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A friend of Dorothy

Q: In The Crown, Queen Elizabeth uses the phrase “a friend of Dorothy” to mean a gay person. Do you know when or where the expression was first used this way? The episode was set in the early 1980s.

A: An early version of the expression showed up in writing in the 1970s, but it had undoubtedly been used before that in speech, where “friend of Dorothy” or “Dorothy’s friend” was a coded way of identifying a man as gay.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the name “Dorothy” here comes from “the heroine of the book The Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, by L. Frank Baum. The film version of the story (1939), with Judy Garland as Dorothy, was a particular favourite amongst some homosexuals.”

That’s the most common (and authoritative) explanation for the source of the expression, but others cite the American writer Dorothy Parker or Dorothy Dean, a socialite who was associated with Andy Warhol and gay New York culture.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand, cites a definition of the phrase “Dorothy and Toto” in The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (1972), by Bruce Rodgers: “1. gay boy and his dog 2. dominating effeminate homosexual man with his paid-for escort 3. extended to any male couple whose effeminate partner is in command ‘When’s Dorothy and Toto getting here with the chest of drawers?’ ”

The next two examples in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, treat the expressions “Dorothy’s friend” and “friend of Dorothy” as meaning simply a gay man:

“Dorothy’s friends, the male gay community, from the 50s onwards” (Slanguage of Sex: A Dictionary of Modern Sexual Terms, 1985, by Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw).

“A Somewhere-Over-The-Rainbow Coalition which offers little to the friends of Dorothy because, like the Wizard of Oz, its power is illusory” (Capital Gay, a London magazine, Feb. 12, 1988).

And here’s the entry for “friend of Dorothy” in Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime (2006), by Donald F. Reuter:

“Phrase meaning someone is gay, and rooted in: 1) our fondness for Judy Garland, the iconic entertainer who played Dorothy Gale in the classic film musical The Wizard of Oz with her trio of sexless male buddies; 2) our association to and admiration for sharp-tongued writer Dorothy Parker, whose famed ‘vicious circle’ of pals included gay men; and 3) the need for gay men, during much of the twentieth century, to speak in code (for fear of being found out).”

Getting back to The Crown, in season four, episode seven of the streaming TV series, Princess Margaret’s love interest, Derek (Dazzle) Jennings, says he’s becoming a Roman Catholic priest. When Margaret tells the Queen, this exchange follows:

Elizabeth: That’s the second reason he was never the right man for you.

Margaret: The first being?

Elizabeth: Well, he’s, you know, a friend of Dorothy.

Margaret: Dazzle?

Elizabeth: Famously, yes.

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To beg the question

Q: I notice with distressing regularity the misuse and cheapening of words and phrases. One expression that comes to mind is “beg the question.

A: Like it or not, “beg the question” has more meanings in modern English than the one it started out with.

Essentially, a 16th-century technical phrase with a very narrow definition became so widely used in general English that its original meaning was left behind. It now has so many meanings that it’s best avoided except in a treatise on logic.

Back in 1581, when “beg the question” was first recorded, it had a specific meaning in philosophy. It described a fallacy in logic that consists more or less of arguing in a circle—that is, basing an argument on premises that are unproven, or that simply restate the argument.

To illustrate, here’s an argument that “begs the question”: “My son is innocent because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime.”

The argument to be proved is “My son is innocent,” but the premises on which it’s based—“because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime”—also need to be proved; they merely state the argument in different terms. The premises of an argument should be indisputable, like “because he was in Toronto at the time, and someone else’s fingerprints are on the weapon.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the philosophical sense of “beg the question” as “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The earliest known use, cited by the OED and other references, is from an account of the 1581 interrogation of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who refused to accept Anglican doctrine despite being tortured on the rack:

“I say this is still to begge the question” (from a comment by an Anglican interrogator in A True Report of the Disputation or Rather Priuate Conference Had in the Tower of London, with Ed. Campion Iesuite). Campion, convicted of treason, was drawn and quartered.

Although the original sense of the expression is still alive, linguists and lexicographers say that it’s no longer the predominant meaning and hasn’t been since the mid-18th century.

Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary, labels the original meaning “formal,” and says on its website that the expression “is only very rarely used this way.”

Today, nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, both American and British, offer additional definitions like these: “raise a question or point that has not been dealt with”; “invite an obvious question”; “avoid the question”; “evade the issue”; “ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled”; “avoid giving a direct answer by posing another question.”

All those differing uses of “beg the question”—especially the first two—are treated as standard English today and are found in even the most elevated writing and speech. Unless the expression is found in context, there’s no way to tell what it means.

So what happened to the original “beg the question”? You might say that it carried the seeds of its own destruction, because it didn’t use either “beg” or “question” in its ordinary meaning. The linguist Mark Liberman, writing on the Language Log, has called its history “a cavalcade of misleading translations.” Here’s the story.

The fallacy in logic here was first identified by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. He referred to it in several different works, calling it τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι and τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ λαμβάνειν, ancient Greek for “asking at the beginning” and “assuming the initial thing.” In other words, using premises that assume at the outset the truth of what you’re trying to prove.

Many centuries later, in the 1100s, the Greek term was translated into medieval Latin as petitio principii, “a postulate (or a postulating) at the beginning.”

The Latin version began appearing in British manuscripts written in Latin in the 1300s, the OED says. And since the 1530s petitio principii has regularly appeared, often italicized, in English writing about philosophy and logic, where it’s so familiar that it’s sometimes called petitio for short.

A mid-16th-century writer defined it this way in a treatise on the mass: “Petitio principii, that is when a ma[n] wyl proue [prove] a thynge to be true, by the same thinge, or wyth an other, that is as doubtfull as that is, which is called into questio[n].” From A New Dialogue Wherin Is Conteyned the Examinatio[n] of the Messe (1548), by William Turner.

In the late 1500s, petitio principii was translated into English for wider audiences, people who weren’t educated at the elite universities and didn’t know Latin. Unfortunately, it was awkwardly rendered as “beg the question”—a puzzling usage that was doomed to confuse ordinary readers and was worse than no translation at all.

In the first place, “beg” was inappropriate. The classical Latin petitio might indeed have been translated as a begging or a pleading. But in medieval  Latin, the noun as used in logic meant “a postulate” or “a postulating”—that is, something taken for granted as a basis for reasoning.

In the second place, “question” was inappropriate. As used in logic, the Latin principii meant at the beginning or starting point (of an argument). It’s true that one meaning of “question” is something being argued, but that’s not what “question” means to most people.

Since the Middle Ages, “question” has more commonly meant a request for information, like a sentence ending with a question mark, not a statement being defended in an argument.

The linguist Carol Lynn Moder, who has written extensively on the history and development of “beg the question,” has shown that subtle shifts in the meaning of the phrase began to set in at the very beginning.

Even when using “beg the question” in its Aristotelian sense, Moder writes, 16th-century writers were shifting the sense of “beg” away from its postulating meaning: “Authors in this period regularly invoked the common ‘requesting alms’ meaning of beg to suggest the unseemly characteristics of those committing this fallacy.”

She cites these examples from 1579-80, even before “beg the question” became the usual form of the expression: “Alas, this is such a poore begginge of that in question” … “a shamefull petition or begging of that which is in question” … “a shamefull begging of that which is questioned.”

The “beg the question” wording, which first appeared in writing in 1581, had become the usual form of the expression by the mid-17th century, Moder says. And well into the 18th century, the expression was regularly used it in its narrow, logical sense—but this was soon to change.

In the mid-18th century, she writes, the expression began “to move out of its Aristotelian niche, appearing more widely in magazines, plays, travel writing and memoirs in contexts less clearly concerning logical disputations.”

Furthermore, Moder says, literacy spread, and as printed materials became more widely available the expression was read and interpreted by readers unfamiliar with formal logic.

From the mid-18th century onward, she adds, “beg the question” began acquiring meanings that had little or nothing to do with that Aristotelian fallacy.

This could have been predicted. If the parts of a formulaic expression don’t make sense together—like “beg” and “question”—people will find a sensible meaning for themselves. As far as we can tell, the expression now usually means to “raise a question that begs to be answered”—and it’s then followed by an actual question.

(Moder’s paper “Begging the Question: Chunking, Compositionality and Language Change” was first published in 2016 and later as a chapter in Formulaicity and Creativity in Language and Literature, 2018, edited by Ian MacKenzie and Martin A. Kayman.)

Incidentally, we were surprised to find that despite the wider definitions in standard dictionaries, the OED’s sole definition of “beg the question” is that original one: “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The OED is behind the curve here. It has no citations later than 1870, a century and a half ago, and cites no examples of the wider uses that have existed from the mid-1600s onward.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, as we mentioned above, is the one from 1581. And this is the latest: “The vulgar equivalent for petitio principii is begging the question” (A Treatise on Logic, 1870, by Francis Bowen). We can only assume that the OED will eventually record the many other uses of the expression.

So how are modern speakers and writers supposed to use “beg the question”? Our advice is don’t; use either “raise the question” or “evade the issue,” depending on what you mean. As Mark Liberman says in that Language Log post:

“If you use the phrase to mean ‘raise the question,’ some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ ‘misuse,’ you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean ‘assume the conclusion,’ almost no one will understand you.

“My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself … and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.”

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A weighty look at gravitas

Q: What are your thoughts about “gravitas” and its overuse in recent election cycles?

A: This pompous word for “seriousness” or “solemnity” sounds ancient, but “gravitas” has only been an English word since the late 19th century. As you’ve noticed, though, it’s become ubiquitous lately.

In fact, “gravitas” has been worked to death. You might say that among certain classes of writers, “gravitas” carries a lot of weight. It seems especially popular in criticism (literary, artistic, etc.) as well as in writing about politics and culture.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows that its use has shot up steeply since the mid-1980s, charting an almost vertical climb.

But there are signs that the word is showing some wear. In the last couple of years, the chart shows, its use has leveled off and may have peaked.

What’s more, writers have started giving it modifiers—“epic gravitas,” “monumental gravitas,” “enormous gravitas,” “great gravitas,” “tremendous gravitas”—as if mere “gravitas” alone is losing its cachet. Our suspicion is that “gravitas” will eventually sink of its own weight.

The word as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary means “weighty dignity; reverend seriousness; serious or solemn conduct or demeanour befitting a ceremony, an office, etc.; staidness.” But by the mid-20th century it was used more widely to mean “seriousness or sobriety (of conduct, bearing, speech, temperament, etc.); opposed to levity and gaiety.”

And it doesn’t always refer to people and their behavior. Here’s the current definition in Merriam-Webster: “high seriousness (as in a person’s bearing or in the treatment of a subject).”

As for its etymology, the noun was borrowed in the late 1800s from the Latin gravitas, which primarily meant weight in its physical sense, but was also used figuratively to mean weightiness or seriousness. The noun comes from the Latin adjective gravis (heavy, important).

It’s interesting that the word “gravity” itself, which came into English in 1509, first meant seriousness or solemnity. It was “introduced in figurative senses, corresponding generally to the English senses of the adjective [grave],” the OED says. “The primary physical sense of the Latin word came into English first in the 17th cent.”

Similarly, when “gravitas” first appeared in English writing in the late 19th century (usually italicized), it had the figurative rather than the literal meaning of its Latin ancestor.

Initially, English speakers may have used “gravitas” as a substitute for the serious meaning of “gravity,” which by then was commonly used in its scientific sense.

In its earliest uses, both American and British, “gravitas” referred to a character trait admired by the Romans.

The oldest use we’ve found is from a humorous poem: “The gravitas that marked a Roman / Methinks will never find a home in / Our versatile and jovial Harry” (from The Epitome, 1887, an annual publication by students at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA).

The next appeared in London: “He is a man exceptionally endowed with that gravitas which the Romans used so much to desiderate in character” (St James’s Gazette, March 18, 1897).

And this early 20th-century example is from an American magazine: “But many of these have what President Roosevelt has not—namely, that noble old Roman virtue, gravitas” (Current Literature, November 1904).

The OED’s earliest citation is mid-1920s British: “He never sheds a certain Roman gravitas” (The Manchester Guardian Weekly, Oct. 20, 1924).

And we found this example from that same year in an Australian newspaper’s eulogy for a headmaster: “When, indeed, did anyone … embody such gravitas, such dignity, such fortitude, such independence, such justice, such contempt for all that is unworthy and dishonourable? Temperamentally he was more an antique Roman than an Englishman” (The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Queensland, Dec. 30, 1924).

Only since the mid-20th century has “gravitas” been applied to serious things and ideas rather than to people. These two OED citations illustrate the wider use of the term:

“A certain gravitas in the atmosphere of the Scottish universities” (The Spectator, May 30, 1958) … “Its leading articles, and even its news coverage, will have a superb Victorian gravitas” (The Times, London, Aug. 2, 1961).

The noun, which is almost never italicized today, is only the latest in a long list of English words derived from the Latin adjective gravis and its prehistoric source—an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as gwerə– (heavy).

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.), by Calvert Watkins, says the root gwerə– produced not only the Latin gravis but also the Sanskrit element guru- (heavy, venerable), the Greek words βαρύς (barus, heavy) and βάρος (baros, weight), the Latin brutus (heavy, cumbersome), and the Celtic elements brig-o- (strength) and brig-a- (strife).

These eventually gave English the words “grief,” “grieve,” “gravid,” “guru,” “aggravate,” “aggrieve,” “baritone,” “barium,” “isobar,” “brio,” “brigade,” “brigand,” and “brigantine,” in addition to “gravity,” “gravitas,” and the adjective “grave.”

And by the way, the noun “grave,” for a burial place, has entirely different origins. Its prehistoric source is an Indo-European root reconstructed as ghrebh- (dig, bury, scratch), according to Watkins. Ancient Germanic descendants of this root ultimately gave English not only the noun “grave” but also “engrave,” “gravure,” “groove,” the adjective “graven,” and the verb “grub.”

Thus the two English words “grave,” both of which have an air or solemnity, came into the language from different directions.

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On ‘pent’ and ‘spent’

Q: I came across the following passage in the The New Yorker from a 1949 diary entry by Patricia Highsmith:  “I came home in a silent, pent fury.”  It made me wonder if “spent” and “pent” are related—a letting go and a holding in. Thoughts?

A: No, “spent,” the past tense and past participle of the verb “spend,” isn’t etymologically related to the adjective “pent” (more commonly “pent-up”), which originated as the past participle of the verb “pen” (to enclose or confine).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “spend” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb expendere (to weigh out or pay out). In Old English, it was aspendan (to spend, spend entirely, squander) or more frequently forspendan (to spend utterly, spend away, exhaust with spending).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of an Anglo-Saxon version of “spend” is from the Old English Orosius, an anonymous ninth-century translation of a Latin history written in the fifth century. The citation is in the OED’s entry for the obsolete verb “aspend”:

“Hys gestréon béoð þus eall aspended” (“His wealth was thus all spent”). The manuscript is believed to have been written in the late 800s during the reign of King Alfred. The writer took many liberties in translating the Latin of Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (History Against the Pagans in Seven Books), written in the early 400s by the Roman historian Paulus Orosius.

As for “pent,” Chambers describes it as a variant spelling of “penned,” the past participle of the verb “pen” (to confine someone or something). The verb, in turn, is derived from the noun “pen” (an enclosure), which is of uncertain origin but possibly Germanic.

