The Grammarphobia Blog

When bragging is ever so humble

Q: What word would you use for a situation in which people criticize themselves to get others to disagree and reassure them? For example, “I’m such a dummy” … “No, of course you’re not.”

A: We can’t think of a word that would do the job by itself. Perhaps the closest is “humblebrag,” a boast disguised as self-criticism, but it’s not close enough. We’ll have more to say about “humblebrag” later, but let’s consider your question first.

Phrases like “false modesty” and “insincere humility” imply the self-effacement but not the ulterior motive—getting praise or reassurance.

A phrase like “manipulative self-criticism” might do. Or perhaps a longer expression like “using self-criticism to fish for compliments.”

You could, of course, make up a new word along the lines of “humblebrag,” but we suspect that a neologism like “humbleswoggle” isn’t quite what you’re looking for.

Sorry we can’t be more helpful. Now let’s look at “humblebrag.”

Merriam-Webster online defines the verb as “to make a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.” The dictionary has a similar definition for the noun.

M-W says the “first known use” of “humblebrag” was in 2002, while Oxford Dictionaries online dates it to the “early 21st century.” The comedy writer Harris Wittels helped popularize the term in the early 2010s with his @humblebrag Twitter account and his 2012 book Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty.

Here are a few “humblebrag” examples: “I get bored with constantly being mistaken for a model” … “I’ve lost so much weight that none of my clothes fit” … “It’s hard to manage the housekeeping with one place in the Hamptons and another on Park Avenue.”

In researching the term, we came across a Harvard Business School paper, “Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy,” by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton (April 2015).

The authors, citing seven studies, assert that combining a brag with complaints or humility is “less effective than straightforward bragging.”

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A contraction too far?

Q: I recently noticed an example of a three-word contraction in a novel: “couldn’t’ve.” Is this usage accepted? Is it an outlier? Something new? Something old that’s faded with time? Also, I wonder how far contractions can go. Four words? Five?

A: English speakers often mush together three words in speech. For example, “I would have” may be pronounced as “I’d’ve,” or “We might not have” as “We mightn’t’ve.”

However, such contractions are rarely seen in writing, except perhaps in dialogue. Even then, a careful writer would probably use “I’d have” or “We mightn’t have.” Why? Because three contracted words can be hard to read. And a writer wants (or should want) to be understood.

How far can one go in contracting written words? We think three words is already a word too far. Today, contractions generally include a verb, along with a subject or the word “not.” An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped.

In the past, longer contractions were common in writing, including ha’n’t, sha’n’t, ’twon’t, ’twouldn’t, and a’n’t, the father of ain’t. But in the 18th century, language commentators began condemning contractions as harsh-sounding, vulgar, or overly familiar. By the end of the century, they were considered a no-no in writing, though tolerated in speech.

It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that written contractions—at least the two-word variety—were again acceptable. In the 1920s, for example, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his influential usage guide.

In the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she lists contractions that she considers acceptable in formal writing and those that should be used only in dialogue, humor, or casual writing.

Fit to Print

aren’t, can’t, couldn’t, didn’t, doesn’t, don’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, he’d (he would; he had), he’ll, here’s, he’s (he is; he has), I’d (I would; I had), I’ll, I’m, I’ve, isn’t, it’ll, it’s (it is; it has), let’s, mightn’t, mustn’t, oughtn’t, she’d (she would; she had), she’ll, she’s (she is; she has), shouldn’t, that’s (that is; that has), there’s (there is; there has), they’d (they would; they had), they’ll, they’re, they’ve, wasn’t, we’d (we would; we had), we’ll, we’re, we’ve, weren’t, what’ll, what’re, what’s (what is; what has), what’ve, where’s (where is; where has) who’d (who would; who had), who’ll, who’s (who is; who has), who’ve, won’t, wouldn’t, you’d (you would; you had), you’ll, you’re, you’ve

Out of Bounds

AIN’T. In presentable English, it’s not OK and it never will be OK. Get used to it. If you’re tempted to use it to show that you have the common touch, make clear that you know better: Now, ain’t that a shame!

COULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, WOULD’VE, MIGHT’VE, MUST’VE. There’s a good reason to stay away from these in your writing. Seen in print, they encourage mispronunciation, which explains why they’re often heard as could of, should of, would of, might of, and must of (or, even worse, coulda, shoulda, woulda, mighta, and musta). It’s fine to pronounce these as though the h in have were silent. But let’s not forget that have is there. Write it out.

GONNA, GOTTA, WANNA. In writing, these are substandard English. Unless you’re talking to your sister on the phone, make it going to, got to, want to, and so on.

HOW’D, HOW’LL, HOW’RE, WHEN’LL, WHEN’RE, WHEN’S, WHERE’D, WHERE’LL, WHERE’RE, WHY’D, WHY’RE, WHY’S. Resist the urge to write contractions with how, when, where, or why, except that old standby where’s. We all say things like How’m I supposed to pay for this and where’m I gonna put it?” But don’t put them in writing.

IT’D, THAT’D, THERE’D, THIS’D, WHAT’D. Notice how these ’d endings seem to add a syllable that lands with a thud? And they look ridiculously clumsy in writing. Let’s use the ’d contractions (for had or would ) only with I, you, he, she, we, they, and who.

THAT’LL, THAT’RE, THAT’VE, THERE’LL, THERE’RE, THERE’VE, THIS’LL, WHO’RE. No. These clumsies are fine in conversation, but written English isn’t ready for them yet. Do I use that’ll when I talk? Sure. But not when I write.

To repeat what we said above, those no-nos are acceptable in dialogue, humor, or casual writing, but not in formal writing.

Although usage guides now welcome contractions, some people still hesitate to use them in writing. We think that’s silly. As we’ve written in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers have been using contractions in English since Anglo-Saxon days.

Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).

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Impactful wisdom

Q: I read an article recently in the Daily Beast that used “impactful” as an adjective. Is it a real word?

A: Yes, “impactful” is a word, though it’s not a crowd pleaser. We’d prefer one with more impact—“powerful,” “persuasive,” “effective,” and so on.

The adjective is recognized in Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries online as well as (which has a lengthy usage note on the subject). Webster’s New World doesn’t include “impactful” but it has an entry for “impactive” (“of or having an impact”).

You may be surprised to learn that “impactful” was used as long ago as 1939. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, gives this as its earliest known use:

“The coronation of a pope, the non-stop European crisis—these and kindred events become right-of-way news on radio—more immediate and impactful than even the front page” (from the June 1939 issue of Commentator Magazine).

However, the word was rarely used during the next couple of decades. This is the OED’s second example: “It was resolved that initially the company should concentrate on producing an acceptable, exciting and impactful new house symbol” (from the Times, London, April 3, 1967).

Our searches of newspaper databases suggest that after a trickle of uses in the 1960s, the usage began to take off in the early ’70s.

We spotted examples like “impactful message” and “impactful headline” (both 1971); “impactful systems” (1972); “the way to be impactful” (1974); “impactful factor” (1975); “impactful paper” (a reference to the Bangkok Post, 1976); “our first trip and of course our most impactful” (1977), and a reference to documentaries that are “controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful” (1979).

The OED says “impactful” is derived from the noun “impact” and means “having a significant impact or effect”—which is essentially how standard dictionaries define it. (We’ve written posts about the noun and verb “impact” before, most recently in 2010, so we won’t repeat ourselves.)

Though it’s found in dictionaries, “impactful” is not an elegant word. Even in the lexicon of stuffy bureaucratese, “impactful” stands out. And ironically, it’s deadening, not impactful.

That last newspaper example above (“controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful”) would be much more effective without the final, redundant adjective. “Hardhitting” has more impact.

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Naughty, naughty

Q: I’ve noticed when listening to US podcasts that the first decade of the 2000s is often referred to as the “aughts.” Here in the UK, the much more pleasing “noughties” seems to have gained most traction. Why do you think it hasn’t caught on stateside?

A: It’s true that Americans generally don’t use the term “noughties,” and it doesn’t appear in any of the standard American dictionaries.

We can only guess why. Perhaps it sounds too much like a coy version of “naughties,” as in “Naughty, naughty!” (We’ll have more to say about “naughty” later.)

The term “noughties” is found in all the standard British-based dictionaries, though some of them label it “humorous” or “informal.”

The Macmillan, Collins, Longman, and Oxford online dictionaries all define the “noughties” as the decade between 2000 and 2009. Another British dictionary, Cambridge, defines “noughties” as “the period of years between 00 and 10 in any century, usually 2000–2010,” and provides this example: “They were born in the noughties and grew up completely at ease with computer technology.”

But the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, favors the narrower definition. It says that “noughties,” preceded by the article “the,” means “the decade from 2000 to 2009.”

The OED spells the word “noughties” in its entry, and has a first example of that spelling from 1990. But it also includes a citation from 1989 spelled “naughties.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “noughties” is from a British newspaper: “After the Eighties and the Nineties, what should we be calling the next decade? The Noughties?” (The Independent, London, Jan. 19, 1990.)

And its sole citation for “naughties” is from an American column about what to call the decade after the 90s: “The Naughties was suggested by 40 readers.” (William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, May 7, 1989.)

All the rest of the OED citations come from Britain or New Zealand and spell the term “noughties.”

The dictionary says the term was formed by adding “-ties” to “nought” or “naught,” in imitation of such other words as “twenties” and “thirties.” Oxford adds that the formation was “perhaps influenced by naughty nineties,” which it defines as “the 1890s considered as a period of moral laxity and sexual licence.”

The word spelled “naught” or “nought” is a noun for a “zero” or a pronoun meaning “nothing,” as we wrote on our blog in 2013. It’s the negative form of “aught” in its original sense: “anything.” When used for a “zero,” it’s mainly “naught” in the US and “nought” in the UK.

But “aught,” like “ought,” can also be a noun for “zero.” In this sense, the term is chiefly spelled “aught” in American English and “ought” in British English, as in dates like “nineteen-ought-nine” for 1909, a usage we discussed in 2018.

The use of “ought” and “aught” for “zero” emerged in the early 1820s, the OED says, “probably” as variants of “nought” and “naught.” (Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., suggests that “nought” was “a misdivision of a nought as an ought.”)

Usage was mixed early on, as this OED citation shows: “It was said … that all Cambridge scholars call the cipher aught and all Oxford scholars call it nought” (from Frank, an 1822 novel by Maria Edgeworth).

As for the adjective “naughty,” it also has something to do with “nothing.” It was derived from the pronoun “naught,” the OED says, and when it first appeared in the 14th century it meant “having or possessing nothing; poor, needy.”

The dictionary’s only examples with this meaning are from the same source, William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (circa 1378). The Middle English poem uses both “nauȝty” and the comparative form, “nauȝtier.”

By the middle of the 1400s, Oxford says, “naughty” meant “morally bad, wicked,” and in the following century it came to mean “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.”

In the 1600s, the more familiar meaning of the word appeared: “disobedient, badly behaved.” In this sense, the OED says, the word is “used esp. of a child, but also humorously or depreciatively of an adult or an adult’s behaviour.”

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the word in this sense was sometimes “reduplicated for emphasis,” the dictionary says. Such repetitions, it adds, were frequently used as interjections intended as mild reprimands, “often with ironic or depreciative connotation, esp. of adult behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Emily’s Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights (1847): “This is your last ride, till papa comes back. I’ll not trust you over the threshold again, you naughty, naughty girl.”

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Why foxes have fur, horses hair

Q: Why do we say some animals have “hair” while others have “fur”?

A: All mammals have hair—dogs, cats, foxes, pigs, gerbils, horses, and people. Even dolphins have a few whiskers early in their lives. Scientifically speaking, there’s no difference between hair and fur.

“This is all the same material,” Dr. Nancy Simmons, a mammalogist with the American Museum of Natural History, said in a 2001 interview with Scientific American. “Hair and fur are the same thing.”

She added that there are many norms for hair length, and that different kinds of hair can have different names, such as a cat’s whiskers and a porcupine’s quills.

Well, science is one thing but common English usage is another. Most of us do have different ideas about what to call “hair” and what to call “fur.”

For example, we regard humans as having “hair,” not “fur.” And we use “hair” for what grows on livestock with thick, leathery hides—horses, cattle, and pigs.

But we generally use “fur” for the thick, dense covering on animals like cats, dogs, rabbits, foxes, bears, raccoons, beavers, and so on.

Why do some animals have fur and others hair? The answer lies in the origins of the noun “fur,” which began life as an item of apparel.

