The Grammarphobia Blog

With malice toward none

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Presidents’ Day. It originally appeared on May 13, 2011.

Q: On a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial in DC, I noticed that there were no commas in the Second Inaugural Address carved into the wall. There are dashes and periods, but no other punctuation. Did writers of the time not use commas?

A: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has plenty of punctuation—commas, semicolons, periods, and dashes.

At least it did when he wrote it. For example, here’s the concluding paragraph of the speech, as written:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

You can see images of Lincoln’s manuscript of the speech, in his own handwriting, at the Library of Congress website.

Of course, mid-19th-century prose had a lot more semicolons than we use today. When the speech is reproduced these days, the punctuation is usually somewhat simpler, with commas replacing the semicolons.

But the version engraved at the Lincoln Memorial is simpler still.

Both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address are engraved at the site in their entirety. And, as is usual with public memorials, the engravers have done their best to make the writing unreadable.

The speeches are rendered in all capital letters, with paragraph indentations barely visible and punctuation reduced to a minimum. The website of the National Parks Service has an image of the speech as engraved.

See what we mean? The stone inscription certainly doesn’t invite readers in, to say the least. And that’s too bad.

The Second Inaugural is one of the most powerful and stirring speeches in our history. Lincoln delivered it on March 4, 1865, during the final days of the Civil War. Little over a month later, he was assassinated.

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Can a ‘regime’ be a ‘regimen’?

Q: I’ve always thought of a “regime” as an autocratic government, and a “regimen” as something like a diet or exercise plan. However, I often hear people refer to the latter as a “regime.” What is the difference between these two words?

A: The word “regime” can refer to either a government (especially an authoritarian one) or a systematic way of doing something, as in a diet or exercise regime. The word “regimen” once meant a government too, but now it usually means a regulated system for doing something.

In fact, both of these English words ultimately come from the same Latin source, regimen, either directly or by way of French.

In classical times the Latin word meant management, guidance, or guide, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and in the Middle Ages it came to mean a course of medical treatment.

The first of the words to appear in English writing was “regimen,” which was borrowed partly from Latin and partly from French in the 1300s, the OED says. It originally meant the regulation of diet, exercise, and other aspects of life that influence health, as well as a way of treatment.

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Science of Cirurgie, a Middle English translation, written sometime before 1400, of a medical text by the Italian surgeon Lanfranc of Milan:

“Þou schalt kepe him wiþ good regimen, & he schal vse no metis ne drinkis þat engendrith scharp blood” (“Thou shall keep him on a good regimen, and he shall use no meat or drink that causes sharp blood”).

In the 15th century, “regimen,” came to mean the act of governing, according to the OED, and in the 17th century it meant a specific form of government.

Although the governing sense is now considered rare or obsolete, it occasionally shows up, as in this Oxford citation from the May 26, 2006, issue of the Washington Post: “My hope is that inside of the new political regimen, we develop a center, a left and a right.”

The word “regime,” borrowed directly from French, appeared in English writing in the 15th century, according to the OED.

Originally it meant “the regulation of aspects of life that affect a person’s health or welfare,” especially “a particular course of diet, exercise, medication, etc., prescribed or adopted for the restoration or preservation of health.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from a translation, dated around 1475, of Livre du Corps de Policie, a political work by the Italian-born French author Christine de Pisan (or Pizan):

“Wyse men … to that entent that they may leve in wellfar and in helthe, likethe theim to haue a regime for the preseruyng of the same.”

In the late 18th century, “regime” came to mean a “method or system of rule, governance, or control,” according to the OED, and in the early 20th century it took on the negative sense of an authoritarian government.

Both “regime” and “regimen” have several other contemporary senses derived from their Latin roots.

“Regime,” for example, can also mean something that occurs regularly, such as “a seasonal climate regime,” and “regimen” can mean a way of managing something, such as “a crop-rotation regimen.”

In case you’re wondering, “regiment,” another word dating from the 1300s, originally meant rule or governance, especially “royal authority,” the OED says. It didn’t mean a military body until the mid-1500s.

All of these words have a common ancestor that predates Latin. Etymologists have traced the origin to a prehistoric Indo-European root, reg-, meaning to go in a straight line and consequently to direct or to rule.

Descendants of this ancient root include the Latin regimen, regula (rule), and rex (king), as well as our words “rule,” “right,” “regular,” “regulate,” “rector,” “regent,” “regal,” “royal,” “raj,” “reign,” “regalia,” “rich,” and “direct.”

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Checkmates and roommates

Q: My dorm roomie is a chess fiend, hence my question. Is the “mate” in “checkmate” related to the “mate” in “roommate”?

A: No, they aren’t etymological mates. The one in “checkmate” comes from Arabic and Persian, while the one in “roommate” has been traced back to prehistoric Germanic.

The chess term, which English borrowed from Old French in the mid-14th century, is ultimately derived from the Arabic shāh māt (the king is dead), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says the Arabs got the chess expression from Persian, but in the process confused the Persian māta (to die) with mat (to be astonished). The dictionary says the original Persian version meant “the king is astonished or stumped.” (Modern Persian is known as Farsi.)

The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for “checkmate” as an exclamation, a noun, a verb, and an adjective. It says the term refers to putting an “adversary’s King into inextricable check, a move by which the game is won.”

Today, the dictionary says, the shorter form “mate” is commonly used for “checkmate.” In fact, “mate” showed up before “checkmate” in English writing about chess, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “mate” in the chess sense is from Sir Tristrem, a 13th-century Middle English romance that features a game in which one player bets 20 shillings and the other a hawk:

“Oȝain an hauke … Tventi schillinges … Wheþer so mates oþer fair, Bere hem boþe oway” (“Against a hawk … twenty shillings … whoever mates the other fair, bear them both away”).

The earliest written examples for “checkmate” in the OED use it as a general term for defeat, not as a chess term.

The dictionary’s oldest citation is from “An Invective Against France,” a political poem written in Middle English and Latin sometime before 1346, during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France:

“In proprio climat tibi dicet aper cito chekmat (“In your very own state, the boar will say to you checkmate”). The reference is to King Edward III of England (referred to as the boar) and Philip VI of France (called the hare).

The next OED citation is from Roberd of Cisyle (circa 1390), a medieval romance about an arrogant king who is humbled when God replaces him with an angel and makes him the angel’s jester:

“He wende, in none wyse þat God Almihti couþe deuyse Him to bringe to lower stat; / Wiþ o drauht he was chekmat!” (“He thought that in no way could Almighty God bring him to a lower state: With one move he was checkmated!”).

The word “checkmate” is used as a chess term in The Booke of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, John Lydgate’s 1413 translation of a French work by Guillaume de Deguileville, but “chess” here is a metaphor for a moral battle:

“A shame hath he that at the cheker pleyeth, / Whan that a pown seyith to the kyng, chekmate!” (“Cheker” is an obsolete term for the game of chess as well as for a chess board.)

The first Oxford example for “checkmate” used clearly as a chess term in writing is from The Royall Game of Chesse-Play, Francis Beale’s 1656 translation of a book by the Italian chess writer Gioachino Greco: “The maine designe of the game … is as suddenly as can be to give check mate.”

As for “roommate” and other words in which “mate” refers to a companion, associate, friend, or spouse, the ultimate source is the prehistoric Germanic gamaton, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The element mat in this prehistoric word, Ayto says, is “also the source of English meat; so etymologically mate (like companion) is ‘someone you eat with or share your food with.’ ” For example, gemetta, Old English for “tablemate,” literally means a guest who shares meat. (A recent post discusses “companion,” literally someone you share bread with.)

When the noun “mate” showed up in English writing in the late 1300s, it meant a comrade. The earliest citation in the OED is from Sir Ferumbras (circa 1380), a medieval romance about a Saracen knight:

“Maumecet, my mate, y-blessed mot þou be, / For aled þow hast muche debate” (“Maumecet, my mate, blessed may you be, for you have laid aside much discord”).

The dictionary notes that “mate” is frequently seen “as the second element in compounds, as bed-, flat-mate, etc. (in which it is generally less colloq. than when standing alone).”

The OED has several examples from the 1500s for “mate” used in compounds—whether separated, joined, or hyphenated.

This one is from “Prayse of All Women,” a poem by Edward Gosynhyll: “And nowe more valued than man myne / Lyke so dyd god the femynyne Plaimate of the masculyne.” Most sources date the poem from the early 1540s.

And with that, Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your mate.

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When biscuits were baked twice

Q: Why does “biscuit,” which literally means “baked twice,” refer to food that, in most instances, is not baked twice?

A: When the word “biscuit” showed up in English in the Middle Ages (spelled “besquite”), it did indeed refer to food that was baked twice.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word is derived “from the original mode of preparation.” The ultimate source of the word, according to the OED, is “the Latin biscoctum (panem), bread ‘twice baked.’ ”

In the original method of cooking, John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the biscuits were “returned to the oven after the initial period of baking in order to become dry or crisp.”

When the term first appeared in Middle English writing in the 14th century, according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, it referred to “hard or crisp dry baked products” (similar to what Americans today would call a “cracker” or “cookie,” and the British a “biscuit”). In the US, a “biscuit” is a quick bread leavened with baking powder or baking soda.

The British cooking writer Elizabeth David has suggested that the American use of “biscuit” may have been influenced by a similar usage in Scotland and Guernsey, where the term can refer to soft biscuits like scones. It may be that Scottish immigrants brought the usage to America.

“It is interesting that these soft biscuits (such as scones) are common to Scotland and Guernsey, and that the term biscuit as applied to a soft product was retained in these places, and in America, whereas in England it has completely died out,” she writes in English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977).

The earliest example of “biscuit” in the OED is from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng: “Armour þei had plente, & god besquite to mete” (“They had plenty of armor and weapons, and biscuits for good measure”).

The first Oxford example of “biscuit” used in the American sense of a quick cake is from John Palmer’s Journal of Travels in the United States of North America and Lower Canada (1818): “Hot short cakes, called biscuits.”

Interestingly, the “biscuit” spelling is the result of the Frenchification of “bisket,” which was the standard English spelling for hundreds of years.

As the OED explains, “The regular form in English from 16th to 18th cents. was bisket, as still pronounced; the current biscuit is a senseless adoption of the modern French spelling, without the French pronunciation.”

[Update, Feb. 13, 2018: A reader points out that the German term zwieback literally means twice-baked, from zwei (“two”) and backen (“to bake”). And the Italian biscotti has a similar meaning.]

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Comparatively speaking

Q: I am having a discussion about “older” and “oldest” with several friends. We know the general rule, but the issue concerns a family with three children, and reference is made to two of them. Are they the two “older” or “oldest” children?

A: There’s disagreement among language authorities about what you refer to as the “general rule” for the use of the superlative (“-est”) and comparative (“-er”) forms in English.

Many of them believe that the “-er” form should be used when comparing two things, while the “-est” form is used when comparing three or more. However, we’d call this belief a convention, or common practice, not a rule.