The noun first appeared in Anglo-Saxon land charters, but it’s often hard to date the early examples because pen in Old English could mean an enclosure or a hill. The earliest OED example “positively identified” as an enclosure is from a 1227 copy of a 1061 land grant:

“Þonne adun onstream oð rean clif, þanon oð hæð pen suþewardne on þone holan stoc” (“then downstream to the cliff, thence to the heath pen and southward to the hollow place”). From Pre-Conquest Charter-Bounds of Devon and Cornwall (1994), by Della Hooke.

The verb “pen” apparently existed in Old English as pennian, but only a negative version has survived in writing, onpennian (to “open,” which etymologically is to un-pen).

The OED’s earliest onpennian example, which we’ve expanded, is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory. The past participle onpennad is used here:

“Ðæt wæter, ðonne hit bið gepynd, hit miclað & uppað & fundað wið ðæs ðe hit ær from com, ðonne hit flowan ne mot ðider hit wolde. Ac gif sio pynding wierð onpennad, oððe sio wering wirð tobrocen, ðonne toflewð hit eall” (“The water, when it is dammed up and cannot flow where it wants, grows and rises and tries to go where it originally intended. But if the dam is opened, or the weir bursts, it all runs off”).

The dictionary’s first written citation for “pen” used as a verb meaning “to enclose, shut in, confine, or trap (a person or thing)” is in Middle English, from a sermon written sometime before 1200:

“Þe pit tineð his muð ouer þe man þe lið on fule synnen … gif ure ani is þus forswolgen and þus penned, clupe we to ure louerd ihesu crist” (“The pit closes its mouth over the man who lies down on foul sins … and if any of us are thus swallowed and penned, let us call upon Our Lord Jesus  Christ”). From Old English Homilies of the Twelfth Century (1873), edited by Richard Morris.

The OED’s earliest example for “pent” used as an adjective in the sense of “penned” is from a pseudo-Chaucerian text: “He nas nat alway in cloystre ypent” (“He was not always pent in a cloister”). From the Plowman’s Prologue, added to a 1542 edition of Chaucer’s works.

Finally, the dictionary’s first example for “pent-up” appeared a dozen years later: “Yea as a capon longe pent vp in the caue [cave] / Exiled haue I bene miserably.” From The Resurreccion of the Masse (1554), a collection of religious poems by Hughe Hilarie, thought by some scholars to be a pseudonym for John Bale, an English dramatist and Protestant polemicist.

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A prohibitive favorite

Q: I came across another editing miss at the NY Times. A few weeks before this month’s mayoral election, Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee, was described as “the prohibitive favorite.” I can’t imagine what “prohibitive” means here. Perhaps “presumptive” was intended.

A: Although “prohibitive” usually refers to something that prohibits or that costs too much, the adjective has a third sense in American English, where it’s also used to describe an overwhelming favorite in politics, sports, business, and so on.

Of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, three of the five American dictionaries (American  Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Dictionary.com) say “prohibitive” may refer to someone or something with a near-certain chance of winning.

Is the usage legit? We think so, since the three US dictionaries treat it as standard English. (So far, all five British and two American dictionaries list only the older and more common meanings of the word.)

The wording of the “prohibitive” entry in American Heritage suggests that the overwhelming sense may have evolved in a roundabout way from the prohibiting and costly senses:

“1. Prohibiting; forbidding: took prohibitive measures. 2. So high or burdensome as to discourage purchase or use: prohibitive prices. 3. So likely to win as to discourage competition: the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.”

As far as we can tell, the overwhelming sense began appearing in American sportswriting in the late 19th century. The earliest examples we’ve found are from newspaper reports on horse races:

“Lucky Baldwin’s Los Angeles won the rich Pocahontas Stakes with some ease by half a length from Pee Weep. Los Angeles was a prohibitive favorite, and all the betting was on the place 5 to 1 against Pee Weep” (The Sun, New York, Aug. 26, 1888).

This example showed up a couple of months later: “In the next race, Banner Bearer was a prohibitive favorite, as he only had Haggin’s Prose as a competitor” (St. Paul Daily Globe, Oct. 11, 1888).

The usage increased sharply in the second half of the 20th century, though it seems to have fallen off a bit in recent years, according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books. Here are some recent examples:

“With a prohibitive favorite at No. 1 in the 2021 NBA draft, the real betting intrigue starts after Cade Cunningham” (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 2021).

“The winner of the Democratic primary will be a prohibitive favorite to win, all else held equal” (Boston.com, Jan. 24, 2018).

“The Wisconsin native came in as a prohibitive favorite and showed why, dusting the 25-car field in the $6,000-to-win event” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 22, 2021).

“On the sitcom side, ‘Ted Lasso’ is considered the prohibitive [Emmy] favorite among fellow Outstanding Comedy Series nominees” (Yahoo News, Sept. 19, 2021).

“If Vegas posted odds on the next winner of the Kennedys’ Profiles in Courage award, [Gen. Mark] Milley would be a prohibitive favorite” (Boston Herald, Sept. 16, 2021).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include this sense of “prohibitive.” And it isn’t discussed in any of the usage manuals we’ve checked.

When the adjective showed up in Middle English in the early 15th century, it referred to something that prevents, forbids, restricts, and so on, according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest examples use the term to describe medical preventatives.

A treatise on surgery, for example, says Hippocrates counsels that using three bandages to bind a fracture is “prohibitif or defensyf,” preventing movement and strengthening the area (Grande Chirurgie, an anonymous early 15th-century translation of Chirurgia Magna, 1363, a Latin work by the French physician Guy de Chauliac).

Another medical work cited by the OED says the herb rue is “prohibityue of cursez of humours [discharge of pus]” (Treatises of Fistula in Ano, circa 1425, by the English surgeon John Arderne). “Fistula in ano” is an old term for a painful lump between the spine and anus, caused by long periods on horseback. Today the ailment, now called a pilonidal cyst, is more likely to affect truck drivers than horseback riders.

In the early 19th century, “prohibitive” took on a new sense, one the OED describes as the most common now—too costly to pay, buy, or use. The dictionary’s first two citations refer to taxes:

“Hence the embargo, the Non-Intercourse Act, and the prohibitive duties” (The Times, London, Dec. 20, 1811) … “A tax whose effect will be prohibitive” (The American, Philadelphia, June 5, 1886).

The dictionary’s latest example for the costly sense of the adjective is from the Ottawa Citizen (March 13, 2005): “Working mothers are giving up on careers, either because the cost of child care proves prohibitive or because they can’t tune out the guilt.”

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So what’s on offer?

Q: A New Yorker review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, says a preacher’s teen-age son “covertly helps himself to a generous amount of gløgg, the potent Scandinavian drink on offer.” Why “on offer” instead of simply “offered”?

A: “On offer,” a phrase dating from the mid-19th century, is a fairly common expression in modern English. In the Oct. 4, 2021, review you cite, it identifies what’s being offered at a Christmas party.

The phrase originated in Britain, and is more common in British than in American English. But from our experience, it’s not uncommon in the US. And the author probably chose it for reasons of rhythm and style.

None of the five standard US dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for the phrase. Merriam-Webster merely notes, within its entry for the noun “offer,” that “on offer” is a “chiefly British” usage that means “being offered especially for sale.”

By contrast, all five of the standard British dictionaries we consult have entries for “on offer.” They all give similar definitions: available to be bought or used. And the examples they give are from commercial rather than social contexts:

“We were amazed at the range of products on offer” (Cambridge) … “country cottages on offer at bargain prices” (Collins) … “the number of permanent jobs on offer is relatively small” (Lexico) … “Activities on offer include sailing, rowing, and canoeing” (Longman) … “These are just some of the films on offer this week” (Macmillan).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “on offer” as “available or obtainable” and also “on sale” (that is, discounted). The noun “offer” as used in the phrase means “the condition of being offered,” the OED says.

The earliest uses of “on offer” that we’ve found in searches of old newspaper databases are from mid-19th-century crop and livestock reports. Here are the first few, all from issues of The Farmer’s Magazine, a British journal devoted to agricultural and rural affairs:

“Decidedly the best of this truly excellent breed [of Hereford cattle] were brought forward by Mr. Rowland of Creslow, who had on offer about 40” (January 1843) … “Not a single fresh head of stock was on offer from abroad” (January 1843) … “the above advance [in wheat prices] has been mostly supported, although the quantities on offer have been on a liberal scale” (June 1843).

We’ve also found the expression in issues of The Economist from that same decade: “the supply of hops on offer is more than adequate to meet the demand” (June 26, 1847). The phrase reappears in virtually all The Economist’s subsequent weekly crop and livestock reports of the 1840s.

The earliest example given in the OED is also from a market report: “Old wheat scarce and dear. Very little barley on offer” (The Daily News, London, Aug. 23, 1881).

And this is the OED’s most recent citation, from a very different sort of market: “They are urged to book ‘de-stressing’ treatments such as massage and reflexology, to drink the herbal teas on offer throughout the day [etc.]” (from Business Day, South Africa, Jan. 28, 2000).

While all of the OED’s examples are of a commercial nature, we’ve heard the phrase used at times in casual social situations, like that Christmas party in Franzen’s novel. You can call these figurative uses if you like.

And we’ve seen plenty of uses of “on offer” that are neither commercial nor social. These examples are from literary criticism:

“Immediately striking is the range of continuities and discontinuities on offer” (Americans on Fiction, 1776-1999, by Peter Rawlings, 2002) … “it is clear that Achilles is capitalizing on the erotic potential on offer in Vergil’s epic” (Latin Poetry in the Ancient Greek Novels, by Daniel Jolowicz, 2021).

And this one is from politics: “How happy are we with the current vision of political ‘reality’ on offer and the way the major political parties seem to see the future?” (Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life, by Andrew Samuels, 2018).

In fact, “on offer” is used in a wide variety of contexts when a writer wants an alternative to “offered.”

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‘I’m by way of being a doctor’

Q: I’ve noticed a construction in older British novels (Agatha Christie, for example) where a character says “I’m by way of being a doctor” instead of simply “I’m a doctor.” Can you tell us anything about this odd use of four unnecessary words?

A: This usage—“I’m by way of being” a doctor, a writer, an actor, etc.—is a mainly British colloquialism that isn’t seen or heard much these days.

In fact, we’ve found only five examples in a recent search of the British National Corpus, a database of written and spoken British English from the later part of the 20th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the verb “to be” plus the compound preposition “by way of” plus a gerund has several senses: “to have as one’s particular role; to make a special point of doing something; to purport or be reputed to be or do something; (sometimes) spec. to be in the habit of doing the specified activity.”

The dictionary describes the usage as “colloquial (chiefly British)” and says it’s “now somewhat literary.” In fact, four of the five examples we found in the British National Corpus are from fiction.

In the passage you cited from Agatha Christie’s 1938 mystery Appointment With Death, the expression is used in the sense of “to have as one’s particular role.”

The BNC has this more recent example from Master of the Moor, a 1982 mystery by Ruth Rendell: “I’m by way of being a bit of an expert on the moor, you know.”

The linguist Anne-Katrin Blass has noted that “in most cases, the construction co-occurs with downtoners” (like “a bit”) or “other markers of tentativeness” (like “you know”).

“Thus, it might be claimed that the communicative purpose of using this phraseological unit in discourse is to signal a certain reluctance to commit oneself fully to the idea one is expressing,” she writes.  (“Textual Functions of Extended Lexical Units: A Case Study of Phrasal Constructions Built Around by way of,” a paper published in the ICAME Journal, April 2012.)

As you can see, Blass is reluctant to commit herself fully to this theory. And so are we. Although Ruth Rendell’s use of the construction is clearly tentative, Agatha Christie’s doesn’t seem to be.

[Note: A reader of the blog who’s by way of being a doctor wonders “whether the expression does not suggest modesty (or false modesty) or casualness, an attempt to lessen the impact of the announcement.”]

The earliest citation for the construction in the OED uses it “to make a special point of doing something”—in this case, introducing a young man to society: “The Colonel was by way of introducing him into the fashionable circles” (from The Inheritance, an 1824 novel by the Scottish writer Susan E. Ferrier).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression used in the occupational sense you’re asking about is from a short story by Henry James: “Oh, you see I’m by way of being a barrister” (from part one of “An International Episode,” published in The Cornhill Magazine, London, December 1878 and January 1879).

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What’s ‘done’ doing here?

Q: In some Southern dialects, one hears the perfect tense expressed with “done” in place of the auxiliary “have.” Example: “We done ate” instead of “We have eaten.” And “done been” forms an emphatic remote perfect tense. Example: “We done been ate.” I have always assumed this is Gullah influence, but perhaps you can give further insight.

A: The word “done” has many roles in American regional English, especially in the South and South Midland, and among the Gullah of the coastal Southeast. However, lexicographers use different terms than yours to describe this regional usage.

The word “done” functions as an adverb, an auxiliary, or the infinitive “do” in expressions like the ones you’ve cited, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

However, the adverbial use is “not always clearly distinguishable” from the auxiliary usage, the dictionary explains.

DARE says “done” is being used adverbially “to emphasize the attainment of a state or completion of action” in this passage:

“Then she begun to sing again, working at the washtub, with that singing look in her face like she had done give up folks and all their foolishness and had done went on ahead of them, marching up the sky, singing.” From William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930).

The dictionary says “done” is acting as the auxiliary “have” in this citation: “You just done made up your mind that you ain’t going to be no good to me.” From Richard Wright’s novel Lawd Today! (completed in 1935 and published posthumously in 1963).

And here’s a DARE example, which we’ve expanded, for “done” used in place of the bare (or “to”-less) infinitive “do” in Gullah, a creole language found among African-Americans of the Lowcountry of Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas:

“I come mighty nigh marryin him mysef one time. E use to beg me so, but I’m glad now I didn’ done it.” From the novel Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), by Julia Peterkin.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites an obsolete use of “done” as an auxiliary in Scottish English. The OED says the auxiliary “done” here is used periphrastically (by a combination of words) to add tense to a bare infinitive that would otherwise need to be inflected.

In this example, the OED says “done” is “a periphrastic auxiliary” that turns the bare infinitive “discuss” into a past participle: “As I afore, haue done discus” (“As I before have discussed”). From Tract Concernyng the Office and Dewtie of Kyngis, Spiritvall Pastoris, and Temporall Ivgis [Judges] (1556), by William Lauder.

And in this example, “done” turns the bare infinitive “invent” into a past participle: “And many other false abusion / The Paip hes done invent” (“And many another false abuse / The Pope has invented”). From a 1578 poem collected in John Graham Dalyell’s Scotish Poems of the 16th Century (1801).

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With a grain of salt

Q: Why “salt” when we “take something with a grain of salt”? Is the salt to counteract something sweet?

A: The use of “with a grain of salt” to mean with caution or skepticism first appeared in early 17th-century English as a translation of cum grano salis, a modern Latin expression coined a century earlier.

The earliest written example of cum grano salis that we’ve seen is in a Latin treatise by a French legal scholar who uses it to describe a clause attached to a gift:

“ex parte altera excedit quod intelligatis cum grano salis” (“on the other hand it exceeds what is understood with a grain of salt”). From Tractatus de Viribus Iuramenti (A Treatise on the Strength of the Oath), 1502, by Antonius de Petrucia (Antoine de Peyrusse).

