The Grammarphobia Blog

In the weeds

Q: On two recent dates, talking heads on TV news spoke of individuals being “in the weeds” in the context of being deeply in the know about a particular issue. I had never heard this usage before. Is this new? Or am I just behind?

A: People tramping through the brush have literally been “in the weeds” since Anglo-Saxon times, when “weed” was wéod in Old English. But as far as we can tell, English speakers didn’t begin using “in the weeds” figuratively until the mid-20th century, when it acquired the slang sense of being in the suburbs or outskirts of a town.

Since then, “in the weeds” has taken on several other slang, colloquial, or informal senses. It can mean being in a safe or secluded place, flying at a low altitude or under the radar, being overwhelmed by work, and being engaged in (or bogged down by) the intricate details of an issue. We suspect that the talking heads you heard were using it to describe experts or detail-oriented people.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang has the earliest example we’ve seen for “in the weeds” used figuratively (in the suburbs or outskirts): “Then we would pick up the tail of one of them until they got out in the weeds at the edge of town somewheres” (from Rap Sheet: My Life Story, 1955, by Blackie Audett, aka James Henry Audett).

The expression soon took on the slang sense of a safe or secure place, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s first example quotes Fred Taylor, the Ohio State men’s basketball coach: “We probably took some of them by surprise last year … but everybody is going to be hiding in the weeds looking for us this year” (from the Chicago Daily Defender, Nov. 23, 1960).

Then in US Air Force slang, “in the weeds” came to mean flying at a very low level. The earliest OED citation is from F4 Phantom: A Pilot’s Story (1979), by Robert Prest:

“I counter roll and push downwards, seeking to gain the energy that I need to smoke away into the distance down in the ‘weeds’ at zero feet or thereabouts, where his pulse radar will be unable to pick me up.”

A couple of years later the expression took on the colloquial sense of “a cook, waiter, bartender, etc.: overwhelmed with orders or work,” according to the dictionary. Its earliest example is from an On Language column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine (May 2, 1981):

“A busy bartender is said to be buried or in the weeds.” The dictionary says this sense is also found “in extended use”—that is, in reference to overworked people in other jobs.

The usage you’re asking about came along a decade later. Oxford defines it this way: “at the most basic or grass-roots level; engaged with intricate or precise details, esp. to an extent considered distracting or limiting.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Journal of Commerce (March 4, 1993): “One White House official at first dismissed questions about the Ex-Im Bank plan as ‘too far down in the weeds for me.’ ”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t label the usage, but Cambridge Dictionary online, the only standard dictionary we’ve seen with an entry for “in the weeds,” considers the detail sense of the expression “US informal.”

Finally, here’s an example from the New York Times on April 4, 2019, about two of President Trump’s choices for the Federal Reserve Board:

“While the institution has strongly rooted values around technical competence and apolitical debate, Mr. Trump’s latest choices have been political actors rather than in-the-weeds experts in any of the main areas in which the Fed makes policy.” (The two men withdrew their names from consideration.)

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On ‘equity’ and ‘equality’

Q: I assume that “equity” and “equality” are related if you go back far enough. Please write about the history of these two words. “Equity” seems to be replacing “equality” at the university where I teach.

A: Broadly speaking, both words mean the quality of being fair or equal. Their ultimate source, and that of their many relatives in English, is the Latin adjective aequus (level, even, just)—not to be confused with the noun equus (horse).

As they’re used in modern English, “equity” and “equality” may occasionally overlap, but they’re generally used in different ways—“equity” in regard to fairness, “equality” in regard to sameness.

Here are the definitions in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), which are representative of those in other standard dictionaries:

“equity: The quality of being fair and impartial.” The example given: “equity of treatment.”

“equality: The state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.” The example given: “an organization aiming to promote racial equality.”

(Lexico is an online collaboration in which Oxford University Press provides content for a website owned by the Lexico Publishing Group, owner of

Both words entered English writing in the 14th century, “equity” around 1315 and “equality” in the late 1390s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, traces the two terms, along with their relative “equal” (early 1390s), to classical Latin words derived from the adjective we mentioned above, aequus.

While “equal” came directly from the Latin aequālis, “equity” and “equality” took a less direct route into English, by way of Old French.

First on the English scene was “equity,” from the Old French equité (a derivative of the Latin aequitātem).

The Middle English spellings varied widely (“equite,” “equyte,” “equitee,” and so on), but from the beginning the noun had to do with what the OED calls “the quality of being equal or fair; fairness, impartiality; even-handed dealing.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use is a reference to the divine mystery of God’s “domes [judgments] in equyte” (circa 1315, from a poem by William de Shoreham, vicar of Chart-Sutton).

In legal language, “equity” has a special sense, one believed to have existed in writing since 1591. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it this way: “Justice achieved not simply according to the strict letter of the law but in accordance with principles of substantial justice and the unique facts of the case.”

As the OED says, this meaning of “equity” comes from the notion that a decision “in equity” was “one given in accordance with natural justice, in a case for which the law did not provide adequate remedy, or in which its operation would have been unfair.”

While “equity” had meanings related to fairness and justice, “equality” had to do with sameness or equivalency. It came into English from the Old French équalité (today it’s égalité), which in turn was a borrowing of the Latin aequālitātem (from aequālis).

The noun “equality” is generally defined, the OED says, as “the quality or condition of being equal,” and in the earliest citation it’s used in a physical sense:

“Þe see hatte equor, and haþ þat name of equalite, ‘euennesse,’ for he is euen and playne.” (“The sea hath aequor [Latin for an even, level surface], and hath that name of equality, ‘evenness,’ for it is even and plain.”)

That passage is from John Trevisa’s translation, sometime before 1398, of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin work compiled by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus. We’ve expanded the quotation and taken it from a different manuscript than the OED used.

Other senses of “equality” followed. In the early 1400s, the word was used to mean equal “quantity, amount, value, intensity, etc.,” Oxford says. And in the early 1500s it was used for equal “dignity, rank, or privileges with others” or “being on an equal footing.”

Toward the end of the 16th century, these usages led to a new sense of the word: “the condition of being equal in power, ability, achievement, or excellence.” The OED credits Shakespeare with the first written evidence:

“The on-set and retyre / Of both your Armies, whose equality / By our best eyes cannot be censured” (King John, probably written in the 1590s).

One of the most common meanings today emerged in the late 19th century in the phrase “equality of opportunity,” which the OED defines as “equal chance and right to seek success in one’s chosen sphere regardless of social factors such as class, race, religion, and sex.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an 1891 issue of the Economic Review (London): “It will possibly, however, be contended that here the ideal is equality of Opportunity.”

Today the phrases “equality of opportunity” and “equal opportunity” (first recorded in this sense in Britain in 1925) are both common—though not equally common. The shorter “equal opportunity” is more popular, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

The noun phrase “equal-opportunity employer” originated in the US in the 1960s, the OED says. Oxford’s definition is “one who professes not to discriminate against applicants or employees on such grounds”—that is, “race, gender, physical or mental handicap, etc.”

As we said above, the Latin adjective aequus gave us many English words beside “equity” and “equality.” We already mentioned “equal,” which was first recorded in a scientific work by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1391.

A passage in A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391) explains how to regulate the complex astronomical instrument, and Chaucer uses “howres equales” and “howres in-equales” to mean “equal hours” and “unequal hours.”

That early use of “equal” retains a whiff of the Latin aequālis in its spelling, “equales”; the modern spelling didn’t appear until the 16th century.

Other English words that can be traced to aequus include “iniquity” (1300s); “equation” (1393); “equator” (circa 1400); “equinox” (c. 1400); “equate” (1400s); “equivalent” (c. 1460); “equalize” (1500s); “equidistant” (probably before 1560); “equivocate” (1590); “equivocal” (1601-02); “equanimity” (1607); “adequate” (1608) and “inadequate” (1675); “equilibrium” (1608); “equable” (1643); and a latecomer, “egalitarian” (1885).

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Conceptually speaking

Q: A recent post of yours introduced me to the use of “concept” as a verb. But how do I pronounce it? Is it KON-sept (like the noun) or “kon-SEPT”? My linear left brain wants to stick with KON-sept, but my intuitive right brain says uh-uh.

A: As we noted in our post, we checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries and found only one that includes “concept” as a verb. Unfortunately that one,, lists no specific pronunciation for the verb.

It has only a single pronunciation, KON-sept, at the head of its entry, which begins with the noun. We can only guess whether that pronunciation is supposed to apply to all the forms of the word.

However, when a word exists in both noun and verb forms, the usual pattern is that the noun is accented on the first syllable and the verb on the second, as with CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb).

We’ve written about this pattern before, including posts in 2012 and 2016.

And as we said, the same pattern applies to the noun-verb pairs “permit,” “extract,” “addict,” “combat,” “compound,” “conduct,” “incense,” “insult,” “present,” “produce,” “refuse,” and “subject.”

The nouns are accented on the first syllable while the verbs (along with their participles) are accented on the second syllable.

If “concept” were to follow this pattern, the verb would be pronounced con-CEPT and the participles con-CEPT-ing and con-CEPT-ed.

That’s why your brain somehow didn’t accept the reverse pronunciation (CON-sept). You knew from experience (even if you hadn’t articulated it to yourself) that words like those above sound differently depending on their function—noun versus verb.

Native English speakers can often guess correctly at the pronunciations of words they haven’t seen before. Through experience in reading, speaking, and listening, they’ve absorbed the conventions associated with how spellings are generally pronounced.

So when they come across an unfamiliar word, they simply extrapolate from what they already know—and their guess is often right.

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Sick of politics? Want a break?

Turn off the news and read the first chapter of Swan Song, a comic novel about a real estate scam on the Space Coast of Florida. Can the three musketeers—Selma Waxler and her old friends Kitty and Rose—foil the snake that’s slithered into their retirement paradise?
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Swan Song

By Stewart Kellerman

Chapter 1


I was always fussy about my hair, but I had to tighten the purse strings when things fell apart. To save a few pennies, I’d take my own colors to Annette’s House of Aloha: Miss Clairol, an ounce of Topaz and an ounce of Moon Haze. I still had beautiful hair, as nice as when I was a schoolgirl. Maybe a little nicer, if I say so myself. I waved naturally, which I didn’t as a girl. Believe it or not, I hadn’t permed since I was in my twenties and unattached.

Annette used to set my colors with two ounces of L’Oreal, but I made her switch to Clairoxide after the Disaster. It was sixty-five cents less and my dear friend Kitty saw something in Florida Today about how this big shot at L’Oreal had been a Nazi during the war.

If I needed a good treatment, Annette would shampoo me with Wella, first the conditioner, then the conditioning shampoo. My boys used the stuff, too—Dewey, my oldest, and Zoot, number two—but only the shampoo, the one with cholesterol.

Annette knew a terrific trick. She’d rub in a tiny amount of conditioner as she applied my color. This was so the tips shouldn’t dry out. She learned that in Paw­tucket, where she had a unisex before moving to the Space Coast.

Of course, everyone in Florida came from somewhere. Sid and I used to live on Kimball Terrace, the dead-end block next to Yonkers Raceway. We had a detached brick with a flagstone patio in back and a finished basement. It took Sid half a summer vacation, but he put up the paneling downstairs all by himself, a very nice wormy cherry.

I discovered Annette soon after moving to Satellite Beach, where we bought when Sid retired from teaching radio and television at Gompers, his vocational high school in the Bronx. This was a few weeks into 1981, not too long after the Reagans got to Washington.

I was still a mere bobby-soxer of sixty-five, barely old enough to get my senior discount at Mercury Marquee (Sid used to call it the Sin-a-Plex). He was sixty-six, nearly four years younger than Reagan at the Inauguration. Day in and day out, Sid was carrying on about that cowboy in the White House. Little did he realize, but Reagan wasn’t the rustler we had to worry about.

To be fair, it was Kitty who found the House of Aloha, Annette’s beauty parlor in Spaceport Plaza. Annette was between Reliable Realty—don’t get me started on that—and Golden Chopsticks, Sid’s favorite Chinese restaurant. He was very picky when it came to Chinese, wouldn’t touch anything but the most boring dishes from the chow mein school.

Spaceport Plaza, by the way, wasn’t exactly a mall, but one of those older-style shopping centers on A1A where you had to step outside to go from store to store. All the shops were stucco, pink stucco with little aquamarine awnings in front—Spanish style.

Kitty had always been the pioneer. She discovered Pelican Pond, our retirement village in Satellite Beach. She bought first, then I did, and Rose brought up the rear. Rose was forever last, the sweetest person in the world, but a faint heart who was always waiting for Kitty and me to show her the way.

We’d been together through thick and thin. The Three Musketeers—that’s what everyone used to call us when we were growing up on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn. We wouldn’t let anybody separate us. We had plenty of aggravation from our husbands, let me tell you, but we insisted on finding three houses close to one another in Yonkers. Rose lived down the street from me on Kimball Terrace and Kitty was one block over on Halstead.

Kitty was the brave one. I remember when we were in tenth grade at Thomas Jefferson and she took Rose and me into the city for Chinese at the Singapore. This was the first time any of us had tried Chinese food and Rose was acting like Daniel in the lion’s den.

“What the hell are you afraid of?” Kitty hollered for the whole room to hear. “Christ Almighty, it won’t jump up and bite you. You’re supposed to be doing the goddamn biting.”

I should have warned you about Kitty’s mouth. All ears were burning at the tables around us. Even the Chinese waiters were getting an earful. Well, Rose may have been a crybaby, but I wasn’t exactly Selma the Lion-Hearted when I saw the menu.

I couldn’t tell my egg foo from my mu shu in those days, let alone the more exotic stuff—octopus suckers, chicken toes, eye of newt, for all I know. I kept asking our waiter if the dishes had onions. I didn’t like cooked onions. I could eat raw onions chopped up with tuna and other things, but not cooked in my food.

Onions never agreed with Sid, either, raw or other­wise. He was of the opinion—and not just an opinion in his case—that onions give you gas. Sid always had an opinion, too many of them in my opinion. We wouldn’t have been in such a state if he’d listened to me.

I wanted to be on the pond, but Sid knew better. Kitty and Leo had already bought a lovely Hacienda, one of the higher-quality waterside villas. Rose and Sol were still hemming and hawing, but it looked as if they’d take the plunge and get a Hacienda, too.

Sid had other ideas. The way he figured it, we’d be throwing good money away to be on a pond, especially an artificial one, when we didn’t even have a canoe. He wanted us to get a Chalet, the cheaper unit with a breeze­way instead of a garage. The Chalets were over by Tropi­cana Trail and the traffic congestion. As an added attraction, you had a lovely view through your picture window of Luna Lanes, the bowladrome across the street.

