The Grammarphobia Blog

From ‘anti-vac’ to ‘anti-vaxxer’

Q: Who makes up terms such as “anti-vaxxer”?

A: We’re all responsible. English is a flexible language, and English speakers like to flex their lexical muscles by coining new terms. For more than two centuries, we’ve been coining various terms for someone opposed to vaccinations.

The first one, “anti-vaccinator,” appeared in the early 19th century and referred to critics of smallpox vaccinations. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book review in an 1806 issue of the Philosophical Magazine, a British scientific journal:

“This popular work is a very fair exposure of the unprincipled means to which the anti-vaccinators have resorted to turn the prejudices of the ignorant into a source of dishonest emolument to themselves.”

The term “anti-vaccinationist” emerged later in the 19th century. The oldest example we’ve found is from an 1876 issue of the Lancet, the British medical journal:

“This gentleman confessed himself an anti-vaccinationist, but as the law required vaccination, he submitted to the law in his own family, and would have others also submit to it.”

In the late 19th century, people began using the short versions “anti-vac” and ”anti-vacc” as adjectives or nouns for opponents of vaccination.

Here’s an “anti-vac” example from a July 4, 1877, letter in the journal of the National Anti-Compulsory-Vaccination League, founded in London in 1867:

“In so far as the Anti-vaccination movement has yet become national, our League is entitled to be considered national, all known Anti-vac’s having been invited to the Conference which formed it, and the conference having been attended by delegates from all parts of the country.”

And this “anti-vacc” example is from a book review in A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature (1895), by the British publisher, editor, and bibliographer William Swan Sonnenschein: “Divested of its anti-vacc. bias, the book is full of valuable material.”

As far as we can tell, the informal shortenings “anti-vaccer,” “anti-vax,” and “anti-vaxxer” emerged only in the last 10 years in reference to opponents of influenza, MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), and other vaccines.

Here’s an “anti-vaxxer” example from a headline on a letter to the editor in the March 9, 2009, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “ ‘ANTI-VAXXERS’ ARE PUTTING MANY AT RISK.”

The letter describes Andrew Wakefield, a discredited British medical researcher, as “the ‘father’ of the anti-vaxxer movement.” Wakefield was found to have falsified a 1998 paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism.

And here’s an “anti-vaccer” example from an April 24, 2009, comment on the Discover Magazine blog: “I find it horrible to think that it will take a major epidemic & children dying of easily preventable diseases to make people wake up and take notice what these anti-vaccer/pro-disease people are doing.”

In an Oct. 29, 2009, broadcast, the CNN journalist Randi Kaye used both “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer” in describing comments by bloggers opposed to influenza vaccinations:

“Some anti-vaxxers, as they’re called, linked the swine flu vaccine today to the 1976 swine flu vaccine which left some paralyzed. Now anti-vax bloggers suggest the vaccine isn’t safe for children and pregnant women because of a preservative in the vaccine called thimerosal.”

Kaye noted that the Centers for Disease Control says thimerosal “is safe and all that preservative does actually has caused a little redness and maybe some swelling at the injection spot.”

Of the various shortenings, the only ones that have made it into standard dictionaries are “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax,” the two most popular spellings in our searches of digital databases.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary includes only the noun “anti-vaxxer,” which it defines as “a person who opposes vaccination or laws that mandate vaccination.” It lists the term without comment—that is, as standard English.

Oxford Dictionaries Online includes the noun “anti-vaxxer” as well as the adjective “anti-vax,” and labels the two terms “informal.”

It defines the noun as “a person who is opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who does not wish to vaccinate their child,” and gives this example: “experts say several diseases that are avoidable are making a comeback due to anti-vaxxers who refuse to vaccinate their kids.”

And it defines the adjective as meaning “opposed to vaccination,” giving this example: “One doctor isn’t afraid to point a finger right at the anti-vax movement.”

Why are the spellings “anti-vaxxer” and “anti-vax” more popular than “anti-vaccer” and “anti-vac”? Our guess is that English speakers prefer “xx” and “x” because it’s natural to pronounce them like the “cc” of “vaccine,” while “cc” and “c” could be pronounced like the “c” of “vacuum.”

Finally, the usual term now for someone who vaccinates is “vaccinator,” as in this Oxford example: Each round requires vaccinators to get the polio drops into the mouths of 50 million children.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t quote me

Q: I hear the expression “don’t quote me” in the news almost every day. It seems so much a part of contemporary politics. Imagine my surprise to see it in The Semi-Attached Couple, an 1860 novel by the English writer Emily Eden.

A: Yes, the usage showed up in writing in the 19th century, and one of its earliest appearances was in The Semi-Attached Couple, which features a middle-aged husband and wife who have been compared to the Bennets in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Indeed, it’s possible (though this is speculation) that the expression may even have appeared in an early, unpublished version of Emily Eden’s novel. Here’s the story.

Eden wrote an early draft of The Semi-Attached Couple in the 1830s, but the final, revised version wasn’t published until a year after the successful publication in 1859 of her novel The Semi-Detached House.

In an 1863 letter to her great niece Violet Dickinson, Eden says, “The ‘Semi-Attached Couple’ was written in that little cottage at Ham Common”—a rental cottage she stayed in for a few months in 1834. And in a preface to the published novel, she suggests that she changed it very little.

However, we don’t know whether the original draft included the relevant passage: “Lord Teviot is one of the worst specimens of the class dandy I ever saw; and I am much mistaken if his temper will not be a sad trial to poor Helen. However, don’t quote me.”

The earliest confirmed example we’ve seen for “don’t quote me” is from Christmas Festivities, an 1845 collection of stories and sketches by the English playwright John Poole:

“I’ll give you my opinion of that horse, but remember you don’t quote me afterwards—I’d rather not be thought critical about horses.”

The first example for “don’t quote me” in the Oxford English Dictionary (from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote on Oct. 1, 1927) uses the uncontracted “do not” in the expression:

“Clara was looking much better than when she came over and Virginia was looking very badly. But please do not quote me on this.”

The OED’s first contracted example is from A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), a Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie:

“You’ve no idea, Neele, how tired one gets of the inevitable weed-killer. Taxine is a real treat. Of course, I may be wrong—don’t quote me, for Heaven’s sake.” (We expanded the comment by Professor Bernsdorff, a pathologist, to Inspector Neel about the poison taxine.)

In that example, Bernsdorff uses “don’t quote me” to indicate he’s not yet sure whether taxine (a substance from the leaves, shoots, or seeds of the English yew) is the poison that killed the businessman Rex Fortescue.

The expression is now used in that hesitant sense as well as just to indicate literally that the speaker doesn’t want to be quoted.

When the verb “quote” showed up in English in the 14th century, according to the OED, it meant “to mark (a book) with numbers (as of chapters, biblical verses, etc.)” or to make marginal “references to other passages or texts,” but those senses are now obsolete.

English borrowed the verb in part from the medieval Latin quotare and in part from the Middle French quoter, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin quot (“how many”), which explains the early numerical sense.

In the mid-16th century, Oxford says, the verb took on its modern meaning: “to reproduce or repeat a passage from (a book, author, etc.); to repeat a statement by (a person); to give (a specified person, body, etc.) as the source of a statement.”

The first OED example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin: “The text [of the Bible] is throughout coted in the margin [of this book].”

(The OED cites the 1548 edition, but we haven’t been able to find it there. The passage was added in the 1552 edition, according to the historian John Craig in his 2002 paper “Forming a Protestant Consciousness? Erasmus’ Paraphrases in English Parishes, 1547-1666.”)

We’ll end with a more recent example from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita:

“Wow! Looks swank,” remarked my vulgar darling squinting at the stucco as she crept out into the audible drizzle and with a childish hand tweaked loose the frock-fold that had stuck in the peach-cleft—to quote Robert Browning.

Nabokov isn’t literally quoting Browning here. He may be alluding to Browning’s various uses of “peach” in Pippa Passes, as in: “From a cleft rose-peach the whole Dryad sprang.” Nabokov may also be making a sly allusion to Browning’s mistaken use of the word “twat” in the same poem, an innocent blunder that we discussed in 2011.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Playing the bass

Q: Why is the fishy “bass” spelled the same as the musical “bass” but pronounced differently? Are there other such words?

A: Words that are spelled alike but have different meanings and pronunciations are called heteronyms, a 19th-century term derived from the Greek heteros (different) and onoma (name).

Seen alone in print, a heteronym is ambiguous; we can’t tell which meaning is intended unless the word is pronounced or used in context.

Most heteronyms are etymologically related, like the words pronounced CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb), IN-va-lid (noun) and in-VAL-id (adjective).

Related heteronyms that are derived from the same etymological source are not rare. As we wrote on the blog in 2016, there are scores of them.

The rarer and more interesting heteronyms are like the two words spelled “bass,” which are linguistic accidents. They developed independently, one (the fish) from Germanic and one (the deep sound) from Latin. Their similar spellings in modern English are merely coincidental.

The fishy “bass” (rhymes with “grass”) arrived much earlier than the musical “bass” (rhymes with “grace”), so we’ll discuss the fish first.

The word for the fish was first recorded in Old English (then spelled bærs) around the year 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a corrupted form of barse, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates back to “about 700,” and which still survives in some dialects.

The OED defines this “bass” as “the Common Perch (Perca fluviatilis), or an allied freshwater species.” The fish probably got its name (first barse, then bærs, and eventually “bass”) because of its spiny, bristly fins.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Old English bærs to a prehistoric root that’s been reconstructed as bhars– and means a projection, point, or bristle. The same root, the dictionary says, is the ancestor of “bristle” and “bur” in English and similar words in other Germanic languages.

So how did bærs become “bass”? As Donka Minkova writes in A Historical Phonology of English (2013), the “r” sound in bærs was no longer pronounced by the early 1300s. And the dropping of the “r” changed the sound of the vowel.

The loss of an “r” sound after a vowel and before a sibilant (like “s”) was not a widespread development, but did occur with some words, according to linguists.

In their book The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that the “older barse ‘fish’ by such loss became bass.” The same “r” loss is heard in some colloquial usages. By this process, the authors write, “arse became ass.”

After the “r” in bærs fell away in the 1300s, spellings of the word evolved sporadically from “bace” (1400s), to “bas” and “base” (1500s), then “basse” and “bass” (1600s and onward).

The OED’s earliest citation for the modern spelling is from the early 19th century, but we found an example in a 17th-century ship’s log. This entry was written on Oct. 16, 1663:

“Several Indian came on Board, and brought us great store of Fresh-fish, large Mullets, young Bass, Shads, and several other sorts of very good well-tasted Fish.” (From A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida, an account of a voyage aboard the ship Adventure, which sailed from Barbados in August 1663. The account, by Cmdr. William Hilton, Capt. Anthony Long, and Peter Fabian, was published in London in 1664.)

