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.”

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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 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.” 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).

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Visiting fireman

Q: I’ve read online that the Native American firekeeper inspired the use of “visiting fireman” for an out-of-town VIP whose presence demands an extra effort in the hospitality department. As a Native American, I’m aware that firekeepers existed in some cultures (think Cherokees), but I doubt that they traveled much. Can you confirm  the Native American origin?

A: No, we haven’t found any evidence that “visiting fireman” is derived from the Native Americans who tended sacred fires. Although a few language sources make that claim, we think the expression probably evolved from the literal use of the phrase for a firefighter on an out-of-town visit.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “visiting fireman” as American slang for “a person given especially cordial treatment while visiting an organization or place” or “a tourist expected to spend freely.”

The OED begins its entry with a bracketed literal example, which may suggest that the dictionary’s editors believe, as we do, that the literal usage inspired the figurative one:

“A company of firemen from Rochester, N.Y., … continue to receive the attentions of their brother firemen of Baltimore. … This evening the visiting firemen will be the guests of the Washington Hose Company” (from the Oct. 25, 1855, Baltimore Sun).

We’ve seen many similar literal examples from the second half of the 19th century in searches of newspaper databases.

The next Oxford citation, which isn’t enclosed in brackets, also uses the term literally, though in a looser way. This is an expanded version from Mantrap, a 1926 novel by Sinclair Lewis:

“Oh, I guess I’m an awful fly-paper. It looks like I just couldn’t keep my hooks off any he-male that blows into town with the visiting firemen!” The reference is to a Canadian air force pilot (the “he-male”) and two forest-fire rangers.

The third example in the OED, from Choose a Bright Morning (1936), a satirical novel by Hillel Bernstein, uses the expression for visiting VIPs who get to meet with a fascist dictator:

“He never sees people who might have legitimate business with him, such as correspondents who are stationed here. But he receives all the visiting firemen.”

As you’ve noticed, some language writers trace the expression “visiting fireman” to the role of the Native American firekeeper.

In The Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.), for example, Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman say the usage comes from “a Native American ceremonial dignitary who was responsible for lighting the fires.” However, the authors offer no evidence.

Why, you may wonder, does the expression refer to a visiting fireman, rather than a visiting accountant, chemist, or piano tuner?

Probably because firefighters have a tradition of visiting their counterparts in other cities, especially to attend the funerals of those who have died in the line of duty. And traditionally, they’re given red-carpet treatment.

In Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words (1988), Dennis Smith describes a trip by 20 New York City firefighters to Boston to attend the funeral of nine firefighters killed in a 1972 fire at the Hotel Vandome.

The author, one of the 20 firefighters from Engine Company 82 and Ladder Company 31 in the Bronx, said the trip showed “what it was like when a city decided it was going to make itself host to the visiting firemen.”

“Boston and its citizens opened themselves up, the hotels held free rooms for the visiting firefighters, and the firehouses, of course, welcomed their visitors,” Smith writes. “The city donated its buses for transport duty, and the bus drivers volunteered their time and their days off to drive them.”

Interestingly, Smith generally uses the unisex “firefighters” when writing about people who fight fires, but “firemen” slips in when he writes about them as visitors who get special treatment.

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The birds and the bees

Q: When did “the birds and the bees” become a euphemism for sex?

A: The use of the expression as a euphemism for the basic facts about sex, as told to children, showed up in print in the first half of the 20th century, but it was undoubtedly used in speech before it appeared in writing.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “the birds and the bees” used this way is from a Feb. 12, 1940, Associated Press article that appeared the next day in various newspapers around the country.

Here’s the headline in the Feb. 13, 1940, issue of the San Bernardino County (CA) Sun: “Objection to Pictures of Nudes Irks Girl, 12 / Child Suggests That He Learn About Birds and Bees Before Voicing Disapproval.”

In the AP article, a man says schoolchildren shouldn’t be allowed to see two Thomas Hart Benton nudes at a museum. A girl responds that “there is no harm in looking at art exhibitions” and “if you know about the birds and the bees you wouldn’t want to hide the pictures.”

The editors of the San Bernardino newspaper wouldn’t have used “Birds and Bees” in the headline unless the usage was already familiar to readers in the sex-education sense.

