The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you a fuddy-duddy?

Q: Your recent post about reduplicatives reminds me of a conversation (a spat, to be honest) not long ago about “fuddy-duddy.” A man I met called me that and I took it as a negative remark. He argued that it’s not negative and that it’s almost an endearment. Is this just over-sensitivity on my part?

A: Technically, “fuddy-duddy” is a negative term, but it’s one that’s often used affectionately. And some of the examples in standard dictionaries have people referring to themselves as “fuddy-duddies.” In fact, we’ve sometimes called ourselves “fuddy-duddies” because of our love of Victorian novels, Baroque music, and Renaissance art.

Standard dictionaries define a “fuddy-duddy” as someone who’s old-fashioned, fussy, pompous, or boring. However, the noun phrase is usually used in a lighthearted way to refer to an old-fashioned person, as in these examples from Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online:

  • “He probably thinks I’m an old fuddy-duddy.”
  • “Apparently the constitution is just for stick-in-the-mud old white fuddy-duddies.”
  • “I didn’t want to appear like a holier-than-thou fuddy-duddy so I made pleasant small talk with Tonya’s date as though I approved of these sort of shenanigans.”
  • “In the market where these contemporary artists ply their trade, the age-old discipline of drawing human figures is considered a rather fuddy-duddy exercise.”
  • “Perhaps I’m turning into a bit of a fuddy-duddy boring would-rather-stay-at-home kind of guy.”

We think you’re probably oversensitive about this. We don’t believe we’ve ever heard “fuddy-duddy” used other than light-heartedly. Serious critics are more likely to use nouns like “diehard,” “obstructionist,” and “reactionary,” or adjectives like “antediluvian,” “antiquated,” “decrepit,” “moth-eaten,” and “superannuated.”

We mentioned “fuddy-duddy” briefly in our recent post about why people say “zig-zag” rather than “zag-zig.” Both “fuddy-duddy” and “zig-zag” are examples of reduplication, the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alteration.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative. And one like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative.

As for the etymology, “fuddy-duddy” is of unknown origin, the Oxford English Dictionary says. But it cites this entry from A Glossary of the Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland (1899), by William Dickinson and Edward William Prevost: “Duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang also cites that phrase in the Cumberland dialect (spoken in northern England), but adds a question mark.

In searches of newspaper and book databases, we’ve found examples of “fuddy-duddy” or “fuddydud” that date back to the early 1870s, but none of the early sightings mean old-fashioned. The earliest example we’ve seen with that meaning is from a letter by a Bostonian in the Sept. 2, 1898, issue of the Sun, a New York newspaper:

“The Sun is more truly than any New York paper an American paper. Anger is often a healthy sensation, in that it proves a man to be alive. At home, when I desire the excitement, I read our old fuddy-duddy Transcript, with its wailings over the advance of the nation along its natural path.”

We’ll end with this recent example: “It’s OK. You can call me a fuddy-duddy. I’m not offended. What I am offended by is what I have to put up with—and you do, too—on a nearly daily basis.” (From an Oct. 5, 2019, column by Heather Ziegler in the Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in West Virginia. Her gripe? Dirty words on T-shirts.)

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Skid row or skid road?

Q: In discussing a crackdown on homeless people in Los Angeles, I got into a disagreement with a friend over the terms “skid row” and “skid road.” I think it’s “row” and my friend says “road.” Any information?

A: Standard dictionaries accept both “skid row” and “skid road” as terms for a rundown part of town frequented by people down on their luck. The usage originated as “skid road,” a logging term, in the late 19th century, but the more common wording for a rundown area has been “skid row” since the mid-20th century.

When “skid road” first showed up in writing, it referred to “a way or track formed of skids along which logs are hauled,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary describes “skids” as “peeled logs or timbers, partially sunk into the ground, and forming a roadway along or down which logs are drawn or slid.”

The earliest OED example is from an 1880 topographical survey of the Adirondacks region: “Advised that lumbermen had cut ‘skid-roads’ on which logs were drawn.”

However, we’ve found this earlier example from the Oct. 30, 1875, issue of the Pacific Rural Press, a weekly published in San Francisco: “Six yoke of oxen were drawing a log over the skid road.” The “skid road” here was a log road leading to a saw mill in northern California. Many early examples are from the West Coast.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that the original “skid road” may have been a log road that led down to Yesler’s mill in Seattle in the 1850s. But we’ve seen no written evidence that what is now Yesler Way was referred to as a “skid road” earlier than the 1875 California citation above.

In the early 20th century, “skid road” came to mean an area of a town where loggers congregated. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an Aug. 1, 1906, entry in the ship’s log of the SS Columbia, which carried cargo and passengers along the West Coast: “ ‘We’ll likely see him in town.’ ‘Sure, Mike. He’ll be in the Skid road somewhere.’ ”

Such logging hangouts, with their saloons and gambling houses, were soon attracting all sorts of workers who wanted to unwind in their time off. Green’s Dictionary cites this example: “ ‘Skid-road’ is another word from the lumber industry. It has come to mean any street where the ‘working stiff’ hangs out” (from “Westernisms,” a paper by Kate Mullen published in American Speech, December 1925).

The term “skid row” showed up a couple of years later as these honky-tonk areas developed an unsavory reputation. Green’s cites this example from a glossary of criminal slang: “Skid row, n., the lowest strata of the underworld” (“Jargon of the Underworld,” Elisha K. Kane,  Dialect Notes, 1927).

Finally, these places (and their denizens) fell on hard times, with both “skid row” and “skid road” now meaning a “run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, etc., tend to congregate,” the OED says.

We’ve found this early example in a California newspaper: “Skid row, where down-and-outers find 10-cent beds and 10-cent meals” (San Bernardino Sun, April 6, 1935).

In a little over half a century, a usage that began as a road on which logs were skidded to a saw mill was now a place where people had skidded into lives of insolvency, dissolution, and defeat.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now include “skid row” and “skid road” as standard English. The more common term is “skid row,” though the use of both has fallen off in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words or phrases in digitized books.

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Why is a loo a toilet in the UK?

Q: I was at the Museum of Edinburgh and learned about “gardyloo,” the Scottish warning cry before waste water was thrown out the window. Is that where “loo,” the British term for a bathroom, comes from?

A: The origin of “loo,” the informal British word for a toilet or lavatory, is a mystery, though you can find a number of questionable stories about its origins online, including the common belief that the usage comes from “gardyloo.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, sums up the situation this way: “Of unknown origin.” The OED dismisses several doubtful etymologies because of a lack of evidence or chronological gaps. Here is the dictionary’s opinion of “gardyloo” as the source for the toilet sense of “loo”:

“It is frequently suggested that the word is shortened from gardyloo n., but the assumed semantic development is considerable, and not supported by any evidence; additionally, the chronological gap is very considerable between the period when the cry would have had any contemporary currency and the earliest attestations of the present word.”

The term “gardyloo” first appeared in writing in the 17th century, according to the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, but it was obsolete by the time “loo” came to mean a toilet centuries later. (The OED says “gardyloo” is derived from “a pseudo-French phrase gare de l’eau ‘beware of the water’; in correct French it would be gare l’eau.”)

Oxford also dismisses suggestions that the “loo” usage comes from (1) “ablution,” a word we discussed in our recent “Abluting in the loo” post; (2) bourdaloue, an 18th-century French term for a chamber pot; and (3) “Waterloo,” the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 (perhaps a pun on “water closet”).

The dictionary’s earliest “unambiguously attested” example for “loo” used to mean a lavatory is from Pigeon Pie (1940), a comic novel by Nancy Mitford. Here’s an expanded version with more of the original flavor:

“Like in the night when you want to go to the loo and it is miles away down a freezing cold passage and yet you know you have to go down that passage before you can be happy and sleep again.”

The OED has several earlier ambiguous citations suggesting that English speakers may have been using “loo” (or a word that sounded like it) in speech as far back as the late 19th century.

One example is this punning cartoon caption from Punch (June 22, 1895): “We will begin again at ‘Hallelujah,’ and please linger longer on the ‘Lu.’ ” Another is from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” And this citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter written by Lady Diana Cooper (Feb. 22, 1936): “We’ve come to this very good hotel—your style, with a pretty Moorish bath in an alcove in every room and a lu-lu à côté.”

Although the evidence is sketchy at best for all the “loo” theories we’ve seen, the OED doesn’t quite dismiss the idea that the usage may have come from lieux, plural of lieu, French for place.

In the 17th century, Oxford says, the French used lieux euphemistically to mean latrines (we’ve found a citation in Curiosités Françoises, 1640, by the French linguist Antoine Oudin). And in the 19th century, lieux was used as a short form of the euphemistic lieux d’aisances, places of ease or restrooms.

The dictionary raises the possibility that the French term may have slipped into English in the late 19th century, saying the use “of the French word in an English context in the meaning ‘privy’ may perhaps be shown” by this example:

“I am myself employed in constructing a lieu here in our great Residentiary house, & tho’ I have many & great difficulties to encounter I trust it will turn out a paragon, both for sweetness, utility, & cheapness.” (From a Nov. 14, 1782, letter by the English poet and cleric William Mason. A residentiary house is the home of a canon residentiary.)

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Did muckrakers once rake muck?

Q: I was wondering if the word “muckraker” originated as a literal term for someone whose duty it was to clean stables, latrines, etc.?

A: The word “muckraker” was used figuratively when it showed up in the early 1600s—as a derogatory term for a miser. However, it’s ultimately derived from “muckrake,” literally a tool for raking muck.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “muckrake” as a “rake for collecting muck; spec. a dungfork; (also) a rake for clearing debris from ponds, etc.” The OED’s earliest example is from a 1366 entry in the accounts of Brandon, a manor in Suffolk, England:

“Vno muckrake cum ij Tyndes ferre” (“One muckrake with two iron tines”). From “English in Manorial Documents of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,” an article in the August 1936 issue of Modern Philology.

At the time that manorial document was written, “muck” usually referred to “the dung of farm animals used for manure,” the OED says, but by the 15th and 16th centuries it was also being used to mean “mud, dirt, filth; rubbish, refuse,” both literally and figuratively.

In the 17th century, John Bunyan used a “muckrake” as a symbol of man’s preoccupation with earthly things. He describes “a man that could look no way but downwards, with a Muck-rake in his hand” (The Pilgrim’s Progress, Second Part, 1684). Bunyan’s comment inspired some later writers to use “muckrake,” “muckraking,” and “muckraker” in various figurative senses.

In the 19th century, the noun “muckrake” was used figuratively to mean a “ready or indiscriminate means for gathering in wealth, information, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first figurative citation uses the term in its wealth sense: “Mammon may not lift his eyes from his ‘muckrake’ long enough to see all this” (from Home Evangelization, 1850, published by the American Tract Society).

In the next citation, a “muckrake” is a means for gathering critical information—in this case about the wives of famous men: “Let us rather, with muck-rake and drag-net, make prize of more modern material, which may be found lying loose around and within comparatively easy reach” (from “Some Celebrated Shrews,” by Frank W. Ballard, Galaxy magazine, March 1868).

A decade later, “muckrake” appeared as a figurative verb meaning to be concerned with mundane matters. Here is the OED’s first example: “Men, forgetful of the perennial poetry of the world, muck-raking in a litter of fugitive refuse.” (From the Fortnightly Review, April 1879. Anthony Trollope was a founder of the review, and George Henry Lewes, George Eliot’s companion, was its first editor.)

When the noun “muckraking” showed up at the end of the 19th century, it meant the “practice of uncovering and publicizing evidence of corruption and scandal, esp. among powerful or well-known people or institutions.” The first Oxford citation is from the Fresno (Calif.) Republican Weekly, May 22, 1895: “They would not have been able to learn much in one evening’s muck-raking of such a cesspool of presumed corruption.”

As we’ve said, the noun “muckraker” referred to a miser when it showed up at the beginning of the 17th century. The earliest OED citation is from The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heauen (1601), by the Puritan cleric Arthur Dent:

“We see the world is full of such pinch-pennies, that wil let nothing goe, except it bee wrung from them perforce, as a key out of Hercules hande. These gripple [grasping] muck-rakers, had as leeue part with their bloud, as their goods.”

The only literal uses of “muckraker” we’ve seen are in reference to the downward-looking allegorical character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. For example, Thomas Heptinstall, editor of a 1796 edition of Bunyan’s book, includes a “Key to the Allegory” that refers to him as “the Muck-Raker.”

And a satirical poem in the Sept. 3, 1884, issue of Punch uses the term for an aristocrat waiting for someone to take his bet at a horse race: “And old Lord Snaffle, ‘waiting for a taker,’ / Might sit for Bunyan’s grovelling Muck-raker.”

In the early 20th century, “muckraker” was used figuratively to describe the questionable practices of a newspaper that printed sensationalized stories. We found this example in an Indiana paper, challenging a report that newspapers needed to be swept of sensationalism:

“A large majority of the daily newspapers stand in no need of such regeneration, and the small and dwindling minority which practices the arts of the muck raker and the sideshow ‘barker’ will shortly be out of business” (from the Feb. 28, 1903, issue of the Daily Tribune in Terre Haute).

A few years later, “muckraker” took on its modern metaphorical sense of an author or journalist who investigates and exposes misconduct in government or business. An April 14, 1906, speech in Washington by President Theodore Roosevelt helped popularize the new usage.

Roosevelt used Bunyan’s symbolism in urging reporters and writers to focus on worthy accomplishments as well as corruption: “The men with the muckrakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor.”

Although the President’s speech didn’t include the word “muckraker,” it began appearing later in the year as a derogatory term for an investigative reporter. The Insurance Age, a monthly trade journal, used it that way to headline a column in November 1906: “Burton J. Hendricks, Reportorial Cub and Muckraker—The End of His Screeds the Best Thing About Them.”

In online standard dictionaries, the noun “muckraker,” verb “muckrake,” and noun “muckraking” have lost much of that negative sense, though not quite all. Cambridge, for example, defines “muckraker” as “a person, especially one in a news organization, who tries to find out unpleasant information about people or organizations in order to make it public.”

Merriam-Webster defines “muckrake” as “to search out and publicly expose real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business.” And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines “muckraking” as the “action of searching out and publicizing scandal about famous people.”

Finally, a “muckrake” on a farm, according to Collins, is still “an agricultural rake for spreading manure.”

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How susceptible are you?

Q: I recently saw the phrase “susceptible to many interpretations.” Normally, I would use “of” as the preposition. Do you agree that it would be more fitting than “to”?

A: We think that either “of” or “to” is acceptable in that construction—“susceptible of many interpretations” or “susceptible to many interpretations.” Both phrases have been used by eminent writers, and as of 2008 the two versions were equally common in published books, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

A survey of standard dictionaries shows no clear agreement here, but our impression is that a writer of British English would probably use the older “susceptible of” in this context, while an American might use either one.

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, is a good illustration of the British preference. It defines “susceptible of” as “capable or admitting of,” and gives these examples: “The problem is not susceptible of a simple solution” … “These things are not susceptible of translation into a simple ‘yes or no’ question” … “Each item separately may be susceptible of an innocent explanation.”

Another British guide, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), agrees, saying that “susceptible of” is “equivalent to ‘admitting or capable of.’ ”  Fowler’s gives these examples: “A passage susceptible of more than one interpretation” … “an assertion not susceptible of proof.”

On the American side, Merriam-Webster Unabridged says that “susceptible” in this sense is “used with of or to.” Here’s how M-W defines this use of “susceptible”: “of such a nature, character, or constitution as to admit or permit: capable of submitting successfully to an action, process, or operation.”

Merriam-Webster’s examples use both prepositions: “susceptible of proof” … “susceptible to solution” … “susceptible of being mistaken.”

Another US dictionary, American Heritage, also illustrates this sense of “susceptible” with both prepositions: “a statement susceptible of proof” … “a disease susceptible to treatment.”

However, one major American dictionary, Webster’s New World, is a hold-out for “susceptible of” in this sense. It says “susceptible of” means “that gives a chance for; admitting; allowing.” Its example: “testimony susceptible of error.”