We’ll have more to say later about the differing opinions among language commentators on the use of comparatives and superlatives, but let’s first consider your question

Even if you feel that “-er” should be used only with two things and “-est” with three or more, the use of either the comparative or superlative can be justified in your example.

You could choose “-est” because three children are involved. Or you could choose “-er” because two of the children, considered as a single unit, are being compared with one.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language makes a similar point. As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, write, “Kim is the best of the three is equivalent to Kim is better than the other two: there is no difference in degree.”

Now let’s look at the practice of using the comparative “-er” for two things and the superlative “-est” for three or more, a subject that we’ve discussed several times on the blog.

In its definitions of the grammatical terms, the Oxford English Dictionary says a “comparative” is used “in comparing two objects,” while a “superlative” is used “in comparing a number of things.”

So when speaking of three or more things, one would have to use a superlative. But do two objects qualify as “a number of things”? If so, then it would be legitimate to use either a comparative or a superlative when speaking of two.

As we wrote on the blog in 2010, “-er” and “-est” suffixes (or versions of them) have been used to compare things since the earliest days of Old English. The practice was handed down from older Germanic languages and ultimately from ancient Indo-European.

However, the belief that a superlative shouldn’t be used for comparing two things originated much later, in the late 18th century.

Is it legitimate? Well, many great writers, including Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Byron, Scott, Hawthorne, Thackeray, and Emerson, have used superlatives to compare two things, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

The usage guide says the convention requiring the comparative for two things “has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice, and it serves no useful communicative purpose.”

“Because it does have a fair number of devoted adherents, however, you may well want to follow it in your most dignified or elevated writing,” Merriam-Webster adds.

A devoted adherent of the convention, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), considers the use of the superlative for two things an increasingly common “blunder.”

Bryan A. Garner, the author, ranks the usage Stage 4 (ubiquitous) on his Language Change Index. Stage 5 is fully accepted.

The Cambridge Grammar authors, Huddleston and Pullum, discuss the usage in A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (2005):

“Usage manuals commonly say that the superlative is incorrect when the set has only two members (the tallest of the twin towers). However, the superlative is the default for set comparison, and it’s fairly common as an informal variant of the comparative with two-member sets.”

They say the use of the superlative is “relatively unlikely” with an “of” phrase (“Kim is the taller of the two”), but “sentences like Kim and Pat were the only candidates, and Kim was clearly the best are certainly grammatical.”

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Prostitute or sex worker?

Q: A recent headline on the website of the NY Times refers to prostitutes as “sex workers.” For me, “sex workers” is bloodless and sanitized. What’s the latest on the usage here?

A: You can find both “prostitute” and “sex worker” in the New York Times, though “prostitute” is found much more often.

A recent search of the newspaper’s online archive shows that “prostitute” has appeared 147 times over the last 12 months, compared to 11 appearances for “sex worker.”

In fact, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed.) recommends against using the term “sex worker” for “prostitute” in most cases. Here’s the relevant section:

sex worker. Avoid this vague and euphemistic term, except on the rare occasions when a blanket term is needed to encompass a range of activities. Ordinarily prostitute is preferable. But be sensitive to the fact that in many situations prostitution is linked to human trafficking and violence. Whenever possible, describe the circumstances.”

The Jan. 9, 2018, article on the Times website, a feature about a shelter in Mexico City for former prostitutes, uses “prostitute” or “prostitutes” five times, once in a photo caption and four times in the body of the article.

Although the term “sex worker” or “sex workers” appears three times, one appearance is in a comment by a former prostitute and another is in a remark by the director of the shelter.

The headline on the website is “Retired From the Brutal Streets of Mexico, Sex Workers Find a Haven.” The headline in the Jan. 10, 2018, print edition is “A Shelter With No Room for Stigma.”

Why was “sex workers,” not “prostitutes,” used in the website headline? And why was neither term in the print headline?

The copy editor who wrote the website headline may have been unaware of the stylebook’s objections. The editor who wrote the print headline had more time to consider the issue, and less space to deal with it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sex worker” as “a person who is paid or employed to provide sexual services, esp. one working in the pornography business or as a prostitute.”

“Typically,” the OED adds, the term is “used (esp. when in preference to prostitute) to avoid or reduce negative connotations and to evoke affinity with conventional service industries.”

The earliest example in the dictionary is from a review in the Nov. 7, 1971, issue of the Times of Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a musical by Melvin Van Peebles:

“Coupling rage and laughter, detailing joys among urban field hands, thieves, postal workers, sex workers, factory workers, and the inevitable unemployed, and letting them specify what America is to a great many black folks.”

Although “sex workers” is often used as a euphemism for “prostitutes,” it’s also used as a more general term that includes phone-sex operators, actors in porn films, “adult” models, and so on.

Some organizations opposed to sex trafficking support legalizing “sex work” and unionizing “sex workers.” They believe that unions could help combat forced prostitution and child prostitution. The Gates Foundation, for example, has supported such a union in Calcutta.

However, the issue is controversial. When Amnesty International decided in 2015 to endorse the “full decriminalization of consensual sex work,” many members in Norway and Sweden resigned, saying the organization should seek to end prostitution, not condone it.

Nicholas Kristoff, a Times columnist who has written extensively about forced prostitution and childhood prostitution, is opposed to using the term “sex worker” for “prostitute.”

In a column published on Jan. 23, 2006, Kristoff says: “I’m in the ‘prostitute’ camp; I don’t see any reason for euphemisms, particularly those that tend to legitimize something that is usually closely linked to organized crime and violence.”

As for us, we’d use “prostitutes” for people who engage in sexual intercourse for money, though we might use the broader term if we were referring to several different kinds of “sex workers.”

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A dog in this race?

Q: Why do people say “I don’t have a dog in this race” when the word should be “fight,” not “race”?

A: Those people may be conflating two figurative expressions that mean the same thing: “I don’t have a horse in this race” and “I don’t have a dog in this fight” (“this” is often replaced by “that” or “the.”)

Those two expressions, as well as “I don’t have a dog in the hunt” and “I don’t have skin in the game,” mean the speaker doesn’t have a personal interest or stake in the outcome of the matter.

However, it’s possible that some of the people who say “I don’t have a dog in this race” may be referring figuratively to dog racing.

Despite the folksy, old-time sound of these metaphorical expressions, all of them are relatively new. They didn’t show up in writing until the second half of the 20th century, according to our searches of various databases. (A variation of the “dogfight” expression appeared in the early 1900s.)

We could find only one of these expressions in our language reference sources. The Oxford English Dictionary says “to have (one’s) skin in the game and variants” originated as a colloquial North American business usage.

The OED defines the expression as “to have a stake in the success of something, esp. to have a financial or personal investment in a business; to be closely involved in something.”

“It is not clear,” the dictionary adds, “whether the metaphor underlying this phrase is to do with putting oneself at risk … or with risking one’s money.” Both possibilities, Oxford says, have been suggested. (The word “skin,” as the dictionary explains elsewhere, can refer to one’s identity as well as one’s money.)

The earliest Oxford example for the usage is from the March 1976 issue of Infosystems: “I suggest that the various groups of participants should consider that they do not have any skin in the game.”

The latest OED example refers to an orchestra’s financial contribution to the performance of a piece of music commissioned by a patron: “We’ll pay for the commission, but we want the orchestra to have some skin in the game” (from the Jan. 23, 2005, issue of the New York Times).

The oldest “dog hunt” example we’ve seen is from an Aug. 10, 1988, op-ed column in the State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL) about the opposition of a state official, Jim Edgar, to a constitutional convention:

“That’s one reason Edgar has gone public on the constitutional reform issue, even though the conventional wisdom would be that he doesn’t have a dog in the hunt—that he doesn’t need to run the risk of making unnecessary enemies.”

The earliest “dogfight” example we’ve found is a comment by Vice President George H. W. Bush about financial questions concerning Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic candidate for vice president, and her husband, John Zaccaro:

“I don’t have a dog in that fight” (from an Aug. 20, 1984, report on the United Press International newswire).

However, we’ve found a much earlier variation on the “dogfight” theme in the Aug. 28, 1919, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which quotes a school official about the awarding of building contracts:

“ ‘I sympathize with the union men,’ he said, ‘but there is another dog in this fight—the non-union man—and we must consider him.’ ”

The oldest “horserace” example we’ve seen is a comment by Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary for President George H. W. Bush, on the choice of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, as the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana:

“Basically, we don’t have a horse in that race” (from the Oct. 22, 1991, issue of the Houston Chronicle).

We found an earlier variation on the “horserace” usage in a Feb. 13, 1983, UPI report on the views of Democratic officials around the country about the 1984 Democratic National Convention:

“The highlight in Des Moines was a private luncheon with key state Democrats including former Iowa governor and senator, Harold Hughes, who still hasn’t picked his horse in the race.”

Finally, the earliest example we’ve come across for the “dog race” expression is from an article in the March 6, 1986, Seattle Times about plans to build new naval bases around the country:

“Rep. David Martin, R-N.Y., also defended the home-porting plan. While one big base is to be built at Staten Island, N.Y., Martin noted his district is 300 miles from there. ‘I don’t have a dog in this race,’ he said.”

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Companion piece

Q: My companion and I were wondering about the origin of the term “companion,” so we’re going to our go-to source.

A: We, in turn, are going to some of our go-to sources.

Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, a “companion” is “someone who shares your ‘bread’ with you.”

Ayto says English borrowed the term from Old French in the 14th century, but it’s ultimately derived from the classical Latin com (with) and pānis (bread).

When “companion” originally appeared in Middle English writing, it meant someone who spends time with another or accompanies another on a trip. The earliest two citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are dated around 1300:

“To symon Cumpayngnoun ic habbe y-ȝyue power of disciplyne” (“To companion Simon I have given the power of discipline”). From a Palm Sunday poem.

“He bitok him sir henri is sone to be is compainoun, wiþ him to wende aboute” (“Sir Henri betook his son as his companion to wend about with him”). From The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history.

Interestingly, the noun “companion” came to mean a spouse in the 16th century, hundreds of years before it took on the modern sense of a domestic partner.

The first OED citation for “companion” used for a spouse is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “Yet is she thyne owne companyon and maried wife” (Malachi 2:14).

The dictionary describes the evolution of the usage this way: “Originally: a spouse, esp. a wife. Now usually: a member of a couple in any type of permanent or long-standing relationship, esp. if not married; a lover, a partner.”

The earliest Oxford example for “companion” used in this modern sense is from an article in the April 27, 1972, issue of Jet about the funeral of Adam Clayton Powell, who had represented Harlem in Congress:

“Powell’s companion of recent years, Darlene Expose, came to the church early.”

The first OED citation for “companion” as a member of a same-sex couple is from a June 2, 1996, article in the New York Times about the architect Philip Johnson and the art collector David Whitney:

“The tall, baby-faced Mr. Whitney was sitting in a sunny corner of the one-bedroom apartment that he and Mr. Johnson, companions now for 36 years, share at the Museum Tower in midtown Manhattan.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context.)

