be written as “Didn’t you use to drive a Volvo?”

The spelling “useter” arose as a variant “representing a colloquial pronunciation of used to,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When “useter” appears in the dictionary’s written examples, it’s always an attempt to imitate the spoken usage.

The OED cites published examples of “useter” in both American and British English dating from the mid-19th century. In its earliest appearance, the word is spelled “use ter”:

“You don’t know no more ’bout goin’ to sea than I knows about them ’Gyptian lookin’ books that you use ter study when you went to College.” (From an 1846 novel, The Prince and the Queen, by the American writer and editor Justin Jones, who wrote fiction under the pseudonym Harry Hazel.)

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper, the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), dated June 14, 2003: “They useter ’ave a big Rockweiler … but it got nicked.”

Among the OED’s examples is one spelled “useta,” representing what’s probably the more common American pronunciation:

“I useta beg her to keep some of that stuff in a safe-deposit box.” From The Burglar in the Closet (1980), by the American mystery writer Lawrence Block.

As we said in a recent post, this sense of “use” in the phrase “used to” refers to an action in the past that was once habitual but has been discontinued.

We won’t say any more about the etymology of “use,” since we covered it in that post. But we’ll expand a bit on the sense of “use” as a verb that roughly means “customarily do.”

This sense of “use” has died out in the present tense. A 17th-century speaker might have said, “John uses to drink ale,” but today the present-tense version would be “John usually [or customarily or habitually] drinks ale.”

In modern English, this sense of “use” is found only in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally he drives a Ford, but he used [or did use] to drive a Volvo.”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, the phrase sounds like “use to,” and people sometimes write it that way in error.

As the OED explains, the “d” and the “t” sounds in “used to” became “assimilated” in both British and American English, and “attempts to represent these pronunciations in writing gave rise to use to as a spelling for used to.” The “use to” spelling “occurs from at least the late 17th cent. onwards,” the dictionary says.

Another irregularity is that people commonly—but redundantly—use “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to drive a Volvo?” But with “did,” the normal form is “use” (“Did he use to drive a Volvo?”).

As Pat explains in her book Woe Is I, “did use” is another way of saying “used,” just as “did like” is another way of saying “liked.” And just as we don’t write “did liked,” we shouldn’t write “did used.” She gives this usage advice:

  • If there’s no “did,” choose “used to” (as in “Isaac used to play golf”).
  • If there’s a “did,” choose “use to” (as in “Isaac did use to play golf” … “Did Isaac use to play squash?” … “No, he didn’t use to play squash”).

As you’ve noticed, questions and negative statements like those last two are sometimes constructed differently.

Americans, and many speakers of British English, typically say, “Did he use to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he didn’t use to drive a Volvo.”

But sometimes, sentences like these get a different treatment in British English: “Used he to drive a Volvo?” …”Usedn’t he to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he used not [or usedn’t] to drive a Volvo.”

What’s happening in those negative examples? The OED says that “not” sometimes directly modifies “use,” resulting in “the full form used not… although usedn’t occasionally occurs as well as usen’t.”

In closing, we’ll share a few lines from Irving Berlin’s 1914 song “I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm)”:

I miss the rooster,
The one that useter
Wake me up at four A.M.

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Are you feeling cantankerous?

Q: Many of the recent articles about John McCain have described the late senator as “cantankerous,” which leads me to ask you where this odd-looking word comes from.

A: When the word first appeared in writing in the early 1700s, it was described as a term in the Kentish dialect spoken in southeast England. In the late 1700s, it was said to be a term in the Wiltshire dialect in southwest England.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the dialectal usage may have evolved from the Middle English contak or conteke (quarreling) and contekour or conteckour (a quarrelsome person)—perhaps influenced by a word like “rancorous.”

The OED defines “cantankerous” as “showing an ill-natured disposition; ill-conditioned and quarrelsome, perverse, cross-grained.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from An Alphabet of Kenticisms (1736), by the antiquarian Samuel Pegge: “Contancrous, peevish, perverse, prone to quarrelling.”

The next Oxford example is from She Stoops to Conquer, a 1773 comedy by Oliver Goldsmith: “There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous toad in all Christendom.”

This citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Rivals, a 1775 comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan:

“But I hope, Mr. Faulkland, as there are three of us come on purpose for the game—you won’t be so cantanckerous as to spoil the party by sitting out.”

And in this entry from A Provincial Glossary: With a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (2nd ed., 1790), the lexicographer Francis Grose tracks the usage to Wiltshire: “Contankerous. Quarrelsome. Wilts.”

The first OED example with the modern spelling cites a March 24, 1842 letter by the English author Mary Russell Mitford addressed “To Miss Barrett, Wimpole Street”:

“I rather have a fancy for Mr. Roebuck, who is as cantankerous and humorous (in the old Shakesperian sense) as Cassius himself.” (From an 1870 collection of Mitford’s letters, edited by Alfred Guy Kingan L’Estrange.) John Arthur Roebuck was a British politician.

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Aurelians or lepidopterists?

Q: I’m writing an article about a European lepidopterist, and I’ve discovered that a butterfly collector in Europe is sometimes called an aurelian. I’ve found several tangential connections to a Roman emperor, but nothing solid. Can you help me explain the usage to my readers?

A:Yes, “aurelian” is a rare old term for “lepidopterist.” It’s still alive, though barely. We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and only one includes the usage. Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “a collector and breeder of moths and butterflies.”

The noun isn’t related to Aurelian, the third-century Roman emperor whose Latin name was Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus. It’s derived from “aurelia,” the chrysalis or pupa of an insect. The chrysalis, as you know, is the hardened outer covering of the pupa, an insect in the immature, non-feeding stage between larva and adult.

The words “aurelia” and “chrysalis” are ultimately derived from the Latin and Greek terms for gold, aurum and χρῡσός (chrisos).

The Latin chrȳsallis comes from the Greek χρυσαλλίς (chrysalis), meaning “the gold-coloured sheath of butterflies,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Although some butterfly chrysalises are gold in color, others are black, brown, green, pink, purple, and so on.

The first of these terms to show up in English was “aurelia,” which the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines as “the chrysalis or pupa of an insect, esp. of a butterfly. (Now scarcely in use, chrysalis being the ordinary term.)”

The earliest example in the dictionary for “aurelia” (as the plural “aureliaes”) is from a 1608 treatise on zoology by the English clergyman and writer Edward Topsell: “All Catterpillers are not conuerted into Aureliaes.”

The term “chrysalis” (in the plural “chrysallides”) appeared in 1658 in an expanded version of Topsell’s treatise that was revised posthumously: “Transmutations … of Catterpillers … into Chrysallides (that shine as if leaves of gold were laid upon them).”

As for the people who study butterflies, moths, and other insects, the terms “entomologist” and “aurelian” appeared in writing in the late 18th century and “lepidopterist” in the 19th century.

The first OED citation for “entomologist” is from an April 18, 1771, report in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: “The entomologists have ranked the bivalve insects under the genus of the monoculi.” (The italics here are in the original, though not in the Oxford citation.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the noun “aurelian” is in the title and text of a 1766 book by the English entomologist Moses Harris: The Aurelian: or, Natural History of English Insects; Namely, Moths and Butterflies. The subtitle says the book uses the “standard names, as given and established by the worthy and ingenious Society of Aurelians.” (The OED cites a 1778 edition of the book.)

In his preface, Harris notes that the Society of Aurelians used to meet in the 1740s at the Swan Tavern in London, but disbanded after March 27, 1748, when a fire destroyed the tavern along with the society’s specimens, illustrations, and library. Harris formed a new Aurelian Society in 1762, one of several short-lived societies with that name. We haven’t found any earlier written mention of the first society.

”Lepidopterist,” the latecomer entomologically as well as etymologically, appeared in the early 19th century. The OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from An Introduction to Entomology; or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects (1826), by William Kirby and William Spence:

“If a Lepidopterist goes into the wood to capture moths in the day-time, he finds them often perched on the lichens that cover the north side of the trunk of a tree, with their wings and antennae folded.”

Oxford says the term comes from Lepidoptera, modern Latin for a “large order of insects, characterized by having four membranous wings covered with scales; it comprises the butterflies and moths.”

Interestingly, this modern Latin term is derived from the old Greek words λεπίς (lepis, scale) and πτερόν (pteron, wing). A modern Latin word made of two old Greek terms? Well, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

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A technical question

Q: The NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, recently emailed employees to announce the creation of a new position: Associate Director for Technical. If you are not as disconcerted as I am by this use of “technical” without a noun, please help me to accept it and move on.

A: It takes a lot to disconcert us, but we do feel the need for a noun here. Associate director for technical what? Because “technical” is principally an adjective, we expect it to be followed by the noun it modifies.

In this case, the adjective could be short for “technical support,” “technical services,” “technical management,” “technical operations,” and so on.

In fact, such terms appear in many titles at other NASA centers: “associate director for technical management,” “associate director for technical issues,” “associate director for technical activities,” “associate director for technical efforts,” and “associate director for technical affairs.”

However, the NASA website also has many noun-free titles, including “associate director technical,” “associate director/technical,” “associate director, technical,” and “associate director (technical).”

To be fair, a title like “associate director for technical efforts” may be more idiomatic than “associate director for technical,” but it doesn’t tell us much more about what the job entails. That may explain why NASA apparently doesn’t have a consistent style for using the word “technical” in job titles.

We’ve emailed NASA to ask what “associate director for technical” means in the announcement that disconcerts you. But we’ve gotten no response.

The word “technical” is occasionally used as a noun in itself, but not in any way that would clarify that job description.

We sifted through the definitions in major American and British dictionaries and came up with four principal uses of “technical” as a noun. Here they are, along with the earliest dates recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, where available:

  1. In sports lingo, the noun “technical” (1917) means what it’s short for, a “technical foul” (1878).
  2. In stock-market terminology, “technicals” are indicators of how markets typically behave. The OED has no entry for this noun, but it has one for “technical analysis” (1902), which tries to forecast market activity based on past trends.
  3. In business-speak, a “technical” (or a “tech”) can mean a technology company. This use isn’t recorded in the OED, but it’s found in Longman’s Business Dictionary, which says it originated in journalism.
  4. In military language, and usually in the plural, “technicals” (1992) are small, light trucks fitted with machine guns or other weapons, generally used by guerrillas or irregular troops. The fighters who ride in such vehicles are also called “technicals” (1992).

As for the etymology of “technical,” Oxford says it was borrowed either from post-classical Latin (technicus) or from ancient Greek (τεχνικός). The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Greek word (tekhnikós in our alphabet) is the most likely source.

Chambers makes a good case. The Greek adjective tekhnikós means having to do with art, and is derived from tékhnē, a noun for art, skill, craft, or trade. But the Latin technicus, Chambers says,” was known only as a noun in the sense of a teacher or skilled artisan.”

When the adjective “technical” entered English in the early 1600s, the OED says, it was used to describe a person with knowledge, expertise, or skill “in a particular art, science, or other subject.”

The first known use in writing is from a 1617 sermon by the English clergyman and scholar John Hales, who had taught Greek at Eton and Oxford. In the sermon, Hales warns against abuse in the interpretation of obscure and difficult Bible passages:

“Nor to think themselues sufficiently provided vpon their acquaintance with some Notitia, or systeme of some technicall divine.” (Here “divine” is a noun for a theologian.)

Later, as the OED says, the adjective was used to characterize someone “expert in or concerned with applied and industrial sciences.” The dictionary’s most recent example is from the July 19, 1998, issue of the New York Times:

“Microsoft’s technical people think it’s completely obvious that an operating system in 1998 should include Web-browsing services.”

Of course the adjective “technical” is also used more broadly, and these senses are also several hundred years old.

For example, since the 1630s “technical” has referred to “the specialized use or meaning of language in a particular field,” the OED says. The dictionary has citations for “technical sense” (1635), “technical terms” (1666), “technical language” (1808), and “technical classification” (1835).

And since the late 18th century, the dictionary says, a writer or a book that uses specialized terms or requires “specialist knowledge to be understood” has been called “technical.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1779 issue of the Mirror, a short-lived periodical published in Edinburgh: “I have since been endeavouring to make it a little less technical, in order to fit it more for general perusal.”

Another familiar sense of the adjective means “so called” or “strictly so considered.” The earliest example in the OED is a 1779 reference to “a technical, artificial title,” but this 2008 citation from the Styles section of the New York Times is a better illustration:

“Several weeks later Mr. Byrd and Ms. Kalos went on what she described as ‘our technical first date.’ … Two days later they went out alone on what she considers their first real date.”

We won’t go into the many other senses of the adjective “technical,” as applied to products, equipment, processes, activities, and so on. Needless to say, they shed no light on NASA’s use of the word in that job title.

It’s worth mentioning that many other words are related to the ancient Greek noun tékhnē (art, skill, craft, trade). Some of them—along with the first dates given in the OED—are “text” (circa 1369), “context” (perhaps before 1425), “pretext” (before 1535), “architect” (1563), “technology” (1612), “textile,” (1626), “tectonic” (1656), “technicality” (1764), “technique” (1817), “technician” (1833), “technoculture” (1946), and, inevitably, “technobabble” (1981).

Their ultimate ancestor is a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as teks-, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. It has been variously translated as meaning to weave, make, build, or fabricate.

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How factual is a factoid?

Q: My dictionary says a “factoid” can be a questionable “fact” as well as an actual fact that’s trivial. To me these definitions are almost opposites. Has “factoid” always had two meanings?

A: Like many newish words, “factoid” is a work in progress. When it first showed up in English in the early 1970s, it referred to a dubious assumption presented as fact by the news media.