In medieval England, “fur” meant “a trimming or lining for a garment, made of the dressed coat of certain animals,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source, the dictionary suggests, is the Old French verb forrer, which originally meant to sheathe or encase, then “developed the sense ‘to line,’ and ‘to line or trim with fur.’ ”

When the word “fur” first entered English, it was a verb that meant to line, trim, or cover a garment with animal hair. The earliest OED use is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance about Alexander the Great, composed in the late 1200s or early 1300s:

“The kyng dude of [put on] his robe, furred with meneuere.” (The last word is “miniver,” the white winter pelt of a certain squirrel.)

The noun followed. Its first known use is from The Romaunt of the Rose, an English translation (from 1366 or earlier) of an Old French poem. The relevant passage refers to a coat “Furred with no menivere, But with a furre rough of here [hair].”

The noun’s meaning gradually evolved over the 14th and 15th centuries. From the sense of a lining or trimming, “fur” came to mean the material used to make it. Soon it also meant entire garments made of this material, as well as the coats of the animals themselves.

Oxford defines that last sense of “fur” this way: “The short, fine, soft hair of certain animals (as the sable, ermine, beaver, otter, bear, etc.) growing thick upon the skin, and distinguished from the ordinary hair, which is longer and coarser. Formerly also, the wool of sheep” [now obsolete].

Note that this definition establishes the distinction between the special hair we call “fur” (short, fine, soft), and “ordinary hair” (longer, coarser).

The dictionary’s earliest citation is a reference to sheep as bearing “furres blake and whyte” (circa 1430). The first non-sheep example was recorded in the following century, a reference to the “furre” of wolves (Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender, 1579).

From the 17th century on, examples are plentiful. Shakespeare writes of “This night wherin … The Lyon, and the belly-pinched Wolfe Keepe their furre dry” (King Lear, 1608). And Alexander Pope writes of “the strength of Bulls, the Fur of Bears” (An Essay on Man, 1733).

But a mid-18th-century example in the OED stands out—at least for our purposes—because it underscores that “fur” was valued because it was soft and warm: “Leave the Hair on Skins, where the Fleece or Fir is soft and warm, as Beaver, Otter, &c.” (From An Account of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-west Passage, 1748, written by the ship’s clerk.)

Elsewhere in the account, the author notes that deer or caribou skins were “cleared of the Hair” to make use of the skin as leather.

As for “hair,” it’s a much older word than “fur” and came into English from Germanic sources instead of French.

Here’s the OED definition: “One of the numerous fine and generally cylindrical filaments that grow from the skin or integument of animals, esp. of most mammals, of which they form the characteristic coat.”

The word was spelled in Old English as her or hær, Oxford says, and was first recorded before the year 800 in a Latin-Old English glossary: “Pilus, her.” (In Latin pilus is a single hair and pili is the plural.)

By around the year 1000, “hair” was also used as a mass or collective noun, defined in the OED as “the aggregate of hairs growing on the skin of an animal: spec. that growing naturally upon the human head.”

In summary, most of us think of “fur” as soft, cuddly, warm, and dense. We don’t regard “hair” in quite the same way (even though it technically includes “fur”). “Hair,” in other words, covers a lot more bases.

But in practice, English speakers use the words “hair” and “fur” inconsistently. People often regard some animals, especially their pets, as having both “fur” and “hair.”

They may refer to Bowser’s coat as “fur,” but use the word “hair” for what he leaves on clothes and furniture. And when he gets tangles, they may say that either his “hair” or his “fur” is matted and needs combing out.

Furthermore (no pun intended), two different people might describe the same cat or dog differently—as having “hair” or “fur,” as being “hairy” or “furry,” and (particularly in the case of the cat) as throwing up a “hairball” or a “furball.” They simply perceive the animal’s coat differently.

Our guess is that people base their choice of words on what they perceive as the thickness, density, or length of a pet’s coat. The heavy, dense coat of a Chow dog or a Persian cat is likely to be called “fur.” And the short, light coat of a sleek greyhound or a Cornish Rex is likely to be called “hair.”

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Foreboding or forbidding?

Q: I’ve noticed an uptick in the adjectival use of “foreboding.” It’s often used mistakenly for “forbidding” in describing challenging weather, terrain, etc. It’s also used for something that’s merely spooky, not a presentiment of evil.

A: Standard dictionaries agree with you that the adjective “foreboding” suggests a sense of impending misfortune while “forbidding” used adjectivally means unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, defines “foreboding” as “implying or seeming to imply that something bad is going to happen,” and it gives this example: “when the Doctor spoke, his voice was dark and foreboding.”

Oxford defines “forbidding” as “unfriendly or threatening in appearance,” and it includes this example: “a grim and forbidding building.”

Most of the recent examples we’ve seen in the news media use the two words in the standard way. Here are a couple of sightings:

“It’s a question asked in a foreboding tone when markets behave a certain way: ‘What does the bond market know that the stock market doesn’t?’ ” (CNBC, March 14, 2018).

“From the outside, the forbidding concrete walls and narrow slit windows of the Pettis County Jail make it look like a fortress was planted smack dab in the middle of the historical downtown area for Sedalia, Mo.” (Washington Post, March 14, 2019).

But as you’ve noticed, “foreboding” is sometimes used in the sense of “forbidding,” as in these online examples:

“Others found a foreboding climate in the winter weather here” (from a Jan. 27, 2019, article on about Vietnamese refugees).

“A species of archaea that lives in such foreboding places as volcanic craters, deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and hot springs” (Natural History, March 2019).

When “foreboding” is used to mean spooky, it’s often difficult to tell whether the usage is ominous (suggesting impending doom) or just menacing (simply threatening).

Take this example: “Resident Evil was always a franchise that leaned heavily on tension—threatening players with a foreboding atmosphere, lurking enemies and limited resources” (from a Dec. 4, 2018, review on CNET of the video game Resident Evil 2).

Is the atmosphere ominous or dangerous? Foreboding or forbidding? We’ll let the reviewer have the last word.

As for the etymology here, the adjective “foreboding” ultimately comes from boda, the Old English noun for a herald or messenger, and bodian, an Old English verb meaning to announce, announce beforehand, or foretell, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The earliest OED example for the noun is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Þu þe eart boda and forrynel ðæs soþan leohter” (“You who are the herald and forerunner of the true light”).

The verb showed up in writing around the same time in Elene, the longest of the four signed works by the Old English poet Cynewulf. The OED dates the poem, based on the story of St. Helena and the Holy Cross, at sometime before 900. This is the quotation:

“Gode þancode, sigora dryhtne, þæs þe hio soð gecneow ondweardlice þæt wæs oft bodod feor ær beforan fram fruman worulde” (“She thanked God, the Lord of Triumph, from whom she knew the truth, which was often foretold since far before the beginning of the world”).

Although the Old English verb could mean to announce something or announce it beforehand, an Anglo-Saxon writer might add the prefix fore- to the verb to emphasize its beforeness, making clear that forebodian meant to foretell, not just to tell.

The online Boswell and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary has this Old English excerpt from Psalm 71:15: “Múþ mín fórebodaþ rihtwísnysse ðine” (“My mouth foretells thy righteousness”). The citation comes from Psalterium Davidis, Latino-Saxonicum Vetus, psalms in Old English and Latin, collected by the English antiquarian Henry Spelman (1562-1641). The psalms were edited and published by his son John in 1640.

The earliest OED example for the adjective “foreboding” used to mean ominous is from The Depositions and Examinations of Mr. Edmund Everard (1679): “By a fore-boding guilt they knew perfectly … I had grounds enough wherewith to accuse them.” Everard was an informer in a concocted anti-Catholic conspiracy in 17th-century Britain known as the Popish Plot.

The other adjective, “forbidding,” ultimately comes from the Old English verb forbéodan—a compound of the prefix for- (against) and the verb béodan (to command). Here’s an expanded OED example from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s to the 1100s:

“þa wiðcweð se arcebiscop and cwæð þet se papa hit him forboden hæfde” (“The Archbishop refused and said that the Pope had forbidden it”). The citation refers to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to consecrate the Abbot of Abingdon as Bishop of London.

And here’s the dictionary’s first example for the adjective “forbidding” in its unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening sense: “That awful Cast of the Eye and forbidding Frown” (from the Spectator, Feb. 14, 1712).

Finally, a recent use of “foreboding” that could mean either ominous or threatening: “On Sunday afternoon, sirens wailed and cellphones erupted with about 12 minutes of notice that a funnel cloud had dropped from a foreboding Alabama sky and was bound for Beauregard” (New York Times, March 5, 2019).

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Does water stand or sit?

Q: Is the correct phrase “standing water” or “sitting water”? Or can we can have it both ways?

A: “Standing water,” the usual expression, has referred to still or stagnant water since the late 14th century. It’s overwhelmingly more popular than “sitting water,” which as far as we can tell didn’t show up in print until about 20 years ago.

In searching the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, we found 2,985 examples of “standing water” and only 17 for “sitting water.”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer of digitized books published from 2000 to 2008 had similar results.

Of the two phrases, only “standing water” is mentioned in the eight online standard dictionaries we’ve consulted. Collins has a separate entry for the expression, but several others mention it in their entries for the adjective “standing.”

Collins defines “standing water” as “any body of stagnant water, including puddles, ponds, rainwater, drain water, reservoirs, etc.” It has several examples, including this one: “Home to fish, birds and other wildlife, standing water is also enjoyed by recreational fishermen and walkers.”

Of the other standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and Webster’s New World define the adjective “standing” as still, not flowing, or stagnant, and give “standing water” as an example. American Heritage defines “standing” similarly, but doesn’t give an example.

None of the entries for the adjective “sitting” in the standard dictionaries we’ve checked include the sense of still or stagnant water.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “standing water,” but within its entry for the adjective “standing” it includes this sense: “Of water, a piece of water: Still, not ebbing or flowing, stagnant.”

The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“In dyches is water y-norisshede and y-keppe, bothe rennynge and stondynge water” (“In ditches is water nourished and kept, both running and standing water”).

The OED doesn’t have an entry for “sitting water,” and its entry for the adjective “sitting” doesn’t include still or stagnant water as a sense.

The earliest example we’ve found for “sitting water” used in this sense is from a Nov. 18, 1998, article in the Coronado (Calif.) Eagle and Journal about the discovery of abandoned oil tanks beneath homes:

“At one tank site, there is a slight sheen to sitting water, indicating some oil is on top of it.”

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Hamlet in the closet

Q: I was teaching Hamlet for the first time in decades and we joked about the use of “closet” in the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius. I wonder how the usage evolved from meaning a small room to a state of secrecy, especially about being gay? It also seems to me that the Brits may use wardrobes more than we do, so the use of “closet” in its gay sense might not work the same way for them.

A: You’ll be surprised to hear that the noun “closet” is now used in Britain as well as America in both of the senses you mention—literal and figurative.

“Closet” in its literal sense—a small room for storing clothes, linens, or supplies—“has been the standard term in North American use since at least the late 19th century,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

But “during the later 20th century,” the OED adds, “it has increasingly been used in British English to refer to such a place used for storing clothes, although cupboard and (especially) wardrobe are still used in this sense.”

“Closet” in its figurative sense—a state of hidden homosexuality—has also jumped the pond. It has appeared in writing in the US since the early 1960s and in the UK since at least the early 1980s, according to citations in the OED and in slang dictionaries.

So where “closet” is concerned, speakers of American English and British English are on the same page.

The word has had a long and interesting history. First recorded in English in the 14th century, it originally had meanings far removed from either clothes or homosexuality.

“Closet” evolved from a noun in Old and Middle French, closet (a small enclosure or small field). The –et ending was a diminutive added to clos (an enclosed space), a noun that was in turn derived from the Latin clausum (a closed place, an enclosure).

The word first reached England as the Anglo-Norman closet (also, but rarely, spelled closette), which meant a private room or chapel. And from Anglo-Norman, the OED says, it entered English, in which it originally meant “a private or secluded room; an inner chamber.”

The OED’s earliest example is from an English translation, done sometime before 1387, of the Polychronicon, a religious and historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:

“Remigius from his childhode dwelled in a closett.” (The reference is to St. Remigius, who lived in the 5th and 6th centuries, and the OED says that “closett,” the translator’s rendering of the Latin reclusorio, in this case meant “a monastic cell.”)

In its early uses, “closet” generally meant a place set aside for a particular purpose, like a private chapel or private pew, a monarch’s private apartment, a council chamber, or a room for study, devotion, or contemplation. (Most of these uses are now “historical,” the OED says, meaning they’re found only in reference to the past.)

So when Hamlet visits his mother’s closet and kills Polonius, who’s hiding behind a tapestry, the term refers to the Queen’s private apartment.

The purposes of a medieval “closet” weren’t all so stageworthy. Since the 1400s, the word has also been used to mean a toilet or privy. Compound terms include “closet of ease” (1600s); “water closet” (1700s, first shortened to “W.C.” in the 1800s); and “earth closet” (1800s).