“Everyone wants to be on the pond,” Sid argued as we examined the prospectus in Yonkers. “You have to pay top dollar there. Why should we go into debt to be on the water?”

“But that’s where I want to be, on the pond next to Kitty and Rose.”

“We shouldn’t tie ourselves down with a mortgage at our age, Bubbie. If we buy away from the water, we’ll have our home free and clear. And we can put the left­over into a nest egg.”

“I don’t want an ugly bowling alley in my face. I don’t even like bowling. And what are we going to do with a nest egg? Sit on it until we hatch chickens?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not a high roller like some other husbands I could mention. I had to slave in the school system all my life.”

“You’ll be getting a very nice bundle from your vari­able annuity when you retire, $22,215 in cold cash, as you never cease to remind me. Why can’t we use this manna from heaven to buy a Hacienda? We’d need to borrow only ten thousand more.”

“It doesn’t make sense to pay double-digit interest rates to be on a phoney-baloney pond. Who needs water?”

Listen to him, Sid Waxler, the Answer Man. Let him speak for himself. You should have seen me as a girl. I used to slice through the water without a splash, just like the girls in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Even in Florida, I could have swum circles around the tadpoles sunning them­selves topless by the pool of the Econo Lodge on A1A, the place with the turquoise tiles.

As soon as we got to Pelican Pond, I joined Aquacise at the Olympic pool. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one to say this, but I was a sensation. Loretta Liebowitz, our lady lifeguard, said I had more natural talent and enthusiasm than the rest of the class combined, though that might have been a slight exaggeration.

Sid used to take me to Orchard Beach in the summer, back when we had the one-bedroom on Sedgwick Ave­nue in the Bronx, our first home together. We used to suntan in section twelve, where the musicians congre­gated. Sid would lie back on a beach towel, his eyes closed, as I serenaded the crowd with my mandolin, an old Gibson.

Sid wasn’t much of a swimmer—more of a splasher, actually. I have a picture from the old days. He’s at the beach, holding Dewey on his shoulder. Dewey in dia­pers, such a tiny thing. Sid’s hair is stuck to his head like a wet washcloth. He’s a stringbean, standing there in his trunks. They were navy, the trunks, but you can’t tell from the picture because it’s a black-and-white.

Sid’s hair was still as black as ever when we got to Florida, but he never appreciated his good fortune. I worked so hard to get my color right and he didn’t have to lift a pinkie. It wasn’t fair. He was still a stringbean, too. I’d like someone to explain that. I had to struggle every day of my life to keep my girlish figure. Sid, on the other hand, could stuff whatever garbage he wanted into that big trap. Not an ounce stuck to his bones. This had to be the metabolism or something, maybe hormones. At night, I’d look at his tiny little size-thirty belt draped over the armchair in our bedroom and feel like stran­gling him with it.

As usual, Sid had his way about the Chalet. We got it for $74,895 plus closing costs, just about what we cleared from selling the house in Yonkers. And he insisted we put the entire $22,215 from the school system into a one-year CD at Sun Bank, the branch on South Babcock in Melbourne. It had the best rate around, fifteen per­cent compounded, and you got a pocket calculator for opening the account.

Sid moved the rest of our money, a few thousand from Yonkers Savings, into a joint checking account at South­land, the bank with the drive-in window around the cor­ner on A1A. It was across from the Econo Lodge and next to Oinkers, the barbecue place on the ocean. You could get a platter of ribs for three ninety-five, a platter big enough to hold a ten-pound turkey.

For some reason, it made Sid feel good to have that nest egg in the bank. You would have thought it was a Fabergé from listening to him. But what were we saving for? Unless I was mistaken, burial shrouds were still being made without pockets.

My God, the aggravation we went through over that money. I get sick thinking about it. I curse the weasel responsible for what happened. His bones should be broken and trampled into the earth. Excuse me, but a bitter heart makes you say such things.

Well, I gave in on the Chalet, but I insisted on a kitchen with room for our Inca gold dinette set from Yonkers. That’s why we bought a Chalet Luxe, the two-bedroom end unit with a bath and a half and an eat-in kitchen. It was equipped with new Hot Point appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a tiled Neptune green tub in the master bath that you stepped down into.

Sid liked the idea of the spare bedroom that came with an end unit. I furnished it with twin beds, in case the boys decided to do Sid and me a big favor and pay us a visit. Not that Dewey, the snob, or Zoot, the hipster, would stay with us—let alone Fleur, Dewey’s socialite wife.

All we got from the children was grumble, grumble, groan. Mostly they complained that the only thing we did was complain about them, which I couldn’t figure out, since there was no way to get a word in edgewise with all their complaining. I have a question, Dr. Broth­ers. If we were such rotten parents, how did they turn out to be so perfect?

Well, I’m not the only person to tumble into the gen­eration gap and crack my skull. Kitty emerged black and blue from raising Myra, her little sweetheart. And Rose had a concussion or two, thanks to Becky and Zach, the sweetness and light of her life.

I remember when I worked for Ansonia Shoes before the war. It was just off Herald Square, which was why you could always find me in Macy’s at lunch time. I was the steno in the office, but I did a lot of other things—the sales floor, the cash register, the account book.

I sent the checks to Mrs. Wolfowitz, the boss’s wife, when she went to Grossinger’s over the summer. I even filled in when the model was sick. I wasn’t a model size—she was a four and I was four and a half—but I’d squeeze my foot into it.

The point is, we got the most beautiful stuff at cost from Binghamton and the other shoe places upstate. I rated beautiful shoes and made sure my friends had them, too. No wonder I had such good friends. You have to be a friend to have one.

Well, maybe I should have put up more of a stink about the pond, as if that would have changed Dr. No’s mind. He could be very stubborn, ignoring me till I wilted like a warm salad. He was just as obstinate about the Disaster, but I don’t want to talk about that.

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How appropriate is ‘apropos’?

Q: A website I read regularly uses “apropos” as if it means “appropriate” rather than “relevant” (the way I use it). Is this a new trend? Is it really right, and have I been wrong all these years?

A: The word “apropos” has several meanings in English, depending on whether it’s a preposition, an adverb, or an adjective.

As a preposition, it means “in respect to” and is often accompanied by “of,” according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which gives this example:

“Apropos the early church, Ford might have noted (and expatiated on) the qualifications added to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ particularly in reference to heretics” (John T. O’Connor, The American Historical Review, October 1986).

As an adverb, M-W Unabridged says, it means either “at an opportune time” or “by the way.”

For the first sense, it cites this example: “Your letter came very apropos, as, indeed, your letters always do” (Charlotte Brontë, letter, Nov. 14, 1844).

And for the second, it cites this one: “Apropos, this brings me to a point on which I feel, as the vulgar idiom goes, ‘very awkward,’—as I always do in these confounded money-matters” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lucretia, 1846).

As an adjective, the way it’s used in the New York Times article that caught your eye, it can mean either “to the point” (that is, relevant) or “suitable or appropriate,” according to M-W Unabridged.

For the “relevant” sense, the dictionary cites “an apropos comment/remark” (no source given). For the “appropriate” sense, it cites the sentence “An old barn and New York’s Catskill Mountains serve as an apropos backdrop” (Country Living, July 2011).

We checked nine other standard British and American dictionaries and they generally have similar definitions, though the wording differs here and there.

Oxford Dictionaries, for example, defines the adjective as “very appropriate to a particular situation,” while Webster’s New World defines it as “fitting the occasion; relevant; apt,” and American Heritage as “fitting and to the point.”

Nevertheless, we’d use “appropriate” (or “fitting,” “suitable,” “proper,” and so on) if that’s what we meant. The use of “apropos” strikes us as affected.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the only contemporary usage guide in our library that comments on the issue, agrees with you and considers it a misuse.

English borrowed “apropos” in the 17th century from the French à propos, formed of à (to) + propos (purpose), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The word was first used as an adverb, says the OED, adding that its use with “of” is an echo of the French à propos de. (The dictionary does not categorize the word as a preposition.)

Oxford defines the adverb as meaning “to the purpose; fitly, opportunely,” and its earliest example uses it in that last sense: “The French … use them with better judgment and more apropos” (from John Dryden’s Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay, 1668).

The adjective, which followed soon afterward, is defined in the OED as “to the point or purpose; having direct reference to the matter in hand; pertinent, opportune, ‘happy.’ ” In other words, it could mean relevant or appropriate.

Oxford’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a rambling description of a plan to allocate taxes fairly in England: “It is certainly now the opus Dei, and a propos what he had said before in that Page” (An Account of Several New Inventions and Improvements Now Necessary for England, 1691, by Thomas Hale).

We’ll end with a clearer, lighter, and more appropriate OED example, also expanded, from Alexander Pope’s Epistle of Horace (1738), which updates the Roman satirist Horace to satirize life under the British Prime Minister Horace Walpole. Here Pope begins a riff on the old tale of the town mouse and country mouse:

Our friend Dan Prior, told (you know)
A tale extremely ‘à-propos’
Name a town life, and in a trice
He had a story of two mice.

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Is ‘suicide’ a forbidden word?

Q: I read a profile in the NY Times about Kelly Catlin, a cyclist who committed suicide. A reader took umbrage over use of the word “suicide” and claimed that Poynter and other sources are using different language to describe this act. Is it true? And if so, is this yet another step toward sanitized language?

A: The objection in the news media is to the verb phrase “commit suicide,” not to the noun “suicide” itself. Since 2015, The Associated Press Stylebook has restricted the use of “commit suicide,” but the guidance is ignored by much of the media, even by some AP editors and reporters.

As the AP stylebook puts it, “Avoid using the phrase ‘committed suicide’ except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include ‘killed himself,’ ‘took her own life’ or ‘died by suicide.’ The verb ‘commit’ with ‘suicide’ can imply a criminal act.”

(Suicide isn’t a federal crime in the US, but its legality is ambiguous in some states; assisted suicide is a crime in most states.)

The AP style guide’s entry for “suicide” has been discussed several times on the website of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies since a March 27, 2015, article about changes in the stylebook. In that article, David Minthorn, a co-editor of the style manual, discusses the news agency’s thinking about how to report about suicides:

“Committed in that context suggests possibly an illegal act, but in fact, laws against suicide have been repealed in the U.S., at least in certain states, and many other places, so we’re going to avoid using that term on our own, although it’s a term that authorities widely use and we will use it while quoting authorities.”

Despite the stylebook prohibition, the expression often appears in AP articles that don’t quote authorities. Here’s an example from a May 3, 2019, story that mentions a young woman with post-traumatic stress disorder who had to give up her service dog: “About a month after losing Bailey, Katie committed suicide.” We found scores of similar examples in a search of AP articles that appeared online over the last year.

The phrase routinely shows up in the online news media. In a search for “committed suicide” in the online New York Times archive, we found a dozen examples in just one recent month (April 2019). And a search for the phrase in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published from 2010 to the present, found 33,351 examples.

As for the etymology, the phrase “commit suicide” first appeared in writing in the early 18th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from An Apology for Mr. Thomas Rind (1712). In Rind’s account of why he left the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and became an Episcopalian, he writes that the struggle over his faith “had almost driven him to Despair, and to commit Suicide.”

The noun “suicide” showed up in the mid-17th century, derived from the modern Latin suīcīdium, formed by combining the classical Latin suī (of oneself) and -cīda (killer). Previously, in classical Latin, “suicide” was referred to as mors voluntaria, or voluntary death.

“Historically,” the OED notes, “suicide was regarded as a crime in many societies. Laws against suicide existed in English common law until 1961.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “suicide” is from Glossographia, a 1656 dictionary compiled by Thomas Blount: “Suicide, the slaying or murdering of himself; self-murder.”

In the early 15th century, the verb “commit” took on the sense of to “carry out (a reprehensible act); to perpetrate (a crime, sin, offence, etc.),” according to the OED. The earliest citation is from a February 1445 entry in the parliamentary records of England:

“The said prower afterward, byfore the justicez of the saide benche expressely knowleched, that no such stelthe … was comitted.” (At the time, a “prower” was a purveyor of supplies, and “stelthe,” or stealth, referred to stealing or taking secretly and wrongfully.)

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Trouble’s weird sister

Q: A review in the New Yorker of a poetry collection says the poet’s later work “has troubled the idea that poems might tame the world by metaphor.” Have you ever seen “trouble” used this way? Weird to me.

A: We do occasionally run across this ambiguous use of the verb “trouble,” but not in ordinary English. All the examples we’ve seen are in literary criticism or academic writing.

In most of these cases the meaning of the verb is so vague that it could be any number of things—”question,” “reject,” “doubt,”  “repudiate,” “discredit,” “challenge,” “rebut,” “undermine,” “disprove,” “dismiss,” “diminish,” or “deny.”

As we’ll explain later, none of those senses of “trouble” are found in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we’ve checked.

The sentence you quote is from Dan Chiasson’s review of Swift: New and Selected Poems, by David Baker (New Yorker, April 8, 2019). Chiasson seems to use “trouble” in the sense of “reject.” At least that’s our interpretation, which we arrived at after reading the entire review.

This is often the case when you find the verb “trouble” in writing that’s scholarly or literary. A lone sentence, without further context, isn’t enough to tell the reader what the word means.

We’ll mention a few more examples in which we’ve hazarded a guess at the meaning of the verb. In the following passage, “have troubled” probably means “have undermined” or “have diminished”:

“In the forty years since, transnational feminisms, Native and indigenous feminisms, and women of color feminisms have troubled the idea of a global sisterhood while also providing tools to navigate the global realities of our contemporary societies.” (From a 2013 call for papers to be published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies.)

In this next example, “trouble” seems to mean “disprove” or “discredit”:

“In Scurvy Lamb also seeks to trouble the notion that sailors, doctors, and other scientists readily accepted the use of citrus fruits as a cure for scurvy.” (From Sarah Schuetze’s review of Jonathan Lamb’s book Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, in the fall 2017 issue of Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe & His Contemporaries.)

And in this sentence, to “trouble” appears to mean to “challenge” or “call into question”:

“In this section I will discuss four problems that trouble the theory of counterfactuals.” (From Julian Reiss’s “Counterfactuals,” a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science, 2012, edited by Harold Kincaid.)

In our opinion, any word that confuses the reader should be replaced. We aren’t saying that a word can’t be open to interpretation, just that it shouldn’t be deliberately obscure for no good reason.

(To be fair, academics and literary critics aren’t the only writers who seem to like murky language; legal, medical, and technical writing is full of it.)

But let’s move on to the history of the verb “trouble” and the recognized dictionary definitions.

Etymologically, to “trouble” is to “disturb,” and there’s a connection between the two verbs. Both came into Middle English from Old French after the Norman Conquest, and they have a common ancestor in classical Latin: the noun turba (a tumult, a crowd), from the Greek τύρβη (túrbē, disorder).

