The Grammarphobia Blog

Backstage with ‘crisis actors’

Q: Thanks for answering my question about “false flag.” Now, who came up with the term “crisis actor”? I can’t believe what’s happening to the English language. This whole country has gone crazy. It makes you want to pull out your brain and give it a good shake.

A: Now that you’ve vented, let’s take a look at “crisis actor,” a relatively new term that’s being used to question the legitimacy of victims or survivors of mass shootings.

When the phrase first appeared in print 50 years ago, “crisis actor” was a term in political science that referred to a country in conflict.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Proceedings of the International Peace Research Association Second Conference: Poverty, Development and Peace (1968):

“McClelland argues that performance characteristics of crisis actors, both in crisis and non-crisis behavior, can be identified, and that phase characteristics of particular crises and of crises in general as one type of international behavior, can be distinguished.”

The reference is to a 1965 paper (“Systems Theory and Human Conflict”) by the political scientist Charles A. McClelland. Though he refers to countries in conflict as “actors” in “crisis,” he doesn’t actually use the phrase “crisis actor” or “crisis actors.”

The phrase took on a new sense a few months after the July 20, 2012, mass shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, CO.

On Oct. 31, 2012, Visionbox, a nonprofit acting group in Denver, issued a press release announcing that it was offering actors to help shopping malls prepare for dealing with the victims of mass shootings:

“Visionbox Crisis Actors are trained in criminal and victim behavior, and bring intense realism to simulated mass casualty incidents in public places,” the press release says.

The release adds that the actors can “help first responders visualize life-saving procedures, and assist trainers in delivering superior hands-on crisis response training.”

However, the phrase was soon co-opted by people who questioned the official version of the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for the new usage is in a Dec. 25, 2012, article on the Washington Examiner website that includes a “partial list of interesting questions being raised all over the internet” about Sandy Hook, including this one:

“Was the school part of the shooting spree an emergency response exercise using paid crisis actors funded by a grant from our federal government?” The article has a link to the Visionbox press release.

The now-deleted article, by Lori Stacey, was captured on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and tracked down by the linguist Ben Zimmer.

“That tenuous chain of reasoning was enough for conspiracy theorists to begin imagining that Newtown was a staged event populated with ‘crisis actors,’ ” Zimmer wrote in a March 2, 2018, article in the Wall St. Journal.

Days before the Washington Examiner piece appeared, people were raising questions online about Sandy Hook, as Jason Koebler points out in a Feb. 22, 2018, article on the Motherboard website.

For example, James Tracy, a professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University, suggested in a Dec. 20, 2012, post on his Memory Hole Blog that the official Sandy Hook account was a “meticulously crafted façade” with a “made-for-television storyline.”

Tracy, who was later fired by the university, didn’t use the phrase “crisis actor” in that post but a Dec. 22 comment to it used the term “actors” in suggesting that the mass shooting was staged by broadcasting “gunshots and mayhem over the intercom system.”

The commenter, using the handle “andrew.w,” says such a broadcast “adds a bit of zing to what is essentially a drill and allows the actors and children to actually relate what they heard and did with a bit more reality.”

Enough. We’d better stop here or we’ll have to pull out our brains and give them a good shake.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Soul of discretion

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “soul of discretion”? Google just leads to its being an idiom, and I thought you might know how to dig more deeply.

A: When the word “soul” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times, it referred to the “essential principle or attribute of life,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several early Old English examples, including this one from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript written in the 700s, with the Psalms in Latin and Old English:

“Conturbata sunt omnia ossa mea et anima mea turbata est ualde: gedroefed sindun all ban min & sawl min gedroefed is swiðe” (“All my bones are troubled, and my soul is troubled sorely,” Psalm 6:2).

In the late 1500s, the noun “soul” came to mean the personification of some admirable quality or thing.

The first Oxford example is from The First Part of Ieronimo, an anonymous play published in 1605 but probably written in the 1580s: “Prince Balthezer. … The very soule of true nobility.”

(The play, about a Spanish knight marshal, may have inspired, or been inspired by, the English playwright Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, believed written sometime in the 1580s.)

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, possibly written sometime before 1610, perhaps with the playwright Thomas Middleton: “O he’s the very soule of Bounty.”

The OED also has an example of “soul” used in the exact sense you’re asking about, as the personification of discretion. It’s from You May Now Kill the Bride, a 2006 mystery by the American novelist Deborah Donnelly: “I haven’t always been the soul of discretion myself.”

However, the usage has been around for much longer. We found this example in Phyllis of Philistia, an 1895 romantic novel by the Irish writer Frank Frankfort Moore: “ ‘You are the soul of discretion, my beloved,’ said the husband.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

The truth about trees

Q: The words “tree” and “true,” according to a TED video, have a common ancestor. From what I gather, this was back in prehistoric times, before there was writing. So how do we know the first thing about an ancient language if there’s no written record of it?

A: Historical linguists believe that “tree” and “true” have a common prehistoric ancestor, a belief that’s based on studies of a reconstructed, hypothetical ancient language known as Proto Indo-European (PIE for short), not on any written evidence.

By studying members of the present Indo-European family, linguists have extrapolated back to the presumed prehistoric language. The Indo-European family comprises many European and Asian languages, including English.

In reconstructing the PIE vocabulary, for example, linguists have used the comparative method, a technique for finding similar words in various Indo-European languages.

As the linguist and phonologist Calvert Watkins explains, similar words, or cognates, in present Indo-European languages “provide evidence for the shape of the prehistoric Indo-European word.”

Watkins, author of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, says “tree” and “true” are ultimately derived from deru-, a Proto Indo-European root meaning to “be firm, solid, steadfast.”

This PIE root gave prehistoric Germanic the terms trewam (“tree”) and treuwithō (“truth”), and Old English the words trēow (“tree”) and trēowe (“true”), Watkins writes. (Old English spellings vary considerably.)

The earliest example of “tree” in the Oxford English Dictionary (with the plural treo) is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825:

“Muntas and alle hyllas, treo westemberu and alle cederbeamas” (“Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars”). We’ve expanded the citation, from Psalm 148.

And in Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory, an unbeliever is compared to a barren tree:

“Ælc triow man sceal ceorfan, þe gode wæstmas ne birð, & weorpan on fyr, & forbærnan” (“Every tree that does not bear good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire and burnt”). We’ve expanded the OED citation, which refers to Matthew 7:19. The dictionary describes triow here as a variant reading of treow.

When “true” showed up in Old English, it meant loyal, faithful, or trustworthy. Here’s an example from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725:

“Þa gyt wæs hiera sib ætgædere, æghwylc oðrum trywe” (“The two were at peace together, true to each other”). Here trywe is a variant spelling of trēow.

As Old English gave way to Middle English in the 12th century, the word “true” came to mean accurate or factual, as in this example from Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200:

“Belin ihærde sugge þurh summe sæg treowe of his broðer wifðinge” (“Belin heard it said through some true report of his brother’s marriage”). The passage refers to Belin and Brennes, brothers who vie in Anglo-Saxon legend to rule Britain.

And this example is from Wohunge Ure Lauerd (“The Wooing of Our Lord”), a Middle English homily written sometime before 1250. The author, presumably a woman, tells Jesus of her passionate love for him:

“A swete ihesu þu oppnes me þin herte for to cnawe witerliche and in to reden trewe luue lettres” (“Ah, sweet Jesus, you open your heart to me, so that I may know it inwardly, and read inside it true love letters”).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

What about ‘whatnot’?

Q: For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the phrase “what not” used much like “et cetera.” I’m curious about the etymology. I searched your archives but can’t find that you’ve written about it. Have you?

A: No, we haven’t written about it yet, so let’s remedy that now.

You may be surprised to hear this, but the term “whatnot” (it’s usually one word today) has been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the mid-1500s.

When the usage first appeared, as two words, it could mean “anything,” “everything,” “anything and everything,” or “all sorts of things,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from The Comedye of Acolastus, John Palsgrave’s 1540 translation of a Latin carnival play written in 1529 by the Dutch writer Gulielmus Gnapheus:

“Excesse of fleshely pleasures … hath taken awaye all thynges … my goodes or substance, my name .i. my good name and fame, my frendes, my glory .i. my renoume or estimation, what not? .i. what thyng is it that she hath not taken from me?” (Palsgrave uses the abbreviation “.i.” for the Latin id est, or “that is,” usually rendered as  “i.e.”)

Today, according to the dictionary, “whatnot” is used as a “final item of an enumeration” and means “anything else, various things besides; ‘whatever you like to call it.’ ”

The first Oxford example for the term used as a final item in a series is from a Dec. 21, 1663, entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys: “The strange variety of people … bakers, brewers, butchers, draymen, and what not.”

Since the early 1800s, the OED says, the term has also been used for an “article of furniture consisting of an open stand with shelves one above another, for keeping or displaying various objects, as ornaments, curiosities, books, papers, etc.”

The dictionary’s first example of the term used for an open stand for bric-a-brac is from a Dec. 21, 1808, letter by Lady Sarah Spencer (later Baroness Lyttelton) to her brother, Bob, a 16-year-old midshipman in the Royal Navy and later Capt. Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer. Note her italics for “what-nots,” suggesting the usage was relatively new:

“There is a new and very handsome thick carpet put down in the old library; of course therefore we breakfasted in the drawing-room, while all the old chairs, tables, what-nots, and sofas were torn up by the roots to make room for the new-comer.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Wolf tickets for sale

Q: I recently heard a television commentator use the phrase “selling wolf tickets.” After research, I found both a Russian and an African-American Vernacular English source for somewhat related phrases. Did these evolve independently or is there evidence for cross pollination?

A: To “sell wolf tickets,” an expression that’s about 60 years old, is to oversell yourself—to spread boasts or threats that you can’t (or won’t) back up.

The usage was first recorded in writing in 1963, when sociologists noted its use by black gang members in Chicago. The sociologists had reported it two years before in a speech, and it was undoubtedly used on the streets even earlier than that.

Some commentators have suggested that the expression comes from “to cry wolf” (to bluff or raise a false alarm). But a more likely theory is that the “wolf” here was originally “woof” and was intended to mean a bark without a bite.

In African-American Vernacular English, to “woof” has meant to bluff or challenge since at least as far back as 1930. In fact, the phrase has been recorded as “sell woof tickets” since the 1970s.

But as we said, the earliest written example we’ve found for the complete phrase is the “wolf” version; this may reflect the way “woof” was interpreted by white sociologists in the mid-20th century.

Let’s start with “woof” and come later to “sell wolf [or woof] tickets.”

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines the verb “woof,” used “chiefly” among black speakers, as “to engage in behavior, esp speech, intended to impress, intimidate, or provoke; to bluff, kid.” DARE also mentions “woofer,” “woofing,” and other related words.

The dictionary’s earliest example of “woof” used in this way comes from a play written in 1930: “Stop woofing and pick a little tune there so that I can show Daisy somethin’.” (From Mule Bone, written in black vernacular, by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.)

In December 1934, the journal American Speech published a paper mentioning both “woof” and “woofer” as terms in black college slang. Here are the examples:

“WOOF. To talk much and loudly and yet say little of consequence,” and “A WOOFER. Applied to one who talks constantly, loudly, and in a convincing manner, but who says very little.” (From “Negro Slang in Lincoln University,” a paper by Hugh Sebastian.)

The earliest published example we’ve found for “sell wolf tickets” is from a 1963 paper on the sociology of gang behavior, though an unpublished version dates from 1961. Here’s the relevant passage (“worker” is a social worker and “Commando” a gang leader):

“In a conflict situation, without a worker present, Commando would find it difficult not to ‘sell wolf tickets’ (i.e., challenge) to rival gang members and instigate conflict.”

The paper, “The Response of Gang Leaders to Status Threats: An Observation on Group Process and Delinquent Behavior,” by James F. Short, Jr. and Fred L. Strodtbeck, was published in the American Journal of Sociology in March 1963. This was a revised version of a paper (now lost) read on Sept. 1, 1961, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In answer to an email query, Dr. Short told us that the same passage, with the phrase “sell wolf tickets,” probably appeared in the earlier, unpublished version that was delivered in 1961. “I cannot imagine that it was not in the earlier version,” he said.

Over the years, both “wolf tickets” and “woof tickets” have appeared, with variant spellings for “woof” and with “tickets” in singular as well as plural.

DARE, for example, says the phrase “woof ticket,” used “especially” among black speakers, means a “lie, bluff, challenge.” Its earliest written use was recorded in 1971.

The scholar Geneva Smitherman, writing in the English Journal in February 1976, wrote: “ ‘Sellin woof [wolf] tickets’ (sometimes just plain ‘woofin’) refers to the kind of strong language which is purely idle boasting.” The bracketed and parenthetical additions are hers.

Time magazine also used both versions in its Aug. 20, 1979, issue: “ ‘To sell wolf tickets’ (pronounced wuf tickets) means to challenge somebody to a fight” (from “Outcry Over Wuff Tickets,” an article about black English in the classroom).

And in 1982, an early rap group called Wuf Ticket briefly appeared on the singles charts.

A few years later, the linguist Carolyn G. Karhu said that “wolf ticket” (defined as an empty threat) and “selling wolf tickets” (making an empty threat) were terms used by prison inmates in Tennessee (American Speech, summer 1988).

But by the 1990s, these terms had apparently become passé in the language of the streets.

“ ‘Woof ticket’ is a somewhat dated phrase,” Betty Parham and Gerrie Ferris wrote in 1992 in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. And “selling wolf tickets” was defined as “archaic black slang” by Jack E. White, writing in Time magazine’s issue of Oct. 24, 1995.

So was this “woof” merely a black pronunciation of “wolf”? The language columnist William Safire thought so. Commenting on the phrase “woof ticket,” he wrote, “Woof is a Black English pronunciation of ‘wolf’ ” (the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 2000).

That assertion brought a response from Peter Jeffery, now a professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame. His letter, later published in Safire’s book The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time (2004), objected to Safire’s explanation for “woof ticket.”

“The origin had nothing to do with ‘wolf,’ ” Jeffery wrote. “The metaphor was of a barking watchdog (‘woof, woof!’).”

Jeffery, who grew up in Brooklyn and heard the phrase as a youth, added: “By the 1970s, ‘woof ticket’ had disappeared from the speech of young black Americans, though it may still be remembered among those are old enough.” He noted, “I’ve since heard that ‘woofin’ is still sometimes used among jazz musicians to describe the back-and-forth challenges between instrumental soloists.”