In the 1500s “closet” came to mean a storage space. The OED’s definition is “a recess or space adjoining a room, generally closed off by a door or doors reaching to the floor, and used for storage of clothes, linen, utensils, household supplies, etc.; a built-in cupboard; a wardrobe.”

Oxford’s earliest use is from a 1532 entry in a ledger that includes the cost of “makyng a Closett in my chamber.” (Cited from A Researcher’s Glossary of Words Found in Historical Documents of East Anglia, compiled by David Yaxley, 2003.)

Subsequent examples include “Confectionaire or Closet of sweet meat” (1616); and “Closset of books” (1686).

In the 18th century, Jane Austen wrote that a storage place entirely filled with shelves should not be called a closet: “I have a very nice chest of drawers and a closet full of shelves—so full indeed that there is nothing else in it, and it should therefore be called a cupboard rather than a closet, I suppose.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation, which is from a letter written May 17, 1799, during a visit to Bath.)

As we mentioned earlier, “closet” in the sense of a built-in wardrobe appeared in late 19th-century American usage and emigrated to Britain a century or so later.

So much for the word’s literal uses. But almost from the beginning, “closet” had been associated with concealment. Figurative uses having to do with hiding and secrecy began to emerge in the early 15th century.

This is the OED’s earliest such use: “Within a lytel closet of his entendement [intention].” It’s from The Book of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, a 1413 translation, first published in 1483, from the French of Guillaume de Deguileville.

Later Oxford citations include “the closette Where god delyteth to make his resydence” (1499), “closet of her heart” (1549), “the Closet of your Conscience” (1633), “the Closet of a Man’s Breast” (sometime before 1677), “the dark closet of his bosom” (1766), and “the innermost closet of her thought and life” (1911).

Adjectivally, too, “closet” has denoted secrecy. The OED has examples like “closet duties” (1639); “closet sins” (sometime before 1656); “closet good works” (1657); and “closet memoirs” (1706).

The familiar phrase “skeleton in the closet” was “brought into literary use by Thackeray” in 1855, the OED says, though it was “known to have been current at an earlier date.” (Here “skeleton” means “a secret source of shame or pain to a family or person,” the dictionary says.)

In the later 19th century, other things than skeletons were said to be “out of the closet” once revealed. The OED has this example: “Seeing the spectre of prohibition dragged out of the closet in every political campaign” (Galveston Daily News, March 6, 1892).

Finally, in the 20th century, the adjective “closet” was used to describe a person who was hiding something. The OED defines this usage, which is sometimes meant ironically, as “not open about something concerning oneself which, if revealed, could cause problems or embarrassment.” Examples include “closet drinker” (1948), “closet liberal” (1967), “closet Papist” (1985), and “closet romantic” (2005).

So it was probably inevitable that “closet” would come to be associated with covert or unacknowledged homosexuality.

In the earliest such example, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates “closet queen” to graffiti observed in 1959, but the evidence can’t be confirmed. The first published examples are from the early 1960s, and they’re also adjectival; Random House and Green’s Dictionary of Slang cite “closet fags” (1961), and the OED has “closet queen” (1963).

The OED also cites “in the closet” (secretly gay) and “come out of the closet” (to acknowledge being gay; both from 1968). Green’s has “open the closet” (to expose a person as gay; 1972).

And Oxford has examples of “out of the closet” (1970), “to come out” (1971), the adjectives “closeted” and “out” (both 1974), and the verb “out” (to expose someone’s homosexuality; 1990 in both the US and the UK).

We’ll end with a puzzle. In the sense of acknowledging one’s homosexuality, there are 1940s examples of the verb phrase “come out”—but without the “closet” that appeared decades later. And those early examples may have nothing to do with figurative closets. Here they are, courtesy of the OED:

Come out, to become progressively more and more exclusively homosexual with experience” (a definition from Gershon A. Legman’s appendix to George W. Henry’s book Sex Variants, 1941).

Come out, to be initiated into the mysteries of homosexuality” (by the pseudonymous “Swasarnt Nerf,” in Gay Guides for 1949, edited by Hugh Hagius).

Oxford suggests that these early uses of “come out” were not about closets but were “perhaps influenced” by the social debut sense of the phrase, as when a debutante “comes out.”

That may be true. Or perhaps the early connection between “closet” and “come out” lived underground in those days and has yet to be discovered. Time will tell.

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A bunch of sauces?

Q: Have you noticed that suddenly people are using the word “bunch” as an all-purpose collective? Even (especially) when the objects in question cannot readily be visualized as making up a bunch? The NY Times, for example, has a seafood restaurateur talking about “a bunch of different sauces.”

A: We agree that “a bunch of different sauces” sounds a bit off-kilter, and we’d prefer a different wording. But this is a legitimate usage, according to nine out of ten standard dictionaries.

In modern English, “bunch” is widely used in three distinct ways:

(1) It can mean a cluster or bundle of similar things that are fastened or held together, like a “bunch” of grapes, flowers, or keys.

(2) It can be a collective noun for things or people considered as a group, as in a “bunch” of houses, friends, or lies. Here, “a bunch of” means “a number of.”

(3) It can be a quantifier meaning a large quantity or amount of something, like a “bunch” of malarkey, trouble, or mustard. Here, “a bunch of” means “a considerable amount of.”

Of the ten standard dictionaries we checked, American and British, all include definitions that would fall into categories #1 and #2. (Several consider #2 “informal,” and Macmillan accepts it as applying to people but not things.)

However, only five accept the newest use (#3), where a “bunch” means a considerable amount of one thing, and three of them label it “informal.”

Their examples include “a bunch of money,” “a bunch of trouble,” “a bunch of food,” and “slather on a bunch of Dijon.”

(For the record, these are Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and Oxford Dictionaries Online.)

Your example, “a bunch of different sauces,” falls under definition #2. And by the way, the Times has printed the phrase more than once. It appeared over a decade ago in an article describing a Colombian-style hamburger that “loads on ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and a bunch of sauces, including the inevitable pineapple” (June 15, 2008).

As we said, we wouldn’t describe a collection of sauces as a “bunch.” We have a hard time thinking of liquids as a “bunch,” but that’s just a prejudice on our part. Inelegant though it is, the usage must be acknowledged as standard.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, makes an interesting point about this use of “bunch” for a collection of things. If the plural noun that follows “bunch” is “qualified by an adjective or other qualifier that indicates  a feature or features held in common,” he says, “the informality is much less evident.” His examples: “a bunch of corrupt politicians” … “a bunch of weary runners.”

So in Butterfield’s view, “a bunch of different sauces” would be less informal than “a bunch of sauces.” We think he’s right.

Today’s uses of “bunch” have been a long time in the making. The word has had a very long history and it didn’t always mean what it means today.

In medieval times it meant a hump or lump on the body of a person or animal—like a swollen tumor, a camel’s hump, and so on.

The word, first recorded in the early 1300s, is “of uncertain origin” and “probably onomatopoeic,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. (Similar-sounding words were also used to mean a hump or swelling: “bulch,” circa 1300; “botch,” c. 1330; “bouge, 1398; and “bulge,” c. 1400.)

The OED’s earliest confirmed example is from a religious poem, “Body and Soul” (c. 1325), where the word appears in a passage about fiends and hell-hounds: “Summe were ragged and tayled / Mid brode bunches on heore bak” (“Some were ragged and tailed / With broad humps on their back”).

This later OED example describes the humps on a dromedary: “A camell of Arabia hathe two bonches in the backe.” From John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Properties of Things”), a sort of medieval encyclopedia written by Bartholomew de Glanville in 1240.

The modern meaning of “bunch” as a bundle emerged in the 16th century. Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “A collection or cluster of things of the same kind, either growing together (as a bunch of grapes), or fastened closely together in any way (as a bunch of flowers, a bunch of keys); also a portion of a dress gathered together in irregular folds.”

In the dictionary’s earliest use, dated 1570, the Latin floretum is defined as “A Bunche of flowers” (from Peter Levens’s Manipulus Vocabulorum).

Half a century later, “bunch” was also used more generally to mean any collection of things or people—much as we use “lot,” the OED says.

In the dictionary’s examples, “bunch” in this sense is used for collections including “Patriarches, Prophets, Judges, and Kings” (1622), “duties” (1633), “cherubs” (1832), and “railroad workers” (1902). Exemplary people have been described as the “best of the bunch” since the late 19th century.

The OED’s entry for “bunch” (which it says “has not yet been fully updated”) has no separate definition corresponding to #3 above—the use of “bunch” for a considerable amount of something.

However, it does include an example of one such usage, by Samuel Johnson: “I am glad the Ministry is removed. Such a bunch of imbecility never disgraced a country” (from a 1782 conversation, cited in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, published in 1791).

Johnson’s quote is also mentioned in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, along with an example of “a bunch of hooey” from two centuries later (New York Times Book Review, Nov. 21, 1999). M-W has no reservations about the use of “bunch” for an amount of something.

The usage guide says various objections to “bunch,” chiefly from “writers of college handbooks,” arose in the early 20th century as the word became more popular.

“Objections were first to its application to a group of people, then switched to its use as a generalized collective,” M-W says. “Along the way an objection to its use before a mass noun sprang up. This was a particularly bad idea.”

All these objections, the usage guide says, have “had no ostensible effect on actual usage—except perhaps on papers written for college courses.”

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Is ‘deprioritize’ a priority?

Q: Here’s a hideous new word that I saw a few days ago: “deprioritize.” Let’s deprioritize it.

A: We wouldn’t describe either “prioritize” or “deprioritize” as lexical beauties, but speakers of bureaucratese seem to find them handy.

Both terms are relatively new. “Prioritize” showed up in writing in the 1950s and “deprioritize” two decades later, according to our database searches.

Standard dictionaries define the verb “prioritize” as (1) to put things in order of importance, or (2) to treat something as more important than others.

We haven’t found “deprioritize” in standard dictionaries, though the collaborative Wiktionary says it means “to reduce the level of priority”—that is, treat something as less important.

The verb “deprioritize” is out there, as you’ve noticed, but it’s apparently not out enough to make it into either standard dictionaries, which focus on the contemporary meanings of words, or the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

We’ve seen only a few hundred examples of “deprioritize” in our searches of digitized newspapers, magazines, broadcast transcripts, business journals, government documents, press releases, and so on.

A few early ones showed up in the 1970s, including this one: “It’s been my feeling that other types of antisocial behavior often take precedence over malicious destruction of property and, consequently, many tend to deprioritize its significance” (from the Journal of Police Science and Administration, Gaithersburg, Md., March 1977).

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the appearance of words or phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “deprioritize” began to increase in the early 1980s, but it’s still primarily used by bureaucrats, academics, technocrats, politicians, and such.

The verb “prioritize” appeared in print in the mid-1950s. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from “Words, Wit and Wisdom,” a syndicated column by the lexicographer William Morris that appeared in various newspapers on Nov. 9, 1954. Here’s an expanded version of the OED citation, in which Morris criticizes “the trend toward making verbs of nouns and adjectives by adding ‘-ize’ ”:

“ ‘Finalize’ and ‘concretize’ are two such barbarisms which made their first appearance in the shop-talk of the advertising business shortly after the last war. Now they seem—according to this column’s Washington operative, Jack E. Grant—to be firmly embedded in the speech of government workers, along with ‘civilianize’ (replace military personnel with civilians) and ‘prioritize’ (give preferential rating to).”

As for “prioritize,” the verb is now accepted by standard dictionaries, though the online American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says in a usage note that it took a while and some diehards are still grumbling:

“Like many verbs ending in -ize, prioritize has been tainted by association with corporate and bureaucratic jargon. Even though the word still does not sit well with some, it should be considered standard. In our 2008 survey, two-thirds of the Usage Panel accepted it in the sentence Overwhelmed with work, the lawyer was forced to prioritize his caseload. Barely half of the Panel accepted this same sentence in 1997. Acceptance may have increased not simply from familiarity but from usefulness, as there is no exact synonym.”

Although “deprioritize” isn’t in standard dictionaries, it may get there yet. Like “prioritize,” it can be useful and it has no exact synonym. But as your comment suggests, familiarity may also breed contempt.

Both “prioritize” and “deprioritize” are derived from the noun “priority,” which meant “precedence in order or rank” when it showed up in Middle English in the early 1300s. We wrote a post in 2016 about the highs and lows of priority.

The earliest example of “priority” in the OED says pride springs from, among other things, “Erthly honowre or priorte” (Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem written sometime before 1325).

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In the lap of the gods

Q: In preparing for a trip to Greece, I’ve done a lot of reading about the Greek gods. That got me thinking about the expression “It’s in the lap of the gods.” Why “lap,” not “laps”? Wouldn’t the plural be correct, grammatically speaking?

A: The expression originated in ancient Greek. Homer uses various versions of it in the Odyssey and the Iliad.