All dictionaries agree that “susceptible” is used with “to” when it means easily affected or liable to be affected. Examples: “a man susceptible to her charms” … “a child susceptible to ear infections” … “a street susceptible to flooding” … “a boss susceptible to flattery.” (Memory aid: In that sense, “susceptible to” is much like “vulnerable to” or “subject to.”)

And all dictionaries agree that the adjective “susceptible” by itself—with no following preposition—usually means impressionable, emotionally sensitive, or easily moved by feelings. It’s often used to describe tender-hearted people. Examples: “the more susceptible in the audience were in tears” … “a susceptible young man is always falling in love” … “a movie too violent for susceptible children.”

In addition, the bare adjective is used to describe those likely to be affected by something, as in “distemper is deadly, and puppies are especially susceptible.”

As for its history, “susceptible” came into English in the early 17th century as a borrowing from the medieval Latin susceptibilis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The medieval term, which meant capable, sustainable, or susceptible, was derived from the classical Latin suscipĕre (to take up, support, or acknowledge).

The original meaning of “susceptible” was the one you ask about, “capable of undergoing, admitting of (some action or process).” Here’s the first OED example: “This Subiect of mans bodie, is of all other thinges in Nature, most susceptible of remedie” (Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, 1605).

All of the dictionary’s examples for this sense of “susceptible” are accompanied by “of,” but they extend only to 1871 (the OED says its “susceptible” entry has not yet been fully updated).

However, we know that “to” had crept into use in American English by the mid-19th century. We’ve found more than a dozen examples of “susceptible to proof” in American newspapers of the 1800s, beginning with this one:

“Intimations, not perhaps susceptible to positive proof, have reached me that … [etc.]” (from a letter written Feb. 11, 1847, by the acting territorial Governor of California, Lieut. Col. John C. Frémont, and published Dec. 4, 1847, in the Boon’s Lick Times, Fayette, Mo.).

We’ve also found many American examples of “susceptible to interpretation” (since 1874), “susceptible to error” (since 1880), and “susceptible to mistakes” (since 1885). So in American English, the use of “susceptible to” in the sense we’re discussing is solidly established.

The more common meaning of “susceptible”—easily affected or liable to be affected—was first recorded in 1702. This sense was also accompanied by “of” originally, but the OED’s later examples have “to” (“susceptible to attack,” 1883; “susceptible to smallpox,” 1887, and so on).

The newcomer is the bare adjective, with no preposition. This “susceptible” was first recorded in 1709. These are the OED’s most recent examples of the different senses:

“We must remember also the susceptible nature of the Greek” (from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues, 2nd ed., 1875) … “By cultures and by inoculations into susceptible animals” (from A System of Medicine, edited by Thomas Clifford Allbutt, 1899).

Like us, you’re probably susceptible to fatigue, so we’ll stop here.

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Petard hoisting

Q: I’ve always thought that one was “hoist on” one’s own petard, but I recently saw it as “hoist by” one’s own petard. I think “on” makes sense and “by” doesn’t.

A: When Shakespeare coined the expression in Hamlet more than 400 years ago, he used the preposition “with.” Online standard dictionaries now include “by” as well as “with.” Both of those make sense to us, though “on” does not.

Merriam-Webster, for example, calls its entry “hoist with one’s own petard or hoist by one’s own petard,” and defines the usage this way: “victimized or hurt by one’s own scheme.” Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) and American Heritage also include both prepositions.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the expression as meaning “blown into the air by his own bomb; hence, injured or destroyed by his own device for the ruin of others.”

The OED says the usage originated in Act III, Scene 4 of Hamlet (probably written between 1599 and 1602). Hamlet uses it when he speaks of foiling the efforts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to betray him: “Tis the sport to haue the enginer / Hoist with his owne petar.”

The word “hoist” here is a past tense and past participle of the old verb “hoise.” When this verb first appeared as a nautical term in the late 15th century, to “hoise” meant to “raise aloft by means of a rope or pulley and tackle, or by other mechanical appliance,”  the OED says.

Here’s an example from William Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “They made the saylles to be hyssed vppe.”

The modern verb “hoist” appeared in the mid-16th century as a corruption of “hoise.” The OED’s first example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s Latin paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament: “His onely soonne they hoihsted vp and nayled on the crosse.”

The verb “hoise,” which the OED describes as obsolete or dialectal, had two different past tenses and past participles: “hoised” and “hoist.”

When Shakespeare used “hoist” in Hamlet, the raising was done by a “petard,” which Oxford describes as a small bomb made of a metal or wooden box filled with powder, used to blow in a door, gate, etc., or to make a hole in a wall. Now historical.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “petard” is from an obscure 1566 entry in the accounts of the lord high treasurer of Scotland. The next cite is clearer:

“A squib or petard of gun powder vsed to burst vp gates or doores with” (from A Worlde of Wordes, 1598, an Italian-English dictionary by John Florio).

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When a rose isn’t a rose

Q: Twice in the last few days I’ve seen the hibiscus shrub (or its blossoms) referred to in the plural as “roses of Sharon.” I would have thought it more correct to say “rose of Sharons.” Is there a rule for such plurals?

A: The usual rule for pluralizing a compound term that’s split into parts, with or without hyphens, is to put the plural ending on the most important part, as in  “attorneys-at-law,” “brigadier generals,” and “mothers-in-law.”

The compound common names of plants are usually treated the same way, especially when the key element is a noun at the end: “African violets,” “fringed bleeding hearts,” “morning glories,” “northern blue flags,” “pussy willows,” “trumpet vines,” and “Virginia creepers.”

However, things get fuzzy when the important term is elsewhere in the compound, especially if it’s being used loosely. A “lily of the valley,” for example, isn’t really a lily, nor is a “rose of Sharon” a rose. The terms “lily” and “rose” are being used figuratively in the sense of “flower.”

Similarly, the “Johnny” of “Johnny jump up” refers to a violet, while the “Jack” of “Jack in the pulpit” is a flower-hooded spike. And “forget-me-not” doesn’t even have a key word. It originated as an English translation of the Old French expression “ne m’oubliez mye.”

We haven’t found any special rules for pluralizing such horticultural compounds. And the online standard dictionaries aren’t much help—only a few include plurals for these compounds—and the entries are inconsistent.

Merriam-Webster, for example, includes both “Jack-in the-pulpits” and “Jacks-in-the-pulpit” as standard. American Heritage has “Jack-in-the-pulpits” and “Johnny-jump-ups.” M-W, AH, Collins, and list “lilies of the valley” as plural. None of the dictionaries have a plural for “rose of Sharon.”

A search of garden websites indicates that some gardeners make the key word plural (“roses of Sharon”), others pluralize the last word (“rose of Sharons”), and still others add a plural noun at the end (“rose of Sharon bushes”).

A search of the iWeb corpus, a database that contains 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, came up with these results: “rose of Sharons,” 30; “roses of Sharon,” 19; “rose of Sharon bushes,” 43; “rose of Sharon plants,” 19; “rose of Sharon trees,” 16; and “rose of Sharon shrubs,” 15.

With no lexical guide and usage up in the air, pick whichever one sounds best to your ears. We’ve planted a few over the years, and “rose of Sharons” sounds more natural to us than “roses of Sharon” or “rose of Sharon bushes.”

As we’ve said, the rose of Sharon isn’t a rose. In fact, the common name may refer to several different plants, including Hypericum calycinum, a flowering shrub native to southeast Asia and southwest Europe, and Hibiscus syriacus, a flowering shrub native to east Asia.

Although the common name has biblical roots, none of the plants now called “rose of Sharon” are likely to have grown in ancient Israel.

In the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) 2:1, the maiden who is one of the two main speakers refers to herself in Hebrew as חבצלת השרון, or havatzelet hasharon. Havatzelet is a flower that has been variously identified as a crocus, lily, daffodil, or tulip. Hasharon is the plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

Early English versions of the Old Testament translate havatzelet as “flower.” The Wycliffe Bible of 1384, for example, renders havatzelet hasharon as “flour of the feeld” while the Coverdale Bible of 1535 has it as “floure of the feelde.” It was translated similarly in earlier Greek and Latin versions of the bible: ἄνθος τοῦ πεδίου (anthos tou pediou, flower of the field) in the Septuagint, and flos campi (flower of the field) in the Vulgate.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first English bible to translate havatzelet as “rose”: “I am the rose of the fielde.” The Oxford English Dictionary says “it is not clear why the Geneva Bible uses this particular translation, rather than the generic flower of earlier English versions.”

The first OED example for “rose of Sharon” is from An Exposition Vppon the Booke of the Canticles (1585), by the Puritan clergyman Thomas Wilcox: “I Am the rose of Sharon.” (The Canticles is another name for the Song of Songs.) The King James Version of 1611 uses the same wording as Wilcox.

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Vowel movement

Q: You’ve discussed adjective order (why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress”), but you haven’t written about the order of vowels—why we say “zig-zag,” not “zag-zig.”

A: As we’ve written several times on our blog—in 2010, 2017, and 2019—certain kinds of adjectives occur in a predictable order. An opinion adjective normally comes ahead of one for size, and both come before color. You can see this pattern in “a perfect little black dress.”

However, a phrase like “zig-zag” or “tick-tock” conforms to an entirely different language pattern (call it another unwritten rule if you like). This one governs how we arrange vowel sounds in a sequence.

We touched on this subject before in a 2015 post about so-called “reduplicative” words, those formed by the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alterations.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative. And one like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative.

And as it happens, ablaut reduplicatives conform to a pattern, one in which vowel sounds naturally occur in a certain order. Invariably, a high vowel (quick, tight, and pronounced at the front of the mouth) will be reduplicated by a lower one (more drawn out, open, pronounced further back). Here’s how this works.

A short “i” sound, as in “zig,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “zag.” This is why we prefer “zig-zag” to “zag-zig,” just as we prefer “riff-raff” to “raff-riff” and “wishy-washy” to “washy-wishy.”

Similarly, a short “i” sound comes before an “o” sound (“flip-flop,” “criss-cross”). Here are the most common reduplicatives that illustrate this “i-a-o” (think of “tic-tac-toe”) order.

  • “i” before “a” sounds: “zig-zag,” “riff-raff,” “pitter-patter,” “mish-mash,” “splish-splash,” “dilly-dally,” “shilly-shally,” “tittle-tattle,” “jingle-jangle,” “wishy-washy,” “flim-flam,” “knick-knack,” “chit-chat,” “wig-wag”
  • “i” before “o” sounds: “tick-tock,” “clip-clop,” “flip-flop,” “hip-hop,” “tip top,” “drip-drop,” “criss-cross,” “ding-dong,” “ping pong,” “King Kong,” “sing song”

(Less significantly, an “ee” sound comes before an “o” or “aw” sound, but there aren’t many ablaut reduplicatives like this. Among the few examples are “see-saw,” “teeter-totter,” “be-bop,” and “hee-haw.”)

Patterns of ablaut reduplication are found not only in different languages, but in entirely different language families. The phenomenon has been discussed by philologists for more than a century and a half, with early research papers on the subject dating as far back as 1862.

English speakers have been forming new words by this kind of repetition since the Middle Ages. Historically, as the linguist Donka Minkova has written, simple or “copy” reduplicatives (like “yo-yo”) came first, with the others appearing by the end of the 15th century—the rhyming types, like “hocus-pocus,” and the ablauts, like “riff-raff.” (From “Ablaut Reduplication in English: The Criss-crossing of Prosody and Verbal Art,” published in the journal English Language and Linguistics, May 2002.)

The formation of new reduplicatives, Minkova writes, “declined sharply in the twentieth century.” (She rules out formations in which one half modifies the other: “Super-duper is a case of reduplication, while pooper scooper is not.”)

Scholars aren’t the only ones to take note of such patterns. Marketers are on the case, too. Think of ablaut reduplicatives the next time you spot brand names like “Kit Kat,” “Tic Tac,” “Spic and Span,” and “Ding Dongs.”

What happens when there’s a clash between the unwritten rules of adjective order and vowel order? The usual arrangement of the vowels seems to take precedence over the order of the adjectives.

That’s why we say “big bad wolf” instead of “bad big wolf.” A short “i” sound, as in “big,” comes before an “a” sound, as in “bad.”

Of course, “big bad” is not itself a reduplication—that is, a single element being echoed. But we have a choice in how to arrange two short adjectives. And the preferred order is based not on the meaning of the words but on their vowel sounds.

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A job is a job is a job

Q: I’m bugged by the use of “job” and “of” in this sentence: “I have the job of delivering the bad news.” The “job” here is a task, not a position, and what is the “of” doing there? There’s no possession involved.

A: You raise two issues—the meaning of the noun “job” and its use with the preposition “of.” We’ll start with the noun.

A “job” doesn’t always mean an occupation or line of work. It can also mean a task, a responsibility, or simply something that needs to be done—senses of the word that have been common for centuries.

So a person can have both “the job of sales assistant” and “the job of delivering the bad news.” And a company that’s lagging in some area can try “to do a better job.” In modern English, “job” has these and many other senses.

However, when the noun “job” came into English in the 16th century it didn’t mean a paid position, as it does today. It originally meant “a piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word first appeared in the phrase “job of work,” recorded in documents (dated 1557-58) relating to the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary : “Doinge certen Iobbes of woorke.” (The letter “i” was used before “j” became established.)

Here’s a later example with the word used alone: “I cannot read, I keep a Clark to do those jobbs for need” (from Thomas Middleton’s play The Mayor of Quinborough, 1615–20, known today under the title Hengist, King of Kent).

The origins of the word “job” are unknown, the OED says, but it’s significant that in the mid-1500s a separate noun “job” meant “a cartload,” or “the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time.” (This later led to the dialectal nouns “jobble” and “jobbet,” for a small load of hay or whatnot.)

So it’s possible that the two kinds of “job” are etymologically connected. The OED suggests that the original “job” (in “a job of work”) may have conveyed the sense of a “piece” or a “mass”—that is, an amount of something that needed to be carried or moved and hence represented a task.

In fact, the noun “jobber” (1600s), in the sense of a small trader, may also derive from that early sense of “job” as a cartload of something to be hauled.

Apart from its mysterious etymology, “job” later developed many wider meanings than the “piece of work” definition given above. Here are some of them in chronological order, with the OED definitions:

  • “An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis” (first recorded in 1660).
  • Criminals’ slang. A crime, esp. one arranged beforehand; spec. a theft, a robbery” (1679).
  • “A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled” (1680).
  • “A state of affairs, a situation, a set of circumstances,” frequently used with a modifier (1680), as in the 19th-century phrase “to make the best of a bad job.”
  • Printing. A small piece of miscellaneous work, such as the printing of posters, leaflets, cards, etc.” (1770).
  • “A paid position of regular employment, a post, a situation; an occupation, a profession” (1781).
  • “A difficult task” (colloquial), as in “That was a job!” (1832).
  • “A person’s particular responsibility, duty, or role,” as in “It was my job to pay all the bills” (1841). This is the sense of “job” in the sentence you ask about.
  • “A piece of work carried out using the tool or material specified,” used with a modifying noun, as in “needle job” (1846).
  • “An operation involving cosmetic surgery … the result of such an operation” (colloquial), used with a  modifying noun, as in “nose job” (1947).

Finally, you ask what “of” is doing in “the job of delivering the bad news.” The expression is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

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

In the expression you ask about, “the job of delivering the bad news,” the genitive indicates the type of job.

The “of” in uses like this, the OED explains, serves to connect two nouns, the first denoting the class and the second a particular example of that class.

In “the job of delivering the bad news,” the noun “job” represents the class, and “of” connects it to “delivering the bad news,” a gerund phrase that functions as a noun denoting an example of the class.

OED citations for “of” used this way date back to Old English. With spellings updated, they include “borough of Lincoln” (1123), “color of scarlet” (1530), “vice of covetousness” (1691), and “month of November” (1749).

We also use “of” after “job” to express things like “a good job of painting his room” or “a better job of marketing the product” or “the worst job of redecorating I’ve ever seen.”

There again, what follows “of” answers the question, “What kind of job?”

We’ll end with a quote from one our favorite fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey: “I think the most joyous thing in life is to loaf around and watch another bloke do a job of work.” (The Five Red Herrings, 1931, by Dorothy L. Sayers.)

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In defense of ‘crispy’

Q: I’m aware that “crispy” has been around for centuries, but it still bugs me. Since “crisp” is already an adjective, why a suffixed “crispy”?