During Roman times, turba gave rise to new words in classical Latin—the adjective turbidus (confused, disordered) and verbs turbāre and disturbāre (disturb or disorder).

It’s disturbāre that gave us the verb “disturb” (the “dis-” is an intensifier, not a negative prefix). And it’s turbidus that eventually gave us the verb “trouble,” though there were side trips along the way.

During the Middle Ages, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the adjective turbidus was altered in late Latin to turbulus (agitated, confused, muddy). This in turn led to the late Latin verb turbulāre (to disrupt or agitate), which made its way into Old French and finally English as the verb “trouble.”

So “trouble” has several relatives, not only “disturb” but also “turbulent,” “turbine,” and even “turbid” (muddy, confused).

The verb has been part of written English since at least the early 1200s (the noun came slightly later, circa 1230). This is the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded to give more of the context:

“Þu schuldest … nawt trubli þin heorte & sturien in to wreaððe” (“Thou shouldst … not trouble thy heart and stir it to wrath”). The quotation is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous Middle English guide for monastic women. The manuscript cited is a copy from around 1230, but the OED says the original may date from before 1200.

The meaning of “trouble” in that medieval manuscript is still with us today. The OED defines it this way: “to put into a state of (mental) agitation or disquiet; to disturb, distress, grieve, perplex.”

In the 1300s, the verb developed several meanings “related to physical disturbance,” Oxford says, but they’re now obsolete or archaic. To “trouble” water, for example, was to stir it up and make it cloudy (a sense that survives in the expression “troubled water”).

Today, the meanings of “trouble” all have to do with “mental disturbance, and related uses,” the OED says, and all emerged in the 13th to 16th centuries. Here we’ll summarize them, based on definitions in the OED and 10 standard American and British dictionaries (the examples are ours):

  1. to afflict or cause pain or discomfort: “His war wound no longer troubles him.”
  2. to cause anxiety or worry: “Her bad grades trouble her parents.”
  3. to agitate, disturb, or distress: “Memory loss can deeply trouble a patient.”
  4. to cause (perhaps minor) inconvenience: “Can I trouble you for a light?”
  5. to pester, bother, or annoy: “I asked you not to trouble your father with it.”
  6. to take pains or make an effort: “Don’t trouble to make your bed.”

In all those senses, the meaning of the verb “trouble” is immediately clear. There’s no ambiguity.

As we said before, no dictionary has yet recognized the fuzzy sense of “trouble” used in literary criticism and scholarly writing. We suspect this is because (a) it’s not in general use and (b) there’s no agreement on what it means.

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A snake in the Garden of Eden

Check out Swan Song, a comic novel by Stewart Kellerman (with a foreword by Patricia T. O’Conner) about an elderly couple who get more than they bargained for when they move from the New York suburbs to the Florida paradise they’ve dreamed of.

Sure, Sid and Selma Waxler’s best friends from Yonkers are nearby, and Selma and the other wives are delighted with all the “amenities” of lush, tropical Pelican Pond. But Sid is bored, and that spells trouble.

A snake has slithered into paradise and charmed the socks off Sid and the other bored husbands. Before long, Sid is drawn into a shady real estate scheme that threatens to topple everything he and Selma have worked for.

This comic novel has its bittersweet moments, as the “Three Musketeers”—Selma and her old friends Kitty and Rose—cope with demanding adult children, silly husbands, and the challenges of aging.

But in the end, Selma and Sid revive their marriage (yes, there is sex after 65!) and rediscover what’s most important in life.

Read the first chapter of Swan Song.

To buy Swan Song, visit your local bookstore or

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Can the “floor” be the “ground”?

Q: My wife and I started noticing the use  of “ground” for “floor” a few years ago. Now it’s rampant and almost universal. I will just scream at the TV, “It’s the FLOOR dang it!” Is there any reasonable explanation for this widespread abuse?

A: Usually, as we say in a 2009 post, the “floor” is what you walk on inside a building, and the “ground” is what you walk on outside. However, people have been using “ground” for “floor” in the indoors sense since at least the mid-19th century.

We wouldn’t describe the usage as “rampant” or “almost universal.” It’s out there, but not out there enough to get into most online standard dictionaries. Only two of the ten that we’ve consulted include it—with similar qualifications.

Collins describes the use of “ground” for “the floor of a room” as “mainly British,” while Merriam-Webster Unabridged says it’s “chiefly British,” and gives this example from Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel Point Counter Point: “kneeling on the ground beside the couch he leaned over her.”

From what we’ve observed, the use of “ground” for “floor” appears in both American and British English.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes it without the “British” qualification (or any other).

In fact, the earliest written example in the OED is from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847), by Noah Webster. The dictionary, a revised and enlarged edition published four years after Webster’s death, defines “ground” as, among other things, “a floor or pavement.”

The OED also cites British sources, including this example (which we’ve expanded) from Murder in the Mews (1937), a short story by Agatha Christie: “We came along at once and forced the door open. Mrs. Allen was lying in a heap on the ground shot through the head.”

As we’ve said, the usage isn’t new. You became aware of it a few years ago, and you now seem to hear or see it everywhere.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: the “recency illusion.” The linguist Arnold Zwicky came up with the term, which he’s defined as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

The use of “ground” for “floor” may have you screaming at the TV, but it doesn’t seem to bother language commentators. It isn’t mentioned in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Pat’s Woe Is I (4th ed.), or other guides.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the usage begins showing up in more dictionaries, perhaps labeled “informal” or “colloquial.” If that happens, usage writers may have something to say about it.

Is there an explanation for this use of “ground”? Well, perhaps it was influenced by the use of the phrase “ground floor” for the floor of a building at ground level. That phrase appeared a couple of centuries before people began using “ground” to mean “floor.” However, we haven’t seen any evidence for or against this idea.

As you know, the noun “ground” can refer to many things other than the surface of the earth—a parade ground, grounds for divorce, coffee grounds, a ground for an electrical connection, the grounds around a house, etc. So it’s not surprising that people might use such a flexible word to mean a “floor.”

If the “ground” at the bottom of an ocean can be called the “floor,” a usage that dates back to the 17th century, is it really so outlandish to call a building’s “floor” the “ground”?

(In “Lycidas,” a 1637 elegy for a friend drowned in the Irish Sea, Milton refers to the seabed as “the wat’ry floore.”)

When the noun “ground” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled grund or grunde), it referred to the bottom of something—the sea, a well, a ditch, and so on, according to the OED.

Perhaps the oldest citation is from Beowulf, an Old English epic that may have been written as early as 725: “Me to grunde geteah fah feondscaða” (“A sea fiend dragged me to the ground”).

In the 10th century, “ground” came to mean the surface of the earth. The first Oxford example is from the Blickling Homilies (971): “gefyldan eal oþ grund” (“they all fell to the ground”).

When “floor” showed up in Old English (spelled flór), it referred to the wood, brick, stone, etc. that people walked on in a room.

The first OED citation is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “He gefeoll niwol of dune on þa flor” (“He fell headlong down on the floor”).

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Making sense of mixing tenses

Q: I mixed tenses in two news items I wrote about a legal decision. In the original, I wrote, “the judge ruled such passenger fees are constitutional.” After a settlement months later, I wrote, “he said such fees were legal.” Both seem right, but I’m not sure why I used the present tense in the first and the past in the second.

A: Both seem right to us too, even though you combined the tenses differently. The first verb in each passage is in the past tense, but the tense of the second verb varies. As we’ll explain, this mixing of tenses is allowed.

The problem you raise—how to use tenses in a sequence—is particularly common among journalists, who are often required to use what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls “indirect reported speech.”

This construction is used to report what somebody said, but not in a direct quote. The principal verb in your examples is in the past tense (“the judge ruled” … “he said”), but then you’re faced with the problem of what tense to use in the verbs that follow.

As we wrote in a 2015 post, the following tenses need not necessarily be identical to the first; in some cases the choice is optional.

For instance, even when the second verb expresses something that is still true (those fees are still legal now), a writer may prefer to echo the past tense of the first verb. In fact, the default choice here is the past tense; the present tense may be used, but it’s not required.

In explaining how this works, the Cambridge Grammar begins with this quotation spoken by a woman named Jill: “I have too many commitments.”

Her “original speech,” the book says, may be reported indirectly as either “Jill said she has too many commitments” or “Jill said she had too many commitments.”

“The two reports do not have the same meaning,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, “but in many contexts the difference between them will be of no pragmatic significance.”

So when would the difference matter? One factor that might make a writer choose one tense over the other is the time elapsed between the original speech and the reporting of it. Did Jill say this last year or five minutes ago?

In a sentence like “Jill said she had/has a headache,” the authors say, “Jill’s utterance needs to have been quite recent for has to be appropriate.”

In the case you raise, the original version is closer in time to the judge’s ruling, and the present tense is reasonable: “ruled that such passenger fees are constitutional.” But your follow-up story came much later, which may be why the past tense seemed better to you: “he said such fees were legal.”

In a post that we wrote in 2012, we note that the simple past tense takes in a lot of territory—the very distant as well as the very recent past. A verb like “said” can imply a statement made moments, years, or centuries ago—about situations long dead or eternally true. So the verbs that follow can be challenging.

As the Cambridge Grammar explains, there are no “rules” for this. But in our opinion, if an experienced writer like you thinks the tense in a subordinate clause is reasonable and logical, it probably is.

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Whom again

Q: Here’s a sentence in the NY Times: “The white guitarist Jimmie Rodgers, who many consider the father of country music, built the genre on a foundation of the blues in the 1920s.” Is this use of “who” correct, and why?

A: It’s not technically correct, and it violates the latest edition of the Times stylebook.

Although it’s usually OK to use “who” for “whom” in conversation or informal writing, the Times holds itself to a higher standard. In fact, the online version of the sentence that caught your eye now conforms with Times style: the “who” is “whom.”

Here’s an excerpt from the “who, whom” entry in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed., 2015):

“Many dictionaries have relaxed the distinction between these words, abandoning whom unless it directly follows a preposition. But in deference to a grammar-conscious readership and a large classroom circulation, The Times observes the traditional standard:

“Use who in the sense of he, she or they: Pat L. Milori, who was appointed to fill the vacancy, resigned. (He was appointed.) Use whom in the sense of him, her or them: Pat L. Milori, whom the board recommended, finally got the job. (The board recommended him.)”

Our own Pat explains it this way in the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, her usage and grammar book:

“If you want to be absolutely correct, the most important thing to know is that who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him). You might even try mentally substituting he or him where who or whom should go: if him fits, you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel).”

And as we said above, you can usually avoid using “whom” in conversation or informal writing. In “A Cure for the Whom-Sick,” a section in the book, Pat offers a few tips on “whom”-less writing:

“Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing— personal letters, casual memos, emails, and texts.

“Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

“A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, “Who with?” he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.”

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The death of a buddy in Vietnam

[Note: For Memorial Day, we’d like to share an article that Stewart wrote for United Press International in 1971 about the last day in the life of an American soldier in Vietnam.]

‘What Does It All Prove?’ Asks GI After Buddy’s Death


Camp Eagle, Vietnam (UPI)—At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of May 16, 1971, the lights were switched on in the wooden barracks and the dozen young men inside yawned, stretched and got ready for another day of war.

Stewart Kellerman, Vietnam, April 13, 1972

Four hours later, on a rugged ridge overlooking Vietnam’s emerald green A Shau Valley, Cpl. David R. Winkle, 20, of Bountiful, Utah, would be shot to death.

The Army listed him as one of 38 Americans killed in action during the week of May 16-28, raising combat deaths in the Indochina war from 45,145 to 45,183.

This is the story of how Winky died, as told by his Army buddies. It could be about any one of the GIs killed so far in Vietnam and the rest who’d die before the war was over.

It was cool out as Winky buttoned his camouflage fatigues and tied the laces of his worn combat boots, but the hot, heavy sun would soon be up, pasting the fatigues to his skin.

“He was scared that morning,” Cpl. Jeffrey Foley, 19, of Anchorage, Ky., said. “We were all scared. We’d been having it pretty easy for a few weeks and we figured it was time for one of us to get it.”

Winky and his buddies were Pathfinders, the guides who lead soldiers into tough combat areas. They go in first, help the rest of the GIs get into position and then return to their home base.

“He didn’t talk too much about the war,” Cpl. David Webb, 21, of Peoria, Ill., said. “He thought it was wrong. But he didn’t like the idea of guys burning draft cards as long as we’re fighting.”

The Pathfinders had been briefed the night before on their mission. They were to lead a South Vietnamese battalion to a jungle ridge overlooking the A Shau Valley. The landing was part of an allied drive against Communist troops massed in and around the valley.

“He enlisted in the Army and he volunteered to be a Pathfinder,” Foley said. “He knew it was a dangerous job. He figured he’d fight as long as someone had to do it.”

Winky was busy packing his rucksack and didn’t have time for morning chow. He and the other Pathfinders jumped aboard three-quarter-ton trucks and bounced along the bumpy dirt road leading out of Camp Eagle.

“He was a pretty quiet guy,” Sgt. Daniel Coynes, 21, of Picayune, Miss., said. “He wasn’t the war hero type. He did his job and he didn’t give anybody trouble. He was real squared away.”

Winky chain-smoked filter-tip cigarettes on the truck and fingered his lucky pendant—two bullets hanging from a silver chain around his neck.

“He was an intellectual type,” Webb said. “He went to college for a while and he figured on going back when he got out.”

Winky and the others were covered with dust as the trucks wound up a dirt trail to artillery base Birmingham, where the Pathfinders would link up with South Vietnamese troops.

When the truck stopped, Winky jumped off and dropped his rucksack to the ground. He stood off by himself smoking while the other GIs kidded one other as they waited for helicopters to take them into battle.

“He never talked much,” Coynes said. “He only opened his mouth when he had something important to say.”

After a half-hour of waiting, the Pathfinders and South Vietnamese soldiers jumped aboard UH1 Huey helicopters, sat down on the steel floors and lifted off. Winky and Foley were on the third chopper to take off. Wind whooshed through the open doorways during the flight.

“He must have had that same funny feeling we all have when we ride a helicopter into a battle area,” Foley said. “You think about stupid things. Like what would the fall be like if the chopper were hit and it was certain you’d die in the crash. Would you cry? Would you scream? Would you pray?”

It was 8:30 a.m. when the helicopter reached a tiny dirt landing pad blasted out of the side of the ridge by American jets a few hours before.

“We took small arms fire as soon as we landed,” Foley said. “An RPG [rocket propelled grenade] hit the LZ [landing zone] just as the bird pulled away. The fire was so bad the other helicopters turned back and landed farther up the hill. We were all alone, three Americans and 10 South Vietnamese.”