The first published reference to the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Norman Mailer’s 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe.

In the book, Mailer describes factoids as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”

The OED defines this early usage more broadly as “something that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not (or may not be) true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often that it is popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact.”

It says the word was formed by adding the “-oid” suffix to the noun “fact.” The suffix is derived in part from the Latin -oīdēs and in part from the Greek -οειδής. In classical times, according to the dictionary, it meant “having the form or likeness of, like.”

Oxford says a new sense of “factoid,” used chiefly by journalists, appeared in the early 1980s: “A brief or trivial piece of information, esp. any of a list of such items presented together.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the Book World section in the May 16, 1982, issue of the Washington Post: “A great lump of a book that never stirs from its obsessive accumulation of factoids.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. We’ve also checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries, and all but one include both senses.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, has the original meaning (“an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print”) as well as the newer one (“a briefly stated and usually trivial fact”).

Oxford Dictionaries Online (a standard dictionary) lists both meanings, but in reverse order: “A brief or trivial item of news or information” and “An assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.”

The new meaning seems to be gaining in popularity over the old one. It’s now accepted by some 64 percent of the usage panel at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), compared to 59 percent who accept the old meaning. In the dictionary’s fourth edition, only 43 percent accepted the new sense, and the new sense wasn’t even included in the third edition.

In fact, one of the references we’ve consulted, the online Cambridge Dictionary, includes only the new meaning (“an interesting piece of information”) and doesn’t describe the information as trivial.

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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 English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: new words and how they make it into the dictionary.

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Double whammy

Q: This is from a recent hurricane headline in the News & Record, my local paper in Greensboro, NC: “Guilford County could see a double whammy from Florence.” So where does “double whammy” come from?

A: When “whammy” showed up in the late 1930s, it meant an evil spell or bad luck in sports slang. The term “double whammy,” a more powerful spell or misfortune, appeared in the early 1940s, followed by even more powerful whammies that were tripled and quadrupled.

The earliest example we’ve seen, cited in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), is from the February 1937 issue of the American Legion Monthly: “Nearly every player in the game engages in some little practice which he believes will bring him good luck or put the whammy on the other fellow.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which is expanded here, cites The Kid From Tomkinsville (1940), the first book in John R. Tunis’s eight-novel series about the Brooklyn Dodgers:

“Interest round the field now centered in the Kid’s chances for a no-hit game, and already a low murmur rose as the stands saw inning after inning go past without a hit from the visiting club. On the bench everyone realized it too, but everyone kept discreetly quiet on account of the Whammy. Mustn’t put the Whammy on him!”

(Tunis’s book influenced several American writers, including Philip Roth, who mentions The Kid From Tomkinsville and its rookie pitcher Roy Tucker in his 1997 novel American Pastoral.)

By the way, here’s a description, cited in Paul Dickson’s baseball dictionary, of how a Cardinals trainer, Harrison J. Weaver, tried to put the whammy on a Yankee base runner.

“With right hand above the left, each fist clenched except for the pointing, hornlike index and little fingers, Weaver cast his whammy spell on Joe Gordon, the Yankee runner on second base.” (From The Gashouse Gang, 1945, by J. Roy Stockton.)

Al Capp’s use of “whammy” in his Li’l Abner comic strip helped popularize the usage. In 1951, he used both “whammy” and “double whammy” in the speech (or, rather, the speech balloons) of the zoot-suited hillbilly Evil-Eye Fleegle:

Evil-Eye Fleegle is th’ name, an’ th’ ‘whammy’ is my game. Mudder Nature endowed me wit’ eyes which can putrefy citizens t’ th’ spot! … There is th’ ‘single whammy’! That, friend, is th’ full, pure power o’ one o’ my evil eyes! It’s dynamite, friend, an’ I do not t’row it around lightly! … And, lastly—th’ ‘double whammy’—namely, th’ full power o’ both eyes—which I hopes I never hafta use.”

A couple of years after “whammy” first appeared in baseball as an evil spell, the term took on the more general sense of a problem or a misfortune. The earliest example in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from Walter Winchell’s Dec. 4, 1939, On Broadway column: “Six hundred Westchester women put the whammy on those radio romances, calling them ‘insulting.’ ”

Standard dictionaries now define “whammy” as an evil spell, a serious setback, or a calamity, though it’s usually modified when used to mean a setback or a calamity, as in this example from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “Our economy suffered a triple whammy this year—we were hit by Sars, the Iraq war, and then the world economic downturn.”

As for “double whammy,” the most common of the modified phrases, the earliest example we’ve seen is from the Aug. 13, 1941, issue of the Oakland Tribune. Here’s an excerpt from an over-the-top interview with the boxing manager Wirt Ross, who is described by the paper’s sports editor as “the most lovable con man ever to come out of the hills”:

“ ‘I’ve been taking a course in hypnotism from the famous Professor Hoffmeister of Pennsylvania. … When I gave my big police dog the evil eye … he liked to collapse, went out and nearly got himself killed by the neighbor’s pet poodle pooch. Professor Hoffmeister says I don’t get the double whammy to put on human beings until Lesson 9.”

In the early 1950s, “double whammy” took on the modern meaning of a twofold blow or setback. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Oct. 25, 1952, issue of the Indianapolis Recorder.

An article datelined Chicago describes how the manager and co-manager of the lightweight boxing titleholder Lauro Salas “had a double whammy on them. First, their fighter lost the lightweight championship of the world. Second, they lost nearly $800 to an unidentified gunman.”

And here’s an example from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “With the cold weather and the high cost of heating fuel, homeowners were hit with a double whammy this winter.”

Where does “whammy” ultimately come from? As Merriam-Webster explains, “The origin of whammy is not entirely certain, but it is assumed to have been created by combining wham (a solid blow) with the whimsical -y ending.”

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On markets and marts

Q: I’m curious about why the short form of “market” is “mart” and not “mark.” Was the usage influenced by Kmart?

A: No, “mart” appeared in the Middle Ages, hundreds of years before the S.S. Kresge Company opened its first Kmart store in 1962. And it wasn’t a shortening of “market” either, at least not in English. The two terms came into English separately from different sources, though they’re  etymologically related.

“Mart,” which showed up in the early 1400s, comes from Middle Dutch, where marct and its colloquial form mart were derived from the Old Dutch markat. The Dutch words ultimately come from mercātus, classical Latin for market or fair

“Market,” which first appeared in the early 900s, was borrowed from either medieval Latin, Germanic, or French, but it too ultimately comes from mercātus.

When “market” arrived in Old English, it meant a “meeting or gathering together of people for the purchase and sale of provisions or livestock, publicly displayed, at a fixed time and place,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from a document, dated 963, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s to the 1100s: “Ic wille þæt markete beo in þe selue tun” (“I will be at that market in the same town”).

In, the 1200s, “market” came to mean an “open space or covered building in which vendors gather to display provisions (esp. from stalls or booths), livestock, etc., for sale,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s first example is from a sermon written around 1275 in the Kentish dialect: “So ha kam into þe Marcatte so he fond werkmen þet were idel” (“So he came into the market and found workmen that were idle”).

Over the years, “market” has taken on many other senses, including a geographical area for commerce, 1615 (as in “the French market for silk”); the state of commercial activity, 1776 (“the market for wool is weak”); short for “stock market,” 1814; in the compound “supermarket,” 1931; and the operation of supply and demand, 1970 (“the market has many virtues”). Dates are from the first Oxford citations; examples are ours.

When “mart” showed up in Middle English, it referred to a “regular gathering of people for the purpose of buying and selling,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first example is from “The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye,” an anonymous political poem written around 1436:

“And wee to martis of Braban charged bene Wyth Englyssh clothe” (“And we carried a load of good English cloth to the marts of Braban [in the Low Countries]”). From Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History (1861), edited by Thomas Wright.

In the late 16th century, the OED says, “mart” came to mean “any public place for buying and selling, as a marketplace, market hall, etc.” The dictionary’s earliest example, expanded here, is from Churchyards Challenge (1593), a collection of prose and prose by the English author and soldier Thomas Churchyard:

“As nothing could, escape the reach of arts / Schollers in scholes, and merchantes in their marts / Can ply their thrift, so they that maketh gold, / By giftes of grace, haue cunning treble fold.”

Today, “mart” usually refers to “a shop or stall carrying on trade of a specified kind (as shoe mart, etc.),” the OED says, adding, “This latter use is particularly prevalent in the names of retail businesses, esp. in N. Amer.

It’s hard to tell from the dictionary’s citations when “mart” first referred to a single retail store rather than a place housing various vendors. The first clear example, which we’ve expanded, is from the Dec. 17, 1831, issue of a London weekly, the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction:

“It’s good-bye to Wellingtons and Cossacks, Ladies’ double channels, Gentlemen’s stout calf, and ditto ditto. They’ve all been sold off under prime cost, and the old Shoe Mart is disposed of, goodwill and fixtures, for ever and ever.” (From a fictional account of the sale of a family’s shoe store in London.)

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Why tired writing is hackneyed

Q: You’ve used “hackneyed” several times on your blog to describe tired writing, but you haven’t discussed the origins of the word. Just curious.

A: The usage comes from “hackney,” an old term for a hired horse, one that was often overworked and worn out. The ultimate source, however, was probably a village that supplied horses in medieval England.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Probably < the name of Hackney, formerly a village in Middlesex (now a borough in London; 1198 as Hakeneia, 1236 as Hakeneye), probably with reference to supply of horses from the surrounding meadows.”

When the term first appeared in its equine sense, spelled hakeney in Middle English, it referred to a horse used for general-purpose riding, as distinct from hunting, racing, cavalry, and so on.

The OED’s first example, written mostly in Latin, is a 1299 entry in Household Accounts From Medieval England (1992), edited by the historian Christopher M. Woolgar:

“In expensis Lakoc cum uno hakeney conducto de Lond’ usque Canterbire pro tapetis cariandis” (“Expenses of Lakoc [an abbey in Wiltshire] for carrying tapestry by hackney from London to Canterbury”).

The first Oxford example for “hackney” as a horse for hire is from Piers Plowman (circa 1378), the allegorical poem by William Langland: “Ac hakeneyes hadde þei none bote hakeneyes to hyre” (“As for hackneys, they had none but hackneys for hire”).

In the late 16th century, the word “hackney” started being used adjectivally to describe an expression or a phrase made “stale or tired through indiscriminate use; overused; banal,” according to the OED.

The first OED example is from A Theological Discourse of the Lamb of God and His Enemies (1590), by the Anglican clergyman Richard Harvey, who refers to “a monstrous and a craftie antichristian practisser” relying on “hackney sillogismes.”

Meanwhile, writers began using “hackney” as a verb meaning to ride a horse. The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Tragicall Comedie of Apius & Virginia (1575), by R. B. (perhaps Richard Bower).

Here a befuddled character named Haphazard, though apparently speaking nonsense, uses the verb figuratively to foretell his execution:

“Hap was hyred to hackney in hempstrid, / In hazard he was of riding on beamestrid” (“Hap was hired to ride a hangman’s rope, / In hazard he was of riding astride a beam”).

The verb was soon being used, often in the passive, to mean to overuse or make too familiar. The OED cites Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598): “So common hackneid in the eyes of men / So stale and cheape to vulgar companie.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In the 1600s, the dictionary says, “hackney coach” came to mean a “four-wheeled coach for hire.” Later, “hackney cab” and “hackney carriage” referred to horse-drawn and then motor-driven vehicles to carry passengers for a fee.

In the mid-1700s, people began using the term we use today—“hackneyed”—as an adjective to describe a phrase or subject “made trite, uninteresting, or commonplace through familiarity or overuse; stale, tired; banal,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first example is from a comment by the critic William Warburton in a 1747 Shakespearean anthology he edited: “For the much-used hacknied metaphors being now very imperfectly known, great care is required not to act in this case temerariously.”

The most recent Oxford example is from Mortal Rituals (2013), Matt J. Rossano’s book about the survivors of a 1972 Uruguayan Air Force crash: “The hackneyed phrase there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ does have some truth to it.”

As for the short form “hack,” it evolved similarly. Here are the earliest OED dates for some of its senses: horse for hire (1571), driver of a hackney carriage (1661), hireling (1699), trite writing (1710), trite or dull (1759), journalistic drudge (1798), ride a horse (1800), writer of unoriginal work (1927).

Finally, we should mention that the modern “hackney horse” isn’t a worn-out horse for hire. It’s a high-stepping carriage horse popular in harness events. The Hackney Horse Society’s stud book has records for the breed dating back to 1755.

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Lion of the season

Q: I am writing about an 1850 visit of the Premier of Nepal to London. Contemporaneous news accounts referred to him as the “lion of the season.” Perhaps you can enlighten me on the source of the phrase, so I can explain the meaning to readers.

A: When “lion” first showed up in Old English in the early 800s (spelled léa after the Latin leo), it referred to the large carnivorous quadruped with a tufted tail. But by the early 1700s the word was also being used to mean a celebrity.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this figurative sense as a “person of note or celebrity who is much sought after.”

The earliest Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from “St. James’s Coffee-House,” a 1715 poem by Lady Mary Wortley Montague. In the passage, she refers to celebrity-watchers at the opera:

“The opera queens had finished half their faces / And city dames already taken their places; / Fops of all kinds, to see the Lion, run; / The beauties stay till the first act’s begun / And beaux step home to put fresh linen on.”

The next OED example is from a 1774 entry in the journals of the novelist Fanny Burney: “The present Lyon of the Times, according to the Author of the Placid man’s term, is Omy, the Native of Otaheite.”