And here’s another early sighting: “Sed caute & cum grano salis (utaiunt) legendus est, quia intricatus facile legenti errorem obijcit” (“It should be read cautiously and with a grain of salt, as they say, because it is easy to present an intricate error to the reader”). From Compendium Sive Breviarium (1514), a brief history of the Franks, by Johannes Trithemius, a German Benedictine abbot.

“Why salt?” you ask. Well, the reason for “salt” here is uncertain, but the earliest English example of the usage that we’ve found suggests that it comes from salting food to make it taste better:

“The terms of Divinitie are to be taken into the mouth, as the Canonists [canon lawyers] speak, cum grano salis, with a grain of salt, that is, wisely tasted, and understood: otherwise, they will not prove good nourishment.” From Experience, Historie, and Divinitiem (1642), by Richard Carpenter, a vicar of Poling in Sussex.

The first English example in the Oxford English Dictionary was recorded a few years later in a biblical commentary on Revelation 6:11. The commentator says Christian martyrs would undoubtedly be aware of those still to be martyred and speak to God for them, then adds, “But this is to be taken with a grain of salt.” From A Commentary or Exposition Upon All the Epistles and the Revelation of John the Divine (1647), by John Trapp, an Anglican theologian.

The first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, writing in classical Latin, uses a similar phrase literally for an ingredient in a recipe: addito salis grano (“with the addition of a grain of salt”).

In his encyclopedic, 37-volume Naturalis Historia, he describes a poison antidote found among the belongings of Mithridates VI, ruler of the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontus, after his defeat by the Roman General Pompey in 66 BC:

“in sanctuariis Mithridatis, maximi regis, devicti Cn. Pompeius invenit in peculiari commentario ipsius manu conpositionem antidoti e II nucibus siccis, item ficis totidem et rutae foliis XX simul tritis, addito salis grano: ei, qui hoc ieiunus sumat, nullum venenum nociturum illo die. contra rabiosi quoque canis morsum a ieiuno homine commanducati inlitique praesenti remedio esse dicuntur.”

Translation: “After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.”

Was the salt added to the recipe to make the concoction more palatable? We think that’s possible, though you might take our explanation with a grain of salt.

Usage note: Although cum grano salis was originally translated as “with a grain of salt,” the usual expression now in British English is “with a pinch of salt,” a version that first appeared in the 19th century. Here’s an early example: “what men say of a lovely woman is generally to be taken with a pinch of salt!” From Puck (1870), a novel by Ouida, pseudonym of the English novelist Maria Louise Ramé.

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How first names became last names

Q: Just read your post about how families got their names. But you don’t mention a kind of name I’m curious about—a last name that’s the plural of a first name, like Williams and Roberts and Stevens.

A: Names like those belong to a type known as patronyms: surnames based on a father’s or male ancestor’s first name. But they didn’t originate as plurals.

A last name like Williams, for instance, can be traced to medieval times, when a first name might be followed by “son of William” or “William’s son.” Later, these descriptions became a single name: Williamson or Williams, which was not a plural but the genitive form “William’s” without the apostrophe. (The genitive case indicates close relationships, including possession.)

This accounts for many last names of the type you mention—“son of Robert” and “Robert’s son” became Robertson and Roberts; “son of Stephen” and “Stephen’s son” became Stephens, Stevens, Stephenson, Stevenson, and so on.

In their paper “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States,” James C. Scott, John Tehranian, and Jeremy Mathias explain it this way:

“One ‘John,’ for example, might be distinguished from another by specifying his father’s name (‘William’s John’ or ‘John-William’s-son/Williamson’); by linking him to an occupation (‘John-the-miller,’ ‘John-the shepherd’); by locating him in the landscape (‘John-on-the-hill,’ ‘John-by-the-brook’); or by noting a personal characteristic (‘John-do-little’). The written records of the manor or the parish might actually bear notations of such by-names for the sake of clarity.” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, January 2002.)

We discussed names based on location—the most numerous type of English surname—in the post you mention. And we’ve also written about names based on occupation and on personal characteristics. But we haven’t written about patronyms until now.

Patronymic surnames, especially the kinds you ask about, can sound as if they had a first name hidden inside. In fact, some first names aren’t hidden at all but used intact for surnames, as with the last names Charles, Thomas, James, Henry, etc. Still other last names—Baldwin, Foulkes, Godwin, Osmond, Thurstan, and many more—were men’s first names long ago. As first names they’ve receded into history, but they survive today as last names.

It should be noted that in the medieval period, people with additional names were generally sons. Daughters usually had them only if there was a need for record-keeping purposes and so on—that is, if they were property owners, taxpayers, heirs, litigants, etc.

The practice of using fathers’ first names as children’s second names occurs in all European languages. In England, the practice began in early Old English, when patronyms were often formed with the genitive suffixes -ing or –en (denoting “from” or “descended from”) or with the Anglo-Saxon version of “son”: suna, sune, or sunu.

Stephen Wilson mentions many Old English examples in his book The Means of Naming: A Social and Cultural History of Personal Naming in Western Europe (1998). He notes, for instance, that Bosing as a second name meant “from Bosa”; Otten meant “from Odo (or Otto)”; and Hussan sunu meant “son of Hussan,” a name recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as 603.

But in those days these were merely descriptive bynames (or secondary names) used to distinguish one Wulfstan or Ælfred from another. Scholars of onomastics, the study of naming, say the practice of giving people what would eventually become family names didn’t emerge in Britain until soon after the Norman Conquest.

And the first to have them were the Norman invaders.

“The earliest hereditary family names in England are recorded in some Norman families in the late 11th century,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016), a four-volume, 2,992-page work that was 20 years in the making.

“By the middle of the 14th century almost everyone who was not a pauper had a byname or ‘surname’ of some sort, however impermanent,” write the authors, Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, and Peter McClure. “The growth of hereditary surnaming took longer.”

While the Norman nobles usually derived their surnames from the names of their lands or baronial properties—either in England or back in Normandy—humbler families usually adopted second names from places, occupations, personal traits, fathers’ baptismal, or fathers’ pet names (shortened or altered forms, like Robb and Robin, for Robert).

Mothers’ names, too, were used to form second names, though less commonly. A matronym might be given, for instance, to honor a mother who died in childbirth or one who was socially or economically more important than the father. Occasionally a matronym was given to a child born out of wedlock or adopted.

Examples of matronymic surnames include Annis, derived from Agnes; Babb and Babbitt, from Barbara; Catlin and Gatling, from Catherine; Sisley, from Cecily; Jeeves, from Genevieve; Jowett, from Juliana; and Marriott, Merrit, and Marrit, all derived from Mariot, a medieval pet name for both Mary and Margery.

Then there are Mallet, Malin, Malkin, Mallinson, Malkinson, Maulson, Malleson, and more, all from pet names for Maud and Matilda, two extremely popular baptismal names for women in medieval Britain.

In addition, some surnames can be traced to either gender. Beaton and Beeton, for instance, came from pet names used for both Beatrice and Bartholomew. And Tibbs is from Tibbe, a pet name for both Isabel and Theobald.

But getting back to patronymic surnames, a great many can be traced to pet names, the shortened or altered forms we’ve been talking about. Medieval examples of men’s pet names include Cole (from Nicholas), Duke (Marmaduke), Judd (Jordan), Lar (Lawrence), Phipp (Philip), Sim (Simon), and Wat (Walter).

To existing pet names, diminutive suffixes like “-kin,” “-cock,” “-ot,” “-lot,” “-et,” “-let,” “-in,” “-lin,” and “-en” could be added to form even more pet names in medieval times. So a pet name like Tom could also take the form Tomelin or Tomkin; Lar could become Larkin; Sim could become Simmins or Simcock; Cole could become Colin; Wat could become Watkin. And all of those could be handed on as last names.

Combinations of all these elements—the names and pet names of fathers, an added “-son” or “-s,” diminutive suffixes, plus variant spellings—gave English a nearly endless supply of patronymic last names.

We’ll list some of these, but first a few caveats.

New research methods, based on documentary evidence from medieval records, have disproved or superseded many of the etymologies you’ll find online or in popular surname dictionaries. To date, the definitive source is The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.

Peter McClure, the book’s chief etymologist, has written that the medieval pet forms of many first names “have still to be reliably established, notwithstanding the confidence with which dictionaries of personal names assert particular etymologies.”

Keep in mind that some modern pet names, like Hal and Bill and Bob, were unknown in Middle English. And different names sometimes had identical pet names, so the exact source of a patronymic surname may be impossible to pin down without a medieval document to verify a line of descent.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many surnames have alternative sources. For example, the surname Day can be traced to a pet name for both David and Ralph, but it’s also an occupational name traditionally associated with dairies. And Simonson is both a patronymic and a locative name (short for Simonstone, a hamlet in North Yorkshire).

So, with those warnings in mind, here are a few of the more common first names dating from Middle English (with their medieval pet name in parentheses), and the forms of them that have come down to us as modern surnames.

  • David (pet names Davy, Day, Dey, Dawe, Dawkin): David, Davidson, Davison, Davis, Davies, Day, Daykin, Dakin, Dakins, Dayson, Deason, Dawes, Dawson, Dawkin, Dawkins, McDaid, McDade, McDavitt, McDevitt.
  • Geoffrey, Jeffrey (pet names Geff, Jeff, Gep, Jep, Gipp, Jepp, Jebbe, Joppe, Job): Geoffries, Jeffries, Jefferson, Jeffers, Jepps, Jeffson, Jepson, Jephson, Jipson, Jebson, Jesson, Jobson, Jaffrey, Jeffcock, Jeffcott, Jephcott, Jeffers, Joplin, Joblin, Jobling, Jobbins.
  • Henry (pet names Hann, Hanke, Hanry, Hen, Hend, Hendy, Hancock, Henriot, Herriott, Henekin, Hankin, Harry): Henry, Henson, Henrys, Harry, Hanks, Harriott, Herriott, Harris, Harrison, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hankins, Hankinson, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawkinson, Hendrick, Hendricks, Hendry, Fitzhenry, Penry, Pendry, McHenry, McHendry.
  • Hugh (pet names Huget, Hugin, Hugun, Huchon, Hewet, Huet, Huget, Hewkin, Hewlett, Hudd, Howet, Howat, Hukin): Hughes, Hughson, Hewson, Hewett, Hewlett, Hewit, Hewitson, Howson, Howison, Howitt, Howlett, Howett, Hudd, Hudson, Huggins, Hugginson, Hutcheon, McCutcheon, Hutcheonson, Hutchins, Hutchings, Hutchinson, McHutchison, McQuillan, McQuilkin, Fitzhugh, Pugh.
  • John (pet names Jak, Jakke, Jake, Jeke, Jegge, Jen, Jenet, Jankin, Jenkin, Jonkin, Hann, Hancock, Hankin, Henks): Jones, Evans, Johns, Johnson, Jackson, Janks, Jenks, Jakins, Jeakins, Jenkins, Jenkinson, Jennings, Johncock, Hanks, Hankin, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hanson, Fitzjohn. (The name John was handed down not just in pet names but in nicknames—that is, names based on a personal trait—like Littlejohn, Bonjohn, Grosjean, Prujean.)
  • Ralph (pet names Raff, Rauf, Raw, Rawle, Raul, Raulin, Rawkin, Day, Dey, Daw, Dakin, Daude, Dawlin, Dawkin, Haw, Hawkin): Ralphson, Rawes, Rawkin, Rawson, Rowson, Rawle, Rawlin, Rawlings, Rawlinson, Daud, Dawkin, Dawkins, Dawlin, Dawling, Dawson, Dawes, Hawes, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawson, Howis.
  • Richard (pet names Deke, Dick, Dicken, Diccon, Rick, Rich, Hikke, Hikock, Hecock, Hiche, Higg): Richard, Richards, Richardson, Ricks, Rix, Rickard, Rickards, Rickett, Rickman, Rich, Ritchie, McRitchie, Ritson, Dickenson, Dickson, Dixon, Dix, Dickens, McDicken, Hitchen, Hitchins, Hitchings, Hitchinson, McHutchison, Hitchcock, Heacock, Hicks, Hickox, Hickey, Hickman, Hickson, Higgs, Higgins, Higginson, Higgitt.
  • Robert (pet names Robb, Dobb, Hobb, Hopp, Nobb, Robin, Robet, Rabb, Dobbin, Hoby, Hobin, Hobkin, Hoblin, Hopkin): Roberts, Robertson, Robarts, Robbins, Robinson, Robison, Robinet, Robnett, Rabson, Rapson, Robson, Rabb, Rabbitt, Dobb, Dabb, Dobbs, Dabbs, Dabson, Dabinett, Dobkin, Dobson, Dobbin, Hobb, Hobbes, Hobson, Hobbins, Hoblyn, Hopkins, Hopkinson, Hopson, Nobb, Knobbs, McRobb, McRoberts, McRobbie, Probert, Probyn.
  • Roger (pet names Rodge, Dodge, Hodge, Hodgkin, Roget, Rogerun): Rogers, Rogerson, Roget, Dodge, Dodgson, Hodge, Hodges, Hodgson, Hodgetts, Hodgkins, Hodgkinson, Hodgkiss, Hodgkison, Hotchkins, Hotchkiss, Fitzsimmons, Rosser, Prosser, Prodger.
  • Simon (pet names Sim, Sime, Simcock, Simkin): Simon, Simons, Simonson, Simson, Simpson, Simpkin, Simpkinson, Simcox, Simnett, Simms, Simmons, Simmonds, Symonds, Symondson.
  • Thomas (pet names Tam, Tamelin, Tom, Tomelin, Tomkin): Thomas, Thoms, Thomasson, Thompson, Thompkins, Tomkins, Tomkinson, Tomlin, Tomlins, Tomlinson, Thomsett, Thompset, Tamlyn, Tamblin, Tamblyn, Tamplin.
  • Walter (pet names Wat, Watte, Watkin): Walter, Walther, Walters, Wolters, Waters, Waterson, Watts, Watten, Watkin, Watkins, Watson, Watkinson, Fitzwalter, Fitzwater, McWalter, McWatt, McWatters, McQuaid, Gwatkin, Gautier (through the French form).
  • William (pet names Will, Wilke, Wilet, Wilot, Wilcok, Wilkin, Wilky): Williams, Williamson, Will, Wills, Willis, Wilson, Willett, Wilcock, Wilcox, Wilcockson, Willmott, Wilks, Wilkes, Wilken, Wilkie, Wilkins, Wilkinson, Wilkerson, Fitzwilliam, McWilliam, McWilliams, McQuilkin, Culkin, Gillam, Gwilliam.

As you can see, a small number of male first names formed great numbers of English surnames. In addition, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales had their own ways of forming patronymic surnames.

In Irish and Scottish Gaelic, mac is a common noun meaning “son,” and prefixed to a name, Mac or the clipped Mc signifies “son of” (e.g., MacDermot = “son of Dermot”). And in Irish Gaelic, is a common noun for “grandson.” But in names, the prefix (Anglicized outside of Irish as O’), stands for “descendant of.”