Winky was shot in the ankle as he ran across the dirt LZ for cover in the surrounding jungle. He fell, clutched his M16 rifle with his right hand, and dragged himself across the dirt into the thick brush.

Foley ran to the other side of the LZ, dropped down behind a thick tree, and began blasting into the woods with his rifle.

An American lieutenant alongside Winky was shot in the head and blinded. Minutes later the lieutenant was hit in both legs and the stomach. He bled to death and Winky couldn’t do anything to help him.

“It must have been hell lying there beside the lieutenant, knowing the same thing could happen to you any second,” Foley said. “We left Eagle, figuring we’d be back by lunch. But we were soon wondering whether we’d be back at all.”

Winky fired away into the jungle despite the blood gushing from his ankle. He kept firing. He snapped clip after clip into the M16, firing as the empty shells bounced against each other on the dirt beside him.

“At times like that you think about your family and pray and hope to God you’ll see them again,” Webb said. “You wonder what’s the sense of it all. You ask yourself why you had to come here and what good it’ll do if you get killed.”

Winky’s right shoulder must have ached by then from the kicks of the rifle butt. His trigger finger must have been stiff. He was dirty and tired and alone.

“He probably started praying then,” Foley said. “He was a Catholic. He hardly ever went to Mass here. None of us went to church much. But he was definitely a Catholic. He believed in Jesus Christ.”

At 9:30 a.m. Foley ran across the landing zone to find out why Winky had stopped shooting. He found him sprawled dead beside a stump, his blood soaking into the earth. He apparently died instantly when hit in the head by a rifle round.

“Winky never wanted to kill anybody,” Webb said. “He was on that LZ because the Army sent him there.”

Foley ran back across the LZ to his radio to tell of Winky’s death and call in air strikes. From his side, he could see a South Vietnamese soldier crawl up and steal Winky’s rucksack.

“You wonder who’s going to be the next one,” Coynes said. “We’ve lost a lot of people up here and what does it all prove?”

Foley got a Silver Star for his actions; Winky got a Bronze Star posthumously.

“I’m not convinced the war is worthwhile, and l’m not convinced it isn’t,” Foley said. “It’ll be a long time before we can tell whether all these deaths accomplished anything.”

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That sinking feeling

Q: I’ve noticed that when the verb “sink” is used transitively, the past participle “sunk” is often used as the past tense in place of “sank.” Are you familiar with a change in the use of “sunk”?

A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are standard past tenses for “sink” in American English, though “sank” is more common. This is true whether the verb is used transitively (with an object) or intransitively (without one).

All the current American dictionaries we’ve checked (Merriam-Webster, M-W Unabridged, American Heritage, and Webster’s New World) include “sank” and “sunk” as standard past tenses. Most British dictionaries consider “sank” the past tense and “sunk” an American variant past tense.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Both sank and sunk are used for the past tense of sink. Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

The usage guide gives this “sunk” example from a July 8, 1935, letter by Robert Frost: “Then I sunk back never again to blaze perhaps.”

However, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), a more conservative usage guide, considers “sank” the only legitimate past tense and “sunk” the past participle (as in “had sunk,” “have sunk”). The author, Bryan A. Garner, writes, “The past participle often ousts the simple-past form from its rightful place.”

Jeremy Butterfield doesn’t go quite so far in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), but he says, “The past tense is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.”

As for us, we use “sank” for the simple past tense and that’s what we’d recommend. Incidentally, it’s also closer to the original past tense.

When the verb first appeared in Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150), to “sink” was sincan, “it sinks” was hit sinceþ, and “it sank” was hit sanc. The “sink” and “sank” spellings showed up in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, while “sunk” appeared in the 16th century, in the early days of modern English.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, lists both “sank” and “sunk” as past tenses. “The use of sunk as the past tense has been extremely common,” the dictionary adds, noting that Samuel Johnson considered “sunk” the preterit, or past tense, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755): “pret. I sunk, anciently sank.”

Oxford Dictionaries, an online standard dictionary, has a usage note in both its US and UK editions that says “sank” and “sunk” have a history, but “sank” is the usual past tense today:

“Historically, the past tense of sink has been both sank and sunk (the boat sank; the boat sunk), and the past participle has been both sunk and sunken (the boat had already sunk; the boat had already sunken). In modern English, the past is generally sank and the past participle is sunk, with the form sunken now surviving only as an adjective, as in a sunken garden or sunken cheeks.

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How ‘emergency’ emerged

Q: Is there a historical connection between “emerge” and “emergency”?

A: Yes, the two words are related. Etymologically, an “emergency” is the emerging of something unexpected.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ll expand here, is from a sermon given by John Donne on Jan. 29, 1625, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:

“The Psalmes are the Manna of the Church. As Manna tasted to every man like that he liked best, so doe the Psalmes minister Instruction, and satisfaction, to every man, in every emergency and occasion.”

The OED defines this sense of “emergency” as “a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action,” and describes it as the “ordinary modern use.”

However, the dictionary also notes a related sense, now rare, that appeared around the same time and reflected the word’s classical origins: “The rising of a submerged body above the surface of water.”

Oxford cites an example from Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a 1646 reference work in which the English polymath Thomas Browne debunks various myths and superstitions, including the belief in “a Tyrant, who to prevent the emergencie of murdered bodies did use to cut off their lungs.”

The nouns “emergency” and “emergence,” as well as the verb “emerge,” are ultimately derived from the classical Latin ēmergere (to rise out or up). The Latin verb is a compound of the prefix ē- (out) and mergere (to dive or sink).

If you’re wondering, mergere is the source of the English verb “merge.” As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “merge” meant to immerse or submerge in the 17th century, and “the modern meaning ‘combine into one’ did not emerge fully until as recently as the 20th century.”

“It arose,” Ayto writes, “from the notion of one thing ‘sinking’ into another and losing its identity; in the 1920s this was applied to two business companies amalgamating, and the general sense ‘combine’ followed from it.”

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Soak the rich? Or dry them out?

Q: News reports often refer to progressive proposals to tax the wealthy as “soak the rich” taxes. But why “soak”? If the rich are drenched in wealth, shouldn’t their bank accounts be dried out, not soaked?

A: The use of “soak” in the expression “soak the rich” comes from the slang use of the verb “soak” in the late 19th century to mean overcharge, tax heavily, or extort money.

When the verb showed up in Anglo-Saxon times as socian, it meant (as it does now) to “lie immersed in a liquid for a considerable time, so as to be saturated or permeated with it; to become thoroughly wet or soft in this manner,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED example is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies from around 1000: “Dweorge dwostlan weorp on weallende wæter, læt socian on lange” (“Throw pennyroyal in boiling water, letting it soak a long time”).

The verb “soak” has had several other meanings over the years, but we’ll just discuss the relevant ones.

Near the end of the 19th century, according to Oxford citations, “soak” took on the slang sense of to “impose upon (a person, etc.) by an extortionate charge or price; to charge or tax heavily; to borrow or extort money from; to cost a high price.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the New York Dramatic News, Nov. 23, 1895: “This little scheme sometimes … enables the photographer to ‘soak’ them.”

The OED says this sense of “soak” led to the use of “soak-the-rich” as an attributive, or adjectival, phrase “applied to a policy of progressive taxation.” The first citation is from Hell Bent for Election (1935), a critique of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, by James Warburg:

“He thought he was being ‘clever’ when he tried to steal Huey Long’s thunder by suddenly coming out with his ‘soak the rich’ tax message.” The author, a member of the Warburg banking family, had been a financial adviser to Roosevelt before breaking with him over policy disagreements. He rejoined the government when the US went to war in 1941.

The next Oxford example is from a Dec. 14, 1935, article in the Literary Digest by Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s Interior Secretary: “Soak the Rich (Antonym, Soak the Poor)—Newspaperese for a system of taxation founded upon the absurd and revolutionary theory that a man should be assessed taxes in proportion to his ability to pay.” (Ickes was satirizing criticism of the New Deal.)

We suspect that this usage may have been influenced by the use of “soak” a bit earlier in the 19th century to mean punish, especially in the phrase “soak it to (someone),” a variation on “sock it to (someone).”

The first OED citation for “soak” used in the punish sense is from the Columbus (Ohio) Evening Dispatch, July 29, 1892: “To-day’s Washington Post ‘soaks’ it to the Southern Democrats in the House who were so rallied in 1885 in their support of the bill making an appropriation to the New Orleans Exposition, but are now opposed to a similar appropriation for the World’s Fair.”

When “sock it to (someone)” showed up in print 15 years earlier, Oxford says, it meant “to strike, deal a blow to (that person),” as in this entry in an 1877 edition of John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms: “Two loafers are fighting; one of the crowd cries out, ‘Sock it to him.’ ”

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Do puns change word history?

Q: Can you say something about how wordplay—intentional, often whimsical linguistic innovation—affects etymology?

A: English speakers have been playing with words since Anglo-Saxon days, as we noted in a recent post about the word “play,” but we don’t see evidence that wordplay has significantly influenced English etymology. In fact, the reverse seems to be the case: the evolution of the language has made possible much of the wordplay in English.

Language change, especially change in spelling and pronunciation, has given rise to many puns that use homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings, origins, or spellings) and homographs (words that look alike but differ in meaning, origin, or pronunciation).

For example, Lewis Carroll plays with the homophones “axis” and “axes” in Alice in Wonderland (1865). When Alice tries to show off her knowledge, the Duchess interrupts her: “ ‘You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis—’ / ‘Talking of axes,’ said the Duchess, ‘chop off her head!’ ”

However, this wordplay wouldn’t have worked back in King Ælfred’s day. In Old English, “axis” was eax and “axes” was aexan. The two words didn’t become homophones until the early 17th century.

Shakespeare plays with the homophones “son” and “sun” at the beginning of Richard III, believed written in the early 1590s: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

That play on words might perhaps have squeaked by in Old English, but it wouldn’t have worked quite as well. In the epic poem Beowulf, for example, “son” is sunu and “sun” is sunne. And, no, the anonymous author didn’t play with them.

As for homographic wordplay, Dickens has Pip, the narrator of Great Expectations (1860-61), use “point” as both a verb and a noun: “They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me.”

Again, this play on words wouldn’t have worked in Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150). The verb and noun “point” appeared in the Middle English period (roughly 1150-1500), largely borrowed from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

And here’s a homographic example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) that combines two meanings of “grave”—the adjective’s serious sense, which appeared in the mid-1500s, and the noun’s burial sense, which showed up sometime before 1000.

When Mercutio is fatally stabbed in a sword fight, Romeo tries to comfort him by saying, “Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.” The dying Mercutio responds: “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Although language change has given us many puns, it has also taken many back. Because of pronunciation changes since Elizabethan times, for instance, much of Shakespeare’s wordplay doesn’t play well with modern audiences.

Consider this comment by Thersites in Troilus and Cressida about Ajax on the eve of a battle with Hector: “Ajax goes up and down the field, asking for himself.”

In Elizabethan times, “Ajax” was pronounced “a jakes”— the same as a now obsolete term for an outhouse. So Thersites was suggesting that Ajax was so afraid of fighting Hector that he couldn’t control his bowels.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the wonders of adjectives, and to take questions from callers.

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Can a woman be a chap?

Q: What’s the origin of the word “chap”? The British seem to use it the way Americans use “guy.” Does it apply only to men? Or could a Brit say a woman is “one of the chaps” as we’d say she’s “one of the guys”?

A: The noun “chap” has been used since the early 18th century to mean a man or boy. The usage is primarily British and began life as a shortening of “chapman,” an obsolete term for a merchant that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days. (We’ll have more on “chapman” later.)

“Chap” is used once in a while for a woman, but not all that much. One of the few examples we’ve seen is from the first episode of The Vicar of Dibley, a British sitcom that began airing on Nov. 10, 1994.

After the Rev. Geraldine Granger arrives at St. Barnabas as vicar, one of the villagers says, “She seemed a decent chap to me,” while another replies, “That’s the point. She’s not a chap.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has this early example for the term “humorously applied” to a woman:

“Nought would do / But I maun gang [must go], that bonny chap to woo.” From Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess (1768), the major work of the Scottish poet Alexander Ross.

Feminized versions of “chap” are sometimes used humorously now, especially in the phrases “chaps and chapesses” and “chaps and chapettes,” but this usage isn’t all that common either, according to our searches of news databases.

We haven’t found any standard American or British dictionary that accepts the use of “chap” as a gender-neutral term. All the ones we’ve consulted define it in this sense as a chiefly British noun for a man or boy. Some label it informal.

None of the dictionaries have an entry for “chapette,” but one, Collins, includes “chapess” and defines it as an “informal, humorous” British noun for a woman.

The collaborative Wiktionary, which defines “chap” as a man or fellow, has entries for “chapess” and “chapette.” Both are defined as informal British terms for a “female chap; a woman.” Usage notes add that they’re generally found in the two plural phrases cited earlier.

In looking into your question, we came across a Dec. 27, 2017, article in the Times (London) about gender-neutral guidelines at a military training base in England for future officers.

The two-page document, written by the Joint Equality Diversity and Inclusion unit at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, suggests that “chaps” and other gendered words be replaced by such terms as “people, folks, friends or you all.”

So the British military (at least the unit nicknamed JEDI) considers “chaps” a gendered word—unlike the non-gendered plural “guys,” which appears in both US and UK standard dictionaries.

Some British dictionaries describe the use of “guys” for men and women as American, though Oxford Dictionaries Online defines the usage both in its US and UK editions as “People of either sex,” and gives this example: “you guys want some coffee?”

(We’ve published several posts about “guy,” including one in 2007 about the non-gendered usage and one in 2008 about the origin of the term.)

Interestingly, English has four distinct “chap” words. Here are the senses: (1) a man or boy, (2) cut or roughened, as in chapped lips, (3) the jaws or cheeks, and (4) cowboy leggings.

As we said earlier, the use of “chap” in sense #1 is a shortening of “chapman,” an old term for a trader or dealer. The word was céapmann in Old English, where céapian meant to buy and sell, and céap meant bargaining. Yes, those Anglo-Saxon words are ancestors of our adjective “cheap,” which as you know may describe something that’s a bargain.

The earliest OED example for “chap” used to mean a man or boy is from A Complete History of Algiers (1728), by Joseph Morgan: “ ‘Prithee!’ returned my scornful, choleric Chap; ‘Don’t compare Me to any of your scoundrel Barbarians!’ ”

As for sense #2, “chap” first appeared in Middle English as a verb meaning to “remove by chopping,” according to the OED, which cites this example:

“Anon her [their] hedes wer off chappyd.” From Richard Coer de Lyon, a poem believed written in the early 1300s about the storied exploits of King Richard I of England during the Third Crusade.