(The celebrity here is Mai, a Pacific Islander who visited Britain, where he was known as Omai; Otaheite is an obsolete spelling of Tahiti; The Placid Man, a 1770 novel by Charles Jenner, uses “lion” literally and figuratively.)

The third Oxford citation is from an Aug. 1, 1815, letter by Harriet, Countess Granville, about the celebrities she met at a ball in Paris: “The King of Prussia is the only Royal lion.”

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “lion of the season.” The earliest we’ve seen is from an article, headlined “The Chinese Ambassador,” that appeared in the Times, the Sun, and several other British newspapers in December 1842.

The article in the Dec. 10, 1842, issue of the Sun, which cites the Times, begins “His Celestial Majesty proposes, we are told, sending an Ambassador to London,” and includes this sentence: “That he will be the lion of the season, the known hospitality and curiosity of our countrymen forbid us to doubt.”

The figurative use of “lion” to mean a celebrity is apparently derived from an earlier figurative sense of the plural “lions” as celebrated sights, a usage that first appeared in the late 16th century.

Oxford defines the early sense of “lions” as “things of note, celebrity, or curiosity (in a town, etc.); sights worth seeing.”

The earliest OED example is from Neuer Too Late, a 1590 collection of poetry and prose by Robert Greene: “Francesco was no other but a meere nouice, & that so newly, that to vse the old prouerb, he had scarce seene the lions.”

Interestingly, the dictionary says the figurative sense of “lions” as must-see sights comes from the practice of taking tourists to see literal lions.

“This use of the word is derived from the practice of taking visitors to see the lions which used to be kept in the Tower of London,” the dictionary says. The Tower housed a menagerie of wild animals from the 1200s to the 1800s.

In support of a connection between these figurative and literal senses of “lions,” the OED cites three examples that bridge the two usages, including this citation from The Lottery, a 1732 play by Henry Fielding:

“I must see all the Curiosities; the Tower, and the Lions, and Bedlam, and the Court, and the Opera.”

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A fork in the road

Q: Your recent discussion of “forked tongue” prompts this question. The far eastern end of Long Island splits into the North Fork and South Fork, but shouldn’t that really be North Tine and South Tine?

A: It may seem a bit odd, but when a road or an island or a river splits in two—that is, when it “forks”—each direction is generally called a “fork,” not a “tine.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the geographical sense of “fork” as “the place where something divides into branches” as well as “one of the branches into which something forks.”

This all began back in Anglo-Saxon times, when forca, the Old English spelling of the noun “fork,” was borrowed from furca, Latin for a two-pronged tool like a hay-fork or yoke.

The English word originally meant “an implement, chiefly agricultural, consisting of a long straight handle, furnished at the end with two or more prongs or tines, and used for carrying, digging, lifting, or throwing,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from the Homilies of the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (circa 1000):

“Ða cwelleras … wið-ufan mid heora forcum hine ðydon.” (“The executioners … pierced him from above with their forks”). The passage, using the plural forcum, describes the death of St. Lawrence.

The original “pitchfork” (pic-forcken in early Middle English) appeared in Layamon’s Brut, a poem written sometime before 1200, according to the Middle English Dictionary, published by the University of Michigan.

Later, the OED says, “fork” was used for an object “having two (or more) branches,” such as a “stake, staff, or stick with a forked end.” These forks were for propping up a vine or tree (a use first recorded in 1389), or for resting a musket (1591) or a fishing rod (1726).

Interestingly, “fork” didn’t come to the table until four and a half centuries after its first appearance in English.

In this sense, the OED says, the word means “an instrument with two, three, or four prongs, used for holding the food while it is being cut, for conveying it to the mouth, and for other purposes at table or in cooking.”

The OED’s earliest mention is from a will recorded in 1463: “I beqwethe to Davn John Kertelynge my silvir forke for grene gyngour” (“I bequeath to Davin John Kerteling my silver fork for green ginger”). The document was first published in 1850 in Wills and Inventories From the Registers of the Commissary of Bury St. Edmunds, edited by Samuel Tymms.

Early table forks, according to historians, generally had two prongs, as with this 17th-century English fork from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Even into the 19th century, illustrations of table scenes showed people eating with two-pronged forks, as in this 1830s print from the British Museum.

So it’s not surprising that a “fork” in its geographical sense meant something that split into two parts.

The OED doesn’t discuss the use of “fork” in reference to land bodies that divide (like Long Island, which splits into two peninsulas at Riverhead, NY).

This kind of “fork” originally meant the point where a river divides in two or where two rivers join, a sense first recorded in the late 17th century.

The earliest citation in the OED, dated 1692, refers to a location “in the forks of Gunpowder River,” a tidal inlet on Chesapeake Bay. (The quotation was printed in a 1906 issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine.)

In subsequent OED citations, “fork” is used both for the division and for each branch of a waterway: “the forke of the brooke” (circa 1700); “the big fork of said river” (1753); “the fork of the Nebraska” (now the Platte River, 1837); “the north and south forks” (1839); “the east fork of the Salmon River” (1877).

By the mid-19th century, these same usages were being applied to roads—the place where a roadway splits as well as each route taken.

Washington Irving, the OED says, was the first to use the phrase “a fork in the road,” in his Chronicles of Wolfert’s Roost (1855).

And a British travel writer and avid cyclist, Charles Howard, was the first known to use “fork” for a single branch of a road that “forks”:

“Here take the right hand fork” (from The Roads of England and Wales, 1883; the phrases “left hand fork” and “right hand fork” appear a dozen or more times in the book).

Although “fork” is now the usual term for each branch when a road, a waterway, or an island splits, the word “tine” does occasionally show up.

The OED has one example, from Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, an 1876 book by the explorer Richard Francis Burton: “We reached a shallow fork, one tine of which … comes from the Congo Grande.”

More to the point, Wikipedia’s “North Fork (Long Island)” entry says: “At Riverhead proper, Long Island splits into two tines, hence the designations of The South Fork and The North Fork.” However, Wikipedia’s “South Fork” entry is “tine”-less. And none of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked include this sense of “tine.”

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Getting used to it

Q: How did the word “used” come to mean utilized, accustomed, and pre-owned? And why does the second one jangle my sensibilities?

A: Let’s begin with the word “use,” which showed up in English as a verb and a noun in the Middle Ages. The noun ultimately come from the Latin ūsus (a use, custom, skill, habit, or experience), and the verb comes from ūtī (to use) and the past-participle ūsus (used).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that those Latin ancestors have given English such words as “utensil,” “utility,” “utilize,” “usage,” “usual,” “usury,” “abuse” (etymologically, “misuse”), and “peruse” (“use thoroughly”).

The English verb meant “to utilize or employ for a purpose” when it first appeared in Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers doesn’t give a citation, but here’s an example from the poem: “Hii vsede þat craft to lokie in þan lufte; þe craft his ihote astronomie” (“They used that craft to look in the sky; the craft they named astronomy”).

When the noun “use” showed up around the same time in Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that’s believed to date from sometime before 1200, it meant the “act of utilizing or employing a thing.”

Again, Chambers doesn’t give a citation, but here’s an example from the monastic guide: “Þis word habbeð muchel on us” (“You have much use of this word”).

We won’t get into all the various senses of the noun and verb “use” here. Instead, we’ll stick to the three meanings of “used” that you’re asking about: (1) utilized, (2) accustomed, and (3) secondhand.

We’ve already discussed #1, the original meaning of the verb in Middle English. This is still the primary sense of the verb.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, lists this sense first: “To put into service or employ for a purpose: I used a whisk to beat the eggs. The song uses only three chords.”

The “accustomed” meaning of the verb first appeared in the Middle Ages, reflecting the “custom,” “habit,” or “experience” sense of the Latin ūsus. The verb was originally accompanied by a preposition, usually “in” or “to,” but occasionally “of” or “till.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has this early “in” example from the South English Legendary (circa 1300), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures:

“In penance he was so wel yused” (“He was so well used to penance”). The passage is from the “Life of St. Edmund of Abingdon.”

And here’s an early “to” citation from the same story: “So longe hi hem vsede þerto” (“So long she used them thereto”). The “to” here is part of þerto. The citation refers to Edmund’s mother, who accustomed her children to a life of Christian devotion and austerity.

In the late 1300s, the OED says, writers began using the “used to” construction to describe a past action that “was formerly habitual but has been discontinued.”

The first example given is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Polychronicon, a history written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden: “Englische men used for to goo into abbayes of Fraunce.”

The latest Oxford citation is from the Nov. 18, 2012, issue of the Daily Telegraph (London): “I used to go to yoga, Pilates and circuit training and have given all those up.”

The “did use to” construction showed up in the early 17th century to describe such a habitual past action.

The dictionary’s first example is from a 1624 religious tract by James Ussher, a Church of Ireland archbishop and later primate: “In whose language … the Church also did use to speake.”

In the late 19th century, writers began using “used to” passively to describe being familiar or comfortable with something—that is, accustomed to it.

The earliest OED example is from an essay by Edward Gibbon, published posthumously in 1796, referring to those “who are used to the laboured happiness of all Horace’s expressions.”

This more recent citation is from “If You See Her, Say Hello,” a 1975 song by Bob Dylan: “And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off.”

Why, you ask, does this usage jangle your sensibilities? We don’t know. It doesn’t jangle ours. But perhaps, like Dylan, you haven’t gotten used to it.

As for the adjective “used” (technically, a participial adjective), it took on its “secondhand” sense in the late 19th century. The first Oxford example is from an ad in the Sept. 30, 1874, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “New and used furniture.”

And as geezers ourselves, we enjoyed this citation from Pompey, a 1993 novel by Jonathan Meades: “You tell me the name of the geezer who’ll buy a used pacemaker with fifteen thou on the clock.”

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2013 about “used” and “pre-owned.”

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When there’s a ‘there’ there

Q: Some academic colleagues and I have lamented the tendency of other colleagues to write ponderous sentences that begin with “There is” and go on with something such as “a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market.” Do you agree with our biases against “There is” constructions?

A: No, we don’t.

We do agree that a sentence like “There is a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market” would be much stronger as “Regulators tend to ignore the demands of the market.”

And it’s true that many handbooks of writing lament the so-called “dummy,” “pleonastic,” or “expletive” construction, names given to sentences beginning with “It is,” “There is,” or “There are.” Granted, too much of this can make a person’s writing seem weak and tedious.

But the usage shouldn’t be condemned outright. The use of  “it” or “there” as an anticipatory or preparatory subject can be quite useful and in some cases necessary. In fact, great writers have used the construction memorably. Here are two examples from Shakespeare:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (from Julius Caesar, believed written in 1599).

“It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (from Othello, probably written in 1603).

Getting back to the mundane, how else would we talk about the weather? (“It’s sleeting” … “It looks like snow” … “There’s a chance of rain.”)

And in many other types of statements, “it” or “there” is the most reasonable way of beginning.

Constructions like “There’s no way of knowing” and “It’s likely they’ll lose” and “It’s been established that he’s guilty” are more natural and idiomatic than the alternatives (“No way of knowing exists” … “That they’ll lose is likely” … “That he’s guilty has been established”).

In fact, when a subordinate clause is the subject of a sentence (as in those last two examples), the clause routinely follows the verb and the dummy subject “it” precedes the verb.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The subord. clause as subject is most commonly placed after the verb and introduced by a preceding it, e.g. ‘it is certain that he was there’ = ‘that he was there, is certain.’ ” The dictionary’s examples date as far back as the 700s.

In some cases, the use of “it” or “there” as a dummy subject, with the real one placed after the verb, is a handy way to emphasize an element.  “There’s a fly in my soup,” with the delayed stress on “fly,” is more effective than the deadpan “A fly is in my soup.”

The OED also discusses “there” as a “mere anticipative element occupying the place of the subject which comes later.” Its citations from English writing date back to the 800s.

This construction can be used, Oxford says, “for the sake of emphasis or preparing the hearer.” The dictionary illustrates with these examples: “there comes a time when [etc.]” and “there was heard a rumbling noise.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has this example of “it” in an extremely common English construction: “It upset me that she didn’t write.”

Here “it” is a “dummy pronoun filling the subject position,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The meaning of the sentence, they say, is the same as “That she didn’t write upset me.”

But “it” can also fill the object position. The Cambridge Grammar uses this example, which would be difficult to express in any other way: “I find it strange that no one noticed the error.”

In that case, the authors write, the dummy pronoun “it” fills the object position, replacing a true object that has been “extraposed”—the “embedded content clause” beginning with “that.”

We’ve written several times about dummy constructions, including posts in 2015 (about the use of “it” in talking about the weather); in 2014 (about using “it” to clarify a murky subordinate clause); and in 2013 (when the logical subject is an infinitive, as in “It was futile to resist”).

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Let’s give ‘proper’ its props

Q: I’m visiting Britain and just heard the waiter refer to a “proper” latte. This use of the word to express authenticity strikes me as worth thinking about. Americans tend to use “proper” to mean formal, though Aretha sings “give me my propers when you get home.”

A: To most Americans, the adjective “proper” means correct or suitable or decorous, and it appears in phrases like “proper English,” “proper attire,” “proper behavior,” “proper diet,” “proper procedure,” “proper tool,” and so on.

These are the most common senses of the adjective found today in American dictionaries. Those senses are common in the UK too, but the word is also used much more broadly there, according to current British dictionaries.

British speakers commonly use the adjective to mean genuine, as in “a proper doctor,” or excellent of its kind, as in the “proper latte” that got your attention. (These senses of the word aren’t unknown in American English, but they’re less common here than in the UK.)