We’ve found several more uses of “bass” from the 17th and 18th centuries. In an English clergyman’s account of a visit to four colonial settlements, for example, the fish is mentioned eight times. Here’s one instance:

“The Bass is one of the best Fishes, being a Delicate and fat Fish.” (From Samuel Clarke’s A True and Faithful Account of the Four Chiefest Plantations of the English in America, published in 1670.)

Now we’ll leave the fish and turn to the “bass” that rhymes with “grace” and refers to a deep note or a musical instrument.

This “bass” appeared in English in the 15th century as both a noun and an adjective, according to OED citations.

The musical word “bass” is “simply a modified spelling” of the adjective “base” (meaning low), John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

In other words, the “base” that means low—borrowed in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman baas, bace, or bas—later came to be spelled “bass” in the sense of deep-sounding or a low note.

What influenced the spelling change to “bass” from “base,” Ayto says, was the Italian musical term basso. But though the spelling changed, the OED notes, the word was “still pronounced as base.”

The adjective “bass,” defined in the OED as “deep-sounding” or “low in the musical scale,” was first recorded in an anonymous musical treatise written sometime before 1450: “This same rwle [rule] may ye kepe be-twene Dsolre, Dlasolre, & al oþer [other] base keyys.”

(Explanation: For medieval singers, pitch was flexible, not fixed. In a notational system developed in Italy in the early 11th century and designed for chant, notes had names like “dsolre” (or “D3,” for D + sol + re) and “dlasolre” (or “D4,” for D + la + sol + re), representing the values a singer might place on the note.)

The noun “bass” in the musical sense has several meanings. It can mean “the lowest part in harmonized musical composition,” the OED says, or “the deepest male voice, or lowest tones of a musical instrument, which sing or sound this part.”

The word “bass” can also refer to an instrument that principally plays bass notes. The noun “bass” can be short for a double-bass or a bass guitar, and the word appears adjectivally in noun phrases like “bass saxophone,” “bass clarinet,” “bass trombone,” “bass drum,” and so on.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun (used in the sense of a low tone) is in an English carol from sometime before 1500: “Whan … bulles of the see syng a good bace.”

Here are some instruments whose names include “bass,” along with the earliest dates given in the OED:

“bass viol” (possibly 1594; called “bass” for short in 1702); it was also known as a “bass violin” (1602) and is now the modern “violoncello” (1724) or “cello” (1848);

“bass trumpet” (1724);

“double-bass” (1728; also known as a “string bass” or “bass” for short, both dating from 1927;

“bass drum” (1789);

“bass clarinet” (1831);

“bass guitar” (1855; “bass” for short in 1937);

“bass trombone” (1856);

“bass flute” (1880).

The musical noun, the OED notes, is “erroneously” assumed by some to be derived from the noun “base” that means a foundation or bottom, but there is “etymologically no connection.”

The “base” that means a foundation is from the classical Latin basis; the “base” that means low, as well as the musical “bass,” can be traced to the post-classical Latin bassus.

So much for the two very different (and different sounding) words spelled “bass.”

We wrote a post a couple of years ago about another pair of unrelated heteronyms, the two nouns spelled “sewer.” They’re as different as sewing and sewage.

Other heteronyms that are etymological strangers to one another include these:

  • the noun “dove” (a bird) and the verb “dove” (a past tense of “dive”);
  • the noun “lead” (a metal) and the verb “lead” (to conduct);
  • the noun “number” (a sum) and the comparative adjective “number” (more numb);
  • the noun “row” (for a disturbance) and the verb “row” (to propel a boat);
  • the noun “sow” (a mama pig) and the verb “sow” (to plant seed);
  • the two different nouns spelled “tear” (a rip; a droplet from the eye), along with their respective verbs;
  • the “wind” (air current) and the verb “wind” (to twist).

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Can ‘clear’ mean ‘clearly’?

Q: Is “clear” an adverb as well as an adjective? Can one say “I speak clear” or is it always “I speak clearly”?

A: The word “clear” can be an adverb as well as an adjective, but it’s not used adverbially in quite the same way as “clearly” in modern English.

A sentence like “I speak clearly” is more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than “I speak clear.” However, “I speak loud and clear” is just as idiomatic as “I speak loudly and clearly.” And “I speak clear” would have been unremarkable hundreds of years ago. Here’s the story.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Both clear and clearly are adverbs, but in recent use they do not overlap. Clear is more often used in the sense of ‘all the way.’ ”

The usage guide gives several “all the way” examples, including one from a Jan. 18, 1940, letter by E. B. White (“there is a good chance that the bay will freeze clear across”) and another from Renata Adler in the April 24, 1971, issue of the New Yorker (“a model son who had just gone clear out of his mind”).

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “clear” is also used adverbially to mean distinctly or clearly, as in “loud and clear” and “high and clear.” The OED adds that “in such phrases as to get or keep (oneself) clear, to steer clear, go clear, stand clear, the adjective passes at length into an adverb.”

We’d add the use of “see (one’s way) clear” in the sense of agreeing to do something, as in “Can you see your way clear to lending me the money?”

In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Jeremy Butterfield writes that “it would be absurd to substitute clearly for clear in such phrases as go clear, keep clear, stand clear, stay clear, steer clear, loud and clear, or in sentences like the thieves got clear away.”

However, Butterfield adds, “Clearly is overwhelmingly the more usual adverbial form of the two.”

So how is the adverb “clearly” used in modern English?

It can mean “in a clear manner,” as in this M-W example from At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by the Irish writer Flann O’Brien, pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan: “His skull shone clearly in the gaslight.” And this M-W citation from the November 1982 issue of Smithsonian: “looked clearly at their country and set it down freshly.”

The “-ly” adverb can also mean “without a doubt,” as in this M-W citation from the Oct. 2, 1970, Times Literary Supplement: “He clearly knows his way about the complex and abstruse issues.” And this one from James Jones in Harper’s (February 1971): “walked toward them calmly and sanely, clearly not armed with bottles or stones.”

In addition, the M-W usage guide says, “clearly” can be a sentence adverb meaning “without a doubt,” as in this passage by Sir Richard Livingstone in the March 1953 Atlantic: “Clearly it is a good thing to have material conveniences.” And this citation from Barry Commoner in the Spring 1968 Columbia Forum: “Clearly our aqueous environment is being subjected to an accelerating stress.”

In an adverbial phrase that combines different adverbs, the form of the adverbs is usually consistent: either flat (“loud and clear”) or with a tail (“loudly and clearly”). We’ll cite recent pairs of each that we’ve found in the news.

This “-ly” example is from an opinion piece in the Nov. 5, 2018, Boston Globe: “As concerned citizens committed to our democratic values, we must be willing to stand up and say loudly and clearly that we will not stand for that kind of governance.”

And this tailless example is from a Nov. 11, 2018, report in the Washington Post about President Trump’s recent trip to Paris: “Trump was not making a sound, but his presence could still be heard loud and clear.”

When English borrowed “clear” from Old French in the late 13th century, it was an adjective “expressing the vividness or intensity of light,” according to the OED. It ultimately comes from the Latin clārum (bright, clear, plain, brilliant, and so on).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early Britain written around 1300, perhaps as early as 1297: “a leme swythe cler & bryȝte” (“a light very clear and bright”).

The adverbs “clear” and “clearly” both showed up in writing around the same time in the early 1300s. The adverbial “clear” initially described visual clarity, while “clearly” referred to brightness.

The earliest OED example for “clear” used as an adverb is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “Þe sune … schines clere” (“The sun … shines clear”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “clearly” (clerliche in Middle English) is from the Life of St. Brandan (circa 1300): “Hi seȝe in the see as clerliche as hi scholde alonde” (“He sees on the sea as clearly as he should on land”). The medieval Irish saint, usually called St. Brendan, is known for a legendary sea journey from Ireland to the Isle of the Blessed.

Why do some adverbs have tails while others don’t? Here’s a brief history.

In Anglo-Saxon days, adverbs were usually formed by adding –lice or –e at the end of adjectives. Over the years, the –lice adverbs evolved into the modern “-ly” ones and the adverbs with a final –e lost their endings, becoming tailless flat adverbs that looked like adjectives.

Sounds simple, but things got complicated in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Latin scholars insisted that adjectives and adverbs should have different endings in English, as they do in Latin. As a result, people began sticking “-ly” onto perfectly good flat adverbs and preferring the “-ly” versions where both existed.

Although the adjective “clear” comes from Old French, not Old English, the flat adverb “clear” may have been influenced by the loss of the adverbial –e in native Anglo-Saxon words, first in pronunciation and later in spelling.

As the OED explains, the adverbial use of “clear” arose “partly out of the predicative use of the adjective” and “partly out of the analogy of native English adverbs,” which by loss of the final –e had become identical in form with their adjectives.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Launderers and laundresses

Q: Enjoyed your post about “stewardess” and other feminized words ending in “-ess.” But you didn’t discuss “laundress.” Is there a nongendered version?

A: Yes, there is a nongendered version of “laundress.” In fact, there are two of them, though they’re now obsolete or rare in the sense you’re asking about.

Before “laundress” came along in the 16th century, someone who washes clothes, male or female, was called a “launder” or a “launderer.”

The noun “launder,” first recorded in the 13th or 14th century but now obsolete, meant “a person (of either sex) who washes linen,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the story of St. Brice in The Early South-English Legendary, a chronicle of the lives of church figures:

“A woman þat his lander was” (“A woman that was his launder”). The Legendary was compiled sometime between the late 1200s and 1350.

A century or so later, the unisex noun appeared in Promptorium Parvulorum (circa 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Lawndere, lotor, lotrix.” (The Latin lotor and lotrix are masculine and feminine nouns for “washer.”)

A little later in the 15th century, “launderer” appeared, meaning “one who launders (linen),” according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Catholicon Anglicum, an English-Latin wordbook written around 1475: “Lawnderer, candidaria, lotrix.”

The term is rarely used in that sense today. Commercial laundries sometimes refer to themselves as “launderers,” but the word is usually used now for a person who launders money, not clothes.

As for someone who works in a laundry, he or she would likely be called a “laundry worker,” rather than a “launderer” or a “laundress.”

Interestingly, the gender-free noun “launder” originated as a contraction of “lavender,” which the OED defines as “a washerwoman, laundress.” Only rarely, the dictionary says, did “lavender” mean “a man who washes clothes, a washerman.”

As the dictionary says, this sense of “lavender,” which first appeared in writing about 1325, came from the Old French nouns for people who do washing—lavandier (masculine) and lavandiere (feminine)—though the ultimate source is the Latin verb lavāre (to wash).