A: Yes, the adjective “crisp” has been around since Anglo-Saxon days. So why did writers feel the need to add the suffix “-y” to it in the 14th century?

We’re only speculating here, but we can think of several possibilities. Some writers may have wanted to differentiate the adjective from a now-obsolete Middle English noun spelled “crisp.” Others may have thought “crispy” looked more like an adjective than “crisp.” (A number of similarly suffixed adjectives had been coined in the 13th century.)

We lean toward a possible phonological explanation. The “-y” suffix may have been added because the “sp” consonant cluster at the end of “crisp” can be hard to pronounce before a word beginning with a consonant or consonant cluster. That’s why “crispy chicken” is easier to pronounce than “crisp chicken.”

In fact, many Old English forms of the adjective “crisp” had a vowel at the end. For instance, it’s spelled crispe in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example. In Anglo-Saxon times, the “e” in crispe would have been pronounced as in our word “bet.”

Interestingly, the “s” and “p” of “crisp” were often transposed in Old English and Middle English writing, perhaps reflecting pronunciation difficulties. And bare versions of the adjective (those without an additional vowel) tended to follow nouns rather than precede them.

When the adjective “crisp” showed up in Old English, it meant curly, as in curly hair. It’s derived from crispus, classical Latin for “curled.” Although standard dictionaries still include the hair sense of “crisp,” it now usually refers to stiff, closely curling, or frizzy hair.

The OED’s earliest example is from an anonymous Old English translation (circa 900) of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a Latin church history written in the eighth century by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede:

“Se gunga wæs geworden hale lichoman … and hæfde crispeloccas fægre” (“The youth became sound of body … and he had fair curly locks”). The passage comes from Bede’s description of a miracle in which a young leper was cured.

The term crispe in the compound crispeloccas (crispe loccas in some manuscripts) is technically an accusative plural—that is, it modifies a plural direct object. The form of an Old English adjective varied as its role changed. So crisp, for example, could end with “-e,” “-a,” “-u,” “-ra,” “-re,” and so on.

The letters “s” and “p,” as well as another pair, are transposed in the next OED citation: “He is blæcfexede and cyrps” (“He is black haired and curly”). It’s from an Old English homily written around 1000 by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (published in Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, 1844, edited by Benjamin Thorpe).

When the adjective “crispy” appeared in the late 14th century, Oxford says, it also referred to curly hair: “By grete heete the heer of the berd and of the heed ben cryspy and curlyd.” From John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

Around this time, a now-obsolete noun “crisp” could refer to either a “thin or delicate textile fabric, used esp. by women for veils or head-coverings” or a “kind of pastry made by dropping batter into boiling fat,” according to the dictionary. (Today, a “crisp” can mean a baked fruit dessert like an apple crisp. And in Britain, “crisps” are what Americans would call potato chips.)

In its entry for the “-y” suffix, the OED notes that “in the 15th cent., if not earlier, certain monosyllabic adjectives were extended by means of this suffix, apparently with the design of giving them a more adjectival appearance, e.g. hugy [from] huge, leany [from] lean.”

The dictionary also notes the following “fresh coinages” of adjectives with the “-y” suffix in texts before 1300: “dready, fiery, frighty, hairy (cf. Old English hæriht), happy, needy, sleepy (but cf. Old English unslǽpig), tidy (c1250 = in good condition).”

In the 16th century, the OED says, the adjective “crisp” took on a new sense: “Brittle or ‘short’ while somewhat hard or firm in structure (usually as a good quality); said esp. of hard things which have little cohesion and are easily crushed by the teeth, etc.”

The first citation is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I crasshe, as a thynge dothe that is cryspe or britell bytwene ones tethe.”

In the early 17th century, “crispy” also took on this sense of being brittle: “Bressaudes, the crispie mammocks that remaine of tried hogs grese” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

In contemporary dictionaries, “crisp” is now the broader term and can refer to food (“crisp bacon,” “crisp lettuce”), paper or cloth (“crisp new dollar bills”), the weather (“a crisp autumn day”), and speaking or writing (“a crisp, no-nonsense presentation”). “Crispy,” on the other hand, usually refers to food that’s firm, brittle, and crunchy (“a crispy sugar topping”). Both adjectives sometimes refer to tight curls.

“Crisp” is much more popular than “crispy,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books. But both terms are standard English when used to describe food. We see nothing wrong with “crispy” and could argue that adding that “-y” to “crisp” in Middle English was in keeping with the term’s Old English usage.

The two adjectives were used for centuries without objection. As far as we can tell, William Safire was the first language commentator to criticize the usage. In a Jan. 6, 1985, On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, he calls it “an itsy-pooism.” Oh, come on!

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Abluting in the loo

Q: The noun “ablution,” namely the washing of one’s body, suggests a verb “ablute.” Ever hear of that?

A: Yes, there is a verb “ablute.” In fact, people have been “abluting” themselves for more than 300 years, though the verb is used infrequently these days, and mainly in British English.

Merriam-Webster Online defines the verb “ablute” as “to wash one’s body” or “to perform one’s ablutions,” and says it’s synonymous with “bathe.”

The verb is “chiefly British,” M-W says, and provides two contemporary examples: “the minimalist bathroom where he ablutes every day” (Irish Times, Oct. 12, 2009), and “After I finished the paper, I headed to the bathroom to ablute myself, as is my wholesome Canadian habit” (Toronto Globe and Mail, March 13, 2004).

As those examples demonstrate, the verb is both intransitive (used without an object, as in “he ablutes every day”), and transitive (used with an object, as in “to ablute myself”).

This is not a common word, even in dictionaries—at least the ordinary ones. Of course it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, where it’s described as “colloquial.” Most of the contemporary uses we’ve seen are semi-humorous.

As for standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Online, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) are the only ones we’ve found, British or American, that have entries for the verb.

However, several standard dictionaries have entries for the adjective “abluted” (washed clean, thoroughly washed) and for the noun “abluent” (a cleansing substance). And “ablution” (the washing of one’s body, mostly used in the plural) is found nearly everywhere.

One might assume that “ablute” was a humorous back-formation based on “ablutions,” but that’s not how the verb originated.

The OED says “ablute” was first recorded in the early 1700s as a direct borrowing from classical Latin, in which ablūt– is the past participial stem of abluere (to wash off).

The first use was medical: “Let the Wound be well abluted with hot Tinctures de Myrrha” (from The Experienced Chirurgion, 1703, by the naval surgeon John Moyle. “Chirurgion” was an early spelling of “surgeon”).

The verb “ablute” has been found in writing ever since. But as we mentioned above, the more modern sightings are colloquial and often tongue-in-cheek. Here’s a partial selection from the OED:

“We are a private lot, not inclined to communal abluting” (the Sun Herald, Sydney, March 14, 1993; here the derivative “abluting” is a noun).

“I abluted in a staff loo” (Derbyshire Life and Countryside magazine, November 2002).

“Also featured in the catalogue are soap applicators for abluting those hard-to-get-to little places” (the Independent on Sunday, June 10, 2007).

As for those relatives of “ablute,” the first to be recorded in English was “ablution” in the late 14th century. This noun, meaning “the act or process of washing clean,” came partly from French and partly from Latin.

The earliest known example, circa 1395, is in the plural and was spelled “ablucions” in Middle English. But in those days it referred to the purification of substances by emulsifying them in hot water, not to personal cleanliness.

On a more personal level, the word came to mean ritual religious washing in the 1500s, and ordinary bathing in the 1600s.

But even then “ablution” (more often “ablutions”), when used in reference to bathing or washing oneself, was “frequently humorous (with mock formal tone),” Oxford says.

The earliest use for personal bathing is from 1664, but this example better illustrates the mock formality of the word: “Having performed the ceremony of ablution, I shifted” (Tobias Smollett’s novel Roderick Random, 1748).

The adjective “abluted,” defined in the OED as “that has been washed clean,” was first recorded in 1650. Like the verb “ablute,” it comes from classical Latin (ablūtus, past participle of abluere, to wash off or away).

Similarly, the noun “abluent” (a cleansing agent), first recorded in 1726, is from classical Latin (abluent, present participle of abluere). Oxford adds that the post-classical Latin noun abluentia (1702) meant “cleansing medicines.”

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A ‘bury’ old usage

Q: In driving around the New York suburbs, I couldn’t help noticing the number of towns with “bury” in their names— Danbury in Connecticut, Westbury on Long Island, and Asbury Park in New Jersey. I suppose the suffix is related to the noun “borough.” Is it also related to the verb “bury”?

A: The combining form “-bury” in Danbury and the noun “Bury” in the English town of Bury St Edmunds are indeed related to “borough.” However, the use of “-bury” and “Bury” in place names isn’t related to the verb “bury.”

The geographical use of “-bury” and “Bury” is derived from burg or burh, Old English for a town or fortified place, while the verb “bury” comes from byrgan, an Old English verb meaning to raise a mound, cover, or inter. John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins that interment originally referred to “covering a dead body with earth,” and “the general sense ‘put underground’ did not develop until the 14th century.”

The geographical and interment senses of “bury” come from different roots in prehistoric Germanic and Proto-Indo-European, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. (Though these roots predate written language, linguists have reconstructed them.)

The verb “bury” is derived from the Germanic bergan (to protect) while the geographical terms are derived from the Germanic bergaz (hill or mountain), according to American Heritage. The two Germanic terms ultimately come from different roots with the same spelling in Proto-Indo-European, the etymological ancestor of English and most other European languages.

The source of the verb in Indo-European is bhergh-1 (to hide or protect), American Heritage says, and the source of the geographical terms is bhergh-2 (high). Despite the identical spelling, the dictionary lists them as separate entries with different etymological descendants.

Getting back to Anglo-Saxon times, the Old English geographical terms burh and burg are the ancestors of  “berg,” “borough,” “burg,” “bury,” and similar elements in modern compound place names.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the geographical term (with burge meaning city) is from an Old English glossary dated around 820: “to burge and to wealle” (“to the walls of the city”). From Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies (1883), by Thomas Wright and Richard Paul Wülcker.

The earliest example in the online Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for the term used in a place name is from a ninth-century manuscript that describes the building of bebban burh (Bamburgh) in the sixth century by Ida, the first known Anglian king. Bebban burh became the royal seat of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria:

“hér ida féng to ríce, ðonon norþanhymbra cyne-cyn onwóc, and ríxode twelf geár. he timbrode bebban burh, seó wæs ǽrost mid hegge betýned, and ðǽr æfter mid weallehere” (“Ida, who founded the royal line of the Northumbrians, reigned for 12 years [547-559]. He built Bamburgh, which was at first enclosed by a hedge, and later by a wall”). From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Version A, written around 890.

During the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1450), the terms were spelled in many different ways in place names. Here are some examples from the University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary: Tileburh (circa 1250), Oldebyry (1290), Kynnesbiry (1290), Goldesburgh (1303), Wyndilbyry (1334), Burgewelle (1346), Peterburgh (1397), Borowefeld (1406), Neu Salesbery (1450-53), and Newe Salysbury (1457).

The OED notes that the Old English stem burg or burh had a vowel change when used in the dative case—that is, as an indirect object, an object of a preposition, and so on: “This dative, biri, berie, buri, was also at times used for the nominative; whence the modern Bury, -bury, in place-names.”

The earliest example in the OED for a place name with the modern “-bury” spelling is from the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury.”

As for the verb, the first Oxford citation is from an Old English hymn, written sometime before 1000, that describes the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea: “Þone geomormod Josep byrigde” (“whom sorrowful Joseph buried”).

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2008 on why the verb “bury” usually rhymes with “merry” rather than “hurry,” though you can find both pronunciations in dictionaries.

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Period furniture

Q: The terms “ottoman,” “divan,” “settee,” and “sofa” seem to have been used in Victorian England. Were they known earlier? Are they interchangeable? Do they come from Turkish, Persian, or some other Eastern culture? As a writer of historical fiction, I must get this right!

A: The nouns “ottoman,” “divan,” “settee,” and “sofa” overlap here and there, but they’re not interchangeable. What’s more, some meanings have shifted over the years, so writers of historical fiction have to be on their toes in describing period furniture.

What these all have in common is a level base, usually cushioned or upholstered. The differences mostly have to do with the extras—that is, whether they have arms, a back, neither of those features, or both of them.

Etymologically, most of these terms come from Arabic or Persian and entered English in the 17th and 18th centuries. We’ll examine them one at a time, beginning with “ottoman” (since you mentioned it first).

“Ottoman,” derived from Arabic, entered English in the late 18th century in the furniture sense: an armless, backless seat or footrest that may also have hidden storage space inside. This is the definition given in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A low upholstered seat without a back or arms, typically serving also as a box, with the seat hinged to form a lid.”

As a furniture term, “ottoman” comes from the earlier adjective “Ottoman,” meaning Turkish, a word derived from Uṯmān (Othman), the Arabic name for Osman I, founder of the Turkish (or “Ottoman”) empire. The furniture was “probably so called to suggest the Oriental style of the seat,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The furniture term was recorded in French as ottomane in 1729 and was borrowed into English 50 years later, according to OED citations. The French word for the item, Oxford says, was also borrowed by other European languages: German (Ottomane, 1772 or earlier); Italian (ottomana, 1797); Spanish (otomana, 1849); and Catalan (otomana, 1888).

The OED’s earliest use in English is from a memorandum written by Thomas Jefferson on Aug. 19, 1789, when he was in France: “Pd. [paid] for an Ottomane of velours d’Utrecht.”

The dictionary’s most recent example is from the autumn 2001 issue of the Art Room Catalogue: “This hugely versatile and attractive ottoman serves as a seat, a footstool or even an occasional table.”

In Oxford’s 19th-century British quotations, people are described as sitting on ottomans (sometimes two at a time), as well as resting their feet on them.

“Divan,” derived from Persian, entered English in the late 1690s in the furniture sense: a long, raised platform against a wall, or a couch-like affair with no back or arms. Here’s the OED definition: “Originally: a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch. Now usually: a low bed or couch with no back or ends.”

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The word divan has a long and spectacularly variegated semantic history.”

In Persian, etymologists say, a dēvān was originally a small book or collection of documents. Later this came to mean a register or an account book, and later still the office of an accountant or other government official. Eventually, Ayto says, the Persian word broadened to mean “various chambers and the bodies that occupied them, such as tax offices, customs collectors, courts, and councils of state.”

Typically, the walls of these chambers were lined with long seats, and consequently a dēvān came to mean such a seat—a sense that passed from Persian into both Arabic (dīwān) and Turkish (divān), and from them into the European languages.

In fact, many of the Persian meanings of dēvān filtered into French and then into English, OED citations show. For example, “divan” was first recorded in English as “an Oriental council of state” in 1586, and as a Turkish council hall or chamber of justice sometime before 1597.

The sense of a “divan” as a long seat was first recorded in English in the late 17th century.  Here’s the OED citation: “These Duans are a sort of low stages … elevated about sixteen or eighteen inches or more, above the floar. … Upon these the Turks eat, sleep, smoake, receive visits, say their prayers, &c.” (From Henry Maundrell’s A Journey From Aleppo to Jerusalem, published in 1703. Maundrell, who died in 1701, based the book on a diary he kept during a voyage made in the spring of 1697.)

The word for the seat is spelled “divan” in the OED’s next citation (dated 1702) and all that follow. But for more than a century it referred only to Eastern interiors as described in travel memoirs, fiction, or foreign political reporting. It wasn’t used to mean a piece of European furniture until the mid-19th century. This is the earliest sighting in Oxford:

“The bed being soft and comfortable, Mr. Quilp determined to use it, both as a sleeping place by night and as a kind of Divan by day” (from Charles Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841).

We found this earlier American example: “Also a charge of one hundred dollars for one divan and eight cushions” (from the Boston Atlas, May 2, 1840). The article, an anonymous opinion piece, described President Martin Van Buren’s bills for furnishing the White House with “foreign trash” in 1837, the year he took office.

As far as we can tell, “divan” wasn’t common in Western furniture terminology until the early 20th century. Oxford’s next example is from 1919, and according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the term in its Western sense had its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Settee,” a native English word from the early 1700s, usually means a bench or modest-sized sofa. The OED definition: “A seat (for indoors) holding two or more persons, with a back and (usually) arms; occasionally also with divisions.”