Well, old slang terms have a way of reviving, and that appears to be the case here.

Today the phrase is usually seen as “to sell wolf tickets,” and its meaning has become broader. It’s sometimes used to describe a hyped-up promotion or an inflated sales pitch—for a product or event that doesn’t live up to the hype.

(By the way, we’ve found no connection with the use of the phrase in Russian slang, in which it originally meant a document or a pass that might be withdrawn at any time. However, Russians may since have adopted the phrase in the American sense. That’s not cross-pollination, just borrowing.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

The true history of false flags

Q: I simply don’t understand how “false flag” has come to mean (I guess) a staged tragedy to create sympathy for a group or to push an agenda such as outlawing automatic weapons. It supposedly relates back to pirate ships flying false flags, but that doesn’t seem parallel.

A: Yes, the term “false flag” conjures up images of pirates on the high seas, flying friendly colors to conceal their larcenous motives. However, we haven’t found any evidence that the phrase was ever used literally for a real flag on a real pirate ship.

In the 16th century, when the phrase first appeared in writing, it was strictly a figurative expression. It wasn’t used literally—to mean an actual flag—until almost 300 years later. And pirates weren’t mentioned.

“False flag” is one of those expressions that exist almost solely in figurative use. And its meaning hasn’t changed over the centuries.

In figurative contexts, the Oxford English Dictionary says, a “false flag” means “a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives; something used deliberately to misrepresent in this way.”

It first appeared, according to the OED, in a religious tract published in the mid-1500s: “Of this sort was Gardiner that abused K. Henry with a false flagge of religion, when he made hys booke of true obedience” (from Thomas Norton’s A Warning Agaynst the Dangerous Practises of Papistes, 1569).

At that time, the word “flag” itself was still new. The noun for a square or rectangular piece of cloth, varying in color and design and flown “as a standard, ensign or signal, and also for decoration or display,” first appeared in writing in 1530, the OED says.

The dictionary’s next example of “false flag” is also figurative, though the writer alludes to pirates. In a sermon published in 1689, George Halley called Roman Catholicism “a Religion that acts in disguise and masquerade, changes frequently its colours, and puts out a false Flag to conceal the Pyrate.”

Similar uses of “false flag,” mostly in political writing, have continued into the 21st century. This is the most recent one in the OED: “These are the true Tory colours, not the false flag of convenience he flies for the working poor” (from the Daily Mirror, London, 2008).

As we said, it wasn’t until the 19th century that “false flag” showed up in the literal sense, defined in the OED as “a flag used to disguise a ship by misrepresenting its nationality, allegiance, intent, etc.”

Here is Oxford’s earliest example: “The boarding officers must, in their discretion, decide, whether this be a true or false flag, and of the character of the vessel” (from a May 29, 1824, article in the Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, that refers to searching merchant vessels sailing under foreign flags).

And here’s the OED’s most recent literal citation: “The Obama administration is urging global port authorities to be on the watch for Iranian shipping vessels flying false flags or sailing under fraudulent registrations” (from an Associated Press article that appeared in print and online on July 19 and 20, 2012).

As Oxford notes, the term “false flag” is also used adjectivally, as in “false flag operation” (first recorded in 1982) and “false flag provocation” (2002).

In this sense, the dictionary says, the term describes “an event or action (typically political or military in nature) secretly orchestrated by someone other than the person or organization that appears to be responsible for it.”

Here’s the OED’s latest citation: “Some of those who believe that the 7/7 London bombings were a ‘false flag’ operation by state forces rejects [sic] as fake all the state’s evidence” (from a British monthly, Fortean Times, May 23, 2011).

More recently, an April 3, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times about the Parkland, FL, high school shootings says “conspiracy theorists deemed the incident itself a hoax, or false flag, something that’s further marred the aftermath of every major shooting, including at Sandy Hook Elementary.”

As in those examples, the phrase is often used by people who argue that widely publicized mass shootings, bombings, and so on are actually “false flags” or “false flag operations,” staged by the government or interest groups for political purposes.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Can ‘refute’ mean ‘deny’?

Q: The increasing use of “refute” as a synonym for “deny” is threatening to finally separate me from the last vestiges of my sanity. I have always thought the former to mean “disprove,” which is very different than “deny.” I just read such an example in an Alaskan news article that sent me running to you.

A: You’ll be disappointed by our answer. Historically, “refute” and “deny” have had separate meanings. But over the last half-century or so the distinction has blurred, and today the use of “refute” to mean “deny” is accepted as standard English—at least by the editors of all nine dictionaries we’ve checked.

However, you’re not alone in objecting to the newer usage. Even some of the standard dictionaries that accept this sense acknowledge that there’s still resistance to it. And none of the usage manuals we’ve consulted wholeheartedly endorse the new sense, though some see the writing on the wall.

Here, for instance, are the senses of “refute” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.):

(1) “To prove to be false or erroneous; overthrow by argument or proof,” as in “refute testimony.”

(2) “To deny the accuracy or truth of,” as in “refuted the results of the poll.”

Both are accepted as standard, but the dictionary adds this in a usage note:

“This second use has been criticized as incorrect or inappropriate since the early 1900s, despite being common. A majority of the Usage Panel accepts the use as a synonym of deny, but not by a wide margin. In our 2002 survey, 62 percent accepted the example In the press conference, the senator categorically refuted the charges of malfeasance but declined to go into details. This suggests that many readers are uncomfortable with this usage and would prefer to see deny in these contexts.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has similar definitions but adds that the second meaning “has frequently been cited as an error by commentators on English usage.”

The same is true with Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), which accepts both meanings, but adds that the “deny” sense of “refute” is a “usage objected to by some.”

However, Merriam-Webster.com, an updated and expanded version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), accepts both meanings as standard, and without comment.

Similar definitions, without caveats, appear in four of the standard British dictionaries we consulted—Collins, LongmanMacmillan, and Cambridge online. All accept without reservation that “refute” can mean either to prove that something is untrue or to say that something is untrue.

Another British reference, Oxford Dictionaries online, accepts the new and old senses of “refute,” but adds a caveat similar to ones in American dictionaries.

Just because the newer sense is standard, though, doesn’t mean you have to use it. We don’t use “refute” to mean “deny.” The traditional sense is also standard, and that’s the one we use. However, you’ll have to endure the use of the newer sense by others.

For the time being, you’ll find support in most usage guides. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for example, notes that “refute” has “two senses, both of which are in common use, but one of which is widely regarded as an error.”

The usage guide notes, however, that the disputed use of “refute” to mean “deny” is “extremely common, and the contexts in which it occurs are standard”—that is, in speech or writing widely accepted as correct.

“Its most frequent use is by journalists reporting the emphatic denials issued by those accused of wrongdoing,” the usage guide adds. “Hardly a day now goes by, it seems, without one government official or another refuting a new set of allegations.”

In The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004), the linguist Pam Peters says “it seems unlikely that the objections can be sustained much longer in the face of usage. It may rankle with those who like to keep words in the state to which they are accustomed, but language moves on.”

We suspect that the traditional use of “refute” to mean “disprove” may be lost as the verb is increasingly used to mean “deny.” At some point, even traditionalists may have to abandon “refute” and use a term like “disprove” or “rebut” to make sure they’re understood.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, says English borrowed “refute” in the early 16th century from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, where refuter meant to prove something wrong, contest something, or reject someone. The ultimate source is refūtāre, classical Latin meaning to suppress or disprove something, or to prove someone wrong.

The verb meant to refuse or reject someone or something when it first appeared in English, according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Benedictine monk Henry Bradshaw’s biography of St. Werburgh, patron saint of the author’s monastery in Chester, England:

“Her royall dyademe, and shynynge coronall / Was fyrst refuted, for loue of our sauyoure” (from The Holy Lyfe and History of Saynt Werburge, written sometime before Bradshaw’s death in 1513 and published posthumously in 1521). An Anglo-Saxon princess, Werburgh gave up her coronet to become an abbess.

Two decades after Bradshaw’s death, the verb took on what is now considered its traditional sense, which the OED defines as to “prove (something) to be false, esp. by means of argument or debate.”

The first Oxford example is from a 1533 polemic that Thomas More wrote during a theological debate with William Tyndale: “If Tyndale wold now refute myne obieccion of ye Turkes and theyr Alcharon.”

The use of “refute” to mean “deny” showed up in the 19th century. The earliest OED citation is from an 1886 satire of poor English: “Mind, i ain’t a snob; I utterly refute that idear. I don’t judge bi the koat he wares, or the joolery, or nothing of that kind.”

The dictionary’s next example is from a Canadian newspaper, the Manitoba Morning Free Press, Jan. 13, 1895: “Members wish to refute the assertions … that Hayes council ‘is on its last legs.’ Never in the history of the council was it in better shape.”

We’ve seen several possible earlier sightings, though it’s often hard to tell whether “refute” is being used in the sense of “disprove” or “deny.” As the OED notes, “In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless.”

In Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, for example, Emma wonders why she doesn’t like Jane Fairfax:

“Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”

And in The Warden (1855), the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, Eleanor Harding is asked if she’s in love with John Bold:

“ ‘I—’ commenced Eleanor, turning sharply round to refute the charge; but the intended falsehood stuck in her throat, and never came to utterance. She could not deny her love, so she took plentifully to tears.” (The excerpt is from a conversation between Eleanor, the warden’s daughter, and Bold’s sister, Mary.)

The earliest objection to the newer usage, according to the M-W usage manual, is from Every-Day Words and Their Uses, a 1916 usage guide by Robert Palfrey Utter:

“To refute a statement, opinion, accusation, imputation, or charge, is not merely to call it in question, or deny it without proof, but to disprove it, overthrow it by argument, show it to be false.”

Henry Fowler doesn’t mention “refute” in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), which suggests that the new sense was uncommon at the time. But Sir Ernest Gowers, editor of the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s guide, says one refutes something “only by producing the evidence.” Without evidence, one “could only deny it.”

In the 1996 third edition, R. W. Burchfield writes, “I have an uneasy feeling that the new sense will begin to sound normal in the 21 c.—but not yet.”

And in the 2015 fourth edition, Jeremy Butterfield says that “it will sound normal to those who normally use it in this way, and aberrant to those who do not.” We assume it sounds aberrant to him. But the century is still young.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

The life of ‘lifestyle’

Q: The more student papers I read at my university, the more certain usages drive me crazy. For decades I have resisted “lifestyle.” As Alfonse, a professor, says in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, “Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.” I believe he’s right on the latter point, but what about the former?

A: You may have to blame the Germans, not the Californians, for the all-too-common “lifestyle”—or at least for its earliest and rather isolated appearance in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, we have our own opinions about the origin of the contemporary term, which we’ll discuss later.

The word is “perhaps” modeled after the German Lebensstil, the OED says. The German word, which dates from 1849, is a compound of leben (“life”) and stil (“style”), Oxford explains.

The earliest known example in English appeared in 1915, when a British philosopher, reviewing a book written in German, translated Lebensstil as “life-style.” Here’s the passage, as cited in the OED:

“This spirit of expediency … excludes any possibility of peace or rest in unity with the universe. The author applies to it, as the ‘life-style’ of our age, the term Impressionism.” (From the January 1915 issue of the journal Mind, where Bernard Bosanquet reviews Emil Hammacher’s Hauptfragen der Modernen Kultur, which means “main questions of modern culture.”)

The German book, published a year earlier, has Lebensstil twice, in the phrases “der Lebensstil unseres Zeitalters” (“the lifestyle of our age”) and “den impressionistischen Lebensstil” (“the Impressionist lifestyle”).

The OED defines this use of “lifestyle” as “a style or way of living (associated with an individual person, a society, etc.); esp. the characteristic manner in which a person lives (or chooses to live) his or her life.”

It’s defined more briefly in Merriam Webster Unabridged—”the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture”—and illustrated with the phrases “a healthy lifestyle” and “an alternative lifestyle.”

We haven’t found any earlier examples of the term, whether written as one word (“lifestyle”), two (“life style”), or hyphenated (“life-style”). And even after 1915, it didn’t catch on for several decades.

The term in this sense—a way of living—wasn’t sighted again until 1947 (the OED also has a 1946 example, but it’s for a different meaning, as we’ll explain later). Here’s the 1947 citation:

“While ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves, they became enslaved, and found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own” (from an article by Marshall McLuhan in the October 1947 issue of the Sewanee Review).

The term wasn’t recorded again, as far as we can tell, until the 1960s, when it became widely known.

The next OED citation is from the March 22, 1961, issue of the Guardian, London: “The mass-media … continually tell their audience what life-styles are ‘modern’ and ‘smart.’ ”

Today the word has become so common that many consider it trite. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed.) regards it as “shopworn.”

And, more to the point of your question, “lifestyle” has become associated with consumerism and conspicuous consumption. We might ponder the “lifestyle” of the Kardashians, but it would be jarring to write a college paper about the “lifestyle” of prisoners in the gulag.

Since the 1970s, the OED says, “lifestyle” has also been used as an adjective, describing something “designed to appeal to consumers by association with a lifestyle regarded as desirable, glamorous, or attractive.” Oxford uses examples like “lifestyle advertising,” “lifestyle brand,” and “lifestyle magazine.”

But we have some more thoughts on the origins of the noun that means a way of living.

Certainly the earliest “lifestyle” on record, that 1915 example, was modeled after the German Lebensstil; it was a direct translation.

However, we wonder whether the later use of the word in ordinary English wasn’t simply spontaneous. We say this for two reasons:

(1) That early appearance in a review of an obscure German book seems unlikely to have inspired either the isolated 1947 example or the surge in the use of “lifestyle” beginning in the 1960s.

(2) The concept itself—a way of living—dates from an earlier time, when it was commonly expressed as “style of living” or “style of life.” And it seems likely that those phrases inspired the shorter, catchier “lifestyle.”

We’ve found many examples of “style of living” from the late 18th century onward, and of “style of life” from the mid-19th-century. These phrases—meaning the same thing as the modern “lifestyle”—were and still are found on both sides of the Atlantic, though they’re not nearly as common as they once were.

For instance, here are some early uses of the older of the two phrases, “style of living”:

1784: “You can conceive nothing so charming as the Grecian women!—nothing so interesting as their style of living!” (From More Ways Than One, a comic play by Hannah Cowley.)