We know what you’re thinking. But no, the obsolete “lavender” that means a washerwoman is probably not related to the other “lavender,” the plant that produces the fragrant pale-purple flowers.

The botanical word “lavender” (later also used for the scent and the color) came into English before 1300 from Anglo-Norman and Old French (lavandre), the OED says.

The original source was a medieval Latin word for the plant, first spelled livendula (or perhaps lividula), and later lavendula. As the OED explains, some etymologists think the ultimate source may be the classical Latin adjective lividus (bluish, livid).

If so, the two “lavenders” aren’t etymologically connected, though they later became associated because of the use of lavender perfumes, oils, and dried flowers in caring for linens.

Meanwhile, the “lavender” that meant a washerwoman existed alongside the neutral “launder” and “launderer” (anyone who does washing) until well into the 16th century, when “laundress”  arrived on the scene.

The OED defines “laundress” as “a woman whose occupation it is to wash and ‘get up’ linen,” and says it was derived from the neuter noun “launder” plus the “-ess” suffix.

The two earliest written uses of “laundress” were recorded in the same year, 1555. It was a time, as we wrote in our post about those other “-ess” words, when English writers were “very freely” inventing words ending in the feminine suffix.

Here are the two 1555 uses, cited in the OED:

“As the dier, blecher or the landres washeth … the foule, vnclenly and defyled clothes.” (From A Spyrytuall and Moost Precyouse Pearle, Miles Coverdale’s translation of a work by Otto Werdmueller.)

“He sent to lande certeyne of his men with the landresses of the shyppes.” (From The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India, Richard Eden’s translation of a work by Peter Martyr of Angleria.)

Shakespeare used the term in a comic scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor, believed to have been written in 1597 or earlier: “Carry them to the Landresse in Datchet mead.” (The reference is to a load of dirty clothes, beneath which Falstaff is concealed in a very large wash basket.)

After “laundress” became established, the similar use of “lavender” disappeared, perhaps because of the popularity of the botanical term. And the gender-neutral “launder” also vanished, probably because washing was almost always done by women or girls. Both words died out in the late 1500s.

It’s notable that the verb “launder” didn’t appear until after the nouns for the workers were established.

The OED defines the verb as “to wash and ‘get up’ (linen),” and says it was derived from the earlier noun “launder,” for a person who does washing.

The OED’s first citation is a figurative usage in Shakespeare’s narrative poem A Louers Complaint (published in 1609 and probably not written earlier than 1590): “Laundring the silken figures in the brine, / That seasoned woe had pelleted in teares.”

This was not long after the noun “laundry” appeared, for the place where the washing is done. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“Hyther [hither] also runnes the water from the Laundry to moist it the better.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of a Latin treatise on farming by Conrad Heresbach.)

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that “laundry” was used as a collective term for the washables themselves. The OED’s first citation is from 1916, but we’ve found earlier examples in 1890s newspaper ads. We’ll cite a few:

“Who Does Your Laundry? We Should Like To,” from the Cambridge (Mass.) Chronicle, Jan. 7, 1893 … “Try the work and you will never again send laundry out of the city,” from the Daily Greencastle (Ind.) Banner and Times, Jan. 1, 1894 … “Bring Us Your Laundry,” from the Quill (La Harpe, Ill.), Jan. 4, 1895.

In the early 20th century, this sense of “laundry” became more common. And new words followed—“laundromat” (we’ve found examples from 1941), and “launderette” (1945).

As the OED explains, laundromat” originated as a proprietary name for a Westinghouse washing machine and later came to mean a coin-operated laundry.

We could go on, but we’re feeling a bit washed out.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ‘hithertofore’ legit?

Q: Is “hithertofore” a traditional English word, a neologism, or what? I need to know because I have used it in my new book and the editor has queried it.

A: As far as we can tell, “hithertofore” has never been recognized as a standard English word, though we’ve found a few hundred written examples (dating back to the early 1700s) in searches of digitized books, newspapers, and magazines.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “hithertofore,” and neither do standard dictionaries, which focus on the modern meanings of words. We’ve checked Merriam-Webster Unabridged and eight other standard dictionaries.

The earliest written example we’ve found for “hithertofore” is from “An Act Concerning Patents and Grants,” a statute approved by the legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania on Oct. 15, 1711, in Philadelphia.

The colonial statute says no property title “shall be adjudged, or taken to be defective … for want of being hithertofore sealed with the Great Seal.”

And here’s a more recent example from an article about the troubled Apollo 13 space mission in the April 24, 1970, issue of the Catholic Transcript:

“The first post-flight comments by NASA officials and the photographs of the damaged service module have already brought home several hithertofore unsuspected perils of the space saga.”

We wouldn’t describe “hithertofore” as a neologism (a newly coined word or expression). We suspect that the writers who’ve used it were simply conflating two long-established terms, “hitherto” and “heretofore,” which both mean “up to this time.”

The earliest example for “hitherto” in the OED is from a medieval manuscript, dated sometime before 1225, about the life of St. Katherine of Alexandria: “Hwucche men þu hauest ihaued hiderto to meistres” (“Which men you have had hitherto as masters”).

The dictionary’s first example for “heretofore” is from William of Palerne, an English translation done sometime before 1375 of a French poem, Guillaume de Palerme (circa 1200):

“For here-to-fore of hardnesse hadestow neuer” (“She had never been used to such hardness heretofore”).

Finally, we wrote a post in 2012 about “heretofore” and other compounds made from two or three smaller words.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

He blued his pocket money

Q: In A Pocketful of Rye, a 1953 mystery by Agatha Christie, Lance Fortescue says, “I blued my pocket money, he saved his.” Lance, the son of a wealthy financier, is comparing his handling of money to that of his brother. Do the British still use “blue” the way Americans use “blow”?

A: The slang use of both “blow” and “blue” to mean squander showed up in Britain in the 19th century, though only the profligate “blow” made it across the Atlantic, as far as we can tell.

Is “blue” still used in the UK for that sense? Perhaps, but not very often. We haven’t seen any published examples since the early 1990s.

Oxford Dictionaries Online describes the use of “blue” to mean “squander or recklessly spend” as a “dated, informal” British usage, and gives this example: “It is again time to break open a bottle of bubbly and to blue our money till kingdom comes.”

The most recent citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Arcadia, a 1992 novel by the English writer Jim Crace: “These were the sort of boys who made their cash like tough old men, and blued it all on sweets, and toys, and cigarettes.”

The OED describes the usage as slang of uncertain origin, but speculates that it may have originated as a pun on “blew,” the past tense of “blow.” The dictionary notes, however, that the use of “blue” for squander showed up in writing before “blow” had that slang sense.

The dictionary’s earliest example for “blue” meaning to squander is from The Swell’s Night Guide (1846), by Lord Chief Baron (pseudonym of the actor-writer Renton Nicholson): “The coves … vot we blues a bob or a tanner to see.”

The next citation is from Caste, an 1867 comedy by the English playwright T. W. Robertson: “D’Alroy: ‘So Papa Eccles had the money—’  Sam: ‘And blued it!’ ” (We’ve expanded the citation, based on an early script of the play.)

The OED says the use of “blow” to mean squander or spend lavishly showed up almost three decades after “blue” appeared in this sense.

Oxford’s earliest example is from an 1874 edition of a slang dictionary originally compiled by the English bibliophile and lexicographer John Camden Hotten: “Blew, or blow … to lose or spend money.”

The next citation is from the Sept. 5, 1892, issue of the Daily News (London): “Sometimes you’ll blow a little money … but another week you may make a lot.”

When the verb “blow” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it meant either to produce an air current or to burst into bloom.

The OED’s earliest air citation (with “blow” spelled bláwan in Old English), is from the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), a translation of the four Gospels from Latin into the West Saxon dialect of Old English: “Þonne ge geseoð suðan blawan” (“When the south wind blows”), from Luke 12:55.

The dictionary’s first blooming citation is from Old English Leechdoms, an Anglo-Saxon medical text dated around 1000: “Ðonne heo grewð & blewð” (“When they grow and blow”).

If you’d like to read more about the horticultural sense of “blow,” we answered a question in 2017 about the phrase “blown rose” in Shakespeare.

When “blue” appeared as a verb in the early 17th century, it meant to make blue in color. The earliest OED example is from Joshua Sylvester’s 1606 translation from French of the poetry of Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas:

“Playd the Painter, when hee did so gild / The turning Globes, blew’d Seas, and green’d the field.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

You betcha!

Q: I assume “betcha” is a slangy spelling of the way “bet you” is spoken. But I can’t figure out how “bet you” came to express certainty. Betcha know the answer.

A: The use of the verb “bet” to express certainty showed up in the US and the UK around the same time in the mid-19th century, according to written examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first British citation is from the novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), by Thomas Hughes:  “What a bore that he’s got a study in this passage! Don’t you hear them now at supper in his den? Brandy punch going, I’ll bet.” (We’ve expanded the example.)

And here’s the earliest American citation: “I saw all the ‘boys,’ and distributed to them the papers and ‘you bet,’ they were in great demand” (from the Nov. 22, 1857, issue of the Phoenix, a short-lived newspaper in Sacramento).

An expanded version of the expression, “you bet you,” appeared in Mark Twain’s  Roughing It (1872), an account of his travels in the Wild West: “Hank Monk said, ‘Keep your seat, Horace, I’ll get you there on time’—and you bet you he did, too.” We’ve expanded the OED citation.

Around the same time, various hyperbolic versions of the usage showed up (originally in the US), such as “bet your life” (1852), “bet your old boots” (1856), “bet his bottom dollar” (1866), and so on.

The OED describes these dressed-up variants as “slang asseverative phrases meaning: to stake everything or all one’s resources (upon the truth of an assertion).”

The dictionary’s first example is from the Jan. 18, 1852, issue of the Sunday Dispatch in San Francisco: “He’s around when there’s money in the pipe—bet your life on t-h-a-t.”

The “corrupt forms (I, you, etc.) betcha, betcher” showed up in the early 20th century, “representing colloq. pronunciation of bet you or your (life),”  the OED says.

The dictionary’s first example is from Just William, a 1922 collection of children’s stories by the English writer Richmal Crompton: “You betcher life!”

The next OED citation is from Laughing Gas, a 1936 novel by P. G. Wodehouse about Hollywood: “ ‘You’re home-sick, what?’ ‘You betcher.’ ”

And we found this Jan. 1, 1922, Wodehouse example in Mostly Sally, a novel serialized in Maclean’s Magazine.

“I hope you are going to win, Mr. Butler,” she said.

The smile which she forced as she spoke the words removed the coming champion’s doubts, though they had never been serious.

“You betcher,” he assented briefly.