A couple of other uses are found only in British English, where most dictionaries label them “informal” or “dialectal.” Here “proper” is an adjective similar to “total” (“a proper mess”), an emphatic term used pejoratively (“a proper idiot”), or an adverb like “completely” (“he was proper furious”).

All in all, English speakers certainly have gotten a lot of use out of “proper.”

The word came into English with the Norman Conquest, when it was borrowed partly from French (proper) and partly from Latin (proprius), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In its earliest incarnations, some 800 years ago, “proper” meant largely what it means today.

The OED defines the earliest sense as “suitable for a specified or implicit purpose or requirement; appropriate to the circumstances or conditions; of the requisite standard or type; apt, fitting; correct, right.”

The dictionary says the word is “implied” in its first example, from an early document that actually uses the adverb propreliche (“properly”):

“Lokið hu propreliche þe lauedi in canticis … leareð ow bi hire saȝe hu ȝe schule seggen” (“Look how properly the lady in the canticles … taught you by her words how you shall speak”). The citation from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from before 1200, is found in a passage about how to turn away a would-be seducer.

The dictionary’s first example of the word without the adverbial ending (the proper “proper,” one might say) appeared more than 100 years later. The citation is from a Middle English translation of a French religious treatise, and again the word means suitable or correct:

“amang alle þe heȝe names of oure lhorde, þis is þe uerste and þe mest propre” (“among all the high names of our lord, this is the first and the most proper”). The quotation is from Ayenbite of Inwyt (1340), a title that loosely means “the prickings of conscience.”

That same work was also the first to record “proper” in another sense—characteristic of a particular person, place, or thing. This is the quotation:

“Vor þis wordle is ase a fayre, huer byeþ manye fole chapmen, þet of alle þinges hi knaweþ þe propre uirtue and þet worþ” (“For this world is as a fair, where there are many wicked peddlers who know the proper value and worth of all things”).

The use of “proper” to describe a name or noun that gets a capital letter—what we now call a proper noun—showed up in the early 14th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary gives this example from the story of Mary Magdalene in the South English Legendary (circa 1300), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures: “Heo was icleoped in propre name, þe Maudeleyne” (“She was called in proper name, the Maudeleyne”).

Some of the other meanings of “proper” we’ve mentioned are also many hundreds of years old, according to OED citations. It’s been used to mean admirable or excellent since the 1370s, and it’s meant genuine or real since the 1390s.

The British sense of the word as a derogatory intensifier (as in “a proper idiot”) has also been in use since the late 1300s. In The Legend of Good Women, a poem written by Chaucer around 1385, someone is described as a “propre fol” (“proper fool”).

And even the adverbial usage, in which “proper” means “totally” or “completely,” dates from the mid-15th century. It was recorded in a Scottish poem composed in 1458—“propir plesand of prent” (“proper pleasant of appearance”).

However, the “proper” that we associate with good manners and correct social behavior wasn’t recorded until the early 18th century. The OED defines this sense of the word as “conforming to recognized social standards or etiquette; decent, decorous, respectable, seemly.”

Here’s an example of the usage by Jonathan Swift: “That won’t be proper; you know, To-morrow’s Sunday.” (From A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, 1738. The reference is to spending a Sunday evening promenading “on the Mall.”)

This sense of “proper” wasn’t specifically used to describe people until the early 19th century. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“We dined at a tavern—La, what do I say? … a Restaurateur’s, dear; Where your properest ladies go dine every day.” (From Thomas Moore’s verse novel The Fudge Family in Paris, 1818.)

As we wrote in a 2017 post, the adjective “proper” (like “galore”) sometimes follows the noun it modifies. “Proper” precedes the noun when it means correct (“proper grammar”) or decorous (“proper behavior”), but follows when it refers to a specific place (“the city proper”).

We can’t leave “proper” without paying a little tribute to the late Aretha Franklin.

More than 50 years ago, “proper” took an interesting turn. In African-American usage, it morphed into the plural noun “propers,” a slang term defined in the OED as “due respect, acknowledgement, or esteem.” And Aretha made the term famous.

in her 1967 hit recording of the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Aretha immortalized the word when she sang, “All I’m askin’ in return, honey, is to give me my propers when you get home.”

As William Safire wrote in The New York Times on July 28, 2002: “Her use of propers (which many heard as profits) in the lyric was her own, not in the words originally written and performed by Otis Redding in 1965.”

In Safire’s On Language column, Aretha confirmed her use of the word, as well as its meaning: “I do say propers. … I got it from the Detroit street. It was common street slang in the 1960s. The persons saying it has a sexual connotation couldn’t be further from the truth. ‘My propers’ means ‘mutual respect.’ ”

As of this writing, the OED hasn’t yet cited Aretha’s use of the term. The dictionary’s earliest citation for “propers” is from the Chicago Daily Defender (Jan. 7, 1971): “A level of existence which affords each black man his propers—dignity, pride … and the ability to govern his destiny.”

The dictionary’s next example appeared in the Dec. 4, 1981, New York Times: “The least they could have done was give me my propers.” The speaker quoted was Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings, who said he was “robbed” when his heavyweight boxing match with Joe Frazier was called a draw after 10 rounds.

This use of “propers” was later shortened to “props,” defined in the OED as “due respect; approval, compliments, esteem.” (We briefly mentioned “props” in a 2010 post we wrote about popular terms originating in Black English.)

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a profile of the rap singer Roxanne Shante: “I was one of the first female rappers, but I’ve always gotten my props” (Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1990).

In fact, some commentators have speculated that rap and hip-hop performers first shortened “propers” to “props” in street slang. That seems likely, though 30 years later, “props” has gone mainstream.

The word is found in all the standard American dictionaries (and most of the British ones), though it’s still labeled “slang” or “informal.”

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Me, myself, and I

Q: In the 1960s, I began noticing the use of “myself” as a cover for the inability of the speaker/writer to know whether “I” or “me” is correct. Can you predate that?

A: English speakers have been using “myself” in place of the common pronouns “I” and “me” since the Middle Ages, and the usage wasn’t questioned until the late 1800s, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Critical language mavens argued that “myself’ (and other “-self” words) should be used only for emphasis (“Let me do it myself”) or reflexively—that is, to refer back to the subject (“She saw herself in the mirror”).

Alfred Ayres was apparently the first language writer to question the broader usage. In The Verbalist, his 1881 usage manual, Ayres criticizes the routine use of “myself” for “I”:

“This form of the personal pronoun is properly used in the nominative case only where increased emphasis is aimed at.”

Some modern usage writers still insist that “-self” pronouns should be used only emphatically or reflexively, but others accept their broader use as subjects and objects.

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner objects to the wider usage, while in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Jeremy Butterfield accepts it.

We believe that “myself” and company should primarily be used for emphasis or to refer back to the subject. And we suspect that some people fall back on “myself” when they’re unsure whether “I” or “me” would be grammatically correct.

However, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with using “myself” and other reflexive pronouns more expansively for euphony, style, rhythm, and so on. Respected writers have done just that for centuries, both before and after the language gurus raised objections.

This example is from a letter written on March 2, 1782, by the lexicographer Samuel Johnson: “Williams, and Desmoulins, and myself are very sickly.”

And here are some of the many other examples that Merriam-Webster has collected from writers who were undoubtedly aware of the proper uses of “I” and “me”:

“the pot I placed with Miss Williams, to be eaten by myself” (Samuel Johnson, letter, Jan. 9, 1758);

“both myself & my Wife must” (William Blake, letter, July 6, 1803);

“no one would feel more gratified by the chance of obtaining his observations on a work than myself” (Lord Byron, letter, Aug. 23, 1811);

“Mr. Rushworth could hardly be more impatient for the marriage than herself” (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814);

“it will require the combined efforts of Maggie, Providence, and myself” (Emily Dickinson, letter, April 1873);

“I will presume that Mr. Murray and myself can agree that for our purpose these counters are adequate” (T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1932);

“with Dorothy Thompson and myself among the speakers” (Alexander Woollcott, letter, Nov. 11, 1940);

“which will reconcile Max Lerner with Felix Frankfurter and myself with God” (E. B. White, letter, Feb. 4, 1942);

“The Dewas party and myself got out at a desolate station” (E. M. Forster, The Hill of Devi, 1953);

“When writing an aria or an ensemble Chester Kallman and myself always find it helpful” (W. H. Auden, Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 2, 1967).

In those examples, “myself” is being used for “I” or “me” in three ways: (1) for “I” as the subject of a verb; (2) for “me” as the object of a verb; and (3) for “me” as the object of a preposition.

When “myself” is used as a subject, it’s usually accompanied by other pronouns or nouns, as in the Auden example above. However, the M-W usage guide notes that “myself” is sometimes used alone in poetry as the subject of a verb:

“Myself hath often heard them say” (Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, 1594);

“My selfe am so neare drowning?” (Ben Johnson, Ode, 1601);

“Myself when young did eagerly frequent” (Edward FitzGerald, translation, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 1859);

“Somehow myself survived the night” (Emily Dickinson, poem, 1871).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes “-self” pronouns used expansively as “override reflexives”—that is, “reflexives that occur in place of a more usual non-reflexive in a restricted range of contexts where there is not the close structural relation between reflexive and antecedent that we find with basic reflexives.”

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say (as we do above) that the substitution of “myself” for “me” and “I” may sometimes be the result of uncertainty about the rules for using the two common pronouns.

“Much the most common override is 1st person myself,” Huddleston and Pullum write. “The reflexive avoids the choice between nominative and accusative me, and this may well favour its use in coordinate and comparative constructions, where there is divided usage and hence potential uncertainty for some speakers as to which is the ‘approved’ case.”

The use of override reflexives, especially “myself,” has been “the target of a good deal of prescriptive criticism,” the authors say, adding: “there can be no doubt, however, that it is well established.”

The M-W usage guide, which accepts the moderate use of “myself” for “I” and “me,” notes that the prescriptive criticism has often been contradictory, relying on such labels as “snobbish, unstylish, self-indulgent, self-conscious, old-fashioned, timorous, colloquial, informal, formal, nonstandard, incorrect, mistaken, literary, and unacceptable in formal written English.”

It’s hard to tell when people confused by “I” and “me” began using “myself” as a substitute. But it may have begun in the late 19th century, prompting those early complaints about the usage. Some of those adjectives used by critics (“nonstandard,” “incorrect,” “mistaken,” etc.) may have referred to the English of people with a shaky grasp of grammar.

As for the early etymology, all three of those first-person singular pronouns showed up in Anglo-Saxon times—“I” as the Old English ic, ih, or ich; “me” as mē or mec; “myself” as mē self. In the 12th century the ic spelling was shortened to and gradually began being capitalized in the 13th century, as we wrote in a 2011 post.

In Old English, spoken from roughly the 5th to the 12th centuries, “myself” was used  emphatically or reflexively. In Middle English, spoken from about the 12th to the 15th centuries, “myself” was also used as a subject of a verb, an object of a verb, and an object of a preposition.

Here’s an early example from the Oxford English Dictionary of “myself” used as the subject of a verb: “Sertes, my-selue schal him neuer telle” (“Certainly, myself shall never tell him”). It’s from The Romance of William of Palerne, a poem translated from French sometime between 1350 and 1375.

And this is an example of “myself” as the object of a verb: “Mine þralles i mire þeode me suluen þretiað” (“My servants and my people shall threaten myself”). From Layamon’s Brut, a poem written sometime before 1200.

Finally, here’s “myself” used as the object of a preposition: “Þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“The lands that he has he holds for myself”). Also from The Romance of William of Palerne.

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All the feels

Q: Lately I’ve been seeing “all the feels” and similar phrases on social media, as in “This film gives me all the feels.” I’ve even seen it in movie reviews. Where does this come from?

A: Yes, the use of “feels” to mean deep feelings (as in “Casablanca gives me all the feels”) is definitely out there, and the usage is beginning to make it into standard dictionaries.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, in its US and UK editions, describes the usage as informal, as does Dictionary.com, which is largely an updated, online version of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

Oxford Dictionaries defines “feels” in this sense as “feelings of heightened emotion,” and gives several examples: “fans will undoubtedly get the feels when they see how things haven’t changed” … “I cried a ton because I had too many feels” … “I cry at everything, even the types of movies you wouldn’t expect to give you all the feels.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary doesn’t have an entry yet for “feels,” but it says the usage is on its radar.

In its “Words We’re Watching” feature, M-W traces the usage “back to a meme created in 2010 by a user on a German image site. The image in question features two embracing men along with the caption, ‘I Know That Feel Bro.’ ” (The  image  was on Krautchen, a now-defunct website.)

“The meme came to be used as a shorthand for expressing empathy, particularly between strangers online,” Merriam-Webster says, adding that “Internet memes are noted for their playful use of disjunctive grammar … so it is possible that feel was used in place of feeling for that same reason.”

The M-W article notes that “feel” already had “plenty of use as a noun, from meanings such as ‘sensation’ (the feel of old leather) to ‘a particular quality or atmosphere’ (an inn that has all the feel of a castle) to ‘an intuitive knowledge or ability’ (has a feel for woodworking).”

We’d add that the noun “feel” has been used since the 1400s to mean “feeling,” and the plural “feels” since the 1700s to mean “feelings,” but that old sense is different from the usage we’re discussing now: deep feelings one has about something, or that something gives one.

The M-W article cites several examples for “feels” used to mean deep feelings, including this one from the May 27, 2017, issue of Teen Vogue:

“If that tear-jerker has you feeling all the feels, just wait for this one: The finale also includes Spencer quoting the Winnie the Pooh line, ‘How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?’ Sob.”