In Wales, the Welsh ap or ab (equivalent to “son”) was used to form patronymics. So ap, added to Hugh, resulted in ap Hugh, for “son of Hugh” (shortened to Pugh). This also accounts for Price (from ap Rhys); Bowen (ap Owen); Bevan (ap Evan, a form of John); Pritchard (ap Richard); Pumphrey (ap Humphrey); Parry (ap Harry), and others.

English nobles also sometimes used patronymic affixes other than “son.” Frequently they used “de” (a French nobiliary particle, a type we wrote about in 2010), or “fitz” (after the French fils, for “son”), creating names like Fitzgerald (“son of Gerald”), Fitzgibbon (from a pet form of Gilbert), Fitzpatrick, Fitzwarren, and so on.

Names are endlessly interesting. In a previous post we discussed names that include the old diminutive “-kin” (like Watkins, from Walter). And we’ve written about British names that don’t look like their pronunciations (as with Cholmondeley, pronounced “Chumley”), as well as those odd-looking surnames that begin with a double “f” (as in ffoulkes and ffolliott).

Finally, we’ve written about first names that are abbreviated in old documents (like Charles as “Chas” and Jonathan as “Jno.” or “Jno.”).

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The spooky season

Q: I am wondering what information you can share on the origins of “Spooky Season” to describe the lead-up to Halloween. All of a sudden the term seems to be everywhere.

A: The phrase “spooky season” showed up in the early 1900s and reappeared every ten or fifteen years until it began increasing in popularity at the end of the 20th century.

The earliest example we’ve found uses the expression to mean a time in autumn in which unexplained things are said to be happening. In this passage, a British journal devoted to the paranormal cites reports in a London tabloid of mysterious events:

“The ‘spooky’ season has now overflowed into the ‘Daily Graphic,’ which has several times lately published testimony to happenings which may be explained as coincidence—if anyone wishes to do so in defiance of all laws of probability” (from Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult, and Mystical Research, Sept. 16, 1905).

The first written example we’ve found that clearly uses the phrase to mean the Halloween season is from an Illinois newspaper article about a crackdown on rowdy trick-or-treaters:

“The spooky season of the year is now at hand, when ‘the mystic moon is chill, and the spooks and phantoms wander out to do their magic will.’ But the 31st night of October does not bring such an abundance of pleasure to the heart of the mischief-makers as it did in ‘ye aulden tyme.’ With the increase of the police forces, city marshals and watchmen the blessed night has lost most of its significance” (Franklin Reporter, Franklin Grove, Oct. 23, 1913).

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the usage increased sharply in the late 1990s and continued rising in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Here’s a recent example from The New York Times: “October marks the start of myriad unofficial seasons: spooky season, pumpkin spice season, cuffing season, cozy season, hoodie season and, of course, decorative gourd season. (Or ‘szn,’ for those inclined to abbreviate.)”

Interestingly, some people have complained about the expression because one of the meanings of the noun “spook” (source of the adjective “spooky”) is an offensive term for a Black person. But this racist sense didn’t show up in English until nearly a century and a half after “spook” first appeared in its ghostly sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says English borrowed “spook” at the beginning of the 19th century from terms for “ghost” in Dutch (spook) and German (spuk). In English, the term meant “a spectre, apparition, ghost.” Here’s the dictionary’s earliest English example, which we’ve expanded:

“If any wun you heart shool plunder / Mine horses I’ll to Vaggon yoke, / Und chase him quickly; — by mine dunder / I fly so swift as any spook” (from The Massachusetts Spy, July 15, 1801).

The OED says two other meanings of “spook” appeared in the mid-20th century: (1) “An undercover agent; a spy” and (2) “A derogatory term for a black person.”

This is Oxford’s earliest spying example: “ ‘Spotter.’ (One who spys upon employees.) … Silent eye, spook, spotter.” From The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by  Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark.

And this is the earliest pejorative example: “Spook (n), Frightened negro.” From Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary (1945), edited by Lou Shelly.

So is “spook” a no-no now? The racial sense is offensive, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with using it for a ghost or a spy. Similarly, “spade” in its racist sense is offensive, but there’s no reason to avoid the word for garden implements or playing cards. The pejorative sense of “spade” showed up 1,200 years after the word for the tool and 330 years after the word for the card suit.

Linguists have a term for the ability of a word like “spook” or “spade” to have multiple meanings: “polysemy,” which ultimately comes from the ancient Greek πολύσημος (having many senses), made up of the combining form πολυ- (poly-, many) and the noun σῆμα (sema, sign or mark).

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The ‘boo’ in ‘peekaboo’

Q: I’m a mom with an almost 2-year-old son. One of his favorite games is peek-a-boo. With Halloween coming up, I wonder if there’s any connection between the “boo” to scare someone and the “boo” in “peek-a-boo.”

A: Yes, there is a connection between the “boo” used to scare people on Halloween and the “boo” in the children’s game “peekaboo,” a term now usually written without hyphens.

The word for the game is a compound made of the verb “peek,” the combining form “-a-,” and an exclamation (variously spelled over the years as “bo,” “boe,” “boh,” “boo,” and “bough”) intended to surprise or frighten someone.

The exclamation was spelled “bo” when it first appeared in writing in the 16th century (it was certainly used much earlier in speech). The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an anonymous medieval tale of a blacksmith who fashions a woman at his forge. Here he asks her to speak and say “bo”:

“Speke now let me se, / And say ones bo / Than he toke her by the heed / And sayd dame art thou deed” (A Treatyse of the Smyth Whych That Forged Hym a New Dame, 1565). Scholars say the poem was composed around 1360; the OED’s 1565 citation is from the most complete copy known to exist.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the exclamation clearly used in its scary sense is from a long poem inspired by London’s plague of 1625: “When a child cryes boh / To fright his Nurse” (from Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628, by George Wither, an English pamphleteer, satirist, and poet).

And here’s an example with the usual modern spelling: “Boo is a word that’s used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying Children” (from The Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1692, by J. Curate, a pseudonym).

The OED defines the compound “peekaboo” as “a game played with a young child which involves hiding oneself, or one’s face, and suddenly reappearing, saying ‘peekaboo.’ ” However, the OED’s earliest written example uses the term figuratively. Here a wife dismisses her husband’s romantic overtures as child’s play:

“I’le lay my life this is my hus­bands dotage, I thought so, nay neuer play peeke-boe with me, I know you do nothing but studie how to anger me sir” (The Comicall Satyre of Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600, a play by Ben Jonson).

Undoubtedly, the term was used literally to mean the game itself in speech long before 1600. However, the dictionary’s first literal example in writing is from a 19th-century novel about an orphan girl who unravels the mystery of her parentage:

“Little Nina, grown more bold climbed up beside him, and poised upon one foot, her fat arm resting on his neck, played ‘peek-a-boo’ beneath the shade, screaming at every ‘peek,’ ‘I seen your eyes, I did’ ” (Darkness and Daylight, an 1864 novel by the American writer Mary Jane Holmes).

The word “boo” has had several other meanings since it first appeared (in the form of “bo”) as “an inarticulate spoken sound or exclamation, esp. one made abruptly in order to surprise or frighten,” according to citations in the OED.

The most common is “a sound used to express disdain, contempt, disapproval,” as in this Oxford example: “I’ve heard the folks laugh at that sign; And one crie boo: another chuckled” (from Poor Vulcan, 1778, a comic opera by the English composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin).

Similarly, the dictionary says, “peekaboo” has had a variety of senses since it first showed up in writing at the beginning of the 17th century.

The senses include clothes with a pattern of holes that let the wearer’s body be seen (1895 as an adjective; 1908 as a noun); a hairstyle that conceals one eye (1948, adjective; 1968, noun); and a fighting style in which the boxer protects his face with gloves, then suddenly delivers a surprise punch (1960, adjective).

Finally, here’s a recent example that we’ve found for “peekaboo” used in its original sense of a children’s game:

“Peekaboo is a game played over the world, crossing language and cultural barriers. Why is it so universal? Perhaps because it’s such a powerful learning tool” (from an April 17, 2014,  BBC feature, “Why all babies love peekaboo”).

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Pop-ups popping up all over

Q: Our local weather forecast the other day was for a “random pop-up thunderstorm opportunity.” The term “pop-up” seems to be all over the place these days. When did it first pop up?

A: The word “pop-up,” a noun and an adjective for something that pops up, is older than you think. It dates back to the 1860s with meanings in cookery and in baseball. But its use for a temporary business was a late 20th-century invention.

We’ll discuss these usages later. But first, some early etymology.

As you might expect, it all starts with “pop,” an old word that’s imitative in origin (it sounds like what it means). This explosive little word has been around since Middle English—the verb form since the late 1300s and the noun since the early 1400s

The verb, in its early senses, meant to strike, punch, knock, or move someone or something quickly or unexpectedly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the noun meant the action itself.

The combination of “pop” and “up,” which came along a few centuries later, was inevitable. The adverb not only made “pop” more emphatic, but gave it a direction. (So did the addition of other little adverbs like “in” and “out” and “over” and “off,” but we won’t get into those.)

The phrasal verb “pop up” appeared in the mid-17th century. The first OED citation is from a book of devotional meditations: “Some … presently popped up into the Pulpit” (Mixt Contemplations in Better Times, by Thomas Fuller, 1660). The reference is to “pretended Ministers.”

Oxford defines the verb here as “to move or go somewhere quickly or unexpectedly, esp. for a short time.” In the 18th century, “pop up” came to be used in a less material way—the things that suddenly appeared or occurred could be thoughts, ideas, words, images, desires, and so on.

These OED examples are from Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarrissa: “Good motions pop up in my mind” (first ed., 1748) … “Hankerings, that will, on every, but remotely-favourable incident … pop up” (third ed., 1751).

In the mid- to late 1800s “pop-up” appeared as both a noun and an adjective—sometimes spelled as two words, sometimes hyphenated, sometimes joined.

The OED’s earliest noun sightings—in cooking and in baseball—date from the 1880s. But in searching old newspaper databases we found examples, both culinary and sporting, from the 1860s. The oldest we’ve seen is in a recipe for “pop-ups”:

“Puffs, or ‘pop-ups,’ are very easily made. Two eggs, well beaten, two teacupfuls of milk, and flour enough to make a thin batter, with a pinch of salt, are all that are required.” From a housekeeping memoir, Six Hundred Dollars a Year: A Wife’s Effort at Low Living Under High Prices, by the British writer Jane Webb Loudon, copyrighted in 1866 and published anonymously the following year.

(Incidentally, this airy concoction, similar to Yorkshire pudding, was known earlier as a “popover”—the OED’s first citation is from 1850—and that’s the name that has survived in the US, supplanting “pop-up” in American kitchens and cookbooks.)

The noun “pop-up” was next used in baseball. In the earliest example we’ve found, the writer uses the verb “pop up” several times (as in “popped up a foul,” “popped up the ball”), then uses “pop up” as a noun:

“[Joe] Start opened with a pop up back of short. [John] Hatfield went for it and got it on the fly.” And in the next inning: “Hatfield went out on a pop up for [George] Zettlein” (The New York Clipper, July 3, 1869). The Brooklyn Atlantics beat the New York Mutuals, 2-1.

(In case you’re wondering, “pop fly” came along a bit later. The earliest use we’ve found is from a South Carolina newspaper’s  account of a match between two local teams: “They led off beautifully, though the first man was put out on a ‘pop fly.’ ” From The Newberry Herald, Sept. 2, 1874.)

The OED’s earliest sightings for the adjective “pop-up” date from 1920s, but we’ve found baseball uses of “pop up fly” and “pop-up hit” (variously hyphenated and not) from the 1880s.

And the 20th century brought adjectival uses ranging from “pop-up picture book” (1926) to “pop-up toaster” (1930) and finally to computer terms like “pop-up window” (1982),  “pop-up menu” (1983), and so on. (In computing, the simpler noun form “pop-up” has been used for these since 1985, the OED says.)

As for those temporary shops and restaurants, the word “pop-up” seemed made to order. After all, most things that pop up tend to pop back down again, like those brief entrepreneurial ventures.

The adjective, which was used to describe them back in the early 1990s, is defined in the OED as “relating to or designating a shop or other business which opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time.” Here are both the earliest and the most recent Oxford examples:

“There are also more pop-up stores, often filled with ‘distress merchandise’ from bankruptcies, which appear in November and evaporate by New Year’s Day” (The Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 13, 1993) … “But though pop-up dining has come to the UK late, it’s come with a vengeance” (The Independent, Dec. 4, 2011).

The noun for such a shop or business came along in 2000, according to Oxford citations. Here are the dictionary’s earliest and most recent citations:

“Remembering that back in Blighty [an affectionate term for England or Britain] country pubs are closing at the rate of six a week, the pop-ups could play another vital military role … on Army recruitment campaigns” (from an article about prefabricated pubs, The Mail on Sunday, May 7, 2000) … “The eight-week pop-up … will open from 8am and customers can sit down or do the takeaway option” (The Irish Times, Jan. 11, 2014).

As for that weather forecast you mentioned (“random pop-up thunderstorm opportunity”), did it come from the use of “pop-up” for a temporary shop? Well, the business use may have been an influence, but we can’t say for sure.

However, it’s not surprising that forecasters, always on the lookout for new ways to talk about the weather, should think of “pop-up” for a sudden, unexpected meteorological event. Perhaps we should brace ourselves for “pop-up” nor’easters this winter.

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Seamstresses, midwives, and gender

Q: At fashion shows, one who sews is invariably referred to as a “seamstress,” though men sometimes do the job. Similarly, one who helps a woman in childbirth is a “midwife” (feminine as in the French sage-femme), though some are men. Any thoughts?

A: The original term for someone who sews was “seamster” (spelled sæmestre, seamystre, semestr, etc., in Old English), and it referred to men as well as women for hundreds of years—until “seamstress” appeared in the 17th century.

As for “midwife,” it’s not a gendered term (unlike its French counterpart, sage-femme). When midwif appeared in Middle English, mid meant “with” and wif meant woman, as we note in a 2016 post. So etymologically “midwife” refers to someone (usually a woman, but not always) who is “with” a woman giving birth. We’ll have more to say about “midwife” later, but first a look at “seamstress.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “seamster” as “originally a designation of a woman, but in Old English already applicable to a man.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a will, dated around 995, in which a woman named Wynflæd beqeathes two female slaves to her granddaughter Eadgyfe:

“Hio becweđ Eadgyfe ane crencestræn and ane semestran” (“She bequeathes to Eadgyfe a weaver and a seamster”). From Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici (1839-48), edited by John Mitchell Kemble. The term semestran is the accusative (direct object) of seamystre, and crencestræn is the accusative of crencestre.

The first OED citation for “seamstress,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1643 treatise about the early days of the English Civil War of 1642-51: “a great masse of money and plate, was brought into the Guild-Hall, the Semstresse brought in her silver Thimble, the Chamber maid her Bodkin, the Cook his Spoones” (Twelve Several Treatises, 1661, by James Howell, a supporter of Charles I and Charles II).

Several gender-free nouns have shown up over the years for someone who sews, including “tailor” (1297), “sewer” (1399), “needleworker” (1611), and “sewist” (1867). The dates are the first appearances in the OED.