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The bitterness of wormwood

Q: I’m watching Wormwood, a Netflix miniseries about the mysterious death of a CIA scientist in the 1950s. I’ve read that the title refers to a passage in the Book of Revelation, but what is the origin of the word “wormwood” and its sense of bitterness and grief?

A: The word “wormwood” comes from wermod, Old English for Artemisia absinthium, a plant known as “common wormwood.” Traditionally, the plant was used as an ingredient in absinthe, vermouth, and other alcoholic beverages.

The Old English term, which has relatives in Old Saxon, Old High German, and other Germanic languages, is “of obscure origin,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) traces it back to wermōdaz, a prehistoric Germanic term for “wormwood.”

Etymologists have theorized that the Old English word comes from the bitter taste of the plant (wermo- is a prehistoric Germanic term for bitter) or from the plant’s ancient use to treat intestinal worms (wer- is the Proto Indo-European source of wyrm, Old English for “worm”).

One British philologist, Ernest Weekely, even speculates in An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) that wermod may have been an aphrodisiac in Anglo-Saxon times, combining the Old English wer (man) and mod (mood).

The earliest OED citation for the Anglo-Saxon version of “wormwood” is from a Latin-Old English glossary, dated around 725, in the Parker Library at the University of Cambridge: “Absinthium, wermod.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the “wormwood” spelling evolved in Middle English as a “folk etymology” (one that’s mistaken but popular), influenced by the use of the plant as a worm medicine.

The earliest Middle English spellings were “wormwode” and “wyrmewode.” The first example in the OED is from a collection of medieval medical recipes, written in the late 1300s or early 1400s: “For to makyn surripe of violet; it. of wormwode.”

The next citation is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary from around 1440: “Wyrmwode, herbe, absinthium.”

The first OED example with the modern spelling is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written in the early 1590s: “When it did tast the wormwood on the nipple of my dug, & felt it bitter.”

(Juliet’s old nurse had put wormwood, an insect repellant, on her breast while sunbathing, and the baby refused to suckle.)

Oxford says the plant is “proverbial for its bitter taste. The leaves and tops are used in medicine as a tonic and vermifuge [worm remedy], and for making vermouth and absinthe; formerly also to protect clothes and bedding from moths and fleas.”

The plant’s names in German and Latin have given English as well as French the beverage names “vermouth” and “absinthe.”

Thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, is said to cause seizures and hallucinations, which has led the US and many other countries to restrict its use in absinthe, vermouth, and other beverages.

In the 16th century, the word “wormwood” took on the figurative sense of an “emblem or type of what is bitter and grievous to the soul,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535: “Lest there be amonge you some rote, that beareth gall & wormwodd” (Deuteronomy 29:18).

In the 19th century, the expressions “to be wormwood” and “to be gall and wormwood” appeared, meaning “to be acutely mortifying or vexing.”

This example is from The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, Benjamin Heath Malkin’s 1809 translation of the French novel by Alain René Le Sage: “The accounts her ladyship brought from Madrid were wormwood to the duke.”

And here’s an example from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821): “His presence and his communications were gall and wormwood to his once partial mistress.”

Getting back to your question, “wormwood” appears twice in the Book of Revelation—as the name of a star that falls upon the waters, and as the bitterness caused by the falling star:

“And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (Revelation 8:11 in the King James Version.)

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A defiling moment

Q: In The Dark Defile, Diana Preston’s 2012 book about the First Anglo-Afghan War, the reputation of the British army is defiled in the defiles of Afghanistan. What can you tell us about this interesting word?

A: As you point out, the title of that book about a 19th-century British military disaster can be read two ways, thanks to two unrelated words spelled “defile.”

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, notes that the verb “defile” (to make dirty) and the noun “defile” (a narrow pass) are distinct words in English.

The verb, originally “defoul” in Middle English, comes from defouler, Old French for to trample down or injure. The ultimate source, Ayto says, is fullō, Latin for someone who cleans and treats cloth by stamping on it.

When the verb first appeared in English, it meant to trample underfoot. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to bones “defoulede” (from the South-English Legendary, circa 1290, a chronicle of the lives of church figures).

The spelling and meaning of the verb evolved over the next century and a half, influenced by two native words, “befoul” and the synonymous (and now obsolete) “befile.” In Old English, fúlian and fýlan meant to be foul or become foul.

In the 1400s, according to the OED, the verb “defyle” could mean to bruise, dirty, corrupt, pollute, deflower, debauch, profane, and so on.

Here’s a Middle English “deflower” example from the Ludus Coventriae, a cycle of medieval mystery plays believed written in the mid-1400s: “She wold not be defylyde / With spot or wem [stain] of man.”

And this “profane” example is from a collection of Middle English political, religious, and love poetry that the OED dates at around 1450:

“With outen grace I am bot beste, & warre pan beste defyled with syne” (“Without grace, I am but a beast, and worse than a beast, defiled by sin”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.

The verb “defile” isn’t used much today to mean “deflower,” but standard dictionaries still include such senses as “sully,” “debase,” “desecrate,” “profane,” “corrupt,” and “dishonor.”

As for the noun “defile,” it had both military and general meanings when it appeared in English in the late 17th century.

Militarily, it referred to a narrow passage through which troops had to march in a single file or a narrow column. In general use, it meant a narrow pass between mountains.

The earliest military example in the OED is from a 1685 entry in the London Gazette, a journal of record for the British government: “They repassed the Defilés on the side of the Moras.”

The dictionary’s first general citation is from a 1686 entry in the London Gazette: “A Valley, to which there was no passage but by a very narrow Defile.”

English borrowed the term from French, where défilé was the past participle of the verb défiler (to march in a line or in files). At first the final syllable was often pronounced and written as “é” or “ee” in English, according to Oxford, but it eventually became a mute “e.”

The noun “defile” now means a narrow pass or gorge, often between mountains. This example from Oxford Dictionaries online describes a footpath through a pass in Scotland:

“From here a footpath runs north, through a narrow defile between Meall na h-Aodainn Moire and Creag Bhreac past Loch a’Choire and up steep slopes to the summit ridge.”

Finally, we should mention that the title of Diana Preston’s book comes from Arithmetic on the Frontier, an 1866 poem in which Rudyard Kipling depicts the unheroic death of a young subaltern, “shot like a rabbit,” on a “canter down a dark defile.”

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Is GM an “it” or a “they”?

Q: Can you write on whether a company should be referred to as “it” or “they” when writing in the third person? Similarly, should a company’s name get a plural or singular verb? Does it depend on if the proper name appears singular or plural?

A: As we said in our recent post about the corporate “we,” a company generally refers to itself in the first person plural, with the pronouns “we,” “us,” “our,” and “ourselves.”

But when somebody else writes or speaks about a company, the third person is used. And from a grammatical point of view, the singular “it” is more appropriate than the plural “they.”

We’re taking the restrictive American view here, because the word “company” is a singular noun and so is a corporate name—even if it’s plural in form, like Acme Industries or Widget Services or Smith & Son. The company is an “it,” not a “they.”

However, it’s not unusual for people to refer to a company as “they,” especially in speech.

This may be because they’re thinking of it in terms of the people who work there. As in, “I called the company and they gave me a credit” or “The insurance company says it’s not their responsibility.”

This usage is understandable in casual writing or speech. After all, when you make contact with a company, you’re speaking with a person, not an “it.”

And when the person’s gender is irrelevant, the default pronoun is often “they,” as we wrote in a 2017 post.

Occasionally this casual usage is found even in published writing that’s informal and addresses the reader personally.

A case in point, from an article that ran in Forbes Magazine last March: “Here are five signs your company values you—and five signs they don’t!” The pronouns “they” and “their” are used throughout in reference to “your company,” and the article is written in a conversational tone.

So far we’ve been speaking of American English. The picture is very different in the UK, where a company is more likely to be a “they” than an “it,” even in published writing.

In British English, “company” (like “firm,” “committee,” “government,” “cabinet,” and many other words) is regarded as a collective noun that’s singular in form but can be treated as plural. So you’ll find both singular and plural references to companies in British English—often in the same news story.

These snippets are from an article in the Daily Post, a newspaper in North Wales (note the pronouns “it” and “they”): “Sainsbury’s said it was ‘reviewing’ proposals” … “Sainsbury’s said they will now work to find an alternative.”

And these are from a report in the Hull Daily Mail (note the verbs “is” and “are”):  “BP is attempting to boost its brand” … “BP are supporting a regime.”

Jeremy Butterfield discusses this subject in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.):

“In British English it is in order to use either a plural verb or a singular verb after most collective nouns, so long as attendant pronouns are made to follow suit.”

Butterfield uses the examples “when the jury retires to consider its verdict” and “when the jury retire to consider their verdict.”

This principle, he adds, “applies to all the main collectives like army, audience, clan, committee, company, court, crew, folk, government, group, herd.”

In British English, he says, if the term is considered as a unit, the verbs and accompanying pronouns are singular. But if the members of the group are thought of as individuals, plural verbs and pronouns are appropriate.

“By contrast,” Butterfield says, “in American English the choice is much more restricted. For such words the following verb and any attendant pronouns are usually in the singular.”

However, The Gregg Reference Manual, an American guide for business writing, is not as restrictive as more general American usage guides. It has this to say:

“Organizational names may be treated as either singular or plural. Ordinarily, treat the name as singular unless you wish to emphasize the individuals who make up the organization; in that case, use the plural.”

Gregg uses these examples: “Brooks & Rice has lost its lease. It is now looking for a new location.” …. “Brooks & Rice have lost their lease. They are now looking for ….”

We wonder whether those plural examples would sound natural to American ears if the company didn’t have a compound name (“Brooks & Rice”).

Only in the UK, we think, would someone write, “Acme have lost their lease. They are now looking for a new headquarters.”

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The lights of our lives

Q: Which “light” came first, the one that refers to illumination or the one that means not very heavy? Is one of them the source of the other?

A: The “light” that shines and the one that’s easy to carry both appeared in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, but they aren’t etymologically related.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the “light” that refers to illumination comes from the Indo-European root leuk- (bright, brightness), source of the prehistoric Germanic leukhtam (to produce light) and the Old English léoht (bright).

That Indo-European root also gave Greek leukós (white) and Latin lux (light), Ayto says. Leukós, in turn, is the source of our word “leukemia,” while lux gave us such words as “lucid,” “luster,” “luminous,” and “Lucifer” (literally light-bearer).

The “light” that’s easy to carry comes from the prehistoric Germanic term lingkhtaz, a close relative of the source of the English word “lung,” which etymologically means “something full of air and not heavy,” according to Ayto.

Getting back to your question about which “light” came first, scholars disagree on the dating of some relevant Old English manuscripts, so it’s impossible to give a definite answer.

All we can say is that the adjective meaning bright, the noun for brightness, and the adjective meaning of little weight may all date from the 700s in writing. The verb that means to illuminate came a couple of centuries later.