A somewhat earlier newspaper example (from the April 29, 1939, issue of the Argus in Melbourne, Australia) uses “the birds and the bees” to mean lovers in nature. A movie reviewer complains about the scarcity of romantic films coming out of Hollywood, then adds:

“I am not suggesting that Hollywood is plastered with posters reading ‘Down With Love.’ Nor do I even hint that it should be given back to the birds and the bees and the flowers and the few Viennese remaining in old Vienna.”

Of course writers have linked birds and bees for centuries as symbols of nature, and noted the care in which birds rear their young.

In a 1675 religious treatise, for example, the Anglican priest John Smith says man should imitate the “well timed and orderly actions of birds and bees,” especially the ingenuity of birds “in making their nests” and in the “parental care of their young.”

(The treatise is entitled Christian Religion’s Appeal From the Groundless Prejudices of the Sceptick to the Bar of Common Reason. Smith was rector of St. Mary at the Wall Church in Colchester, England.)

And here’s a 19th-century example from “Nature,” by the Scottish poet Allan Cunningham:

“Untrodden flowers and unpruned trees / Gladden’d with songs of birds and bees.” (The poem was first published in the Edinburgh Literary Journal on Dec. 27, 1828, and was widely reprinted in the US.)

A more recent, suggestive example is from “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” a song that Cole Porter wrote for the 1928 musical Paris: “Birds do it, bees do it, / Even educated fleas do it.”

Porter changed the original wording (“Chinks do it, Japs do it, / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it”), when told that it was offensive, Philip H. Herbst writes in The Color of Words: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States (1997).

All the early recordings we’ve heard, including those by Rudy Vallée (1928), Bing Crosby (1929), Mary Martin (1941), and Billie Holiday (1941), use the original lyrics. The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, dates the new version at 1954.

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‘Underway’ or ‘under way’?

Q: I’d love to understand why it’s apparently now acceptable to cast “under way”  as “underway”—one word, not two. “Negotiations are underway” just seems wrong!

A: Yes, “under way,” an expression that began life as two words, is increasingly—and more popularly—being written as one. Today you can use either version and be in respectable company.

More and more standard dictionaries are recognizing the one-word version. In fact, two prominent American dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) now recommend “underway” exclusively.

The term began life as a two-word adverbial phrase composed of the preposition “under” and the noun “way.”

When first recorded in the early 17th century, the expression was used in a nautical sense. It comes from the Dutch onterweg (“on the way”), and was adopted into English at a time when the Netherlands ruled the sea.

A ship was said to be “under way,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was moving freely through the water as opposed to being anchored, moored, or aground.

The earliest written example in the OED is a seafaring usage from Richard Hawkins’s “Observations in His Voiage into the South Sea” (1622):

“The windermost shippe, by opening her sayle, may be vpon the other before shee be looked for, either for want of steeridge, not being vnder way, or by the rowling of the Sea.”

In later use, the OED explains, the term became broader. It was used with reference to other sorts of travel, as well as to anything in progress.

Again, the earlier citations use two words, as in this Oxford citation from Sacred Geography (1671) by Joseph Moxon, a printer and globe-maker:

“That night he went to Bethania, and lodged there…. And in the Morning again to Jerusalem, where under way he cursed the Fig Tree, which presently withered.” (The reference is to a passage in Matthew 21, where Jesus curses a fig tree that has no fruit.)

And this example is from a letter written in Paris by Thomas Jefferson in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution: “While our second revolution is just brought to a happy end with you, yours here is but cleverly under way.”

But by the late 1700s and early 1800s the one-word spelling “underway” was also being used, nautically and otherwise, as in these OED citations:

“We shall get underway in a jiffy, the pilot’s coming on board.” (From George Brewer’s novel The Motto, 1795.)

“As soon as the vessel was got underway, the captain discovered the money had been stolen.” (From a weekly magazine, Lady’s Miscellany, Nov. 16, 1811.)

“It was about day-break when the caravan got underway at Trebizond.” (From John Galt’s novel Earthquake, 1820.)

The OED has this to say about the spellings: “The one-word spelling has become increasingly common since the mid 20th cent. The two-word spelling continues to be recommended by most usage guides.”

Actually, that last statement is no longer true. Usage guides today either lean toward “underway” or leave the choice up to the writer.

For example, the fourth and latest edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) encourages the one-word spelling:

“In the phrases get underway (= to get into motion) and be underway (= to be in progress), the term is increasingly made one word, and it would be convenient to make that transformation, which has been underway since the 1960s, complete in all uses of the word.”