1785: “In a few years she resumed her equipage, and recommenced her usual style of living, with as much or rather more splendor than ever.” (A Philosophical, Historical, and Moral Essay on Old Maids, by William Hayley.)

1785: “This [Switzerland] is not a cheap country. … In some respects my style of living is enlarged by the increase of my relative importance, an obscure bachelor in England, the master of a considerable house at Lausanne.” (From a letter written on March 21 by Edward Gibbon to Lord Sheffield.)

1793: “His style of living is not equal to his fortune; and I have heard of several instances of his attention to petty economy.” (Evenings at Home, Vol. III, a collection of children’s pieces by Anna Laetitia Barbauld and John Aikin.)

1794: “ ‘Our notions are somewhat enlarged since those days,’ said M. Quesnel;—‘what was then thought a decent style of living would not now be endured.’ ” (The Mysteries of Udolpho, a novel by Ann Radcliffe.)

1797: “In food little luxury seems to have been known, till James I, who had resided nineteen years in England, set the example of a higher style of living.” (A History of Scotland, by John Pinkerton.)

By the mid-19th century, “style of living” was so familiar a phrase in British and American literature that some writers were overusing it (as they would later overuse “lifestyle”).

For instance, in Six Lectures Addressed to the Working Classes (1849), the Scottish minister William G. Blaikie writes: “It is very desirable that the working classes stood higher in the esteem of the community, and enjoyed a more comfortable style of living.”  Later he goes on to use phrase six times on a single page—”a very wretched style of living” … “a thirst for a higher style of living” … “the Irish style of living” … “the desire of improving his style of living,” and so on.

If those authors were writing today, our bet is that they’d use “lifestyle” instead.

A search of Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books, shows that “lifestyle” sprang to life in the mid-1960s and spiked sharply, just when “style of living” and “style of life” dropped away. You might almost say that “lifestyle” replaced them

So we suspect that the “lifestyle” that vaulted into use in the mid-20th century was a product of those earlier phrases, not of Lebensstil.

Before we go, we should mention a very different meaning of “lifestyle” that’s much less common and not known to the average reader.

In the psychology of Alfred Adler, the OED explains, it means “a pattern of reactions and behaviour that is established in childhood and remains characteristic of an individual.”

This technical meaning of “lifestyle” came into English in 1929 from Lebensstil, the OED says. The German word used as a psychological term, Oxford says, was first recorded in “1928 or earlier.”

The OED‘s earliest English example is from Adler’s Problems of Neurosis, which he wrote in English and published in 1929: “This fragment of memory records the two typical motives of the main life-style.”

The 1946 example we mentioned above, which the OED cites for the other sense of “lifestyle,” belongs in this category, in our opinion. The author, George Orwell, used the word in the Adlerian sense to mean a pattern of behavior:

“True to his life-style, Koestler was … promptly arrested and interned by the Daladier Government.” (From Critical Essays.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Did ‘beech’ give us ‘book’?

Q: In The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers, one of the characters, an agricultural extension agent, tells his daughter that the word “book” comes from “beech,” since Sanskrit was once written on beech bark. Is that true?

A: “Book” may come from “beech,” but Sanskrit was probably written on birch bark in ancient times, not beech bark.

Many etymologists believe the ultimate source of “book” could be “beech,” though others think the two words evolved separately.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, for example, says versions of the word “book” are “widespread throughout the Germanic languages,” and “point to a prehistoric Germanic bōks, which was probably related to bōkā ‘beech.’ ”

The connection, Ayto explains, is “that the early Germanic peoples used beechwood tablets for writing runic inscriptions on.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart, agrees that “book” and “beech” could be related “on the supposition that early inscriptions may have been made on tablets of beech wood.”

But as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Objections to this etymology have been made on several grounds,” especially because of morphological, or structural, inconsistencies in different versions of “book” and “beech” in West Germanic languages, which include English.

“However, recent accounts have defended the hypothesis that book n. and beech n. are ultimately related,” the OED adds, and supporters of the “beech”/“book” relationship argue that the morphological discrepancies may have been used to make distinctions in semantics, or meaning.

As evidence that the name of something, such as a book, may be derived from the material it’s made of, etymologists cite a parallel case in which the Sanskrit term bhūrjá- means “birch tree” when it’s masculine and “birch bark used for writing” when it’s feminine.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, edited by Calvert Watkins, supports the view that “book” comes from “beech.” It says both words are ultimately derived from bhāgo-, a Proto Indo-European term for “beech tree.”

In addition to “beech” and “book,” American Heritage says, the reconstructed prehistoric root has also given English the word “buckwheat.”

The first OED example of “beech” (spelled boecae in Old English) is from the Epinal Glossary, believed written in the late 600s: “Fagus, boecae.” The Old English scholar Alan K. Brown has described the Latin-English glossary as “the earliest body of written English.”

The earliest OED example of “book” (boc in Old English) is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory:

“Ond ic bebiode on Godes naman ðæt nan mon ðone æstel from ðære bec ne do, ne ða boc from ðæm mynstre” (“And I command in God’s name that no man take the bookmark from the book or the book from the monastery”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

When ‘I have’ becomes ‘I’ve’

Q: I’m seeing the use of “I’ve” where “have” is not an auxiliary but the actual verb, as in “I’ve a red car.” That’s not legit, is it? Yuck.

A: We’ve searched the major scholarly works of grammar and haven’t found any grammatical objections to using “I’ve” as a contraction when “have” is the primary verb. However, the usage is more common in Britain and may sound unidiomatic to American ears.

In British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns (2006), the linguist John Algeo writes that the use of “I’ve” with the contracted primary verb is over five times more frequent in the UK than in the US.

What you’re noticing, however, may be a shortening of the word “have” in speech or written dialogue, rather than an actual contraction. The “h” or “ha” sounds are often dropped in conversation, and the contraction itself is elided when an expression like “I’ve got to go” comes out as “I gotta go.”

As for the contraction, Sydney Greenbaum, writing in the Oxford English Grammar, describes “I’ve” as the contracted form of “I have” when “have” is either a primary verb or an auxiliary.

We couldn’t find any objections to the usage in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, or A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al.

However, both books question the usage in some negative constructions.

Quirk, for example, says it’s generally preferable to contract “not” rather than “have” in such constructions, recommending “I haven’t” instead of “I’ve not.” Huddleston and Pullum consider sentences like “I’ve no time today” and “I haven’t enough tea” to be grammatical only in certain dialects.

We checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and all of them define “I’ve” as simply a contraction for “I have.” None of them say it can’t be used to contract the principal verb. In fact, two of the dictionaries include examples that do just that:

“I’ve one more appointment today” (from Merriam-Webster Unabridged) and “I’ve no other appointments” (from the online Collins Dictionary).

Finally, none of the usage manuals in our extensive language library comment on the use of “I’ve” as a contraction for “I have,” suggesting that the authors aren’t especially bothered by the way “I’ve” is being used today in either in the US or the UK.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Betwixt and between

Q: Where am I when I’m “betwixt and between,” and how did I get there?

A: You’re neither here nor there. To answer the second part of your question, we’ll have to go back to Anglo-Saxon times.

When the individual words appeared in Old English (“betwixt” as betweox and “between” as betweonum), they were synonyms. And they still mean the same thing, though the old-fashioned “betwixt” now conveys an air of antiquity when used alone.

Both words are derived from prehistoric Germanic compounds—reconstructed as bi-twiska and bi-twihna—meaning “at the middle point of two,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

The earliest example for “between” in the Oxford English Dictionary (with be and tweonum separated) is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725. We’ve expanded the citation to give readers a better sense of the Anglo-Saxon writing:

“ðær wæs Beowulfes mærðo mæned; monig oft gecwæð þætte suðne norð be sæm tweonum ofer eormengrund oþer nænig under swegles begong selra nære rondhæbbendra, rices wyrðra.”

(“There was the glory of Beowulf hailed; it was oft said by many that nowhere south or north between the two seas, nowhere over the whole sweep of earth under the boundless heavens, was there ever one worthier to bear a shield or rule a kingdom.”)

The earliest OED example for “betwixt” is more down to earth. It’s in an Anglo-Saxon land charter, dated 931, from the reign of King Æðelstan: “betweox ða twégen wegas burh ðone leá” (“the meadow betwixt the two roads of the town”).

It took hundreds of years for the two words to come together in the expression “betwixt and between,” which the OED defines as “in an intermediate or middling position; neither one thing nor the other.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “in a midway position” or “neither one thing nor the other.”

The first Oxford citation for the expression, described as colloquial and dialectal, is from Newton Forst, an 1832 seafaring novel by Frederick Marryat: “[He] took the lease of a house in a betwixt and between fashionable street.”

We’ll end with an earlier example that we found in The Children of Thespis (1786), a satirical poem by Anthony Pasquin (pseudonym of the English writer John Williams):

So beckon’d by Hope, yet by Hope so oft cheated
For ever contending, yet ever defeated;
Too eccentric to make a sound mathematician;
Too proud for attendance, too vain to beseech,
Too poor to be happy, too candid to preach:
Thus he swims in a strange indeterminate mean,
Neither hallow’d nor damn’d, but betwixt and between.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Making shift

Q: Can you explain the word “makeshift”? The parts don’t add up to what it brings to mind—improvised or cobbled together.

A: The word no longer makes literal sense because the noun “shift” has shifted its meaning. Once upon a time, a “shift” was a substitution, and to “make a shift” was to make do with a lesser substitute.

The noun is related to the verb “shift” (circa 1000), which originally meant to put in order or arrange, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The verb came from ancient Germanic and was written as sciftan in Old English.

By the early 1300s, this verb was used to mean “to change, to replace by another of the kind,” the OED says. And in the 1600s, “to shift with (or without)” meant “to manage with something inferior or without something desirable.”

Meanwhile, the noun had been developing along the same lines. By the early 1500s, it was being used to mean “an expedient, an ingenious device for effecting some purpose,” Oxford says, and later in the century it meant a substitution.

Consequently, “for a shift” (first recorded in 1523) meant “for want of something better”; and “by the shift” (1665) meant “at a pinch,” Oxford explains.

Similarly, to “make a shift” or “make shift” simply meant to make efforts, try all means, contrive, or succeed with difficulty. And by the 1570s, the OED says, the phrase (followed by “with”) also meant “to do one’s best with (inferior means), to be content with, put up with.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest use of the verb phrase in that sense.

“The bread is very drye … but the common people remediyng that with Larde or Oyle, doo make a shift with it as wel as they can.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of a Latin treatise on farming, by Conrad Heresbach.)

The dictionary’s next example is from Ben Jonson’s comedy The New Inne (1661): “Thou must make shift with it.”

The verb phrase “make shift” survived into the late 19th century, as in this OED example from a monthly trade journal, The Bookseller (1885): “We cannot afford to employ … efficient assistants but have to make shift with cheap labour.”

This brings us to the 17th-century adjective “makeshift” and its younger cousin, the 19th-century noun.

The OED’s earliest written use of the adjective refers to an outdated printing press: “A make-shift slovenly contrivance.” (From the second volume of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, 1683.)

This is Oxford’s definition of the adjective: “Of the nature of a makeshift; serving as a temporary substitute, esp. of an inferior kind; improvised; formed haphazardly.”

The dictionary’s earliest written use of the noun is from an essay by Charles Lamb in the September 1822 issue of the London Magazine: “The cottage (a sorry antediluvian make-shift of a building).”

Here’s the OED definition of the noun: “That with which one makes shift; a temporary substitute, esp. of an inferior kind, an expedient.”

The definitions of “makeshift” haven’t changed over the years, though writers have stopped using the hyphens.

Today The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adjective this way: “suitable as a temporary or expedient substitute,” as in “used a rock as a makeshift hammer.”

And AH defines the noun as “a temporary or expedient substitute for something else,” as in “lacked a cane but used a stick as a makeshift.”

As you know, the noun “shift” has lots of other meanings. And many are connected with the verb that originally meant to arrange or put in order and later meant to substitute.

For example, the notion of change or substitution is behind the “shift” that originally (1601) was a piece of underclothing and later (1950s) came to mean a woman’s “straight loose dress,” the OED says.

The same idea of change or substitution is reflected in the “shift” that means the length of a work period (1809), the “shift” that’s a new set of workers (1812), and the “shift” that means to change gears in a car (1910).

Even the adjective “shifty” is derived from those original senses of the verb “shift.”

In the 16th-century, the OED says, the verb came to mean  “to employ shifts or evasions; to practise or use indirect methods; to practise or live by fraud, or temporary expedients.”

In the same century (1570), “shifty” meant “full of shifts or expedients,” and by the 19th century it was used to mean “fond of indirect or dishonest methods; addicted to evasion or artifice; not straightforward, not to be depended on.”

The OED’s earliest examples are from the works of Thomas Carlyle (“one of the shiftiest of men,” 1837) and John G. Kinnear (“A most shifty old fox he is,” 1841).

But we can’t resist quoting some later ones from Thackeray (“A handsome, tall, sallow-faced man, with a shifty eye,” before 1863) and Dickens (“I scorn your shifty evasions,” 1864).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a beeline straight?

Q: Why does the term “beeline” refer to a straight line even though bees zigzag from flower to flower?

A: The noun “beeline,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains, refers to “a straight line between two points on the earth’s surface, such as a bee was supposed instinctively to take in returning to its hive.”

The earliest example for the usage in the OED has a squirrel acting beelike: “The squirrel took a bee line, and reached the ground six feet ahead” (from the Nov. 24, 1830, issue of the Massachusetts Spy).

Researchers have confirmed that bees generally head straight to their hives after collecting nectar and pollen. However, the researchers have debated about whether the bees navigate by using the sun, a mental map, or a combination of both.

Recent research supports the mental map theory. That’s the conclusion of a study entitled “Way-Finding in Displaced Clock-Shifted Bees Proves Bees Use a Cognitive Map” (PNAS, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, June 2, 2014).

The authors of the study, James F. Cheeseman et al., describe how anesthetized bees were too disoriented to use the sun for navigation but still managed to return accurately and quickly to their hive.

“This result rules out the sun-referenced home-vector hypothesis, further strengthening the now extensive evidence for a metric cognitive map in bees,” the study concludes.

Some beekeepers believe “beeline” refers to the path that bees take from the hive to the source of nectar and pollen, but all the standard dictionaries we’ve seen accept the OED explanation that the term refers to the path of the returning bees.