The earliest example of the noun in the Oxford English Dictionary, spelled leoht in Old English, is from Beowulf, an epic poem that some scholars date at about 725:

“Him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfæger” (“a dreadful light, more like a flame, shoots forth from his eyes”). The description is of the monster Grendel during a battle with Beowulf.

The first OED example of the adjective meaning “bright, shining, luminous” is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript that the British Library dates to the second quarter of the 700s:

“Bibod dryhtnes leht inlihtende egan” (“The commandment of the Lord is luminous, enlightening the eyes”). In the interlinear manuscript, the Old English leht is a translation of the Latin lucidum (bright, shining, clear). Many modern versions of Psalm 19:8 use “pure.”

The first Oxford example of the adjective “light” meaning “of little weight, not ponderous” is from a riddle that some scholars believe may have been written in the early 700s, though the earliest manuscript containing the riddle dates from the late 900s.

Here’s the citation, with “lighter” spelled leohtre, from Riddle 40 in the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry at the Exeter Cathedral Library in southwest England:

“Leohtre ic eom micle þonne þes lytla wyrm þe her on flode gæð fotum dryge” (“I am much lighter than this little bug that walks on the water with dry feet”).

The first OED example of the verb “light” meaning to “give or shed light” (that is, to shine) is from the Gospel of John in the West Saxon Gospels, written around 990: “Þæt leoht lyht on ðystrum” (“the light shines on darkness”), from John 1:5-9.

The word “light” has many other meanings, such as understanding (“The study sheds light on a problem”), a notable person (“He’s one of England’s brightest lights”), and a match (“Do you have a light?”), but we’ll save them for another day.

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How to turn into a driveway

Q: If I “turn into” a driveway, am I located in the driveway or have I become the driveway? In other words, does a driver “turn into” or “turn in to” a driveway? I’ve found many conflicting answers on the Internet.

A: A driver “turns into” a driveway. And no, that doesn’t mean he becomes a driveway. It means he enters one.

The phrase “turn into” can be read correctly in two ways—to enter (“the driver turned into my lane”) or to become (“the prince turned into a frog”).

The context makes clear which meaning is intended. No one would ever think that the driver was transformed into a stretch of pavement, or that the prince somehow got inside a frog.

It’s not true, as many websites claim, that “turn into” always means to become, and that you should use “turn in to” for any other meaning.

You can enter a driveway by “turning into” it, just as you can “drive into” or “walk into” or “go into” one. This sense of “turn into” can be found in any dictionary.

Within its entry for the verb “turn,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has the definition “to direct one’s way or course,” illustrated with this example: “The truck turned into the gas station.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a similar definition, with the example “turn a car into a stream of traffic.”

The phrase has been used that way for hundreds of years. This May 29, 1672, example from the domestic state papers of King Charles II orders damaged warships to turn into a swale, or depression, filled with water:

“The Earl of Arlington to Major Darell. You are to order a vessel to lie a little off the fort, at the entrance into the river, with directions to warn all maimed and disabled ships coming from the fleet to turn into the Swale, where they are to be repaired, and not to proceed up into the river.”

When used with a verb showing motion or change, “into” has a number of meanings that concern entering a place or a condition.

Among other things, “into” can mean toward—either to the inside of (“he turned into the garage”) or in the direction of (“he was looking into space”).

It can also indicate a contact with (“he crashed into the garbage can”), a state (“he got into trouble with his wife”), or a transformation (“his relief turned into dismay”).

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of “turn into” used to mean both “to direct one’s course; to set oneself to go in a particular direction,” and “to change into … to become.”

People who mistakenly criticize that first use of “turn into” may be unaware of the difference between a phrasal verb (like “turn in”) that incorporates the adverb “in,” and an ordinary verb of motion (like “turn”) that’s properly followed by the preposition “into.”

A phrasal verb is a single idiomatic unit consisting of a verb plus an adverb, a preposition, or both. Examples: “break down” (collapse), “see to” (handle), “look forward to” (anticipate).

The phrasal verb “turn in” consists of the verb “turn” and the adverb (“in”), and means to hand over or to go to bed.

And when “in” is part of a phrasal verb, it’s always separate, even if “to” comes right after it. Examples: “The pistol was turned in to a police officer” … “The pistol was turned in to make sure it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

A few other common phrasal verbs are “give in” (to surrender), “drop in” (to visit), “chip in” (to contribute), and “tune in” (to listen).

Here are some examples in which “to” connects a phrasal verb with an object and with an infinitive.

“Applications must be turned in to the registrar” …  “Applications must be turned in to insure candidacy.”

“He would not give in to the demands” … “He would not even give in to save his life.”

“Did you drop in to the office party?” … “Did you drop in to say hello?”

“We’ll all chip in to the office kitty” … “We’ll all chip in to buy a gift.”

“Let’s tune in to the program” … “Let’s tune in to learn something new.”

It should be noted that many verbs—”give,” “drop,” “chip,” and others in addition to “turn”—are used with “into” when they’re not part of phrasal verbs.

For instance, a valuable can be “given into” someone’s keeping. A pebble can be “dropped into” a hole. A sculptor can “chip into” a piece of marble.

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The ‘mare’ in ‘nightmare’

Q: Does the “mare” in “nightmare” have anything to do with the word for a female horse?

A: No, the two terms aren’t related.

The “mare” of “nightmare” comes from mære, an Old English term for an evil spirit that was supposed to settle on a sleeper’s chest and cause a feeling of suffocation.

The “mare” that means an adult female horse was a merging of two Old English words: mearh (horse) and mīre (mare). And in case you’re wondering, the word “horse” also showed up in Old English (spelled hors).

The compound “nightmare,” which first appeared in Middle English writing, originally referred to the evil spirit, not the feeling of suffocation or a scary dream.

Over the years, “nightmare” took on new meanings: first a suffocating feeling, then a bad dream that causes such a feeling, and much later simply a frightening dream.

The earliest example of “nightmare” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from “The Life of St. Michael” (circa 1300), found in The South-English Legendary, a collection of manuscripts chronicling the lives of church figures:

“Þe luþere gostes … deriez men in heore slep … And ofte huy ouer-liggez, and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare” (“The treacherous spirits … harmed men in their sleep … And often lay over them, and were called the nightmare”).

The OED says “nightmare” in that citation refers to a “female spirit or monster supposed to settle on and produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal.”

In the 16th century, according to the dictionary, the term came to mean “a feeling of suffocation or great distress experienced during sleep.”

The first Oxford example is from the 1562 second volume of A New Herball, a three-book work by the English botanist William Turner: “A good remedy agaynst the stranglyng of the nyght mare.”

In the 17th century, according to OED citations, the term came to mean “a bad dream producing these or similar sensations.”

Here’s an example from The Marriage of Belphegor, a 1675 translation of a work by Machiavelli: “This was no fantastick imagination, nor fit of the Night-mare.”

And in the early 19th century, according to Oxford citations, “nightmare” took on its usual sense today: “an oppressive, frightening, or unpleasant dream.”

This OED example is from a Nov. 29, 1826, entry in the journal of Sir Walter Scott: “Awaked from horrid dreams … I had the nightmare in short, and no wonder.” We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

Soon afterward, the dictionary says, “nightmare” took on its familiar figurative meaning: an “oppressive fear; a frightening experience or thing; a source of fear or anxiety.”

The earliest citation is from Sartor Resartus, an 1834 novel by Thomas Carlyle: “Not till after long years … did the believing heart … sink into spell-bound sleep, under the nightmare, Unbelief.”

(Carlyle’s title roughly means “the retailored tailor” in Latin. Sart-, the participial stem of sarcīre, meaning to patch or mend, has given English the adjective “sartorial.”)

Finally, “night hag” is another term for that female demon that supposedly caused a feeling of suffocation. The demon also supposedly caused sleep paralysis, a sense of being unable to move while falling asleep or waking up.

The earliest OED example for “night hag” is from The Birth of Merlin, a 1662 play by the English dramatist William Rowley: “Where no Night-hag shall walk, nor Ware-wolf tread.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation is from the fall 1992 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer: “My friend and I were experiencing … ‘night terror.’ My friend’s were more like the classic variety, complete with a night hag.”

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Can ‘so don’t I’ mean ‘so do I’?

Q: There’s a grammatical quirk in northern New England in which a negative is used affirmatively: Example: “I love it when the leaves turn in the fall.” … “Oh, so don’t I. It’s my favorite time of year.” Any ideas where that might have come from?

A: You’re right that this quirky use of “so don’t I” is peculiar to New England. A native Bostonian would understand it immediately as meaning “so do I,” while a Californian would probably hear just the opposite—“I don’t.”

The linguist William Labov has said this use of “so don’t I” represents a “reversal of polarity,” a kind of construction in which “negative comes to mean positive or positive negative.” (From his 1974 paper “Linguistic Change as a Form of Communication.”)

Labov, an expert in the fields of sociolinguistics and regional variation, says the usage is common to eastern New England. It has also been called “the Massachusetts negative positive,” and research has shown that it extends into Maine.

He and his colleagues conducted a study in which subjects were given this question: “Somebody said, I like liver and then somebody else said, So don’t I. What do you think he meant?”

A majority of those from outside eastern New England interpreted the answer in the negative: “I do not.” But all the native New Englanders interpreted it as positive: “I do too.”

As Labov notes, “So don’t I has risen to the level of an overt stereotype in eastern New England.” However, “most outsiders are puzzled by the apparent contradiction between the positive so and the negative n’t.”

The usage consists of the adverb “so,” followed by a negative auxiliary verb (“don’t,” “didn’t,” “can’t,” “couldn’t,” etc.), and a noun or pronoun subject.

It’s always spoken in response to an affirmative statement. And despite the negative “-n’t,” the speaker is being affirmative too.

Labov notes a similarity with a “tag question” that’s another form of reverse polarity: “Don’t I though!”

Another similar usage has been noted by the Yale University linguist Laurence R. Horn. In Smoky Mountain English, someone who responds to a suggestion or invitation by saying, “I don’t care to” actually means “I don’t mind if I do” or “I’m pleased to.”

As Horn writes, this usage is as likely as “so don’t I” to be “misinterpreted by outlanders.” (From his paper “Multiple Negation in English and Other Languages,” 2010.)

Jim Wood, another Yale linguist, argues that there’s a shade of difference between a New Englander’s affirmative “so don’t I” and a straightforward “so do I.” A speaker who responds with “so don’t I,” he says, is correcting an assumption.

In his paper “Affirmative Semantics with Negative Morphosyntax” (2014), Wood uses the following exchange to illustrate his point. Speaker A: “I play guitar.” Speaker B: “Yeah, but so don’t I.”

Here Speaker A seems to imply he’s the only one (that is, in the relevant context) who plays the guitar. Speaker B’s response sets him straight, and can be seen as meaning “It’s not true that I don’t play the guitar too.”

Wood, as a native of southern New Hampshire, has firsthand experience of the usage. He (along with Horn, Raffaella Zanuttini, and others) collaborated on a broad-ranging language study, the Yale Diversity Project, which researched several dozen usages in addition to “so don’t I.”