“Tailor” and “needleworker” refer to someone who sews for business, while “sewist” usually means someone who sews as a hobby. We’ve seen “sewer” used both ways, though some people are reluctant to use it because it’s spelled the same as the conduit for sewage. We wrote a post a few years ago on “sewer” versus “sewist.”

The two of us generally use gender-free occupational nouns (“actor,” “author,” “editor,” etc.) for men and women. But the goal of language is communicating. And we’re willing to make exceptions if the people we’re communicating with expect a gendered term.

So in discussing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress, we’d use “actress,” and in talking about a female sewer (pronounced SOH-er) for a fashion show, we’d use “seamstress,” the usual term for a woman who sews professionally.

However, language changes, and these usages may soon go the way of “authoress” and “editrix.” We wrote a post in 2018 about the history of “stewardess” and other “-ess” words.

As for “midwife,” the noun first appeared around 1300 in Middle English as a compound of the Old English mid and wif. The earliest citation in the OED is from a Middle English life, or story, of St. Edmund the Confessor:

“Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”). From The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann, a collection of the lives of saints and other church figures.

Although a “midwife” is usually a woman who helps women give birth, the term has also been used since at least the 17th century in reference to men. The OED says the men were originally referred to as “man-midwives” and “were called on to help female midwives only in cases of difficult births.”

The man-midwives were barber-surgeons who used surgical instruments like forceps “in a desperate attempt to save the life of the birthing woman,” Deanna Pilkenton and Mavis N. Schornon write in “Midwifery: A Career for Men in Nursing,” a February 2008 article on the website of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

The first OED citation for the term is from a play, The Whore of Babylon (1607), by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker: “Why they are certaine men-midwiues, that neuer bring people to bed, but when they are sore in labour, that no body els can deliuer them.”

And here’s a description of a difficult 17th-century birth that we’ve found in Aristotle’s Masterpiece: Or, the Secrets of Generation, an anonymous 1694 sex manual:

“In case of Extremity, greater regard must be had than at other times; and first of all, the Situation of the Womb, and her posture of lying, must be cross the Bed, being held by such as have the strength to prevent her from slipping down, or moving her self in the operation of the Man-Midwife, or the Chyrurgeon [surgeon].”

The man-midwife of the 17th century, sometimes referred to as a “forceps man,” was “the predecessor of the obstetrician,” according to Pilkenton and Schornon:

“Female childbirth attendants, largely excluded from educational institutions (and thereby prohibited from using surgical instruments), would remain practicing empirical midwifery. Hence, midwifery and obstetrics would be divided along gender and philosophical lines for many years to come.”

Today, “women have overcome many barriers to practicing medicine and now make up a large proportion of obstetricians,” the authors say, but men now comprise only “a minuscule number” of midwives.

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The four corners of the earth

Q: In regard to “the four corners of the earth,” how did our globe come to have four corners?

A: The expression “four corners of the earth” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as “feowerum [four] foldan [of the earth] sceatum [corners]” and in Old English it meant the remotest areas of the world.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the four corners, quarters, etc. (of the earth, heavens or world)” refers to “the remotest parts.” The dictionary defines the noun “corner” in such expressions as “an extremity or end of the earth; a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows.”

The OED doesn’t speculate on how “four corners” came to be used in this sense, but it notes that “the four corners (of a document)” refers to “the limits or scope of its contents,” while “within the four seas” has meant “within the boundaries of Great Britain,” and “of all four sides” is another way of saying “entirely, thoroughly.”

It’s possible that “four” here may have originated as a reference to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or to the four bodies of water surrounding Britain: the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford citation for the word “four” uses it in the Old English version of “four corners of the earth.” The expression comes up in a description of the Last Judgment in Crist III, an anonymous Old English religious poem that the dictionary dates at 878:

“Þonne from feowerum foldan sceatum, þam ytemestum eorþan rices, englas æbeorhte on efen blawað byman on brehtme” (“Then from the four corners of the earth, from the utmost of the earthly realm, angels all-bright shall blow trumpets together with one voice”).

The earliest Oxford citation that resembles the modern version of the expression is from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 late Middle English translation of the Bible, the first complete translation of the Old and New Testaments in English. Here’s the Old Testament passage cited:

“And he shal set vp a toke [send a token or sign] amonge the Gentiles, and gather together ye dispersed of Israel, yee and the outcastes of Iuda from the foure corners of ye worlde” (Isaiah, 11:12).

Coverdale also uses the expression in translating a New Testament passage: “And after that sawe I foure angels stode on ye foure corners of the earth, holdinge ye foure wyndes of ye earth, yt ye wyndes shulde not blowe on ye earth, nether on ye see, nether on eny tree” (Revelation 7:1).

By the way, the adjective “four” is missing from the earliest known Hebrew version of the Old Testament passage mentioned earlier. The website of the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem has an English translation of the passage from the Great Isaiah Scroll, a Dead Sea Scroll dated at roughly 350 to 100 BC:

“He will raise a signal for the nations and assemble the banished of Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah from the corners of the earth.” (The translators, Peter W. Flint and Eugene Ulrich, render the Hebrew כנפות הארץ as “corners of the earth.” You can examine the scroll and the English translation on the website.)

The word כנפות appears in various passages of the Hebrew Bible and has been translated as corners, wings, edges, borders, ends, extremities, and so on. Some scholars have translated the phrase in Isaiah as “ends of the earth,” an interpetation that makes sense to us.

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Fact, fiction, or faction?

Q: I know it is relatively new, but please fill me in on the origins of the literary term “faction.”

A: The genre known as “faction,” which in its meaning and etymology is a blend of “fact” and “fiction,” apparently got its name in 1930.

The earliest use we’ve found is in Hugo Gernsback’s essay “Science Fiction vs. Science Faction,” published in the fall 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly, which he then owned.

In the text, Gernsback uses “faction” six times, italicizing it, and says he coined the word. Here’s how he introduces the term.

Jules Verne, he says, “knew how to use fact and combine it with fiction. In time to come, also, our authors will make a marked distinction between science fiction and science faction, if I may coin such a term.”

He later writes: “In sharp counter-distinction to science fiction, we also have science faction. By this term I mean science fiction in which there are so many scientific facts that the story, as far as the scientific part is concerned, is no longer fiction but becomes more or less a recounting of fact.”

The science fiction scholar Gary Westfahl has written that “Gernsback’s editorial could be read as the first manifesto on behalf of hard SF, in that Gernsback isolates, defines, and defends a type of SF where scientific accuracy is central” (from “ ‘The Closely Reasoned Technological Story’: The Critical History of Hard Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, July 1993).

For the next 30 years, the term was confined to science fiction criticism, as far as we can tell. The earliest literary use of “faction” we’ve found outside science fiction is from The New York Times Book Review (April 2, 1961).

In this passage Lewis Nichols, writing the “In and Out of Books” column, reports on Ernest K. Gann’s upcoming project: “He’ll decide whether his investigations will go into fact or fiction, novel or documentary. At the present moment he’s thinking of trying something he calls ‘faction,’ which is a combo. He expects to give faction ‘a hell of a go,’ before perhaps settling for one part of it or the other.”

Later that same year, the usage appeared in an academic paper about the novels of James Joyce. After describing Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as “deeply autobiographical in their materials,” the author writes:

“The coincidence of ‘faction’ with fiction is, however, markedly high in all of Joyce’s writings” (from “James Joyce: Unfacts, Fiction, and Facts,” by William T. Noon, in PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America, June 1961).

A few years later, the term cropped up three times in a very different venue—a trade magazine The author apparently felt the context sufficiently explained the term. We’ll quote just one of the uses:

“Perhaps it is not faction, nor fiction, nor even fancy to believe in the near future we will have a German who gets up to put on his Italian suit, has ham for breakfast from the Netherlands, looks at his Luxembourg watch, kisses his Belgian wife goodbye amid the delightful aroma of French perfume, and then drives off to work in his English car … which is insured by an American insurance company!” (from “Insurance and the European Common Market: Faction, Fiction or Fancy?” by David L. Bickelhaupt, Journal of Risk and Insurance, March 1964).

Later in the 1960s, the term became somewhat more common in literary criticism. The two earliest uses cited in the Oxford English Dictionary are from the same year:

“This is the great work of faction of 1967—fiction based on fact, the novel form of our time” (a publisher’s note with Hugh Atkinson’s novel The Games) … “An Australian has tried his hand at writing a ‘faction’ (half fact, half fiction) novel” (The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Dec. 30, 1967).

Those two 1967 citations illustrate each of the OED’s definitions—“faction” can mean the genre as a whole or a single work. The dictionary defines the word this way: “A literary and cinematic genre in which fictional narrative is developed from a basis of real events or characters; documentary fiction or drama; (also) a work in this genre.”

The OED, en etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the word was “formed within English, by blending” the nouns “fact” and “fiction.”

Standard dictionaries define the term similarly. Here’s American Heritage: “1. A form of literature or filmmaking that treats real people or events as if they were fictional or uses real people or events as essential elements in an otherwise fictional rendition. 2. A literary work or film that is a mix of fact and fiction.”

In 2017, we wrote about such phrases as “creative nonfiction,” “literary nonfiction,” and “narrative nonfiction.” In 2011, we discussed the word “fact,” and in 2008 we wrote about “fiction” and “nonfiction.”

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Bespoke burgers and running shoes

Q: I was driving in the Grand Rapids area the other day and noticed a sign for “bespoke homes.” I’d only heard “bespoke” used in British tailoring contexts and didn’t know it was imported. How long before we have bespoke hamburgers or bespoke Air Jordans?

A: Yes, the adjective “bespoke” is more common in the UK than in the US. And it usually refers to custom-made clothing. But the word is evolving—in American as well as British English. In fact, “bespoke burgers” and “bespoke running shoes” have already shown up in both the US and the UK.

Here are a few American examples we’ve found:

“Samsung’s Bespoke Appliances Bring Custom Color And Coordination To Your Home” (Forbes, May 13, 2021).

“How to Buy a Bespoke Shotgun. A custom-fitted shotgun is expensive, but if you can afford one, it will become a family legacy to be handed down from one generation to the next” (Outdoor Life, May 20, 2021).

“Bespoke Bathing: Say the words ‘carbon fiber’ and you’ve got an aficionado’s full attention. That’s no surprise, as this sleek material is used in supercars, aircraft and top-end sports equipment … and now tubs” (Brickell Magazine, Miami, Dec. 27, 2018).

“Decadent Dogs and Bespoke Burgers at Riley’s” (Hartford Courant, Nov. 17, 2014).

“Adidas Wants to Create Bespoke Running Shoes Using 3-D Printing” (Racked, Oct 7, 2015).

And now here are some British examples :

“Duchess of Cornwall shares her bespoke recipe for a Victoria Sponge—with a twist” (from a recipe for sponge cake in The Independent, Sept. 2, 2011).

“In recent years, there has been a growing trend in bespoke burgers, with themed restaurants cooking them to provide the ultimate laid-back dine out experience” (Somerset Live, a website covering news, entertainment and sports in Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire, Aug. 24, 2021).

“software experts dedicated to designing bespoke software for one-off applications” (Reading Evening Post, June 24, 1980).

“Adidas Futurecraft 3D Wants to Print You a Pair of Bespoke Running Shoes in Store” (an Oct. 7, 2015, post on the website ManyMiles).

“With over 40 models on display you’ll be sure to find a style to suit you. Standard Range and Bespoke.  Garden Sheds • Summer Houses • Gazebos • Garages • Greenhouses • Conservatories, etc.” (West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, June, 17, 1999).

All of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult define the adjective “bespoke” as meaning custom-made. Two of them, (American Heritage and Dictionary.com) say it refers especially to clothing, while two others (Collins and Longman) include websites and computer software along with clothes.

Most of the published examples the standard dictionaries provide describe clothing, but quite a few others suggest that the term has outgrown its apparel etymology.

Cambridge, for instance, cites “bespoke furniture” and Macmillan “bespoke software.” Merriam-Webster notes the online use of “a very bespoke approach” to high-end real estate.

Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, has examples in both its US and UK editions for “bespoke kitchens,” “bespoke software systems,” “bespoke itineraries,” “bespoke leather sofas,” even “a bespoke craftsman boatbuilder.”

Though the use of “bespoke” for things other than clothing may seem odd to you, the earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to a commissioned play—one ordered in advance—for a performance by a touring theatrical troupe:

“At length the bespoke Play was to be enacted” (A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, 1755, an autobiography by the actress, playwright, and novelist). The book also uses “bespoke” as a verb meaning to commission: “the Gentleman bespoke a Play.”

As Merriam-Webster explains in an etymology note, “In the English language of yore, the verb bespeak had various meanings, including ‘to speak,’ ‘to accuse,’ and ‘to complain.’ In the 16th century, bespeak acquired another meaning—‘to order or arrange in advance.’

“It is from that sense that we get the adjective bespoke, referring to clothes and other things that are ordered before they are made,” M-W continues. “You are most likely to encounter this adjective in British contexts, such as the recent Reuters news story about a young pig in Northern England who was fitted with ‘bespoke miniature footwear’ (custom-made Wellington boots) to help it overcome a phobia of mud.”

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When ‘only’ is apt to be dismal

Q: Recent weather stories have referred to catastrophic floods that “will only become more common” and heat waves “expected to only intensify in the years ahead.” What is “only” doing in those sentences?

A: Here “only” is an adverb meaning “inevitably,” and it’s often used in forecasting something bad. Those two examples are dismal forecasts, contrary to what one would wish, and at the same time seen as certainties.

Standard dictionaries define this use of the adverb in varying ways, but all imply both the certainty of the result and its contrary or negative nature.  In fact, some split their definitions of “only” to separate the two notions.

For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says “only” here can have these meanings: “a. in the last analysis or final outcome; inevitably,” as in “actions that will only make things worse”; and “b. with the negative or unfortunate result,” as in “received a raise only to be laid off.”

And Merriam-Webster has these meanings: (1) “in the final outcome,” as in “will only make you sick”; or (2) “with nevertheless the final result,” as in “won the battles, only to lose the wars.”

The adverb is often used with verbs that are either modals (like “will,” “would,” “can, “could,” etc.) or are in the infinitive. Your examples illustrate each usage: “will only become more common” and “expected to only intensify.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical usage, discusses these adverbial uses of “only” among those that emphasize “the contrary nature of a consequence.”

In one such use, Oxford says, the adverb is “frequently” used with a modal verb or infinitive to mean “inevitably although contrary to intention or desire.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 17th-century sermon and shows “only” followed by an infinitive: “serving only to make a servant more disposed & more able too, as well for the plotting as the acting of villany” (from a collection, King Davids Vow for Reformation, by the Anglican clergyman George Hakewill, 1621).

And the OED’s next citation, from later in the century, has “only” plus a modal verb: “This unlimited power of doing anything with impunity, will only beget a confidence in kings of doing what they list” (from Justice Vindicated, by Roger Coke, 1660). Here the archaic verb “list” means wish, desire, or choose.

The dictionary’s most recent example, from a show-biz memoir, is in a description of Robert Redford: “He is very into incognito so he sports lots of scarves and mufflers and hats and shades, which only make him look more Redfordish” (You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, 1991, by Julia Phillips). In that sentence, “look” is an infinitive.