In uses like those, the “-cha” and “-cher” endings represent casual pronunciations of “you” and “your.” As the OED explains elsewhere, such uses can also be seen in “nonstandard” spellings like “ain’tcha” and “aren’tcha,” which date from the early 20th century.

This citation from the OED mentions all three usages: “Comic strips and some other contemporary literature (literachoor) recognize the prevalence of these forms in speech by spelling them that way: aintcha, arentcha, betcha, etc.” (Scientific American, August 1955).

As for the early etymology of “bet,” the OED says the word is “of uncertain origin” and it’s unclear “whether the noun or the verb was the starting-point.”

The dictionary defines the noun as “the backing of an affirmation or forecast by offering to forfeit, in case of an adverse issue, a sum of money or article of value, to one who by accepting, maintains the opposite, and backs his or her opinion by a corresponding stipulation.”

The earliest Oxford example is from a 1591 collection of stories by the Elizabethan writer Robert Greene about the tricks of coney catchers, or swindlers: “Certaine olde sokers [drunkards], which are lookers on, and listen for bets, either euen or odde.” (The archaic slang term “coney catcher” comes from “coneys,” or tame rabbits, raised for eating.)

When the verb “bet” first appeared, the OED says, it meant what it usually means now: “To stake or wager (a sum of money, etc.) in support of an affirmation or on the issue of a forecast.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, dated with a question mark at some time before 1600, is from an anonymous Robin Hood legend: “Said the bishop then, Ile not bet one peny.”

The next Oxford citation is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, believed written in the late 1590s: “Iohn a Gaunt loued him well, and betted much money on his head.”

John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins that the appearance of the noun “bet” in Greene’s book about the tricks of swindlers “suggests an origin in the argot of small-time Elizabethan criminals.”

If the noun “bet” did indeed come first, Ayto notes, “the usual explanation is that it is short for the noun abet, in the sense ‘instigation,’ ‘encouragement,’ ‘support’—that is, one is giving one’s ‘support’ to that which one thinks, or hopes, may happen in the future.” (The obsolete noun “abet” meant the act of abetting a crime.)

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

2001: A speech odyssey

Q: Just recently, I heard someone pronounce 1901 as “nineteen-one” instead of “nineteen-oh-one.” What is the origin of this practice and is it correct? It sounds so weird to me.

A: There’s no right or wrong here. When a year ends in a number from 01 to 09, the ending can be pronounced with or without “oh” for the zero.

The form with “oh” (as in “nineteen-oh-one”) is usual in today’s English, but the clipped version (“nineteen-one”) was once more common.

The word “oh” is usually an interjection or exclamation. But as we mentioned in a 2013 post, in modern English it’s also used as a noun to represent the pronunciation of the number 0 (zero).

This use of “oh” in dates and other numbers began in the early 20th century and is “probably” based on the spelling of the exclamation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Oxford says that the spelling “oh” is a variant of a much earlier spelling, the capital letter “O.” It, too, is used to represent both an interjection—as in “O my!”—and the number zero, though not in dates.)

The OEDs earliest written example of “oh” in a date is from the December 1908 issue of a trade journal, the Railroad Telegrapher: “Wishing one and all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, hoping to see everyone out in nineteen oh nine.”

We found an earlier example from the same year with “oh” in quotation marks, indicating it was a new usage at the time: “The Nineteen ‘Oh’ Eight Fair Will Be Better Than Ever” (part of a headline for an article about the Colorado State Fair, published in the Aspen Democrat, May 21, 1908).

Later examples in the OED also show “oh” used for zero in the time of day (“oh-eight-thirty-hours,” 1948); in weaponry (“three oh three” for a .303 rifle cartridge, sometime before 1961); and in sports scores (“oh for nine,” 1998).

In earlier times, as we mentioned, “oh” was not included in pronunciations of years with a zero. By way of illustration, here’s a scrap of 19th-century stage dialogue in which a history instructor resumes a lesson with his pupil, a young duke:

Obenhaus: Take up the lesson where we had to stop, —in eighteen five.
The Duke: Yes, eighteen five.
Obenhaus: We’ve seen in eighteen six …
The Duke: Your pardon; do you mean that nothing marked that year?
Obenhaus: Hein? What? What date?
The Duke: Why, eighteen five.

The passage is from an English translation of Edmund Rostand’s 1899 play L’Aiglon (The Eaglet).

We found more examples in old issues of Arbutus, Indiana University’s student yearbook.

This is from 1901: “When Soph and Freshman cease to scrap, / And the Junior’s work is done, / Our class will be remembered yet— / The Class of Nineteen-one; / The noble Class of Nineteen-one, / Of Nineteen-one.”

And this is from 1906: “Rickety Rix! Rickety Rix! / Here’s to the class of nineteen six.”

The usage appeared in both British and American fiction.

Rudyard Kipling used it in one of his naval stories: ” In Nineteen One, mark you, I was in the Carthusian, back in Auckland Bay again.” (From “Mrs. Bathurst,” published in 1904 in both the Metropolitan Magazine, New York, and the Windsor Magazine, London.)

And this example is from the American novel You Can’t Go Home Again, written by Thomas Wolfe in the early 1930s and published posthumously in 1940: “ ‘I should think it was done in nineteen-one or two—wasn’t it, Esther? … Around nineteen-one, wasn’t it?’ … ‘Oh the picture! No, Steve. It was done in nineteen … in nineteen-six.”

In another usage from earlier times, “ought” was often used for zero in speech and written dialogue (as in “nineteen-ought-one”).

The use of “ought” as a noun to mean a zero was first recorded in 1821, the OED says, adding that it was “probably” a variant of the noun “nought.”

The dictionary has only one example, from 1979, for “ought” indicating zero in a year (“ought eight,” short for 1908, in William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed).

But we found this one in a work of 19th-century political reporting, Egypt Under the British (1896), by H. Freeman Wood:

“ ‘The barracks are close to the place where our regiment, the 28th, landed in eighteen-ought-two.’ ‘Eighteen hundred and eighty-two?’ ‘No; eighteen-ought-two, when we beat the French.’ ‘Eighteen-ought-one,’ corrected the other corporal, more accurate in his dates.”

This “ought” usage was also known in Australia, as this early 20th-century newspaper ad shows: “Let it be known that Nettlefold’s have prepared for Summer Nineteen ought five, an extremely dignified (you may call it ‘swagger’) line of Gentlemen’s Tailoring, as worn by gentlemen.” From the Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania), Dec. 29, 1904.

And “ought” was used similarly in American advertising around the same time, as in this notice by a hat manufacturer: “FALL SEASON NINETEEN OUGHT SIX ON DISPLAY AND SALE.” From the Albuquerque Evening Citizen, Aug. 13, 1906.

Moving ahead a hundred years, those who refer to the current century as beginning with “twenty” invariably use “oh” for numbers in the first decade—”twenty-oh-one” and so on. Otherwise the year would sound like “twenty-one,” “twenty-two,” etc.

Those who prefer “two thousand” for this century seem to use both “two thousand one” and “two thousand and one,” a usage that may have been influenced by the pronunciation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Why a timepiece is a watch

Q: I wonder about the derivation of the word “watch” as in the timepiece on my wrist. Does it come from looking at (i.e., watching) the watch?

A: When the noun “watch” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled wæcce or wæccan in Old English), it referred to wakefulness, especially keeping awake for guarding or observing. That sense of wakefulness probably led to the use of “watch” for a timepiece.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The sort of watch that tells the time is probably so called not because you look at it to see what time it is, but because originally it woke you up.”

Ayto adds that the “earliest records of the noun’s application to a timepiece (in the 15th century) refer to an ‘alarm clock’; it was not used for what we would today recognize as a ‘watch’ until the end of the 16th century.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites the Promptorium Parvulorum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary from around 1440, for the “alarm clock” sense.

In the Promptorium, the Middle English term for “watch” is referred to as the alarum, or alarm, on a clock: “Wecche, of a clokke.” Chambers describes the use of “wecche” here as “an alarm attached to a clock to wake up sleepers.”

The Oxford English Dictionary questions the Promptorium citation because the entry in the bilingual dictionary doesn’t include a Latin translation of the Old English. However, the OED adds that “on etymological grounds it seems likely that the sense ‘alarum’ is the oldest of the senses of this branch.”

The OED’s first unqualified example is from a 1542 issue of the Archaeological Journal: “Item oone Larum [alarm] or Watch of iron, the case being likewise iron gilt with two plumettes of led [lead weights].”

The dictionary has several citations from the late 1500s for “watch” used to mean a “small time-piece; orig. one with a spring-driven movement, and of a size to be carried in the pocket; now also frequently, a wrist-watch (spring- or battery-driven).”

The earliest example is from Plaine Perceuall the Peace-Maker of England (1590), by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Richard Harvey: “Surrender vp thy watch though it were gold.”

And here’s an example from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598): “A woman that is like a Iermane Cloake [German clock], / Still a repairing: euer out of frame, / And neuer going a right, being a Watch: / But being watcht, that it may still go right.”

We especially like this later example from an Aug. 21, 1784, letter by the lexicographer Samuel Johnson: “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

Returning to the earlier etymology of the noun “watch,” it originally meant the “action or a continued act of watching; a keeping awake and vigilant for the purpose of attending, guarding, observing, or the like,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first Old English example is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century treatise by the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius:

“Hu micele wæccan & hu micle unrotnesse se hæfð þe ðone won willan hæfð on þisse worulde” (“How great the watch and how great the grief of someone with wicked desires in this world”).

This Middle English example is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a long poem by John Gower about the confessions of an aging lover: “So mot I nedes fro hire wende / And of my wachche make an ende” (“So I must needs go from her and make an end of my watch”).

Over the next two centuries, the noun “watch” came to mean people on guard or observation, as well as their period of duty, especially at night. The term was used for watches in towns, on military posts, and aboard ships.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, first performed in the early 1600s: “As I did stand my watch vpon the Hill / I look’d toward Byrnane, and anon me thought / The Wood began to moue.”

And this biblical example is from the King James Version of 1611: “I will stand vpon my watch, and set mee vpon the towre, and will watch to see what he will say vnto me.”

If you’d like to read more, we published a post in 2017 about the expression “not on my watch.” We’ve borrowed some of the early etymology in that post for this one.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s talk turkey

[On the eve of Thanksgiving, we’re revisiting a 2014 post about how the turkey got its name.]

Q: How did our native Thanksgiving bird get named for a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia?

A: Yes, turkey, the main event at Thanksgiving dinners in the US, is native to the Americas.

The big bird came to the attention of Europeans in 1518 when the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva encountered it in Mexico. The following year, Hernán Cortés found turkeys being domesticated by the Aztecs.

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Spanish soon transplanted the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) to Europe.