In Homeric Greek, “θεῶν ἐν γούνασι” literally means “in the knees of the gods.” The reference to “knees” has been translated over the years as “in the knees,” “on the knees,” “in the lap,” and “on the lap.”

For example, A. T. Murray, in his 1919 translation of the Odyssey, renders “θεῶν ἐν γούνασι” in Book 1 as “on the knees of the gods,” while T. E. Lawrence, in his 1932 version, translates it as “on the lap of the Gods.”

As William Seymour Tyler explains in The Theology of Greek Poets (1869), “The men and women of the Iliad and Odyssey are habitually religious” and the “language of religion is often on their tongues.”

“They seem to have an abiding conviction of their dependence on the gods,” he writes. “The results of all actions depend on the will of the gods; it lies on their knees (θεῶν ἐν γούνασι κεἶται, Od. i. 267), is the often repeated and significant expression of their feeling of dependence.”

Today the usual English expression, “in the lap of the Gods,” refers to a situation that one can’t control—something controlled by fate, destiny, providence. The phrase “in the lap” is used here to mean in the care, keeping, or control (a figurative sense of “lap” as a place where a child is held).

Why, you ask, is the English expression “lap of the gods” instead of “laps of the gods”?

First of all, the expression is an idiom. And idioms don’t have to make sense, either literally or grammatically. If they did, one would go to the toolbox rather than the linen closet to make one’s bed.

However, we think the expression does make grammatical sense. When we say “the gods” here, we’re thinking of them as a collective divinity, not individually as Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and so on.

The word “lap” has been used figuratively since the early 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ll skip to this OED example from Shakespeare: “Who are the violets now / That strew the greene lap of the new come spring” (from Richard II, written around 1595).

The dictionary’s first example of “in the lap of the gods” is from the early 20th century: “Perhaps a year—perhaps six months… It is in the lap of the gods” (from Bull-dog Drummond, a 1920 novel written by H. C. McNeile under the pseudonym “Sapper”). The ellipsis is in the novel.

But we found this earlier example in the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette and Advertiser, Aug. 12, 1869: “The future of Cairo is ‘in the lap of the gods.’ ”

And here’s an even earlier example, using “on the lap.” The writer speculates that the papers of Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, might reveal something new about her affair with Lord Byron:

“This among other chances ‘lies on the lap of the gods’; and especially on the lap of a goddess who still treads our earth.” (From Algernon Charles Swinburne’s preface, written in December 1865, to an edition of Byron’s poems that was published the following year. Byron had died in 1824, and the countess lived on until 1873.)

Interestingly, a May 24, 1873, article in the Evening Star, Washington, D.C., published a few weeks after the countess’s death, changes “on the lap” to “in the lap” while misquoting Swinburne: “However, this, like much else besides, lies in the lap of the gods, and especially in the lap of one goddess, who still treads the earth.”

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Blah blah blah, yada yada yada

Q: Is there a correct way to punctuate droning expressions like “blah blah blah” and “yada yada yada”? Commas? Hyphens? Nothing at all?

A: There’s no real answer here. You can use commas, hyphens, or nothing at all—unless you’re writing for a publication with rules about such things.

We’d use commas with “blah, blah, blah” if we wanted to convey a meandering, hesitant kind of blather. But we’d dispense with the commas to imitate an uninterrupted droning sound.

As for “yada yada yada,” we’d skip the commas, since it strikes us as steady machine-gun fire. But feel free to use hyphens or commas if they seem right to you.

Expressions like these are the kind of thing that authors take great liberties with—and they’re entitled to. Let’s look at how they’ve been used over the years.

The use of “blah” as a noun for nonsensical or empty talk dates back to 1918, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s “imitative” in origin, the dictionary says, indicating how this sort of talk sounds to the unlucky listener.

In Oxford’s earliest example, a writer refers to the “old blah about ‘service,’ ‘doing one’s bit,’ etc.” It’s from an entry dated July 3, 1918, in the diary of Howard Vincent O’Brien, a Chicago newspaperman and novelist. The diary was published anonymously in 1926 under the title Wine, Women and War.

The dictionary describes “blah” in this sense as a colloquial usage originating in the US, and defines it as “meaningless, insincere, or pretentious talk or writing; nonsense, bunkum.” (We think it’s interesting that this use of “blah” preceded its use as an adjective for “dull” by almost 20 years.)

The word is frequently repeated (as “blah blah” or “blah blah blah”), the dictionary says, and gives these later citations:

“Then a special announcer began a long debate with himself which was mostly blah blah” (Colliers, Jan. 15, 1921).

“So you heard about it from that femme fatale, did you? Damn that man! Bla, bla, bla!” (from Michael Arlen’s 1924 novel The Green Hat).

Even today, the repetitive use sometimes has commas and sometimes doesn’t. So take your pick.

The OED’s entry for “yada yada” (also spelled “yadda yadda”) has no commas, and most of its examples are comma-free. This usage is another American colloquialism, though of a later vintage.

Oxford defines it as an interjection, “imitative of the sound of human speech,” and “probably influenced by (or perhaps an alteration of)” the 19th-century noun “yatter.” The word is used, the dictionary says, in “indicating (usually dismissively) that further details are predictable or evident from what has preceded: ‘and so on,’ ‘blah blah blah.’ ”

Early forms of the expression go back at least to the 1940s. The OED points to a song, “Yatata Yatata Yatata” (Oscar Hammerstein, 1947), whose title and lyrics mimic empty cocktail chatter.

But the dictionary’s earliest example of the expression spelled with “d” instead of “t” is from The Essential Lenny Bruce (1967). Note the comedian’s creative spelling: “They’re no good, the lot of them—‘Yaddeyahdah’—They’re animals!”

The dictionary notes that Bruce’s usage predates the posthumous publication of his book. Some fans have said he used a version of “yada yada” in stand-up routines in the 1950s.

Subsequent OED examples have the more familiar spellings, like these (note the arbitrary use of commas):

“I’m talking country codes, asbestos firewalls, yada yada yada” (Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1981).

“Moody is forcing a heap of very tired metaphors down your throat—as the nuclear family fissions, so does the nuclear reactor, yadda yadda yadda” (a book review in the Village Voice, April 8, 1997).

“Best actor of his generation, blah blah blah. … Brilliant architect of the ‘method’ performance, yada, yada” (the British magazine Arena, May 2005).

As we mentioned, the OED classifies “yada yada” as an interjection. But in the 1990s people began using it as a noun. We’ll conclude with this example:

“The EULA, or ‘End-User License Agreement,’ is the yadda yadda yadda that you agree to when you install software on your computer. It’s usually pages and pages of stuff that no one reads” (from the Hoosier Times, Bloomington, Ind., March 20, 2005).

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A phony etymology

Q: A Francophile friend has suggested that “phony” is somehow related to “faux.” True or false?

A: False. “Phony” and “faux” are not related. However, “false” and “faux” come from the same Latin source.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “phony” (it uses the British spelling “phoney”) is “probably a variant of fawney,” an old slang term for a finger ring. The OED says “fawney” comes from fáine, Irish for ring.

How, you’re probably wondering, could the Irish word for a ring be the ultimate source of “phony”?

The missing link here is an old confidence game known by such terms as “fawney dropping,” “going on the fawney,” or the “fawney rig.” (A “rig” was a trick or swindle.)

In the second edition of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788), Francis Grose describes the scam this way:

“Fawney Rig. A common fraud, thus practiced: A fellow drops a brass ring, double gilt, which he picks up before the party meant to be cheated, and to whom he disposes of it for less than its supposed, and ten times more than its real, value.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the confidence game is from A View of Society and Manners in High and Low Life (1781), by George Parker: “The Fawney rig.”

And here’s another example from Parker’s book: “There is a large shop in London where these kind of rings are sold, for the purpose of going on the Fawney.”

The word “phony” showed up in the US in the late 19th century as an adjective meaning false: “Many of the ‘phony’ bookmakers in the ring had not enough play to keep them alive” (from the Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1893).

The noun, meaning a false person or thing, showed up in the early 20th century. The first OED citation is from Six Ex-Tank Tales, a 1902 collection of sketches by Clarence Louis Cullen that originally appeared in the New York Sun:

“If youse tinks f’r a minnit dat youse is goin’ t’ git away wit’ a phony like dat wit’ me youse is got hay in y’r hemp, dat’s wot.” (The ex-tank, or ex-tankard, tales are supposedly told during “deliberations of the Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degenerates.”)

As for “false” and “faux,” both terms are derived from falsus, classical Latin for false. The term was originally fals in both Old English and Old French, but the French version was faux when English borrowed it in the 17th century as a synonym for “false.”

In this early OED example, from a late 10th-century glossary compiled by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham, “false” modifies “penny” in Old English: “fals pening.” In Anglo-Saxon times, a “penny” was a foreign coin.

The use of “false” was relatively rare in Old English, but expanded in Middle English after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, influenced by Old French and Anglo-Norman.

The dictionary’s first example for “faux” used in English to mean false is from The Atheist (1684), a play by the English dramatist Thomas Otway: “Let me never see day again, if yonder be not coming towards us the very Rascal I told thee of this Morning, our faux Atheist.”

“Faux” was italicized in that citation, indicating that it was still considered foreign. Charlotte Brontë apparently felt the same way when she put it in quotation marks a century and a half later:

“You have a ‘faux air’ of Nebuchadnezzar in the fields about you, that is certain” (from Jane Eyre, 1847).

It wasn’t until the late 20th century, according to OED citations, that “faux” was being used in plain type: “His creative talent is still obscured by his own faux-cynical statements” (from the Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 1984).

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Far and few between

Q: I have always used “few and far between,” but now I hear people saying “far and few between.” Am I hallucinating?

A: No, you’re not hallucinating. “Few and far between” has been the usual wording since the expression showed up in writing in the 1600s. But “far and few between” has appeared occasionally since the 1800s, and more frequently in the last couple of decades.

A linguist would refer to “far and few between” as an example of word reversal, word exchange, word metathesis, or informally a malapropism (mixing up two similar-sounding words).

(We discussed such bloopers as malapropisms, spoonerisms, mondegreens, and eggcorns on the blog in 2011 as well as in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.)

The earliest example of “few and far between” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a letter written by Sir Ralph Verney on July 13, 1668: “Hedges are few and far between.” The letter is cited in Margaret M. Verney’s Memoirs of the Verney Family During the Civil War, published in 1899.

The OED doesn’t have any citations for “far and few between.” The earliest example we’ve seen is from Mieldenvold, the Student (1843), Frederick Sheldon’s sprawling poem about the travels and yearnings of a romantic German student:

“The houses too, are ‘far and few between’; / Both gentle, simple, — all are but the same. / A sense of dreariness pervades the scene.”

It’s unclear why Sheldon put the expression in quotation marks. It appeared without quotes in a book review two years later:

“The ‘originals’ among the plates were so far and few between, that it became almost a labour to find one out.” (From the British and Foreign Medical Review, London, July-October 1845. The passage refers to illustrations in a book about surgery.)

Until recently, “far and few between” was barely a blip on the lexical radar, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks expressions in digitized books published up to 2008. Since then, there’s been a noticeable increase in the usage, but “few and far between” is still overwhelmingly more popular.

Here, for example, are search results from the News on the Web corpus, which tracks web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present: “few and far between” (8,931) versus “far and few between” (759).

We’ve had similar results from searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and in NewsBank, a database of newspapers, magazines, press releases, blogs, videos, broadcast transcripts, and government documents. A search of the British National Corpus didn’t find any examples of “far and few between.”

The linguist Arnold Zwicky has noted the increased use of “far and few between” and has offered an explanation for the word reversal. In a Feb. 5, 2016, post on his blog, he says the original expression is an idiom that’s “learned as a whole, probably without much appreciation of its parts.”

As a result, he writes, “when some of those parts are syntactically and phonologically very similar, as few and far are, and when in addition both truncated far and few and few and far occur, the way is clear for some speakers to try the non-conventional order of those parts; after all, we don’t expect idioms to make a lot of sense in their fine details, so why not?”

“All it would take is for some speakers to produce the other order, either as an inadvertent error or by misremembering … the details of the idiom, or by creatively varying the order, and these speakers can then serve as the focus for the spread of far and few between,” he says. “Once this version spreads, we have a core of new speakers who just think that it’s the way the idiom works, or that it’s one of two equally acceptable versions of the idiom (since they’re probably hearing both). For them, far and few between is not some kind of error.”

In recent years, though, we’ve found that the use of “far and few between” has fallen. A NewsBank search indicates that “far and few between” peaked in 2011 with 289 examples, and had fallen by 2018 to 183 examples. The usage is still out there, as you’ve noticed, but sightings are fewer and farther between.