However, bees do indeed often take a straight path from their hive to a source of nutrition—helped by nectar-laden returnees. When bees return with nectar and pollen, they do a waggle dance to let the rest of the hive know where to find the good stuff.

In “The Flight Paths of Honeybees Recruited by the Waggle Dance,” a paper in the May 2005 issue of the journal Nature, the authors J. R. Riley et al. say that “the dancer generates a specific, coded message that describes the direction and distance from the hive of a new food source.”

We couldn’t find a good place above to insert the OED’s exhaustive, one-sentence definition of “bee,” so we’ll end with it:

“A well-known insect, or rather genus of insects, of the Hymenopterous order, living in societies composed of one queen, or perfect female, a small number of males or ‘drones,’ and an indefinite number of undeveloped females or ‘neuters’ (which are the workers), all having four wings; they collect nectar and pollen, and produce wax and also honey, which they store up for food in the winter.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Umpteen hyperbolic numerals

Q: What’s the story behind such fanciful numbers as “umpteen,” “zillion,” “jillion,” and “gazillion”?

A: When precision doesn’t matter, and exaggeration is allowed, it’s useful to have whimsical alternatives for large numbers. The linguist Stephen Chrisomalis calls these inventions “indefinite hyperbolic numerals.”

In fact, the earliest known examples we’ve seen for “umpteen” and “zillion” were discovered a couple of years ago by Chrisomalis, a linguistic anthropologist at Wayne State University.

In “Umpteen Reflections on Indefinite Hyperbolic Numerals,” a paper published in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech, Chrisomalis cites this 19th-century New Zealand example of “umpteen”:

“They are like you and me, and never trot round with a credit balance of more than about umteen pence.” (From an article in the Christchurch Press, Sept. 14, 1878.)

And here’s an American example with “umpteen,” spelled the usual way and used to mean a large number, not an indefinite small one:

“Increase acreage ‘umpteen’ per cent.” (From an article about wheat crop forecasts in a Minneapolis trade journal, Northwestern Miller, July 21, 1882.)

Chrisomalis’s first example for “zillion” is from a satirical article in a California newspaper: “They’re going to bring ’em over here—zillions of ’em.” (Oakland Tribune, Dec. 12, 1916.)

The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet caught up to these early sightings. Its oldest example of “zillion” is from 1944, and its first “umpteen” sighting is from 1918.

Chrisomalis says indefinite hyperbolic numerals like these emerged “principally in the period from 1880 to 1930, frequently in American contexts.”

His research suggests that “zillion” probably comes from African-American speech. It’s now “the most common indefinite hyperbolic numeral in English,” he says.

“Umpteen,” although first recorded in New Zealand in the 1870s, became a common American usage by the 1890s, according to Chrisomalis. (The similar-sounding “umpty,” recorded in both Australia and the US in 1886, represented a vague number rather than a large one.)

Here are some of the other hyperbolic words the author discusses, along with the earliest dates he’s found and possible origins:

“forty-leven” (1839), a combination of “forty” and “eleven,” was “associated with white, well-educated Northeastern writers of a Unitarian or Universalist bent”;

“squillion” (1878), US, associated with children’s speech;

“steen” (1882), now obsolete American college slang, modeled after “sixteen” but without that meaning;

“skillion” (1923), first recorded in Canada as a variant of “squillion” that quickly became more popular;

“jillion” (1926), associated with cowboy speech in rural and small-town Texas and surrounding Plains states;

From the 1930s onward, prefixes like “ba-” and “ga-” were added to “zillion” and “jillion” to make them seem even bigger: “bazillion” (1939), “umptillion” (1948), “kazillion” (1969), “gazillion” (1974), “bajillion” (1990).

Chrisomalis differentiates between hyperbolic numerals and what are known as “hyperbolic quantifiers,” words like “scads,” “oodles,” “heaps,” “wads,” and “slew.”

He also notes that even a definite number can be used hyperbolically, as in “I’ve told you a hundred times.” (The French, he points out, use the actual number 36, trente-six, hyperbolically to mean a large number. A Frenchman might say, “I’ve told you 36 times.”)

However, unlike definite numbers, “zillion” and “umpteen” can never have a literal meaning. And words like that, Chrisomalis writes, are “cross-linguistic” rarities—that is, they’re rare in other languages.

Two exceptions he points to are from the 1970s or later: “Spanish tropecientos (from tropel ‘mob, heap, mass’ + cientos ‘hundreds’) and Italian fantastilione (from fantastico+ ilione).”

English speakers, however, keep inventing new humongous numbers. In his paper Chrisomalis shares a few, including this one from Ian Frazier’s short story “The Killion” (New Yorker, Sept. 6, 1982):

“The killion, as every mathematician knows, is a number so big that it kills you.”

We’ll end with some definite, non-hyperbolic numerals. Here are the current meanings of some “-illion” words that are for real:

  • million = one thousand thousands
  • billion = one thousand millions
  • trillion = one thousand billions
  • quadrillion = one thousand trillions
  • quintillion = one thousand quadrillions

From there, the numbers proceed to such stratospheric levels that we get nosebleeds just thinking about them.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you out of it?

Q: I was reading The Ladies of Lyndon, a 1923 novel by Margaret Kennedy, when my eyes fell upon the expression “out of it” used to mean isolated or not part of things. I’m surprised that the usage is that old. It sounds so contemporary.

A: Yes, the use of “out of it” to mean isolated or rejected is that old. In fact, it’s even older. Here’s the story.

When the expression “to be out of it” showed up in English writing in the early 19th century, it meant something a bit different—“not involved or included in an action or event,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Dec. 8, 1830, letter by the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth: “Poor Davies Gilbert to whom the place was in every way unsuited is well out of it. I hope he thinks so.” (Gilbert, a Cornish engineer, was succeeded by the Duke of Sussex as president of the Royal Society.)

In the late 19th century, the OED says, the expression came to mean “removed or distant from the centre or heart of something; isolated; uninformed.”

The earliest Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 18, 1884, issue of the Pall Mall Gazette: “Indeed, ‘C’ Troop … has been rather ‘out of it’ in the matter of field service.”

And that’s how the fictional James Clewer, an English artist who travels to Paris to paint, uses it in the 1923 passage that got your attention:

“I used to think that it would be different if I got away and went to Paris. But it wasn’t. Paris was all right for working in. I learnt a lot. But I felt just as out of it there as here.”

In the mid-20th century, the usage took on its contemporary slang sense of “confused, stupefied, or unconscious, esp. after consuming drink or drugs; (also) unable to think or react properly as a result of being tired,” according to the OED.

The dictionary includes a questionable early example that its editors say “appears to have a somewhat different meaning,” though we’ll let you decide for yourself: “One who is extremely happy is on cloud 88 or out of it” (from a 1959 issue of the journal American Speech).

The next Oxford citation, from a 1963 issue of American Speech, clearly uses the expression in the modern slang sense: “Drunk: soused, out of it, stoned, bombed.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Cays, keys, and quays

Q: Why do we have two words for a small island—“key” and “cay”? And are they related to “quay,” the word for a wharf?

A: “Key” and “cay” are just different spellings of the same 17th-century word for a small, low island, especially in the Caribbean or off the coast of Florida.

“Key” is more common in Florida and “cay” in the Caribbean, and it’s likely that local customs and place names have kept the different spellings alive.

As we’ll explain later, both of them are probably derived from “quay,” a word from French that means a wharf.

First let’s talk about the pronunciations.

“Key” is pronounced KEE, like the unrelated word for something that opens a lock. “Cay” is usually pronounced the same way (KEE), but some dictionaries give an alternate pronunciation, KAY.

“Quay” was originally pronounced KEE, and that’s still the preferred pronunciation (it was once spelled “key”). Some dictionaries give only that pronunciation, though in American English two variant pronunciations are recognized as standard: KAY and KWAY.

We’ll have more to say about “quay” later.

The geographical terms “key” and “cay” were “originally the same word,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although “key” was recorded in writing first (1693), Oxford says it originated as a variant spelling of “cay,” which wasn’t recorded until 1707 but was no doubt known to explorers much earlier. In 17th-century English, “key” was pronounced KAY.

Oxford defines “key” as “a low-lying island or reef, esp. in the Caribbean or off the south coast of Florida.” And it says the earlier “cay” was similarly used for “islets” of sand, mud, rock, or coral lying “around the coast and islands of Spanish America.”

Here is the dictionary’s earliest citation for “key”:

“The place whereon Port-Royal was since built, was like one of the Keys or little Islands that lie off this Harbour.” (From a letter written on July 3, 1693, and published the following year in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.)

“Key,” as we’ve said, was originally a variant spelling of “cay.”  As for “cay,” it was derived from the 16th-century Spanish word cayo (shoal or barrier reef).

That old Spanish word is “of uncertain origin,” Oxford says, but it’s “perhaps ultimately the same word as French quai … or perhaps a loanword from an indigenous language of the Antilles.”

Other etymologists are more definite about the French connection.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.) says that “cay,” and “key” are descended from the Old French quai, the source of “quay.”

And the French word, American Heritage adds, comes from caio (rampart or retaining wall) in Gaulish, an extinct Celtic language once spoken by Celts in what is now France, Belgium, and other parts of northern Europe.

Going even further back, etymologists have identified a prehistoric Indo-European ancestor, a root reconstructed as kagh– that meant a wickerwork or a fence. This ancient meaning is reflected in the Gaulish and early French versions of the word.

“The French word was probably originally used with reference to fence-like wooden revetments, which were used to stabilize riverbanks and allow boats to moor,” the OED explains.

When the word first came into English in 1399, the OED says, it was spelled “key” and meant “a man-made bank or landing stage” for ships, either along the water or projecting into it.

The earliest OED example is from Aberdeen, Scotland. A notation in town records for 1399 describes a contract for the construction of 12 windows and 12 doors, to be delivered by the following Easter “at ony key of Abirden, or ellis at the sandis at Lawrence of Lethis howss” (“at any key of Aberdeen, or else at the sand beach at Lawrence of Leth’s house”).

The quotation appears in Extracts From the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, 1398-1625. We’ve added a few words from the original for context.

Though this is the first known example in written English, the word was familiar in Britain much earlier through Anglo-Norman French (spellings include kaye, kaiekei, key, and many others).

And similar-sounding words meaning a fence or enclosure—and traced to the same prehistoric Indo-European root—existed in Celtic languages spoken in Britain, like Welsh (cae) and Cornish ().

The spelling “quay” showed up in the mid-1500s, more than 150 years after that 1399 example, when it was borrowed from French, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest citation in the OED is from a letter written to Sir Thomas Gresham on Dec. 31, 1561, by his agent in Antwerp:

“So many Quays crowne-serchers, wayters, and other powlyng [plundering] offycers.” (The letter is about the chaotic customs searches on the London docks, as compared to more sedate Antwerp.)

Today “quay” still means what it originally meant—a wharf. But it’s always been less common in the US than in the UK, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries.

Finally, as we mentioned earlier, the “key” that opens a lock is unrelated, as far as anybody knows. It’s been traced back to Old English (caeg), but no further.

“No one knows where the word originally came from,” Ayto says, adding that “it has no living relatives in other Germanic languages.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

General Tso’s chicken

Q: I love General Tso’s chicken, but it leaves me hungry to learn more about this general and why my favorite Chinese dish is named for him.

A: The 19th-century general is known in China for his military, not his culinary, accomplishments. He helped the Qing dynasty win a civil war that lasted 14 years and cost millions of lives.

The general (Tso Tsung-t’ang in the old Wade-Giles system of transcribing Mandarin and Zuo Zongtang in the modern Pinyin system) came from Hunan, the home province of Peng Chang-kuei, the chef who created and named an early version of the dish in the 1950s in Taiwan.

Peng, a caterer for the Nationalist Chinese government, fled to Taiwan after the Nationalists were defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949, according to the food writer William Grimes.

In Peng’s Dec. 2, 2016, obituary in the New York Times, Grimes says the chef created the dish for a visit “by Adm. Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1955,” and “on the spur of the moment, he assigned it the name of a Hunanese general, Zuo Zongtang.”

In a Feb. 4, 2007, article in the New York Times Magazine, the British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop quotes Peng as saying the original dish was a sour, salty version of the sweet, tangy, deep-fried dish familiar to Americans.

“Originally the flavors of the dish were typically Hunanese—heavy, sour, hot and salty,” he said in a 2004 interview in Taiwan with Dunlop, author of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, a 2009 collection of Hunan recipes.

In the early 1970s, several Chinese chefs introduced Americanized versions of Peng’s original dish at New York restaurants, including Wen Dah Tai at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, the city’s first Hunan restaurant, and Tsung Ting Wang at Hunan.

In 1973, Peng joined them in New York at Uncle Peng’s Hunan Yuan. “The original General Tso’s chicken was Hunanese in taste and made without sugar,” Peng told Dunlop. “But when I began cooking for non-Hunanese people in the United States, I altered the recipe.”

The earliest written reference we’ve seen for the Americanized dish is from a review of Peng’s Manhattan restaurant by Mimi Sheraton in the March 18, 1977, issue of the New York Times: “General Tso’s chicken was a stir‐fried masterpiece, sizzling hot both in flavor and temperature.”

As for Peng, he returned to Taiwan in the late ’80s and opened the first in a chain of Peng Yuan restaurants there.

Like many Americanized Chinese dishes popular in the US, the General Tso’s chicken you love was unknown in China until recently, according to Grimes, a former restaurant critic at the Times and the author of Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York (2009).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

In the hopper

Q: I’ve lived all my life in Greater Boston, where “in the hopper” means “in the toilet.” How did the expression come to mean “in progress” elsewhere in the country?

A: The word “hopper” has had many senses, both literal and figurative, since it showed up in the mid-13th century as a term for a grasshopper or similar hopping insect.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the noun has been used for “a locust or grasshopper, a saltatorial beetle as the turnip flea, a saltatorial homopterous insect as a froth-hopper, a flea, the cheese-hopper or maggot of the cheese-fly.”

(A “saltatorial” insect is a leaper; the Homoptera are plant-feeding insects like aphids and cicadas.)

The earliest OED example is from a Middle English version of Exodus, dated around 1250:

“And so dede, and on wind cam fro westen, and ðo opperes nam, and warpes ouer in-to ðe se” (“And so [the Lord] did, and a western wind took away the locusts and blew them out into the sea”). We’ve expanded the citation from Exodus 10:19.