The dictionary says this word is “perhaps” a variant of the older noun “settle,” which originated in Old English in the late 800s and meant something to sit on, like a chair, bench, or stool. According to OED citations, “settle” survived into Victorian times but in the narrower sense of a long wooden bench.

As for a “settee,” it may be wooden or upholstered. The OED’s first citation is from a 1716 issue of the London Gazette: “All Sorts of Hangings for Rooms and Stair-cases, Chairs, Settees and Screens.” In those days, “hangings” meant wallpapers and decorator fabrics.

In Victorian England, “settee” would have been a common enough term for a bench or smallish sofa. One 1840 example in the OED compares a “settee” to a “double-arm’d chair.”

“Sofa,” derived from Arabic, entered written English in the early 1700s in its modern sense, defined in the OED as “a long, stuffed seat with a back and ends or end, used for reclining; a form of lounge or couch.”

However, it meant something different a century earlier, when it was first borrowed into English from the Arabic ṣoffah. In the early 1600s, it meant a kind of cushioned dais found in Eastern countries. The OED defines “sofa” in the Eastern sense as “a part of the floor raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions.”

So in its earliest uses, beginning in 1625, “sofa” appeared in travel memoirs describing the chambers of sultans, viziers, and other potentates.

The word in its modern Western sense, according to the OED, was first recorded in English a century later in a description of an Italian interior: “The Bridegroom sits on a very low sort of seat not unlike an oriental sofa.” (An entry by the philosopher George Berkeley, dated Jan. 20, 1717, in journals kept during a trip to Italy.)

Soon “sofa” became more common, though occasionally its spelling varied, as in these OED examples: “On her Sophee she sits, Vouchsafing audience to contending Wits” (from The Universal Passion, 1727, a satire by Edward Young). “I threw myself on a soffa” (from Samuel Richardson’s 1753 novel Sir Charles Grandison).

As words go, “sofa” has been uncommonly useful. (It was also adopted, as sofa, into French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.) It was very common throughout the 19th century and it still is. It’s held its own against other words used today for the same thing. It’s somewhat less popular than “couch” but far more common than “davenport.”

“Couch,” derived from French in the 1300s, meant a bed for most of its history, though by the 19th century it denoted something like a chaise-longue with a low back and one end-piece. “Davenport,” meaning the same as “sofa,” is a late 19th-century term, probably taken from the name of an American manufacturer.

We’ll end a quotation from the New York Times Magazine, June 21, 1981: “There used to be a split on davenport and sofa; now the split is between sofa and couch.

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Inartful dodgers

Q: “Inartful” seems to be the word of choice now for excusing comments by public figures that cross the line, especially those by President Trump. However, I can’t find it in my American Heritage and Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Is it a legitimate word?

A: Yes, the adjective “inartful” is a legitimate word that showed up in the early 19th century. But it’s in only one of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “lacking artifice; unsophisticated, unrefined; wanting polish or technical skill. Later also: unsubtle, tactless.”

Wiktionary, an online collaborative dictionary, has only that later sense: “Awkwardly expressed but not necessarily untrue; ill-phrased; inexpedient.” (Merriam-Webster online has an entry for a similarly spelled word, “unartful,” which it defines as “lacking craft” or “lacking skill.”)

“Inartful” is now generally used in that newer sense of being awkwardly expressed, according to our searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.

Although the term was relatively popular in the early 19th century, “inartful” fell out of favor for a century and a half until it was revived in the late 20th century, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.

As you’ve noticed, it’s sometimes used by supporters of President Trump to explain his more controversial comments, though we haven’t seen him use the word himself. Here are a few “inartful” examples from both Democrats and Republicans:

“Do I think some of his verbal formulations are inartful? Yeah” (Ken Blackwell, former mayor of Cincinnati and Trump transition official, on the President’s language, Politico, Aug. 3, 2019).

“I think the president is often inartful, but remarkably effective” (Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House Speaker, Washington Examiner, July 16, 2019).

“He said the truth in an inartful way” (Jesse Jackson on former Vice President Joe Biden’s comment that he worked with segregationists when he was in the Senate, Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2019).

“The expression I used the other day was inartful: Of course America is great and, of course, America has always been great” (Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on his saying, two days earlier, “We’re not going to make America great again—it was never that great,” Politico, Aug. 15, 2008).

As for its etymology, “inartful” originally meant lacking artifice—that is, natural. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an early 18th-century political tract: “A Man of plain and Inartful Simplicity of Manners” (from The Life of Aristides the Athenian, anonymously published in Dublin in 1714).

But all of the OED’s examples from the 19th century onward use the word in its negative senses (unskilled, badly done, clumsy, tactless): “lace … clotted together in a very inartful manner” (1831); “inartful language” (1957, describing poor writing); “flawed and inartful drafting” (1986); “this inartful reference to his client’s probable future” (2005).

The word’s origins are simple enough. It was formed, the OED says, when the negative prefix “in-” was added to “artful.” So on the surface, at least, “inartful” is comparable to another “artful” opposite—“artless,” a word that appeared slightly earlier than “artful” in the late 16th century.

Both “artless” (first recorded in 1586) and “artful” (1590) were formed with the addition of suffixes to the noun “art,” which since the 1300s had meant not only skill but also artifice. And these new words formed from “art” reflected its two-pronged meanings.

Consequently, for several hundred years “artless” has meant unskilled, ignorant, inexperienced, clumsy; but it has also meant free of artifice—that is, sincere, natural, without guile. Similarly, “artful” has meant skilled or clever, but it has also meant artificial, cunning, deceitful.

These varied meanings of the two adjectives are still found in current usage, according to standard dictionaries. But in the case of “artless,” the OED says, “the usual sense” now is “without guile; sincere, ingenuous.” And in many standard dictionaries, the leading definition of “artful” is sly or cunning.

Meanwhile, as we said earlier, since the 19th century “inartful” has had only negative meanings—clumsy, tactless, and so on. So while “inartful” and “artless” look like they’d mean the same thing, they’re by no means synonymous as used today.

We borrowed the title of this post from the headline of an On Language column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine (Aug. 4, 1985). In that column, Safire said “inartful” wasn’t a legitimate word. Even years later, in a 2008 column, he said it was “lexicographically unrecognized” (the OED’s entry for “inartful” was not written until 2009).

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Fed up with feedback?

Q: I assiduously avoid the hackneyed use of “feedback” for giving one’s opinion about something, as in this NY Times headline: “How to Give Your Therapist Feedback.” I know that the term can be used to describe the behavior of electrical and other systems. How did “feedback” get its meaning in common parlance?

A: The use of “feedback” for the reaction of people to a product, service, performance, and so on is derived from the term’s earlier use in reference to the output and input signals of an electrical system. That earlier sense also led to the use of “feedback” for the sound distortion produced when the output and input signals don’t get along.

This kind of linguistic evolution is not unusual. Many technical terms have taken on nontechnical senses. Projects as well as trains can be derailed, punches and messages have been telegraphed, the analog computer is gone but not analog people, and politicians as well as actors can take center stage.

When the noun “feedback” first appeared in English in the early 20th century, it referred to the “return of a fraction of the output signal from one stage of a circuit, amplifier, etc., to the input of the same or a preceding stage,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation is from the Nov. 27, 1920, issue of Wireless Age: “An inductive feed-back in relation to the secondary system generates local oscillations.”

We found a somewhat earlier example for the term used as a phrasal adjective in a British patent for an electrical signaling system: “One of the variable current sources is a feed-back circuit of the system or a local source of high-frequency current” (Patent GB130432, Aug. 7, 1919).

The sound-distortion sense of “feedback” showed up in the 1930s. The OED defines it as the “effect whereby sound from a loudspeaker reaches a microphone feeding the speaker, thereby distorting the sound, and typically generating a screeching or humming noise.” The dictionary adds that it can also refer to a musical sound “created as a deliberate effect, usually through the amplifier of an electric guitar.”

The OED’s earliest sound-distortion example is from the June 26, 1936, issue of Science: “A button conveniently located on the side is used to turn the instrument [sc. a crystal microphone] on and off after it has been placed in the proper position, thus eliminating much of the problem of feed-back.”

Merriam-Webster Online has an earlier, adjectival example: “Howls, screeches and feed-back microphonic noises which block quality reception have been greatly minimized or totally eliminated in practically all of the new radios now on the market” (Hartford Courant, Oct. 2, 1932).

The earliest Oxford example for “feedback” used in the deliberate musical sense is from the 1960s: “Muddy’s new album Electric Mud is a morass of feedback … reverb and every other trick” (Blues Unlimited, Dec. 10, 1968).

So how did the arrangement of the output and input signals of an electrical system give us a term for positive and negative comments about an activity?

In a word history of “feedback,” Merriam-Webster explains that “negative feedback” originally referred to electronic “feedback that tends to dampen a process by applying the output against the initial conditions,” while “positive feedback” originally referred to “feedback that tends to magnify a process or increase its output.” That apparently inspired the figurative use of “feedback” for positive and negative evaluations.

“Of the several possible meanings of feedback the one that is probably encountered most frequently today (the one meaning ‘helpful information or criticism’) is the most recent,” M-W says. “This sense began seeing use in the 1940s, often found in the field of psychology, and it was over a decade before it crept into the broadened use it currently has.”

The earliest examples we’ve seen are in highly technical articles in scholarly journals from the late 1940s. The social scientist Karl Wolfgang Deutsch, for example, discusses “the feedback notion of consciousness,” and cites “a few suggestive analogies between mechanical or electrical feedback nets, nerve systems, and societies.” (“Some Notes on Research on the Role of Models in the Natural and Social Sciences,” Synthese, January 1948.)

The first OED example for “feedback” meaning a response appeared a decade later: “In … a lecture … the live speaker has a reaction, a ‘feed-back’ from the listeners, and … he can adjust his speech accordingly” (from “Speech Education,” an essay by the linguist J. L. M Trim, in The Teaching of English, 1959, edited by Randolph Quirk and A. H. Smith).

All 10 of the standard dictionaries we regularly check include “feedback” in this sense. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.” Here’s one of the dictionary’s many examples: “Individuals want feedback on their performance and it is also crucial to their self-development.”

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Scrubbing floors and computers

Q: In an article about the Gilroy, CA, shooting, the NY Times says investigators “also are continuing to scrub various electronic devices and trying to learn if he had any help carrying out the shooting.” Isn’t this an incorrect use of “scrub,” which I’d always understood to mean, in this context, to make data unrecoverable?

A: We’ve never seen this use of “scrub” before. When used in relation to computers and other electronic devices, “scrub” means either to clean or to erase, rather than to examine for evidence.

We looked at 10 standard British and American dictionaries, and only one, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, has definitions for “scrub” in computer senses. Here they are, along with the dictionary’s examples:

“a. To maintain the integrity of by finding and correcting errors: software that automatically scrubs stored data.

“b. To erase in such a way as to render unrecoverable: scrubbed the laptop’s hard drive to destroy incriminating evidence.”

We’re surprised that only one standard dictionary has picked up on these usages. Both of those senses of “scrub” can be found in specialized reference books. Here are examples of each definition of the verb as used in computer science:

“To examine a large amount of data and eliminate duplicate or unneeded items” (McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms (2003). “To wipe information off a disk or remove data from store” (Simon Collin’s Dictionary of Computing, 2009).

We haven’t found any dictionary or glossary that defines “scrub” as to search for evidence.

In its nontechnical usage, “scrub” has similar senses: (1) to vigorously clean something by rubbing, as in “he scrubbed the kitchen floor,” and (2) to cancel or eliminate, as in “the launch was scrubbed” or “his horse was scrubbed from the race.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no entries for computer senses of “scrub,” at least not yet. As for less technical uses, the OED describes the verb as Germanic in origin and “of obscure history.”

The verb was first recorded in Middle English writing in the 1300s, when it meant to curry-comb a horse, a sense that may have come from Middle Low German or Middle Dutch terms for scraping or scrubbing.

In its modern sense—to clean by hard rubbing—“the word may perhaps have been re-imported from Dutch as a nautical term,” the OED suggests.

This current sense of “scrub” was first recorded in the 16th century, at a time when Holland was a major naval power and many Dutch nautical words came into English. In those days, the English word meant “to clean (esp. a floor, wood, etc.) by rubbing with a hard brush and water.”

However, the earliest OED example, from 1595, uses the term figuratively. It’s from a contemporary account of Sir Francis Drake’s final, disastrous expedition against Spain in the West Indies:

“If part of our companie had been sent thither upon our first arrival at Rio de la Hacha, doubtles we had done much goode, but now they [the Spaniards] had scrube it very bare.” (From Sir Francis Drake His Voyage, 1595, a contemporary narrative written by a passenger, Thomas Maynarde. In December 1595, Drake’s men landed at the city only to find that the Spanish had “scrubbed” it bare—that is, removed everything of value.)

The dictionary’s earliest use of “scrub” meaning to cancel or eliminate is from the early 19th century, and is found in the private writings of Sir Walter Scott:

“If I were alone, I could scrub it [a visit to London], but there is no doing that with Anne” (a diary entry written March 22, 1828, and first published in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1941).

The dictionary defines the word in this sense as “to cancel, scrap, call off; to eliminate, erase; to reject, dismiss.” It adds that this usage was “reinforced by the popularity of the expression amongst servicemen in the war of 1939–45.”

Oxford includes several WWII uses, both British and American, including this enlightening passage from a letter to the editor of the Spectator. The letter, from a British naval officer, ran on May 25, 1945, in response to a review of a book on air force slang:

“The author can possibly justify the inclusion of the term ‘scrub,’ meaning ‘to cancel,’ in a collection of R.A.F. slang. The expression is in common use in the Royal Navy and has been for many generations. It derives from the days when all signals and orders were written on a slate. When the signals were cancelled or orders executed, the words on the slate were ‘scrubbed out’ or, equally correctly ‘washed out.’ ”

[Note: Two readers have called our attention to another use of “scrub” in a technical sense, a usage that apparently comes from the days of reel-to-reel tape players. As one commented: “Audio and video scrubbing is moving quickly through a recording (fast forward or fast rewind) while the recording plays in order to find a specific spot in the recording. It does not seem like a stretch to me to go from searching an audio or video recording for something specific to searching data recorded on a computer drive for something specific.”]

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Do you say AH-kwa or ACK-wa?

Q: After viewing a 1967 “Aquaman” cartoon, I overheard some people make fun of the narrator Ted Knight’s ACK-wa-man pronunciation. But when I was a child in the ’60s, everyone pronounced “aqua” that way. Why is AH-kwa-man the usual pronunciation now?

A: The word “aqua” was probably pronounced AH-kwa when it showed up in English in the Middle Ages, but the pronunciation was AKE-wa or ACK-wa for hundreds of years before AH-kwa was revived in American English in the 1970s. As you remember, the usual pronunciation in the US was indeed ACK-wa when Aquaman splashed on to the comic scene in the mid-20th century. Here’s the story.

English borrowed the Latin word aqua (“water”) in the late 1300s. In Middle English, “aqua” was a noun used attributively (that is, adjectivally) in the names of various solutions in pharmacy and chemistry, such as “aqua mirabilis” (an aromatic mixture of nutmeg, ginger, wine, etc.), “aqua regia” (nitric and hydrochloric acids), and “aqua vitae” (strong distilled alcohol).

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to “aqua rosacea” (rose water): “of grene rose aqua rosacea is made by seþynge of fuyre oþer of þe sonne” (“rosewater is made by boiling green rose with fire or the sun”). From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

In the late 19th century, according to OED citations, “aqua-” began being used as “a combining form or quasi-adj., esp. in expressions referring to aquatic entertainment.” The dictionary’s first example is from the June 1887 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine: “When the ‘Théâtre Nautique’ first opened its doors the bill presented … a three act aqua-drama of Chinese life, entitled ‘Kao-Kang.’ ”

Other early aquatic compounds were “aqua-glider” (1930), “aquadrome” (1935), and “aquacade” (1937). The comic-book character Aquaman (created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger) first appeared in the November 1941 anthology More Fun Comics No. 73.