Jeremy Butterfield, in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), says the “mysterious gravitational force” that  earlier brought “any way” and other adverbial phrases together has been doing the same to “under way” since the 1930s.

With dictionaries at odds over whether to use one word or two, Butterfield says, it’s up to the writer to decide: “Follow your nose or your gut, whichever is the more prominent organ.”

Even 16 years ago, Merriam-Webster’s Guide to English Usage noted that the term was increasingly written as one word, “underway.”

The editors of the 2002 edition added: “It is quite possible that this solid form will eventually predominate over the two-word form, but for the time being under way is still somewhat more common.”

Again, that last statement is now outdated. The NOW Corpus, a database of 5.6 billion words published in web-based newspapers and magazines between 2010 and the present, shows “underway” ahead of “under way” by more than two to one. As of this writing, “underway” appeared in roughly 112,000 articles during this period, compared with 45,000 for “under way.”

The growing acceptance of “underway” is no surprise. Virtually all other compounds formed with “under” are single words: “underdog,” “underage,” “undersecretary,” “underprivileged,” “underground,” “underfed,” “underdeveloped,” and so on. (The only exceptions we can think of are hyphenated adjectives occurring before a noun and beginning with “under-the-,” where the last element is “counter” or “table” or “radar.”)

You can also expect to see the “underway” version in many newspapers. The Associated Press Stylebook, widely used by journalists, had long recommended “under way” for “virtually all uses.” But since 2013 it has recommended “underway: One word in all uses.”

Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which had previously recommended “under way (adv.),” now has “underway,” without a label, in its fifth edition, published in 2015.

Still, if you prefer to use “under way,” you can do so with a clear conscience.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged has “under way” for the adverb, “underway” for the adjective.

This brings us to the subject of terminology. When is this term an adverb, and when is it an adjective? On this issue, as it happens, chaos reigns.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels it an adverb in all uses. This is true even in examples like “the dance was underway,” where it looks more like a predicate adjective because it follows a form of the verb “be” and complements the noun.

In the other camp are three standard British dictionaries—Macmillan, Longman, and Cambridge—which regard “underway” as an adjective exclusively, even after the verb “get.” (All three spell it as one word, though Cambridge gives “under way” as a variant.)

Apparently those three dictionaries regard “get” in this case as a copula or linking verb, like “become” or “is.”

Webster’s New World, too, labels “underway” solely as an adjective, though it doesn’t give examples.

American Heritage labels “underway” as both adverb and adjective—spelled one word in both cases—but unfortunately it doesn’t give examples either.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, as we said, labels it both an adverb and an adjective, but with differing spellings. Its adverbial examples include both “gets under way” and “was well under way,” so in that respect it agrees with the OED.

The only adjectival examples in the Unabridged have “underway” immediately before a noun, as in “underway refueling.” But in fact the term rarely pre-modifies a noun; it almost always comes afterward, generally after a form of the verb “get” or “be.”

M-W likens the word to “afoot” when used adverbially, but “afoot” is generally a predicate adjective, as in “the game is afoot” or “a conspiracy was afoot.”

We would argue that in sentences like “The project was underway,” or “The project underway was a costly one,” the term is an adjective. In that first example, where it follows a form of the verb “be,” it’s a predicate adjective. And in the second, it’s an adjective that post-modifies a noun.

Whether or not if you continue to spell it “under way,” the term has graduated from its beginnings as only a two-word adverbial phrase.

After all, former two-word adverbial phrases like “under cover” and “on line” are now used legitimately as adjectives (and generally written as one word).

Finally, we’ve written before about the term “under weigh,” which originated as a variant of the earlier “under way.” The variant spelling is now accepted as standard, though it began as a misspelling due to an erroneous association with the phrase “weigh anchor.” (The verb “weigh” in the phrase means to raise or lift.)

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Breaking wind

Q: My boyfriend and I are having an argument over whether the word “fart” is vulgar. I say “yes” and he says “no.” I’ve searched your blog, but don’t see anything about it. Can you help settle this?

A: Lexicographers, the people who write dictionaries, differ on how to label this word. It’s variously described as vulgar, informal, rude, impolite, colloquial, and slang. The Oxford English Dictionary puts it this way: “Not now in decent use.”

In other words, “fart” is not quite quite, though dictionaries disagree on the extent of its not-quite-quiteness. One wouldn’t use it in an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, but it’s probably been heard in her private apartments at Buckingham Palace.