Merriam-Webster says its “Words We’re Watching” feature “talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.”

Will “the feels” finally make it?

“Only time will tell if the feels will last long enough to warrant a new entry in the dictionary,” M-W says. “But for now, to quote Spencer, how lucky are we to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?”

Interestingly, M-W here quotes Spencer Hastings, a character in the TV series Pretty Little Liars, rather than Winnie-the-Pooh. Probably because it’s doubtful that Pooh was the source.

The quotation doesn’t appear in any of A. A. Milne’s stories or the movies based on them, according to a Dec. 30, 2014, post on Pooh Misquoted. The website says the quote is a mangled version of a line in The Other Side of the Mountain, a 1975 movie about Jill Kinmont, a skier paralyzed in a 1955 slalom accident. We also couldn’t find the quote in our Pooh searches.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “feels” to mean strong feelings is from a Jan. 23, 2012, contribution to the collaborative Urban Dictionary: “feel: Shortened version of ‘feeling,’ generally a strong emotional response. ‘This story gave me so many feels’ … ‘I know that feel, bro.’ ”

And here’s one a few months later from the Sept. 18, 2012, issue of the Stanford Daily News: “And let’s not forget the feels. This album might have them all—the melancholy, the awkwardness, the nervous anticipation, the blissed-out nighttime drives with the qtpi [cutie pie] of your dreams and the memories of summer.” (The reference is to I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a 1997 album by the indie rock band Yo La Tengo.)

The earliest example we’ve found for “all of the feels” is from the Sept. 12, 2013, issue of Miscellany News, Vassar’s student newspaper: “Everyone else arrives back on campus; Seniors report feeling ‘all of the feels’ and also ‘really sweaty and broke.’ ”

As you might expect, the word “feel” itself is quite old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the verb “feel” showed up in Old English (as fēlan or a prefixed form, gefēlan), it had several meanings, including to sense heat, cold, pain, and so on, as well as to experience something, especially something unpleasant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an early OED example, which we’ve expanded, from an Old English homily: “Þær næfre heaf ne geomorung ne gnornunge ne granunge bið gehyred, ðær ne bið næfre wite gesewen ne gefeled” (“there never be neither lamentation nor moaning nor groaning, there never be misery neither heard nor seen nor felt”). The final word, gefēled, is the past participle of gefēlan.

When the noun “feel” appeared in Middle English (spelled fele), it had several senses, but most of them are now obsolete. The early meaning that’s seen the most now is a feeling, impression, or sensation, as in “the feel of her hand” or “the feel of the business” or “the feel of a full stomach.”

The first OED citation is from The Buke of the Law of Armys (1456), the Scottish poet Gilbert Hay’s translation of Arbre des Batailles, a 14th-century book about war by the Benedictine prior Honoré Bonet:

“Ane evill carnale fele … the quhilk … dampnis thair saulis perpetualy” (“Any evil carnal feel … which … damns their souls perpetually”).

And this Oxford example for the plural “feels,” which we’ve expanded, is from an undated letter, believed written around 1746, by the English man of letters Horace Walpole:

“But here are no boys for me to send for—here I am, like Noah, just returned into the old world again, with all sorts of queer feels about me.” Walpole is describing his return as an adult to the Christopher Inn at Eton.

The dictionary’s entry for the noun “feel,” which was updated in September 2015, doesn’t include the use of “feels” to mean a deep emotion. But we imagine that the OED, like Merriam-Webster, has the new usage on its radar.

[Note, Sept. 2, 2018: A reader of the blog has pointed out the use of “feels” as a noun in Wild 90, an experimental movie that Norman Mailer directed, produced, and acted in. The movie, filmed in 1967 and released in 1968, has a character who says “You got no feels.” We think “feels” here is being used in the old sense of “feelings,” not the new of sense of “deep feelings” one has about something, or that something gives one.]

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In Jesus’ name or Jesus’s name?

Q: I’m preparing handouts for my sister’s prayer group, but I’m unsure of whether to write “In Jesus’ Precious Name” or “In Jesus’s Precious Name.” I know you’re supposed to add an apostrophe plus “s” to make a name possessive. But isn’t that also how to make a contraction?

A: The form written with an apostrophe plus “s” (that is, “Jesus’s”) can represent either a contraction (short for “Jesus is” or “Jesus has”) or the possessive form of the name.

But in the expression you’re writing, it would clearly be the possessive. There’s no way a member of your sister’s prayer group would think otherwise.

The rule here is the same as it would be for any name—the apostrophe plus “s” at the end can signify either a contraction or a possessive.

For example, “James’s” can be a contraction of “James is” or “James has” (as in “James’s coming” or “James’s grown a beard”), or it can be the possessive form of the name (as in “She is James’s niece”).

But when the name is “Jesus,” there’s a twist with the possessive form. This is because there are two ways to form the possessive of an ancient classical or biblical name that ends in “s.”

The result is that your prayer could correctly be written with either “Jesus’ precious name” or “Jesus’s precious name.”

Why is this? The traditional custom has been to drop the final “s” when writing the possessives of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s.”

However, this old tradition is no longer universally followed. Today the final “s” is optional: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or“Jesus’s teachings.”

How do you decide? Let your pronunciation choose for you.

If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final “s” (“Moses’s”). If you don’t pronounce that last “s” (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.

So our advice is that if you pronounce the possessive form of “Jesus” as JEE-zus, add the apostrophe alone; but if you pronounce it as JEE-zus-uz, then add ‘s.

This advice agrees with the recommendations of The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.), the guide widely used by both commercial and academic publishers.

And if you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2013 about how Jesus got his name.

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When ‘wood’ means ‘wooden’

Q: Are “wood” and “wooden” interchangeable?

A: The words “wood” and “wooden” can sometimes be used for each other, but we wouldn’t describe them as interchangeable.

When used adjectivally to describe something made out of the material from a tree, “wood” and “wooden” mean the same thing (as in “wood shutters” or “wooden shutters”).

But when used figuratively to describe something stiff, awkward, unnatural, or emotionless, only “wooden” will do (“wooden expression,” “wooden performance”).

Even when “wood” and “wooden” mean the same thing, we wouldn’t necessarily consider them interchangeable. The choice of one or the other often depends on rhythm, style, euphony, and so on.

If they were switched in these two passages, the iambic meter would be disrupted:

“Upon a wooden coffin we attend” (from Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part 1, believed written in 1591).

“the very sap of their wood-fewel burning on the fire” (from Milton’s Moscovia, an early work published posthumously in 1682).

Technically, “wooden” is an adjective while “wood” here is a noun used attributively—that is as an adjective. When a noun like “wood” is used adjectivally, it’s often referred to as an attributive noun, a noun adjunct, or a noun premodifier.

In general, adjectives are more flexible than attributive nouns. You can use an adjective as a simple premodifier (“blue scarf”), with an adverb like “too” or “very” (“a very blue scarf”), and as a comparative or superlative (“a bluer scarf”).

You can also use an attributive noun as a premodifier (“a wool pullover”), but it’s unidiomatic to use it with “too” or “very” (“a very wool pullover”) or as a comparative or superlative (“a more wool pullover”).

As for the attributive noun “wood,” it’s used only as a simple premodifier (“a wood floor”). It’s not used with “too” or “very,” or as a comparative or superlative.

However, the adjective “wooden” is quite flexible when used figuratively (“a wooden speech,” “a very wooden speech,” “a more wooden speech”).

Interestingly, the noun “wood” has been used since Anglo-Saxon times for the material that comes from trees, but it wasn’t used adjectivally (as either “wood” or “wooden”) until hundreds of years later.

So how did the Anglo-Saxons describe something composed of the substance that comes from the trunks, branches, and other parts of trees?

In Old English, the adjective describing a thing made of wood was tréowen, tríwen, or trýwen—from the noun tréow (“tree”) and the suffix -en (made of).

The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary has this early example from Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin, written around 995: “ligneus, treowen.” (Ligneus is classical Latin for “wooden.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary has this example from Old English Leechdoms, a medical text written around 1000: “getrifula on treowenum mortere” (“grind in a wooden mortar”). Treowenum is the dative case of treowen. As the object of a preposition, treowenum mortere is dative.

Although this adjective is now obsolete in common usage, it survived until the late 19th century, spelled “treen” in Middle and Modern English, according to the OED. [See the update below.]

As for “wood,” it originally meant “tree” when it showed up in early Old English, spelled widu, wiodu, or wudu. The earliest Oxford example is from a Latin-Old English glossary dated around 725:

Pinus, furhwudu.” The Latin for “pine” is translated here by the Old English for “fir tree.”

The noun “wood” soon took on the sense of a “collection of trees growing more or less thickly together,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is an excerpt in Latin and Old English from Psalm 104:11 in the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript that the British Library dates to the second quarter of the 700s:

Omnes bestiae silvarum, alle wilddeor wuda.” In modern English, “All the beasts of the wood.” (The full passage in the King James Version of the Bible reads: “They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst.”)

A century and a half later, the noun took on the additional sense of the “substance of which the roots, trunks, and branches of trees or shrubs consist,” the OED says.

The earliest example cited is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory:

“Se se ðe unwærlice ðone wuda hiewð, & sua his freond ofsliehð” (“He who carelessly hews the wood, and so slays his friend”).

The use of the attributive noun “wood” and the adjective “wooden” to describe something made of wood both showed up around the same time in the early 1500s.

The first OED appearance for the attributive noun is in a 1538 will registered in the city of York: “All wodde implementes.” (From John William Clay’s Testamenta Eboracensia: A Selection of Wills From the Registry at York, Vol. 6, 1902.)

The earliest Oxford example for the adjective is from Sir Thomas Eliot’s 1538 Latin-English dictionary: “Durateus, wodden.” The usual Latin for “wooden” is ligneus; the less common durateus comes from the Homeric Greek term for the Trojan horse, δουράτεος ἵππος (dourateos hippos, or “wooden horse”).

[Update, Aug. 23, 2018: A reader of the blog comments that “treen” still exists as a term in the field of collectible antiques. It refers to small household objects made of wood—spoons, cups, snuffboxes, shoehorns, and the like.]

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On dignity, with all due respect

Q: I keep seeing and hearing about people “treated with dignity.” Shouldn’t it be “respect”? While I can “respect” your “dignity,” I don’t “treat” you with it; it’s yours to have—not mine to confer.

A: Traditionally, “dignity” has meant the quality of being worthy, honorable, or esteemed, and traditionalists insist on using it that way.

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “Dignity is a quality one possesses. It is not a synonym for respect, so it’s mangled in the phrase treat with dignity.”

However, Garner acknowledges that the “undignified phrase is spreading in American print sources.” We’d add that it’s seen in both the US and the UK, and that it isn’t particularly new.

We’ve found written examples for “treat with dignity” going back hundreds of years. Before we get to them, though, let’s look at how “dignity” is treated today.

Several standard dictionaries accept the use of “dignity” to mean a calm, serious, or formal manner, so to treat someone or something with dignity would mean to treat them calmly, seriously, or formally—that is, in a dignified manner.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, says “dignity” can mean “formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language” as well as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.”

Merriam-Webster cites without comment (that is, as standard) several examples of the “undignified” usage criticized by Garner, including this one: “All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, in its US and UK editions, defines “dignity” as a “composed or serious manner or style” as well as the “state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect” (“honor” is spelled “honour” in the British edition).

Oxford cites without comment six examples of “treat with dignity,” including this one, “We are committed to treating all persons under coalition control with dignity, respect and humanity.”

This sense of “dignity” isn’t quite the same as “respect,” which Oxford defines as “deep admiration for someone or something” or “regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”

In fact, “respect” often accompanies “dignity” in the usage you’re asking about, suggesting that writers feel each word contributes something to the expression.

How common is the usage today?

Here are the results of our searches in the News on the Web corpus, which tracks online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters: “treated with respect,” 2,570 hits; “treated with dignity,” 1,299; “treated with dignity and respect,” 601; “treated with respect and dignity,” 321.

The usage seems to be especially common among health-care providers, as in these examples from the iWeb corpus, a database that follows nearly 95,000 English-language websites:

“Specialist healthcare professionals will make sure you are treated with dignity” … “Patients and their families have the right to be treated with dignity and respect” … “While in our care, patients are treated with dignity, respect and compassion” … “We work hard to ensure every patient receives proper treatment and is treated with dignity and respect” …  “It’s very important that the patient continues to be treated with dignity and they do not suffer.”

We suspect that “treat with dignity” is here to stay, and you’ll just have to get used to it. And as we’ve said, it’s been around for a long time. The two earliest examples we’ve found treat things, rather than people, with dignity.

The earliest is from an Aug. 13, 1736, letter in the Gentleman’s Magazine, commenting on a scholarly exchange of views in the London periodical about the Book of Job.

The author, who refers to himself as “Ignoto” (Latin for “Unknown”), says that in Job “a high philosophic Question is treated with Dignity, and the Decision given in great Majesty.”

(The lexicographer Samuel Johnson was a writer for the Gentleman’s Magazine. And some scholars believe Johnson’s 1755 dictionary may have influenced the author of our next citation.)

In an entry for the Roman historian Tacitus in Bibliotheca Classica (1788), a classical dictionary, the English classicist and lexicographer John Lemprière writes:

“Affairs of importance are treated with dignity, the secret causes of events and revolutions are investigated from their primeval source, and the historian every where shows his reader that he was a friend of public liberty.”