In classical times, the initial a of the Latin aqua was pronounced much like the “a” of the English word “about,” according to modern linguistic reconstructions of classical Latin. And the first syllable of a two-syllable word like aqua was stressed, so it would have been pronounced something like UH-kwuh.

Some scholars believe the word aqua was used in classical Latin to imitate animal sounds. In Rudens, a comedy by  the Roman playwright Plautus, a wet, shivering survivor of a shipwreck stutters “aqu aqu aqua” (“wa-wa-water”), which some Latinists believe suggests the quacking of a duck. And the poet Ovid’s use of “sub aqua sub aqua” in Metamorphoses to describe Lycian peasants turned into frogs is said to suggest croaking.

Skipping ahead, Latin pronunciation had evolved significantly by the time Trevisa introduced the English word “aqua” in translating the Latin aqua. In medieval Latin, heavily influenced by church usage, the a of aqua was pronounced like the first vowel of “father” or “aha,” according to the historian G. Herbert Fowler (“Notes on the Pronunciation of Medieval Latin in England,” published in the journal History, September 1937).

So Trevisa, a Catholic cleric, would have pronounced the Latin aqua as AH-kwa. In fact, aqua is still pronounced that way in ecclesiastical Latin. You can hear it in the line “Aqua lateris Christi, lava me” of this choral rendition of Anima Christi, a 14th-century prayer to Jesus.

We haven’t found any evidence of how Trevisa pronounced his new English word “aqua,” but we assume that he and other British scholars would have used the medieval Latin pronunciation. In other words, the original pronunciation of “aqua” in Middle English was probably AH-kwa.

However, the pronunciation of the first “a” in “aqua” has  changed noticeably in English since the Middle Ages, according to British and American dictionaries from the 18th to the 21st century.

In the UK, for example, A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), by Thomas Sheridan, pronounces “aqua” as AKE-wa (the first vowel is described as the one in “hate” and the second as the one in “hat”). In A Critical  Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), John Walker pronounces it similarly, using “fate” and “fat” as his examples.

Another British source, An English Pronouncing Dictionary, on Strictly Phonetic Principles (first ed., 1917), by Daniel Jones, pronounces it in compound terms as ACK-wa or AKE-wa. Jones describes AKE-wa as a less-frequent variant, and drops it from the 1944 fifth edition of his dictionary. The first vowel of ACK-wa is pronounced with the “a” of “cat” and the second with the “a” of “China.”

In American English, “aqua” was pronounced AKE-wa (with the vowel sounds of “fate” and “fat”) in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, according to the first and last editions of the Century Dictionary, published from 1889 to 1911.

But it was both ACK-wa and AKE-wa in the mid-20th century, according to our 1956 printing of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged. ACK-wa (“the preferred form”) was pronounced with the “a” sounds of “add” and “sofa.”

Getting back to your question, we assume that the “aqua” of Aquaman was usually pronounced ACK-wa (the favored pronunciation in Webster’s Second) when the comic-book character first appeared in 1941.

In the 1960s, when Aquaman made his first animated appearances, the preferred pronunciation of “aqua” in the US was still ACK-wa, with AKE-wa as a less common variant, according to a 1963 printing of The Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary in our library.

But by the late 1970s, “aqua” had three different pronunciations in the US: ACK-wa, AH-kwa, and AKE-wa, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (2d. ed, 1979), with the variants listed in the order “most frequent in general cultivated use.”

Today, AH-kwa is the usual American pronunciation, with ACK-wa a less common variant, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. A British dictionary, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), says the only British pronunciation is ACK-wa.

(The first “a” is pronounced as “uh” in both American and British English when it’s unstressed in such terms as “aquarium,” “aquatic,” and “Aquarius.”)

We haven’t seen any authoritative explanation for the revival of the AH-kwa pronunciation in the US over the last four decades. It may have been inspired by the pronunciation in ecclesiastical Latin, but the use of Latin has declined in Roman Catholic churches since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

We’ll end with a YouTube video of Ted Knight’s introduction to the Aquaman TV series, which ran from 1967 to 1970 on CBS.

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The evolution of ‘enormity’

Q: I’m bothered by the use of “enormity” in this sentence: “We can’t let the enormity of the climate crisis prevent us from doing what needs to be done.” Yes, climate change is not only bigness but also badness. Still I think this is a misuse.

A: “Enormity” is a word often found in writing about climate change and its effects, and we think it’s being used appropriately.

When journalists write things like “the sheer enormity of the climate challenge” (the Guardian), “the enormity of global warming” (Scientific American), “the enormity of climate change” (National Geographic), and “the enormity of the climate problem” (The Hill), they’re using the noun for something that’s not just huge but huge in a disconcerting, overwhelming, or alarming way.

As we wrote in 2007, “enormity” has traditionally been a negative word, meaning badness rather than bigness. But in the 12 years since we wrote that post, usage has been shifting and it apparently still is. Many lexicographers now accept a definition that combines the two notions into one.

We checked 10 standard dictionaries and found some differences of opinion. As expected, all still include the traditional definition of “enormity” as monstrous evil or wickedness. But almost all accept other definitions as well.

The predominant opinion seems to be that definitions of “enormity” now include hugeness or immensity of a difficult, grave, or serious nature—that is, vast size with a negative judgment attached.

For instance, the definitions of “enormity” in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include this one: “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong.” And this one is from Longman: “the great size, seriousness, or difficulty of a situation, problem, event, etc.”

Some dictionaries go further and include a neutral sense of “enormity” that was once considered incorrect: great size or extent, as in “the enormity of the universe.” The definitions in Merriam-Webster Unabridged and Merriam-Webster Online, for instance, include “the quality or state of being huge.”

Lexico, too, accepts what it calls a “neutral use” in which the noun means “large size or scale,” as in “I began to get a sense of the enormity of the task.” This newer sense, Lexico suggests, was “influenced by enormous.”

But in a usage note, Lexico says this sense “generally relates to something difficult, such as a task, challenge, or achievement,” so even there, the so-called “neutral use” seems to have a negative and not-so-neutral element.

For now, we at Grammarphobia still have reservations about a completely neutral use of “enormity” for size alone with no negative connotations.

And some leading dictionaries agree with us. They either omit a neutral definition (as with Collins and Longman), or attach warning labels. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language labels it a “usage problem,” and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) says it’s “considered a loose usage by some.”

We suspect that Merriam-Webster is ahead of the curve here, and that someday “enormity” will be completely accepted in the sense of enormousness alone, with no negative flavor at all. But we don’t think it’s there yet, especially since it’s rarely used in a positive way (as in “The enormity of the swimming pool is a selling point”).

It’s interesting that originally there was no notion of size in either the noun “enormity” or the adjective “enormous.” When they first appeared in English, “enormity” in the 1400s and “enormous” in the 1500s, the two words had to do with deviation from moral or legal norms.

They’re derived from Latin—the noun ēnormitātem, the adjective ēnormis—in which the ē prefix means “out” and norma means a “mason’s square” or “pattern,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first to enter English, the OED says, was “enormity,” borrowed from the French énormité. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a medieval life of St. Mary of Egypt, the prostitute who became an ascetic. This is the quotation, from a circa 1480 copy of a text thought to date from before 1400:

“Nothire stekis fra goddis mercy of þe syne þe quantyte, na ȝet of It þe Inormyte” (“Neither the multitude of the sin nor yet the enormity of it shuts out god’s mercy”).

As used there, Oxford says, the noun meant “deviation from moral or legal rectitude.” Before long, in the 1470s, it was used in another sense: “a breach of law or morality; a transgression, crime.”

The adjective “enormous,” borrowed directly from the Latin ēnormis, was used in a similar way early on. Its original meaning, the OED says, was “deviating from ordinary rule or type; abnormal, unusual, extraordinary, unfettered by rules; hence, mostly in bad sense, strikingly irregular, monstrous, shocking.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Soo shall this enormous facte be loked vppon with worthye correction.” (From The Testament of Master Wylliam Tracie, written sometime before 1533 by John Frith. William Tracy was an early Lutheran, and the “enormous facte” that Frith refers to is presumably the exhumation and public burning of Tracy’s body after the reading of his will, which declared his dissident faith and denied any bequests to the Catholic clergy.)

But soon “enormous” was being used to mean merely large, or, as the OED puts it, “excessive or extraordinary in size, magnitude, or intensity; huge, vast, immense.” Oxford has one example from 1544 and several more from the mid-1600s onward. This remains “the only current sense” of the word, the dictionary adds.

Meanwhile, in the 17th and 18th centuries, this neutral use of “enormous” in the sense of size began to influence “enormity.” Instead of a mere crime or a moral lapse, an “enormity” was ratcheted up in magnitude to “extreme or monstrous wickedness” or “a gross and monstrous offence,” the OED says.

For instance, an 18th-century author quoted in the OED uses the phrase “deeds of peculiar enormity and rigour” to describe the mass executions and atrocities committed by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men against the Mexican population (The History of America, 1777, by William Robertson).

So an element of hugeness has been part of “enormity” for several hundred years, alongside the notion of something bad or morally wrong.

The OED does include a definition of hugeness alone: “excess in magnitude; hugeness, vastness.” But it labels the usage “obsolete,” adding that “recent examples might perhaps be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest use of “enormity” as hugeness: “A worm of proportionable enormity had bored a hole in the shell” (from a 1792 edition of Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, a fictional account by Rudolf Erich Raspe).

The OED is not a standard dictionary but an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Its entry for the “enormity” has not been fully updated, and none of its examples, for any of the meanings of “enormity,” go beyond the 19th century.

In fact, its newest example, from 1891, is something of a joke: “ ‘You have no idea of the enormity of my business transactions,’ said an eminent Stock Exchange speculator to a friend. He was perhaps nearer the truth than he intended.”

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Changing times

Q: Can you help me understand what ’Change means in this sentence from a short story I’m reading: “The tears just flowed like thawing snow; as they do in nature, though less often on ’Change.” The apostrophe and capital letter seem to be very confusing here. The author was an Englishman.

A: In Britain, the term “change” or “Change” has referred to a money exchange, a stock exchange, or a commercial exchange for hundreds of years, though the usage isn’t seen much now. In the late 18th century, an apostrophe was added in the mistaken belief that “Change” was short for “Exchange.”

In the sentence you’re asking about, the word apparently refers to a stock exchange. It’s from “The Fetch,” a story by Robert Aickman from his collection Intrusions: Strange Tales (1980).

The narrator, a merchant banker in London, uses it in describing the tears shed by his new wife’s maid, who has discovered that the banker’s ancestral home in Scotland is haunted.

The noun “change” was first used in the Middle Ages to mean a place for bartering or money-changing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It had this sense for centuries before “exchange” came to mean the same thing and eventually replaced it. Here’s the story.

In the business sense, a “change” was originally “a place for the conversion of money or bullion,” and “a place where merchants or bankers transact business,” the OED says. Those meanings today are obsolete or historical, the dictionary adds.

The word in these senses can be traced to a verb in post-classical Latin, cambiare, which in the 8th century meant “to exchange, to give in exchange, to obtain by exchange” and in the 11th century meant “to change money,” the dictionary says. From medieval Latin, the usage passed into Old French, Anglo-Norman, and finally into English.

Around the year 1200, Oxford explains, chaunge in Anglo-Norman was used “with reference to a money changer’s table,” and toward the end of the 1200s or perhaps earlier, “La Chaunge” was used “as the name of such a place in London.”

Early English uses in the dictionary include “Le Eldechaunge” (1317) and “Le Oldechaunge” (1389), meaning “the Old Change.” (This in fact was the name of a lane in London where such business was conducted in those days. Similarly, in the 18th century, “Change Alley” was a street in the City of London where many stockbrokers did business at coffee houses.)

So “change” long preceded “exchange” as a noun for a place of trade. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that an “exchange” came to mean a money-changer’s office or “a building in which the merchants of a town assemble for the transaction of business,” the OED says.

The word acquired an official stamp when the capitalized noun “Exchange” came to mean the Royal Exchange, a commercial center in the City of London where merchants traded goods.

The building, modeled on the Antwerp Bourse, was constructed in 1566 and originally called the “Burse,” but in 1571 Queen Elizabeth gave it the title “Royal Exchange.”

The OED’s earliest written use of “Exchange” as short for “Royal Exchange” dates from 1589, but no doubt merchants used it in speech much earlier.

Beginning in the late 17th century, according to OED citations, the phrase “upon Change” (later “on Change”) was used to mean “at the Royal Exchange” or “on the stock exchange.”

In the early 1800s, the apostrophe crept in. As Oxford explains, the shorter word has been “often apprehended since the 19th cent. as a shortening (with elision of the initial syllable) of exchange … and hence frequently spelt ’change.”

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a Nov. 23, 1821, entry in the English journalist William Cobbett’s diary of his travels through rural England:

“Young wives standing in need of something to keep down the unruly ebullitions which are apt to take place while the ‘dearies’ are gone hobbling to ’Change.” (Cobbett’s travel diary was first published in serial form from 1822 to 1826 in Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, and as a book, Rural Rides, in 1830.)

Henry W. Fowler, in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, notes that “Change” is “not an abbreviation of Exchange, & should have no apostrophe.” Sir Ernest Gowers repeated that in the 1965 second edition. However, the usage was so rare by the late 20th century that R. W. Burchfield dropped the entry in his revised 1998 third edition.

The example you came across in that 1980 short story is unusual. In searches of newspaper databases, we’ve found plenty of examples from the 19th century, but very few from the 20th later than the 1930s. Today the usage is found mainly in historical writing, as is the case with this OED citation:

“He knew he could make money on ’Change—he had demonstrated that over the last few years.” (From Norman B. Ream, a 2013 biography of a 19th-century businessman, by Paul Ryscavage.)

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Who’s zori now?

[In observance of Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, we’re republishing a post from Aug. 30, 2013.]

Q: My words for “flip-flops” are “zories” and “go-aheads.” My daughter cringes if I call them “thong sandals”—what could she be thinking of? I’ve lived in Iowa for 40 years now, but I grew up in the ’50s on Navy bases in California. Sailors brought the term “zories” back from Okinawa.

A: We’ve saved your question for the Labor Day weekend, summer’s last hurrah. We hope you and our other readers get in one last fling before putting away the flip-flops.

Pat used to call them simply “thongs” when she was growing up in Iowa in the ’50s and ’60s, but some sensitive folks (like you know who) may find the usage cringe-worthy today.

As for your terms for those floppy, usually rubber sandals, you may have picked up “go-aheads” as well as “zories” on those naval bases in California.

The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “go-aheads” this way: “Chiefly Hawaii and California. A sandal held on the foot by a strap between the big toe and the next toe.”

And an item entitled “Marine Corps Slang” in the December 1962 issue of the journal American Speech has this definition: “GO-AHEADS, n. Japanese zori, or the American adaptation, thong sandals.”

Doris E. Thompson, a University of Nebraska contributor who wrote the item, said she’d heard the “go-aheads” usage as a civilian employee at the Marine Corps schools at Quantico, VA.

You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the use of the term “zori” (or “sori”) for those sandals first showed up in English nearly two centuries ago.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a book called Japan, an 1822 collection of writings edited by the English journalist Frederic Shoberl:

“The shoes of the Japanese consist of straw soles or slips of wood. Those in common use are called sori.”

The OED describes “zori” as a plural noun, and defines it as “Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.” The word is derived from two Japanese terms: so (grass or straw) and ri (footwear or sole), according to Oxford.

(Geta, similar Japanese sandals, are on elevated wooden platforms and worn with kimonos and other traditional clothing.)

Although most of the OED examples cite the use of “zori” in Japan, the most recent is from a 1984 awards manual issued by the British Judo Association:

“Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events and should be worn off the mat in Clubs, Schools, etc.”

All six Oxford citations for the usage have “zori,” not “zoris” or “zories,” as the plural.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “zori” or “zoris” as the plural.

Our Google searches indicate that when an “s” plural is used, the spelling “zoris” is preferred over “zories” two to one.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has citations for “zori” going back to the late 1950s, and says the usage appears most often in the West and Hawaii. The DARE examples include “zori,” “zoris,” and “zories” as plurals.