More than a century later, the term came to mean a receptacle, shaped like an inverted pyramid or cone, through which grain passed into a mill to be ground. The OED says the “hopper” was “so called because it had originally a hopping or shaking motion.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from “The Reeve’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390):

“Yet saw I neuere by my fader kyn, / How þt the hoper wagges til and fra” (“Yet I never saw, on my family’s honor, how the hopper shakes to and fro”). The “reeve” in the tale is the manager of an estate.

In the 18th century, Oxford says, the use of “hopper” widened to include “similar contrivances for feeding any material to a machine, and, generally, to articles resembling a mill hopper in shape or use.”

The first OED citation for this sense is from Commercium Philosophico-Technicum, a 1763 book by William Lewis about using science to improve art, commerce, and manufacturing:

“The space included between the pipes, at their lower end, under the bason, is a kind of hopper.”

Jumping ahead a century, American politicians began using the word “hopper” in the late 1800s for a box in which proposed bills were dropped for consideration by a legislative body.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, doesn’t include this sense, but its “hopper” entries haven’t been fully updated.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, a standard dictionary, says one meaning of the term is “a box usually on the desk of the clerk or other official of a legislative body into which a proposed bill is dropped.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the political usage is from the March 3, 1889, issue of the Indianapolis Journal, which uses grinding-mill terminology in reference to a hopper in the Indiana legislature.

An article in the paper says the governor’s “veto-mill stopped grinding yesterday for want of grist” when he rejected the final bill approved by the legislature. But it adds that the grinder “is in excellent order for another run” and all the Democratic majority has to do “is throw a few more longeared bills in the hopper.”

In the 20th century, the phrase “in the hopper” took on the expanded sense of “in progress” or “under consideration.” The first example we’ve found in searches of newspaper and magazine databases appeared during World War II.

A Nov. 29, 1943, article from the Catholic News Service noted that millions of Americans in the military would be spending Christmas away from home, but “parents need not fear that their loved ones will be lonesome or neglected, for USO has plans in the hopper which would delight the folks back home.”

The usage caught on after the war. An article in the October 1951 issue of the Vassar Alumnae Magazine, for example, mentions several foiled efforts to encroach on national parks, and warns that there “are numerous similar detrimental proposals in the hopper.”

(A similar figurative expression, “in the pipeline,” showed up at the end of World War II. A Sept. 7, 1945, article in the Times, London, refers to “purchases of all goods in the pipeline or in storage.”)

When the two of us hear “in the hopper” used figuratively now, it’s always in the sense of “in progress” or “under consideration.” We don’t recall ever hearing the expression used in the sense of “in the toilet.” (Pat grew up in the Midwest and Stewart in the Northeast.)

However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says “toilet” is indeed a meaning of “hopper,” especially in the Northeast. And the earliest of several DARE citations is a 1957 report from your home state, Massachusetts:

“The maid on our floor [at college], complaining about the strict new housekeeper [said], ‘She won’t even let us use the word ‘hopper’ anymore. We’re supposed to say ‘closet bowl.’ ”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

On Eve and evening

Q: In a 2016  post, you say there’s no etymological connection between the biblical name “Eve” and the word “evil.” Is there by any chance such a connection between “Eve” and “eve,” as in “evening”?

A: No, there’s no etymological connection between the name “Eve” in Genesis and the word “eve” used to mean “evening.” The word “eve” began life as a shortening of “even,” a now obsolete term for “evening.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the word for “evening” was ǽfen. Here’s an example from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as far back as 725:

“Syþðan æfen cwom ond him Hroþgar gewat to hofe sinum, rice to ræste” (“As evening came, Hrothgar left for home, the noble king to rest”).

The noun ǽfen gave rise to the verbal noun ǽfnung (“the coming of evening”). Later, ǽfen became “even” (then “eve”), while ǽfnung became “evening.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “evening,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English translation of Genesis, written around 1000, by the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Heo com ða on æfnunge eft to Noe, ond brohte an twig of anum elebeame mid grenum leafum on hyre muðe” (“She [a dove] came again that evening to Noah, and brought in her beak a twig with a green olive leaf”). From Genesis 8:11.

The first OED example for the noun “evening” with much like the modern spelling is from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200:

“Riht to þan euening þa fleh Cadwalan þe king” (“King Cadwalan escaped right into the wet evening”). In Middle English, the “v” sound in the middle of a word was written as “u.”

The short form “eve” appeared in writing for the first time in The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century: “Thu singest from eve fort a morȝe” (“Thou singest from eve right to morn”).

As for the name “Eve,” it’s derived from biblical Hebrew, where the first woman is referred to as hawwa in Genesis 3:20. The name became “Eva” in Latin and Greek translations of the Bible, and “Eve” in later French and English translations.

The meaning of the original Hebrew name has been the subject of much scholarly debate over the years. We discussed the issue extensively in our 2016 post, but here’s a brief summary.

A common suggestion is that hawwa means “life” or “living” or “life giver,” assuming a connection with the Hebrew haya (to live) or hay (living).

However, biblical scholars have questioned such a connection, saying there’s no direct linguistic link between hawwa and the other two words.

Some scholars say hawwa may have been a play on those other Hebrew words, or perhaps the words were indirectly connected through other Semitic languages.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why piece + meal = piecemeal

Q: Does the word “piecemeal” have anything to do with eating? I know that “piece” is used to describe the equivalent of eating a sandwich over the sink, as in “I’m not eating dinner. I’m just piecing.”

A: “Piecemeal” is an interesting word. Etymologically it means “by piece measure.”

But not many people realize this, since it’s the last remaining example in English of a word formed with the obsolete suffix “-meal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

And as we’ll explain later, both parts of the word have connections with eating.

In Old and Middle English, the suffix “-meal” (which meant a “measure”) was used to form compound adverbs. Long-dead examples include “fingermeal” and “footmeal,” units of measure about equal to the breadth of a finger or the length of a person’s foot.

Today we might use the phrase “piece by piece” as a synonym for “piecemeal.” As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adverbial equivalent in modern English for those old “-meal” compounds would be “the formula ‘— by —,’ with repetition of the noun.”

In fact, “footmeal,” which existed only in Old English (as fotmælum), was not just a unit of measure but also meant “step by step” or “bit by bit,” Oxford says.

The compound adverb “piecemeal” was formed in Middle English when the “-meal” suffix was added to the noun “piece” (a part or portion), which had come into English from French about 1230.

The adverb was first recorded in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, which was written around 1300: “Folc to drou þat traytour, ech lime pece mele” (“Men drew [dismembered] the traitor, each limb piecemeal”).

In the late 16th century, English writers began using “piecemeal” as an adjective to mean consisting of or done in pieces.

The earliest OED example for the adjective is from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a prose romance he was working on when he died in 1586: “He did with a broken peece-meale speach … remember the mishaps of his youth.”

Now for the eating connections. That old “-meal” suffix is related to the word we use to mean a repast.

In Old and Middle English, the noun “meal,” derived from Germanic, meant not only a measure but a time or an occasion. It no longer exists with those general meanings, but survives in a particular sense—an occasion for eating.

The sense of “meal” as an occasion for eating emerged in early Old English. The OED defines the usage as “a customary or social occasion of taking food, esp. at a more or less fixed time of day, as breakfast, dinner, etc.”

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

“Ne fæst se no Gode ac him selfum, se þe ðæt nyle ðearfum sellan ðæt he ðonne on mæle læfð, ac wile hit healdan eft to oðrum mæle, ðæt he eft mæge his wambe gefyllan” (“He fasts not for God but for himself, who will not give the poor what he leaves of his meal, but wishes to keep it for another meal, to fill his belly with it afterwards.”)

Very soon, “meal” was used more widely in Old English to mean the food itself.

Jumping ahead a millennium or so, someone without the time or inclination to eat an actual meal might “piece” instead—that is, nibble casually or eat small pieces of this or that.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged says the verb “piece” is “chiefly dialectal” and means “to eat between meals” or “nibble at snacks.”

M-W gives an example from Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (1941): “there he was, piecing on the ham.”

As far as we can tell, no other standard dictionaries have entries for this sense of the verb “piece.” Wordnet, an electronic word database, says it means to “eat intermittently” or “take small bites of,” as in “He pieced at the sandwich all morning.”

The usage is more common in books devoted to slang or regionalisms, where it was recorded at least as far back as mid-19th century America.

The earliest example we’ve found is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (2nd ed., 1859), where the usage is traced to Pennsylvania:

“TO PIECE. To eat pieces of bread and butter, to eat between meals. ‘He has n’t eaten much dinner, because he’s been a piecin’ on’t all the mornin’.’ Pennsylvania.”

The word is also discussed in a review of Bartlett’s dictionary, entitled “Americanisms,” in the April 1861 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. In commenting on verbs formed from familiar nouns, the review writes: “ ‘To piece,’ is to take an irregular snack between meals.”

The verb is also recorded in Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1902), by John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, which defines “to piece” (or “to eat a piece”) as colloquial American English for “to eat between meals.”

Pat recalls the usage as extremely common in Iowa, where she grew up. It often meant to pick at leftovers, as in “Long after Thanksgiving, they were still piecing on the turkey.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Geezers and geysers

Q: I’m revisiting season one of Rumpole and I’m up to “Rumpole and the Married Lady.” Leo McKern has just pronounced “geyser,” the British term for a water heater, as “geezer.” I’m probably in my cups or I wouldn’t be asking this, but are the two terms related?

A: In Britain, the words “geyser” and “geezer” are commonly pronounced alike, as you noticed in Rumpole of the Bailey. However, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but there’s no etymological connection.

In the US, “geyser” is pronounced GUY-zer and has one meaning, a bubbling hot spring that erupts periodically.

But in British English, it has two meanings; a “geyser” can be a hot spring or a water heater. And for both senses of the word, most British speakers rhyme it with “geezer.”

You can click the loudspeaker icons at two dictionary websites to hear the typical British and American pronunciations.

In its entry for “geyser,” Oxford Dictionaries online has these definitions: (1) “A hot spring in which water intermittently boils, sending a tall column of water and steam into the air,” or any such “jet or stream of liquid”; (2) “British: A gas-fired water heater through which water flows as it is rapidly heated.”

The noun used in sense #1 was first recorded in travel writing from the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded:

“Among the hot springs in Iceland, several of which bear the name of geyser, there are none that can be compared with that which I am going to describe.” (From Letters on Iceland, a 1780 translation of a work by the Swedish naturalist Uno von Troil.)

The use of the noun in sense #2 was first recorded in the late 19th century. This is the first OED citation:

“The instantaneous water heater; or Maughan’s Patent Geyser … so constructed that any quantity of hot water can be drawn from it with the utmost facility.” (From an advertisement in an 1878 issue of the British journal Gas Engineer.)

Two Oxford citations from the 1920s—one American and the other British—shed some light on the pronunciation of the water heater:

“The aristocratic landlady was telling me of the advantage of her own particular geezer. … I moved closer to descry the lettering on the cylinder, and lo! it was a geyser. I suppose the word is universally mispronounced over here because they have not been brought up in a geyser country” (from An American’s London, by Louise Closser Hale, 1920).

“The mechanical device for heating bath-water made geyser a household word, and though the introducers gave it the vowel of grey, the pronunciation as in key gained ground” (from the Society for Pure English Tract No. XXXII, 1929).

As for its etymology, “geyser” comes from the Icelandic Geysir, the proper name of a hot spring in southwest Iceland. The word literally means “gusher,” the OED explains, and is related to the Old Norse verb geysa (to gush).

Going back even further, etymologists point to an ancestral Proto-Indo-European root, reconstructed as gheu– (to pour), according toThe American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Interestingly, the dictionary’s editor, Calvert Watkins, says gheu– may be the source of our word “god.”

The ancient root, he explains, played an important role in prehistoric religious terminology, since gheu– implied the pouring of a libation or a liquid sacrifice, as well as the heaping of earth on a burial mound.

Consequently, Watkins says, gheu– may have led to gudam, the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic term for “god.”

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to the noun “geezer,” which is pronounced similarly in British and American English. (The only difference is in the treatment of the “r.”)

The word, which the OED dates from the late 19th century, has different meanings in the US and the UK.

The definition of “geezer” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) is typical of the meaning in US dictionaries: “An old person, especially an eccentric old man.” It’s generally described as humorous or disparaging.

But most standard British dictionaries define a “geezer” as simply a “man,” and the word is used casually much like “guy” or “bloke.”

The OED, a historical dictionary based on etymological evidence, says “geezer” is a ” term of derision applied esp. to men, usually but not necessarily elderly; a chap, fellow.” However, the definition hasn’t been fully updated since 1898.

The first example given in the OED has the phrase twice: “If we wake up the old geezers we shall get notice to quit without compensation” … “the two old geezers, as Sandy styled the landlord and his wife.”

(The lines are from an actor’s memoir, The Truth About the Stage, published in 1885 under the pseudonym Corin. Oxford mistakenly omits the “old” in the second quotation; we’ve restored it here.)

The earliest American example we’ve found is from the Oct. 18, 1889, issue of Tobacco, a weekly trade journal: “J. H. Coyne, a member of the Chicago Press Club, is responsible for the following:  ‘There was an old Geezer, / And he had a wooden leg, / And he never had Te Baky, / Eksep wot ’e kud beg.’ ”

As we said, the words “geyser” and “geezer” aren’t related. “Geezer” is thought to be adapted from “guiser,” a Scottish word first recorded in the late 1400s and meaning “one who guises” (that is, dresses up or goes in disguise) or “a masquerader, a mummer. ”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

A cock and bull story

Q: Why is a ridiculous tale called “a cock and bull story”? Was there indeed such a story and did it give rise to the expression?

A: The expression is believed to be derived from an old animal fable, but etymologists have yet to find a story about a cock and a bull that might have inspired it.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the expression as in “its origin apparently referring to some story or fable,” and notes that the “early use of the phrase is parallel to that of the French coq-à-l’âne.”

The French phrase ultimately comes from a 14th-century Middle French expression, sallir du coq en l’asne—literally “to go from the cock to the ass” but figuratively “to jump from one subject to another.” In modern French, the expression is sauter du coq à l’âne.