(The verb “chop” showed up in the mid-1300s as simply another form of “chap,” the OED notes. Although there were similar words in other Germanic languages, the ultimate source for the cutting sense of “chap” and “chop” is uncertain.)

By the late 14th century, Oxford says, “chap” was being used as a noun meaning a “painful fissure or crack in the skin, descending to the flesh: chiefly caused by exposure of hands, lips, etc., to frost or cold wind.”

The first OED citation is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus:

“Lepra … makyth chappes, chynnes and clyftes” (“Leprosy … maketh chaps, chinks and clefts”).

Early in the next century, the OED says, the verb “chap” came to mean to “crack, cause to crack in fissures.” The earliest citation is from a translation, dated around 1420, of a Latin book about agriculture:

“And yf thai [“they,” the roots of a flowering tree] chappe, a stoone under the heed Roote is to doo.” From a Middle English translation of Opus Agriculturae, also known as De Re Rustica, written by Palladius in the late 4th or early 5th century.

The participial adjective “chapped” showed up in the mid-15th century. The first Oxford example is from the The Towneley Plays, a series of mystery plays (dramas based on biblical stories) believed written sometime before 1460: “My fyngers ar chappyd.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for “chapped lips” is from an April 11, 1823, letter by Francis Hall from Soatá, Colombia: “at the expiration of five hours we gained the summit of the Paramo without any other inconvenience than chapped lips.”

(The Páramo is an ecosystem in the Colombian Andes. Hall, a retired British army officer, joined Simón Bolívar’s independence movement in South America and later became a hydrographer for the Colombian government.)

The use of “chaps” to mean the jaws or cheeks (sense #3) showed up in the mid-16th century, and is now primarily used for the cheeks, or jowls, of a pig. The first OED citation is from a 1555 translation of a Latin history of Spain’s explorations in the New World:

“The hooke ouerthwarteth and catcheth hold of his [a shark’s] chappes” (from The Decades of the Newe Worlde, Richard Eden’s translation of an early 16th-century work by the Italian historian Peter Martyr of Angleria).

The use of “chops” to mean the jaws or mouth appeared a few decades later, as we wrote in a recent post about musical “chops,” or skill. A singular use of “chop” (spelled “choip”) to mean jaw showed up in the early 1500s.

Finally, sense #4, the use of “chaps” for the leggings worn by cowboys, appeared in the late 19th century. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the term “is short for Mexican Spanish chaparreras, a derivative of Spanish chaparro ‘evergreen oak.’ ”

Ayto adds that “they were named from their use in protecting the legs of riders from the low thick scrub that grows in Mexico and Texas (named with another derivative of chaparro, chaparral). Chaparro itself probably comes from Basque txapar, a diminutive of saphar ‘thicket.’ ”

The earliest OED example for this sense of “chaps,” which we’ve expanded, is from Baled Hay (1884), a collection of sketches by the American humorist Bill Nye:

“ ‘Chaps,’ as they are vulgarly called, deserve more than passing notice. They are made of leather with fronts of dogskin with the hair on. … ‘Chaps’ are rather attractive while the wearer is on horseback, or walking toward you, but … the seat of the garment has been postponed.”

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Why “granary,” not “grainery”?

Q: In a report, I mistakenly referred to a building that holds grain as a “grainery” rather than a “granary.” Why isn’t it spelled “grainery”?

A: Yes, the storehouse for threshed grain is a “granary,” though the spellings “grainary” and “grainery” often crop up, influenced by the noun “grain.”

The ultimate source of both “grain” and “granary” is the Proto-Indo-European root gr̥ə-no-, which has also given English such words as “corn,” “kernel,” “gram,” “granule,” “grange,” “granite,” and “grenade,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says the ancient root meant “worn-down particle” (think of grain being ground into flour). Proto-Indo-European is the reconstructed prehistoric language that gave birth to a family of languages now spoken in much of Europe and parts of Asia.

English borrowed “grain” in the early 1300s from the Old French grain, which in turn comes from the classical Latin term for a seed, grānum. The noun was written various ways in Middle English (greyn, grein, greyne, etc.) before the French spelling prevailed in the early 1600s.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “grain” as a collective noun: “Jesus seyth the vygne be hys, / And eke the greyn of wete” (“Jesus sayeth the vine be his, / And also the grain of wheat”). From a poem, written around 1315, by William of Shoreham, a vicar in northern England.

How did the Anglo-Saxons refer to wheat, oats, rye, and other cereal crops before the word “grain” showed up? In Old English, they used “corn,” a word that still means grain in modern British English, as we’ve written on our blog. In American English, “corn” is what the British call maize.

As for “granary,” English adapted the word in the 16th century from grānārium, classical Latin for a place where grain is stored. And as you’d expect, grānārium comes from grānum, the Latin source of “grain.”

Not surprisingly, the two earliest OED examples use different spellings, “granarie” and “granary.” Here are the quotations:

“A Granarie, granarium” (from Manipulus Vocabulorum, an English-Latin dictionary compiled in 1570 by the English lexicographer Peter Levens).

“Fruits of godliness to be bestowed and laid up in the barn and granary of the kingdom of heaven” (a figurative example from the English writer and lawyer Thomas Norton’s 1570 translation of a French catechism).

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In the loss of your father

Q: I received a puzzling example of condolence-card-speak the other day: “With Sympathy / In The Loss Of Your Father.” The use of “in” here sounds awkward. Is it grammatically correct? Or just a misprint of “in” for “on”? I’m getting sympathy. I just don’t know how.

A: The preposition “in” has been used since medieval times to mean “in regard to”—the sense it has in the sympathy card you received. We think “on” would be more natural, but versions with “in” appear to be more popular now.

Perhaps card companies believe “in” is somehow more sympathetic than “on.” American Greetings, on a web page entitled “What to write in a sympathy card,” has this model condolence message: “Sharing your sadness in the loss of sweet [Debra] and sending you comfort during this difficult time.” We’ve found similar examples on websites offering “thoughtful,” “meaningful,” and “heartfelt” condolence messages.

Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks expressions in digitized books, indicates that “in the loss of your” was slightly more popular than “on the loss of your” as of 2008, the latest searchable year. The News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, has the “in” expression appearing more than twice as often as the “on” version.

In the 12th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “in” took on the sense we’re talking about: “Expressing reference or relation to something: In reference or regard to; in the case of, in the matter, affair, or province of.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that’s believed to date from sometime before 1200: “dealen in his pinen” (“to share in his pain”).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “in the loss of your” is from The Life of the Apostle St Paul, a 1653 English translation of a work by Antoine Godeau, a 17th-century French bishop, theologian, and poet.

In advising widows, Paul is quoted as saying, “you are deprived of a great support, in the loss of your husbands; but god is called the husband of Widdows, and if you put your trust in him, you will not be forsaken.”

Finally, here’s an example from a June 30, 1855, condolence letter by Charles Dickens to Mrs. Henry Winter: “I am truly grieved to hear of your affliction in the loss of your darling baby. But if you be not, even already, so reconciled to the parting from that innocent child for a little while, as to bear it gently and with a softened sorrow, I know that that not unhappy state of mind must soon arise.”

Twenty-five years earlier, Dickens had had a brief romance with Maria Beadnell, the future Mrs. Winter, but her family objected and sent her to school in Paris. Dickens is believed to have used Maria as a model for Dora, David Copperfield’s first wife.

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Furbish or refurbish?

Q: I’m curious about the verbs “furbish” and “refurbish.” My dictionary includes both, and says either can mean to renovate. So why do we usually use “refurbish” in that sense when “furbish” would do nicely?

A: Both “furbish” and “refurbish” have meant to polish or renovate for hundreds of years, but “refurbish” is far more popular today. Up until the 1930s, though, “furbish” was more popular, and it’s made somewhat of a comeback in recent years.

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “ ‘Furbish’ was borrowed into English in the 14th century from Anglo-French furbiss-, a distant relative of an Old High German word meaning ‘to polish.’

“In its earliest uses, ‘furbish’ also meant ‘to polish,’ but it developed an extended sense of ‘renovate’ shortly before English speakers created ‘refurbish’ with the same meaning in the 17th century. These days ‘refurbish’ is the more common of the two words, although ‘furbish’ does continue to be used.”

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the appearance of words or phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “refurbish” rose sharply in the second half of the 20th century as the use of “furbish” fell. However, “furbish” rose a bit in popularity in the early 21st century while “refurbish” fell.

Getting back to your question, we’d recommend using “refurbish.” The verb “furbish” is likely to raise eyebrows these days and send readers to their dictionaries.

As for the etymology, the verb “furbish” originally meant to “remove rust from (a weapon, armour, etc.); to brighten by rubbing, polish, burnish,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example is from the Wyclife Bible of 1382: “The swerd is whettid and furbishid” (Ezekiel 21:9).

Two centuries later, Oxford says, “furbish” came to mean “to brush or clean up (anything faded or soiled); to give a new look to (an object either material or immaterial); to do or get up afresh, renovate, revive.”

Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “The Soule, which must be fayne to be, as it were, newfurbished” (from A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a 1587 translation by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding of a work by the French Protestant writer Philippe de Mornay).

When “refurbish” showed up in the early 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “to brighten or clean up” and then “to restore to good condition, to renovate; (now esp.) to repair and redecorate (a building, room, etc.).”

The earliest Oxford citation is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave: “Refourbir, to refurbish, repolish.” The next example is more substantial:

“She made up but one Suit of Cloaths in a Year, and even that one she would get so neatly refurbished, that it would sometimes last her eighteen Months” (from Eliza Stanley’s 1736 translation of Histoire du Prince Titi, a novel by Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe, pseudonym of the French freethinker Hyacinthe Cordonnier).

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Are you down on “up”?

Q: How did “heat up” replace “heat” in referring to heating food? And why has the equally awful “early on” become so popular?

A: “Heat up” hasn’t replaced “heat” in the kitchen, but the use of the phrasal verb in this sense has apparently increased in popularity in recent years while the use of the simple verb has decreased.

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books, indicates that “heat the soup” was still more popular than “heat up the soup” as of 2008 (the latest searchable date), though the gap between them narrowed dramatically after the mid-1980s.

However, we haven’t found any standard dictionary or usage guide that considers “heat up” any less standard than “heat” in the cooking sense.

Merriam-Webster online defines the phrasal verb as “to cause (something) to become warm or hot,” and gives this example: “Could you heat up the vegetables, please?”

You seem to think that “heat up” is redundant. We disagree.

As you probably know, “up” is an adverb as well as a preposition. In the phrasal verb “heat up,” it’s an adverb that reinforces the meaning of the verb. (A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus one or more linguistic elements, usually an adverb or a preposition.)

In a 2012 post entitled “Uppity Language,” we quote the Oxford English Dictionary as saying the adverb “up” in a phrasal verb can express “to or towards a state of completion or finality,” a sense that frequently serves “to emphasize the import of the verb.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t mention “heat up” in that sense, but it cites “eat up,” “swallow up,” “boil up,” “beat up,” “dry up,” “finish up,” “heal up,” and many other phrasal verbs in which “up” is used to express bringing something to fruition, especially for emphasis.

Our impression is that people may also feel that it’s more informal to “heat up” food than simply “heat” it, though dictionaries don’t make that distinction. The phrasal verb “hot up” is used similarly in British English as well as in the American South and South Midland, and dictionaries generally regard that usage as informal, colloquial, or slang.

We also feel that people may tend to use “heat up” for reheating food that’s already cooked, and “heat” by itself for heating food that’s prepared from scratch. An Ngram search got well over a hundred hits for “heat up the leftovers,” but none for “heat the leftovers.” However, we haven’t found any dictionaries that make this distinction either.

In addition to its food sense, “heat up” can also mean “to become more active, intense, or angry,” according to Merriam-Webster online, which cites these examples: “Their conversation started to heat up” …. “Competition between the two companies is heating up.”

And the adverb “up” can have many other meanings in phrasal verbs: from a lower level (“pick up,” “lift up”), out of the ground (“dig up,” “sprout up”), on one’s feet (“get up,” “stand up”), separate or sever (“break up,” “tear up”), and so on.

When the verb “heat” appeared in Old English (spelled hǽtan, haten, hatten, etc.), it was intransitive (without an object) and meant to become hot. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English entry in the Epinal Glossary, which the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.”

The first OED citation for the verb used transitively (with an object) to mean make (something) hot is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies dating from around 1000: “hæt scenc fulne wines” (“heat a cup full of wine”).

As far as we can tell, the phrasal verb “heat up” appeared in the second half of the 19th century, though not in its cooking sense. The earliest example we’ve seen is from an April 9, 1878, report by the US Patent Office about an invention in which a system of pipes “is employed to heat up the feedwater of a steam-boiler.”

A lecture in London a few years later touches on cooking: “Now a Bunsen burner will roast meat very well, provided that the products of combustion are not poured straight on to whatever is being cooked; the flame must be used to heat up the walls of the roaster, and the radiant heat from the walls must roast the meat.” (The talk on the use of coal gas was given on Dec. 15, 1884, and published in the Journal of the Society of Arts, Jan. 9, 1885.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for “heat up” used in the precise sense you’re asking about is from a recipe for shrimp puree in Mrs. Roundell’s Practical Cookery Book (1898), by Mrs. Charles Roundell (Julia Anne Elizabeth Roundell):

“bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that may rise, then cool, and pass all through the sieve into another stewpan, stir in the shrimps that were reserved for garnish and heat up.”

As for the adverbial phrase “early on,” it’s been used regularly since the mid-18th century to mean “at an initial or early stage,” according to the OED. The dictionary also cites examples of the variant “earlier on” from the mid-19th century.

Oxford’s earliest example of “early on” is from a 1759 book about tropical diseases by the English physician William Hillary: “When I am called so early on in the Disease … I can strictly pursue it” (from Observations on the Changes of the Air, and the Concomitant Epidemical Diseases in the Island of Barbados).

And the first “earlier on” example is from the Manchester Guardian, April 21, 1841: “It took place earlier on in the year.”

You’re right that “early on” has grown in popularity lately, though “earlier on” has remained relatively stable, according to a comparison of the phrases in the Ngram Viewer.

However, we don’t see why the usage bothers you. The four online standard dictionaries we’ve consulted (Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Oxford, and Longman), list it without comment—that is, as standard English.

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A time for timeless verbs

Q: Why would someone write “approach” and “make” instead of “approaching” and “making” in the following sentence? “In the video, you can see a man and woman in a canoe approach the deck and make off with a fishing pole.”