The study found that “so don’t I” had been recorded as far north as York, ME, as far south as New Haven, CT, and as far west as Erie, PA.

You can read more online about the Yale study’s “so don’t I” research, and see a map plotting its usage.

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Black (or African) American?

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on March 21, 2010. However, usage changes, so we’ve inserted an update indicating the latest preferences.)

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both whites and blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Jan. 15, 2018: American Heritage dropped the usage note from its fifth edition. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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A great eye for art

Q: I saw this the other day in the NY Times: “I love these African wood sculptures, and the antique Buddha head. You and your wife have a great eye.” That sounds odd! How can two people have “a great eye”?

A: Steven Kurutz, a Times feature reporter, made the comment in interviewing the “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker.

The “eye” in his remark isn’t being used literally for one of the two organs of sight each of us is born with. In this sense, “eye” means visual discernment, taste, judgment, or appreciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the usage this way: “The faculty of appreciation or judgement of visual objects (also situations, etc.), either in a particular context or for a specific quality.”

So a person—or a husband and wife who collect art together—might have “a great eye” for antiquities, for African sculptures, for design, or for anything else that’s visual.

The OED’s examples of this usage date back to the 16th century. The earliest is about combat and the importance of being able to visualize the enemy’s position:

“There must be a speciall care taken in viewing by experience, & the eye of a soldior, the scituation which the enimie occupyeth.” (From Sir Edward Hoby’s Theorique & Practise of Warre, a 1597 translation of the Spanish of Bernardino de Mendoza.)

In this later example, the “eye” is possessed by more than one person, represented by “we.” It comes from James Beattie’s Dissertations Moral and Critical (1783):

“If we have any thing of a painter’s eye, we are struck with the waving lines that predominate so remarkably in his figure.”

And the two of us can never resist citing P. G. Wodehouse. This is from his novel Hot Water (1932): “House-broken husband though he was, he still had an eye for beauty.”

In most cases, one person is said to have “an eye” for something, but there’s no reason that two people can’t share “an eye.” That is to say, they can share the same faculty for visual appreciation.

There are many other usages in English in which “eye” is used in the singular to mean something other than the organ of sight.

The expression “to have an eye for [or an eye to] the main chance,” for instance, has been around for more than 400 years. The OED says the expression means “to have consideration for one’s own interests.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an Elizabethan drama, Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1584):

“Trust me thou art as craftie to haue an eye to the mayne chaunce: / As the Taylor that out of seuen yardes stole one and a halfe of durance.”

This later example comes from Studies of a Biographer (1902), by Sir Leslie Stephen, who was Virginia Woolf’s father: “It … cannot be said that an eye for the main chance is inconsistent with the poetical character.”

The word “ear” has been used in much the same way. It’s often said of people who appreciate music that they have “a good ear.” This usage, too, has been around since the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from William Bonde’s The Pylgrimage of Perfection (1526): “In the psalmody … haue a good eare.”

And in this example, from William Hubbock’s Great Brittaines Resurrection (1606), both “eye” and “ear” are used this way:

“As the cunning eye in pictures, the skillfull eare in musicke discerneth more then the vulgar sort.”

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Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower

Q: I often put captions above photos that I embed in emails, but I always have this problem: Should it be “Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” or “Mary and I at the Eiffel Tower”? And why?

A: It doesn’t matter. Either caption is OK.

“Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower” and “Mary and I at the Eiffel Tower” are just verbless sentence fragments.

If you add a verb form, though, you do have to choose between “I” (a subject pronoun) and “me” (an object pronoun).

In the presence of a verb, the phrase could be either a subject (“Mary and I are pictured at the Eiffel Tower”) or an object (“This photo shows Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower”).

We had a post on this topic back in 2009, when a reader questioned a caption in a photographic memoir by Gore Vidal.

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Are you dumbfounded?

Q: The verb “dumbfound” leaves me dumbfounded. How does combining “dumb” and “found” give us a word that means to bewilder?

A: “Dumbfound” began life in the 17th century as a combination of “dumb” (speechless) and “confound” (to surprise and confuse). It was originally spelled “dumfound,” and is still sometimes seen that way.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dumbfound” as to “strike dumb; to confound, confuse; to nonplus.”

In its entry for “confound,” the dictionary notes that the verb could be “expressed colloquially by dumfound, flabbergast, etc.”

The earliest OED example for “dumbfound” is from the Scottish author Thomas Urquhart’s 1694 translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of novels by François Rabelais:

“I beseech you never Dum-found or Embarrass your Heads with these idle Conceits.”

The next Oxford citation uses “dumb” rather than “dum,” but continues to hyphenate the word:

“He has but one eye, and we are on his blind side; I’ll dumb-found him” (from The Souldiers Fortune, a 1681 comedy by the English playwright Thomas Otway).

The first OED example for “dumbfound” spelled without a hyphen is from Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1762): “To cramp and dumbfound his opponents.”

And here’s a passive example from a March 27, 1861, letter by Charles Darwin: “I cannot wriggle out of it; I am dumbfounded.”

The only Oxford example for the word used as an adjective is from a March 27, 1815, letter by the Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore:

“I am not at all surprised by the dum-founded fascination that seizes people at such daring.” (We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Napoleon’s return to Paris from exile on the island of Elba.)

As for the etymology here, the verb “confound” is ultimately derived from confundĕre, classical Latin for to mix together, mix up, or confuse.

The adjective “dumb” meant mute or speechless when it showed up with the same spelling in Old English. There are similar words in Old Norse and other Germanic languages.

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Merry or happy Christmas?

Q: Why do our British cousins say “happy Christmas” while we say “merry Christmas”?

A: You can find “merry Christmas” and “happy Christmas” in both the US and the UK, though Christmas is more often “merry” in American English and “happy” in British English.

Our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus show that “merry Christmas” is overwhelmingly more popular in the US, while “happy Christmas” is somewhat more popular in the UK.

Here’s a recent “merry Christmas” example from the UK: “Hundreds of well-wishers turned out to catch a glimpse of the royal family, with some calling out ‘merry Christmas’ as they walked past” (from a Dec. 25, 2017, report in the Guardian on the crowd outside Sandringham House, Queen Elizabeth’s Norfolk estate).

And here’s a recent “happy Christmas” example from the US: “So, this year, for the first time in a long time, this native will not return to the scene of the happy Christmases of his childhood” (from the Dec. 7, 2017, issue of the Chicago Tribune).

Some language commentators have attributed the British preference for “happy Christmas” to the use of the expression by the royal family in annual Christmas broadcasts. King George V began the practice in his 1932 Christmas radio message, written by Rudyard Kipling:

“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them; to those cut off from fuller life by blindness, sickness, or infirmity; and to those who are celebrating this day with their children and grand-children. To all—to each—I wish a happy Christmas. God Bless You!”

Queen Elizabeth II, who has continued the usage, concluded her 2017 Christmas TV broadcast this way: “Whatever your own experiences this year; wherever and however you are watching, I wish you a peaceful and very happy Christmas.”

However, the royal family isn’t unanimously “happy” in its Christmas greetings. A recent holiday photo issued by Kensington Palace was accompanied by this wording: “A new family photo—Merry Christmas from The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince George and Princess Charlotte.”

Kipling’s choice of “happy” in the speech he wrote for King George may have been influenced by the feeling among some Anglican clerics in the 19th century that “merry” suggests noisy, boisterous, or drunken behavior, while “happy” signifies a deeper, more loving enjoyment.

In “Happy Christmas,” an 1864 lecture, the Rev. Gordon Calthrop, a prebendary at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, says, “Now it is usual, I believe, to speak rather of a ‘Merry,’ than of a ‘Happy’ Christmas. But I had a reason in my own mind for departing in this particular instance from the general custom.”

“There seems to me to be a difference—a considerable difference between the thing signified by the word ‘merry,’ and the thing signified by the word ‘happy,’ ” Calthrop explains.

He says “merry” indicates “boisterous gaiety” and “extravagant demonstrations,” while “happy” reflects “the true spirit of this most blessed season” and a feeling “too deep to be very demonstrative.”

Interestingly, “merry” meant simply pleasing or delightful when it first appeared in Old English. It didn’t come to mean boisterous or tipsy until the late 14th century. “Happy” meant lucky or fortunate when it showed up in writing in the late 14th century. It didn’t take on the sense of pleased or contented until a century later.

Getting back to your question, “merry Christmas” was first used in writing in the early 1500s, while “happy Christmas” came along nearly two centuries later.

The earliest example of “merry Christmas” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Dec. 22, 1534, letter by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII: “And thus our Lord send yow a mery Christenmas, and a comfortable, to yowr heart desyer.”

(The bishop, a prisoner in the Tower of London, asks Cromwell in the letter for better clothing and other necessities, as well as a priest to hear his confession. He was executed on June 22, 1535, for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England.)

The OED defines this use of “merry” as “characterized by celebration and rejoicing. Frequently in Merry Christmas! and other seasonal greetings.”

The dictionary says “happy” is used similarly “in expressions of good wishes for a person or persons on a celebratory occasion, event, day, etc., as happy birthday, happy Christmas, happy New Year, etc.”

The earliest Oxford example of “happy Christmas” is from a 1707 memoir by Frances Shaftoe: “I wish you a happy Christmas and New Year.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples, such as this excerpt from a Dec. 20, 1688, letter by George Wheler, a canon of Durham Cathedral, to George Hicks, Dean of Worcester:

“I Send You this to express my hearty Wishes, That You may enjoy a Happy Christmass and New-Year.”

The linguist Arika Okrent has noted that “happy” is the usual adjective for expressing good wishes on a festive event: “happy birthday,” “happy New Year’s Day,” “happy Thanksgiving,” “happy Easter,” “happy St. Patrick’s Day,” and so on. She suggests in a video on the Mental Floss website that “happy” may be seen as a classier term than the rowdy, tipsy “merry.”

Classy or not, “merry Christmas” is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic, though merrier in the US. We’ll end with the last of the many examples of the expression in A Christmas Carol, the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens:

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

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The Reader Over Your Shoulder

Read Pat’s essay today in The Paris Review about The Reader Over Your Shoulder, a guide to writing, written in the 1940s by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.

The essay is excerpted from Pat’s introduction to a new edition of the book, scheduled to be published this year by Seven Stories Press. 

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Dreaming of a white sale

Q: I’m dreaming of a “white sale” so I can replace my threadbare linens. In the meantime, can you enlighten me about the history of the expression?

A: The phrase “white sale” showed up in the late 1800s in reference to a January or February sale of household linens, also known as “white goods,” at reduced prices.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Feb. 2, 1894, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“At 8 o’clock yesterday morning J. L. Hudson’s furnishing goods departments were packed with eager buyers, being attracted there by the announcement of a ‘White Sale.’ ”

However, the OED has an earlier citation for a similar usage from a July 3, 1878, ad in the Iowa State Reporter in Waterloo:

“Remember! The Linen and White Goods Sale at Glover & Arther’s on Tuesday, July 9, at 10 o’clock a.m.”