The earliest DARE citation is from a Sept. 30, 1958, ad in the Idaho State Journal: “ ‘Zoris’ Thong Sandals—Ideal Shower Shoes … 77¢.” (The newspaper is in Pocatello.)

The most recent citation is from Our Lady of the Forest, a 2003 novel by David Guterson (author of the bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars):

“Was there really something called Florida Priest Week? A coterie of priests in bathing suits and zoris, discussing, say, the communion of saints?”

The term “flip-flop,” by the way, is quite old too, first showing up in English in the 1600s, when it referred to the sound of a footfall. However, the OED describes this appearance as a “nonce-use,” one coined for a specific occasion.

In the late 1800s, the term showed up in American political lingo to mean “a change of mind or position on something; a reversal,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from the July 13, 1890, issue of the Chicago Tribune: Mr. Ericksen’s friends in the twenty-third executed a flip-flop, and … went over to Michael Francis in a body.”

The use of the word in reference to “a plastic or rubber sandal consisting of a flat sole and straps” showed up in the 1950s, according to OED citations.

Interestingly, the first citation for the usage in the dictionary is from a British customs form filled out in 1958 by the novelist P. D. James: “Maps, 1 pair of ‘flip-flops,’ 1 shirt (white), 1 shirt (coloured) [etc.].”

As for “thong,” it’s not just quite old, it’s very, very old, with prehistoric roots in the days before writing.

“Etymologically, a thong is something that ‘binds’ up,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

The word, according to Ayto, is derived from thwangg-, a term reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic.

“In the Old English period,” he says, “it was thwong; it began to lose its w in the 13th century.”

When it first showed up in Old English sometime before 950, according to the OED, it meant a “narrow strip of hide or leather, for use as a lace, cord, band, strap, or the like.” In the early days, it generally referred to a shoe lace.

The earliest written examples in the OED of “thongs” or “thong sandals” used to mean footwear date from the mid-1960s.

However, we’ve found many examples of “thong sandals” from the 1940s and ’50s in searches of Google Books. Here’s one from A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel by Mary McCarthy:

“They seemed utterly different from the other New Leeds people—a thing Jane often pondered on, aloud, in a dreamy reverie, studying her bare toes in her Mexican thong sandals and half-wondering whether she was getting a callous.”

And we’ve found examples dating from the ’50s of  “thongs” used alone. Here’s one from a July 11, 1958, ad in the Los Angeles Tribune for a leather version of the familiar flip-flops:

“GENUINE ALL / LEATHER THONGS / Glove leather wrapped / Full Foam / cushion construction / $5.00 value … $1.”

Finally, we get to the “thong” your daughter has in mind. It’s described by American Heritage as a “garment for the lower body that exposes the buttocks, consisting of a narrow strip of fabric that passes between the thighs supported by a waistband.”

The earliest citation for what the OED calls a “skimpy garment (similar to a G-string)” is from the April 22, 1975, issue of the Times of London: “Rudi Gernreich[’s] … new bathing suit, also available as an item of lingerie … is called the Thong.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from a Feb. 17, 1988, article in the Chicago Tribune: “Cindy Crawford … wears a little lacey swimdress with golden Lycra thong in Sports Illustrated’s annual T-and-A swimsuit issue.”

Again, enjoy the Labor Day weekend, and thongs for the memories!

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Fancy that

Q: In Grantchester, a detective series on British TV, a woman was recently asked, “Is that your husband or your fancy man?” The Brits seem to use “fancy” in ways that never caught on in America—to “fancy” someone, for example, or a “fancy dress ball.” Of course my Jewish grandmother used “fancy-schmancy” as a mild put-down.

A: For centuries, the word “fancy”—noun, verb, and adjective—has been associated with imagination, fantasy, and desire. And you’re right in thinking that in some of its senses “fancy” is more widely used today in Britain than in the US.

The verb in particular is used more broadly and more flexibly by British speakers. Some standard dictionaries label “fancy” as a British usage when it means to want (“Do you fancy fish and chips tonight?”), to like or have a crush on (“She obviously fancies him”), to favor (“What team do you fancy in the finals?”), or when used imperatively to express surprise (“Fancy her winning the lottery!”).

The adjective, too, is used differently. To the British “fancy dress” doesn’t mean formal evening wear; it means a costume, as for a masquerade ball. The linguist Lynne Murphy, on her blog Separated by a Common Language, passes along this anecdote from an article in the Spectator:

“There is a popular urban legend about a British couple in New York who attended a black tie gala dressed as a pair of pumpkins. Turns out they had misinterpreted the host’s instruction to ‘dress fancy,’ as an invitation for fancy dress.” The writer of the article, who’s Canadian, says she has “experienced the cultural flip side.” Invited to a “fancy dress party” in London, she arrived wearing a silk cocktail dress and heels, only to find that her fellow party-goers were got up as Nazis, drag queens, and tarts.

The phrase you heard in Grantchester, “fancy man,” has had many meanings in both varieties of English. We’ll get to those later. First, some etymological background.

When “fancy” entered English in the late 1400s, it was a contraction of “fantasy,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earlier noun, dating from around 1325, had occasionally appeared in abbreviated spellings (like “fantsy,” 1462).

“Fantasy” was borrowed from the Old French fantasie, which can be traced to phantasia, a word that in medieval Latin and Greek (ϕαντασία) had several meanings, including an appearance, a spectral apparition or phantom, and the faculty of imagining.

When the short form “fancy” was first recorded in writing (spelled “fansey”), it was a noun for a preference, a personal taste, an inclination, or a liking, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1465 entry in a collection known as The Paston Letters and Papers: “I haue non fansey wyth soume of þe felechipp [the fellowship].”

The expression “to have no fancy with” is now obsolete, the dictionary says, but similar uses of the noun survive in phrases like “to have a fancy for,” “take a fancy to,” “catch the fancy of,” etc.

Around the same time, “fancy” was also used to mean something very different, “a supposition resting on no solid grounds” or “an arbitrary notion,” Oxford says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Compound of Alchymy (1471), by George Ripley: “To know the truth, and fancies to eschew.”

Over the next three hundred years, the noun acquired other meanings having to do with the human imagination—a whim or caprice (1579), a hallucination or delusion (1597), a mental image (1663), an invention (1665), or, collectively, connoisseurs—that is, fanciers—of a particular pastime (1735).

In the mid-1500s, “fancy” also came to mean love or an amorous inclination, a meaning that’s now obsolete. But the usage has survived in the phrase “fancy free” (1600), which originally meant free of any fond attachment, or not in love. (Today standard dictionaries also accept another meaning, carefree.)

The verb “fancy” didn’t come along—at least in writing—until the mid-1500s, and from the start it had two branches of meanings. One had to do with imagining, conceiving, or believing, with OED examples dating from 1551. The other had to do with liking or being fond of (that is, “taking a fancy to”), with examples dating from 1545. And as we said above, some standard dictionaries regard many of these usages as more British than American.

Finally we come to the adjective, which is widely used in both varieties of English. It developed in the mid-1600s, the OED says, as an attributive use of the noun, and it originally described an action resulting from a fancy, whim, or caprice.

“Fancy” in the decorative sense emerged in the 1700s, when the adjective came to mean “of a design varied according to the fancy,” Oxford says, or “ ‘fine, ornamental,’ in opposition to ‘plain.’ ”

So merchants used “fancy” to describe merchandise, foods, and apparel that were showier than ordinary staples. “Fancy” goods included millinery, candies, cakes, jewelry, stationery, wallpaper, haberdashery and other items designed with an eye to adornment rather than necessity.

In the 1800s, “fancy dogs,” “fancy pigeons,” and “fancy fish” meant animals deliberately bred to appeal to a certain fancy—that is, having particular ornamental characteristics. (Earlier, as we mentioned above, “the fancy” was a collective term for specialists or hobbyists of a particular bent, and phrases like “the dog fancy” are still used today.)

Finally we come to “fancy man,” a phrase that’s not often heard today. Since it first showed up in the early 19th century, it’s had several meanings, reputable and otherwise.

In Grantchester, set in a 1950s English village, it probably means “a male lover, not always adulterous,” but usually in a relationship with a “married or older woman” (definition from Green’s Dictionary of Slang).

In the earliest known use of the phrase, such a lover was a kept man. Here’s the definition: “FANCY MAN: A man kept by a lady for secret services” (the entry, cited in Green’s, is from Lexicon Balatronicum, an 1811 slang dictionary by Francis Grose).

Similarly, as early as 1819 the phrase “fancy woman” was used to describe a “kept mistress,” according to the OED.

Sometimes “fancy man” had a more corrupt meaning—a pimp. In this sense, the phrase is defined in Green’s as “a man who lives upon the earnings of a prostitute.”

Green’s earliest citation is from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821), a fictional chronicle of urban low life that uses the term several times. In a typical passage, Egan describes one prostitute who accuses another of “seducing her fancy-man from her.” In a footnote to that passage, Egan discusses “men who exist entirely on the prostitution of women” and calls them “fancy-men.”

And the OED has this late 19th-century example: “They will bear from the ‘fancy-man’ any usage, however brutal” (the Spectator, Dec. 6, 1890).

However, “fancy man” also had a quite innocent meaning in the mid-19th century, simply “a man who is fancied” or “a sweetheart,” according to the dictionary.

Oxford’s earliest use in writing is from an 1834 novel, Frederick Marryat’s Jacob Faithful: “One day the sergeant was the fancy man, and the next day it was Tom.”

Finally, there’s the phrase your grandmother used, “fancy-schmancy,” a characteristic Yiddish construction. The OED describes it as a colloquial phrase, originating in the US, that means “extremely fancy, esp. in a pretentious or ostentatious way.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Now alluva sudden is fency-shmency with forks” (from Arthur Kober’s Thunder Over the Bronx, a 1935 collection of his stories from the New Yorker).

And here’s the most recent: “Currently, even fancy-schmancy multisport watches can only do so much” (from the July 2015 issue of the British magazine Forever Sports).

As the OED says, “schm-” is a combining element, borrowed from the Yiddish shm-, added to or replacing the first part of a word “so as to form a nonsense word.” This nonsense word then echoes the original word “to convey disparagement, dismissal, or derision.”

Oxford examples include “Crisis, schmisis!” (1929); “Child, schmild” (1963); “Oedipus, Schmoedipus!” (1969); and “Love-schmove!” (1996).

As we wrote in 2012, many scholars of Yiddish believe this rhyming-doublet pattern has Turkish roots and may date back as far as the 13th century.

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A ‘heartwarming story’ of love, friendship, and growing old

See the Compulsive Reader review of Swan Song, Stewart Kellerman’s humorous novel about the Three Musketeers—Selma, Kitty, and Rose: “Selma is the heart of the story. Her humour, reminiscences and her common sense opinions bring the story to life.”

A review of Swan Song by Stewart Kellerman
Reviewed by Ruth Latta, Aug. 26, 2019

Swan Song
by Stewart Kellerman
Paperback, 280 pp, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-9801532-8-6

Stewart Kellerman’s Swan Song is an entertaining story about a couple who retire to Florida in the 1980s. Through the witty first person narration of the protagonist, Selma Waxler, the author shows the concerns of older adults, which are pretty much the same in the 21st century as they were in the 1980s.

When Selma’s husband Sid retires from his teaching position in Yonkers, New York, in 1981, they move to a retirement development, Pelican Pond, on the “space coast” of Florida. In their mid-sixties, these “young” seniors, still in relatively good health, are able to enjoy many activities. Selma participates in fitness and music programs and charitable organizations, but Sid’s favourite activity is “pull-ups.” “He’d pull on the lever of his La-Z-Boy to make the back go down and the footrest go up,” says Selma.

When Sid wants to attend a talk on money management, she is elated that he’s tearing himself away from the TV. “Little did I realize,” she says, “once the genie was out I wouldn’t be able to get him back in the bottle.”

Selma’s best friends’ husbands are also at loose ends without their jobs. Kitty’s husband, Leo, has his mind on the hardware business he left behind in New York in the hands of their daughter. Rose’s husband, Sol, eats. Kitty, Rose and Selma still have their work as homemakers and are better than their spouses at socializing.

The heartwarming story of the three women friends is a unifying thread in the novel. They met as children living on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn, and became inseparable. Kitty, “the brave one,” introduced the other two to Chinese food, and pursued her love of dance into a career at Radio City Music Hall. Rose and Selma had more prosaic jobs, Rose in the garment industry and Selma in a shoe store. Several times she tells the reader that she did not merely sell shoes, but did accounts, and that her high school teachers all wanted her to go on to college. Higher education, however, was beyond her parents’ means.

Through flashbacks, readers learn about Selma’s parents’ generation. One of the most inspiring characters is Zissel, Selma’s mother, who immigrated to America in 1907 and worked in sweatshop conditions until the International Ladies Garment Workers Union improved things. Though she married a carpenter from her home village in Russia who earned a living in America, she always worked outside the home, progressing in her craft to embroidering designer dresses and making wedding gowns. She mothered Selma’s friend Kitty and offered her money for her dance lessons.

“The hardest work in life is to be idle, Selma,” she said in her old age. Selma carries on her mother’s tradition of kindness to others, hard work and caution with money. Listening to real estate developer Arlee Sparlow talk about “wealth management,” her suspicions are aroused. He’s too friendly—“a false front like the town in a cowboy movie.” Dismissive of conservative investments, he warns his audience that if they do nothing with their money they’ll outlive their savings.

Sid’s involvement with Arlee Sparlow’s mortgage and real estate schemes is the spine of the novel, providing the dramatic tension, but Selma is the heart of the story. Her humour, reminiscences and her common sense opinions bring the story to life. When she raises objections to Sid investing their money, he dismisses her, saying “Women just don’t understand these things.” When she asks, “Why can’t we stop when we’re ahead?” he replies: “If it were up to you the human race would still be crawling on all fours.”

After Sid’s financial adventures bring the novel to a climax, the rest of the story shows the sadder aspects of old age. Even so, we see the characters savouring everyday pleasures and blessings, and staying connected to friends who come through for each other in crises.

While the back cover blurb of Swan Song has a condescending tone, the front cover is delightful. A photograph shows three smiling young women in 1930s finery, out on the town, smile at the camera. In her Foreword, Kellerman’s wife, author Patricia T. O’Conner, says that it’s a family photo of Kellerman’s mother Edith, flanked by her two best friends. Both of Kellerman’s parents, now deceased, gave him information about growing up in New York City in the early 20th century. Swan Song’s appeal lies in the characters, who, in O’Conner’s words, “are universal and at the same time so utterly individual.”

For more information on Ruth Latta’s upcoming novel, Votes, Love and War, about the Manitoba women’s suffrage movement and World War I, visit her blog.

To buy Swan Song, visit your local bookstore or Read Chapter 1 on, the website of the language writers Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman.

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Toilet talk

Q: The restrooms in my last two office buildings are labeled “Mens” and “Ladies.” Is this common? The “Ladies” sign makes sense—it’s the plural of “Lady.” But “Men” is already plural, so why the extra “s”? Did the sign maker intend the possessive, but leave out the apostrophe? Or is it an attempt to be symmetrical?

A: You can see all sorts of signs for public toilets, some designated for either men or women, others welcoming everybody. Some use words, others use symbols, and still others use both.

In the US, a public toilet for men is usually referred to as a “men’s room,” and verbal signs typically say “Men.” If an “s” is added, it should be accompanied by an apostrophe (“Men’s”) to indicate that the term is short for a “men’s room.”

A public toilet for women in the US is usually called a “women’s room” or “ladies’ room,” with verbal signs reading “Women” or “Ladies.” (In the UK, people often call a gendered loo “the ladies” or “the gents.”)

We haven’t noticed any “Mens” signs on bathroom doors, and our online searches suggest that the usage isn’t all that common. The no-apostrophe version barely registers in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks terms in digitized books.

However, we’ve seen many examples of “mens and ladies” used in marketing clothing. Here are a few: “Mens and Ladies Tops” … “Mens and Ladies Performance T-shirts” … “Mens and Ladies Red Polo” … “Mens and Ladies Sweater Coats” … “Mens and Ladies Sweatshirts & Hoodies” … “Mens and Ladies Cotton Gloves” …  “Mens and Ladies Pants and Bibs.”