A: Either infinitives (“approach,” “make off”) or gerunds (“approaching,” “making off”) would be correct in that sentence, which is on the website of KIII, the ABC television affiliate in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Here “you” is the subject, “can see” is the verb, and all the rest is the direct object (some grammarians would refer to “a man and woman” as the direct object and what follows as the object complement, predicative complement, or objective predicate).

A direct object, as you know, is what’s acted on by a verb. It can be a noun as well as a noun substitute, such as a pronoun, infinitive, gerund, or (in this case) a phrase.

As for the sentence you’re asking about (“In the video, you can see a man and woman in a canoe approach the deck and make off with a fishing pole”), the verbs “approach” and “make off” are bare, or “to”-less, infinitives.

Technically, an infinitive is a non-finite or unmarked verb form—that is, a verb without time, person, or number. In the sentence above, the two bare infinitives are being used to complement (or help complete) the object—“a man and woman in a canoe.”

The two gerunds you suggested (“approaching” and “making off”) are also unmarked verb forms, and could similarly be used to complement “a man and woman in a canoe.”

Both infinitives and gerunds are often used after verbs of perception like “see,” “hear,” and “feel”: “We saw them flee/fleeing” … “They heard the boy snicker/snickering” … “I felt the wasp sting/stinging me.”

We’ve published several posts on our blog, the latest three months ago, about why some verbs take gerunds as direct objects, others infinitives, and still others can take either one.

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Check out, check-out, checkout?

Q: This is probably too hair-splitting for your blog. BUT! At my local library, one takes out a book by touching “check-out” on a kiosk screen. Something as un-world-shaking as a hyphen is probably dwarfed by concerns like global warming, but for heaven’s sake it’s the library, one of the leaders of literacy. Shouldn’t this read either “checkout” or “check out”?

A: We consider no hair too tiny to split. This is the usual way “check” and “out” come together, according to the 10 standard American and British dictionaries we’ve consulted.

The phrasal verb is “check out,” two words. The noun and adjective are both “checkout,” one word. Nary a hyphen among them.

Although a few of the dictionaries list hyphenated versions of the verb, noun, or adjective as variants, we think the library should alter that screen.

If the verb is intended, then the screen should read “Check Out,”  as if the instruction were short for “Check Out Here.”

If the adjective is intended, the screen should read “Checkout”—as if short for “Checkout Option.”

And if the noun is intended, the screen should also read “Checkout”—as if short for “Book Checkout.”

Over time, as we’ve written before on our blog, hyphens tend to disappear from familiar compounds. This is especially true in the case of nouns and adjectives.

The early 20th-century formations that started out as “teen ager” and “teen age” are good examples. These two-word formations later gained hyphens (“teen-ager,” “teen-age”), but eventually the hyphens disappeared (“teenager,” “teenage”).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, shows that the verb “check out” has almost always been written that way—two words, no hyphen. Similar phrasal verbs include “check off,” “check over,” “check on,” “check up,” and “check up on.”

Since it first appeared in the early 1920s, the verb has had various meanings. Someone can “check out” at a hotel or store, “check out” (inspect or test) a new car, “check out” (investigate) a rumor, “check out” (appraise) a person, “check out” (withdraw) a book, or simply “check out” (die).

The earliest OED examples illustrate the first and last of those meanings, and they’re from the same year: “The singer person is checking out from the first floor suite next week” (Sewell Ford’s 1921 novel Inez and Trilby May) … “In the morning he was dead—he’d checked out in his dreams” (Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1921).

No hyphens there. But used as a noun or an adjective, the compound has sometimes been hyphenated in the past.

The noun “checkout,” which means the act or process of checking out, was a single word (no hyphen) when it first appeared in the 1940s.

This is Oxford’s earliest use: “Advancement to radio operator ‘A’ may be earned by … training that must include checkout on several types of multi-engine airplanes” (Plane Talk magazine, September 1944).

In later decades, hyphens were sometimes inserted, but they eventually fell away. OED citations include both “supermarket check-out” (1955) and “supermarket checkout” (2002).

As for the adjective, it too has occasionally been hyphenated. Oxford’s mid-20th-century examples include both “checkout systems” (1956) and “hotel check-out times” (1958). Nowadays, as we mentioned, standard dictionaries generally give the adjective as a single word, “checkout.”

If you haven’t had enough yet, we wrote a post in 2009 about the checkered history of the word “check,” which comes from Persian and is related to “chess.” Check it out.

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Crossing the bar

Q: I’m singing a hymn in church on Sunday, one my great-aunt used to play on the piano, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” A line of the chorus is “Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar.” I’m curious about the meaning of “across the bar,” since I’m assuming it has nothing to do with serving alcohol.

A: The “bar” in the expression is a sandbar, an obstruction that’s dangerous to cross in a boat. The chorus of that hymn is an injunction to do a good deed, to help someone who’s at sea (figuratively speaking) and needs guidance to get safely home.

The word “bar” in this sense is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a bank of sand, silt, etc., across the mouth of a river or harbour, which obstructs navigation.” The noun has been used in this way since the late 16th century.

The OED’s earliest example shows that ships were careful to give these obstacles a wide berth. The citation is from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland:

“The port or hauen [haven] of Dublin is a barred hauen, and no great ships … doo lie in a certeine rode without the barre.” (The term “barred haven” had been used since the mid-1500s to mean a harbor protected by a sandbar or silt bank.)

Subsequent OED citations for this use of “bar” are from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including one from a 1720 issue of the London Gazette: “Three Ships were lost upon the Bar.”

But the most famous example is found in Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar” (1889). The poet likens dying to being swept from harbor to sea, and uses “bar” as a metaphor for the crossing over from life to death. Here are the final two stanzas:

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

In a literal rather than a poetic sense, “crossing the bar” was so dangerous that in the 19th century “bar boats” (those less likely to founder on sandbars) were used to offload cargo, attempt rescues, and so on.

The OED’s earliest example for such boats is from 1857, but we’ve found several earlier uses. This one is from a newspaper article about an Australian swimmer who was carried out to sea:

“The bar boat was put off to his assistance, but on its arrival at the breakers no appearance of the lad was to be discovered.” (Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Feb. 21, 1839. The boy was found alive two days later, eight miles down shore.)

And this example refers to a shipwreck that was narrowly averted: “This accident has shown the great importance of having a good bar-boat and boat’s crew inside this harbour.” (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 1, 1848.)

We’ve written before on our blog about the etymology and various uses of the noun and verb “bar,” if you’d like to know more.

As for the hymn your great-aunt used to enjoy, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” the words (by Ina Duley Ogden) and music (Charles H. Gabriel) were copyrighted in 1913. It was recorded by Homer Rodeheaver for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1915 and published both as sheet music and in hymn collections.

Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to the original 78 recording played on a 1920 Victrola.

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Reconceptual analysis

Q: You’ve defended the verbing of nouns as a process that goes back to the early days of English. What do you think of this one—a restaurant space “reconcepted into a modern tavern”?

A: Both “concepted” and “reconcepted” are occasionally seen in writing, the latter often in articles about restaurant makeovers (the quote you spotted comes from a 2016 review on But the usage isn’t common.

These words are past participle forms (often used adjectivally) of a verb—to “concept”—that’s little used and largely unrecognized by lexicographers.

We checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries and found only one,, that includes “concept” as a verb (none have the derivative “reconcept”). labels the use of “concept” as a verb “informal,” and says it means “to develop a concept of; conceive.” This is the example given: “He concepted and produced three films.”

In a column written more than a decade ago, the author and lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower notes that the verb “concept” has appeared occasionally in advertising-industry jargon (“Is Concept a Verb?” Slate, May 12, 2006).

He quotes an example from Adweek: “He’s the only creative person I ever met that had his ideas concepted, shot and edited the moment he presented it to you.”

Sheidlower says the usual substitute for “concept” is “conceive,” though “Ad people use concept to refer to a broader range of work than just thinking up a general idea—it’s closer to design but without the aesthetic notions usually associated with that word. (Interestingly, some engineers use the term in a similar sense.)”

He notes that the verb isn’t found in dictionaries because it “isn’t ready yet.” He adds, “When it is, it’ll get put in.” Apparently, the word still isn’t ready. The leading dictionary publishers haven’t decreed it common enough, and judging by our research it hasn’t entered everyday usage.

Most of the examples we’ve found have been from press releases, trade publications, and promotional websites of the past decade or so. We’ve found only a handful in the mainstream media, including these (note how forms of “concept” and “reconcept” are used):

“James runs a production company in Vancouver so he was up on how to concept a video” (Vancouver Sun, Dec. 6, 2018).

“Sixteen, the two-star Michelin restaurant housed in the Trump International Hotel, is closing to reconcept” (Chicago Tribune, March 21, 2018).

“As it turned out, this was the very first character Bigloo created—and he concepted it perfectly on the first try” (Forbes, March 11, 2019).

“The food mirrors the art at the newly opened and re-concepted Untitled, located inside The Whitney Museum” (, June 1, 2015).

We gather that in the restaurant industry, “concepting” isn’t just a matter of decor, though that’s usually involved. It means developing a theme, a menu, and a philosophy of “plating.” (Restaurateurs use “plate” as a verb. It means to put food on a plate, a usage dating to 1953.)

As we’ve said, is the only standard dictionary to recognize the verb “concept.” It’s an exclusively digital dictionary, based on Random House Unabridged, that’s updated by a staff of lexicographers.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, also has an entry for “concept” as a verb, defined simply as “to conceive (in various senses).” Not one of the OED’s examples uses “concept” in the sense “to develop a concept of.”

Oxford says the verb was first recorded in the early 17th century and was “rare” afterwards. The earliest known evidence is from a letter written from London on March 25, 1603, by Sir Thomas Ferrers to his brother, Sir Henry:

“The Lord Keaper, with the rest … came all to Whitt Hawlle, having at Richmond … concepted and sett downe by generall agryment this proclemation herwith sent.” (The proclamation of March 24, 1603, announced the death of Queen Elizabeth and the succession of James I.)

In that passage, “concept” is used in one of the senses of “conceive” that’s listed in the OED (“to plan, devise, or formulate”). In other citations, it takes on additional senses of “conceive” (“to become pregnant” … “form the idea of” … “comprehend” … “understand,” and so on).

The OED also has an entry for the adjective “concepted,” defined as “conceived, formed, produced.” But most of the examples are from the 17th and 18th centuries, and the dictionary says it’s “now rare.”

As for the etymology, the OED says the verb “concept” was developed partly from the post-classical Latin verb conceptare (to conceive in the womb) and partly from the 15th-century English noun “concept.”

The noun had multiple origins, too. It developed partly from the classical Latin noun conceptum (something conceived), derived from the past participle of concipere (to conceive), and partly as an alteration of the 14th-century noun “conceit,” which can also be traced to concipere and which originally meant a notion or a conception.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun, and the only citation from the 1400s, is from a 1479 religious treatise referring to a “sinistre, or vayne concept.” In that example, Oxford says, the word means “something conceived in the mind; a notion, idea, image, or thought.”

[Note: We wrote a post on the pronunciation of the verb “concept” in June 2019.]

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Bone appétit

Q: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me a story about a wealthy landowner and a shepherd that ended with the proverb “the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” I’ve seen many theories about the origin and meaning of the proverb. Are you aware of the actual origin and meaning?

A: The proverb originated in the Middle English of the late 14th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a 13th-century Latin work compiled by Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“Þe nerre þe bone, þe swetter is the fleissh” (“the nearer the bone, the sweeter is the flesh”).

The passage is from a section of the encyclopedic work about why some foods are sweet and others bitter, why some stimulate the appetite and others suppress it. No story is mentioned. The one you heard from your mother probably appeared later and used the proverb to make a point.

The OED‘s citations for the proverb include versions with “closer” as well as “nearer.” The first citation with the usual modern wording is from a May 13, 1778, letter by Samuel Cooper, a Congregational minister in Boston, to Benjamin Franklin, who was then the American ambassador to France: “We all agree the nearer the bone the sweeter the meat.”

The dictionary doesn’t comment on the meaning of the expression, but the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes it as a proverbial saying that reflects “both the belief that meat close to the bone has the best taste and texture, and the idea that it is valued because it represents the last vestiges of available food.”

The slang lexicographer Eric Partridge has noted that it’s also used as a “low catch-phrase applied by men to a thin woman” (from the 1937 first edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

The OED cites Partridge’s comment as well as this passage from Shibumi, a 1979 novel by Trevanian, the pseudonym of Rodney Whitaker: “A little skinny in the arms and waist for my taste but, like my ol’ daddy used to say: the closer the bone, the sweeter the meat!”

In a post we wrote a few years ago, we included an analysis by the philologist Neal R. Norrick of two proverbs: “Like father, like son” and “The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.”

In “Proverbs,” an essay in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences, Norrick explains that proverbs like the one you’re asking about don’t adhere to the traditional use of noun phrases and verb phrases.

“Many proverbs such as Like father, like son and The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat adhere to formulas, here like X, like Y and The X-er, the Y-er, which do not conform to customary NP + VP syntactic structure,” Norrick writes. “So special interpretative rules beyond regular compositional semantic principles are necessary to assign these proverbs even literal readings.” (“NP” and “VP” are short for “noun phrase” and “verb phrase.”)

Such literal readings, he says, “provide the basis on which figurative interpretations are determined.”

“One interpretative rule will relate the formula like X, like Y to the reading ‘Y is like X’ to derive for Like father, like son the interpretation ‘the son is like the father,’ ” he writes. And “another rule related the formula The X-er, the Y-er to ‘Y is proportional to X’ to interpret The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat as ‘the sweetness of the meat is proportional to the nearness of the bone.’ ”

As we say in our earlier post, Norrick’s analysis can be heavy going for lay readers. To put things simply, proverbs are often idiomatic expressions that don’t necessarily conform to the traditional rules of English.

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When bragging is ever so humble

Q: What word would you use for a situation in which people criticize themselves to get others to disagree and reassure them? For example, “I’m such a dummy” … “No, of course you’re not.”

A: We can’t think of a word that would do the job by itself. Perhaps the closest is “humblebrag,” a boast disguised as self-criticism, but it’s not close enough. We’ll have more to say about “humblebrag” later, but let’s consider your question first.

Phrases like “false modesty” and “insincere humility” imply the self-effacement but not the ulterior motive—getting praise or reassurance.

A phrase like “manipulative self-criticism” might do. Or perhaps a longer expression like “using self-criticism to fish for compliments.”

You could, of course, make up a new word along the lines of “humblebrag,” but we suspect that a neologism like “humbleswoggle” isn’t quite what you’re looking for.

Sorry we can’t be more helpful. Now let’s look at “humblebrag.”

Merriam-Webster online defines the verb as “to make a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.” The dictionary has a similar definition for the noun.