(Columbus may have come across the bird in Honduras in 1502 on his fourth voyage, but it’s unclear whether the fowl that he referred to as gallina de la tierra, or land hen, was actually a turkey.)

But why, you ask, is the bird called a “turkey”? The reason is that Europeans confused it with the guinea fowl, an African species that was very briefly referred to as a “turkey” because it was thought to have been imported into Europe by way of Turkey.

The word “turkey” first began showing up in English as the name of the bird in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For example, Thomas Tusser’s book Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry Vnited to as Many of Good Huswiferie (1573) suggested that the Christmas table should include “shred pies of the best … & Turkey wel drest.”

The turkey is a noble bird, and in 19th-century North America the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

For instance, to “talk turkey,” an expression first recorded in 1824, means to speak openly or frankly.

But pejorative uses of “turkey” eventually crept in.

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The OED’s first example is from the American magazine Vanity Fair in 1927: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

The slang expression was soon extended to other kinds of failures and disappointments.

This example comes from James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce (1943): “The beach … was studded with rocks and was therefore unsuitable to swimming. For all ordinary purposes it was simply a turkey.”

Later, in the early 1950s, “turkey” became a slang word for a stupid or inept person.

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering why the leg of a turkey or chicken is called the “drumstick,” check out a blog post we wrote in 2012.

No matter which part of the turkey you prefer, we hope that you and all our other readers will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with your families tomorrow, a holiday that’s often referred to as “Turkey Day.”

The expression was first recorded, the OED says, in the Nov. 23, 1870, issue of the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

All bombast and fustian

Q: I enjoyed your post about the pronunciation of “bomb.” I especially enjoy the word “bombastic,” which I assume is a relative.

A: We wish we could say “bombastic” is related to “bomb.” Alas, it isn’t so.

The adjective “bombastic” comes from “bombast,” a noun that once meant cotton padding. So etymologically, a “bombastic” speech (or speaker) is stuffed with padding—that is, inflated language.

The word “bombast” first appeared in English writing in the mid-16th century, when it meant “the soft down of the cotton-plant; raw cotton; cotton-wool,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first Oxford example is from The Arbor of Amitie (1568), a book of poems by Thomas Howell: “From all meate soft, as wooll and flaxe, / bombaste and winds that bloe.” (In the later 1500s the word was used adjectivally in the same way, and “bombast cloth” meant cotton cloth.)

Early on, the word was often spelled with a final “e,” or with a “u” as the first vowel. (A variant, spelled “bombace” or “bombase,” was recorded in the 1550s, the OED says.)

The source of “bombast” was the French noun bombace (cotton or cotton wadding), which came from a form of the Latin noun bombax (cotton). The Latin noun, the dictionary says, was “a corruption and transferred use of Latin bombyx” (silk), from the Greek βόμβυξ (bombux, for silk or silkworm).

Soon after it was introduced, “bombast” was used to mean, in the OED’s words, “cotton-wool used as padding or stuffing for clothes, etc.” Oxford’s earliest example of this use is from George Gascoigne’s poem Councell Given to Master Bartholomew Withipoll (1572): “To stuff thy doublet full of such bumbaste.”

And Gascoigne himself was the first to use the word in a broader way, to mean any kind of padding or stuffing: “It hath no bumbast now, but skin and bones.” Here the narrator of Gascoigne’s short poem “Dan Bartholomew” (1575) describes his enfeebled body.

All those uses of “bombast” are now obsolete, Oxford says. Except for historical references, they died out in the 17th century.

The only surviving use is a figurative one that emerged in the 1580s, defined in the OED as “inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject; ‘fustian’; ‘tall talk.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from Thomas Nashe’s To Students (1589): “To outbraue better pens with the swelling bumbast of a bragging blanke verse.”

(Myth alert: It’s not true, the OED says, that this sense of the word is derived from Paracelsus, pseudonym of the Swiss alchemist, astrologer, and physician Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.)

Until well into the 17th century, spellings of “bombast” varied. But by the 18th century, both the spelling and the meaning had become standardized, as in this OED citation from Alexander Pope:

“The ambition of surprising a reader, is the true natural cause of all Fustian, or Bombast in Poetry” (from a letter written Dec. 17, 1710).

At around this same time, the adjective “bombastic” came into use.

The adjective was first recorded, the OED says, in what’s known as “The ‘Key’ to The Rehearsal” (1704): “Outdoing them in their Bumbastick Bills.” (The “Key” is an anonymous commentary on The Rehearsal, a satirical play by the Duke of Buckingham that was first performed in 1671.)

And Daniel Defoe used the modern spelling in a 1727 essay: “A certain bombastic Author.”

By the time the adjective “bombastic” appeared, all remnants of the “cotton wool” and “cotton fabric” senses of “bombast” had disappeared. But there’s an echo of those earlier senses in “bombazine,” a heavy dress-making material.

While “bombazine” doesn’t come from “bombast,” the two words have points in common.

“Bombazine” came into English from French (bombasin), but (like “bombast”) it can also be traced back to the Latin bombyx. Despite their origin in bombyx (silk) rather than bombax (cotton), the French bombasin and the later English “bombazine” sometimes meant a fabric that was part cotton.

The OED defines “bombazine” (spelled “bombasine” in Britain) as “a twilled or corded dress-material, composed of silk and worsted [wool]; sometimes also of cotton and worsted, or of worsted alone.” As the OED notes, black bombazine was “much used in mourning.”

As you may have noticed, the term “fustian” was mentioned above a couple of times. Interestingly, this is another fabric term that’s been used to mean overblown language.

As long ago as circa 1200, “fustian” meant a coarse fabric of cotton and flax. The term came into English from the Old French fustaigne, a term “conjecturally derived,” as the OED says, from “Fostat, the name of a suburb of Cairo where cloth was manufactured.”

In the late 1500s, probably because of its earlier associations with “bombast,” the noun “fustian” similarly came to mean empty verbiage. The OED defines it as “inflated, turgid, or inappropriately lofty language; speech or writing composed of high-sounding words and phrases; bombast, rant.”

This exchange, from Christopher Marlowes Doctor Faustus (written sometime before 1593), is the OED’s earliest example:

Wag: Let thy left eye be diametarily fixt vpon my right heele, with quasi vestigias nostras insistere.

Clown: God forgiue me, he speakes Dutch fustian.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

What do you suggest?

Q: What is the graceful or correct way to use “suggest” when it’s an I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-verb (not transitive, I think). I’ve recently read such things as “I was suggested to study harder.”

A: Anyone who’d say “I was suggested to study harder” should probably study harder. The usual way to say that would be “It was suggested I study harder” or “It was suggested I should study harder.”

The verb “suggest” can mean to propose, to express possibility, to state indirectly, to evoke, and so on.

There are several ways the verb can be used in modern English, depending on the context: with an object (that is, transitively), with a quotation, or with a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb).

When used to introduce a clause (with or without “that”), the verb in the clause is often in the subjunctive mood, especially in American English: “They suggested that he study Latin.” The indicative is more common in British English: “They suggested that he should study Latin.”

Here are a few examples of “suggest” used to propose something for consideration: “He suggested that we wait a few days before voting”  … “ ‘We should wait a few days,’ ” he suggested” … “He suggested a delay.”

And here “suggest” expresses the possibility of something: “The smell of bitter almonds suggests that poison was used” … “The smell of bitter almonds suggests cyanide.”

In these examples, it’s used to state something indirectly: “Are you suggesting I’m a liar?” … “No, I’m not suggesting any such thing.” And here “suggest” is used when one thing evokes another: “The cloudy sky suggests El Greco’s View of Toledo.”

When the verb “suggest” showed up in English in the early 1500s, it was transitive and the object was an idea put into someone’s mind, “esp. of insinuating or prompting to evil,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example for this sense is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by William Bonde:

“The angell of Sathanas … euer suggestyng and mouyng some vyce, vnder the colour of vertue” (“The angel of Satan … ever suggesting and prompting some vice, under the color of virtue”).

English borrowed “suggest” from Latin, where suggest- is the past participial stem of suggerĕre (to bring up, supply, provide), according to the dictionary.

Over the years, Oxford says, it’s been used in “extended application, to propose as an explanation or solution, as a course of action, as a person or thing suitable for a purpose, or the like.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

That’s why they play the game

Q: What is the origin of the expression “that’s why they play the game”? Sports announcers say it when an underdog wins a game or when a team comes from behind to win.

A: The sports expression “that’s why they play the game” means playing the game is the only way to determine who wins—in other words, the favored team isn’t always the victor.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from an article headlined “Who’s Going to Win?” in the Oct. 7, 1964, issue of the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Progress.

The article polled teachers and students at two rival high schools before a big football game, and one teacher responded: “I’m not sure who will win. I think that’s why they play the game.”

This is how the word sleuth Barry Popik described the expression in a 2012 post on his Big Apple blog:

“ ‘That’s why they play the game’ is a popular sports adage meaning that the game isn’t decided on paper. One team might have more talent and might be favored to win the game by oddsmakers, but when the game is actually played there is no certainty that the favorite will always win.”

Popik found a newspaper article from the mid-1960s that credited the adage to the Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp:

“But as old Dolph Rupp of Kentucky says, ‘That’s why we play the game to see who’ll win.’ ” (From the Morning Advocate, Baton Rouge, La., Dec. 30, 1965.)

And he cited these later examples, from sports prognosticators of the 1970s:

“The Longhorns, Aggies, Red Raiders and Bears are expected to be runaway winners. But then that’s why they play the games.” (From an Associated Press column in a Texas paper, the Del Rio News-Herald, Nov. 1, 1974.)

“In contrast to last year, the Steelers are favored by about a touchdown. [Pittsburgh Steelers football coach Chuck] Noll, not a one for rash statements, admits he thinks the Steelers are the best team. ‘I think we are, but you have to prove it on the field. That’s why they play the games.’ ” (From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 3, 1976.)

We found this more recent example on the sportscaster Dick Stockton’s website. In 2016, he recalled a famous moment in NCAA basketball, “the shocking upset by Villanova over Georgetown in 1985”:

“I was in the stands on a CBS set hosting the game, while Brent Musburger and Billy Packer broadcast the contest. When it ended with a 2-point Wildcat stunner (they were double-digit underdogs), Brent threw it to me and my immediate declaration was ‘that’s why they play the game.’ It goes for any game in any sport where people think the result is a foregone conclusion.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is government the issue?

(For Veterans Day, we’re repeating a post about the term “GI” that originally appeared on Aug. 26, 2011, and was updated on Nov. 11, 2018.)

Q: I’m a reporter in the Midwest. The other day I did a story about local people in the military. I wanted to say the term “GI” is short for “government issue,” but the copy editor insisted it’s an abbreviation of “galvanized iron.” In the end, we took it out. Who’s right?