The next example appeared in the July 1792 issue of the Literary and Biographical Magazine and British Review (London). A dispatch from Paris during the French Revolution, dated June 22, 1792, reports on a letter written by the Marquis de Lafayette urging the French National Assembly to respect King Louis XVI:

“M. La Fayette concludes with exhorting the National Assembly to cause the King to be respected and treated with dignity.”

We found many written examples of the expression during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t mention the expression “treat with dignity,” but the OED entry for “dignity” hasn’t been fully updated since it was first published in 1896.

When the noun “dignity” appeared in English in the 13th century, Oxford says, it had three meanings: “The quality of being worthy or honourable” … “Honourable or high estate, position, or estimation” … “a high official or titular position.” The last sense, which has given us “dignitary,” is now archaic.

The earliest written example in the dictionary is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Nis naut edsene inhwich dignete ha is, hu hech is hire cunde” (“Nor is it easily seen of what dignity she [the soul] is, nor how noble is her nature”).

English borrowed the word from the Old French digneté, but the ultimate source is dignitātem, classical Latin for merit or worth, according to the OED.

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Multiple choices

Q: I often hear newscasters refer to a crowd or a group as “multiple people,” which just sounds wrong. I would say “several” or “many,” depending on the estimated number. What do you think?

A: For hundreds of years, the adjective “multiple” has been used to mean “many,” referring either to many things or to one thing made up of many parts.

But as you’ve noticed, the word is widely used these days, especially in the news media, as a substitute for almost any term for an inexact number: “several,” “few,” “many,” “numerous,” and so on.

We’ve found a great many (if not multiple!) examples of this online. Here’s a small sampling from a single day’s news reports:

“multiple people,” “multiple tornadoes,” “multiple vehicle crashes,” “multiple houses,” “multiple crews battling fire,” “multiple crime scenes,” “multiple dive teams,” “multiple roads closed,” “multiple felony counts,” “multiple new construction projects,” and “multiple cybersecurity officials.”

Why do journalists often use “multiple” when there are less imprecise words to choose from, depending on the rough size of the unknown number? We can think of several reasons.

In some cases, the writer may have no idea how many people or things are involved, so a less inexact term like “few” or “numerous” wouldn’t be appropriate. “Multiple” is suitably fuzzy.

In other cases, reporters may want to exaggerate the significance of a story or make their reporting sound more authoritative. An accident with “multiple” victims may sound more important than one with “several.”

Besides, some inexact terms can be used to magnify or minimize a number.

For example, the manufacturer of a defective product might use the terms “few” or “a handful” to play down the number of consumer complaints. But those same terms, used to describe the number of deaths caused by the product, would seem insensitive.

We’ve written before about words for inexact numbers. For instance, we’ve suggested that people may prefer a longer, more educated-sounding word (like “numerous“) to a shorter, everyday adjective (like “many”).

With words for inexact numbers, their meanings can depend on how they’re interpreted. So one person’s “several” might be another person’s “few.” And we even have words for exaggerated, imaginary numbers, like “umpteen” and “oodles.”

Getting back to “multiple,” it can mean an inexact large number or a small one, depending on the context. But unlike the other inexact terms, “multiple” can modify a singular noun or noun phrase, as in “the multiple Oscar nominee” or “a multiple count indictment,” or “the test was multiple choice.”

Before we go any further into the uses of “multiple,” let’s take a look at its etymology.

As you may know, the “multi-” prefix ultimately comes from Latin and means “many” or “much.” English acquired its “multi-” words after the Norman Conquest, mostly by way of French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says, “The majority of English words beginning with multi– before the late 16th cent. are related to or derived < [from] multiply and multitude.

The first, “multiply,” was adopted from Anglo-Norman and Old French sometime before 1275; “multitude,” which is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French and partly from Latin, dates back to around 1350.

As for “multiple,” it’s both a noun and an adjective adopted from Middle French, with the noun arriving first. Its more distant ancestor, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is the Late Latin multiplus (manifold).

In the OED’s earliest citation for “multiple” as a noun, from a document written sometime before 1595, the word means “a multitude, a great number.” But Oxford has only one example, and says that sense of the word is rare or obsolete.

However, other noun usages have survived, mostly with technical or scientific meanings.

For instance, in mathematics, “multiple” has been used steadily as a noun since the 1670s, according to our searches of historical databases.

Oxford defines the mathematical term as a “quantity which contains another quantity some number of times without remainder” or “a quantity which is the product of a given quantity and some other,” and adds: “Thus 4 is a multiple of 2; 6 is a multiple of 2 and 3.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the noun was used in the fields of electricity, telephony, and railway engineering. In these industries, the phrase “in multiple” means something like “in parallel” or “coupled together,” the OED says.

And since the early 1980s, Oxford says, the noun “multiple” has been used in the stock market to mean “a stock price expressed as a multiple of current or projected earnings per share.”

But the word is more commonly an adjective, a usage that dates from the mid-1600s.

It was first used to modify singular nouns and meant “consisting of or characterized by many parts, elements, etc.,” or “having several or many causes, results, aspects, locations, etc.,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example dates from 1647: “That Kings should bow down their necks under the double or rather multiple yoke of Pope and Archbishops.” (From Nathaniel Bacon’s An Historicall Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England.)

Here are some later OED examples: “the multiple development of malignant tumors” (1906); “the speed flash, also known as multiple or electronic flash” (1950); “a multiple fracture of the femur” (1984); “a multiple dovetail joint” (1990).

These days the adjective more often modifies plural nouns, a usage first recorded in the early 1660s. In this sense, the OED says, the adjective means “many” or “plural.”

The earliest sighting in the OED is from a treatise on taxes published by William Petty in 1662: “Why should not the solvent thieves and cheats be rather punished with multiple restitutions than death, pillory, whipping, &c.?”

And here are a few 19th- and 20th-century uses, again from the OED: “multiple ruffs of cloth” (1834); “multiple solutions” (1879); “multiple factors” (1915); “multiple bookings” (1949); “multiple injuries” (1980); “multiple taxes” (2000).

Standard dictionaries generally define the usage today as “more than one” or “many.”

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard dictionary, defines it as “numerous.” However, the examples the dictionary cites use the term as broadly as journalists do—as an inexact number ranging from “several” to “many.”

Here’s a sampling: “multiple locations,” “multiple medals,” “multiple perspectives,” “multiple elements,” “multiple boards,” “multiple medications,” “multiple questions,” “multiple sites,” “multiple counts,” “multiple movies,” and “multiple sources.”

In conclusion, we agree with you that “multiple” sounds strange in some contexts (especially “multiple people”), but we’ll probably just have to get used to it.

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How do you do?

Q: While enjoying old movies, I’ve noticed that one of the most common expressions is “How do you do?” Presumably, this was common in everyday speech as well. But no one, it seems, says that anymore—in film or out. Why the change?

A: It’s true that “How do you do?” has largely been replaced by newer “How” greetings: “How are you doing?” … “How are you?” … “How’s it going?” and so on.

These days, most of us don’t use “How do you do?” as the offhand, casual greeting it once was. We reserve it for formal introductions.

But all of these expressions are part of a long history of English pleasantries beginning with “how,” a tradition that got its start with “How do you?” in the Middle Ages.

Here the adverb “how” means “in what condition or state,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. And in this sense, “how” appears in “common phrases used in inquiring as to a person’s health.”

The original formula, dating at least as far back as the 1300s, was “how do” + pronoun (or name).

The OED‘s earliest example is from the Towneley Mystery Plays, dramatic depictions of biblical scenes that were probably first performed in the 1370s. (The only surviving manuscript is later, dating from sometime before 1460.)

This is the relevant line: “How do thay in Gessen, The Iues, can ye me say?” (“How do they in Goshen, the Jews, can you tell me?”)

In searches of early English databases, we’ve found many 15th, 16th, and 17th-century examples of this “how do” formula. Here’s a sampling (we’ll dispense with the question marks, since most aren’t complete sentences):

“how doth sir tristram” (1485); “how do ye mayster” (1499); “how doth my lady” (1560); “how doth my sonne” (1565); “how doest thou” (1548); “sir how do you” (1561); “how do ye to day” (1565);  “how dost thou” (1577); “How does all our friends in Lancashire” (1600); “how doeth my cousin” (1601); “how does thy mistrisse” (1608); “how do all our friends in Hampshire” (1693); “how does my lady” (1696).

In usages like that, “do” is the principal verb and its meaning is similar to “fare,” as in “How fare you?” But in the early 1600s another “do” crept into the formula, and “how do you” eventually became “how do you do,” with the first verb a mere auxiliary—as it would be in “How do you fare?”

The earliest example of “how do you do” that we’ve been able to find is from Thomas Middleton’s comic play No Wit/Help Like a Womans, which Middleton scholars say was written and first staged in 1611: “Gentlemen, Out-laws all, how do you do?” (OED examples are not as old, since the dictionary’s “how” entries are not yet fully updated.)

The next example we found appeared after a gap of 45 years. It’s from Richard Flecknoe’s The Diarium (1656), a diary in comic verse: “Visits I made me two or three, / With reverence not very comely, / And complements indeed as homely; / As for example; ‘How do you do?’ /’Well I thank ye, How do you?’ ”

(Note that the author regarded “how do you do” as a “homely” compliment, suggesting that it was already a familiar greeting even then.)

We’ve also found several examples from the 1690s of “how dost thou do,” a more formal version of “how do you do.” And by 1700, according to our searches, the “how do you do” form had begun to replace the older “how do you.”

As is often the case with well-entrenched salutations, both versions spawned many abbreviated forms.

The OED mentions “how-do-ye,” “how-d’ye,” and “how dee,” which eventually became—you guessed it—”howdy”! The spelling “how dee” (as in “How dee neighbour”) appeared around 1600, the OED says. The earliest “howdy” spelling we’ve found is from 1694.

(All this, by the way, sheds new light on Howdy Doody, the famous puppet whose name is a mashup of these greetings. In Elizabethan times, he might have been known as “How-d’ye Do-d’ye.”)

Besides “do,” the common “how” greetings” include forms of the verbs “be” and “go.”

The OED has these as its earliest examples: “how is it with you” (1480) and “how goes it” (1598). However, we found uses of “go” that are slightly earlier: “How goes it, Sirs?” (c. 1589) and “How goes the world with thee?” (1593).

But the specific expression “how are you” apparently didn’t become common, at least in writing, until the 1600s. The earliest definite use we’ve found is from an exchange in another Thomas Middleton play, Women, Beware Women (c. 1621): “How are you now, sir?” … “I feel a better ease, madam.”

We also found examples in a play called Matrimonial Trouble (1662), by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. For instance, Sir William Lovewell says to Lady Hypocondria: “How are you, dear Wife? How do you feel your self now? How are you?”

Finally, as you might suspect, the more casual “how’s things” and “how’s tricks” came along in the first half of the 20th century. And while they may sound like American slang, they were first recorded in books by authors from Australia and New Zealand.

These are the earliest findings reported in the OED: “How’s things?” (Australia, 1926); “How are things?” (New Zealand, 1930); “How’s tricks?” (Australia, 1941); and a sighting of both, “How’s things? … How’s tricks with you?” (New Zealand, 1949).

By this time, of course, “How do you do” was no longer a casual “hello” but had developed into something more formal. We’ll conclude with a passage, headed “What to Say When Introduced,” from Emily Post’s Etiquette (1922):

“Best Society has only one phrase in acknowledgment of an introduction: ‘How do you do?’ It literally accepts no other. When Mr. Bachelor says, ‘Mrs. Worldly, may I present Mr. Struthers?’ Mrs. Worldly says, ‘How do you do?’ Struthers bows, and says nothing.”

When a reply is in order, however, it should NOT be “Charmed,” “Pleased to meet you,” or the like, she says. It should be a remark that can lead to conversation.

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Speaking with a forked tongue

Q: What is the origin of “to speak with a forked tongue”? Does the expression come from the snake that tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit?

A: The expression was probably inspired by the forked tongue of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. One of the earliest examples of the phrase “forked tongue” in the deceptive sense alludes to the passage in Genesis.

The image of a forked tongue has been used figuratively in English for hundreds of years to mean an intent to deceive. The earliest recorded example we’ve seen is from Magnificence, a morality play written around 1516 by the English poet John Skelton:

“Paint to a purpose good countenance I can, / And craftily can I grope how every man is minded; / My purpose is to spy and point every man; / My tongue is with favel [cunning] forked and tyned. / By Cloaked Collusion thus many one is beguiled.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the exact phrase “forked tongue” used this way suggests a serpentine origin, though not necessarily from the serpent in Genesis that tempts Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Here’s the passage from Poetasters, a 1601 comedy by Ben Jonson about versifiers who ape true poets:

“Are there no players here? no poet apes, / That come with basilisk’s eyes, whose forked tongues / Are steeped in venom, as their hearts in gall?” (A basilisk is a mythical serpent that can kill with a single glance.)

When Lancelot Andrewes, an Anglican bishop, used the phrase a few years later, he was clearly alluding to the forked tongue of the deceptive serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Andrewes, who may be best known for overseeing the King James Version of the Bible, used “forked tongue” twice in a June 8, 1606, sermon in Greenwich before King James I. Here’s one that mentions “in the beginning,” an allusion to Genesis:

“And so, the Devill hath his tongues. And he hath the art of cleaving. He shewed it in the beginning, when he made the Serpent, lingnam bisulcam, a forked tongue, to speake that, which was contrary to his knowledge and meaning.”