M-W says the “first known use” of “humblebrag” was in 2002, while Oxford Dictionaries online dates it to the “early 21st century.” The comedy writer Harris Wittels helped popularize the term in the early 2010s with his @humblebrag Twitter account and his 2012 book Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty.

Here are a few “humblebrag” examples: “I get bored with constantly being mistaken for a model” … “I’ve lost so much weight that none of my clothes fit” … “It’s hard to manage the housekeeping with one place in the Hamptons and another on Park Avenue.”

In researching the term, we came across a Harvard Business School paper, “Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy,” by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton (April 2015).

The authors, citing seven studies, assert that combining a brag with complaints or humility is “less effective than straightforward bragging.”

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A contraction too far?

Q: I recently noticed an example of a three-word contraction in a novel: “couldn’t’ve.” Is this usage accepted? Is it an outlier? Something new? Something old that’s faded with time? Also, I wonder how far contractions can go. Four words? Five?

A: English speakers often mush together three words in speech. For example, “I would have” may be pronounced as “I’d’ve,” or “We might not have” as “We mightn’t’ve.”

However, such contractions are rarely seen in writing, except perhaps in dialogue. Even then, a careful writer would probably use “I’d have” or “We mightn’t have.” Why? Because three contracted words can be hard to read. And a writer wants (or should want) to be understood.

How far can one go in contracting written words? We think three words is already a word too far. Today, contractions generally include a verb, along with a subject or the word “not.” An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped.

In the past, longer contractions were common in writing, including ha’n’t, sha’n’t, ’twon’t, ’twouldn’t, and a’n’t, the father of ain’t. But in the 18th century, language commentators began condemning contractions as harsh-sounding, vulgar, or overly familiar. By the end of the century, they were considered a no-no in writing, though tolerated in speech.

It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that written contractions—at least the two-word variety—were again acceptable. In the 1920s, for example, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his influential usage guide.

In the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she lists contractions that she considers acceptable in formal writing and those that should be used only in dialogue, humor, or casual writing.

Fit to Print

aren’t, can’t, couldn’t, didn’t, doesn’t, don’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, he’d (he would; he had), he’ll, here’s, he’s (he is; he has), I’d (I would; I had), I’ll, I’m, I’ve, isn’t, it’ll, it’s (it is; it has), let’s, mightn’t, mustn’t, oughtn’t, she’d (she would; she had), she’ll, she’s (she is; she has), shouldn’t, that’s (that is; that has), there’s (there is; there has), they’d (they would; they had), they’ll, they’re, they’ve, wasn’t, we’d (we would; we had), we’ll, we’re, we’ve, weren’t, what’ll, what’re, what’s (what is; what has), what’ve, where’s (where is; where has) who’d (who would; who had), who’ll, who’s (who is; who has), who’ve, won’t, wouldn’t, you’d (you would; you had), you’ll, you’re, you’ve

Out of Bounds

AIN’T. In presentable English, it’s not OK and it never will be OK. Get used to it. If you’re tempted to use it to show that you have the common touch, make clear that you know better: Now, ain’t that a shame!

COULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, WOULD’VE, MIGHT’VE, MUST’VE. There’s a good reason to stay away from these in your writing. Seen in print, they encourage mispronunciation, which explains why they’re often heard as could of, should of, would of, might of, and must of (or, even worse, coulda, shoulda, woulda, mighta, and musta). It’s fine to pronounce these as though the h in have were silent. But let’s not forget that have is there. Write it out.

GONNA, GOTTA, WANNA. In writing, these are substandard English. Unless you’re talking to your sister on the phone, make it going to, got to, want to, and so on.

HOW’D, HOW’LL, HOW’RE, WHEN’LL, WHEN’RE, WHEN’S, WHERE’D, WHERE’LL, WHERE’RE, WHY’D, WHY’RE, WHY’S. Resist the urge to write contractions with how, when, where, or why, except that old standby where’s. We all say things like How’m I supposed to pay for this and where’m I gonna put it?” But don’t put them in writing.

IT’D, THAT’D, THERE’D, THIS’D, WHAT’D. Notice how these ’d endings seem to add a syllable that lands with a thud? And they look ridiculously clumsy in writing. Let’s use the ’d contractions (for had or would ) only with I, you, he, she, we, they, and who.

THAT’LL, THAT’RE, THAT’VE, THERE’LL, THERE’RE, THERE’VE, THIS’LL, WHO’RE. No. These clumsies are fine in conversation, but written English isn’t ready for them yet. Do I use that’ll when I talk? Sure. But not when I write.

To repeat what we said above, those no-nos are acceptable in dialogue, humor, or casual writing, but not in formal writing.

Although usage guides now welcome contractions, some people still hesitate to use them in writing. We think that’s silly. As we’ve written in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers have been using contractions in English since Anglo-Saxon days.

Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).

[Note, May 12, 2019. A reader of the blog writes: “The author of a short story I just read was contraction crazy. Some I’d seen before, such as ‘we’ll’ve.’ One in particular, ‘to’ve’ (in an infinitive phrase), which he used several times, I looked up online and found that Melville used it. One to add to your never list?” Well, never say never. Writers of dialogue or humor, or who are deliberately being colloquial or dialectal, are free to be as creative as they want. As for the rest of us, things like “I ought to’ve gone” are fine in speech, but not in formal writing. Spell out the “have.”]

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Impactful wisdom

Q: I read an article recently in the Daily Beast that used “impactful” as an adjective. Is it a real word?

A: Yes, “impactful” is a word, though it’s not a crowd pleaser. We’d prefer one with more impact—“powerful,” “persuasive,” “effective,” and so on.

The adjective is recognized in Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries online as well as (which has a lengthy usage note on the subject). Webster’s New World doesn’t include “impactful” but it has an entry for “impactive” (“of or having an impact”).

You may be surprised to learn that “impactful” was used as long ago as 1939. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, gives this as its earliest known use:

“The coronation of a pope, the non-stop European crisis—these and kindred events become right-of-way news on radio—more immediate and impactful than even the front page” (from the June 1939 issue of Commentator Magazine).

However, the word was rarely used during the next couple of decades. This is the OED’s second example: “It was resolved that initially the company should concentrate on producing an acceptable, exciting and impactful new house symbol” (from the Times, London, April 3, 1967).

Our searches of newspaper databases suggest that after a trickle of uses in the 1960s, the usage began to take off in the early ’70s.

We spotted examples like “impactful message” and “impactful headline” (both 1971); “impactful systems” (1972); “the way to be impactful” (1974); “impactful factor” (1975); “impactful paper” (a reference to the Bangkok Post, 1976); “our first trip and of course our most impactful” (1977), and a reference to documentaries that are “controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful” (1979).

The OED says “impactful” is derived from the noun “impact” and means “having a significant impact or effect”—which is essentially how standard dictionaries define it. (We’ve written posts about the noun and verb “impact” before, most recently in 2010, so we won’t repeat ourselves.)

Though it’s found in dictionaries, “impactful” is not an elegant word. Even in the lexicon of stuffy bureaucratese, “impactful” stands out. And ironically, it’s deadening, not impactful.

That last newspaper example above (“controversial, hardhitting, meaningful, impactful”) would be much more effective without the final, redundant adjective. “Hardhitting” has more impact.

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Naughty, naughty

Q: I’ve noticed when listening to US podcasts that the first decade of the 2000s is often referred to as the “aughts.” Here in the UK, the much more pleasing “noughties” seems to have gained most traction. Why do you think it hasn’t caught on stateside?

A: It’s true that Americans generally don’t use the term “noughties,” and it doesn’t appear in any of the standard American dictionaries.

We can only guess why. Perhaps it sounds too much like a coy version of “naughties,” as in “Naughty, naughty!” (We’ll have more to say about “naughty” later.)

The term “noughties” is found in all the standard British-based dictionaries, though some of them label it “humorous” or “informal.”

The Macmillan, Collins, Longman, and Oxford online dictionaries all define the “noughties” as the decade between 2000 and 2009. Another British dictionary, Cambridge, defines “noughties” as “the period of years between 00 and 10 in any century, usually 2000–2010,” and provides this example: “They were born in the noughties and grew up completely at ease with computer technology.”

But the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, favors the narrower definition. It says that “noughties,” preceded by the article “the,” means “the decade from 2000 to 2009.”

The OED spells the word “noughties” in its entry, and has a first example of that spelling from 1990. But it also includes a citation from 1989 spelled “naughties.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “noughties” is from a British newspaper: “After the Eighties and the Nineties, what should we be calling the next decade? The Noughties?” (The Independent, London, Jan. 19, 1990.)

And its sole citation for “naughties” is from an American column about what to call the decade after the 90s: “The Naughties was suggested by 40 readers.” (William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, May 7, 1989.)

All the rest of the OED citations come from Britain or New Zealand and spell the term “noughties.”

The dictionary says the term was formed by adding “-ties” to “nought” or “naught,” in imitation of such other words as “twenties” and “thirties.” Oxford adds that the formation was “perhaps influenced by naughty nineties,” which it defines as “the 1890s considered as a period of moral laxity and sexual licence.”

The word spelled “naught” or “nought” is a noun for a “zero” or a pronoun meaning “nothing,” as we wrote on our blog in 2013. It’s the negative form of “aught” in its original sense: “anything.” When used for a “zero,” it’s mainly “naught” in the US and “nought” in the UK.

But “aught,” like “ought,” can also be a noun for “zero.” In this sense, the term is chiefly spelled “aught” in American English and “ought” in British English, as in dates like “nineteen-ought-nine” for 1909, a usage we discussed in 2018.

The use of “ought” and “aught” for “zero” emerged in the early 1820s, the OED says, “probably” as variants of “nought” and “naught.” (Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., suggests that “nought” was “a misdivision of a nought as an ought.”)

Usage was mixed early on, as this OED citation shows: “It was said … that all Cambridge scholars call the cipher aught and all Oxford scholars call it nought” (from Frank, an 1822 novel by Maria Edgeworth).

As for the adjective “naughty,” it also has something to do with “nothing.” It was derived from the pronoun “naught,” the OED says, and when it first appeared in the 14th century it meant “having or possessing nothing; poor, needy.”

The dictionary’s only examples with this meaning are from the same source, William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (circa 1378). The Middle English poem uses both “nauȝty” and the comparative form, “nauȝtier.”

By the middle of the 1400s, Oxford says, “naughty” meant “morally bad, wicked,” and in the following century it came to mean “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.”

In the 1600s, the more familiar meaning of the word appeared: “disobedient, badly behaved.” In this sense, the OED says, the word is “used esp. of a child, but also humorously or depreciatively of an adult or an adult’s behaviour.”

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the word in this sense was sometimes “reduplicated for emphasis,” the dictionary says. Such repetitions, it adds, were frequently used as interjections intended as mild reprimands, “often with ironic or depreciative connotation, esp. of adult behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Emily’s Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights (1847): “This is your last ride, till papa comes back. I’ll not trust you over the threshold again, you naughty, naughty girl.”

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Why foxes have fur, horses hair

Q: Why do we say some animals have “hair” while others have “fur”?

A: All mammals have hair—dogs, cats, foxes, pigs, gerbils, horses, and people. Even dolphins have a few whiskers early in their lives. Scientifically speaking, there’s no difference between hair and fur.

“This is all the same material,” Dr. Nancy Simmons, a mammalogist with the American Museum of Natural History, said in a 2001 interview with Scientific American. “Hair and fur are the same thing.”

She added that there are many norms for hair length, and that different kinds of hair can have different names, such as a cat’s whiskers and a porcupine’s quills.

Well, science is one thing but common English usage is another. Most of us do have different ideas about what to call “hair” and what to call “fur.”

For example, we regard humans as having “hair,” not “fur.” And we use “hair” for what grows on livestock with thick, leathery hides—horses, cattle, and pigs.

But we generally use “fur” for the thick, dense covering on animals like cats, dogs, rabbits, foxes, bears, raccoons, beavers, and so on.

Why do some animals have fur and others hair? The answer lies in the origins of the noun “fur,” which began life as an item of apparel.

In medieval England, “fur” meant “a trimming or lining for a garment, made of the dressed coat of certain animals,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source, the dictionary suggests, is the Old French verb forrer, which originally meant to sheathe or encase, then “developed the sense ‘to line,’ and ‘to line or trim with fur.’ ”

When the word “fur” first entered English, it was a verb that meant to line, trim, or cover a garment with animal hair. The earliest OED use is from Kyng Alisaunder, a Middle English romance about Alexander the Great, composed in the late 1200s or early 1300s:

“The kyng dude of [put on] his robe, furred with meneuere.” (The last word is “miniver,” the white winter pelt of a certain squirrel.)

The noun followed. Its first known use is from The Romaunt of the Rose, an English translation (from 1366 or earlier) of an Old French poem. The relevant passage refers to a coat “Furred with no menivere, But with a furre rough of here [hair].”

The noun’s meaning gradually evolved over the 14th and 15th centuries. From the sense of a lining or trimming, “fur” came to mean the material used to make it. Soon it also meant entire garments made of this material, as well as the coats of the animals themselves.

Oxford defines that last sense of “fur” this way: “The short, fine, soft hair of certain animals (as the sable, ermine, beaver, otter, bear, etc.) growing thick upon the skin, and distinguished from the ordinary hair, which is longer and coarser. Formerly also, the wool of sheep” [now obsolete].

Note that this definition establishes the distinction between the special hair we call “fur” (short, fine, soft), and “ordinary hair” (longer, coarser).

The dictionary’s earliest citation is a reference to sheep as bearing “furres blake and whyte” (circa 1430). The first non-sheep example was recorded in the following century, a reference to the “furre” of wolves (Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender, 1579).

From the 17th century on, examples are plentiful. Shakespeare writes of “This night wherin … The Lyon, and the belly-pinched Wolfe Keepe their furre dry” (King Lear, 1608). And Alexander Pope writes of “the strength of Bulls, the Fur of Bears” (An Essay on Man, 1733).

But a mid-18th-century example in the OED stands out—at least for our purposes—because it underscores that “fur” was valued because it was soft and warm: “Leave the Hair on Skins, where the Fleece or Fir is soft and warm, as Beaver, Otter, &c.” (From An Account of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-west Passage, 1748, written by the ship’s clerk.)

Elsewhere in the account, the author notes that deer or caribou skins were “cleared of the Hair” to make use of the skin as leather.

As for “hair,” it’s a much older word than “fur” and came into English from Germanic sources instead of French.

Here’s the OED definition: “One of the numerous fine and generally cylindrical filaments that grow from the skin or integument of animals, esp. of most mammals, of which they form the characteristic coat.”

The word was spelled in Old English as her or hær, Oxford says, and was first recorded before the year 800 in a Latin-Old English glossary: “Pilus, her.” (In Latin pilus is a single hair and pili is the plural.)