The other use of “only” that emphasizes “the contrary nature of a consequence” also originated in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

In this case, the adverb is “followed by a dependent infinitive clause” and means “with no other consequence or result than.” And that consequence is sometimes unexpected, surprising, or ironic.

This is the OED’s earliest citation: “He recouerd [recovered] … only to be made more miserable” (from The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, a prose romance by Lady Mary Wroth, 1621).

We still use the adverb in that same way. This is the OED’s most recent example: “Cursing Rachel and Jeff for having stolen me away from the detention centre … only to bring me to this dungeon” (from By the Sea, a novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2001).

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Handsome is as handsome does

Q: Oliver Goldsmith uses “handsome is that handsome does” in The Vicar of Wakefield. Did he coin the usage, and is that the original wording of the expression “handsome is as handsome does”?

A: No, Goldsmith didn’t coin the usage. It was a familiar English proverb—though worded somewhat differently—more than a century before he used it in his 1766 novel.

Fred R. Shapiro, in The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), notes that a version appeared in a 1659 collection of proverbs: “He is handsome that handsome doth.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary has another pre-Goldsmith example, from Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”

Since the expression was described in writing in the mid-17th century as proverbial, you can be sure that it was commonly used in speech well before that time.

In fact, the formula “X is as X does” was used in pithy sayings before the “handsome” variety came along, as in these two examples:

“But as the auncient adage is, goodly is he that goodly dooth” (A View of Sundry Examples, 1580, a collection of prose by Anthony Munday).

“By my troth, he is a proper man; but he is proper that proper doth” (The Shoemakers Holiday, 1600, a play by Thomas Dekker).

So the formula in various versions—with “goodly” and “proper,” as well as “handsome”—was in use well before Goldsmith’s time, though the “handsome” form is the one that survived. And Goldsmith wasn’t even the first novelist to use the “handsome” proverb in fiction.

This example comes from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749): “I never thought as it was any Harm to say a young Man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; for handsome is that handsome does.”

In context, the same message is conveyed in Goldsmith’s novel: deeds count for more than looks. Mrs. Primrose, the wife of Goldsmith’s vicar, has this reply for those who comment on the beauty of her children:

“Ay, neighbour, they are as heaven made them, handsome enough, if they be good enough; for handsome is that handsome does.”

The proverb is a play on words, contrasting two different senses of “handsome.” The adjective was used both (a) for a person who’s good-looking  and (b) for one who does the right thing. (We’ve written before about the interesting etymology of “handsome.”) So the gist is that a truly handsome person is one who acts handsomely.

The “that” in the original version of the expression (“He is handsome that handsome doth”) is a relative pronoun referring to the antecedent subject “he,” just as the relative “who” is used.  (As we’ve written before on the blog, both “that” and “who” can refer to people.)

By the 18th century, elliptical versions of the saying were appearing without the subject “he,” as in those passages from Fielding and Goldsmith. And the old saying continued to evolve, as proverbs generally do.

Versions with “who” or “as” in place of the relative “that”—“handsome is who [or as] handsome does”—began appearing in the early 19th century, according to our searches of old newspaper databases.

In the newer forms, “who” simply fills in for the old relative pronoun, but “as” plays a different role. The “as” in “handsome is as handsome does” is a conjunction meaning “in so far as,” “to the same extent as,” etc. These are the earliest published uses we’ve found:

“remembering, always, however much the opinion of the great may militate against the fact, that ‘handsome is who handsome does,’ and that even a nobleman may venture to walk Court, without being eternally disgraced” (from Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, London, Feb. 3, 1816).

“Handsome is, as handsome does; saith the proverb. That I hold to be a real live letter, or a real any-thing else, which is calculated to do real good” (Bombay Gazette, Nov. 28, 1821).

Numerous examples of the “as” version appeared through the 1820s and onward. American examples began cropping up in the 1840s, like this one: “ ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ is a good old nursery ‘saw,’ and it applies most admirably to the case in point” (Richmond Enquirer, May 16, 1845).

Today that version—“handsome is as handsome does”—is the form most commonly used. In modern usage it has become an idiom—that is, the meaning of the words is no longer literal but understood.

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Let’s swap

Q: During the pandemic baking craze, people making “adjustments” to a recipe have said things like “I swapped out wheat flour for almond flour.” I find this confusing.

A: “Swap” is a legitimate English verb, and there’s nothing wrong with the more emphatic form “swap out” either, as in “swap out X for Y.”

The “out” isn’t necessary but it’s not incorrect, as we wrote in 2012. The use of “out” makes for a more casual usage, but then “swap” is a rather casual verb to begin with, certainly more informal than “substitute,” a similar verb we’ve written about.

Though “swap” may be described as less than formal, it’s a perfectly respectable verb dating from medieval times. As Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage puts it, “Swap is in use in all but the most formal writing.”

Though there’s nothing wrong with “swap,” we agree with you that the verb is sometimes confusing. Here’s why.

In its exchange sense, “swap” is generally used two ways: (1) to swap one thing for another and (2) to swap things with someone else. Note the two prepositions.

As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, to “swap” means to give or dispose of in exchange “for something else” or to exchange (things) “with another person.” The dictionary uses the italics.

So both of these sentences would be acceptable: “I swapped wheat flour for almond flour” and “I’ll swap recipes with you.”

However, some people use “with” for both usages, and that’s probably what you find confusing: “I swapped wheat flour with almond flour.” Did the swapper end up with wheat flour or almond flour?

The “for” version, in our opinion, is clearer because the preposition unambiguously means “in place of.” So to “swap X for Y” plainly means to put X in place of Y.

As we’ve written before, we feel the same about “substitute.” The use of “with” is accepted there, but we find “substitute X for Y” clearer than “substitute Y with X.

Now for some etymology. You’d never guess it, but “swap” was probably onomatopoeic in origin. That is to say, it means what it sounds like—a clap or a smack.

As the OED explains, when the verb first appeared in writing in the mid-1300s it meant to strike or smite, and it was “probably of echoic origin, signifying a smart resounding blow.”

(The dictionary notes a similar echo effect in dialectal German, where a schwappe is a “resounding box on the ear” and schwappen means “to make a clapping or splashing noise, to strike with a resounding blow.”)

So how did the bargaining or trading  sense of “swap” emerge in English?

As the dictionary explains, by the late 1300s, it was being used with the apparent sense of “to ‘strike hands’ in token of an agreement or bargain.” And to this day, striking is associated with bargaining.

“The development of the sense of concluding a bargain from that of striking is paralleled in various uses of strike,” according to the OED.

For example, people arriving at an agreement have been said to “strike a price” (first recorded in 1526), “strike hands” (1530), “strike truce” (1544), “strike peace” (1624), “strike a league”  (1749), “strike a bargain” (1766), and “strike a compact” (1865). The newcomer, “strike a deal,” isn’t discussed in the OED, but we found an early use from 1882.

Getting back to “swap,” in only a few decades it moved from the sense of striking a blow (circa 1350) to that of striking an agreement.

Oxford’s earliest citation for the bargaining sense, where the meaning is “apparently to ‘strike hands’ in token of an agreement or bargain,” is from an anonymous Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 1390):

“Sweet friend, swap we so—sware with trawþe / Queþer, leude, so lymp, lere oþer better” (“Dear sir, swap we so—swear with truth / Whether hands, in the end, be empty or not”). We’ve expanded the OED’s citation to include the line about hands.

Two centuries later, the verb was being used to mean “to strike (a bargain),” the dictionary says. Here’s Oxford’s earliest example: “Aliena … swapt a bargaine with his Landslord” (from Thomas Lodge’s prose tale Rosalynde, 1590).

Very soon afterward, “swap” acquired its modern sense and was used alone, without “bargain” as an object. We’ll repeat the OED’s definition: to give or dispose of in exchange “for something else”; to exchange (things) “with another person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example: “Soft, Ile not swap my father for all this” (John Lyly’s play Mother Bombie, 1594).

The old hitting and smiting uses of “swap” are mostly obsolete today, but the bargaining and exchanging senses of the verb have survived.

It’s used both with and without direct or indirect objects, as in “They swapped clothing” … “He’s agreed to swap” … “I’ll swap you for it” … “Don’t swap with him” … “They buy, sell, and swap.”

There’s also the mid-19th-century expression “swap horses in midstream,” defined in the OED as “to change one’s ideas, plans, etc., in the middle of a project, progress, etc.”

As for the noun “swap,” it developed in a somewhat parallel fashion. Like the verb, the noun originally had senses in the late 1300s relating to a blow struck, though occasionally it was used to mean a kiss (perhaps a noisy one).

Meanings related to an exchange, however, didn’t appear for hundreds of years. The OED’s earliest example is from the early 17th century:

“They … will either beg them, or make a swap with you in priuate” (from a compendium of travel narratives, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, by Samuel Purchas, 1625).

Finally, a few words about the spelling of “swap.” In its earliest uses it was spelled with an “a.” But over the centuries it’s also been spelled “swop,” particularly in British English, and the “o” spelling is accepted today as a chiefly British variant. In the OED’s opinion, “the spelling swap for both [verb and noun] is recommended.”

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I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry!

Q: If I say, “It wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it wasn’t Jerry. But if I say, “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it was Jerry. How does “Damn if” change the meaning to its opposite?

A: The statement “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry” is short for “I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry.” The idiom “I’ll be damned,” often followed by “if,” is used to express surprise or negation. In this case, both senses are expressed.

Merriam-Webster.com, which labels the usage “informal + impolite,” defines the two meanings of “I’ll be damned” this way:

(1) “used to show that one is very surprised about something,” as in “I spent an hour putting the machine together and I’ll be damned if it didn’t fall apart as soon as I tried to use it.”

(2) “used to say that one cannot or will not do something,” as in “I’ll be damned if I can remember where I left my keys.”

Our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in American English in the early 19th century but soon appeared in British English.

The earliest American example we’ve found is from a report in an Indiana newspaper about a schoolmaster who killed one of his students.

The 17-year-old victim, who had refused to sit down and watch while the teacher punished his 14-year old brother, had said, “I’ll be damned if I will—I will not see Marcus punished” (the Indiana Palladium, Lawrenceburg, Aug. 2, 1828).

The first British example we’ve seen is from a collection of historical whodunnits set in the courts of George II and George III:

“Why, look at the very position of the fellow as he lies on his bed there: I’ll be damned if it isn’t all sham!” From The Mysteries of the Court of London (Vol. I, 1849), by George William MacArthur Reynolds. The reference is to someone presumed to be feigning madness.

Finally, we should mention that we’ve discussed “damn” several times on the blog, including a 2021 post about how “damn” became a swear word, and a 2019 post on the shrinking of the adjective “damned” to “damn.”

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Categorically speaking: in, into, by

Q: Are these sentences correct? (1) “My articles are organized into categories.” (2) “My articles are organized by category.” I’m sure the first is. I think the second is too, but I don’t know why “category” is singular, since I assume there are multiple categories.

A: We’d use “in” for your first example. We think it’s more idiomatic in a passive construction, though not necessarily more correct: “My articles are organized in categories.”

But we’d prefer “into” with an active construction: “I organized my articles into categories.” Why? Perhaps because “into” expresses movement or action, and has since Anglo-Saxon times.

As for your second example (“My articles are organized by category”), we’d leave it as is. Why “category” when there are likely multiple categories?

When the preposition “by” is used in the sense of traveling, paying, communicating, organizing, and so on, it’s generally followed by a mass (or non-count) noun, one that’s always singular in form and doesn’t have an indefinite article or a number as a modifier.

Here are a few examples: “Did you get there by train?” … “She paid by check” … “I’ll send them by email” … “He lined up the class by size.”

Of course nouns like those (“train,” “email,” “check,” and “size”) can be used in other situations as count nouns—nouns that can be singular or plural: “I sent you an email explaining that the two checks were in the mail.”

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Putting English on the ball

Q: During a baseball game on TV the other night, the announcer referred to putting a little extra “English” on the ball. Is this an Americanism? How do the English speak of putting spin on a ball?

A: We’ve seen several theories, most of them pretty far-fetched, for why Americans use the word “English” to describe the spin on a ball. The least unlikely in our opinion is that the usage may have been influenced by the spin, or “side,” favored by English players of billiards, pool, or snooker in the 19th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which is similarly cautious about the etymology, has this to say about the origin of the American usage: “Perhaps so named because English players introduced the technique to the U.S.”

The OED defines the usage as “U.S. Sport (originally Billiards). Spin imparted to a ball by striking it on one side rather than centrally so as to affect its course, esp. after an impact or bounce.” The dictionary says the word “English” here is a synonym for the British term “side.”

The earliest Oxford example for the American usage is from a humorous description of a billiards player who makes various gestures with his cue and body in useless attempts to put spin on the ball or move it in the right direction:

“Tricks at Billiards. … Immediately after shooting using his cue as a magic wand and flourishing it in the air above the table to give an increased ‘English’ to his ball” (Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer, Oct. 14, 1861). The quotation marks around “English” suggest that the usage was relatively new in writing, but perhaps heard in speech.

The next OED citation also uses the term humorously, but refers to putting actual spin on a ball. The passage, which we’ve expanded, describes a game of billiards in Paris:

“The cues were so crooked that in making a shot you had to allow for the curve or you would infallibly put the ‘English’ on the wrong side of the ball” (Innocents Abroad, 1869, by Mark Twain).

The British use of “side” in that sense appeared a few years before Americans used “English” for spin. This is Oxford’s earliest citation:

“I do not feel satisfied of any writer being able to convey in diagrams the amount of side to put on a ball for canons when the side stroke is required” (from Billiards, 1858, by Walter White).

Finally, we should mention that we wrote a post in 2012 about the British use of “side” as a slang term meaning insolence, arrogance, pride, pretentiousness, and so on.

Oxford’s earliest example for this sense of the word is from the Nov. 26, 1870, issue of Punch: “Swagger a bit, and put on ‘side’ in the streets of the gay Versailles.”

The dictionary describes the slang usage as “of uncertain origin,” but it notes a possible connection to the use of the term in billiards.

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An ‘or’ … or more?

Q: I find the use of “or” confusing before the last item in a complicated list. For instance, “when shareholders have different consumption preferences, information, tax bases, or investment horizons.” Readers expect “and,” but have to stop and rethink the passage when they get to “or.” Why not put another “or” earlier in the series to help them?

A: We don’t find that passage confusing, but if we did we wouldn’t add an “or” to the series. An extra “or” would make the writing bumpy and might in fact confuse readers.

If you feel that series or another is hard to read, it would be better to add “or” before each item and delete the commas: “when shareholders have different consumption preferences or information or tax bases or investment horizons.”

If a writer (or speaker) believes that clarity requires repetition of the conjunction before each item in a series, then it should be repeated. The writer’s ear should indicate whether that would be helpful.

But otherwise the repetition isn’t required. Commas can be used instead. The only requirement is that a conjunction (“and” or “or”) be used before the final item.

Finally, as we’ve written many times on the blog, we believe a final comma before the conjunction is helpful.

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Black Lives Matter

Q: Who coined the phrase “Black lives matter”? Does it date back to the civil rights movement of the ’60s or maybe even earlier?