The full expression “to speak with a forked tongue” showed up in American English in the 19th century, according to our searches of digital archives.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from a March 23, 1829, letter by President Andrew Jackson addressed “To the Creek Indians”:

“You know I love my white and red children, and always speak straight, and not with a forked tongue; that I have always told you the truth.”

The letter, which urged the Creeks to move West, was part of  a plan by Jackson to move all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma. Defiant Creeks were driven out of Alabama and Georgia in the Creek War of 1836.

Several language references suggest that “to speak with a forked tongue” is derived from expressions in American Indian languages.

However, we haven’t seen any written evidence from the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries that Native Americans were using the full expression, either in English or in a native language.

Indians did apparently use the phrase “forked tongue” to mean deception as far back as the 1700s, but they could have picked up the term from English speakers, perhaps traders or missionaries relating the passage about Eve and the serpent in Genesis.

James Adair, an English trader and writer who lived among Native Americans in the Southeast in the mid-1700s, quotes a Chickasaw chief as using the phrase.

In this passage from The History of the American Indians, Adair’s 1775 account of Indian life, the Chickasaw tells a Muskogee emissary that without the help of the English, the French would set the Muskogee against one another, as they did with the Choctaw.

“Only for their brotherly help, the artful and covetous French, by the weight of presents and the skill of their forked tongues, would before now, have set you to war against each other, in the very same manner they have done by the Choktah.”

As for the Native American use of the full expression, the earliest example we’ve seen is fictional.

In “God and the Pagan,” a short story by W. A. Fraser in the July 1898 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a Blackfoot medicine man warns his people about a “paleface prophet who speaks with the forked tongue”—a priest seeking the release of a woman carried off in a raid.

When an actual American Indian is described in writing as using the expression in a native tongue, the translation is often questionable.

In Black Elk Speaks (1932), for example, John G. Neihardt puts these words into the mouth of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man:

“But could we believe anything the Wasichus ever said to us? They spoke with forked tongues.” (Wašícu is a word in Lakota and Dakota Sioux for people of European descent.)

However, we question the authenticity of a book by an American poet who didn’t speak Sioux about a Sioux who didn’t speak English. (Although Neihardt was helped by Black Elk’s son, scholars say he took many liberties with the translation.)

In “Black Elk Speaks With Forked Tongue,” a 1989 study, G. Thomas Couser writes: “we see Black Elk not face to face, but through the gloss of a white man—a translation whose surface obscures Black Elk by reflecting the culture of his collaborator.”

(The study appeared as a chapter in Couser’s 1989 book Altered Egos: Authority in American Biography. An earlier version appeared in Studies in Autobiography, a 1988 collection edited by James Olney.)

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Is the ‘d’ silent in ‘adjective’?

Q: Why is “d” silent before “j” in words like “adjective,” “adjust,” and “adjunct”? Is this an issue of phonology, or is it related to the etymology of these words and their Latin prefix?

A: The “d” isn’t silent in these words. It’s built into the letter “j” as pronounced in modern English. This “j” sound is rendered in phonetic symbols as /dʒ/.

In modern French, you may have noticed, the letter “j” is sounded by /ʒ/ alone—as in je and jeune—a sound similar to the one we hear in the middle of our word “vision.”

But in English, “j” is much stronger—as in “jury” and “banjo”—incorporating a touch of “d” at the beginning. This is why the English consonant is represented by the more complex symbol /dʒ/, reflecting both sounds.

We can’t say for sure why those words you mention kept the “d” in their spellings. Certainly they would be pronounced just the same without it. But your suggestion may be correct, and perhaps the “d” was retained for etymological reasons.

The “d” got there in the first place because all English words beginning with “adj-” are ultimately derived from Latin words prefixed with ad-. Such words include “adjacent,” “adjective,” “adjoin,” “adjourn,” “adjudicate,” “adjunct,” “adjure,” “adjust,” and “adjutant.”

The Latin prefix can denote motion “to,” “toward,” “near,” or “at,” and it can indicate “change into, addition, adherence, increase, or intensification,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Taking “adjective” as an example, it can be traced to the Latin ad– plus iacere (to lay, to throw). When it first came into English in the 14th century, it was spelled “adiectif” because English had not yet adopted the letter “j.”

Similarly, other “adj-” words that date from the Middle English period originally had no “j.” For instance, “adjacent” was spelled “adiacent”; “adjoin” was sometimes “adioyne” (among many other spellings); “adjourn” was “adiurne”; “adjunct” was “adiuncte”; and “adjure” was “adiure.”

Even later words like “adjutant” and “adjust,” which came along in the early 1600s, originally had two spellings, sometimes with “j” and sometimes with “i” (“adiutant,” “adiust”).

But even when spelled with “i,” such words were pronounced as if the letter were a modern “j.”

As the OED explains within its entry for the letter “j,” French spellings brought into English with the Norman Conquest introduced the Old French use of “i” as a consonant pronounced /dʒ/. This, the dictionary says, is the “sound which English has ever since retained in words derived from that source, although in French itself the sound was subsequently, by loss of its first element, simplified to /ʒ/.”

For a time, the double identity of “i” resulted in some confusion, because, as Oxford says, the letter “represented at once the vowel sound of i, and a consonant sound /dʒ/, far removed from the vowel.”

It wasn’t until the 17th century that “i” was consistently used for the vowel and “j” for the consonant.

In case you’re interested, we’ve mentioned the development of “j” in other posts, including one in 2013 about the name “Jesus.”

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Doctor’s or doctor appointment?

Q: Why do I use a possessive when I say, “I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday”? I never hear anyone say, “I have a doctor appointment.”

A: Of the two phrases, “doctor’s appointment” is much more common in digitized books, news, and other media, but “doctor appointment” is not unknown.

Searches of the News on the Web corpus, for example, indicate that “doctor’s appointment” has appeared 1,354 times since 2010 in the online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters tracked, compared to 78 appearances for “doctor appointment.”

Although the wording with ’s is more common for an appointment with a “doctor,” the plain construction is used more often for an appointment with a “dentist” as well as with a “cardiologist,” “dermatologist,” and some other medical specialists, according to our searches.

Strictly speaking, “doctor’s appointment” is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

In addition to possession (“the lawyer’s office”), the genitive can indicate the source of something (“the girl’s story”), the date (“yesterday’s storm”), the type (“a women’s college”), a part (“the book’s cover”), an amount (“two cups’ worth”), duration (“five years’ experience”), and so on.

In the phrase “doctor’s appointment,” the noun “doctor” is being used genitively to describe the type of appointment, while in “doctor appointment,” the noun is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to do the same thing.

The term “doctor’s” in the first example is often called a “descriptive genitive,” and “doctor” in the second an “attributive noun,” a “noun adjunct,” or a “noun premodifier.”

There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for whether to use a noun genitively or attributively as a modifier before another noun. However, some usages are more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than others.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors Randolph Quirk et al. say that genitives tend to premodify nouns referring to human beings, while attributive nouns are often closely related to the nouns they premodify.

So we might use genitives for “women’s college,” “cashier’s check,” or “learner’s permit,” and attributive nouns for “computer software,” “movie highlights,” or “pizza topping.”

However, there are many exceptions. For instance, one might use the genitive in that last example to be more specific (“the pizza’s topping was cold”).

It’s especially hard to pin down the use of the descriptive genitive. Another authoritative source, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, uses the term but describes it as “a somewhat unproductive category.”

As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, note, “while it is possible to have a summer’s day and a winter’s day, corresponding forms for the other seasons are quite marginal.”

Similarly, they write, “we have a ship’s doctor but not a school’s doctor—instead a plain-case nominative is used, a school doctor.”

And that takes us back to where we began: Why is “doctor’s appointment” more common than “doctor appointment,” while “dentist appointment” is more common than “dentist’s appointment”?

We haven’t found an explanation in the linguistic scholarship for why English speakers prefer the genitive to describe an appointment with a “doctor.”

However, we suspect an attributive noun is preferred for “dentist” or similar terms ending in “-ist”  because people are put off by the two sibilants at the end of “dentist’s,” “dermatologist’s, “cardiologist’s,” and so on.

Finally, here are search results from the NOW corpus for a few other noun-noun constructions, with the more popular version of each pair listed first:

“driver’s license,” 8,966 hits, “driver license,” 306; “attorney fees,” 884, “attorney’s fees,” 681; “survivor benefits,” 291, “survivor’s benefits,” 38; “learner’s permit,” 237, “learner permit,” 171; “cashier’s check,” 161, “cashier check,” 6.

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A question of beige

Q: A story in the NY Times Magazine about an outspoken academic who studies wolves says he stands out because scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species.” I googled the phrase “beige species” and found nothing. Puzzling, huh?

A: The word “beige” is sometimes used metaphorically to mean bland, similar to “vanilla.”

One of the definitions for “beige” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is “lacking distinction.” The dictionary adds that it has the same sense as “vanilla” when used to mean “plain, ordinary, conventional.”

So in noting that scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species,” the Times writer is saying that scientists can be overly careful and conventional.

Merriam-Webster is the only standard dictionary in which we’ve found this figurative sense of the word, and it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

However, the usage appears in several slang references in our library. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, says the adjective means “bland; uninteresting; unimaginative; boring.”

The earliest Random House example is from a Sept. 14, 1982, article in the New York Times about the spread of Valley Girl speak beyond California: “BEIGE: Boring, for sure.”

The citation is from a brief glossary at the end of the article. Earlier, the writer says it “would be, you know, a really beige thing to admit” being unaware of the upsurge in uptalk.

This later example is from Tricks of the Trade, a 1988 movie about a woman whose husband is killed in the apartment of a prostitute: “Maybe that’s what was wrong with your marriage—too beige.”

And we’ve expanded this Random House citation from Slang U., a 1991 dictionary of college slang by the UCLA linguist Pamela Munro: “beige boring: My date talked about his stamp collection the whole night. What a beige personality!”

Finally, here’s another example that we’ve found in Munro’s book, which includes contributions from students in her slang seminar: “my life was as beige as June Cleaver’s meatloaf.”

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A touching story

Q: I see the word “touchstone” in your recent post about “acid test.” I always pictured something like the Blarney Stone—touch it for good luck. I guess I was wrong about that.

A: Yes, the figurative sense of “touchstone”—a criterion for judging excellence—comes from its literal use in the testing of gold and other precious metals, as in an “acid test.”

However, “touchstone” is hundreds of years older than “acid test.” Long before acids were used in the assaying process, jewelers and others used their own eyes to examine the marks made by precious metals on touchstones.

Because of its ancient connection with gold, the rock known as a “touchstone” had a fascinating history even before it got its English name.

The word is thought to come from a 14th-century Middle French term, pierre de touche (literally “touch stone”), which the Oxford English Dictionary says was first recorded sometime before 1389.

A pierre de touche was (and still is) a piece of stone, typically black jasper or basalt, used in testing the purity of gold and other valuable metals. Similar Middle French terms of the 1400s included touchepiarre and pierre à toucher.

The French began using pierre de touche figuratively in 1579, Oxford says, and around that same time the term also appeared in Spanish as piedra de toque (“touch stone”) in both “concrete and figurative senses.”

However, the practice of testing gold on such a stone preceded those French and Spanish terms by many centuries.

The first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, in his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia, referred to this stone as coticula (Latin for both “touchstone” and “whetstone”). In Book 33, devoted to metals, he writes:

“Auri argentique mentionem comitatur lapis, quem coticulam appellant. … His coticulis periti cum e vena ut lima rapuerunt experimento ramentum, protinus dicunt quantum auri sit in ea, quantum argenti vel aeris.”

(“A description of gold and silver is necessarily accompanied by that of the stone known as the touchstone. … Persons of experience in these matters, when they have scraped a particle off the ore with this stone, as with a file, can tell in a moment the proportion of gold there is in it, how much silver, or how much copper.”)

The use of similar stones was also known in ancient India, Egypt, and Greece, according to historians and metallurgists.

But let’s get back to English and the word “touchstone.”

In early uses, it was also spelled “twichstone,” “touche stone,” “towtchstone,” “tuitchstone,” and “tweichstaine.”

Here’s the OED’s earliest example of the literal usage: “Touche stone to proue golde with.” (From John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse, a 1530 French grammar book written in English.)

Oxford defines “touchstone” as “Fine-grained black stone (typically a type of chert) upon which objects made of gold or silver can be rubbed to determine their purity; a piece of this.” (The cherts are silica stones like flint, jasper, agate, onyx and others.)

As the OED explains the process, “the touchstone was originally used in conjunction with a set of touch needles of known purity, allowing visual comparison of the mark left on the stone by the object being assayed with those of the touch needles.”

The word must have been known before it was recorded in writing in 1530, since the figurative use appeared in the same year. Here’s the earliest example we’ve found:

“Ye scripture is y twichstone yt tryeth all doctrynes” (“The scripture is the touchstone that tests all doctines”). From William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch.

The earliest figurative example given in the OED is from John Frith’s A Disputacio[n] of Purgatorye (1531). Here Frith invites critics to test his arguments by consulting scripture: “Laye them to the touchstone and trye them with goddes worde.”

(In the treatise, Frith uses “touchstone” figuratively four times altogether. In another passage he says that the “worde of god” is the “perfeyte touchstone that iudgeth and examineth all things.”)

The OED defines the figurative sense of “touchstone” as “Anything which serves to test the genuineness or value of anything; a test, a trial; a criterion or reference point by which something is assessed, judged, or recognized.”

We should mention here that “touchstone” at one time had another meaning, one probably derived from the gold-testing term. It meant a “fine-grained dark stone used for building and monumental work; esp. a type of black marble,” the OED says.