We suspect, as you do, that this use of “mens” may be influenced by “ladies.” In those examples, the plural noun “ladies” is being used attributively—that is adjectivally—to modify another noun.

A plural noun ending in “s” can often be used attributively without an apostrophe, but a plural noun that doesn’t end in “s” (like “men” or “women”) needs an apostrophe plus “s” to modify another noun (“men’s sweatshirts” or “women’s T-shirts”).

Speaking of “men” and “women,” let’s end with an etymological excursion. You may be surprised to hear this, but the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated. Here’s how we explain it in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language:

“In Anglo-Saxon times, when words were bubbling away in the stewpot of Old English, there were several ways to refer to men and women. For a few hundred years, manna and other early versions of our modern word ‘man’ referred merely to a person regardless of sex—that is, a human being. So how did the Anglo-Saxons tell one sex from the other? A single or married man was a wer or a waepman (literally a ‘weapon-person’). A single or married woman was a wif or a wifman.

“By the year 900 or so, wifman began to lose its f. Over the next five hundred years, it went through many spellings until it settled down as our modern word ‘woman.’ Meanwhile, wif, which had its own share of spellings before becoming ‘wife’ in the 1400s, led a double life. It could mean a married woman, as it does today, but also a woman, married or single, in a humble trade—an archaic usage that survives in the quaint terms ‘fishwife’ and ‘alewife.’

“Speaking of quaint terms, whatever happened to the weapon-people? Around the year 1000, the various versions of manna began to mean an adult male as well as a human being. By the 1400s, manna had become our modern word ‘man,’ while the old macho terms wer and waepman had fallen out of use.”

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Hunger pangs or pains?

Q: What is the difference between a “hunger pang” and a “hunger pain”? I see both terms, but I can’t find them in my dictionary.

A: “Pain” is an older, broader term than “pang,” but people use “hunger pains” and “hunger pangs” pretty much the same way—for the feeling of discomfort that comes from being hungry. (The two phrases usually appear in the plural.)

Although the two of us use “hunger pains” to describe what we feel when dieting gets out of hand, “hunger pangs” is apparently the more common term, according to our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases.

For example, “hunger pangs” appears more than eight times as often as “hunger pains” in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present. And as of 2008 it was more than two and a half times as popular in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books.

Both phrases are acceptable. We haven’t found any usage guide that objects to either of them. Here are a few recent examples in which the two phrases seem to be used the same way:

“Think of it as a cold soup in a tall glass, your morning smoothie regreened, with no sugar rush and subsequent hunger pangs” (the Guardian, July 17, 2019).

“If you do feel a few hunger pangs, you may need a light snack” (the Seattle Times, June 27, 2019).

“Or maybe you reliably experience hunger pangs and an energy crash a few hours after your morning pastry” (Self, June 27, 2019).

“Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to hear the Gospel if there is the roar of hunger pains from their belly” (National Catholic Register, July 7, 2019).

“So how do we keep these hunger pains away when we are trying to be healthy and follow a diet program, restricting food?” (the Valley Patriot, North Andover, Mass., June 2019).

“The last hours can be excruciating and that is when you start feeling hunger pains, which give you a real perspective on how a hungry person feels year-round” (Idaho Statesman, June 17, 2019).

When used by itself, “pain” usually refers to physical or emotional suffering in general, while “pang” means sudden, sharp, and brief physical or emotional suffering, according to standard dictionaries.

English borrowed “pain” from French in the late 13th century (it was peine, paine, paigne, etc., in Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Old French). The word ultimately comes from poena, classical Latin for “penalty” or “punishment.”

When “pain” first appeared in Middle English, it referred to “physical or bodily suffering” as well as “mental distress or suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED’s earliest example for bodily pain is from Of Arthour and of Merlin, an anonymous Arthurian romance believed written in the late 1200s:

“What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”). The passage refers to Belisent, who’s beaten, whipped, and dragged by the hair as King Taurus tries to kidnap her. Sir Gawain kills Taurus and rescues her.

The dictionary’s earliest mental example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Tristrem, a Middle English romance believed written sometime before 1300:

“Tristrem is went oway / Wiþ outen coming ogain, / And sikeþ, for soþe to sain, / Wiþ sorwe and michel pain” (“Tristan leaves without turning back, sighs forsooth and crosses himself, with sorrow and much pain”). The passage refers to Tristan’s emotional suffering as he parts with Iseult.

The noun “pang,” which is “of uncertain origin,” first appeared in the late 15th century and meant “a sudden sharp spasm of pain which grips the body or a part of it,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 29, 1482, letter by William Cely, a member of a merchant family, about the death and burial of a family member:

“Margere ys dowghter ys past to Godd. Hytt was berydd thys same daye, on whoys sowle Jhesu hawe marsy. Syr, I vnderstond hytt hadd a grett pang: what sycknesse hytt was I cannott saye” (“Margaret, his daughter, is gone to God. She was buried this same day, on whose soul Jesus have mercy. Sir, I understand she had a great pang: what sickness it was I cannot say”).

In the early 16th century, “pang” took on the sense of “a sudden sharp feeling of mental anguish or intense emotional pain.” The earliest example in the OED is from A Play of Loue (1534), by John Heywood:

“One pang of dyspayre, or one pang of desyre / One pang of one dyspleasaunt loke of her eye / One pang of one worde of her mouth as in yre / Or in restraynt of her loue which I requyre.”

As we’ve said, “pain” is a broader term than “pang.” In addition to its usual sense of physical and emotional discomfort, “pain” can refer to the trouble taken to accomplish something (“He took great pains to file the taxes on time”), an annoyance (“Those robocalls are a pain”), a  troublesome person (“He’s a pain in the butt”), and a penalty for disobedience (“Mom ordered me to be home by eleven on pain of death”).

We’ll end with a more serious example of that last sense. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ll expand here, is from the South-English Legendary (circa 1300), which chronicles the lives of church figures. In an account of Thomas Becket’s life, King Henry II orders bishops to Clarendon Palace in the 12th century to confirm laws that weakened the authority of the church and its ties to Rome:

“ich hote ov euerechone  þat ȝe beon þat ilke dai at mi maner at Clarindone with-outen ani de-lai for-to confermi þis lawes. ope peyne þat i schal ou sette, ich hote þat ȝe beon þare ech-one” (“I order every one of you to be that same day at my palace at Clarendon, without any delay, to confirm these laws. I command that you be there, each of you, upon pain that I shall set on you”).

Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, did show up at Clarendon, but he ultimately defied the laws and was killed at Canterbury Cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170, by four of the king’s knights.

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Punctuating a series of questions

Q: I saw this sentence in an article about a court ruling on the Affordable Care Act: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?—may be in the cards.” Is it kosher to have two question marks within dashes?

A: Yes, a series of questions in the middle of a sentence, surrounded by dashes or parentheses, is punctuated in just that way. Each question begins with a lowercase letter and ends with a question mark, according to language  guides.

But if the series is at the end, and if the questions are complete clauses, you have a choice.

You can introduce the series with a dash and use lowercase letters: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards—to whom does it apply? can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Or you can introduce the series with a colon and capitalize each question, which is a good idea if the individual questions are longer: “Still, a remand for greater clarity on the scope of the judgment may be in the cards: To whom does it apply? Can’t some parts of the ACA be severed?”

Questions in a series aren’t always complete clauses; they can be phrases or single words.

Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (4th ed.) cites this sentence: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer? toothbrush? swimsuit?” And since the sentence as a whole is a question, you can use commas in the series and a question mark at the end: “Would Tina have to buy a new hair dryer, toothbrush, swimsuit?”

If we rephrased the sentence to put the questions in the middle, it would be punctuated like this: “Tina wondered what she’d have to buy—new hair dryer? toothbrush? swimsuit?—if her luggage didn’t turn up.”

The Modern Language Association, which publishes a stylebook that’s widely used by academic and scholarly writers, has this advice on its website: “Use lowercase letters to begin questions incorporated in series in a sentence.”

The MLA gives this example: “Should I punctuate a question contained in a sentence with a comma? with a colon? with a dash?” And again, we could rephrase it and put the questions in the middle: “He wondered what to use—a comma? a colon? a dash?—to punctuate a question in a sentence.”

Such mid-sentence questions can occur in a series or one at a time, and they can be found within sentences that are or are not questions in themselves. For instance, your example is a declarative sentence, not interrogative, though it has questions within it.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls these “medial questions” since they “occur medially, internally within a sentence.” The book adds: “Medial questions and exclamations do not normally begin with a capital letter except in the case of quotation.”

The Cambridge Grammar has these examples with single parenthetical questions enclosed within dashes and parentheses:

“She had finally decided—and who can blame her?—to go her own way.”

“Her son (you remember him, don’t you?) has just been arrested.”

And The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) has these examples:

“Without further warning—but what could we have done to dissuade her?—she left the plant, determined to stop the union in its tracks.”

“The man in the gray flannel suit (had we met before?) winked at me.”

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Amn’t I a smart smartypants

Q: When our son was about three, he jokingly said, “Amn’t I a smart smartypants.” (Statement, not question.) Obviously, he figured out how to make a negative of “I am a smart smartypants.” Amn’t I right?

A: Your son’s use of “amn’t” was very precocious. He discovered for himself a word that makes perfect grammatical sense.

But you’ll be surprised to learn that “amn’t” already exists, though most English speakers don’t use it today.

It’s a contraction of “am not,” and it’s formed along the lines of many similar contractions: “isn’t” (for “is not”), “wasn’t” (“was not”), “weren’t” (“were not”), “didn’t” (“did not”), “can’t” (“cannot”), and so on.

Like many other English contractions, it was first recorded in the 1600s.  This is the first known example in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “If I amn’t mistaken, the pinch is here” (the Athenian Gazette, May 11, 1691).

Unlike those other contractions, “amn’t” is not common today. It’s heard mostly in Scottish and Irish English, according to Merriam-Webster online. In the United States it’s “nonstandard,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The reason “amn’t” is not widely used is that it’s ungainly and awkward to pronounce. The contraction forces together the consonants “m” and “n,” an unnatural combination.

What most English speakers have done is drop the troublesome “m” from “am,” resulting in contractions for “am” + “not” that are easier to pronounce.

The earliest of these was “an’t,” first recorded in the 1660s (several decades before “amn’t), and sometimes written as “a’n’t.” More than a century later, in the late 1700s, came the two we’re familiar with today: first “ain’t,” then “aren’t” (used only in questions).

These are the earliest OED citations for each:

“Now, ain’t I an old chaunter?” (1785, from Peeping Tom of Coventry, a comic opera by John O’Keeffe) … “Aren’t I made already?” (1798, from Rose-Mount Castle, a novel by Mary Julia Young).

It’s likely, etymologists have suggested, that as contractions for “am” + “not,” the words written “ain’t” and “aren’t” originally represented how “an’t” sounded to different English speakers.

If the vowel in “an’t” sounded like a long “a” (as in “hay”), then “ain’t” would have been a reasonable spelling. And if the vowel in “an’t” sounded like “ah,” then “aren’t” (with the “r” silent in British speech) would have represented that pronunciation.

However they developed, “ain’t” today is widely regarded as nonstandard English, while “aren’t” is the recognized “am” + “not” contraction used in questions or question-like statements (as in “Aren’t I the clever one!”).

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And then there were none

Q: I keep hearing from “educated” sources statements such as “none of us are going tonight.” It affects my ears like chalk scraping on the chalkboard. Do my old teachers’ rules no longer apply?

A: The belief that “none” is always singular is a common misconception. If you’re skeptical, check any dictionary.

“There is little justification, historical or grammatical, for this view,” says Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), adding that the pronoun “has been used for around a thousand years with both a singular and a plural verb, depending on the context and the emphasis needed.”

The truth is that “none” has been both singular and plural since Anglo-Saxon times. In general, it’s construed as singular if it means “none of it” and plural if it means “none of them.”

In the fourth edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she says that “generations of us were taught (incorrectly) as schoolchildren that none is always singular because it means ‘not one.’ ” In fact, she explains, “none” has been “closer in meaning to ‘not any.’ ”

Consequently, Pat adds, “most authorities agree it usually means ‘not any of them’ and is plural.”

She gives these examples (with the verbs underlined): “None of the cheese puffs were eaten. None of the buffalo wings were touched.”

None is singular,” she says, “only when it means ‘none of it’ (that is to say, ‘no amount’),” and gives the example “However, none of the beer was wasted.”

(We’ve also written about “none” several times on our blog, most recently in 2012.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says that since the days of Old English, “none” has been used as both a singular and a plural pronoun. However, “singular agreement,” the dictionary says, “has generally been less common than plural agreement, especially between the 17th and 19th centuries.”

The dictionary says that “none,” when it means “not any (one) of a number of people or things,” is used “commonly with plural agreement.”

In this way, the OED suggests, it’s similar to another definition of “none”—that is, “no people”—a definition that also dates from Old English and is construed as plural (“Now the commoner usage, the singular being expressed by no one”).

So how did generations of English teachers come to believe otherwise? As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “The notion that it [none] is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen in the 19th century.”

Where did the notion come from? The answer probably lies in the word’s etymology. “None” is derived from Old English words for “not” and “one,” which seems to have led to a belief it can only mean “not one.”

Merriam-Webster’s comments: “The Old English nan ‘none’ was in fact formed from ne ‘not’ and an ‘one,’ but Old English nan was inflected for both singular and plural. Hence it never has existed in the singular only; King Alfred the Great used it as a plural as long ago as A.D. 888.”

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Ouija talk

Q: I’ve read that the word “Ouija,” as in “Ouija board,” comes from an ancient Egyptian term for good luck. Is this true? If not, what’s the real story?

A: As far as we can tell, no Egyptian term like that existed. At least we couldn’t find one in searching transliterations of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and cursive terms. You can blame the guy who patented the Ouija board for linking the name to Egypt and luck, presumably as a marketing ploy.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which says “Ouija” is of uncertain origin, notes three theories: it’s (1) a combination of oui and ja, the French and German words for “yes”; (2) “an ancient Egyptian word for ‘good luck’ (although apparently no such word exists),” and (3) from Oujda, the name of a city in Morocco.

The earliest written example we’ve found for the word is from a May 28, 1890, patent application for a “Ouija or Egyptian luck-board” that’s described as “a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions and having them answered by the device.”

The patent application was signed by Elijah J. Bond, identified as the inventor, and assigned to Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin, two owners of the Kennard Novelty Company, the first manufacturer of the Ouija board.

The patent was registered on Feb. 10, 1891, a week after a trademark for “Ouija” was registered with the US Patent Office. The patent and trademark are now held by Hasbro, the toy and board game company.

Although the name “Ouija” is usually capitalized when referring to the trademarked board game, it’s often lowercased in referring to other so-called talking boards used by spiritualists and others trying to communicate with the world beyond. As for the pronunciation, you can find both WEE-juh and WEE-jee in standard dictionaries.

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It’s Emma Woodhouse, you know

Q: In rereading Emma, I’ve noticed that several of Jane Austen’s characters, including Emma herself, repeatedly use the phrase “you know.” I would have thought that this was a modern verbal tic. When did people begin you-knowing each other?

A: English speakers have been using “you know” colloquially for emphasis since the Middle Ages. It’s short for “as you know,” “as you may know,” “as you should know,” and so on.

The parenthetical expression is so common that it’s also used as a conversational filler while a speaker considers what to say next. And, as you say, it’s often merely a verbal tic, one we ourselves have struggled to suppress.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the emphatic usage, which we’ll expand here, is from The Romance of William of Palerne (circa 1350), an anonymous Middle English translation of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale written around 1200:

“He is my lege man, lelly þou knowes, for holly þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“He is my liege man, truly you know, for wholly the land he has he holds for myself”). In feudal law, a liege man was a vassal.

As for Emma, “you know” is generally used for emphasis and (we assume) to add a conversational tone to the dialogue.

For example, Emma uses the phrase emphatically to remind Mr. Knightly that she arranged (or so she thinks) the marriage between Miss Taylor, her former governess, and Mr. Weston.

“I made the match, you know, four years ago; and to have it take place, and be proved in the right, when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for any thing.”

Emma’s father uses it for emphasis here: “Whenever James goes over to see his daughter, you know, she will be hearing of us.” James is the Woodhouse coachman, and his daughter Hannah is a housemaid for the Westons.