Interestingly, the first Queen Elizabeth is said to have used the term to remind Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, of an embarrassing incident, according to Brief Lives, a collection of biographical sketches written by John Aubrey in the late 1600s:

“This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”

The medievalist Valerie Allen says early “instances of misplaced farts suggest the cultural constancy of its shame value.”

In On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (2007), Allen writes, “There is evidence aplenty that one could be ‘just as squeamish of farting’ in the Middle Ages as today.”

She cites “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind,” a tale in the Arabian Nights about a man who emits a “great and terrible” fart at his wedding banquet and flees. After 10 years, he returns and hears a mother say her daughter was born “on the very night when Abu Hasan farted.” He flees again and never returns.

As for the etymology here, the word “fart” is very old, with roots in prehistoric Germanic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reconstructed Germanic fertan gave Old English feortan, an early version of the verb “fart.”

Although feortan itself has been reconstructed by linguists (it isn’t found in existing Old English manuscripts), written relatives survived in Old High German (ferzan) and Old Norse (freta).

The earliest written ancestor of “fart” showed up in Middle English. The first citation in the OED is from “Sumer Is Icumen In” (“Summer’s Come In”), a song written around 1250:

“Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ [verteth]” (“The bullock cavorts; the buck farts”). In Middle English, the verb evolved from “verten” to “ferten” to “farten.”

The next Oxford citation is from “The Miller’s Tale,” the second of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “He was som del squaymous Of fartyng” (“He was rather squeamish about farting”).

We’ll end with a comment by the linguist Anatoly Liberman. In a post about the etymology of “fart” on the Oxford University Press blog, he explains why linguists aren’t squeamish about discussing such words:

“Scatological words are always embarrassing to discuss. But linguists are like doctors: desensitizing makes them indifferent to many things that excite others. In the office they are professionals, and words are just words to them. Other than that, they are normal people.”

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Misgivings about ‘misgiving’

Q: I’ve just used “misgiving” in an email, but it strikes me now that the word doesn’t make much sense. How can adding a negative prefix to “giving” result in a word that means a feeling of doubt or distrust?

A: The verb “give” once meant to suggest, so to give something was to suggest it, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The addition of the prefix “mis-” (badly, wrongly) made the suggestion dubious.

Although the “suggest” sense of “give” is now archaic, Chambers says, it was still being used in the 19th century. The dictionary cites this example from Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe: “Therefore, do as thy mind giveth thee.”

The noun “misgiving” was formed in the late 16th century when the suffix “-ing” was added to the verb “misgive,” which appeared in writing in the early 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first Oxford citation for “misgive” is from Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, which the British Library dates at 1513-18: “Were it that before such great thinges, mens hartes … misgiueth them.”

The OED adds that “misgive” combined the prefix “mis-” and the verb “give,” two terms of Germanic origin. In Old English, the prefix was mys-, mis-, or miss-, while the verb was geaf, géafon, or giefen.

The first Oxford citation for “misgiving” is from A Booke Which Sheweth the Life and Manners of All True Christians, a 1582 treatise by Robert Browne: “How doo they make light of his grace and blessinges? They haue their misgeuing from goodnes.”

Browne was founder of the Brownist dissenters, early separatists from the Church of England. Many Brownists were among the pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony, though Browne himself returned to the established church and became an Anglican priest.

The OED defines “misgiving” as a “feeling of mistrust, apprehension, or loss of confidence,” and notes that the noun is frequently used in the plural.

We’ll end with a plural example from Right Ho, Jeeves, a 1934 novel by P. G. Wodehouse. Here Bertie Wooster talks his Aunt Dahlia into pretending she’s lost her appetite in order to make Uncle Tom feel sorry for her:

“ ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘Have no misgivings. This is the real Tabasco.’ ” As usual, Bertie ends up in the soup—or, as he’d put it, waist high in the gumbo.

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With malice toward none

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can a ‘regime’ be a ‘regimen’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Checkmates and roommates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When biscuits were baked twice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comparatively speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prostitute or sex worker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A dog in this race?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Companion piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bitterness of wormwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A defiling moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is GM an “it” or a “they”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The lights of our lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to turn into a driveway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ‘mare’ in ‘nightmare’

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

A: No, the two terms aren’t related.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can ‘so don’t I’ mean ‘so do I’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Black (or African) American?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A great eye for art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary and me at the Eiffel Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are you dumbfounded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Merry or happy Christmas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Reader Over Your Shoulder

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

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Dreaming of a white sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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