The earliest example we’ve found is from Respit de la Mort, a 1376 poem in which the French author Jean le Fèvre de Ressons uses it in the sense of going off in different directions:

“Tant ay saillii du coq en l’asne / Et ay divers chemins tenu / Que je suis jusquez chy venu” (“So often I’ve gone from the cock to the ass, and taken such diverse paths, until this is what I’ve come to.”)

The 19th-century lexicographer Émile Littré, in his Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, cites a Middle French example from Le Loyer des Folles Amours, believed written in the late 1400s or early 1500s by the French poet Guillaume Crétin:

“De moi vraiment / Vous vous raillez ; / Trop vous faillez, / Car vous saillez / Du coq en l’asne” (“I really think you’re laughing at yourself. You’re jumping from the cock to the ass”).

Littré notes a theory that the expression may have come from the original fable that inspired The Town Musicians of Bremen, an 1819 Brothers Grimm tale about four animals, including a rooster and a donkey. In English, he says, the donkey became a bull.

However, Littré points out that the Grimm rooster and donkey “produce a terrible confusion” that thwarts a robbery, while the French cock and ass signify jumping “from one subject to another.”

In the 16th century, the French poet Clément Marot sent two rambling letters, or epistles, in verse to his friend Lyon Jamet. They were published as the first Epistre du Coq en l’Asne in 1531 and the second 1539.

The French phrase entered Scottish English in the early 17th century as “cockalan,” meaning “a comic or ludicrous representation,” according to An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), by John Jamieson.

The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 1605 entry in the records of Ayr, Scotland, that requires anyone who finds, hears, or sees a rhyme or a cockalan to notify the authorities privately and tell no one else about it:

“In case ony persoun or persouns at ony time sail find, heir or see ony ryme or cokalane, that they sail reveil the same first to ane eldar privatlie, and to na uther.”

The usage soon evolved to mean “a disconnected story, discourse, etc.,” similar to the meaning of coq-à-l’âne in French. The first OED citation for the new sense is from a Jan. 17, 1627, letter by Sir John Wishard:

“Excuse the rather cockaland then Letter from him who carethe not howe disformall his penn’s expression be.”

Meanwhile, the phrase “cock and bull” showed up, first in the expression “to talk of a cock and bull,” which Oxford defines as to tell “a long rambling, idle story.”

The first OED example is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Some mens only delight is … to talke of a Cock and a Bull ouer a pot.”

The dictionary doesn’t specifically say “cock and bull” comes from coq-à-l’âne, either directly or by way of Scottish English. However, its “cock and bull” entry points readers to the French and Scottish expressions.

In the late 1600s, the phrase “a story of a cock and bull” came to mean a long, rambling, disconnected story, as in this OED example from The Arraignment, Tryal and Condemnation of Stephen Colledge for High-Treason, a 1681 account of the proceedings:

“We call you to that particular of the papers, and you run out in a story of a Cock and a Bull, and I know not what.” (Colledge, a Protestant activist, was convicted of sedition after threatening King Charles II. He was hanged and quartered on Aug. 31, 1681.)

The noun phrase “cock-and-bull story” showed up in the late 1700s, meaning “an idle, concocted, incredible story; a canard,” according to the dictionary.

The first citation is from the March 2, 1795, issue of the Gazette of the United States, a biweekly in Philadelphia: “A long cock-and-a-bull story about the Columbianum [a proposed national college].”

One last note: There’s no etymological evidence to support two cock-and-bull stories about “cock and bull” that are floating around the internet.

The expression is not a corruption of “concocted and bully story,” and it does not come from the gossip of travelers at The Cock and The Bull, two coaching inns in Stony Stratford, England.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our booksabout the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ‘comedic’ or ‘comic’ funnier?

Q: Last weekend a friend went on a rant about the unnecessary introduction of “comedic” into the English language. I think it’s overused for “comic,” but has different connotations. Your mission, should you choose to accept it!

A: We won’t go so far as to say that “comedic” is unnecessary. But it can usually be replaced by “comic,” a simpler and less academic-sounding term.

Of the two adjectives, “comedic” has a narrower meaning. Most dictionaries define it as having to do with comedy.

But “comic” means that and something more—funny.

For example, you could use either word here: “He prefers comic [or comedic] roles to tragic ones” … “Satire is just one element in the comic [or comedic] genre.”

But only “comic” will do when you’re talking about something that makes you laugh: “The feud stemmed from a comic misunderstanding” … “The dog provided comic relief.”

So writers who use “comedic” to mean funny—as in “several comedic moments” or “a comedic facial expression”—are misusing the word.

The standard American dictionaries, and most British ones, recognize this distinction. (Two of the British dictionaries—Longman and Macmillan—have no entries at all for “comedic.”)

The definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) are typical:

“Comedic” is defined solely as “of or relating to comedy.” But “comic” is defined as both “characteristic of or having to do with comedy” and “amusing; humorous.”

The definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, are similar, though those for “comic” go into much more detail.

Of the two adjectives, “comic” is older. It was first recorded in English writing, the OED says, in the sense “of, relating to, or of the nature of comedy (esp. Greek or Roman classical comedy) as a literary or dramatic genre.”

The earliest known example of the adjective used in this sense is from a 1567 translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry):

“To Menander the Commicke gowne of Afphranus was fit.” (The references are to two comic playwrights—Menander in ancient Greece and Lucius Afranius in Rome.)

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent example for this sense of the word: “The comic playwrights seeking to follow Plato had to come to terms with Aristophanes whether they wanted to or not.” (From Martin Puchner’s book The Drama of Ideas, 2010.)

As for “comic” in the sense of funny or amusing, the earliest example in the OED is from the early 17th century:

“That Comicke impreza: If wise, seeme not to know that which thou knowest.” (From Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman, 1630. An “impreza,” normally spelled “impresa,” is a maxim or proverb.)

And here’s the dictionary’s most recent citation for “comic” in the laughable sense: “Mary Alice leans forward and scrunches up her face into a delightfully comic mug.” (From the Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1995.)

This meaning of “comic,” by the way, is pretty much identical to that of the earlier “comical,” which is defined in the OED as “intentionally humorous; funny,” and dates from about 1590.

As for “comedic,” it was first recorded in the 17th century, according to the OED, but after that it wasn’t used much—if at all—until the mid-19th century.

Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “This might be the comedick catastrophe of our verie fearfull-like Episcopall tragedie.” (From a letter written in 1639 by Robert Baillie, a Church of Scotland minister and author.)

This is the dictionary’s second example: “Such a definition … would have the singular luck of excluding our very best comedic dramas from the list of comedies.” (From George Darley’s introduction to an 1840 collection of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher.)

Even as late as the 1860s, “comedic” was so uncommon that this writer thought he (or she) had invented it:

“The comic element … soon associated with itself a comedic element, manifested in the representation of manners and characters of the current age. … I ask pardon for coining this word comedic; but comic, in the signification which it has gradually assumed, does not express what I mean.” (By an author signed “J.A.” in the Ladies’ Companion, 1864.)

George Bernard Shaw also felt called upon to substitute “comedic” for “comic” in an article he wrote for the Saturday Review in 1897:

“Speaking of the masters of the comedic spirit (if I call it, as he does, the Comic Spirit, this darkened generation will suppose me to refer to the animal spirits of tomfools and merryandrews).”

Apparently both “J.A.” and Shaw felt that “comic” had begun to imply too much revelry, and wasn’t appropriate in serious discussion of comedy as a dramatic genre.

As you might suspect, all these words have roots in classical Latin and Greek.

The adjective “comic” is from the Latin cōmicus (of or belonging to comedy, or comic). The Romans got it from Greek: kōmikos, derived from kōmos (a festivity or revel with music and dancing).

“Comedic” is from the classical Latin cōmoedicus (of or relating to comedy, or comic), which in turn is from the Greek kōmōidikos, derived from kōmōidia (comedy).

Finally, “comedy,” which came into English in the late 14th century, is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French (comedie) and partly from Latin (cōmoedia), which is derived from Greek (kōmōidia).

We like the definition Samuel Johnson gives “comedy” in his dictionary of 1755: “A dramatick representation of the lighter faults of mankind.”

In our opinion, writers sometimes use “comedic” as a pompous substitution for “comic.” But that’s one of their lighter faults.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you woke?

Q: I’m seeing the word “woke” all over the place. What’s the story about this word du jour. It seems to mean “politically aware.”

A: Yes, the adjective “woke” has become trendy of late, but it’s not new.

In the figurative sense of “alert” or “hip,” the word has been around since the early 1960s. But in recent decades it has come to have a more specific figurative meaning—alert to racial or social injustice.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the usage is derived from the “woke” that’s a past tense of the verb “wake”—to become awake or emerge from sleep. (We discussed the verbs “wake,” “waken,” “awake,” and “awaken” in 2012.)

Originally, the OED says, the figurative adjective “woke” meant “well-informed, up-to-date.”

The dictionary’s earliest figurative example is from “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” an article about black slang that appeared in the May 20, 1962, issue of the New York Times Magazine.

The article, by the Harlem novelist William Melvin Kelley, includes a lexicon in which he describes “woke” as an adjective meaning “well-informed, up-to-date,” as in “Man I’m woke.”

Today, the dictionary says, the word chiefly means “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”

The next example in the OED illustrates that sense of the word: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.” (A line of dialogue in Barry Beckham’s 1972 play Garvey Lives!)

As Oxford explains, the adjective is frequently heard in the phrase “stay woke,” which is “often used as an exhortation.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation has the same phrase: “He, just like the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement, wants America to ‘stay woke.’ ” (From the Sept. 18, 2016, issue of the Washington Post.)

This activist use of “woke,” Oxford says, was “perhaps popularized through its association with African-American civil rights activism (in recent years particularly the Black Lives Matter movement), and by the lyrics of the 2008 song ‘Master Teacher’ by American singer-songwriter Erykah Badu, in which the words ‘I stay woke’ serve as a refrain.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Standard dictionaries, too, have entries for this use of “woke.”

Merriam-Webster.com labels the usage “chiefly US slang” and defines it as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

M-W illustrates the usage with quotations from the news: “We have a moral obligation to ‘stay woke,’ take a stand and be active,” and “Brad Pitt is not only woke, but the wokest man in Hollywood.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) calls it “slang” derived from African-American Vernacular English and defines it as “aware of the injustice of the social system in which one lives.”

Oxford Dictionaries online labels it “US informal” and says it means “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”

The American Dialect Society is hip to “woke.” In January 2017, at the society’s annual meeting, members chose it as the Slang Word of the Year for 2016 (definition: “socially aware or enlightened”).

The journal American Speech, in its “Among the New Words” column in May 2017, described “woke” as “an item of long-standing African American usage … that has recently undergone cultural appropriation.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

An “&” or an “and”?

Q: If a character in a novel mentions a company that uses an ampersand in its name, such as H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video, should the dialogue use an ampersand or the word “and”?

A: We’d stay with the ampersand in writing dialogue about H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video. We see no reason to spell out the “&” character, especially since “and” is often elided when such terms are spoken—M&M’s, for example, usually sounds like “M ’n’ M’s.”

Novelists often use ampersands in both dialogue and narrative. In Humboldt’s Gift, for example, Saul Bellow uses one during Charlie Citrine’s conversation with Polly Palomino:

“I said, ‘Well, thanks for dropping in, Mrs. Palomino. You’ll have to excuse me, though. I’m being called for and I haven’t shaved or eaten lunch.’

“ ‘How do you shave, electric or steel?’

“ ‘Remington.’

“ ‘The electric Abercrombie & Fitch is the only machine. I think I’ll shave, too.’ ”

In Portnoy’s Complaint, which is written in the first person, Philip Roth uses an ampersand in this passage:

“ ‘The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America’ I remember my father announcing, when he took me for the first time to see his little square area of desk and chair in the vast offices of Boston & Northeastern Life.”

In fact, the usage has been around for some time. In Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens puts these words in the mouth of Mr. Toots:

“Poor Dombey! I’m sure I never thought that Burgess & Co.—fashionable tailors (but very dear), that we used to talk about—would make this suit of clothes for such a purpose.”

By the way, the “&” sign is thought to be a stylized blend of the letters in the Latin word et (“and”). It used to be common in “&c.,” an abbreviated version of “etc.,” which in turn is a shortening of the Latin et cetera (“and others”).

Interestingly, the word “ampersand” is a corruption of “and per se and,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “the old way of spelling and naming the character &.

The usage was derived from the traditional way of reciting the alphabet. The OED says a schoolchild would refer to the letter “A” as “A per se a” and “I” as “I per se I” because each of those letters could be a word “by itself” (per se in Latin).

The earliest citation in the dictionary for “ampersand” is from The Clockmaker, an 1837 account of the fictional adventures of Sam Slick, by the Nova Scotian writer Thomas C. Haliburton: “He has hardly learned what Ampersand means, afore they give him a horse.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

How can an airhead be dense?

Q: Why is the word “dense” used to describe both an empty-headed person and a novel stuffed with too much information?

A: For hundreds of years, someone with a low gray-cell count has been described as “empty-headed” or “thickheaded.” And “dense” has been used for nearly as long to describe such a person or a novel overloaded with plots, characters, and description.

How can an empty head be described as “thick” or “dense”? Perhaps because knowledge can’t penetrate it.

When the adjective “dense” appeared in English in the late 16th century, it meant “having its constituent particles closely compacted together; thick, compact,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation is from a section on eye diseases in The Boock of Physicke, a 1599 translation of a medical work by the Dutch physician Oswald Gaebelkhover:

“When as the Cataracte is so dense and of such a crassitude [thickness] that heerwith they will not be soackede.”

In the 18th century, the adjective took on the figurative sense of being overwritten and unclear. The first Oxford citation is from a 1732 issue of Historia Litteraria, a monthly literary journal edited by the Scottish historian Archibald Bower:

“Sometimes the Author is not so properly concise, as dense, if I may use the Word. When the Subject is limpid of it self, he frequently inspissates [thickens] it, by throwing in a heap of Circumstances not Essential to it.”

In the early 19th century, the adjective came to mean stupid, as in this OED citation from an 1822 essay by Charles Lamb in the London Magazine: “I must needs conclude the present generation of play-goers more virtuous than myself, or more dense.”

The term “empty-headed,” which appeared in the early 17th century, describes someone “having or showing little intelligence; lacking sense; foolish, frivolous,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation is from The History of the World, a 1614 book by Sir Walter Raleigh: “Wise men depend vpon so many vnworthy and emptie-headed fooles.” (Raleigh wrote the history while he was in the Tower of London, awaiting execution.)