Finally, we wrote a post in 2014 that mentions the etymology of “few.” The original source is believed to be the Indo-European root pau-, denoting smallness of quantity or number, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Although “few” is spelled with an “f” in English and other Germanic languages, Ayto notes, the “p” of pau- survives in French (peu), Spanish (poco), and Italian (poco). In fact, the Indo-European root can still be seen in the English words “paucity,” “pauper,” “poor,” and “poverty.”

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What’s for dessert?

Q: Would you please discuss “desert” in its various forms, not forgetting “dessert” and the many pastry shops named “Just Desserts.”

A: We’ll take a look at the origins of these words later, but meanwhile here’s a memory aid. The word for the sweet treat that ends a meal, “dessert,” is the only one of the bunch that has a double “s” (pretend the extra “s” is for sugar).

And this is how Pat summarizes the difference between the sound-alike words “deserts” and “desserts” in the new fourth edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

People who get what they deserve are getting their deserts—accent the second syllable. John Wilkes Booth got his just deserts. People who get goodies smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce at the end of a meal are getting desserts (same pronunciation)—which they may or may not deserve. “For dessert I’ll have one of those layered puff-pastry things with cream filling and icing on top,” said Napoleon. (As for the arid wasteland, use one s and stress the first syllable. In the desert, August is the cruelest month.)

Those are just the nouns! There’s also a verb spelled “desert” (to abandon), accented on the second syllable. So in the sentence “Don’t desert me in the desert,” the verb and the noun are spelled alike but pronounced differently.

All these words came from Latin by way of French, and some are related, as we’ll explain. Let’s examine them one at a time, beginning with the oldest, which may date from the 12th century.

• “desert,” the noun for a barren land (stress the first syllable, DEH-zert).

Etymologically, a “desert” is a deserted or abandoned place. The word was adopted from Old French (desert), which was descended from the Latin verb dēserĕre (to leave, forsake, abandon).

From the beginning, it generally meant “a wilderness” or “an uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But more specifically it meant  “a desolate, barren region, waterless and treeless, and with but scanty growth of herbage.”

That’s how it’s used in the OED’s earliest example, from a guide for monastic women called the Ancrene Riwle, which may have been composed before 1200: “In þe deseart … he lette ham þolien wa inoch” (“In the wilderness … he let them suffer hardships aplenty”).

The word is pronounced the same way when it’s an adjective, as in “desert climate,” “desert boots,” or “desert island.”

The phrase “desert island,” by the way, was first recorded in 1607, the OED says, but it didn’t mean a hot, dry, sandy island. It meant one that was remote and seemingly uninhabited (that is, deserted). Which brings us to …

• “desert,” the verb meaning to abandon (stress the last syllable).

This word comes from the same sources as the noun—the French desert and the Latin dēserĕre—but it appeared much later, in the 16th century.

In the OED’s earliest examples, the verb was a legal term with several meanings: to relinquish, to put off for the time, to cease to have the force of law, or to be inoperative.

The dictionary’s first use was recorded in 1539 in Scottish Acts of James V: “That this present parliament proceide & stande our [over] without ony continuacioun … quhill [while] it pleiss the kingis grace that the samin [same] be desert.” (We’ve expanded the OED’s citation to provide more context.)

In the early 17th century, the verb “desert” acquired the meanings it has today: to abandon, forsake, run away, quit without permission, and so on. The earliest known example is this 1603 quotation:

“He … was resoluit [resolved] to obey God calling him thairto, and to leave and desert the said school.” (Cited in James Grant’s History of the Burgh and Parish Schools of Scotland, 1876.)

• “deserts,” the noun for what one deserves (stress the last syllable).

This word isn’t related to the others. It comes from the same source as “deserve,” the Old French verb deservir (to deserve), from Latin dēservīre. The Latin verb originally meant to serve zealously or with merit, but in late popular Latin, the OED says, it meant “to merit by service.”

Originally, in the late 1200s, the English noun was used in the singular (“desert”) and had a rather abstract meaning—a person’s deserving, or worthiness, of being rewarded or punished. Before long, a “desert” also meant an act, a quality, or conduct deserving of reward or punishment.

But in the late 1300s it came to mean the rewards or punishments themselves—as the OED says, “that which is deserved.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the word used in this sense is from William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman (1393). Note that it’s still singular here: “Mede and mercede … boþe men demen / A desert for som doynge” (“Reward and payment … both men deem a desert for some doing”).

In modern English, the word is nearly always plural, and most often occurs in the phrase “just deserts.” The OED defines the phrase as meaning “what a person or thing really deserves, esp. an appropriate punishment.”

The expression, according to OED citations, was first recorded in the singular in 1548 (“iust deserte”) and in the plural in 1582 (“iust desertes”). As we’ve written on the blog, the letter “i” was used in those days because “j” didn’t exist in English.

• “dessert,” the noun for the last course of a meal (stress the last syllable).

It’s only right that we should save this one for last. It was borrowed into English in 1600 from a recently coined French noun (dessert) that meant “removal of the dishes” or “dessert,” the OED says. The French noun was derived from a verb, desservir, which the OED defines as “to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).”

(The OED dates the French noun dessert from 1539. The first two uses appeared in the fourth book of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, according to Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française. We mention this only because the Rabelaisian origin somehow seems appropriate.)

The word’s earliest appearance in English was disapproving. The OED citation is from William Vaughan’s Naturall and Artificiall Directions for Health (1600): “Such eating, which the French call desert [sic], is unnaturall.”

Unnatural or not, the dessert course immediately caught on and became indispensable. Here’s a succinct headline the OED quotes from a 1966 issue of the magazine Woman’s Day: “A starter. A main dish. A dessert.”

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Is ‘Gypsy’ a slur?

Q: In the quilting world, there’s a popular design named “Gypsy Wife.” When a woman recently posted a photo of a nice one she made to a Facebook page, she was lambasted for using the term “Gypsy.” Because of the complaints, she removed the photo. Is “Gypsy” a slur?

A: This is a complicated and sensitive question.

Some people who identify themselves as ethnically Roma (also called Romani or Romany) are offended by “Gypsy,” and most standard dictionaries have reservations about using it to mean Roma. On the other hand, some Roma people don’t mind being called “Gypsies” and others even embrace the term.

What’s more, the uncapitalized “gypsy” has meanings that are ultimately derived from the original sense but no longer have ethnic or racial associations. And those uses are not regarded as pejorative, at least in dictionaries.

Our conclusions are that that “Gypsy” (with a capital “G”) is offensive to some people, and should be used with caution. Meanwhile, the non-ethnic uses of “gypsy” (with a lowercase “g”) should not be condemned. Here’s a summary of the word’s history.

The earliest form of the word in English, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to the 1530s, was “Gipcyan,” an abbreviated version of “Egyptian.” At that time, as John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins (2011), “it was widely thought that the Romany people originated in Egypt.”

They didn’t, as we now know. A genome study in Current Biology, December 2012, shows that the founding population of the Roma people originated in northern India 1,500 years ago and rapidly migrated into Europe through the Balkans, with some genetic input along the way from the Near or Middle East. The Romani language is descended from Sanskrit, in which romá is the plural of rom (man or husband).

So the “Gypsies” were mislabeled from the start, since they didn’t come from Egypt. And many early appearances of “Gypsy” in English were highly pejorative because, as OED citations show, these itinerant foreigners were often viewed with contempt and mistrust, suspected of crimes, and driven away. Here are the OED’s earliest examples:

“The Kinges Maiestie aboute a twelfmoneth past gave a pardonne to a company of lewde personnes within this Realme calling themselves Gipcyans for a most Shamfull and detestable murder.” (From a letter written by Thomas Cromwell on Dec. 5, 1537.)

“It is ordayned agaynste people callynge themselves Egypcyans, that no such persons be suffred to come within this realme.” (From The Newe Boke of Justyces of the Peas, 1538, by the judge and legal scholar Anthony Fitzherbert.)

“Hee wandring … in the manner of a Gipson … was taken, and trust vp for a roge [trussed up for a rogue].” (From Martins Months Minde, 1589, an attack by an unknown writer on the pseudonymous pamphleteer known as Martin Marprelate.)

The OED defines this ethnic sense of “Gypsy” as “a member of a wandering race (by themselves called Romany), of Hindu origin, which first appeared in England about the beginning of the 16th cent. and was then believed to have come from Egypt.”

But the word very soon acquired transferred meanings, the OED says. In the 1600s it was used to mean a man who was “a cunning rogue,” the dictionary says, and for a woman who was “cunning, deceitful, fickle, or the like.”

In later use, Oxford adds, “gypsy” (by this time lowercased) was used playfully rather than contemptuously for a woman, “and applied esp. to a brunette.”  All those uses have died out.

But since then “gypsy” (also spelled “gipsy”) has acquired several more meanings, none of them pejorative. Most date from around the mid-20th century, and here we’ll paraphrase the many definitions in standard dictionaries:

(1) Someone who’s free-spirited or doesn’t live in one place for long.

(2) A person with a career or way of life that’s itinerant or unconventional, especially a part-time or temporary college faculty member or a performer in the chorus line of a theatrical production.

(3) An unlicensed, nonunionized, or independent operator, particularly a trucker or cab driver but also including plumber and other trades.

We don’t think any of those three senses of “gypsy” are offensive, though undoubtedly some could be used in a dismissive manner. At any rate, dictionaries attach no such warning labels to them.

Dictionaries also include without a caution the use of the lowercase term for a member of a traditionally itinerant group that’s unrelated to the Roma. This definition would include people known as “Travelers” in Ireland, Scotland, and the US, who are not descended from the Roma and do not speak Romani.

However, the original, ethnic meaning of “Gypsy” is another matter. Nowhere does the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, label “Gypsy” as offensive or contemptuous. But many standard dictionaries do have reservations about the term.

American Heritage labels “Gypsy” as “often offensive” in only one sense, when it means “Romani.” Merriam-Webster labels it  “sometimes offensive.” And Webster’s New World says it’s “now often considered offensive, the word Rom (pl., Roma) or Romani being preferred.”

As for the online standard British dictionaries, Oxford and Cambridge have no reservations. Macmillan labels the term “offensive” when it means “a Romany.” Longman says “most” Gypsies and Collins says “some” prefer to be called Romanies.

So the apparent consensus among lexicographers is that as an ethnic term, “Gypsy” should be used with caution if at all.

Even the use of the lowercase “gypsy” to refer to theatrical performers came under attack last year, according to an article in the New York Times on April 20, 2018.

The writer, Michael Paulson, noted that the use of “gypsy” to refer to the performers in a chorus line apparently derives from “the fact that until the early 20th century, many American actors proudly earned a living by traveling from city to city.”

“To many,” he wrote, the word “is pejorative, no matter the context.” He quoted Carol Silverman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, as saying, “It is an ethnic slur.”

He also quoted Petra Gelbart, a curator at RomArchive, a digital archive: “The fact that the term Gypsy is so often used to denote free-spirited or traveling lifestyles has real-life repercussions for actual Romany people,” reducing them to “ridiculous stereotypes that can make it difficult to find employment or social acceptance.”

On the other side, Paulson cited Laurence Maslon, a professor at New York University and author of the book Broadway to Main Street (2018), as saying that to stage performers, “It was a badge of honor, not a badge of shame, that you were itinerant.”

And Tom Viola, executive director of the nonprofit organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, said, “In our theatrical community, ‘the gypsy’ is beloved.” He said the organization is sticking with “Gypsy of the Year” as the name of its annual fund-raising performance.

As you may know, the issue of Gypsy persecution is much more prominent in Europe than in the US. In a 2012 report, the Roma and Travelers division of the Council of Europe had this to say about terminology:

“The term ‘Roma/Gypsies’ was used for many years by the Council of Europe, before the decision was taken to no longer use it in official texts in 2005.” The move was made principally because of objections by international Roma associations, the Council says, who regarded it as “an alien term, linked with negative, paternalistic stereotypes which still pursue them in Europe.”

But the report added that “in some countries, the term ‘Gypsies’ or its national equivalent has no negative connotations, is accepted by the people concerned and may occasionally be more appropriate.”

One organization that is not fazed by the term “Gypsy” is the 130-year-old Gypsy Lore Society, founded in Britain in the 19th century and now headquartered in the US.

The society publishes books, a newsletter, and the scholarly journal Romani Studies, which features articles on “the cultures of groups traditionally known as Gypsies as well as Travelers and other peripatetic groups.”

“Much of the material published on Gypsies and Travelers on the Internet,” the society cautions on its website, “is misleading due either to stereotyping, antiquated perspectives on ethnicity or culture, poor scholarship, excessive political correctness or other biases and, in some cases, outright fabrication.”

As for the striking quilt pattern called “Gypsy Wife,” there’s no special significance to the name, according to its creator, the Australian quilt designer Jen Kingwell.