A: Both of you, depending on how the abbreviation is used. Here’s the story.

In the early 20th century, “GI” was a semiofficial US Army abbreviation for “galvanized iron.”

The term, dating back to 1907, was used in military inventories to describe iron cans, buckets, and so on, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

By 1917, however, “GI” began to take on a wider meaning.

In World War I, it was used to refer to all things Army, so military bricks became GI bricks and military Christmases became GI Christmases. Before long, we had GI soap and GI shoes and, eventually, plain old GIs.

A lot of people apparently felt this new usage needed a new family tree. So in the minds of many, “galvanized iron” became “government issue” or “general issue.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “GI” can be an abbreviation for all three, depending on how it’s used:

It stands for “galvanized iron” when used in a phrase like “GI can” (an iron trash can or a World War I German artillery shell). It’s short for “government issue” or “general issue” when referring to American soldiers or things associated with them.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also list all three as as the longer forms of “GI.”

The entry for “GI” in American Heritage sums up the etymology this way: “From abbreviation of galvanized iron (applied to trash cans, etc.), later reinterpreted as government issue.”

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 11, 2018.]

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

On cousins and cousinesses

Q: I don’t know if this is a question that has an answer, but here goes. Why does English have the female “niece” and the male “nephew,” but only the unisex “cousin”?

A: English does have a word for a female cousin, “cousiness,” but it’s quite rare. We’ve found only two modern standard dictionaries with entries for it—the subscription-based Merriam Webster Unabridged and its more accessible cousin, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Both define it as “a female cousin : kinswoman.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has examples for the term dating back to the 14th century. The OED defines it as “a female cousin” but says the sense of “a kinswoman” is “obsolete.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Romance of William of Palerne (circa 1350), also known as William and the Werewolf, an anonymous Middle English translation of the French tale Guillaume de Palerme (c. 1200):

“Þer-for, curteise cosynes, for loue of crist in heuene, / Kiþe nouȝ þi kindenes” (“Therefore, courteous cousiness, for love of Christ in heaven, / Make known now thy Kindness”).

The dictionary’s next citation is from the Wycliffe bible of 1382: “Loo! Elizabeth, thi cosyness, and sche hath conceyued a sone in hir elde” (“And behold, Elizabeth, thy cousiness, she hath conceived a son in her old age”). From Luke 1:36.

As we’ve said, the word isn’t seen much these days. The most recent OED citation is from an 1889 collection of fiction by the pseudonymous “F. Pigot.”

In “The Story of a Return Ticket,” the narrator thinks he’s originated the term: “He had the bad taste not to care for his cousinesses, if I may coin a word which is much wanted.”

Here’s a later example that we found in The Two Mrs. Abbotts, a 1943 novel by the Scottish writer D. E. Stevenson: “ ‘Jerry is my cousiness, then,’ declared Fay. ‘She’s my cousiness and I love her.’ ”

Why, you ask, is “cousin” generally used for both sexes in modern English, while “niece” and “nephew” are gendered?

Unlike other Germanic languages, English is now essentially gender free. Although “cousin” is gendered in modern German (der Cousin and die Cousine), it’s unisex in English. However, gender used to play a more important role in English, and vestiges of it have survived—hence, “niece” and “nephew.”

Interestingly, “cousin” was often used in the past to mean a niece or a nephew, a now obsolete sense that the OED defines as a “collateral relative more distant than a brother or sister; a kinsman or kinswoman, a relative; formerly very frequently applied to a nephew or niece.”

The earliest example in the dictionary for this sense is from Sir Beues of Hamtoun (c. 1320), a metrical romance about the legendary English hero Bevis of Hampton. Here Sir Bevis meets his uncle, the bishop of Cologne:

“The beschop was glad afin / And seide: ‘Wolkome, leve cosin!’ ” (“The bishop was altogether glad / And said: ‘Welcome, dear cousin!’ ”) We’ve expanded part of the citation.

The dictionary has a dozen more examples for this sense, dating up to the mid-18th century. Here’s one from Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, believed written at the end of the 16th century: “How now brother, where is my cosen your sonne.” And here’s one from Clarissa, a 1747 novel by Samuel Richardson: “Cousin Harlowe, said my aunt Hervey, allow me to say.”

However, “cousin” meant the same as it does today when it first showed up in Middle English in the late 1200s: the “son or daughter of (one’s) uncle or aunt,” which the OED describes as the “strict modern sense.”

English borrowed the noun from the Old French cusin or cosin, but the word ultimately comes from the classical Latin consobrīnus, the child of the sister of one’s mother.

The earliest English example in the OED is from The South English Legendary (c. 1290), a collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures:

“Huy weren ore louerdes cosines” (“They were our lord’s cousins”). The citation refers to the children of half-sisters. It’s based on a medieval belief that the Virgin Mary’s mother had three daughters with three husbands, so the children of the daughters would be cousins.

As for “nephew” and “niece,” both appeared in Middle English around 1300, borrowed from Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Old French, but ultimately derived from the Latin words nepōs (grandson, male descendant, or prodigal) and neptis (granddaughter or female descendant).

The two words, as well as their counterparts in many other languages, are traceable ultimately to an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as nepto, meaning grandson or nephew (the feminine form was nepti). This root is also the ancestor of our word “nepotism.”

In English, according to the OED, “niece” and “nephew” originally meant the same as they do now: the daughter or son of one’s brother, sister, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law.

The earliest OED examples for both terms are from Arthurian legends recorded in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early Britain written around 1300, perhaps as early as 1297. (There are many other versions of the two legends cited.)

In the “nephew” citation, King Arthur has just won a battle in France and is preparing to march on Rome when he learns that during his absence from England his nephew Mordred has seized Arthur’s wife and his crown:

“Þo was þe king arþure vol of sorwe & sore … / Ac to awreke him of is luþer neueu his herte bar alre best” (“King Arthur was then full of sorrow and misery … / But his heart bore it all best so he could take vengeance on his treacherous nephew”). In the ensuing battle, Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded.

In the “niece” citation, King Arthur is in Brittany and learns that a monstrous giant has come from Spain and kidnapped his niece Elaine, daughter of his cousin, Howel of Brittany:

“Þe … geaunt … Out of þe lond of spayne come & adde ynome eleyne Þat was so vair, þe kinges nece howel of brutayne” (“The … giant … out of the land of Spain had come and seized Elaine that was so fair, the king’s niece Howel of Brittany”). Arthur arrives too late to save his niece, but he kills the giant in a bloody battle.

Over the years, “nephew” and “niece” were also used to designate grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were theoretically chaste).

Getting back to your question, the noun “cousin” isn’t unique among kinship words in English. It’s one of many unisex terms, including “child,” “in-law,” “parent,” “kin,” “relation,” “relative,” “sibling,” and “spouse.”

Most of those have common gendered equivalents: the phrase “three children,” for example, could be expressed by gender as “two girls and a boy,” “two sons and a daughter,” “three boys,” and so on. But “three cousins” would have to be expressed as “two female cousins and one male cousin,” “two female cousins and a male,” “three female cousins,” etc.

Although English has a huge lexicon, it’s weak on kinship terms. As Joanna Rubery explains in an Aug. 30, 2013, post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, “English is sometimes irritatingly vague when it comes to kinship terminology, even within fairly close family relationships.

“I can’t tell (without more context) if your brother-in-law is your sister’s husband or your husband’s brother,” she writes. “We can say, for example, ‘aunt-by-marriage’ or ‘paternal grandfather,’ but those precise terms aren’t common in everyday speech. We accord our parents’ siblings and our siblings’ children special status (uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces) but beyond that we rely on a single catch-all term which is mysteriously ambiguous when it comes to age, sex, degree, or side of the family: cousin.”

Rubery, a former online editor for Oxford Dictionaries, notes that it wasn’t always like this: “Old English (spoken in England until about 1150) had several phrases to describe first cousin relationships more precisely, among them fæderan sunu for father’s brother’s son, and mōdrigan sunu for mother’s sister’s son. These phrases soon died out in Middle English.”

Anthropologists, she writes, “have identified at least ten different kinship systems in use around the world.” The simplest is the Hawaiian system, which “makes no distinction between siblings and cousins,” while the most complex, the Sudanese system, “has a different name for each individual on the family tree. There are different words for aunt and uncle depending on whether they are related by blood or marriage; specific terms for in-laws depending on age; and different words for grandchildren depending on lineage.”

In Chinese, she says, “our simple cousin can be translated in at least eight different ways, not just according to whether the cousin is male or female, but also whether they are on the father’s or mother’s side, and whether they are older or younger than the speaker.”

Her conclusion: “Perhaps our generic word cousin is quite handy, after all.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it a ‘wow’ or a ‘pow’?

Q: At a recent reunion, we were asked to share a WOW and a POW in our lives—that is, an upper and a downer. What is the etymology of these terms? Are they acronyms, or something else? How did they enter English?

A: “Wow” and “pow” are exclamations of a very different nature. While “wow” represents a feeling (like surprise or awe), “pow” imitates a sound (that of a blow or a punch).

As a noun, the way it was used at your reunion, “wow” means a sensational success, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary that focuses on the history of words.

Neither the OED nor standard dictionaries, which focus on the current meaning of words, define “pow” as anything but the sound of a blow. But at your reunion, “pow” was used creatively as a noun to mean an unhappy blow.

We wrote posts in 2012 and 2014 about “wow.” As we noted, it was recorded as far back as the 1500s in Scottish English. By the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the interjection was in “general use” among English speakers to express “astonishment or admiration.”

The OED doesn’t offer any further explanation for the derivation of “wow.” However, it notes a similarity with the interjection “vow” (probably a clipped version of “I vow”), which was used in Scottish English to emphasize a statement.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the noun “wow” (a sensational success), the adjective “wow” (exciting, delightful), and the exclamation “wowey!” (later “wowee!”) appeared on the scene, according to OED citations.

As for “pow,” the OED says it’s an interjection and a noun of “imitative or expressive” origin. The word represents “the sound of a blow, punch, shot, etc.,” Oxford says, like  “Wham!” and “Bang!”

While the interjection was recorded around 1580, it didn’t appear again until the late 1800s, and the OED says it’s “uncertain whether there is any continuity between” the early example and the later use.

So that first example may be a fluke. It appeared in The Bugbears (circa 1580), John Jeffrey’s English translation of an Italian play. The word, which Jeffrey spelled “powe,” represents a knock at a door: “I will knocke … powe! ho? who is in the house?”

The modern use of “pow” originated in late 19th-century America, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a story by Joel Chandler Harris, published in Scribner’s Monthly in June 1881. Here, “pow” represents a smack given to a horse: “He step en hit de hoss a rap—pow!”