The term “thick-headed,” used figuratively to mean “dull of intellect; slow-witted, obtuse,” showed up in the early 19th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Good French Governess, an 1801 children’s novel by the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth: “He was so ‘thick-headed at his book,’ that Mrs. Grace … affirmed, that he never would learn to read.”

English has many figurative adjectives and nouns for someone who’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Here are a few, with the earliest OED citations: “harebrained” (1548), “blockhead” (1589), “scatterbrained” (1804), “pea-brain” (1938), and “airhead” 1971.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

When ‘to be’ is in question

Q: I’m confused by the use “to be” plus a past participle after a noun, as in this comment about millennials: “They’re also the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked.” What purpose does “to be” serve here? The meaning seems the same to me with or without it.

A: The passage you’re asking about is from a tweet by Claire Lehmann, an Australian writer and editor of the online magazine Quillette:

“They’re also the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked, and so may have a realist as opposed to romantic view of work.”

In that sentence a passive infinitive (“to be” plus the past participle “raised”) is being used to modify the noun “women.”

Yes, the sentence would make sense with either the passive infinitive or just the past participle: “the first generation of women to be raised by mothers who worked” versus “the first generation of women raised by mothers who worked.”

However, the two versions convey somewhat different shades of meaning. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, one of the meanings of the verb “be” in the passive infinitive is to express “objective possibility or opportunity.”

The millennials in that example were “to be raised”—their raising was still a future possibility at the time they were born.

So the construction with the passive infinitive means “the first generation of women who could have been raised by mothers who worked” while the construction with just the past participle means “the first generation of women who were raised by mothers who worked.”

We think that tweet is more appropriate with a passive infinitive than with simply the past participle. The millennial generation was the first that could have been raised by mothers who worked; but not all millennial women were actually raised by working mothers.

When the passive infinitive showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, it was used to express “necessity, obligation, duty, fitness, or appropriateness,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand a bit, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382 (Leviticus 11:13):

“Þees been that ȝe shulen not eete of bryddes, and been to be shoned of ȝow: an Egle & agriffyn” (“These things are the birds that you shall not eat, and are to be shunned by you: an eagle, and a vulture”).

In the early 16th century, writers began using the passive infinitive to express possibility or opportunity—the sense used in the tweet that got your attention. The first OED citation is from The Grete Herball, a 1526 encyclopedia of plants in medicine:

“Apostolycon is a playster or salue so named and is to be had at the poticaries and is specially ordeyned for woundes in the hede.”

Finally, a few words about infinitives.

An infinitive is the bare, most elementary form of a verb (like “raise”), and it may or may not be accompanied by “to,” as wrote on the blog in 2013.

A passive infinitive consists of three elements: “to” + a form of the verb “be” + a past participle (the simple past tense of a verb), as in “to be raised.”

And the passive perfect infinitive consists of “to” + “have been” + past participle: “to have been raised.”

Any of these, or a past participle alone, can modify a preceding noun. Here are examples.

past participle: “a child raised”;

infinitive: “a child to raise”;

passive infinitive: “a child to be raised”;

passive perfect infinitive: “a child to have been raised.”

The differences between some of these can be subtle.

In many cases, you can modify a noun with either an ordinary infinitive (“there is work to do”) or a passive infinitive (“there is work to be done”).

Both indicate uncompleted work, though the first emphasizes the work and the second emphasizes the doing of it.

Besides that, the passive infinitive may be more literary-sounding. Sherlock Holmes might say, “Quick, Watson! There is work to be done,” instead of the more prosaic “work to do.”

Infinitives are used to modify adjectives as well as nouns. And here again, the type of infinitive used can slightly influence the meaning.

There’s a difference in emphasis between “he is eager to go” (infinitive) and “he is eager to be gone” (passive infinitive). The first stresses the going; the second stresses the state of being gone—he’s eager not just “to go” but to be elsewhere.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Parking lot or car park?

Q: A “parking lot” in the US is a “car park” in the UK, except when it isn’t. What can you tell me about these two terms?

A: Yes, “car park” is the usual term in the UK for what is referred to as a “parking lot” in the US, though “car park” is not unknown to Americans, nor “parking lot” to the British.

Our recent searches of the Corpus of Contemporary English got 11,215 hits for “parking lot” and 146 for “car park,” while our searches of the British National Corpus had 1,439 hits for “car park” and 35 for “parking lot.”

Not surprisingly, “lot” and “park” had nothing to do with storing vehicles when they first appeared—”lot” in Old English and “park” in Middle English.

The original meaning of “lot” was an object drawn randomly to make a decision, while “park” was originally an enclosed hunting preserve granted by the crown.

The story begins in Anglo-Saxon times, when a “lot” (spelled hlot in Old English) was one of the pieces of straw, wood, paper, and so on used to resolve disputes, divide goods, choose someone for a position, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the process as “an appeal to chance or a divine agency believed to be involved in the results of chance.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the Old English term ultimately comes from khlut-, a reconstructed prehistoric Germanic base that “appears to have denoted the use of objects to make decisions by chance.”

The earliest OED citation for the random selection sense of “lot” is from an Old English version of the Acts of Andrew, an early Christian apocryphal document about the Apostle Andrew:

“Hie sendon hlot him betweonum, hwider hyra gehwylc faran scolde to læranne” (“They cast lots among themselves to learn where each of them should travel”).

The “lot” that was drawn to decide who got a share of divided land later came to stand for the share of land itself.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Charters of Northern Houses (2012), a collection of Anglo-Saxon land charters from Northumbria, dating back to the 10th century, edited by the Cambridge historian David Woodman:

“On Fearnesfelda gebyrað twega manna hlot landes into Sudwellan” (“In Fearn’s field, extend a lot of land for two men into Southwell”).

Although this use of “lot” in Anglo-Saxon charters to mean a portion of land is now considered historical, according to the OED, a similar sense showed up in the US in the 17th century.

Oxford describes the modern use of “lot” to mean a “plot or parcel of land” as originally and chiefly North American.

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1633 entry in the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: “The westermost part of the Governors greate lot.”

Over the years, the OED says, this sense evolved from “a piece of land assigned by the state to a particular owner” to “a piece of land divided off for a particular purpose” and then to “a fairly small plot of land with fixed boundaries and in separate occupation or ownership from surrounding plots.”

The first Oxford citation for “lot” as an “area of land used for parking motor vehicles” is from the Aug. 12, 1909, issue of Motor World:

“The owner of the big lot on the north side of the road reaped a harvest. He raised his prices from ‘two bits’ to $1, but even this did not keep out the cars, and there were fully 500 machines parked in the lot.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the phrase “parking lot” is from R.F.D. #3, a 1924 novel by the American writer Homer Croy: “Some of the people still lingered under the arc light, with its summer collection of bugs still in it, waiting for the two to come from the parking lot.”

As for “car park,” the story begins in the 13th century, when “park” appeared as an “enclosed tract of land held by royal grant or prescription and reserved for keeping and hunting deer and other game,” according to the OED.

Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the term comes from parc in Old French, but ultimately “goes back to a prehistoric Germanic base, meaning ‘enclosed space.’ ”

The first OED citation for “park” is from a document, dated 1222, that lists the cost of maintaining a park fence in Cambridgeshire, England:

“Summa de parkselver per annum de operariis ix d. ob. q” (from Customary Rents, a 1910 monograph about manorial rents, by the American historian Nellie Neilson). The term “parkselver” (“park” + “silver”) refers to a fee for park repairs.

In the 17th century, “park” took on its modern sense of a “large public garden or area of land used for recreation.”

The first Oxford example is from In Lesbiam, & Histrionem, a poem by the British writer Thomas Randolph:

“Keepe his Race-nags, and in Hide-parke be seen.” The poem, published posthumously in 1638, is about a lesbian who keeps a young male actor as an ostensible lover.

The phrase “car park” showed up in the UK in the early 20th century, a couple of years after “parking lot” appeared on the other side of the Atlantic. The OED describes “car park” as a chiefly British term for “an open space or building for the parking of motor vehicles.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the Dec. 1, 1926, issue of the Daily Mail: “Glastonbury Car Park. Indignation has been aroused … by a proposal … to purchase part of the land … as an extra parking space for motor cars.”

By the way, the verb “park” meant to fence in animals when it appeared in Middle English in the early 1300s, according to the OED. It later came to mean to fence in a pasture or other land, and still later to create a park.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the verb “park” used for parking vehicles is an 1846 entry in The Mexican War Diary of George B. McClellan (1917), edited by William Starr Myers.

McClellan, a Union general during the Civil War, was a second lieutenant and recent graduate of West Point when he made these remarks at the beginning of the diary:

“To the left of the sand hills in front are a number of wagons parked, to the left of them a pound containing about 200 mules.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Does Betsy DeVos need a rethink?

Q: As a follow-up to your recent post about “Heavens to Betsy,” what do you think of the controversy over our education secretary’s use of the word “rethink” on Twitter?

A: We see from the Twitter comments that some people were bothered by Betsy DeVos’s use of “rethink” as a noun, and others by her faux dictionary entry, which mixes together parts of the real Merriam-Webster.com entries for “rethink” and “school.”

Let’s begin with her use of “rethink” as a noun. In her March 13, 2008, tweet, she writes: “It’s time we pursue a paradigm shift, a fundamental reorientation—a rethink.”

The use of “rethink” as a noun strikes us as the kind of usage favored by a bureaucrat with a tin ear. However, editors at standard dictionaries don’t seem to be bothered by it.

The noun “rethink” is listed without comment (that is, as standard English) in three of the four American dictionaries we checked, and in four of the five British dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the noun as “an act or instance of rethinking.” Merriam-Webster.com lists different pronunciations for the verb (re-THINK) and the noun (RE-think).

Oxford Dictionaries online, in both its US and UK versions, defines the noun as a “reassessment, especially one that results in changes being made,” and gives this example: “a last-minute rethink of their tactics.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has a fuller definition of the noun: “An act of rethinking, esp. one that leads to change; a reappraisal, a reassessment; (occasionally) a result of this.”

All four OED citations for the usage are from British sources. The earliest cites the Sept. 12, 1958, issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “Then came Mr. Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress and close behind it the great Communist re-think.”

The next Oxford example for the noun is from the Aug. 8, 1968, issue of the weekly New Scientist: “The need for a widespread rethink on attitudes in science education, particularly at university level.”

The verb “rethink” is much older, dating from the early 1500s. The dictionary’s first example is from Shyppe of Fooles, Henry Watson’s 1509 translation of Das Narrenschiff, a 1494 satire by the German writer Sebastian Brant:

“Thynke and rethynke … whan thou takest ye ordre of preest hode, for thou ought not to receyue the ordre withoute consyderynge of dyuers thynges.”

As for the education secretary’s tweeted dictionary entry (verb · \ ˈrē- ˌthiŋk ˈskül\), we find it a confusing pastiche.

A typical dictionary entry for a verb has a pronouncer and a definition followed by an example. She has no definition, and she uses a phrase (“rethink school”) as a pronouncer for the verb.

Ms. DeVos adds to the confusion by using a Merriam-Webster pronouncer for the noun (ˈrē- ˌthiŋk), with its primary accent on the first syllable (RE-think), instead of an M-W pronouncer for the verb (ˌrē-ˈthiŋk), with the accent on the second syllable (re-THINK).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Heavens to Good Queen Bess?

Q: I believe that Queen Elizabeth I was the source of the expression “Heavens to Betsy!” Good Queen Bess was known for playing the various political, diplomatic, and religious factions in Elizabethan England against each other, leaving them in a state of surprise or shock.

A: This is doubtful. As we wrote more than 10 years ago, in a post that was updated recently, the expression “Heavens to Betsy!” originated in the US and was not recorded until 1857. It could not have originated in Elizabethan England and remained unrecorded in writing for more than two centuries.

The earliest published reference found so far, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from an 1857 issue of Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine: “ ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, ‘I’ve cut my head off!’ ”

The OED says the word “heaven,” used chiefly in the plural, has appeared since the 1500s in “exclamations expressing surprise, horror, excitement, etc.” It’s frequently accompanied by an intensifying adjective, Oxford adds, as in “good heavens,” “gracious heavens,” “great heavens,” “merciful heavens,” and so on.

We have extensively researched “Heavens to Betsy!” and have concluded that the “Betsy” in the expression is untraceable—if she even existed.

The name, an extremely common one, was probably used in a generic way to refer to no one in particular, as in “every Tom, Dick, and Harry” and similar expressions.

We’ve written several posts about the generic use of common names, including one in 2007 about “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” and one in 2013 about “Johnny come lately.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Got a chip on your shoulder?

Q: How did having “a chip on one’s shoulder” come to mean spoiling for a fight?

A: When the expression originated in 19th-century America, it referred literally to a wood chip “carried as a challenge to others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Today it’s a colloquial term for “a belligerent attitude,” says the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Etymologists have traced the usage back to the early 1800s, when an American boy looking for a fight would place a chip of wood on his shoulder and dare another boy to knock it off—reminiscent of the medieval knight who’d throw down his gauntlet, challenging another to pick it up.

The earliest written reference that we’ve seen for the American practice is in Letters from the South, an 1817 collection of letters written the year before by the American writer James Kirke Paulding:

“A man rode furiously by on horseback, and swore he’d be d—d if he could not lick any man who dared to crook his elbow at him. This, it seems, is equivalent to throwing the glove in days of yore, or to the boyish custom of knocking a chip off the shoulder.”

An OED citation from the May 20, 1830, issue of the Long Island Telegraph (Hempstead, NY), describes the practice in more detail:

“When two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril.”

By the mid-1800s, “a chip on one’s shoulder” was being used figuratively, as in this Oxford example from the March 17, 1855, Weekly Oregonian (Portland), which refers to a challenge made in a newspaper editorial:

“Leland, in his last issue, struts out with a chip on his shoulder, and dares Bush to knock it off.” (Alonzo Leland was editor of the Democratic Standard, and Asahel Bush was editor and owner of the Oregon Statesman.)

And here’s a figurative canine example in the dictionary: “The way that dog went about with a chip on his shoulder … was enough to spoil the sweetest temper” (from the October 1887 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine).

Some websites mistakenly trace the expression to a labor protest at the Chatham Dockyard in Kent, England, in the mid-18th century.