By around the year 1000, “hair” was also used as a mass or collective noun, defined in the OED as “the aggregate of hairs growing on the skin of an animal: spec. that growing naturally upon the human head.”

In summary, most of us think of “fur” as soft, cuddly, warm, and dense. We don’t regard “hair” in quite the same way (even though it technically includes “fur”). “Hair,” in other words, covers a lot more bases.

But in practice, English speakers use the words “hair” and “fur” inconsistently. People often regard some animals, especially their pets, as having both “fur” and “hair.”

They may refer to Bowser’s coat as “fur,” but use the word “hair” for what he leaves on clothes and furniture. And when he gets tangles, they may say that either his “hair” or his “fur” is matted and needs combing out.

Furthermore (no pun intended), two different people might describe the same cat or dog differently—as having “hair” or “fur,” as being “hairy” or “furry,” and (particularly in the case of the cat) as throwing up a “hairball” or a “furball.” They simply perceive the animal’s coat differently.

Our guess is that people base their choice of words on what they perceive as the thickness, density, or length of a pet’s coat. The heavy, dense coat of a Chow dog or a Persian cat is likely to be called “fur.” And the short, light coat of a sleek greyhound or a Cornish Rex is likely to be called “hair.”

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Foreboding or forbidding?

Q: I’ve noticed an uptick in the adjectival use of “foreboding.” It’s often used mistakenly for “forbidding” in describing challenging weather, terrain, etc. It’s also used for something that’s merely spooky, not a presentiment of evil.

A: Standard dictionaries agree with you that the adjective “foreboding” suggests a sense of impending misfortune while “forbidding” used adjectivally means unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening.

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, defines “foreboding” as “implying or seeming to imply that something bad is going to happen,” and it gives this example: “when the Doctor spoke, his voice was dark and foreboding.”

Oxford defines “forbidding” as “unfriendly or threatening in appearance,” and it includes this example: “a grim and forbidding building.”

Most of the recent examples we’ve seen in the news media use the two words in the standard way. Here are a couple of sightings:

“It’s a question asked in a foreboding tone when markets behave a certain way: ‘What does the bond market know that the stock market doesn’t?’ ” (CNBC, March 14, 2018).

“From the outside, the forbidding concrete walls and narrow slit windows of the Pettis County Jail make it look like a fortress was planted smack dab in the middle of the historical downtown area for Sedalia, Mo.” (Washington Post, March 14, 2019).

But as you’ve noticed, “foreboding” is sometimes used in the sense of “forbidding,” as in these online examples:

“Others found a foreboding climate in the winter weather here” (from a Jan. 27, 2019, article on about Vietnamese refugees).

“A species of archaea that lives in such foreboding places as volcanic craters, deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and hot springs” (Natural History, March 2019).

When “foreboding” is used to mean spooky, it’s often difficult to tell whether the usage is ominous (suggesting impending doom) or just menacing (simply threatening).

Take this example: “Resident Evil was always a franchise that leaned heavily on tension—threatening players with a foreboding atmosphere, lurking enemies and limited resources” (from a Dec. 4, 2018, review on CNET of the video game Resident Evil 2).

Is the atmosphere ominous or dangerous? Foreboding or forbidding? We’ll let the reviewer have the last word.

As for the etymology here, the adjective “foreboding” ultimately comes from boda, the Old English noun for a herald or messenger, and bodian, an Old English verb meaning to announce, announce beforehand, or foretell, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The earliest OED example for the noun is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Þu þe eart boda and forrynel ðæs soþan leohter” (“You who are the herald and forerunner of the true light”).

The verb showed up in writing around the same time in Elene, the longest of the four signed works by the Old English poet Cynewulf. The OED dates the poem, based on the story of St. Helena and the Holy Cross, at sometime before 900. This is the quotation:

“Gode þancode, sigora dryhtne, þæs þe hio soð gecneow ondweardlice þæt wæs oft bodod feor ær beforan fram fruman worulde” (“She thanked God, the Lord of Triumph, from whom she knew the truth, which was often foretold since far before the beginning of the world”).

Although the Old English verb could mean to announce something or announce it beforehand, an Anglo-Saxon writer might add the prefix fore- to the verb to emphasize its beforeness, making clear that forebodian meant to foretell, not just to tell.

The online Boswell and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary has this Old English excerpt from Psalm 71:15: “Múþ mín fórebodaþ rihtwísnysse ðine” (“My mouth foretells thy righteousness”). The citation comes from Psalterium Davidis, Latino-Saxonicum Vetus, psalms in Old English and Latin, collected by the English antiquarian Henry Spelman (1562-1641). The psalms were edited and published by his son John in 1640.

The earliest OED example for the adjective “foreboding” used to mean ominous is from The Depositions and Examinations of Mr. Edmund Everard (1679): “By a fore-boding guilt they knew perfectly … I had grounds enough wherewith to accuse them.” Everard was an informer in a concocted anti-Catholic conspiracy in 17th-century Britain known as the Popish Plot.

The other adjective, “forbidding,” ultimately comes from the Old English verb forbéodan—a compound of the prefix for- (against) and the verb béodan (to command). Here’s an expanded OED example from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s to the 1100s:

“þa wiðcweð se arcebiscop and cwæð þet se papa hit him forboden hæfde” (“The Archbishop refused and said that the Pope had forbidden it”). The citation refers to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to consecrate the Abbot of Abingdon as Bishop of London.

And here’s the dictionary’s first example for the adjective “forbidding” in its unfriendly, unpleasant, or threatening sense: “That awful Cast of the Eye and forbidding Frown” (from the Spectator, Feb. 14, 1712).

Finally, a recent use of “foreboding” that could mean either ominous or threatening: “On Sunday afternoon, sirens wailed and cellphones erupted with about 12 minutes of notice that a funnel cloud had dropped from a foreboding Alabama sky and was bound for Beauregard” (New York Times, March 5, 2019).

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Does water stand or sit?

Q: Is the correct phrase “standing water” or “sitting water”? Or can we can have it both ways?

A: “Standing water,” the usual expression, has referred to still or stagnant water since the late 14th century. It’s overwhelmingly more popular than “sitting water,” which as far as we can tell didn’t show up in print until about 20 years ago.

In searching the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, we found 2,985 examples of “standing water” and only 17 for “sitting water.”

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer of digitized books published from 2000 to 2008 had similar results.

Of the two phrases, only “standing water” is mentioned in the eight online standard dictionaries we’ve consulted. Collins has a separate entry for the expression, but several others mention it in their entries for the adjective “standing.”

Collins defines “standing water” as “any body of stagnant water, including puddles, ponds, rainwater, drain water, reservoirs, etc.” It has several examples, including this one: “Home to fish, birds and other wildlife, standing water is also enjoyed by recreational fishermen and walkers.”

Of the other standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and Webster’s New World define the adjective “standing” as still, not flowing, or stagnant, and give “standing water” as an example. American Heritage defines “standing” similarly, but doesn’t give an example.

None of the entries for the adjective “sitting” in the standard dictionaries we’ve checked include the sense of still or stagnant water.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “standing water,” but within its entry for the adjective “standing” it includes this sense: “Of water, a piece of water: Still, not ebbing or flowing, stagnant.”

The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from John Trevisa’s 1398 Middle English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the 13th century by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“In dyches is water y-norisshede and y-keppe, bothe rennynge and stondynge water” (“In ditches is water nourished and kept, both running and standing water”).

The OED doesn’t have an entry for “sitting water,” and its entry for the adjective “sitting” doesn’t include still or stagnant water as a sense.

The earliest example we’ve found for “sitting water” used in this sense is from a Nov. 18, 1998, article in the Coronado (Calif.) Eagle and Journal about the discovery of abandoned oil tanks beneath homes:

“At one tank site, there is a slight sheen to sitting water, indicating some oil is on top of it.”

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Hamlet in the closet

Q: I was teaching Hamlet for the first time in decades and we joked about the use of “closet” in the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius. I wonder how the usage evolved from meaning a small room to a state of secrecy, especially about being gay? It also seems to me that the Brits may use wardrobes more than we do, so the use of “closet” in its gay sense might not work the same way for them.

A: You’ll be surprised to hear that the noun “closet” is now used in Britain as well as America in both of the senses you mention—literal and figurative.

“Closet” in its literal sense—a small room for storing clothes, linens, or supplies—“has been the standard term in North American use since at least the late 19th century,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

But “during the later 20th century,” the OED adds, “it has increasingly been used in British English to refer to such a place used for storing clothes, although cupboard and (especially) wardrobe are still used in this sense.”

“Closet” in its figurative sense—a state of hidden homosexuality—has also jumped the pond. It has appeared in writing in the US since the early 1960s and in the UK since at least the early 1980s, according to citations in the OED and in slang dictionaries.

So where “closet” is concerned, speakers of American English and British English are on the same page.

The word has had a long and interesting history. First recorded in English in the 14th century, it originally had meanings far removed from either clothes or homosexuality.

“Closet” evolved from a noun in Old and Middle French, closet (a small enclosure or small field). The –et ending was a diminutive added to clos (an enclosed space), a noun that was in turn derived from the Latin clausum (a closed place, an enclosure).

The word first reached England as the Anglo-Norman closet (also, but rarely, spelled closette), which meant a private room or chapel. And from Anglo-Norman, the OED says, it entered English, in which it originally meant “a private or secluded room; an inner chamber.”

The OED’s earliest example is from an English translation, done sometime before 1387, of the Polychronicon, a religious and historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:

“Remigius from his childhode dwelled in a closett.” (The reference is to St. Remigius, who lived in the 5th and 6th centuries, and the OED says that “closett,” the translator’s rendering of the Latin reclusorio, in this case meant “a monastic cell.”)

In its early uses, “closet” generally meant a place set aside for a particular purpose, like a private chapel or private pew, a monarch’s private apartment, a council chamber, or a room for study, devotion, or contemplation. (Most of these uses are now “historical,” the OED says, meaning they’re found only in reference to the past.)

So when Hamlet visits his mother’s closet and kills Polonius, who’s hiding behind a tapestry, the term refers to the Queen’s private apartment.

The purposes of a medieval “closet” weren’t all so stageworthy. Since the 1400s, the word has also been used to mean a toilet or privy. Compound terms include “closet of ease” (1600s); “water closet” (1700s, first shortened to “W.C.” in the 1800s); and “earth closet” (1800s).

In the 1500s “closet” came to mean a storage space. The OED’s definition is “a recess or space adjoining a room, generally closed off by a door or doors reaching to the floor, and used for storage of clothes, linen, utensils, household supplies, etc.; a built-in cupboard; a wardrobe.”

Oxford’s earliest use is from a 1532 entry in a ledger that includes the cost of “makyng a Closett in my chamber.” (Cited from A Researcher’s Glossary of Words Found in Historical Documents of East Anglia, compiled by David Yaxley, 2003.)

Subsequent examples include “Confectionaire or Closet of sweet meat” (1616); and “Closset of books” (1686).

In the 18th century, Jane Austen wrote that a storage place entirely filled with shelves should not be called a closet: “I have a very nice chest of drawers and a closet full of shelves—so full indeed that there is nothing else in it, and it should therefore be called a cupboard rather than a closet, I suppose.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation, which is from a letter written May 17, 1799, during a visit to Bath.)

As we mentioned earlier, “closet” in the sense of a built-in wardrobe appeared in late 19th-century American usage and emigrated to Britain a century or so later.

So much for the word’s literal uses. But almost from the beginning, “closet” had been associated with concealment. Figurative uses having to do with hiding and secrecy began to emerge in the early 15th century.

This is the OED’s earliest such use: “Within a lytel closet of his entendement [intention].” It’s from The Book of the Pylgremage of the Sowle, a 1413 translation, first published in 1483, from the French of Guillaume de Deguileville.

Later Oxford citations include “the closette Where god delyteth to make his resydence” (1499), “closet of her heart” (1549), “the Closet of your Conscience” (1633), “the Closet of a Man’s Breast” (sometime before 1677), “the dark closet of his bosom” (1766), and “the innermost closet of her thought and life” (1911).

Adjectivally, too, “closet” has denoted secrecy. The OED has examples like “closet duties” (1639); “closet sins” (sometime before 1656); “closet good works” (1657); and “closet memoirs” (1706).

The familiar phrase “skeleton in the closet” was “brought into literary use by Thackeray” in 1855, the OED says, though it was “known to have been current at an earlier date.” (Here “skeleton” means “a secret source of shame or pain to a family or person,” the dictionary says.)

In the later 19th century, other things than skeletons were said to be “out of the closet” once revealed. The OED has this example: “Seeing the spectre of prohibition dragged out of the closet in every political campaign” (Galveston Daily News, March 6, 1892).

Finally, in the 20th century, the adjective “closet” was used to describe a person who was hiding something. The OED defines this usage, which is sometimes meant ironically, as “not open about something concerning oneself which, if revealed, could cause problems or embarrassment.” Examples include “closet drinker” (1948), “closet liberal” (1967), “closet Papist” (1985), and “closet romantic” (2005).

So it was probably inevitable that “closet” would come to be associated with covert or unacknowledged homosexuality.

In the earliest such example, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates “closet queen” to graffiti observed in 1959, but the evidence can’t be confirmed. The first published examples are from the early 1960s, and they’re also adjectival; Random House and Green’s Dictionary of Slang cite “closet fags” (1961), and the OED has “closet queen” (1963).

The OED also cites “in the closet” (secretly gay) and “come out of the closet” (to acknowledge being gay; both from 1968). Green’s has “open the closet” (to expose a person as gay; 1972).

And Oxford has examples of “out of the closet” (1970), “to come out” (1971), the adjectives “closeted” and “out” (both 1974), and the verb “out” (to expose someone’s homosexuality; 1990 in both the US and the UK).

We’ll end with a puzzle. In the sense of acknowledging one’s homosexuality, there are 1940s examples of the verb phrase “come out”—but without the “closet” that appeared decades later. And those early examples may have nothing to do with figurative closets. Here they are, courtesy of the OED:

Come out, to become progressively more and more exclusively homosexual with experience” (a definition from Gershon A. Legman’s appendix to George W. Henry’s book Sex Variants, 1941).

Come out, to be initiated into the mysteries of homosexuality” (by the pseudonymous “Swasarnt Nerf,” in Gay Guides for 1949, edited by Hugh Hagius).

Oxford suggests that these early uses of “come out” were not about closets but were “perhaps influenced” by the social debut sense of the phrase, as when a debutante “comes out.”

That may be true. Or perhaps the early connection between “closet” and “come out” lived underground in those days and has yet to be discovered. Time will tell.

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