The usage spread to Britain in the 20th century. One of the Oxford citations is from the Leicester Chronicle (Nov. 26, 1976): “In some cases that does not mean films which are more sanguinary, but poorly made action stuff with entire reliance on the pows and kerplunks.”

The dictionary also gives this figurative usage, from the American writer James Morrow’s fantasy novel Only Begotten Daughter (1990): “I’m fertile as a cheerleader. All we need is some pixie dust and—pow!”

Like “pow,” the interjections “biff” (first recorded in 1843), “bam” (1922), “kerplunk” (1923), and “wham” (1924) are associated with cartoons and comic strips. They’re usually printed in capital letters and festooned with exclamation points.

These exclamations are as much a part of the “funnies” as the random strings of symbols—like %&*&##@—that represent swear words. As we wrote on the blog in 2011, there are words for these cartoonish obscenities: “grawlix,” coined in 1964 by the cartoonist Mort Walker, and “obscenicon,” introduced in 2006 by the linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

How families got their names

Q: My last name, Doremus, is an American alteration of “de Remes.” (The patriarch of the family probably came from Rheims in France.) When did a family’s place of origin become its last name?

A: Inherited family names developed very gradually and irregularly in Europe, beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries and emerging slowly over the next few hundred years. And not all were “locative” or “toponymic”—that is, based on place names.

Without tax or birth records to rely on, it’s difficult to say when a particular name started being passed down within a family. But it’s safe to say that “de Remes” probably became hereditary sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries.

In England, inherited family names did not exist, even among royalty, before the Norman Conquest of 1066, according to Surnames, DNA, and Family History (2011), by George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey.

Hereditary names in England, the authors write, were introduced by the Norman barons, though only a few of the conquerors arrived with inherited names and none of the names were more than a couple of generations old.

Most of the barons adopted hereditary names after arriving, naming themselves after their new holdings in England or their old estates in Normandy. However, it took a while for family names to become fixed even among the nobility.

“Indeed, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,” the authors write, “some junior members of baronial families assumed different surnames, while the convention that married women acquired their husband’s name took time to become established.”

Gradually the fashion for inherited family names spread. Most knights in the south of England had them by about 1200, the authors write, and by the early 1400s so did most English families, though “some of these names continued to evolve and were sometimes changed out of recognition.”

Historians generally agree that in England, the great surge in hereditary surnames occurred between 1250 and 1450. So how did people distinguish one John or Alfred from another before people had last names?

In earlier times, first names were often accompanied by nicknames (or “bynames”) consisting of some identifying characteristic. This in fact was the original meaning of the word “surname”; it simply meant something added to a name.

So a byname could be based on someone’s parentage; their occupation; where they lived; their personal appearance (like the color of their hair, complexion, clothing, etc.); or some trait or habit, ability or disability.

And such names were not official. A byname could change, or a single person might have more than one. At any rate, it was these bynames that were the precursors of inherited family names.

But even after family names were adopted, they were changeable and might take many generations to become fixed. And early on, these names were almost as idiosyncratic as the nicknames they grew out of.

In his book Family Names and Family History (2006), David Hey writes: “Amongst the taxpayers of Gatcombe in the Isle of Wight in 1379 was a man named William Godbeourhelp. We have to assume that his name was given to him by his neighbors who were amused or exasperated at the frequency with which he used this particular expression.” (The interjection “God be our help!” was equivalent to “God help us!”)

Hey also notes that in the Essex tax rolls for 1381, three men had the last name Inthelane, a name for where they lived. Eventually, Hey writes, the article and preposition fell out of the last name, and “in time, Inthelane became simply Lane.”

There were no rules about this. As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990): “It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

We’ve written several posts about the development of surnames in English, which is a fascinating subject.

In 2016 we wrote about occupational surnames like Potter, Weaver, and the ubiquitous Smith, which was recorded as a byname as early as the 900s.

We’ve also discussed names based on color (White, Black, Green, Reade, etc.) or personal appearance (as in Fairfax, for “fair haired”).

In addition, we’ve written posts about family names that include particles like “de” and “la,” and about British surnames that don’t look like their pronunciations, as with Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”) and Featherstonehaugh (“Fanshaw”).

We’ve also discussed names that include “-kin” (Watkins, Hawkins, Jenkins, and so on), as well as those odd-looking names that begin with a double “f” (as in ffoulkes and ffolliott).

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When English met Latin

Q: I was just wondering if y’all could write about the influence of Latin on English—the Roman occupation, the Norman Conquest, etc.

A: That’s a broad question, too broad for an exhaustive answer, but let’s look at the high points.

English developed in Britain more than 1,500 years ago when Germanic tribes (mainly Angles and Saxons) invaded a Celtic-speaking land already colonized by Latin-speaking Romans. (The Germanic tribes also included Jutes, Frisians, and Franks, according to various medieval accounts.)

As we’ve already said on our blog, English is a Germanic language; it evolved from the prehistoric Germanic that produced German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, and other related languages. However, English stands out because of its many borrowings from non-Germanic languages.

Although it’s not unusual for one language to borrow words from another, English has been a lexical sponge, absorbing numerous words from dozens of languages. And as you apparently suspect, the major source of English loanwords is Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French and to a lesser extent other Romance languages.

In Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English (2014), Philip Durkin writes that “Latin and French are by far the most prolific contributors of loanwords” to English.

Durkin, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, illustrated that point on Slate’s language blog in 2014 with a graphic that tracks the 14 most popular sources of loanwords in English over the centuries.

The core vocabulary of Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language that developed in Britain, was Germanic. But Latin had already slipped into the Low German dialects spoken by the invaders before they arrived, according to From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time (1998), by the linguist Dennis Freeborn.

Freeborn lists several dozen Old English words of Latin origin that the Anglo-Saxons brought with them to Britain, including butere (“butter,” from the Latin butyrum), cuppe (“cup,” from cuppa), disc (“dish,” from discus), forca (“fork,” from furca), line (“line,” from linea), mil (“mile,” from from milea), pipor (“pepper,” from piper), stært (“street,” from strata), and win (“wine,” from vinum).

He doesn’t explain how Germanic tribes picked up those Latin words, but we assume it was from their contacts, often hostile, with Roman troops trying to control the rebellious province of Germania.

Interestingly, Freeborn notes that hardly any of the Latin words spoken by educated Celts during the Roman occupation of the province of Britannia from 43 to 410 AD “were passed on from this source to the Anglo-Saxon invaders” in Britain. “An exception,” he adds, “was the -caster/-chester suffix for place-names like Doncaster and Manchester, from the Latin castra, meaning camp.”

The influence of Latin on Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150) increased after Pope Gregory sent a group of Christian missionaries to Britain in the late 6th century. The missionaries, led by Augustine, prior of a Benedictine monastery in Rome, arrived in 597, and within a few years had converted Æthelberht, King of Kent.

In addition to spreading Christianity, the missionaries spread Latin, which became the language of education and scholarship. Latin gave Old English such ecclesiastical terms as discipul (“disciple,” from discipulus), mæssa (“mass,” from missa), nunne (“nun,” from nonna), preost (“priest,” from presbyter), and sabat (“sabbath,” from sabbatum),  as well as secular terms like circul (“circle,” from circulus), fefor (“fever,” from febris), plante (“plant,” from planta), scol (“school,” from schola), and talente (“talent,” from talenta).

However, the impact of Latin on English was relatively minor until the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the development of Middle English (roughly 1150-1500).

In Borrowed Words, Durkin describes the language of the educated elite after the Conquest as “English/French/Latin trilingualism,” and adds that “for almost all of the Middle English period it would have been more or less impossible to pursue any mode of life that involved literacy without having considerable, probably native-like, competence in Anglo-French and Latin, as well as in English.”

The language of the church was Latin, while the language of government, the law, and business was Latin or Anglo-French. “The situation gradually changed in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,” Durkin writes, “as English began to be used in an ever-increasing range of professional functions.”

The frequent use of Latin and Anglo-French by the trilingual speakers began to influence their English and the English of their servants, and very gradually influenced the language of the general population, “most of whom were probably monolingual throughout this period,” according to Durkin.

The linguist Suzanne Kemmer has a page on her Words in English website that includes dozens of loanwords borrowed from French (and ultimately Latin) during the Middle English period. Here are some of them, broken down into categories, and using modern spellings:

Law and government: attorney, countrycrime, defendant, judge, parliament, tax. Churchabbot, clergy, friar, prayer, religion, saintNobility: baron, count, duke, noble, royal (she contrasts them with these native words: king, queen, earl, lord, lady, knight). Military: army, artillerybattle, captain, defense, enemy, soldier. Cookingbeef, dine, mutton, pork, salmon, vealCulture: art, dance, painting, sculpture.

(In a 2007 post on our blog, we note that many English words for barnyard animals are of Anglo-Saxon origin: “calf,” “cow,” “ox,” “pig,” “hog,” “swine,” and “sheep.” But many words for the meat that comes from those animals are of Anglo-French origin: “veal,” “beef,” “pork,” and “mutton.”)

During the early modern period (1500-1650), according to Kemmer, English got even more words of Latin origin, including agile, abdomen, anatomy, area, capsule, compensate, dexterity, excavate, expensive, fictitious, gradual, habitual, insane, janitor, meditate, notorious, orbit, peninsula, physician, superintendent, ultimate, and vindicate.

And during the modern period (from 1650 to the present day), she writes, English has continued to get words from Latin, directly or via French. Here are some French examples she cites: ballet, bouillabaise, cabernet, cachet, champagne, chic, cognac, corsage, faux pas, quiche, rouge, sachet, salon, saloon, sangfroid, and savoir faire.

As Durkin concludes in Slate, words of Latin origin “have become an indispensable part of English. Even among the 1000 most frequently used words in modern English, not far short of 50 percent have come into the language from French or Latin.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Hallowe’en be thy name

[Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween of 2014.]

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Mostly, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus.Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has  similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-1625), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that “eerie” came to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Syllables gone missing

Q: I just heard a BBC interviewer pronounce “medicine” as MED-sin. I’m pretty sure that Doc Martin attended MED-i-cal school, so why do the British drop the vowel “i” when speaking of pharmaceuticals?

A: The pronunciation of “medicine” as MED-sin is standard in British speech. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that we wrote about in 2012, the tendency of British speakers to drop syllables in certain words.

What’s dropped is a weak or unstressed next-to-last syllable in a word of three syllables or more. So in standard British English, “medicine” is pronounced as MED-sin, “necessary” as NESS-a-sree, “territory” as TARE-eh-tree, and so on.

The dropped syllable or vowel sound is either unstressed (like the first “i” in “medicine”) or has only a weak, secondary stress (like the “a” in “necessary”).