We’ve also found quite a few examples of the shorter phrase “white sale” used in the late 1880s and early ’90s in newspaper ads announcing sales of sewing fabrics or undergarments, though not household linens.

In Wanamaker’sMeet Me at the Eagle (2010), Michael J. Lisicky credits the American merchant John Wanamaker with coming up with the idea for a white sale:

“In January 1878, he introduced the first annual White Sale. This sale was an attempt to sell excess stock in bedding during a traditionally slow time of the year.”

Lisicky, the author of several histories of department stores, says Wanamaker “chose the name White Sale since all linens were exclusively sold in White.”

However, we haven’t been able to confirm that or any other 19th-century use of the term “white sale” by the Philadelphia department store.

In fact, the earliest example we’ve been able to find for a Wanamaker “white sale” refers to a sale in its store at Broadway and Ninth Street in Manhattan: “Plain Facts About the White Sale” (from the Jan. 3, 1900, New-York Tribune).

The earliest OED citation for “white goods” is from A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts, an 1807 book by the English scientist Thomas Young:

“About one half [of imported cotton] is consumed in white goods, one fourth in fustians, and the remainder in hosiery, mixtures, and candle wicks.” (Fustian is a durable twilled fabric.)

The dictionary defines “white goods” as “household linen, traditionally white in colour, such as sheets and towels.” It says the usage is seen now only in references to the past.

We often call these household items “linens,” though they’re more likely to be made of cotton or a cotton blend. Technically, “linen” is cloth woven from flax, but for many centuries the word has been used loosely to mean either undergarments or household goods like sheets, towels, napkins, and tablecloths

Sometimes linens or muslins or other fabrics that were not bleached and retained their natural color were called “brown goods,” but that term was also used for fabrics that had been dyed brown or a brownish color.

Interestingly, both the terms “brown goods” and “white goods” were resurrected in the 20th century with more modern meanings.

In the 1940s “white goods” came to mean large household appliances that were traditionally white, like refrigerators and washing machines.

The first OED example is fromthe June 13, 1947, issue of the New York Times: “$50,000 worth of white goods like stoves and washers are available for immediate delivery.”

And later in the 20th century the term “brown goods” came to be used to mean electrical appliances like radios, TV’s and phonographs that were often housed in brown cases.

The first Oxford citation is from a March 1976 report by the London consumer organization Which?

“Electrical equipment … includes things like washing machines and fridges (what the trade calls white goods) as well as TVs and audio (which the trade calls brown goods).”

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.   Today’s topics: the history of “white sales,” and words of the year.

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On holy days and holidays

(We’re repeating this post for New Year’s Day. It originally ran on Dec. 15, 2011.)

Q: Happy holidays! Apropos of the holiday season, when did “holiday” become a word and when did it lose its holiness? I assume it was originally “holy day,” but I’ve never looked into it.

A: The word “holiday” was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it looked a lot different back then.

In Old English, it was written haligdæg or hali-dægh (literally “holy day’). And later, in Middle English, the first vowel was also an “a”: halidei, halidai , halliday, haliday, etc.

A bit later in the Middle English period (12th to 15th centuries) the “a” became an “o,” and eventually the usual forms of the word became “holy day,” “holy-day,” or “holiday” (a spelling first recorded in 1460).

The different forms of the word—that is, whether it was written as one word or two—had something to do with its different meanings.

Originally, the word meant a consecrated day or a religious festival. But in the 1400s, it acquired another, more secular meaning.

The OED defines this sense of the word as “a day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or a community) are suspended; a day of exemption or cessation from work; a day of festivity, recreation, or amusement.”

That’s how the single word “holiday” came to include the secular side of life and became identified with vacations. But the two–word versions (“holy day,” “holy-day”) retained the original meaning—a day set aside for religious observance.

Today we still recognize these different senses and spellings.

Now here’s an aside. In the Middle English period, people sometimes observed holy days by eating a large flatfish called butte. Thus this fish became known as “halibut” (“hali” for holy and “but” for flatfish).

And happy holidays to you!

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In line, on line, and online

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the New Yorkism “on line” for “in line,” and why this regionalism has persisted for so long when it’s not particularly correct.

A: We’ve written twice about the usage on our blog—in 2007 and 2010—but we haven’t found any evidence indicating how the regionalism originated.

In our 2010 post, we debunk the myth that the usage originated at Ellis Island as immigrants were told to stand on lines painted on the floor. We also say that correctness doesn’t enter the picture.

“Some of our readers have suggested over the years that ‘wait on line’ is grammatically incorrect,” we write. “Not so. This is a regional usage that’s as idiomatic to New Yorkers as asking for ‘regular’ coffee when they mean coffee with milk.”

We checked recently for any new research that might answer your question. We found studies about the frequency of the usage, but none on how it developed.

In “Dialect Boundaries in New Jersey,” published in the journal American Speech in November 2009, the linguist Dale F. Coye tracks preferences for “wait on line” versus “wait in line” among New Jersey college students.

Coye concludes that the closer the students live to New York City, the more likely they are to prefer the “on line” version.

Wait on line is a shibboleth of New York City speech,” he writes, “while in New Jersey it is restricted to the northeastern part of the state, with evidence of its use extending as far south as the Trenton suburbs, Monmouth County, and west to eastern Sussex and Hunterdon counties.”

As Coye writes, “It was not reported at all on the upper Delaware and only very rarely in South Jersey, where the typical American wait in line is used.”

On line was strongest in Bergen County (78%), with the other counties bordering New York City selecting it by a two-thirds to three-quarters margin,” he adds.

The farther one gets from New York City, Coye writes, “the usage of on line diminishes. In addition, on the outer edge of the on line region, the numbers of informants reporting they used both forms increased.”

“The numbers using wait on line may dwindle rapidly in the future,” he says. “Some informants reported that although their parents used wait on line, they themselves did not because of the newer meaning of online referring to the Internet.”

(The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of the word used in the computing sense is from High-speed Computing Devices1950, edited by W. W. Stifler Jr.: “In on-line operation the input is communicated directly … to the data-reduction device.”)

In a 2003 nationwide study, the “Harvard Dialect Survey,” more than 10,000 Americans responded to this question:

“When you stand outside with a long line of people waiting to get in somewhere, are you standing ‘in line’ or ‘on line’ (as in, ‘I stood ___ in the cold for two hours before they opened the doors’)?”

The responses nationwide were “in line” (88.30%); “on line” (5.49%); “both sound equally good” (5.36%); “neither” (0.12%); and “other” (0.73%).

The responses for New York State were “in line” (57.34%); “on line” (23.67%); “both sound equally good” (18.14%); “neither” (0.12%); and “other” (0.73%).

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Running amok

Q: I just wanted to call your attention to an interesting article in the NY Times that says the phrase “running amok” originated in the Malay language. Have you ever written about this usage?

A: No, we haven’t written about “running amok,” at least not until now. It does indeed come from Malay, a language spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and some other Southeast Asian nations.

In A Dictionary of the Malayan Language (1812), the English linguist and orientalist William Marsden defines āmuk, his transliteration of a Malay adjective, as “engaging furiously in battle; attacking with desperate resolution; rushing, in a state of frenzy, to the commission of indiscriminate murder; running a-muck.”

In “The Malayan Words in English,” a paper presented to the American Oriental Society in April 1896, C. P. G. Scott notes similar words in various versions of Malay: “Lampong amug, Javanese hamuk, Sundanese amuk, Dayak amok.” (In addition to his interest in Malay, Scott was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Columbia College in New York City.)

Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer living in India, apparently introduced the usage to the West.

In a travel book written around 1516, he says Javanese who go on a rampage “are called amuco.” (From A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar in the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, Henry E. J. Stanley’s 1866 translation of Barbosa’s work.)

In the 17th century, the word “amok” came to be used both literally and figuratively in English as an adverb, almost always to modify the verb “run,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Literally, the OED says, “to run amok” means “to run viciously, mad, frenzied for blood.”

The earliest citation is from The Rehearsal Transpros’d, a 1672 prose political satire by the English poet Andrew Marvell: “Like a raging Indian … he runs a mucke (as they cal it there) stabbing every man he meets.”

Figuratively, according to Oxford, the expression means to act “wild or wildly, headlong or heedlessly.”

The dictionary’s first figurative citation is from A Speech Without-Doors (1689), a collection of essays criticizing restraints on the press, by the English pamphleteer Edmund Hickeringill: “Running a Muck at all Mankind.”

In the latest OED example for “run amok,” the expression is used literally:

“ ‘Here,’ an acquaintance said to me, ‘you either reach for the stars or you crack up and run amok with a chainsaw.’ ” (From Black & White, a 1980 book by Shiva Naipaul about the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Shiva Naipaul was the younger brother of the novelist V. S. Naipaul.)

In the Times article that got your attention, Geoffrey Robinson, a professor of Southeast Asian history and politics at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the Malay term mengamok roughly means making a furious, desperate charge.

Robinson says the usage referred to someone who endured an unbearable indignity and lashed out by attacking everyone in sight until he was eventually killed.

He notes that there was a mystique about the amucos, not unlike the notoriety of mass killers today. The practice faded away during British and Dutch rule as the colonial authorities lessened the mystique by committing amucos to institutions.

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Does Santa have a gender issue?

(We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 24, 2012.)

Q: Santa Claus is male, so why isn’t he Saint instead of Santa? Does he have a gender issue?

A: In English the name of a canonized person, whether a man or a woman, is traditionally prefixed by the word “Saint” or its abbreviation.

Although a female saint has occasionally been called a “santa” in English, the Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as obsolete.

The OED’s only written example is from The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, a 15th-century translation of a French guide to court etiquette:

“And for-yete not to praie to the blessed virgine Marie, that day and night praieth for us, and to recomaunde you to the seintes and santas.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

So why is Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas referred to as “Santa Claus”?

The OED says the usage originated in the US in the 18th century. Americans adopted it from the dialectal Dutch term Sante Klaas.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the dialectal term is derived from the Middle Dutch Sinter (Ni)klaas. In Modern Dutch, the short form of “Saint Nicholas” is Sinterklaas.

Chambers explains that Saint Nicholas “owes his position as Santa Claus to the legend that he provided three impoverished girls with dowries by throwing three purses of gold in their open window.”

“From this legend is said to derive the custom of placing gifts in the stockings of children on Saint Nicholas’ Eve (the night of December 6) and attributing the gifts to Santa Claus.”

In the US and some other countries, Chambers notes, the custom “has been transferred to Christmas Eve.”

We enjoyed reading this definition of “Santa Claus” in the OED:

“In nursery language, the name of an imaginary personage, who is supposed, in the night before Christmas day, to bring presents for children, a stocking being hung up to receive his gifts. Also, a person wearing a red cloak or suit and a white beard, to simulate the supposed Santa Claus to children, esp. in shops or on shopping streets.”