In an interview at a quilt show in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 21, 2015, she said, “I have no idea why it’s called that. I find naming quilt patterns about the hardest thing ever.”

Personally, we think it’s an imaginative name and we find no offense in it. The design is certainly free-spirited and unconventional, though not unlicensed (it’s copyrighted).

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Self denial

Q: It’s chalk screeching on a blackboard when I hear people, especially TV people, using “I” as an object. But I’m confused as to when “myself” should be used instead of “me.” Sometimes “myself” just feels more comfortable. Your views?

A: We’ve written about “myself” several times on our blog, most recently in 2018. And Pat has written about it in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Here’s the section on “myself” from the updated and expanded Woe Is I, which came out a few weeks ago:


In the contest between I and me, the winner is often myself. That’s because people who can’t decide between I and me often choose myself instead. They say things like Jack and myself were married yesterday. (Better: Jack and I.) Or: The project made money for Reynaldo and myself. (Better: for Reynaldo and me.) You’ve probably done it yourself.

Well, it’s not grammatically wrong, but I don’t recommend this self-promotion. Ideally, myself and the rest of the self-ish crew (yourself, himself, herself, etc.) shouldn’t take the place of the ordinary pronouns I and me, he and him, she and her, and so on. They’re better used for two principal purposes:

• To emphasize. I made the cake myself. Love itself is a riddle. The detective himself was the murderer. (The emphasis could be left out, and the sentence would still make sense.)

• To refer back to the subject. She hates herself. And you call yourself a plumber! They consider themselves lucky to be alive. The problem practically solved itself.

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Our etymological chops

Q: The Playbill for Lincoln Center’s tribute to Oscar Peterson says Kenny Baron, one of the pianists performing, “honed his chops” playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Freddie Hubbard, and other jazz musicians. How did “chops” come to mean skill? A test for your etymological chops.

A: The story begins back in the early 16th century when “chop” appeared in English as a term for the jaw.

The earliest known example (with “chop” spelled “choip”) is from “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy,” which was composed by the Scottish poet William Dunbar in 1505 and printed in 1508, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

“Thy cheikbane bair and blaiknit is thy ble. / Thy choip, thy choll garris men for to leif chest” (“Thy cheekbones stick out and pale is thy complexion. / Thy jaw, thy jowl makes men live sinlessly”). We’ve expanded the citation from the poem, which describes a flyting, or literary war of words, between Dunbar and another poet, Walter Kennedy.

By the end of the 16th century, the OED says, the plural “chops” was being used to mean the jaws or mouth “in contemptuous or humorous application to men.”

The dictionary cites an anonymous 1589 pamphlet attacking the Anglican hierarchy: “Whose good names can take no staine, from a bishops chopps” (from “Hay Any Work for Cooper,” by the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate).

Skipping ahead a couple of centuries and crossing the Atlantic, the term came to be used in jazz to mean the power of a trumpeter’s embouchure—the way the lips and tongue are applied to the mouthpiece.

The OED’s earliest example is from the August 1937 issue of the jazz magazine Tempo: “Surely his chops can’t be beat already.”

A few decades later, “chops” came to mean a jazz musician’s skills: “Maybe you could get your chops together on this horn” (from Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature, 1968, edited by Abraham Chapman).

And by the late 20th century, according to OED citations, the word meant talent or skill in any field: “Most academic writers just don’t have the chops to make riveting reading out of the quiltwork of 19th-century farm wives” (from the Boston Phoenix, April 27, 1990).

Over the years, “chops” has had several other colloquial senses, especially in American slang, including “to bust someone’s chops” (to harass a person, 1953) and “to bust one’s own chops” (to exert oneself to the utmost, 1966). The dates are for the first OED citations.

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Horticultural doppelgängers

Q: Can “doppelgänger” refer to a lookalike plant as well as a person who looks like somebody else? Specifically, the query applies to cultivars in the genus Hosta. Sometime leaves of two or more different cultivars look alike, though they are not of the same parentage.

A: We see no reason why “doppelgänger” can’t be used loosely to mean a lookalike Hosta cultivar.

Oxford Dictionaries Online defines “doppelgänger” as an “apparition or double of a living person,” but it includes several examples that refer to things as doppelgängers:

  • “Nestled deep within the human brain lies a pair of small, almond-shaped structures that bear the Greek name for their doppelgänger: amygdala.”
  • “Its doppelgänger among the desserts is the chocolate fundido, a sticky, spicy fondue of melted Oaxacan chocolate, served with a platter of cookies, churros, and fruit for dipping.”
  • “So what happens if a winery produces both world-class Burgundian doppelgängers—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and throw in Riesling, too)—but is half a globe away?”

By the way, we’re using an umlaut over the “a” in “doppelgänger” because many standard dictionaries list that spelling first, followed by the umlaut-free version as an equal variant. Either spelling is standard, though our email spellchecker disagrees and recognizes only “doppelgänger.”

English borrowed the term in the 19th century from the German doppelgänger or the Dutch dubbelganger, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which translates the original terms as “double-goer.” The modern German dictionaries in our library define doppelgänger as a double.

An early English version, “double-ganger,” appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830): “If he turn his cloak, or plaid, he will obtain the full sight which he desires, and may probably find it to be his own fetch or wraith, or double-ganger.” We’ve expanded the citation, which is in a footnote.

The usual English term now, “doppelgänger” or “doppelganger,” showed up two decades later, minus the umlaut. The earliest OED example is from an 1851 entry in the Denham Tracts, a series of pamphlets, published from 1846 to 1859, by the English folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham:

“Hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes.” The citation is excerpted from a long list of ghostly terms. The Folklore Society in London reprinted the pamphlets as the Denham Tracts in 1895. An index at the end includes this entry: “Dopple-gangers, a class of spirits,” and points to the page with the excerpt cited by the OED.

Getting back to the garden, “Doppelgänger” (or “Doppelganger”) is the name of a two-tiered coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, also known as “Doubledecker” (or “Double Decker”) and “Double Walker,” reflecting the spooky etymology of “doppelgänger.”

Finally, Michael Pollan uses “doppelgänger” to mean a botanical lookalike in “Weeds Are Us,” an article in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 1989:

Standing at the forefront of evolution, weeds are nature’s ambulance chasers, carpetbaggers and confidence men. Virtually every crop in general cultivation has its weed impostor, a kind of botanical doppelgänger that has evolved to mimic the appearance as well as the growth rate of the cultivated crop and so insure its survival. Some of these impostors, like wild oats, are so versatile that they can alter their appearance depending on the crop they are imitating—an agricultural fifth column.

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Dilly, dilly, come and be killed

Q: I came across the word “dillies” the other day (I can’t remember where!) and it reminded me that when I was a child in England many years ago, “dilly” was the name for a female duck. I haven’t heard it since, and strangely enough, cannot find “dilly = duck” on the internet! Is this a usage that has entirely disappeared?

A: In the days when people kept domestic ducks, the word “dilly” was more common than it is today. In modern English, it exists only as a colloquial or dialectal usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word began as a call to ducks, the OED says, and consequently “dilly” (along with “dilly-duck”) evolved into “a nursery name for a duck.”

The earliest duck-call example we’ve found appeared in a popular music-hall song first performed in the mid-18th century. The lyrics to the song, originally entitled “Mrs. Bond,” later became a nursery rhyme.

The comic song is about a cook who needs “a duckling or two” for her customers’ dinner. She instructs a servant to call the ducks by crying “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed,” but when he fails to entice them Mrs. Bond goes to the pond and calls them herself.

The song was introduced in performances of Samuel Foote’s two-act farce The Mayor of Garret (1763), according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (2nd ed., 1997), by Iona and Peter Opie. The song doesn’t appear in the published text of the play, but the Opies say it was immediately printed by rival London music publishers.

The song’s oft-repeated refrain is “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed, / For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!”

A nursery-rhyme version of the song was first published in 1797 in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements, according to the Opies, and subsequently appeared in several 19th-century collections of children’s poetry (the wording often varied).

The OED suggests that the evolution of “dilly” from a duck call to the name for a duck was inspired by the nursery rhyme.

But in the meantime, among adults the saying “dilly, dilly, come and be [or “to be”] killed” became a catch-phrase symbolizing a sweet enticement used to lure an unsuspecting victim. It was used this way in early 19th-century political journalism—first in Britain, then in the US and Australia.

For example, a member of Parliament, Robert Thornton, used the catch-phrase in the House of Commons on June 16, 1813, in arguing against an invitation to the East India Company to open its ports to wider trade. He likened the resolution to “the line in Mrs. Bond’s song—’Dilly Dilly Wagtail, come to be killed.’ ”

His remarks were reported on June 17, 1813, in at least two British newspapers, the London Star and the London Chronicle, though the wording differed. A report also appeared in July 1813 in a British periodical, the Satirist: or, Monthly Meteor:

“Mr. R. Thornton, in one of the debates on the East India question, wittily observed, that the invitation to the Company to open their trade reminded him of the child’s song,—’Dilly, Dilly, come and be killed.’ ”

In social commentary, too, the duck call was used to symbolize a lure to the unwary.

An article about “cannibalism” among different elements of society was published in Britain and the US in 1828. The author mentions one class of “cannibals” that “must be nameless” (probably the clergy), who “persuade their prey, like ‘dilly dilly duck,’ ‘to come and be killed’ for the good of his own soul.”  The unsigned article was printed in the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (London, July 1828) and the Museum of Foreign Literature and Science (Philadelphia and New York, September 1828).

The OED’s citations for “dilly”—both as a duck call and as a name for a duck—aren’t fully updated and don’t begin until 1831, with an example of Mrs. Bond’s duck call in the nursery rhyme.

But Oxford does have the earliest example we’ve seen for “dilly” used to mean a duck. It’s from a comic poem first published in 1838, in which the eels in Mrs. Bond’s pond eat her baby ducklings.

We’ll expand the OED citation for context: “The tenants of that Eely Place / Had found the way to Pick a dilly.” (From “The Drowning Ducks” by Thomas Hood, with puns on the London street names Ely Place and Piccadilly.)

Was a “dilly” always a female duck, the counterpart to the “drake”? The OED doesn’t say, but in 19th-century British literature that’s generally the case.

In The Boy’s Book of Modern Travel and Adventure (1863), Merideth Johnes uses “her” in referring to a “poor dilly-duck.” R. D. Blackmore’s novel Mary Anerley (first serialized in 1879) has a passage in which “coy lady ducks” are later referred to as “tame dilly-ducks.” And Summer in Broadland (1889), a travel book by Henry Montagu Doughty, uses “she” and “her” in reference to an inquisitive “dilly duck.”

So why was “dilly” used as a duck call in the first place? That’s a good question, and we don’t have a clue. The word certainly doesn’t sound like the quacking of a duck.

What’s more, other meanings of “dilly” aren’t related. The adjective “dilly” has been used to mean stupid or foolish, but only since the 1870s and mostly in Australia. In American slang “dilly” has meant delightful or delicious since the early 1900s—a use that inspired the noun use (“it’s a dilly”). The source there is the first syllable of “delightful” and “delicious,” the OED says.

Another similar sounding term, “dilly dally,” is also unrelated, as far as we know. It was recorded in noun form in the 1500s and as a verb in the 1700s. But the OED says it’s probably a repeating variant (“a reduplication with vowel variation”) of the verb “dally” (circa 1300), along the lines of “shilly shally,” “zig-zag,” and other such phrases.

Also unrelated are some uses of “dilly” in nursery rhymes. We’ve found examples dating from 1606 of chants like “fa-la-la lantido dilly,” “trangidowne dilly,” “lankey down dilly,” “daffy-down dilly” (an expansion of “daffodil”), and others.

Perhaps the most familiar of these is an anonymous 17th-century English song that begins, “Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green, / When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.”  (Early versions used “diddle” instead of “dilly.”)

But getting back to your question about “dilly” in the barnyard, apparently there’s no logic in the words people use to call domestic animals. Such words are “chiefly monosyllabic and dissylabic” and are “generally repeated in groups of three,” according to one 19th-century observer, who added: “This language has but little in common with that used by the animals.”

The writer was H. Carrington Bolton, whose paper “The Language Used in Talking to Domestic Animals” appeared in the March and April 1897 issues of the American Anthropologist.

In a section entitled “Calls to Ducks,” Bolton says that “dilly, dilly” isn’t solely a British usage: “Dilly, dilly is also current in the United States; diddle is reported from Virginia, and widdy from North Carolina.”

It seems that what was true in the 19th century is no longer true now. The Dictionary of American Regional English, whose evidence dates largely from the 20th century, lists “diddle” and “widdy” as calls to ducks and other poultry. But alas, no “dilly.”