In a chronological oddity, this use was found in writing in the 1480s, decades before the parent term. As Oxford explains, “in spite of the chronology of the examples, it is likely” that the use of “touchstone” to mean black marble developed from an earlier metallurgical sense—the black stone used to test gold.

As more old manuscripts are digitized and made available to scholars, earlier uses of “touchstone” may come to light.

Today, English speakers still use “touchstone”—and French speakers still use pierre de touche—in both literal and figurative ways.

The French-English online dictionary Linguee gives this figurative example: “Le livre était considéré comme la pierre de touche du genre fantastique” (“The book was considered the touchstone of the fantasy genre”).

And the OED has modern English examples for the gold-testing term as well as the figure of speech. Here’s a sampling:

“In a metals shop the most common method for determining the karat of gold is with the use of a touchstone.” (From The Complete Book of Jewelry Making, 2006, by Carles Codina, translated from Spanish by Laura C. Jones.)

“Fashion, literature and music are the cultural touchstones by which we navigate our recent history.” (From the online London newspaper City A.M., June 4, 2015.)

Finally, this one from the March 2012 issue of Vanity Fair uses the figurative word adjectivally. It’s from an article about the 1982 comedy Diner:

“For a certain 40-plus demographic … the movie became … a touchstone experience, its lines serving as passwords, signifiers of like-mindedness.”

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Masterminds, evil and otherwise

Q: I was surprised to find “master mind” in Framley Parsonage, an 1860 novel by Anthony Trollope. I had thought of it as a more recent usage. What more can you tell me?

A: The term is even older than that. When “mastermind” showed up in English in the late 1600s, it referred to someone with an outstanding mind. (We’ll use the one-word spelling here, though at first the term was hyphenated or two separate words.)

The earliest written example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cleomenes, a 1692 play by John Dryden about the warlike Spartan king of the late 6th and early 5th centuries BC:

“A Soul, not conscious to it self of Ill, / Undaunted Courage, and a Master-mind.”

As far as we can tell, Trollope’s use of the term in Framley Parsonage is the earliest written example of “mastermind” used for someone in charge of an elaborate scheme or undertaking, sometimes a questionable one.

In the novel, Mr. Supplehouse, a Machiavellian journalist among V.I.P.s visiting the Duke of Omnium, “felt that he was the master mind there at Gatherum Castle, and that those there were all puppets in his hand.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “mastermind” in this sense as a “person who plans and directs a complex and ingenious enterprise, esp. a criminal operation.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary for that sense is from a later Trollope novel, The Eustace Diamonds (1872): “The police thought that I had been the master-mind among the thieves.”

You can find both senses of “mastermind” today in standard dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines it as a “person with an outstanding intellect” as well as one “who plans and directs an ingenious and complex scheme or enterprise.”

The dictionary gives this example for the first sense, “an eminent musical mastermind,” and this example for the second, “the mastermind behind the project.”

And here’s a felonious example in our library from Indiscretions of Archie, a 1921 novel by P. G. Wodehouse:

“The usual bond-robbery had taken place on the previous day, and the police were reported hot on the trail of the Master-Mind who was alleged to be at the back of these financial operations”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several other posts about “master” on the blog, including one in 2017 about how “master” became “mister,” and one in 2015 about whether it’s legitimate to use the term “master” in education today given its historical ties to slavery.

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A puny subject

Q: I love Victorian novels and often read them on my Kindle. I just came across “puisne” in Vanity Fair. When I highlight the word, the dictionary tells me it’s a junior judge and pronounced like “puny.” Are these two terms related?

A: Not only are “puny” and “puisne” related, but they were essentially the same word when borrowed from puisné, Middle French for “younger.”

The Middle French term, a compound of puis (later) and né (born), is spelled puîné in modern French. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin post (after) and nātus (born).

When the word entered English in the 1500s as a noun and an adjective, it was spelled various ways: punie, punee, puine, puisne, and so on—all pronounced “puny,” an anglicized version of the French pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the English term was originally a noun for a new or junior student. The earliest OED citation is from a 1548 book by the historian William Patten about a trip that Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset, made to Scotland:

“Like yplay in Robin Cooks skole, whear bicaus the punies may lerne thei strike fewe strokes, but by assent & appointement.” (The new students were learning their assigned strokes at Robin Cook’s fencing school.)

When the word first showed up in print as an adjective, it meant “younger” or “junior.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Apologie of Fridericus Staphylus, Thomas Stapleton’s 1565 translation of a 1558 Latin treatise by the German theologian Friedrich Staphylus:

“Neither may you M. Grindall be offended herewith, when you shall vnderstand it, as I wish you maye, iff a young scholer and puine student in diuinite aduenter to encounter with you.” (Staphylus, a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism, is addressing Edmund Grindal, an English clergyman who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Later in the 1500s, the noun came to mean an inexperienced person, an inferior, a subordinate, someone of no importance, and a junior judge.

All those senses are now obsolete or rare except for the use of the term (now spelled “puisne”) in reference to a subordinate judge or justice, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective used in this sense is from The Common Welth of England (1589), by Sir Thomas Smith:

“The officer before whom the Clarke is to take these essoines, is the puny Iustice in the common pleas.” (The “essoines” here are excuses for not appearing in court on time before the subordinate justice.)

As for the noun, the first Oxford citation for this sense is from Skialetheia, or The Shadowe of Truth, a 1598 collection of poetry by Edward Guilpin:

“Oh he’s a puisne [lesser judge] of the Innes of Court, / Come from th’ Vniuersity to make sport.”

Since the mid-1600s, the term (now always spelled “puisne” and pronounced “puny”) has been used in the UK and some former British dependencies to designate “any judge, justice, etc., other than the most senior in the higher courts of law,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED citation refers to a case argued before “Mallet the puisne Judge” (from a 1648 collection of legal cases, compiled by the English barrister John March).

In Vanity Fair, the Thackeray novel that prompted your question, the term is similarly used to describe a less than senior judge. The novel, which was serialized in Punch from 1847 to ’48, describes Lady Smith as the “wife of Sir Minos Smith the puisne judge.”

Finally, we have Shakespeare to thank for the use of “puny” as an adjective meaning small, weak, or insignificant, the usual sense of the word today.

The Chambers etymological dictionary cites Richard II, which it dates at 1593, for the earliest example of the usage. In this passage, a pale, gloomy Richard, facing the forces of Bolingbroke, tries to snap out of his despondency:

I had forgot myself; am I not king?
Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
Ye favourites of a king: are we not high?

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Good monsters and bad

Q: How did “monster” come to mean something extraordinarily good (“a monster of the violin”) as well as something extraordinarily bad (“a bloodthirsty monster”)?

A: Let’s begin by going back to the Middle Ages, when the first lexical monsters stalked the English language.

English borrowed “monster” from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French word monstre, but it ultimately comes from mōnstrum, classical Latin for an omen, a monstrous creature, a wicked person, or an atrocity.

When “monster” showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, it could mean something extraordinary, unnatural, or ominous, as well as a mythical creature like Cerberus, the many-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld.

Chaucer uses the term both of those ways in the two earliest written examples for “monster” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Boece (circa 1374), his translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, Chaucer uses “monster” to mean something extraordinarily worrisome:

“I vnderstonde þe felefolde colour and deceites of þilke merveylous monstre, Fortune” (“I understand the manifold wiles and deceits of this marvelous monster, Fortune”).

In “The Monk’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Chaucer uses the term for such mythical creatures as the half-man, half-horse centaurs, and the half-woman, half-bird harpies:

“Was neuere wight sith that this world bigan / That slow so manye monstres as dide he” (“Was never such a man since this world began / That slew so many monsters as did he”). The reference is to Hercules, who killed centaurs and harpies and kidnapped Cerberus.

Over the years, the noun “monster” took on many related senses, including a sea monster or other huge creature (c. 1450); a cruel, wicked, or otherwise repulsive person (before 1505); and an ugly or deformed person or thing (1715).

However, the word lost much of its negative sense when used adjectivally in the 19th century to mean extraordinarily large. Early OED examples include “monster ballroom” (1837), “monster product” (1839), “Monster Meetings” (1843), and “monster organ” (1845).

We assume that this gigantic sense of the adjective inspired the use of “monster” in the 20th century as both a noun and an adjective for hugely successful people or things, and for people with a great amount of knowledge or talent.

In the early 20th century, writers began using “monster” colloquially to mean remarkably successful, profitable, or good. The first Oxford citation is from the Sept. 22, 1912, issue of the Sunday Times-Tribune (Waterloo, IA):

“New Plays, new specialties and new people will add to the big show’s drawing power and the prospects for a monster week are bright.” (The word “monster” here is a noun being used attributively—that is, as an adjective.)

In the mid-20th century, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, writers began using the noun positively to mean “a formidable aircraft or automobile.”

The first two examples in the slang dictionary are from Aviation Cadet (1955), a young-adult novel by Joseph Archibald: “We’re really throwing the iron monsters around now” … “We thought cockpit procedure on the monsters was confusing.”

In less than a decade, the noun took on the sense of a remarkable or successful person or thing. The earliest Random House example is from an April 6, 1968, interview in Rolling Stone:

“Of course, man, she’s a monster. She’s like the best of that type of singer.” In the interview, the guitarist Mike Bloomfield is describing Aretha Franklin.

In that same interview, Bloomfield uses “monster” adjectivally: “When I was around fifteen I was a monster rock guitar player.”

And in the mid-1980s, according to Random House, it came to mean “a person having formidable knowledge or skill,” as in this 1986 example from the ABC television sitcom Head of the Class: “Darlene—a speech and debate monster.”

Today, the word “monster” can refer to all of the above: a mythical creature, a threatening force, something unusually large, someone extraordinarily wicked, a great success, a remarkable talent, and so on. It all depends on how it’s used.

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When ‘should’ means ‘would’

Q: In re-watching Downton Abbey, I’ve noticed that “should” is used in many places where I’d use “would.” For example, “If I were you, I should keep my mouth shut.” It’s very confusing at first to figure out what is meant. How did this usage evolve, and is it still heard in England?

A: We didn’t see that specific example in a search of Downton Abbey transcripts, but here’s a similar use of “should” by Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, from season 4, episode 3, of the TV series:

“If I were to search for logic, I should not look for it among the English upper class.”

In that example, “should” is used as an auxiliary verb to introduce a hypothetical future action, a usage that’s now generally expressed with “would” on both sides of the Atlantic.

The use of “should” for “would” can be confusing because “should” is commonly used to mean “ought to,” and “would” to mean “might.”

Why did Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, use “should” in that episode, which is set in the early 1920s?

To answer that, we’ll have to look at an old rule that drew a strict line between the use of “shall” and “will.” Here’s how we describe the rule in a 2011 post:

  • When expressing a future tense, use “shall” with the first person (“I” and “we”) and “will” with the second and third persons (“you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.).
  • When expressing determination, permission, or obligation, use “will” with the first person and “shall” with the second and third persons.

As we note in that post, this so-called traditional rule has been observed more often in the UK than in the US, and the British haven’t been very observant.

John Wallis, an English clergyman and mathematician, introduced the rule in the 17th century in Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, an English grammar book written (believe it or not) in Latin:

“In primis personis, shall simpliciter praedicentis est; will, quasi promittentis aut minantis / In secundis et tertiis personis, shall promittentis est aut minantis; will simpliciter praedicentis” (“In the first person, shall is simply for predicting, while will is for promising or threatening. / In the second and third persons, shall is for promising or threatening, while will is simply for predicting”).

Wallis applied the rule only to “shall” and “will,” but later usage writers broadened it to require “should” in the first person for future, conditional, and interrogative usages.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, not long after the events portrayed in that Downton Abbey episode, Henry W. Fowler writes:

“Plain future or conditional statements & questions in the first person should have shall, should; the roman-type wills and woulds in the following examples are wrong.” Fowler’s no-no’s include “we will teach” … “we will soon be” … “will, I fear” … “we won’t get” … “would be a knave” … “would not” … “we would always get.”

So a dowager countess might very well have used “should” instead of “would” in the early 1920s.

However, Wallis’s old rule for using “shall” and “will,” as well as its expansion to “should” and “would,” has never been widely observed in the US or the UK—except for the use of “shall” in the first person in questions and legal documents.

As Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), says in the latest (2015) version of the usage guide, “It is unlikely that the rule ever had its foundation in real usage, although it may have applied to some people some of the time.”

“The supposed rule is a dead letter in speech, and in most kinds of writing,” Butterfield writes. “It is broadly true that shall and should have largely retreated in the standard language even as used in England. In other English-speaking areas shall and should have been almost totally replaced by will and would, or by the reduced forms I’ll/we’ll. There is not much doubt that will will win, and shall shall lose, in the end.”

[Note, July 23, 2018. A reader in Australia writes: “I have never forgotten our English teacher’s explanation of the difference (London, England, late 1940s). You are on the beach and hear a voice calling out. By paying careful attention to the grammar, you can decide whether or not to enter the surf and risk your own life! ‘I shall drown! And no-one will save me!’ is a plea to be rescued. ‘I will drown, and no-one shall save me!’ is an announcement of firm intent to commit suicide!”

We’ve often come across this old memory aid, which was widely published in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest example we’ve found is more than 200 years old. It’s from a short “filler” item published in the Feb. 4, 1804, issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine: “Difference Between Shall and Will. A Frenchman tumbled overboard, and sang out: ‘I will drown, and nobody shall help me.’ The sailors told him ‘drown and be d—d.’  Had he said, ‘I shall drown, and nobody will help me,’ the sailors would have saved him.”]

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