Harriet Smith uses it similarly while talking to Emma about Robert Martin: “I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time.”

The linguist Chi Luu, in a Dec. 12, 2018, article in JSTOR Daily, notes that Harriet overuses “you know” when she’s nervous. Luu considers it a verbal tic in this passage describing a chance encounter with Mr. Martin:

“I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how; and then I took courage, and said it did not rain, and I must go.”

Luu, who has degrees in literature and theoretical linguistics, adds that Austen uses “very,” another intensifier, “so much more in Emma than in any other work that it can’t be accidental.” She cites a study of the language in Emma by the linguist Janine Barchas.

In “Very Austen: Accounting for the Language of Emma,” Barchas includes figures showing that Austen uses “very” 1,212 times in Emma as opposed to 758 in the runner-up, Mansfield Park (from the December 2007 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature).

We’ll end with an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s review of Emma, in which he playfully notes Austen’s use of intensifiers: “Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.”

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Fixing the damn roads

Q: Gretchen Whitmer, our new governor in Michigan, ran at least in part on a pledge to “fix the damn roads.” She hauls out that line on a regular basis. When did “damned” shrink to “damn”? And for that matter when did “waxed paper” and “popped corn” become “wax paper” and “popcorn”?

A: Both “damn” and “damned” as well as “wax” and “waxed” have been used adjectivally for hundreds of years, while the movie munchie has been written variously as “popped corn,” “pop corn,” and “popcorn” over the last century and a half.

The loss of the “-ed” in these terms isn’t at all surprising. The “-ed” ending can be difficult to pronounce before a consonant. As a result, it’s often dropped in speech, or not heard when pronounced. This can lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

The use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation, which uses the word in both senses, is from The Taming of the Shrew, a Shakespeare comedy believed written in the early 1590s: “Where is that damned villaine Tranio?”

The earliest Oxford example for “damn” used similarly, which we’ll expand a bit, appeared in the late 18th century: “a man that was in Company there the evening before that cut up a caper and was noted for a damn cuss” (from a March 12, 1775, entry in the Narragansett [R.I.] Historical Register).

Although you can find this use of both “damn” and “damned” in standard dictionaries, the shorter version is more popular now in newspapers, magazines, and books.

A search of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, indicates that the expression your governor used, “damn roads,” is 20 times as popular as “damned roads.” A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows the unsuffixed version is more than twice as popular.

The earliest OED example for “wax” used adjectivally is from Anglo-Saxon times: “Funalia, cerei, waex-condel” (an entry for “wax candle” in the Corpus Glossary, circa 725, a Latin-Old English glossary preserved at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). The Old English waex in the compound waex-condel is an attributive noun—a noun used adjectivally.

The dictionary’s first example for “waxed” used as a participial adjective is from a Middle English account of St. Augustine’s life, written sometime before 1380. Here’s an expanded version of the citation from Sammlung Altenglische Legenden, an 1878 collection of medieval English legends edited by Carl Horstmann:

“Þe ache for þe tyme was so stronge / þat he lafte þe speche of his tonge. / Þerfore in a waxed table / he wrot þat alle men, wiþouten fable, / for him schulde preize God witerly” (“The ache was so strong that he was speechless for the time being. Therefore he wrote on a waxed tablet that all honest men should praise God truly”).

As for paper treated with wax, the phrase “waxed paper” showed up in the mid-18th century, while “wax paper” appeared in the early 19th, according to our searches of digitized books. Here are the earliest examples we’ve seen for each phrase:

“The merchant now thinks it necessary to enclose all his country despatches in oiled or waxed paper cases, as he is aware that the rivers will soon be flooded, and that the Tapall [postman] must swim over with the post-bags on his head” (from Sketches of India, 1750, by Henry Moses).

“The pattern must first be cut out, and afterwards traced on the wax paper with a pencil, and again cut out with a sharp pair of scissors” (from The Wreath, Or Ornamental Artist, 1835, written anonymously by “A Lady”). The passage is from instructions for making a decorative light fixture out of wax paper.

You can find both “wax paper” and “waxed paper” in standard dictionaries. The shorter version is nearly twice as popular in the NOW database of online newspapers and magazines, but the two phrases are equally popular in the digitized books searched by Ngram Viewer.

Finally, we get to “popcorn,” which was “pop corn” when it first appeared in writing in the 19th century as the corn grown for popping.

The earliest example in the OED is from a newspaper in Norwalk, Ohio: “We believe, if the pop corn was not flinty, it would be a better crop, and certainly a more productive one, than the large eared corn” (from the Huron [County] Reflector, May 15, 1838).

It’s “popped corn” in the dictionary’s first citation for corn that’s been popped: “I have been popping corn to-night, which is only a more rapid blossoming of the seed under a greater than July heat. The popped corn is a perfect winter flower, hinting of anemones and houstonias” (from a Jan. 3, 1842, entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal).

We’ve found several 19th-century examples of the snack written as “popcorn,” the only version now in standard dictionaries. This one is from the October 1879 issue of Potter’s American Monthly: “PopCorn balls and cider, that’s the bill of fare; popcorn and cider. There is something in a five-cent popcorn ball that just knocks a butter-brown country girl off her pins.”

Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example with the usual spelling: “He purchased a large bag of popcorn” (Just William, 1922, a collection of short stories by the English writer Richmal Crompton).

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How are generic drugs named?

Q: The brand names of drugs are often memorable while the generics can be tongue twisters. Where do generic names come from?

A: Yes, the brand names of drugs can indeed be catchy, while the generics are usually forgettable. The proprietary name “Viagra,” for example, suggests vigor and virility, while the generic name, “sildenafil,” is wimpy and hard to pronounce.

The names of modern generic drugs are made up of fragments, called “stems,” that are generally based on Latin and denote the drug’s medical function.

The US National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, maintains a list of these stems, and every generic drug has to have one somewhere in its name.

The stem is usually at the end, as with “sildenafil.” The “afil” stem means the drug increases blood flow to the penis and enhances erectile function (technically, it’s a phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitor with vasodilator action).

At least nine other generic drugs have “afil” in their names, including “vardenafil” (Levitra) and “tadalafil” (Cialis). In Latin, the “a-” prefix can mean “off” or “away,” while “filum” is a “thread” or “filament.”

The more familiar stems “micin” and “mycin (as in generic names like “gentamicin” and “lincomycin”) are for antibiotic drugs; the different spellings mean they treat different strains of bacteria.

Those stems were created in the mid-20th century from –myces, a suffix in scientific Latin that’s used in genus names and that comes from the ancient Greek μύκης (mukēs, fungus), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And the stem “vastatin” (as in “simvastatin,” “lovastatin,” “pravastatin”) is for antihyperlipidemics—that is, drugs that help reduce lipid levels in the blood and thus treat high cholesterol.

The “vas” in such names, the OED says, is “perhaps” modeled on physiological terms that include “vaso-” (from the Latin vās for “vessel,” the source of “vascular”). And the “statin” part is modeled on scientific terms that include “stato-” (from ancient Greek στατός or statós, for a standing still).

To use a more recent example, generic names for so-called “medical marijuana” drugs include the stem “nab” (as in “nabazenil” and “dronabinol”). The stem means the drugs are derivatives of cannabinol, a substance found in cannabis, a word found in classical Latin (cannabis means hemp), from the ancient Greek κάνναβις (kánnabis).

The procedures for assigning names to new drugs are quite complicated. Every drug that comes to market must have a generic name as well as a brand name, and there are separate sets of agencies and regulations involved in the approval of each, but we’ll concern ourselves only with generics.

In the US, manufacturers suggest possible generic names (each including the appropriate stem) to the United States Adopted Names Council. The council then submits its top three choices to the World Health Organization’s International Nonproprietary Names program, which chooses a single generic name by which that drug will be known worldwide.

The rules for all this are stringent. Because generic names are used in many different languages, for example, the letters “h,” “j,” “k,” and “w” are ruled out since they might create confusion. And names are carefully vetted to make sure they don’t have obscene or profane connotations in any of the World Health Organization’s member countries.

For more detail, there are interesting articles on the websites of the American Medical Association and Chemical & Engineering News.

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A pasta noodle maker?

Q: A friend of mine refers to his pasta maker as a “pasta noodle maker.” Since “pasta” by definition is a “noodle,” is that not redundant?

A: A noodle is a type of pasta, but not every type of pasta is a noodle.

Standard dictionaries define “noodle” as a long, narrow strip of dough, and most dictionaries say it’s usually made with flour, water, and eggs. However, “pasta” comes in many shapes (elbows, bow ties, tubes, shells, alphabet letters, etc.), and it’s often made without eggs.

We agree with you that “pasta noodle maker” is redundant, though we’re not particularly bothered by it. And some people might find it a colorful way of referring to a pasta machine that’s primarily used to make noodles. However, we’d refer to such a machine as either a “pasta maker” or a “noodle maker.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “noodle” as “a narrow, ribbonlike strip of dough, usually made of flour, eggs, and water.” It defines “pasta” as “unleavened dough, made with wheat or other flour, water, and sometimes eggs, that is molded into any of a variety of shapes and boiled.”

As for the history of these two words, English borrowed “noodle” from German in the 18th century and “pasta” from Italian in the 19th, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED says “noodle” comes from the German nudel, which is “probably a variant of knödel dumpling.” In medieval German, knödel could mean a small knot.

The dictionary’s first example for “noodle” in the pasta sense is from a 1779 entry in the journal of Lady Mary Coke: “A noodle soup—this I begged to be explained and was told it was made only of veal with lumps of bread boiled in it.”

An unrelated “noodle,” meaning “a stupid or silly person,” had appeared half a century earlier, as we note in a 2009 post about the various “noodle” terms in English.

That noun’s origin is uncertain, but the OED says it may be a variant of an even earlier word, “noddle,” which meant the head (or the back of the head) and was frequently used “in contexts suggesting emptiness or stupidity.”

As for “pasta,” the Italian word is derived from the medieval Latin pasta (pastry cake), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. It’s related to our words “paste” (originally a cooking term) and “pastry.”

The first OED citation for “pasta” is from an early 19th-century travel book: “Maccaroni, like vermicelli, is only one of the forms into which the Italians make what they call ‘pasta’ or paste. It requires a particular sort of wheat, a brittle, flinty grain, to make this pasta” (from Journal of a Tour in Italy, 1830, by James Paul Cobbett).

The OED also has a somewhat earlier example in which “pasta” is used in an Italian phrase: “The Italians prefer that [macaroni] which is fresh made, and made at home, and called pasta di casa, household paste” (from A Journey in Carniola, Italy, and France, 1820, by William Archibald Cadell; Carniola, ruled by the Austrian Empire at the time, was part of what is now Slovenia).

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Affirm or confirm?

Q: To affirm or confirm? That is my question.

A: The verb “confirm” has more meanings and is more widely used than “affirm,” though there’s some overlap in the use of these words.

Standard dictionaries say either can be used to mean validate or ratify. For example, these are among the definitions that Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) lists for the two:

Affirm: “to make valid; confirm; uphold; ratify (a law, decision, or judgment).”

Confirm: “to make valid by formal approval; ratify.”

Even though the verbs do overlap, we’re more likely to use “affirm” for a judicial action (as when a court “affirms” a lower court’s ruling) and “confirm” for a legislative action (as when the Senate “confirms” an appointee).

Apart from that sense of validating or ratifying, the two verbs differ in their meanings.

“Affirm” has only one other sense, and again we’ll use the definition in Webster’s New World: “to say positively; declare firmly; assert to be true: opposed to deny.”

“Confirm” has two other general senses: (1) “to make firm; strengthen; establish; encourage”; and (2) “to prove the truth, validity, or authenticity of; verify.” (In addition, “confirm” has a religious sense: to administer the rite of confirmation.)

So we can make a couple of broad statements about the non-overlapping senses of these verbs. When you assert something originally, you “affirm” it. When you corroborate an assertion, you “confirm” it—that is, you remove doubt about something previously believed or suspected.

Here’s an example. Say that a character in a mystery novel is asked by police where he was on the night in question. He may “affirm” that he was at home all evening. Then he may be asked whether a witness can “confirm” his statement.

We can confirm, by the way, what you no doubt already know—these words are etymologically related. Both can be traced to the classical Latin adjective firmus (stable, strong, immovable). From firmus, the Romans derived firmāre (to strengthen or make fast), which in turn led to the classical Latin verbs confirmāre and affirmāre.

Those words had similar meanings in classical Latin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confirmāre as “to make firm, strengthen, establish, etc.,” and affirmāre as “to add strength or support to, to confirm, to ratify, to assert, to swear, to express emphasis.” Here the suffix con- means “together, altogether,” the OED says, while af– (a form of ad-) conveys the sense of the preposition “to.”

Middle English acquired “confirm” (circa 1290) directly from Old French, but “affirm” had dual origins. It entered Middle English sometime before 1325, borrowed partly from classical Latin and partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

Our word “firm” appeared around that same period, first as a verb (1303), then as an adverb (1330s or ’40s) and an adjective (1370s), all acquired through Old French or directly from Latin.

The noun “firm,” however, was a latecomer adopted from Italian. It was first recorded in 1574 when it had a meaning that’s now obsolete—“signature.” It was a borrowing of the Italian noun firma (signature), from the Italian verb firmare (to sign; a derivative of the Latin firmāre).

In the 18th century, the OED says, the noun “firm” came to mean “the ‘style’ or name under which the business of a commercial house is transacted,” and hence a business partnership or a “commercial house.”

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Can not, cannot, and can’t

Q: Can you please dwell in some detail on why “can not” is now usually written as “cannot”? Is there a linguistic reason for this uncontracted form? Or is it just one of those irregularities that cannot be accounted for?

A: When the usage showed up in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, it was two words.

One of the oldest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the epic poem Beowulf, perhaps written as early as the 700s: “men ne cunnon” (“men can not”).

And here’s an expanded version that offers context as well as a sense of the Anglo-Saxon poetry:

“ac se æglæca etende wæs, / deorc deaþscua duguþe ond geogoþe, / seomade ond syrede; sinnihte heold / mistige moras; men ne cunnon / hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað” (“all were in peril; warriors young and old were hunted down by that dark shadow of death that lurked night after night on the misty moors; men on their watches can not know where these fiends from hell will walk”).

The combined form “cannot” showed up in the Middle English period (1150 to 1450), along with various other spellings: cannat, cannatte, cannouȝt, connat, connott, conot, conott, cannote, connot, and cannott.

The earliest OED example with the modern spelling is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at around 1280: “And þou þat he deed fore cannot sorus be” (“And thou that he [Jesus] died for cannot be sorrowful”).

In contemporary English, both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, though they’re generally used in different ways. The combined form, as you point out, is more common (Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online, says it’s three times as common in the Oxford English Corpus).

Here’s an excerpt from the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, on how the two terms, as well as the contraction “can’t,” are generally used today:

CAN NOT / CANNOT / CAN’T. Usually, you can’t go wrong with a one-word version—can’t in speech or casual writing, cannot in formal writing. The two-word version, can not, is for when you want to be emphatic (Maybe you can hit high C, but I certainly can not), or when not is part of another expression, like “not only . . . but also” (I can not only hit high C, but also break a glass while doing it). Then there’s can’t not, as in The diva’s husband can’t not go to the opera.

Getting back to your question, why is “cannot” more popular than “can not”? We believe the compound is more common because the two-word phrase may be ambiguous.

Consider this sentence: “You can not go to the party.” It could mean either “You’re unable to go” or “You don’t have to go.” However, the sentence has only the first meaning if you replace “can not” with “cannot” (or the contraction “can’t”).

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say that “You can’t/cannot answer their letters” means “It is not possible or permitted for you to answer their letters,” while “You can not answer their letters” means “You are permitted not to answer their letters.”

In speech, Huddleston and Pullum write, any ambiguity is cleared up by emphasis and rhythm: “In this use, the not will characteristically be stressed and prosodically associated with answer rather than with can by means of a very slight break separating it from the unstressed can.” The authors add that “this construction is fairly rare, and sounds somewhat contrived.”

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Pat reviews 4 language books

Read Pat in the New York Times Book Review on four new books about the English language.