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‘Play’ time

Q: In a YouTube clip I’ve seen, a pianist at a hotel lounge says he likes to “play to guests.” Is it “play to” or “play for”? Wouldn’t “play to” suggest currying favor with the guests, as in “play to the gallery”?

A: The verb “play” is especially playful. You can “play” tennis, a violin, the innocent, Lady Macbeth, a sonata, the ponies or a slot machine, a CD, your queen at chess or cards, and so on.

Things get even more playful when “play” is part of a phrasal verb, a multi-word verb that’s treated as a single unit with a meaning that can stray far from the senses of the verb itself.

You can “play with” your food, “play up” or “play down” an illness, “play on” an opponent’s weak point, “play around” sexually, “play up to” your boss, “play along” with a con artist, “play at” a boring task, and so on.

The phrasal verb you mention, “play to,” has two meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

(1) “To behave or perform in a particular way for (someone or something) in order to get approval or attention … He didn’t mean what he was saying. He was just playing to the crowd.”

(2) “To make use of (something) … a film that plays to stereotypes of housewives.”

As for your question, we see nothing wrong with a pianist’s saying he likes to “play to guests.” In this case, “to” is a simple preposition pointing to the pianist’s audience, not part of a phrasal verb.

But we wouldn’t use the verb “play” with the preposition “to” if we felt a reader or listener might think we were using the phrasal verb. For example, we wouldn’t say the pianist “plays to the guests,” since it sounds too much like “plays to the crowd” or “plays to the gallery”—that is, plays up to the guests (the meaning of sense #1 above).

We should note here that “play for” is more common than “play to,” according to our recent searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases. “Played for,” for instance, was more than twice as popular as “played to” in Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

As for the etymology, the verb “play” had many of its modern meanings when it showed up as plægian in Old English: to do something for fun, to take part in a game or sport, to perform on a musical instrument, and to play with words—that is, to pun.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of “play” used in the punning sense also includes one of the earliest puns in the English language. The citation describes Pope Gregory I’s reaction on seeing a group of Angle children from Britain for sale in a Roman slave market:

“Ða gyt he ahsode hwæt heora cyning haten wære: & him mon ondswarade ond cwæð, þætte he Æll haten wære. Ond þa plegode he mid his wordum to þæm noman & cwæð: Alleluia, þæt gedafenað, þætte Godes lof usses scyppendes in þæm dælum sungen sy.”

(“He asked moreover what their king was called; the reply came that he was called Ælle. And then he played with his words on the name, saying: Alleluia, it is fitting that praise of God our Creator should be sung in those places.’’)

The pun refers to Ælle, king of the Anglian kingdom of Deira in what is now northern England. We restored the ellipses in the citation, which comes from an anonymous early Old English translation of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a Latin church history written in the eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede.

Earlier in the passage, the Pope had asked where the children were from. When told “þæt heo Ongle nemde wæron” (“that they were named Angles”), he punned “þæt heo engla æfenerfeweardas in heofonum sy” (“that they should be joint heirs with the angels in heaven”). A third pun in Bede’s Latin doesn’t work in Old English, so we’ll skip it.

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Rogues’ galleries and mug books

Q: A photo of various politicians made me think of that great term from British crime stories—“rogues’ gallery.” Americans use the less classy “mug book.” Any thoughts on the origins of these two expressions? Are women included in a rogues’ gallery?

A: As it turns out, “rogues’ gallery” originated in the US in the mid-19th century as a term for the collected images of known criminals. The first written use of the noun phrase referred to NYPD daguerreotypes of not just men and women, but also boys and girls.

All six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, American and British, have entries for “rogues’ gallery” in that sense. However, none of the dictionaries, which focus on contemporary usage, include “mug book,” a term that’s in slang dictionaries as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Standard dictionaries now use the plural possessive “rogues’ gallery,” but the term was a singular possessive when it first appeared in print, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Dec. 5, 1857, issue of the New York Times: “There must be positive proof that the man or woman, girl or boy, whose likeness is added to the Rogue’s Gallery of the Detective Police, is an incorrigible offender.”

Oxford defines “rogues’ gallery” as “a collection of photographs of known criminals, used to identify suspects; (in extended use) any collection of people or things notable for a certain shared quality or characteristic, esp. a disreputable one.”

The earliest OED example of the extended sense is a headline in an American magazine (Popular Mechanics, September 1923): “Rogue’s gallery of pests is kept for farmers.”

This more recent example is even more extended: “Bob Dylan, Arthur Lee, Keith Richard, Bob Marley—the rogue’s gallery of rebel input that forms the hard stuff at the centre of rock” (from Bob Marley and the Roots of Reggae, 1977, by Cathy McKnight and John Tobler).

The term still shows up in its original sense in both the US and the UK. For instance, an article in the New York Post on March 19, 2016, describes the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list as “a rogues’ gallery of murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, child abusers and armed robbers with zero regard for human life.” And this headline appeared on July 22, 2016, in the Sun (London): “Cops release second rogues’ gallery of Hyde Park water fight troublemakers.”

A search of newspaper and magazine databases suggests that the extended usage is more common now than the original sense. Here are a few recent examples from the New York Times:

“Among the rogues’ gallery of Romanov pretenders who emerge in the aftermath, a young woman surfaced in 1920 claiming to be Princess Anastasia” (Book Review, Aug. 10, 2018).

“As the more astute analyses of the Russia story have pointed out, the corruption allegedly engineered by a rogues’ gallery of Russian politicians, businessmen, intelligence agents and cybercriminals would not be possible without a ready-made architecture of American graft waiting for them to exploit” (TV review, May 20, 2018).

“As the rogues’ gallery of fallen world leaders grows, you might be tempted to conclude that ours is the most corrupt era in history” (Magazine, May 2, 2018).

As for “mug book,” the term has been used since the early 20th century to mean “a book containing photographs of people’s faces, esp. in police records,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1902 collection of sketches by Clarence Louis Cullen that originally appeared in the New York Sun:

“I’d often seen him in New York, and I’d seen his mush in Byrnes’s mug book, too.” (The passage, from More Ex-Tank Tales, refers to a scam artist who sells counterfeit gold bricks. The ex-tank, or ex-tankard, tales are supposedly told during “deliberations of the Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degenerates”).

The term “mug shot,” which the OED defines as “a photograph of a person’s face, esp. in police or other official records,” showed up a half-century later. The dictionary’s first example is a 1950 citation from the Dictionary of American Slang (1960), compiled and edited by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner:

“When police passed around a mug shot of Willie yesterday, 11 of 17 employees of the Queens Boulevard branch of the Manufacturers Trust Co. named him on the spot as the gang leader.” (We’ve expanded the citation, which comes from an AP story that appeared in newspapers on March 10, 1950. It refers to the American bank robber Willie Sutton.)

The terms “mug shot” and “mug book” ultimately come from the slang use of the noun “mug” to mean a face, especially an unattractive one—a usage that showed up in the early 1700s. As the OED explains, the slang usage is “perhaps in allusion to the drinking mugs made to represent a grotesque human face which were common in the 18th cent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the slang usage is from a short-lived London journal, the British Apollo, Feb. 13-18, 1708: “My Lawyer has a Desk, nine Law-books without Covers, two with Covers, a Temple-Mug, and the hopes of being a Judge.” The term “Temple-Mug” here apparently means a typical face in the Temple legal district of London.

In the late 19th century, the word “mug” came to mean a “photograph or other likeness of a person’s face, esp. in police or other official records. The earliest Oxford citation is from a New Orleans newspaper, the Lantern, July 9, 1887: “He had his mug taken in fireman’s clothes.”

Finally, here’s an expanded OED example from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely:

I sat down at the vacant desk and Nulty turned over a photo that was lying face down on his desk and handed it to me. It was a police mug, front and profile, with a fingerprint classification underneath. It was Malloy all right, taken in a strong light, and looking as if he had no more eyebrows than a French roll.

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Was ‘pin money’ really for pins?

Q: An article in the Guardian about sexism in the workplace says, “Women are no longer routinely told to their faces that they’re only working for ‘pin money,’ that they should be ashamed of taking work from men with families to feed.” Where does the term “pin money” come from? Did it once refer literally to real pins?

A: No, “pin money” was never about pins in the ordinary sense of the word. The use of “pin” in this 17th-century expression makes it sound more demeaning than it actually was.

Today “pin money” simply means a trivial amount of money, perhaps enough for incidentals. And since the days of the Suffragists, it’s been used in a belittling way to demean the wages of working women.

But you’re asking about the historical meaning of “pin money,” which in its earliest sense meant “a (usually annual) sum allotted to a woman for clothing and other personal expenses; esp. such an allowance provided for a wife’s private expenditure,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary.

The phrase was first recorded, the OED says, in a suit brought against Lord Leigh by Lady Leigh in 1674: “On difference between him and his lady about settlement of 200 l. [pounds] per annum, pin-mony” (from a document later collected in the legal digest English Reports in Law and Equity, 1908).

The dictionary’s second citation clearly demonstrates that “pin money” wasn’t about pins. In a scene from John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Relapse; or, Virtue in Danger, first performed in 1696, a young heiress and her nurse discuss the lady’s upcoming nuptials (we’re expanding the dialogue here):

Miss Hoyden: For this I must say for my Lord … he’s as free as an open House at Christmas. For this very Morning, he told me, I shou’d have two hundred a Year to buy Pins. Now, Nurse, if he gives me two hundred a Year to buy Pins; What do you think he’ll give me to buy fine Petticoats?

Nurse: A, my dearest. … These Londoners have got a Gibberidge [gibberish] with ’em, would confound a Gypsey. That which they call Pin-money, is to buy their Wives every thing in the varsal [whole] World, down to their very shoe-tyes: Nay, I have heard Folks say, That some Ladies, if they will have Gallants, as they call ’um; are forc’t to find them out of their Pin-money too.

We can’t resist adding this example from our own reading. Near the end of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mrs. Bennet congratulates her daughter Elizabeth, newly engaged to Mr. Darcy:

“Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin money, what jewels, what carriages you will have!”

What did pins have to do with a woman’s personal expenses?

Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary, says the “pin” here originally referred to a jeweled or ornamental fastener, and denoted a wife’s clothing and other personal expenses.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, raises an interesting possibility: the French word for “pins,” épingles, had long been used in a related sense.

In 15th-century France the plural épingles meant a “gift given to a woman on completion of a business transaction with her husband.” And in the mid-17th-century the French used it to mean “money given to a woman in recognition of some service she has rendered.”

In English, the plural “pins” was used similarly in the 16th century, a century before the expression “pin money” was recorded in OED citations.

This example appears in a will made in 1542 by John Nevile, Lord Latimer: “I give my said doughter Margarett my lease of the parsonadge of Kirkdall Churche … to by her pynnes withal” (from Testamenta Eboracensia, Vol. VI, 1902, a selection of wills registered in York).

And in 1640, Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, made this legacy: “Which Rent I haue bestowed on my daughter Mary to buy her pins” (from the earl’s diaries, autobiographical notes, and other writings, published as The Lismore Papers in 1886).

As you can see, the plural “pins” had a special meaning—a woman’s expenses—before “pin money” was first used to mean her personal funds.

And, as the dictionary’s citations show, the money involved (whether referred to as “pins” or “pin money”) was often considerable and was taken very seriously by the wealthy—and their lawyers.

This quotation is from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (Vol. II, 1766): “If she has any pinmoney or separate maintenance, it is said she may dispose of her savings thereout by testament, without the control of her husband.”

The legal encyclopedia Halsbury’s Laws of England has this historical note in a 1979 edition, “Pin money was … usually provided for in a settlement by a yearly rent charge on the husband’s real estate.”

And in his book Road to Divorce: England, 1530-1987, Lawrence Stone writes: “By the terms of a divorce bill, the wife forfeited claim to a return of her marriage portion, and also to her pin-money.”

This meaning of “pin money” is described by the OED as “historical,” meaning that it’s a usage of the past. It faded away toward the end of the 19th century.

But the phrase survives, according to the OED, in an “extended use” that developed in the early 1700s: “a trivial amount of money; (also) spending money, esp. for inessential items and incidental expenses.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, dated 1702, is from A Compleat History of Europe, a multi-volume work by the Welsh writer David Jones: “I am ashamed to name for what a Pin Money his Books were sold.”

That extended sense is now the usual one, as seen in this more recent OED example: “That’s pin money for a company of Sears’ size, but every little bit helps these days” (Toronto Globe & Mail, Nov. 14, 1992).

The OED has no separate entry for a more specific, derogatory use of “pin money” that developed around the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, “pin money” was used to trivialize the earnings of working women as merely incidental to a family’s support.

For example, the phrase “pin-money clerk” was used to mean a woman who supposedly did office work to provide herself with trifles, not because she had to earn a living. The term cropped up during a time when Suffragists were campaigning not only for votes for women, but for wider employment of women.