That pretty much sums it up. And here are the OED’s earliest two published references for the usage:

Dec. 26, 1773:  “Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall.” (From the New York Gazette.)

Jan. 25, 1808: “The noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus—of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.” (From the satirical periodical Salmagundi.)

Although the earliest citations in the OED are from American sources, the last three are from British publications. The latest is from a Dec. 24, 1977, issue of the Times of London:

“Santa must have been updated over the years. Presumably girls hang out their tights now, instead of a solitary stocking.”

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Wallflowers and shrinking violets

Q: Did botanical “wallflowers” and “shrinking violets” inspire the timid human ones?

A: Yes, though we wouldn’t describe botanical wallflowers and violets as timid or inconspicuous, especially when planted in a bed or border of a garden.

The term “wallflower” usually means Cheiranthus cheiri, a European plant “growing wild on old walls, on rocks, in quarries, etc., and cultivated in gardens for its fragrant flowers,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest literal example in the OED refers to “Wall floures” and several other names for the plant (from A Niewe Herball, Henry Lyte’s 1578 translation of a plant history by the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens).

Jonathon Green, writing in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, says the figurative sense is derived from the literal “wallflower,” apparently the wild variety that climbs up old walls and into crevices.

Green’s Dictionary defines the figurative “wallflower” as “a woman (occas. a man) who does not join in dancing at a ball or dance, either through her inability to find a partner or through her desire to remain solo; thus a retiring, shy person.”

The OED says “violet” refers to a “plant or flower of the genus Viola, esp. V. odorata, the sweet-smelling violet, growing wild, and cultivated in gardens; the flowers are usually purplish blue, mauve, or white.”

The first written mention of the flower in English, according to Oxford, is from Arthour and Merlin, an anonymous Middle English romance written around 1330:

“Mirie it is in time of June … Violet & rose flour Woneþ þan in maidens bour.” (By 1370 the name of the flower, from the Old French violete, was being used for a color.)

The earliest example we’ve found for “shrinking violet” uses the term literally to describe a flower that’s hard to see in the wild (suggestive of the modern figurative sense):

“There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-coloured poppy, neither the good nor the ill of which was then known; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.”

(From “Ronald of the Perfect Hand,” an essay by the English poet and critic Leigh Hunt in the Feb. 23, 1820, issue of The Indicator, a literary magazine edited by Hunt.)

Oxford defines the figurative meaning of “shrinking violet” as “a shy or modest person.” The dictionary’s first example is from In Times Like These, a 1915 book by the Canadian feminist Nellie McClung:

“Voting will not be compulsory; the shrinking violets will not be torn from their shady fence-corner; the ‘home bodies’ will be able to still sit in rapt contemplation of their own fireside.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples, including one in an 1833 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American magazine, that compares Thekla in Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy to Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“The timidity of Thekla in her first scene, her trembling silence in the commencement, and the few words she addresses to her mother, reminds us of the unobtrusive simplicity of Juliet’s first appearance; but the impression is difficult: the one is the shrinking violet, the other the expanded rose-bud.”

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The corporate ‘we’

Q: This sentence is on a literary agency website: “We offer our clients unusually meaningful editorial guidance and inspiration, and serve as their advocate throughout the publishing process.” Shouldn’t “we” take the plural “advocates”?

A: The literary agency is using what’s often called “the corporate we.” The firm itself is the “advocate” (singular), but refers to itself in the plural (“we”).

This is a very common practice in business language; in fact, it’s the rule rather than the exception in corporate discourse.

A company, an organization, or an institution will commonly refer to itself with the first-person plural “we” (along with “us,” “our,” and “ourselves” where appropriate), rather than with the impersonal pronoun “it.”

Here are some examples plucked randomly from the Internet. Note that in each case a singular entity (“company,” “university,” “medical center,” “firm”) refers to itself in the plural:

“We want to be your car company” … “We’re America’s first research university” … “We are a not-for-profit, 912-bed academic medical center” … “We are a major employer in the area” … “As a ‘main street’ accounting firm, we set ourselves apart” … “As a company we pride ourselves on our customer service and satisfaction” … “But we’re not just bigger—we’re one of the best colleges” … “It’s what makes us the business we are today.”

And commercial and institutional websites invariably use language like “who we are” and “what we do,” never “what it is” and “what it does.”

The corporate “we” isn’t a recent invention. You can find commercial examples from the early 20th century. But the usage began to surge in the 1980s, Lester Faigley writes in Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition (1992).

“Use of the corporate we is one of the tactics stressed in popular books on corporate management during the 1980s,” Faigley writes, mentioning specifically the influential book Corporate Cultures (1982), by Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy. That book refers to the use of “we” as “a clever ploy for communicating corporate principles.”

Another book, Ruth Breze’s Corporate Discourse (2013), has this to say:

“There is an almost overwhelming insistence on collective identity: the corporate ‘we,’ which reports achievements in positive terms, and is used variously to include ‘we the employees,’ ‘we the management,’ ‘we the company and its investors’ and ‘we the general public.’ Self-praise is risky when one individual indulges it in front of others. … However, self-praise is socially admissible if the entity being praised is a collective ‘us’ that potentially involves the reader/listener.”

The corporate usage isn’t the only notable “we” on the landscape. Two others have been around for much longer—the “editorial we” and the “royal we.”

The “editorial we” is sometimes adopted by the author of a book or article, particularly an opinion column. It’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the pronoun we used by a single person to denote himself, as in an editorial.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a letter written by Charles Dickens in 1841: “Every rotten-hearted pander who … struts it in the Editorial We once a week.”

The “royal we,” the oldest of the three, is the one used by English kings and queens. The OED defines the “royal we” as “the pronoun ‘we’ used in place of ‘I’ by a monarch or other person in power, esp. in formal declarations, or (frequently humorously) by any individual.”

The earliest definite known use in English is from a proclamation of Henry III in 1298, the dictionary says. But perhaps the most famous example is Queen Victoria’s reported response to a joke told at dinner: “We are not amused.”

(The remark was passed on by Her Majesty’s secretary, and reported in the press during her lifetime, but it has never been definitively confirmed.)

The practice of referring to oneself in the plural actually has a name, “nosism,” as the two of us wrote on our blog in 2011. The word comes from the Latin nos (“we”), so it literally means we-ism.

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A rapist or a raper?

Q: Why is a person who rapes called a “rapist” and not a “raper”?

A: Someone who rapes can be called a “raper” as well as a “rapist,” though “rapist” is much more common and slightly older.

You can find both terms in several standard dictionaries. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines a “raper” as “one who rapes,” and a “rapist” as “one who commits rape.”

The two terms showed up within a few years of each other in the 19th century, with “-er” and “-ist” suffixes added to the much older verb “rape,” which appeared in the 14th century.

The “-er” and “-ist” suffixes can be added to verbs to form agent nouns—nouns that refer to someone who does something.

In the past, the “-er” suffix was generally added to words of Germanic origin and the “-ist” suffix to words of Latin or Greek origin. However, the use of the two suffixes to form nouns from existing words hasn’t been consistent in modern times.

So why is “rapist” more common today than “raper”? Perhaps the usage was influenced by “racist” or other negative “-ist” words, such as “antagonist,” “apologist,” “bigamist,” “dogmatist,” “egotist,” “hedonist,” “imperialist,” “materialist,” “misogynist,” “opportunist,” “plagiarist,” “separatist,” and “sexist.”

On the other hand, many “-ist” words are positive (“altruist,” “idealist,” “humanist,” “optimist,” “rationalist,” “realist,” etc.), and many more are neutral (“archeologist,” “cyclist,” “dramatist,” “etymologist,” “journalist,” “linguist,” “lyricist,” “philologist,” “physicist,” “scientist,” “ventriloquist,” and so on).

The earliest example for “rapist” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Feb. 27, 1869, issue of the Dallas Weekly Herald. We’ve expanded the citation for context:

“The Charleston (S.C.) News says their Reconstruction Constitution, when finished, had a plank from Ohio, many a plank from Vermont, and a whole board beam from Africa the blest. Our Texas Convention had a whole raft of such lumber, including Bryant, the rapist.”

The dictionary’s first example for “raper” is from another Texas periodical, the Dec. 12, 1878, issue of the Galveston Daily News:

“The President has pardoned two mail robbers and commuted the sentences of two murderers and one raper from death to imprisonment for life.”

The most recent OED example for “rapist” is from the Aug. 18, 2007, Toronto Star: “It’s tough to judge love songs and social commentary from a convicted rapist.”

And Oxford‘s latest citation for “raper” is from the Oct. 14, 1992, Tucson (AZ) Weekly: “An election year that already looked like a showdown between the tree-huggers and the land-rapers.”

A somewhat earlier sexual example in the OED is from “The Shadow on the Wall,” a short story by the British writer L. P. Hartley:

“Some women locked theirs [bedroom doors] even when there was no threat of a nightly visitant, burglar, marauder, raper, or such-like.” (From Mrs. Carteret Receives, and Other Stories, 1971.)

When the verb “rape” first showed up in English in the late 1300s, it meant to take something by force, according to Oxford.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the English verb comes from rapere, classical Latin for to seize by force. The OED describes this derivation as probable.

The earliest Oxford citation is from “Redde Rationem Villicationis Tue,” a sermon preached in 1388 by Thomas Wimbledon at Paul’s Cross, an open-air pulpit on the grounds of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was on the site of the present St. Paul’s in London:

“Rauenes fisches haueþ sum mesure. Whan þey hungreþ, þey rapeþ; but whan þey beþ fulle, þey spareþ” (“Ravenous fish have some measure. When they hungereth, they rapeth; but when they are full, they spareth”). The Latin title of the sermon, which means “Give an Account of Thy Stewardship,” is from the Gospel of Luke 16:2.

In the 1400s the verb took on the sense of carrying someone off by force, especially a woman, and in the 1500s it came to mean to “violate (a person) sexually; to commit rape against (a person); esp. (of a man) to force (a woman) to have sexual intercourse against her will,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the verb “rape” used in the modern sexual sense is from a 1574 translation of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, apocryphal scripture written in Hebrew and Greek:

“The Sichemites … Raped Dina … Persecuted straungers … Rauished their wiues.”

(In the book of Genesis, Sichem, also spelled Shechem, rapes Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Most English translations of Genesis 34 use such words as “humble,” “defile,” or “humiliate,” rather than “rape.”)

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Book ‘depository’ or ‘repository’?

Q: What’s the difference between “repository” and “depository”? Why, for example, is the Beinecke library at Yale often referred to as a repository while that notorious building in Dallas was called the Texas School Book Depository?

A: The two words overlap, but “repository” is more expansive than “depository.”

Standard dictionaries define both “repository” and “depository” as a place where something is stored, but then go on to say a “repository” can specifically mean a warehouse, a museum, a burial vault, a person entrusted with secrets, the site of a natural resource, and someone or something considered a store of knowledge.