A: No, it’s more recent than that. The earliest known use of the slogan was in a Facebook posting by the activist and writer Alicia Garza in July 2013, according to The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021).

The book’s editor, Fred R. Shapiro, says Garza’s post “appears to be the introduction of the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”

Shapiro cites this portion of the posting: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. Black Lives Matter.”

Garza wrote her post after learning that the killer of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, had been acquitted of his murder. But she has said in interviews that the popularization of the slogan was actually a three-woman project. Here’s how she describes it.

On July 13, 2013, Garza was working as an organizer with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area when she heard news reports that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of second-degree murder in the case.

Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Sanford, FL, had pleaded self-defense after shooting Martin in February 2012. He had admitted following and confronting Martin, saying he looked “suspicious” and wore a “dark hoodie.” He shot Martin as the two scuffled.

As news of Zimmerman’s acquittal spread, Garza went to her Facebook page to write what she called a “a love letter to black people.” Included in her message (preceding the lines cited in The New Yale Book of Quotations) was this sentence: “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.”

Her friend Patrisse Cullors, who was working with a prisoners’ advocacy organization, repeated Garza’s post on her own social media, echoing the “Black Lives Matter” line and making it a hashtag.

Then a tech-savvy friend of Garza’s, Opal Tometi of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, took to the internet, spreading the hashtag and making it part of a grassroots movement to stop the killing of Black Americans.

The hashtag began appearing immediately on social media in July 2013, though its presence was modest at first. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, it didn’t take off until the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo. After that, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became ubiquitous.

Today Garza, Cullors, and Tometi have all gone on to other projects. But history will likely remember them for the movement they started in the summer of 2013.

It’s notable that women have a much larger presence in The New Yale Book of Quotations than in any other general quotation book we’ve seen.

As the introduction notes, the new book supplies “proof of the unrecognized role of women in creating iconic sayings.” It adds that Shapiro, the editor, “has discovered, time and again, that in the realm of famous lines Anonymous was often a woman.”

“Many of the great quotesmiths,” the introduction says, “have been women who are now forgotten or whose wit and wisdom are erroneously credited to more-famous men.”

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Oneself or one’s self?

Q: Dorothy Sayers repeatedly uses “one’s self” in the sense of “oneself” in her 1935 mystery Gaudy Night. Is the two-word version British? Which usage came first?

A: The usual term now in both the US and the UK is “oneself,” though a few standard dictionaries include “one’s self” as a less common variant.

The original form, however, was an early version of “one’s self” that first appeared in English writing in 16th century. In the two earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “one” is in the genitive case, a form that indicates possession or other close relationships:

“For a suretie, the myschefe of louynge [loving] of ones selfe, is a noyeng or hurtynge pestylence” (from The Comedye of Acolastus, John Palsgrave’s 1540 translation of a Latin play by the Dutch Protestant writer Wilhelm Gnapheus, based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

“To exalt ones selfe aboue other men” (from The Sum of Diuinitie Drawn Out of the Holy Scripture, Robert Hutten’s 1548 translation of a treatise by the German theologian Johann Spangenberg).

The earliest OED example with the modern spelling is from the late 18th century: “The earth holds nothing comparable for deadness of weight, with a poor soul really in love—except when it happens to be with oneself!” (Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla, 1796).

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent citation, which we’ve expanded: “In [Marshall] Goldsmith’s opinion, the development of a better reputation was akin to the development of better muscle tone—not conceptually complicated,  just a matter of applying oneself and getting on with it” (The New Yorker, April 22, 2002).

Though “oneself” is the usual form now, the two-word variant still crops up, especially when a writer wants to emphasize the essential being that distinguishes one person from another.

That may be the intention in the title of this 2017 book by Paul Meeham: The Ghost of One’s Self: Doppelgangers in Mystery, Horror and Science Fiction Films.

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How do you copy?

Q: Can you shed some light on how the verb “copy” came to mean receive or understand a message?

A: The use of “copy” for receive or understand is ultimately derived from its use by American telegraph operators in the 19th century to mean translate and write down Morse code transmissions in English.

In The Telegraph Manual (1859), Taliaferro Preston Shaffner describes the receipt of a message in the late 1840s by an operator at a US telegraph station, where the dots and dashes could be heard on a sounder and read on a printout:

“The operator put the machinery in motion, and he read from the paper the dispatch as it was slowly received. He read aloud, and the copyist, near by, wrote it down with a pencil; and when thus finished, it was handed to the copying clerk, whose duty it was to copy it on the forms as represented by B [an image of a Western Union form]. It was then enveloped and handed to the messenger for delivery.”

This clunky procedure changed dramatically soon after two Northeastern telegraph companies merged on July 1, 1852, as the New York and New England Union Telegraph Company, according to The Telegraph in America (1870), by James D. Reid.

On Oct. 9, 1852, the reorganized company declared its first dividend, Reid writes, and “at this time a stroke of economy was made by Director Thomas M. Clark,” who ordered “that all Morse operators be instructed to copy their own messages as they receive them.”

Thus the telegraph operators took on the work of the copyists and later the copy clerks. To speed up the “drudgery of reading from the paper and then copying,” Reid says, the operators “learned instinctively to catch the sounds by ear” from the sounder and copy them down in English.

As a result, the verb “copy” in telegraph jargon came to mean to receive, translate, and write down. That’s the way J. E. Smith uses it in Manual of Telegraphy Designed for Beginners (1865):

“Students with a clear understanding of the customs and principles set forth in these instructions, and able to copy each other’s telegraphic writing by sound at the rate of thirty-five words per minute, may consider themselves operators.”

In the early 20th century, amateur radio operators in the US began using the verb “copy” in a similar way, as in this example from the August 1917 issue of QST, the monthly magazine of the American Radio Relay League:

“Nightly, we copy KHK, Wahiawa, TH [Territory of Hawaii], distance from San Francisco being 2089 miles, and are not only able to copy him easily, but always on the mill [a typewriter for transcribing Morse code].”

Radio amateurs may also have used “copy” over the next few decades to mean understand or receive a message (the sense you’re asking about), but it’s unclear from many of the written examples we’ve seen whether the verb is being used in the new or the old meaning.

The earliest definite example of the new sense that we’ve found is from a July 1960 exchange of American military radio transmissions. Here’s the conversation, as reported in a December 1960 article in QST (the magazine’s title is code for a broadcast to all radio amateurs):

“W4GGA, this is 9Q5US, are you in Washington?”

“This is W4GGA, and I’m in Washington. The handle here is Ken, and you’re five and nine plus, beautiful signal, how do you copy me? Over.”

“This is 9Q5US. Read you 5 by 9, handle here is Frenchy, can you get hold of the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] at the Pentagon?”

“Wait one, Frenchy. Go ahead. I have Admiral [Arleigh] Burke on.”

(The author of the QST article, Sgt. Edouard D. Courneyer,  was an Army communications specialist on loan to the Naval attaché at the US embassy in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, Congo. He was using the handle Frenchy and the call sign 9Q5US. The article says the radio exchange took part “during the early part of July when hostilities began in the Congo.” The hostilities broke out after the Belgian Congo was granted independence on July 1, 1960.)

And here’s an example from a 1962 report by NASA on a manned orbital space flight:

“Hello Sigma Seven. Cape Cap Tech. How do you copy?”

“I copy you loud and clear, Murph.”

(From Results of the Third U.S. Manned Orbital Space Flight October 3, 1962, a December 1962 report by NASA’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information.)

Finally, this example is from an article about the Apollo 13 mission, “The Magnificent Apollos,” by Ernest K. Gann, Flying magazine, September 1970:

“Hey, Apollo, I have you now at 1.2 miles. Do you copy?”

“Loud and clear, for a change. And I concur on distance. How can you look so good when you’re so ugly?”

“What pot is calling the kettle black? We figure half a mile now with a closure of 19 feet a second.”

“Keep her coming. Don’t be so shy.”

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In pursuit of the quick brown fox

Q: The New York Times has a game called Spelling Bee in which readers are given seven letters and asked to form words out of them. If you use all seven, the game calls it a “pangram.” From what I know, however, a pangram is a sentence that contains all 26 letters of the English alphabet.

A: A “pangram” is, as you say, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. The classic example is “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, eight include “pangram” and their definitions are more or less the same—a sentence (some say “a short sentence” and some add “or verse”) containing all 26 letters.

A few of the dictionaries note that a perfect or ideal pangram uses each letter only once; however, that’s not essential to the definition. At any rate, we’ve never seen a pangram of only 26 letters that doesn’t resort to using names, abbreviations, bizarre words, or the like.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, agrees with the standard dictionaries. Its “pangram” definition: “A sentence or (occasionally) verse containing every letter of the alphabet.”

As the OED explains, the word was formed of the combining elements “pan-” (all) and “-gram” (letter).  Both come from ancient Greek.

No dictionary defines a “pangram” as a word made from all the letters one is given, but perhaps the Spelling Bee game was using the word in its etymological sense, a usage we haven’t seen before.

In North American Scrabble, using all seven of your tiles in a single turn earns you a “bingo,” a term presumably borrowed from that other game. The Times Spelling Bee game also uses “bingo,” but in a different way, as explained in a glossary. It also differentiates an ordinary “pangram” from a “perfect pangram.” But never mind.

As for its history, the word “pangram” was first recorded in 1860, according to OED citations. However, there were earlier forms—the noun “pangrammatist” (1739) and the adjective “pangrammatic” (1833)—so we’ll start with those.

A “pangrammatist” is just what you would expect. The OED definition is “a writer who uses every letter of the alphabet in a single sentence, line of verse, etc.; a composer of pangrams.”

As the dictionary says, “pangrammatist” was “a borrowing from Greek” with the addition of the English sufffix “-ist,” and was modeled after the 17th-century noun “anagrammatist” (for a writer of anagrams).

The earliest use cited is from “A Dissertation on the Life and Writings of Tryphiodorus,” an introductory essay in a translation of an epic poem by the Greek writer about the fall of Troy:

“There is yet another style of Writers which … may not improperly be called Pangrammatists. … It was not sufficient for them that their Poems consisted of the proper feet and measure, unless all the letters of the Alphabet were crowded into every single line of them.” (The Destruction of Troy, James Merrick’s 1739 translation of a work from the third or fourth century.)

The adjective form, “pangrammatic,” was next to come along. The word describes “a sentence, verse, etc.,” Oxford says, “that contains every letter of the alphabet.” Here’s the earliest use:

“Gessner gives half-a-dozen Pangrammatic lines, in Greek Hexameters and Jambics, at the beginning of his edition of ‘Heraclidis Allegoriæ Homericæ’ ” (The Christian Examiner and Church of Ireland Magazine, May 1833).

The noun “pangram” followed a few decades later. The plural forms are “pangrams” and (less commonly) “pangrammata.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from a collection of literary oddities, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature (1860), by Charles Carroll Bombaugh.

In the book, Bombaugh includes a chapter titled “Alphabetical Whims: Lipogrammata and Pangrammata,” giving this as an example of the latter: “John P. Brady, give me a black walnut box of quite a small size.”

The word in its usual plural form appears in this OED example from a British magazine: “The family of Grams is large. There are epigrams, anagrams, chronograms, monograms, lipograms, pangrams, and paragrams” (The Galaxy, June 1873).

And since we brought them up, here are definitions of those words and their earliest known dates: “epigram” (before 1552), a witty saying; “anagram” (1589), a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of another; “chronogram” (1623), a sentence or phrase in which certain letters, when capitalized, express a date in Roman numerals; “monogram” (1696), a design formed with letters; “lipogram” (1711), a composition that avoids using a certain letter; “paragram” (1711 or earlier), a sort of pun in which a letter or group of letters is altered to suggest another word.

We’ll conclude with a final OED citation for the word “pangram.” It appeared on July 23, 2001, in a Publishers Weekly review of Mark Dunn’s wordplay novel Ella Minnow Pea:

“It’s about a family living on an island that is also home to the original author of the pangram ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog.’ ”

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Why a duck?

Q: How did the word “duck” acquire so many unrelated meanings?

A: Yes, there are lots of “duck” words and phrases. You can duck a bill collector, duck under a branch, duck out of a boring party, duck doing the dishes, duck a snowball, duck your head in a pond, and take to a new job like a duck takes to water.

As different as those uses of “duck” are, however, they’re not unrelated. Etymologists believe that all of them ultimately come from an obscure Old English verb meaning to plunge or dive.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “A duck is a bird that ‘ducks’—as simple as that. It gets its name from its habit of diving down under the water.”

He says the noun “duck” appeared in Old English and is believed to come from an Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to dive, but “there is no actual record of an English verb duck until the 14th century.” Nevertheless, he writes, “it is generally assumed that an Old English verb *ducan did exist, which would have formed the basis of the noun duck.”

Ayto adds that the presumed Old English verb “came from a prehistoric West Germanic verb *dukjan, which also produced the German tauchen ‘dive.’ ” The asterisks here and in the previous paragraph indicate words that presumably existed but do not appear in surviving manuscripts.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original noun as “a swimming bird of the genus Anas and kindred genera of the family Anatidæ, of which species are found all over the world.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a corpus of Anglo-Saxon land charters:

“Andlang Osrices pulle þæt hit cymþ on ducan seaþe; of ducan seaþe þæt hit cymþ on Rischale” (“Along Osric’s creek one comes to the pond of ducks, and from the pond of ducks one comes to Rischale”). From an 867 charter in Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, edited by John M. Kemble, 1848.

As for the verb, the OED says it originally meant “to plunge or dive, or suddenly go down under water, and emerge again; to dip the head rapidly under water.” The dictionary’s earliest written example, which we’ve expanded, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem dated at sometime before 1325:

“He þat doukeþ ones þer doun / Comeþ neuer out of þat prisoun” (“He that ducketh down there once never cometh out of that prison”). The prison here is Hell. The citation is from the version of Cursor Mundi at Trinity College, Cambridge.

We’ve written on the blog about several other “duck” expressions, including a 2021 post on “get one’s ducks in a row“ and a post in 2011 on “duck and cover.”

Finally, we should mention that the use of “duck” for the tightly woven fabric in sails and outer clothing is apparently unrelated to that obscure old verb and its avian offspring.

The OED says English borrowed the fabric term in the 17th century from Dutch, where doeck means cloth, canvas, linen, and so on. The unrelated Dutch word for the bird is eend.

Although the fabric isn’t etymologically related to the waterfowl, it does repel rain “like water off a duck’s back,” an expression that showed up in the 19th century.

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A note to readers

An unedited version of a post was sent today to   some email, Facebook, and Twitter subscribers. The finished version of the post will appear tomorrow.

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English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Thee bist purty, my love

Q: Why have the once ubiquitous terms “thee bist” and “thee bistnt” vanished from Wiltshire, Cornwall, and Dorset in England?

A: The dialectal use of “bist” and “bistnt” for “be” and “be not” hasn’t quite vanished in southwestern England, but it’s not as common as it used to be, probably because of the impact of radio, television, and universal education.

We’ve found quite a few 20th-century examples in newspapers from the West Country (an area roughly consisting of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Bristol). Here are some of the sightings:

“Thee bist a bit vree ’n eazee wi thy remarks bissent?” (Wells Journal, Somerset, June 3, 1976).