In January 1912 a British quarterly, the Living Age, ran an article deploring the “disastrous” economic effects of Suffragists who encouraged more women to work outside the home: “The ‘pin-money clerk’ is blamed for the lowering of wage that cheap female labor has been responsible for in the clerical market.”

This notion was so deeply engrained that in November 1929, Britain’s Minister for Employment, J. H. Thomas, delivered what was later described as his “pin money speech.”

“It is not only uneconomic and unfair, but against the nation’s interests for women to work for what they call pin money, and deprive other people, of legitimate work,” he said. (The remark was reported in newspapers in Britain, Australia, and the US.)

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‘Jesus H. Christ,’ redux

Q: You err in your post about the “H.” in “Jesus H. Christ” by saying the monogram IHS comes from the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus. IHS has nothing to do with the spelling of “Jesus” either in Greek or Latin. It is the abbreviation of In Hoc Signo (vinces)— In This Sign (thou shalt conquer). Further, the Latin name is Jesus, not Iesus.

A: It’s a common but erroneous belief that the monogram IHS is derived from In Hoc Signo (vinces) or several other Latin expressions. It originally showed up in medieval Latin and Old English as a manuscript abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in uppercase letters and Ἰησοῦς in lowercase.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, because of “subsequent forgetfulness of its origin, it has often been looked upon as a Latin abbreviation or contraction, and explained by some as standing for Iesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Saviour of men, by others as In Hoc Signo (vinces), in this sign (thou shalt conquer), or In Hac Salus, in this (cross) is salvation.”

The earliest OED citation for the abbreviation is from the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950), an interlinear Latin-Old English manuscript. In the Latin text of Matthew 3:13, iħs is used as an abbreviation of “Jesus”: Tunc uenit iħs a galilaea in iordanen (“Then came Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan”).

As for the spelling of “Jesus,” it was iesus in classical Latin. There was no “j” in the classical Latin alphabet.

For any readers who missed our earlier post about the source of the “H” in the expletive or exclamation “Jesus H. Christ,” we say the most likely theory is that it comes from the monogram made of the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus.

The first three letters (iota, eta, and sigma) form a monogram, or graphic symbol, written as either IHS or IHC in Latin letters. The IHS version is more common than IHC, which The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as a rare “learned abbreviation.”

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

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A wider view of ‘video’

Q: The way in which “video” has become the common designation for any moving image strikes me as a source of some really odd usage, such as this recent headline from Time online: “Why Newly Discovered Video Footage of Franklin D. Roosevelt Walking Is a Big Deal.” However, the 1935 moving image of FDR, whatever we call it, is indeed fascinating.

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the word “video” was indeed used to describe film when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House.

The phrase “video film,” for example, could describe either “cinematographic film used to pre-record television programmes” or “a cinematographic film of a television broadcast,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from the Feb. 15, 1939, issue of Broadcasting magazine: “New video film. Paramount Pictures … has developed a special soft process negative for television reproduction.”

And the phrase “video drama” was used during World War II for “a dramatic production written or adapted for television.” Oxford cites this headline from the Feb. 23, 1942, issue of Broadcasting: “First video drama.”

In fact, the noun “video” was used attributively (that is, adjectivally) as far back as the mid-1930s to describe TV images or broadcasting, as in this example from the September 1935 issue of Discovery, a London journal:

“They are providing ever better products and service to enable the listening public to get more enjoyment from the ‘audio’ programmes … and will be ready to cater for those who wish … to see such ‘video’ items as may become available.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes these early “video” senses as “rare” or “disused,” and it doesn’t include the contemporary use of the word to mean any moving image.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary that focuses on contemporary usage, defines the noun “video” more loosely as the “recording, reproducing, or broadcasting of moving visual images.”

However, the dictionary’s examples generally use “video” in its usual modern sense, a digital or tape recording. Here’s an example of the noun used attributively: “a site on which people can post their own video clips.”

As technology evolves, so does language. We wouldn’t be surprised if “video” is eventually accepted as an all-embracing term for any moving visual image. For now, though, we’d use “film” to describe a moving image captured on celluloid.

Interestingly, the verb “film” is now often used in the sense of making videos, as in this Oxford Online example: “Throughout his busy day, Paul finds time to look for Harry but also to film a video, record some songs, and daydream.”

The word “video” ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb vidēre (to see). The word “film” evolved from filmen, Old English for a thin layer of animal or plant tissue, as we explained in a 2018 post on the history of the various terms for a motion picture.

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Why a ‘red herring’ is a false clue

Q: I see that you’ve used the phrase “red herring” several times on your blog, but I don’t believe you’ve explained how it came to mean something that’s deceptive or distracting, especially a false clue in a mystery. Did I miss it?

A: No, you didn’t miss it, but now is as good a time as any to remedy its absence.

When “red herring” showed up in English in the Middle Ages, it referred literally to “dried smoked herring, turned a reddish-brown colour in the curing process,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from Le Traité de Walter de Bibbesworth sur la Langue Française. Oxford dates the manuscript at sometime before 1333, though the author lived from 1235 to 1270.

In the traité, or treatise, which uses verse to teach French to children, the Anglo-Norman haranc sor is translated as “heryng red” in Middle English.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s, the dictionary says, that “red herring” took on the figurative sense of a “clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the Feb. 14, 1807, issue of Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, edited by the pamphleteer and politician William Cobbett: “Alas! it was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, оn the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”

The OED traces this sense to “the former practice of laying trails for hounds to follow, ultimately to exercise horses which followed the hounds; red herring could be used for this purpose,” adding that “such a trail was artificial and therefore false as opposed to the trail of real game in a hunt.”

The dictionary notes that this literal use of the pungent red herring in fox hunting is mentioned in Lenten Stuffe, a 1599 book by Thomas Nashe: “Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable.”

Oxford also cites The Gentleman’s Recreation, a 1697 book in which Nicholas Cox describes endurance training for horses by the “trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of necessity a Red-Herring) three or four Miles … and then laying the Dogs on the scent.”

In the 19th century, according to the OED, “the artificial trail was wrongly perceived to have been a deliberate attempt to distract the hounds,” though “there is no evidence for such a practice, and it is likely that this interpretation originated in a politically motivated fictional tale by W. Cobbett.”

In the 1807 article cited earlier, Cobbett says that as a child he used to “draw oft’ the harriers from the trail of a hare” by dragging “a red-herring, tied to a string, four or five miles over hedges and ditches, across fields and through coppices.”

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It takes two to quango

Q: We occasionally indulge in a late-night drink and an episode of Yes, Minister, the BBC sitcom from the 1980s. In the last episode of Season 1, Sir Humphrey says, “It takes two to quango, Minister!” We know you’ll enjoy the pun, but we’re also curious about the usage.

A: The term “quango” began life in the 1970s as an acronym for “quasi nongovernmental organization,” but the usage (like the quango itself) has evolved since then, especially in the UK, where the acronym is chiefly seen.

The full expression was apparently coined a half-century ago by Alan Pifer, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1967 annual report of the charitable corporation:

“In recent years there has appeared on the American scene a new genus of organization which represents a noteworthy experiment in the art of government,” Pifer says in his president’s report, later adding, “We may call it the quasi nongovernmental organization.”

In an Aug. 24, 1987, letter to the New York Times, Pifer credited Anthony Barker, a British political scientist, with coining the acronym. He said Barker, a participant at Anglo-American conferences in 1969 and 1971 about such enterprises, “took my term ‘quasi nongovernmental organization,’ which all of us found cumbersome, and turned it into the acronym ‘quango.’ ”

In Quangos in Britain, a 1982 book that Barker edited, he writes, “This was around 1970, when I invented this near-acronym from an American term ‘quasi-non-governmental organisation.’ ” (From the appendix, “Quango: a word and a campaign.” Baker also mentions this in the preface.)

The OED says the “coinage of the acronym is frequently attributed to A. Barker of the University of Essex,” though its earliest written example for the usage is by another British political scientist, Christopher Hood.

In “The Rise and Rise of the British Quango,” a paper published in the Aug. 16, 1973, issue of the British weekly magazine New Society, Hood writes: “It was the Americans who first drew attention to the importance of what they have labelled the ‘grants economy,’ the ‘contract state’ and the ‘quasi-non-government organisation’ (Quango).”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes “quango” as a chiefly British “acronym, originally [from] the initial letters of quasi non-governmental organization … but in later use also frequently reinterpreted as [from] the initial letters of either quasi-autonomous non-government(al) organization or quasi-autonomous national government(al) organization.” (We’ve underlined the OED’s italics to make them more readable.)

Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary that focuses on contemporary usage, says “quango” is now a derogatory British noun for a “semipublic administrative body outside the civil service but receiving financial support from the government, which makes senior appointments to it.” Here’s one of its examples: “Their frustrations and ire were directed at a dithering Government and bungling quangos, not those who promote the sport in this country.”

Because of this negative view in the UK, some well-known organizations are defensive about the term. The British Broadcasting Corporation, which is often called a quango, has this to say in an FAQ about such semi-public bodies:

“There is nothing controversial about the concept of quangos—they have been around for a long time. Some of Britain’s best-known organisations are classified as quangos, including national galleries and museums, bodies such as the Forestry Commission and the British Council and, according to some groups, the BBC. The problem, according to politicians of all persuasions who are always threatening to axe them, is the sheer number and how much they cost to run.”

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The first wordsmith in chief

Q: I’ve read that Thomas Jefferson, our third president, liked to coin new words. He thought neologisms kept a language fresh. For Presidents’ Day, please write about some POTUS contributions to the English language.

A: Yes, Thomas Jefferson coined scores of new words, including “neologize.” He commented on the practice in an Aug. 15, 1820, letter to John Adams: “I am a friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.”

And Jefferson wasn’t the only wordsmith in chief. We can thank US presidents for coining or popularizing many of our most common words and phrases. George Washington was particularly inventive, so let’s focus today on his many neologisms.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites dozens of the first US president’s lexical firsts. Here are some of them:

  • “average” (verb): “A fat wether—it being imagind … would average the above weight” (from a note in Washington’s diary about a 103-pound castrated ram, February 1769).
  • “baking” (adjective): “The ground, by the heavy rains … and baking Winds since, had got immensely hard” (from a diary entry, May 9, 1786).
  • “commitment”: “If Mr Gouv’r Morris was employed in this business, it would be a commitment for his employment as Minister” (diary, Oct. 8, 1789).
  • “district court”: “The District Court is held in it [Salisbury, N.C.]” (diary, May 30, 1791).
  • “facilitated” (adjective): “It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions” (from a speech, Sept. 17, 1796).
  • “fox hunt” (verb): “Rid up to Toulston in order to fox hunt it” (diary, Jan. 24, 1768).
  • “heat” (sexual excitement in dogs): “Musick was also in heat & servd promiscuously by all the Dogs” (diary, June 22, 1768).
  • “indoors”: “There are many sorts of in-doors work, which can be executed in Hail, Rain, or Snow, as well as in sunshine” (from a letter to James Anderson, manager of the farms at Mount Vernon, Dec. 10, 1799).
  • “logged” (adjective): “A Logged dwelling house with a punchion Roof” (dairy, Sept. 20, 1784).
  • “out-of-the-way”: “They have built three forts here, and one of them … erected in my opinion in a very out-of-the-way place” (from a letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Governor of Virginia, Oct. 10, 1756).
  • “paroled” (adjective): “I cannot consent to send them to New York, as with an old Balance and those who have gone in with paroled officers, the enemy already owe us 900 Men” (from a letter to Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Oct. 13, 1782).
  • “off-duty”: “The General earnestly expects every Officer and Soldier of this Army will shew the utmost alertness, as well upon duty, as off duty” (from orders issued on March 9, 1776, during the final days of the British siege of Boston).
  • “rehire” (noun): “Nor ought there to be any transfer of the lease, or re-hire of the Negros without your consent first had & obtained in writing” (from a letter written June 10, 1793, to his niece Frances Bassett Washington, offering advice on renting out an estate of hers).
  • “rent” (verb): “The Plantation on which Mr. Simpson lives rented well—viz. for 500 Bushels of Wheat” (diary, Sept. 15, 1784).
  • “riverside” (adjective): “Has 2 Pecks of sd. Earth and 1 of Riverside Sand” (diary, April 14, 1760).
  • “tow path”: “A tow path on the Maryland side” (diary, June 2, 1788).

Happy birthday, George.

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When verb forms are the object

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jenny Kiss’d Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can an outcome be foregone?

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

A: Our answer: “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new ‘Woe Is I’ for our times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the new, fourth edition of her bestselling grammar book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

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The raison d’être of raison d’être

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why early religions are ‘pagan’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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