Both words are of Latin origin. “Depository” ultimately comes from dēpōnere, classical Latin for to lay away, while “repository” is ultimately derived from repōnere, classical Latin for to put away or store. (In ancient Rome, a repositōrium was a portable stand for serving courses at a meal.)

When the oldest of the English terms, “repository,” showed up in writing in the 15th century, it meant a “place or receptacle in which things are or may be deposited, esp. for storage or safe keeping,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce, Charles the Grete, William Caxton’s 1485 translation of a French biography of Charlemagne:

“Of the floures charles put a parte in a reposytorye.” (The flowers here are said to have bloomed on thorns that came from Jesus’s crown of thorns.)

When “depository” appeared in the 18th century, the dictionary says, it similarly referred to a “place or receptacle in which things are deposited or placed for safe keeping; a storehouse, a repository.”

The first OED citation describes Alexandria as “the depository of all merchandizes from the East and West” (from a 1752 book on commercial law by the English entrepreneur Wyndham Beawes).

“Depository” is still primarily used to mean a place to store things safely, but “repository” has taken on many more specific senses, though all are related in one way or other to its original storage sense.

In the 16th century, for example, “repository” began being used for someone entrusted with confidential information. In the 17th, it came to mean a burial vault, warehouse, marketplace, art museum, and someone who’s a store of knowledge. In the 18th century, it became the site of a natural resource, and in the 19th, an archive or a library.

That’s why the Beinecke library is referred to as a repository for rare books and manuscripts while the Dallas building, primarily a place to store textbooks for distribution, was called a depository.

We’ll end with an example from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield, of “repository” used in the sense of a confidante: “I wanted somebody to talk to, then. I missed Agnes. I found a tremendous blank, in the place of that smiling repository of my confidence.”

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When ‘even’ is odd

Q: Is the use of “even” correct in all these sentences? (1) “Even when he is sick, she works.” (2) “She works even when he is sick.” (3) “She even works when he is sick.” Thanks for any insight you can provide.

A: All three are correct: #1 and #2 mean the same thing, but the meaning of #3 is slightly different.

As an adverb, “even” has a number of uses, and one of them is to point out a special case or an unusual situation.

In your first two examples, “even” is used emphatically to suggest that the main clause (“she works”) is true not just normally but in an unusual situation (“when he is sick”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this use of “even” as “intimating that the sentence expresses an extreme case of a more general proposition implied.”

Here the “general proposition” is that “she works”; the “extreme case,” introduced by “even,” is “when he is sick.”

Interestingly, this use of “even,” the OED says, didn’t come into English until the 1500s and is unknown in the other Germanic languages.

In this sense, the dictionary says, “even” is “attached to a word or clause expressing time, manner, place, or any attendant circumstance.” In your first two sentences, the clause expresses a circumstance: “when he is sick.”

The earliest written example in Oxford comes from this lyrical passage in a 16th-century work on husbandry, or agriculture. The “husbande” here is a farmer:

“The leafe … turneth with the Sunne, whereby it sheweth to the husbande, euen in cloudie weather, what time of the day it is.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation from the Latin of Conrad Heresbach.)

Getting back to your question, the meaning doesn’t change when the order of the clauses is reversed, as in #1 (“Even when he is sick, she works”) and #2 (“She works even when he is sick”).

In both examples, “even” identifies “when he is sick” as the unusual circumstance under which “she works.”

But the meaning is slightly altered when “even” is attached to a different part of the sentence, as in #3 (“When he is sick, she even works”).

In this example, the emphasis has changed, because “even” is attached directly to the verb “works.” This makes the act of working (not his being sick) the extreme case.

The implication in #3 is that she does many things “when he is sick”—in fact, she “even works.” Imagine what’s unspoken here: “When he is sick, she [does this and that and] even works.”

We’re speaking now about a written sentence. In a spoken sentence, however, the speaker can influence the way the sentence is interpreted, as we’ll explain below.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call “even” in these senses a “focusing modifier.” It focuses meaning on a particular part of the sentence, much in the same way as “also,” “as well,” and “too.”

Even is typical of focusing adverbs in being able to occur in a wide range of positions,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. They illustrate with these sentences (note the shift in emphasis as “even” is moved):

Even you would have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed even dancing tonight.

“You would have enjoyed dancing even tonight.”

In the first, third, and fourth examples, the authors say, there’s only one possible interpretation—each of them different.

But where “even” modifies an entire verb phrase, as in the second example, “You would even have enjoyed dancing tonight,” there are three possible interpretations, and speakers can pinpoint their meaning by vocally stressing the word they intend as the focus:

“YOU would even have enjoyed dancing tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed DANCING tonight” … “You would even have enjoyed dancing TONIGHT.”

The authors add that “even” usually precedes what it modifies, “but in informal speech it occasionally follows,” as in “You would have enjoyed dancing tonight, even.”

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On sneakers and plimsolls

Q: Why do the British use “plimsolls” for what Americans refer to as “sneakers”?

A: The British generally use “plimsolls” or “plimsoll shoes” for low-tech athletic shoes with canvas uppers and flat rubber soles. They use “trainers” or “training shoes” for more serious athletic footwear.

Americans use “sneakers” broadly for all sorts of athletic shoes: running shoes, tennis shoes, gym shoes, and so on.

However, “sneakers” does appear now and then in searches of the British National Corpus, and “plimsolls” is not unknown to the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

Although “sneakers” is much more common in the US now, an early version of the term, “sneaks,” originated in the UK in the mid-19th century. It referred to noiseless (and presumably sneaky) rubber-soled shoes.

The earliest example for “sneaks” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Female Life in Prison, an 1862 account by “A Prison Matron,” pseudonym of the British novelist Frederick William Robinson:

“The night-officer is generally accustomed to wear a species of India-rubber shoes or goloshes on her feet. These are termed ‘sneaks’ by the women.”

The next OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from In Strange Company, an 1883 book by the British journalist James Greenwood about the dark side of English life:

“My guide wore a pair of what, in criminal phraseology, are known as ‘sneaks,’ and are shoes with canvas tops and indiarubber soles.”

The word “sneakers” showed up in the footwear sense a few years later in the US. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Sept. 2, 1887, issue of the New York Times. A column, “Crisp Sayings” includes this example from the Boston Journal of Education:

“It is only the harassed schoolmaster who can fully appreciate the pertinency of the name boys give to tennis shoes—sneakers.”

Both “sneaks” and “sneakers” are derived from the verb “sneak,” which the OED defines as to “move, go, walk, etc., in a stealthy or slinking manner; to creep or steal furtively, as if ashamed or afraid to be seen; to slink, skulk.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, believed written in the late 1590s: “Sicke in the worlds regard: wretched and low / A poore vnminded outlaw sneaking home.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

The OED says “sneak” is of “doubtful origin,” and apparently is not related to the Old English snícan and early Middle English snīken, both meaning to creep or crawl, nor to the Old Norse sníkja, with similarly sneaky senses.

Getting back to your question, the British use of “plimsolls” (sometimes spelled “plimsoles”) for basic athletic shoes showed up in the UK around the same time that “sneakers” appeared in the US.

The first Oxford example is from an Aug. 19, 1885, entry in the Trade Marks Journal, a publication of the British Patent office, now the Intellectual Property Office: ”Universal Plimsoll … Plimsoll Shoes.

Other early examples include a March 24, 1899, advertisement from a shoe and leather journal for “ ‘Plimsoll’ gymnastic and tennis shoes,” and this excerpt from James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegans Wake: “Their blankets and materny mufflers and plimsoles.”

The OED says the name of the shoes is apparently derived from “Plimsoll line,” the marking on the hull of a ship that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can safely be submerged when loaded with cargo.

The line itself was named for Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98), a member of Parliament for Derby, who was noted for his work on the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876.

The dictionary cites a 1975 biography of Plimsoll, by George H. Peters, that says a salesman suggested the name for the footwear because the rubber strip between the sole and canvas resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship.

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The missile link

Q: How did an “intercontinental ballistic missile” become an “ICBM” instead of simply an “IBM”?

A: The original abbreviation for “intercontinental ballistic missile” was indeed “I.B.M.” (with dots), and some standard dictionaries—Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example—still include both “IBM” and “ICBM” as the abbreviations.

The earliest example we’ve found for either initialism (an abbreviation that’s spoken as letters) is from the July 27, 1954, issue of the Birmingham (AL) News:

“In the year 1960, by the agreed estimate of the Pentagon’s official analysis, the Soviet Union will fly its first intercontinental ballistic missile. That missile, or I.B.M. as the experts call it, will be an accurately guided rocket, comparable to a giant V-2, capable of carrying a hydrogen warhead over a range of 4000 to 5000 miles.”

The earliest example for ICBM that we’ve seen (from the May 30, 1955, issue of Newsweek) explains why the longer term is more common today:

“The Air Force is now calling the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile the ICBM instead of the IBM. Too many people got the missile confused with International Business Machines Corp.”

We found both examples above in “Among the New Words,” a column by I. Willis Russell, in the May 1957 issue of American Speech.

Finally, here’s an early “ICBM” example cited by Russell that seems relevant now:

“The ICBM—the intercontinental ballistic weapon—has become, even before its first test flight, part of the language of power politics” (from the June 2, 1956, issue of the New York Times Magazine).

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Kicking down the ladder

Q: In reading my mother’s 1931 diary, I’ve noticed the expression “kicking over the lighter,” as in “The boys tried kicking over the lighter.” I can’t believe it should be taken literally. Any thoughts?

A: We aren’t familiar with “kicking over the lighter,” and we haven’t found the expression in slang and etymological dictionaries or in book and newspaper databases.

Perhaps your mother was thinking of “kicking over the ladder,” and either misheard the expression or misspelled it.

In that expression, and the more common “kicking down the ladder,” the word “ladder” is being used figuratively for the means by which one gets ahead in life.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “kick down the ladder” as “said of persons who repudiate or ignore the friendships or associations by means of which they have risen in the world.”

The earliest OED example for the figurative use of “ladder” as a means to get ahead is from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175): “Ðis is sunfulla monna leddre” (“This is the ladder of sinful men”).

The dictionary’s first citation for the expression “kick down the ladder” is from a July 18, 1794, letter by Horatio Nelson (Vice Admiral Lord Nelson) to Samuel Hood (Admiral Lord Hood):

“Duncan is, I think, a little altered; there is nothing like kicking down the ladder a man rises by.”

The verb “kick” has been used since the 14th century in various expressions of equine origin that figuratively mean to rebel uselessly and painfully.

The earliest example in the OED is from a religious tract written around 1380 by the English theologian John Wycliffe:

“It is hard to kyke aȝen þe spore” (“It is hard to kick against the spur”). Oxford also has examples for “kick against the prick” (or “pricks”), and “kick against the goad.”

In addition, the dictionary has citations for the equine expression “kick over the traces” used figuratively to mean throw over the usual restraints.

The first example is from Ravenshoe, an 1861 novel by Henry Kingsley: “I’ll go about with the rogue. He is inclined to kick over the traces, but I’ll whip him in a little.”

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