“I’m glad thee bist come, he remarked to the first customer to arrive” (Gloucester Citizen, Gloucestershire, July 26 1949).

“Wot’s rekin thee bist up to?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Nov. 29, 1947).

“Thee bist chicken, but thee b’yent d’yud an’ done vor yet a’while, thee zilly old chump” (Gloucester Journal, Jan. 20, 1940).

“Thee bistn’t any bloomin’ ornament vor a zure thing—bist any use?” (Western Gazette, Somerset, Oct. 6, 1933).

“What bist doin’, Targe? said another employee, Bist’nt gwain a do any work to-day?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Aug. 05, 1944).

Interestingly, this dialectal usage has roots in Old English, where the verb “be” was bieonbian, or bion, and the second person singular (“you are”) could be written in various ways, including ðu arð (thou art) and ðu bist (thou be).

An Old English version of Matthew 6:9 in the Lindisfarne Gospels includes both ðu arð and ðu bist as variants, as well as two variant spellings of “heaven” (heofnum and heofnas):

Pater noster qui es in caelis: fader urer ðu arð ðu bist in heofnum in heofnas.” The manuscript was written in Latin around 700. A scribe added an interlinear Old English gloss, or translation, in the 900s.

Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example from Cotswold and Vale: or Glimpses of Past and Present in Gloucestershire (1904), by Henry Branch:

“Lookee, thee bist purty, my love; lookee, thee bist purty: thee hast dove’s eyes betwix thy locks; thy locks be like a flock o’ ship fur thickedness.”

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A questionable caticism

Q: I’ve heard that the expression “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” refers to cleaning a catfish, not skinning a cat. Is this true?

A: No, the expression is not about skinning catfish (though they are in fact cleaned by skinning, not scaling).

The “cat” here is indeed of the feline variety, but the phrase isn’t intended literally. It didn’t come from real people sitting around sharing tips about how to skin real cats.

Cats appear in many hyperbolic expressions—perhaps because they make for catchy language. We’ve written on our blog about a few other caticisms, including the “cat’s pajamas” (or “cat’s meow”), a “cat’s-paw,” “she is the cat’s mother,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and “cat got your tongue?” In fact, the word in some catty phrases is purely accidental, as with “catty (or kitty) corner.

But back to skinning cats. As you might imagine, a dead cat is not much use and there’s little value in its fur. So how did the notion of skinning one creep into a common English expression?

The story begins in the 17th century with another phrase, “to skin a flint,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says this was the first of several “hyperbolical phrases” about skinning things—a group of expressions that denoted exaggerated stinginess “or the willingness to go to extreme lengths to save or gain something.”

As the dictionary explains, “to skin a flint” was “a hyperbolical exemplification of avarice,” and “skinning a flint” was a figurative usage meaning “parsimonious saving.” A flint is a piece of hard stone used to make sparks, and of course it has no skin.

(A similar notion is found in the word “cheeseparing,” a 16th-century noun that meant a scrap pared from the rind of a cheese—something that’s useless or barely edible. Later, “cheeseparing” was used only figuratively, to mean economizing with small, stingy cuts.)

This is the OED’s earliest example of the “flint” phrase: “Jones was one Would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done” (from a satirical poem, The Legend of Captaine Jones, by David Lloyd, 1656).

Citations in the dictionary show that the “flint” version survived into the 20th century, as in this example from Poems (1917), by Edward Thomas: “For a farthing she’d skin a flint and spoil a knife / Worth sixpence skinning it.”

And, yes, this is where “skinflint” comes from, a late-17th-century noun defined in the OED as “a person who would ‘skin a flint’ to save or gain a thing, esp. money; a mean or avaricious person; a miser.”

In the 19th century, other versions of the “skin” phrase began appearing. A miser, seeing to get the last atom of use out of a useless thing, would “skin a louse” (1803), “skin a flea … for its hide or tallow” (1819), and finally “skin a cat.”

Here’s the earliest “cat” version in the OED: “I was … brought up amongst fellows would skin a cat” (from Davenport Dunn, 1859, by the Irish novelist Charles James Lever).

We found this parsimonious example in a travel guide: “A certain American once said, that to obtain money a Natalian would skin a cat” (South Africa: A Sketch Book, 1884, by James Stanley Little).

Meanwhile, the notion of skinning cats underwent a change in American usage. A new expression, “there is more than one way to skin a cat” (and variants) came to mean “there is more than one means of achieving a given aim,” the OED says.

This is the earliest example we’ve found: “At any rate, thought I, there’s more than one way to skin a cat” (from The New York Transcript, reprinted in The Indiana American, Brookville, Jan. 15, 1836).

The question here is whether the miserly expression “to skin a cat” was the direct source of “more than one way to skin a cat.” There’s no way to know for sure, but our guess is that the first one influenced the second.

We say this because similar proverbs of the “more than one way” variety—and all meaning that there are different means of accomplishing the same goal—existed before cats became part of the expression.

Perhaps the earliest such proverb was “there are more ways to the wood than one,” dating from the early 16th century. This version (we’ve also seen “more ways to the mill”) has appeared in published writing in every century since then, including our own.

Meanwhile, dogs began showing up in 17th-century versions of the expression, as in these examples (from our own searches as well as OED citations): “ther’s more wayes to kill a Dog then hanging of him” (1640); “there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with butter” (1829); “there are more ways than one to kill a dog” (1835).

Lo and behold, cats also crept into the expression: “There is more than one way to kill a cat” (1833); “There’s more ways of killing a cat than hanging of her” (1843); “More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream” (1855), and so on.

What we suspect is that the appearance of cats in those various “more than one way” expressions evoked that earlier phrase about extreme stinginess, with misers so cheap they would “skin a flint” or “skin a flea” or “skin a cat.”

It seems reasonable that the two “cat” expressions were conflated. And that might explain how “more than one way to skin a cat” appeared in the 1830s.

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Anent what nanny really meant

Q: As for your post about the use of “around” or “surrounding” instead of “about,” you didn’t mention another option: We can also use “anent.” No, please don’t! Just kidding.

A: Some usage writers consider “anent” archaic, but it isn’t quite as dead as the dodo. In fact, its use has increased a bit in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books.

In an etymological note, Merriam-Webster says “anent” (which it defines as “about” or “concerning”) has roots in Anglo-Saxon times. It nearly died out by the 17th century, according to the dictionary, but was revived in the 19th century.

“Various usage commentators have decried ‘anent’ as ‘affected’ and ‘archaic,’ ” M-W says. “It is not archaic, however. Although ‘anent’ is rarely found in speech, plenty of examples of current use can be found in written sources. Dead words do occasionally rise from the grave, and ‘anent’ is one of them.”

OK, stuffy little “anent” is still alive, but we wouldn’t recommend using it, except playfully, as W. H. Auden does at the end of this post.

When “anent” first appeared, written in Old English as on efen or on efn (that is, “on even”), it meant “along, in line with; alongside, beside; even or level with,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

We’ve found a dramatic example in Beowulf, an epic poem that may date from as early as 725. In this passage near the end of the work, Beowulf, Lord of the Geats (medieval Geatland is Götaland in modern Sweden), lies dead alongside the body of a dragon he fought:

“dryhten geata, deaðbedde fæst, / wunaðwælreste wyrmes daedumm / him on efn ligeð ealdorgewinna” (“the Lord of the Geats lies fast on his deathbed, brought down by the dragon’s deed. And beside him is stretched out the slayer of men”).

The modern sense of “anent,” which the OED defines as “with reference to, in relation to; regarding, concerning, about,” first appeared in the Middle English of the mid-14th century.

The dictionary’s earliest example (with “anent” spelled “onentes”) is from The Lay Folks’ Catechism (1357), by John Gaytryge: “Wharefore, onentes [with reference to] the first of this sex thinges [these six things] … Thare falles un-to the faithe fourtene poyntes.”

The “anent” spelling showed up a few decades later, according to OED citations. In the dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, the term means “with” or “among”:

“Forsothe vnpitouse men seiden, thenkende anent hemselue not riȝt” (“Forsooth, pitiless men, thinking among themselves, but not right”). From the Wycliffe Bible of 1382, Wisdom of Solomon 2:1.

We’ll end with this playful use of “anent” from Auden’s Academic Graffiti (1972), a collection of clerihews, or whimsical four-line poems:

Oxbridge philosophers, to be cursory,
Are products of a middle-class nursery:
Their arguments are anent
What nanny really meant.

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Lisztomania and other manias

Q: I’ve read that in the 19th century people referred to the craze over the composer Franz Liszt as “Lisztomania.” Was “mania” really used in that manner at the time? It seems to me as if it might be something from a more modern vernacular.

A: Yes, “Lisztomania” was used in the 19th century for the craze over Franz Liszt (1811-86), but the Hungarian composer and pianist was a lot more popular in his day than the term that referred to his popularity.

The poet Heinrich Heine coined a German version of the word, Lisztomanie, in 1844, but as far as we can tell he used it only once in his writing and the term was rarely used by others during Liszt’s lifetime. In fact, most of the 19th-century examples we’ve seen are reprints of Heine’s original remark in collections of his  work.

Heine, the Paris correspondent for the German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung, used Lisztomanie in an April 25, 1844, report on the Parisian concert season: “So dachte ich, so erklärte ich mir die Lisztomanie” (“So I thought, and so I explained Lisztomania to myself”).

But “Lisztomania” didn’t appear in English until seven years after Liszt’s death—when it was used in a translation of Heine’s comment.

The translation, the same as ours above, was published in The Salon: Or, Letters on Art, Music, Popular Life and Politics (1893), the fourth volume in Charles Godfrey’s translation of Heine’s works.

However, a two-word version of the English term did appear during Liszt’s lifetime, in a London magazine’s translation of that passage: “So thought I; so I explained to myself the Liszt mania” (The Monthly Musical Record, Jan. 1, 1875).

And the phrase “Liszt fever” appeared a couple of times in the late 19th century, including a reference to “Liszt fever in the Austrian capital” (from My Musical Recollections, 1896, by the German pianist and composer Wilhelm Kuhe).

“Lisztomania” showed up in print every once in a while in the 20th century, but it wasn’t seen much until the appearance of Lisztomania, a 1975 musical film written and directed by Ken Russell. The musical, featuring the rock star Roger Daltrey of The Who as Liszt, is based in part on on the composer’s affair with Marie Catherine Sophie, Comtesse d’Agoult. (Note: Ringo Starr appears in the film as the Pope.)

As for “mania” itself, English borrowed the noun from medieval Latin and ancient Greek terms for mental illness, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning in English was “madness, particularly of a kind characterized by uncontrolled, excited, or aggressive behaviour.”

The earliest OED example contrasts mania with melancholy: “Þese passiouns beþ diuers: madnes þat hatte mania & madnes þat hatte malencolia” (“These passions are different: the madness that is called mania and the madness that is called melancholy”). From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

In the early 17th century, English writers began using “-mania” (originally spelled “-manie” or “-many”) as a combining form that referred to excessive or irrational desires or beliefs. The earliest OED example refers to “demonomany,” a now obsolete term for the belief in or worship of demons:

“I leaue vnto them that doe write of Demonomanie to philosophize vpon that matter.” From Noua Francia (New France), Pierre Erondelle’s 1609 translation of Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, a book published that same year about the French exploration of North America.

A somewhat earlier OED citation mentions the French source of the term: “Who likes to be curious in these thinges, he may reade, if he will here of their practises, Bodinvs Dæmonomanie.” From Daemonologie (1597), by King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England). The citation refers to De la Démonomanie des Sorciers (Of the Demonomany of the Sorcerers), 1580, by the French jurist Jean Bodin. Both Bodin and King James wanted to prosecute those who practiced sorcery.

Here are a few other early examples of the combining form: “idolomany” (zealous idolatry, 1614); “nymphomania” (1708); “bibliomania” (a rage for collecting books, 1734); and “balloonomania” (a passion for balloons or ballooning, 1785).

Both the combining form “-mania” and the separate noun “mania” have been used over the years in compounds, as in these two terms for a craze over tulips: “tulipomania” (1710) and “tulip mania” (1839).

When used as a combining form, “-mania” has sometimes been preceded by a connecting vowel (“-o-”) and sometimes linked directly to a noun, as in these two terms for an obsession to write: “scribbleomania” (1815) and “scribblemania” (1813).

Getting back to your question, the OED notes the use of “-mania” in compounds with a proper name, but cites only one example, “Beatlemania” (1963), which was a much more common term when the Beatles were a craze than “Lisztomania” was when Franz Liszt was all the rage.

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Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A gentle reminder

Q: I work in an international school where the staff use the expression “gentle reminder” on an almost daily basis. I hadn’t heard the phrase before and it makes my toes curl. Did someone at the school coin it?

A: No, someone at your school didn’t coin “gentle reminder,” a phrase that always makes us brace ourselves for something unpleasant. We’ve found dozens of examples dating from the 1830s in Britain and the 1840s in the US.

In the earliest examples, the reminder is not so gentle, and the phrase is used humorously or ironically.

The oldest use we’ve found describes a fistfight: “He gave the blackguards a gentle reminder in the chops.” From The English Army in France: Being the Personal Narrative of an Officer (1830), by “J. J.” (pseudonym of John Gordon Smith, who served as a surgeon in a calvary regiment).

The novelist Charles Dickens also used “gentle reminder” ironically. Here are a few examples (the dates are for first appearances in serial form):

“gave his [donkey’s] jaw a sharp wrench, by way of gentle reminder” (Oliver Twist, April 1837) … “Newman took up one of the little glasses, and clinked it, twice or thrice, against the bottle, as a gentle reminder that he had not been helped yet” (Nicholas Nickleby, June 1839) … “jogging his arm as a gentle reminder” (David Copperfield, August 1850) …  “as a gentle reminder of which impropriety, the Queen gave him a tremendous box on the ear, and told him to go to the devil” (A Child’s History of England, June 1853).

As we’ve said, there’s no shortage of examples from the 1800s, in both British and American English. We’ve also found many examples of “tender reminder,” but there the usage is almost always literal—that is, the reminder is kindly and mild. “Gentle reminder” can go either way; it’s sometimes polite but often there’s nothing gentle about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for “gentle reminder,” though there’s a definition of sorts hidden in the dictionary’s entry for the noun “nudge.” Used in a figurative way, the OED says, a “nudge” means “a gentle reminder; a prompt, a hint.”

The dictionary does have two examples of the phrase in entries for other words. For instance, this quotation in an entry for “neglect” shows the phrase expressed in a negative way:

“The car owner who neglects this vital element generally gets a none-too-gentle reminder in the form of stiff repair bills” (an advertisement in Life magazine, July 26, 1937).

And in this more recent British example in an entry for “gentle,” the adjective is used in reference to what the OED describes as “potentially negative” language, actions, and so on:

“The club would like to take this opportunity to send out a gentle reminder about the rules and procedures we have in place for the safety and wellbeing of all supporters” (The Birmingham Evening Mail, Sept. 16, 2017).

“Gentle,” according to OED citations, has been used to soften a perhaps unwelcome message since the early 1500s. Other examples include “by gentyll meanes” (perhaps 1529); “with gentyll entreatye” (1542); “a gentle hint” (1658); “gentle irony” (1951); and “gentle ribbing” (1998).

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