Although a shipwright carried wood home on his shoulder to protest regulations prohibiting the practice, the expression “a chip on one’s shoulder” didn’t show up in writing until a century later—on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no evidence that would connect the protest with the American usage.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Brownie points and brown-nosing

Q: How did “brownie points” come to mean the credit one gets for sucking up to the boss?

A: The most common explanations are that the expression is derived from either the term “brown-nose” or the merit points supposedly earned by the young Girl Scouts known as Brownies. Two of our favorite language references differ on this.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “brownie point,” a colloquial usage that originated in the US, is “probably a development” from “brown-nose,” but it’s “popularly associated” with Brownies, “hence frequently spelled with capital initial.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the expression comes “from the point system used for advancement by the Brownies of the Girl Scouts of America; but strongly reinforced by brown-nose.”

All the evidence we’ve seen supports the OED explanation. What’s more, there has never been a point system for getting ahead in the American Brownies.

Lauren Robles, a spokesman for the Girl Scouts of the USA , told us that “there has not been a point system to earn badges or for advancement for Brownies in Girl Scouts.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “brownie point” as “a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “To curry favor with a professor: brown nose … brownie … get brownie points.”

The word “brownie” in that citation was student slang for the noun “brown-nose.” A 1944 issue of American Speech includes this definition:

Brownie. A person who is always asking and answering questions in class to impress the instructor. Also a person who stays after class to try to insinuate himself into the teacher’s good graces.”

(Some standard dictionaries consider “brown-nose” and “brownnose” equal variants, but we think the hyphenated spelling is easier to read.)

Getting back to “brownie points,” the earliest example we’ve seen is a dozen years older than the OED’s.

A column in the March 15, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times uses the term for imaginary credits to determine whether a husband is in favor at home or in the doghouse.

The phrase is found several times in the column, beginning with this comment overheard in an elevator: “I should have been home two hours ago. … I’ll never catch up on my brownie points.” When questioned about the usage, the speaker replies:

“You don’t know about brownie points? All my buddies keep score. In fact every married male should know about ’em. It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman—favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.”

The speaker was probably using “days of the leprechauns” to mean olden times, not suggesting that leprechauns had anything to do with the origin of the expression.

Interestingly, however, the Girl Scout “Brownies” were named after other mythical creatures—the helpful household sprites called “brownies” in Scottish and English folklore.

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting, got the name from “The Brownies,” an 1870 short story by Juliana Horatio Ewing about two children who try to be as helpful as the spirits.

You’ll probably run across several questionable theories on the internet about how “brownie points” came to mean imaginary credits earned to curry favor, including these:

  • World War II food rationing, where brown points were used to buy meat and fat;
  • the use of “brownie points” for demerits in World War II army jargon;
  • brown vouchers, or “brownies,” awarded to Saturday Evening Post delivery boys in the 1930s;
  • demerits, or “brownie points,” that G. R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway in New York and Pennsylvania, gave to employees in the late 19th century.

However, we agree with the OED that “brownie points” is probably derived from “brown-nose,” a term that showed up in the late 1930s.

The dictionary defines the verb “brown-nose” as “to curry favour (with), to flatter,” and the noun (as well as “brown-noser”) as “a sycophant.” It describes the usage as “chiefly U.S slang.”

Oxford cites Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (1961) as saying the term is derived “from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought.”

The earliest examples we’ve seen for both the noun and verb “brown-nose” are from a 1939 issue of American Speech that describes the usage as “military college slang.”

Although the slang term originated “among speakers in the military,” the journal says, it’s “now widespread but chiefly among young and mid-aged speakers.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why a pet peeve is an uggie

Q: I see a question on your blog in which the word “uggie” is used to describe a pet peeve. I consider myself intelligent and well read, but I’ve never heard it. Is “uggie” a modern derivative of “ugly”? Is it pronounced like UGG boots?

A: It’s more than likely that “uggie,” used as both a noun and an adjective, is derived from “ugly.” We haven’t found any published evidence that would prove this definitively, but it seems obvious. And yes, the “ugg” part is pronounced as in the boots, but we’ll get to the footwear later.

When a questioner referred to “irregardless” in 2007 as “No. 1 on my list of ‘uggies,’ ” we assumed that it was being used lightheartedly to mean something ugly. Since then, we’ve used it the same way a couple of times on the blog.

Standard dictionaries, even most slang dictionaries, don’t mention this use of “uggie.” But Urban Dictionary, a collaborative online reference written by users, has these definitions for the adjective:

“Uggie: Unpleasant or repulsive, esp. in appearance,” and “arousing revulsion or strong indignation. Being disgusting, gross and/or vile.”

And a reader of the Collins Dictionary has submitted “uggie” as a “Word Suggestion,” for a noun meaning “an ugly person.”

Despite the lack of information in standard references, we’ve found evidence that “uggie” (sometimes spelled “uggy”) has long been used to represent baby talk for “ugly.”

This passage is from a short story about a person who’s considered unattractive: “Little Mollie often came and lisped, ‘Me sorry you uggy!’ ” (From “Love the Transformer,” by Mrs. E. L. Griffith, published in September 1867 in Arthur’s Home Magazine, Philadelphia.)

This one is from a British novel, John Darker (1895), by Aubrey Lee: “ ‘You must never be rude, my beautiful boy,’ and he passed a caressing hand over the baby face; ‘rudeness is very, very ugly.’ ‘Welly, welly uggy,’ repeated Percy.”

And Clipped Wings (1899), by the Canadian novelist Lottie McAlister, has a scene in which the grown-up heroine complains about the unattractive dog and cat portraits that have been clumsily embroidered on a pair of floor mats.

She imagines childishly destroying the mats “while her baby tongue lisped, ‘Bad pussy, uggie pussy, tooked pussy; uggie, uggie doggie.’ ” (Our guess is that “tooked” here may mean “crooked.”)

A more recent illustration is from History, a 1977 translation of La Storia, a 1974 novel by the Italian writer Elsa Morante.

In one scene, a little boy tears up an illustrated magazine, “repeating his mother’s words: ‘It’s uggy’ (ugly).” Elsewhere, it’s explained that the child says “uggy” because he’s too young to manage the “gl” consonant cluster.

Another modern example is from a feature article about foods that small children hate. One boy says, “Lima beans are so uggie.” (From the April 17, 1985, issue of the Philadelphia Daily News. Most of the kids quoted preferred the word “yucky.”)

Even adults have used “uggie” to mean “ugly” since the 19th century, perhaps in imitation of baby talk.

The English writer John Ruskin used baby talk throughout his extensive correspondence with his favorite cousin, Joan Severn. He writes on Oct. 9, 1887: “I sent also the 4th Folk [part of a work on the Italian peasantry] with a pretty bit added to replace the uggie one taken out.”

A glossary in John Ruskin’s Correspondence with Joan Severn, a collection published in 2009, defines “uggie” as “ugly.”

And here’s the noun, in a reference to a woman in a bar. The writer, a college student, takes up a position “conveniently proximate to an uggie and a wowie, and as is usually the case, the uggie did all the talking.” (From the Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper, Sept. 8, 1972.)

As we said, standard slang dictionaries don’t include this use of “uggie.” The only ones that mention it at all define it as meaning “ugg boots,” the ungainly, flat-soled footwear with sheepskin on the inside and untanned leather on the outside.

However, the name for the boots apparently does come from the word “ugly.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, for example, says the noun “uggies” means “ugg boots,” and is derived from “ugly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (which like Cassells is edited by Jonathon Green) says that “ugg boots” (as well as the variations “ug boots,” “uggies,” and “ugh boots”) is derived from “ugly” and originated as an Australian term for “sheepskin boots or slippers.”

The earliest written reference in Green’s Dictionary (to “ugh boots”) is from 1951, though an Australian legislator has suggested that the term is much older.

“In Australia, we have been calling sheepskin boots ‘ugg boots’ for about 85 years,” Sharryn Jackson, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, said in a speech before the House on Feb. 11, 2004.

The footwear spelled “ugg boots,” “ug boots,” “ugh boots” (and more recently “uggies”) was first used by sheep ranchers Down Under and was adopted in the 1960s by Australian surfers to warm their cold feet.

California surfers borrowed the trend in the 1970s, and the ungainly boots became popular in the US, first as beachwear and then as an urban fashion statement.

After almost two decades of brand-name disputes, UGG is now a registered trademark in most countries of the California-based Deckers Brands. But not in Australia and New Zealand, where “ugg” and “ugg boots” remain generic terms.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ‘what’ singular or plural?

Q: Which of these sentences is correct? (1) “Books are what make you smarter.” (2) “Books are what makes you smarter.” Option 1 hurts my ears, while option 2 seems wrong to my friends.

A: We would choose plural verbs all the way—”Books are what make you smarter”—because the principal subject is “books.”

In a sentence starting with a singular principal subject we’d choose singular verbs: “Education is what makes you smarter.”

As we wrote in 2012, the word “what” can be construed as either singular or plural. It takes its number (singular vs. plural) from the context, and here the context is “books” (plural). Thus, “Books are what make you smarter.”

In a sentence like that, the main clause is “Books are,” and the subordinate clause, introduced by “what,” is the object of the main clause.

George O. Curme, in A Grammar of the English Language (Vol. II, 1931), uses the examples “Truth is what hurts” (singular) and “The factories are what blacken up the city so” (plural).

As Curme explains, sentences like these—written with “what” clauses as predicates—are more emphatic than if they had been written simply as “Truth hurts” or “Factories blacken up the city so.”

“The principal verb [hurts, blacken up] is stressed by putting it in an unusual position,” Curme writes, “especially by forming a predicate clause in which what is subject and the emphatic verb is predicate.”

Now, how about a sentence that starts with “what”?

In a simple sentence, with only one clause, the choice of verb with “what” is easy. Just match it with the complement: “What is your suggestion?” (singular), or “What are your suggestions?” (plural).

But when there are two clauses, as we wrote in that 2012 post, there’s some wiggle room in the choice of verbs. As we said, what’s known as “notional agreement”—the writer’s meaning—plays a role here.

You could justify either “What make you smarter are books” or “What makes you smarter is books.” In the first example, the writer regards books as “the things that make you smart,” while in the second, books represent “the thing that makes you smart.”

It’s our feeling that two singular verbs are more natural than two plural verbs when the complement—even though formally plural like “books”—represents a singular concept. So we’d choose “What makes you smarter is books.”

There’s an excellent usage note about all this in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) We’ll underline the verbs to make the examples clearer:

“Occasionally the choice of a singular or plural verb may be used to convey a difference in meaning. In the sentence What excite him most are money and power, the implication is that money and power are separable goals; in What excites him most is money and power, the implication is that money and power are inextricably bound together.”

The dictionary continues: “When the verb in the what-clause is singular and the complement in the main clause is plural, one finds both singular and plural verbs being used. Sentences similar to both of the following are found in respected writers: What drives me crazy is her frequent tantrums; What bothers him are the discrepancies in their accounts.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

The Grammarphobia Blog

Here you go

Q: How did “Here you go” come to mean “Here is the thing you wanted”?

A: “Here you go,” an idiomatic expression that showed up in writing in the 1800s, is a casual way of saying “Here it is” when you give someone something that’s requested.

That’s why an easygoing barista says “here you go” rather than the more formal “here it is” when he hands over your mocha latte.

Like other idioms, “here you go” is not meant literally and doesn’t even make sense on a literal level. But it’s so common that most of us don’t stop to think about it.

We haven’t seen much linguistic scholarship about the expression, though the British linguist Michael Fortescue comments briefly about “here you go” in Semantix, a 2014 book about semantics and pragmatics.

In discussing how the verb “go” has evolved in meaning and usage over the years, he says “here you go” reflects “the gradual historical bleaching of the original motion sense of the verb as it gradually became more grammaticalized.”

Grammaticalization is a process in which lexical terms acquire new grammatical functions over time. In the idiomatic expression “here you go,” Fortescue writes, “there is of course nothing left of any of the original meaning of ‘go’ at all.”

As we’ve said, “here you go” has been used in writing since the 19th century to mean “here it is.” In searches of newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found is from a short story in the Dec. 25, 1879, issue of the Door County Advocate in Sturgeon Bay, WI.:

“ ‘You’ve both won the heat, race, and money. Here you go,’ and he tipped the two lads handsomely.” (The speaker gives the boys, who have tied in a race, a “five-dollar piece” each.)

And this example (from the Oct. 15, 1885, Daily Yellowstone Journal in Montana) is in a joke about an elderly man asking for a light from a child’s cigar:

“Old gentleman, full of fun, to infant of eight summers, who is smoking a cigar—Can I trouble you for a light mister?

“Infant of eight summers—Here you go my boy, but be sure you give me back the right one.”

Since 1900, sightings of “here you go” used in the sense of “here it is” have become much more common.

Cambridge Dictionaries says “here you go” means “this is the object you asked me to give you.” It has this example: “ ‘Would you please pass the sugar?’ ‘Here you go.’ ”

The Macmillan Dictionary and The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English have similar definitions.

Dictionaries also include three similar idiomatic expressions that can be used the same way: “here you are,” “there you go,” and “there you are.”

Some dictionaries label these expressions informal or colloquial. One grammar book, English Grammar Today (2016), by Ronald Carter et al., considers the “go” versions more informal than the “are” ones:

“We can use here you are and there you are (or, in informal situations, here you go and there you go) when giving something to someone. Here and there have the same meaning in this use.”

A more scholarly grammar book, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al., says in a footnote that “here [or there] you are” when used in this sense is equivalent to “this is for you.” (It adds that “there you are” has an additional idiomatic meaning: “That supports or proves what I’ve said.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t discuss “here you go” in its entry for the verb “go,” which was revised in 2015 and now includes 603 senses of the word.

However, the OED does refer to the “are” version, saying that “here we [or you] are” can mean “Here is what we [or you] want.” The usage is labeled colloquial.

The dictionary’s only example is from the mid-19th century: “Hum! ha! now let’s see, here we are—the ‘G-i-a-o-u-r’—that’s a nice word to talk about.” (From Frank Fairlegh, an 1850 novel by Francis Edward Smedley. The noun “giaour” is a derogatory term for a non-Muslim.)

In that example, however, there’s no sense of one person presenting another with a physical item, like the barista offering you your coffee.

And the OED defines “there you are” as drawing attention to a completed action (not to a physical thing), or as meaning “What did I tell you?” or “expressing resignation to an unpleasant fact.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.