This syllable dropping apparently began in 18th- and 19th-century British speech, and today these pronunciations are standard in Britain. You can hear this by listening to the pronunciations of “medicine,” “secretary,” “oratory,” and “cemetery” in the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (click the red icon for British, blue for American).

We know roughly when such syllable-dropping began because, as we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, lexicographers of the time commented on it.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that dictionaries—like those by William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), and John Walker (1791)—began marking secondary stresses within words, and providing pronunciations for each syllable.

Sheridan in particular made a point of this, lamenting what he saw as a general “negligence” with regard to the pronunciation of weakly stressed syllables.

“This fault is so general,” Sheridan wrote, “that I would recommend it to all who are affected by it, to pronounce the unaccented syllables more fully than is necessary, till they are cured of it.” (A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1780.)

Despite such advice, syllable dropping continued, and these abbreviated pronunciations became more widely accepted throughout the 1800s. By 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones had recognized some of these pronunciations as standard.

In An English Pronouncing Dictionary, Jones omitted the next-to-last syllable in some words (“medicine,” “secretary,” “cemetery”) while marking it as optional in others (“military,” “necessary,” “oratory”). As the century progressed, later and much-revised editions of Jones’s dictionary omitted more of those syllables.

As Jones originally wrote, his aim was to describe what was heard in the great English boarding schools, the accent he called “PSP” (for “Public School Pronunciation”). In the third edition of his dictionary (1926), he revived the older, 19th-century term “Received Pronunciation” and abbreviated it to “RP” (here “received” meant “socially accepted”).

Americans, meanwhile, continued to pronounce those syllables.

In The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1993), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that while British speech lost the subordinate stress in words ending in “-ary,” “-ery,” and “-ory,” this stress “is regularly retained in American English.”

As examples of American pronunciation, the authors cite “mónastèry, sécretàry, térritòry, and the like,” using an acute accent (´) for the primary stress and a grave accent (`) for the secondary stress.

Similarly, The Handbook of English Pronunciation (2015), edited by Marnie Reed and John M. Levis, says that in words “such as secretary, military, preparatory, or mandatory,” the next-to-last vowel sound “is usually deleted or reduced in Britain but preserved in North America.”

The book adds that North American speech also retains unstressed vowels in the word “medicine,” in the names of berries (“blackberry,” “raspberry,” “strawberry,” etc.), in place names like “Birmingham” and “Manchester,” and in names beginning with “Saint.”

However, not every unstressed next-to-last syllable is dropped in standard British pronunciation. The one in “medicine” is dropped, but the British TV character Doc Martin would pronounce the syllable in “medical,” as you point out.

And the word “library” can go either way. As Pyles and Algeo write, “library” is “sometimes reduced” to two syllables in British speech (LYE-bree), though in “other such words” the secondary stress can be heard. Why is this?

In The Handbook of English Pronunciation, Reed and Levis write that some variations in speech are simply “idiosyncratic.” They discuss “secretary,” “medicine,” “raspberry,” and the others in a section on “words whose pronunciation varies in phonologically irregular ways.”

However you view it—“idiosyncratic” or “phonologically irregular”—this syllable-dropping trend is not irreversible. As Pyles and Algeo note, “Some well-educated younger-generation British speakers have it [the secondary stress] in sécretàry and extraórdinàry.”

There’s some evidence for this. A 1998 survey of British speakers found that those under 26 showed “a sudden surge in preference for a strong vowel” in the “-ary” ending of “necessary,” “ordinary,” and “February.” (“British English Pronunciation Preferences: A Changing Scene,” by J. C. Wells, published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, June 1999.)

So has American pronunciation influenced younger British speakers? Not likely, in the opinion of Pyles and Algeo: “A restoration of the secondary stress in British English, at least in some words, is more likely due to spelling consciousness than to any transatlantic influence.”

And Wells seems to agree: “English spelling being what it is,” he writes, “one constant pressure on pronunciation is the influence of the orthography. A pronunciation that is perceived as not corresponding to the spelling is liable to be replaced by one that does.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Whereabouts: singular or plural?

Q: I just read this in the New York Times: “His whereabouts is unknown.” Is “whereabouts” singular? That sentence sounds like a mistake. I realize that not all nouns ending in “s” are plural. Is “whereabouts” one of them?

A: The noun “whereabouts” can be either singular or plural, though the plural is more common now, despite the recommendation in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (“Construe it as a singular”).

We’ve just checked several standard dictionaries, and they all say that it can be singular or plural, but that the plural is more common.

Etymologically, the final “s” originated as an adverbial suffix (like the one at the end of “always” and “besides”), not as a plural ending.

In fact, the noun was “s”-less and apparently singular when it showed up in English in the early 1600s. And the earlier adverb was also “s”-less when it appeared in the early 1300s; it didn’t get the suffix until more than a century later. Here’s the story.

When “whereabout” first showed up in English, it was a two-word interrogative adverbial phrase that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “About where? in or near what place, part, situation, or position? Now rare: replaced by whereabouts.”

The first OED example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “Quar abute a-bide yee nu?” (“Where about do you abide now?”).

The spelling is clearer in the dictionary’s next example, from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of Aesop’s Fables: “My broder and my frend where aboute is thy sore?”

When “whereabouts” first appeared in the 15th century, it was also a two-word interrogative adverbial phrase that meant the same as the “s”-less version. Oxford says it was formed by adding the adverbial suffix “s” to the older phrase.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Mirk’s Festial, a collection of homilies written around 1450 by Johannus Mirkus, a canon at an Augustinian abbey in Shropshire, England: “Sonne, whereaboutes art þow [thou]?”

The OED’s earliest noun citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, believed to have been first performed in 1606: “Heare not my steps, which they may walke, for feare / Thy very stones prate of my where-about.”

The dictionary’s next example, from a Nov. 17, 1786, letter by the English poet William Cowper, uses it without the hyphen: “I shall derive considerable advantage … from the alteration made in my Whereabout.”

Oxford defines the noun “whereabout” as “the place in or near which a person or thing is; (approximate) position or situation. Now replaced by whereabouts.”

The earliest citation for the noun with an “s” ending dates from the late 18th century, though “s”-less examples continued into the second half of the 19th century. The OED describes the “s” ending here as an adverbial suffix similar to the ones in “hereabouts” and “thereabouts.”

The first Oxford citation for an “s” noun is from a Feb. 15, 1795, letter by Thomas Twining, an Anglican cleric and classical scholar: “By way of giving you the whereabouts of my present political opinions.” (Twining was the grandson of the Thomas Twining who founded the English tea dynasty.)

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary describes the noun “whereabouts” as “plural in form but singular or plural in construction.” Merriam-Webster goes on to explain that it’s usually treated as plural despite some objections by usage writers (like the authors of the Times style guide):

“Because the final -s is an adverbial suffix, not a plural ending (similar to the one at the end of besides), certain usage commentators have insisted on treating whereabouts as a singular noun. In spite of this, you should feel comfortable pairing it with a plural verb; while some have employed singular verbs with this word, the plural (‘her whereabouts were’) has become the regular choice.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

How incidental is an incident?

Q: The word “incident” is used all the time now for life-changing events. I thought “incident” and “incidentals” had to do with small things, inconsequential ones. My dog snapped at yours: an incident. Your spouse was killed by a mass-murderer: not an incident. Perhaps I am understanding its meaning too narrowly?

A: When the noun “incident” first appeared in English in the early 15th century, it did indeed refer to an incidental occurrence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary that focuses on the history of words, defines this early sense as “something that occurs casually in the course of, or in connection with, something else, of which it constitutes no essential part; an event of accessory or subordinate character.”

Oxford says the English noun ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb incidĕre (to fall into, fall to, fall upon, or happen to).

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “an incident is literally that which ‘befalls.’ ”

“The use of a word that literally means ‘fall’ to denote the concept of ‘happening’ is quite a common phenomenon,” Ayto says, adding that “it operates in other languages than English: Welsh digwydd ‘happen,’ for instance, is derived from cwyddo ‘fall.’ ”

Getting back to English, the earliest example for “incident” in the OED is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, a Middle English poem written in the early 1400s and first printed in 1513:

“But incydentes that beare no substaunce, / Whiche were but vayne to put in remēbrance.” (We’ve edited and expanded the citation.)

In the early 20th century, according to Oxford, the term took on a more serious sense: “An occurrence or event, sometimes comparatively trivial in itself, which precipitates or could precipitate political unrest, open warfare, etc. Also, a particular episode (air-raid, skirmish, etc.) in war; an unpleasant or violent argument, a fracas.”

The dictionary’s first example for the new sense is from The Annual Register for 1912 (published in 1913):

“He had invariably done everything France wanted him to do, and, especially at the time of the Agadir incident, had rejected German … advances.”

This example, from a 1920 entry in the diaries of the English poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, emphasizes the sense of importance: “Bramley … had reported the incident in a serious light, and Cromer had taken it up seriously, seeing in it … a danger to the British occupation.”

We suspect that this political/military sense led to the more general use of “incident” for any consequential event, as in this Oct. 9, 2018, headline in the Washington Post: “Man pulls gun on three others in road rage incident in Virginia.”

Most standard dictionaries, which focus on the modern meaning of words, say “incident” can now mean either a major or a minor occurrence.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, includes the earlier senses, but adds that “incident” can also mean “an occurrence of an action or situation that is a separate unit of experience” and gives “happening” as a synonym.

The primary definition in Oxford Dictionaries Online, another standard dictionary, is simply “an event or occurrence,” while the first sense in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) is “something that happens; happening; occurrence.”

When used today, the context usually makes clear the importance or unimportance of an incident: “the spilled wine was an embarrassing incident” …  “an international incident that led to war.”

As for “incidental,” the word has referred to something minor, subordinate, or accidental since it showed up as an adjective in the 17th century.

The first OED example is from “Of Education” (1644), a brief treatise by John Milton: “Those incidentall discourses which we have wander’d into.”

The dictionary’s first example for the noun “incidental” is from a 1707 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge:

“The accidental occasions of hiring Transport Ships, together with the other Incidentals that must necessarily accrue.”

Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.

On Jan. 14, 1697, he stood in Boston’s South Church while the minister, Samuel Willard, read a statement in which Sewall said he “Desires to take the Blame and Shame of it, Asking pardon of Men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Stewardess and other -ess words

Q: How did English, a fundamentally nongendered language, get the word “stewardess,” a gendered term that’s now being replaced in our gender-sensitive era by the unisex “flight attendant”? What’s wrong with using “steward” for both sexes?

A: We’ll have more to say later about the old practice of adding “-ess” to nouns to feminize them. As we’ve written before on the blog, the current trend is in the other direction.

Modern English tends to favor the original, gender-free nouns for occupations—words like “mayor,” “author,” “sculptor,” and “poet” in place of “mayoress,” “authoress,” “sculptress,” “poetess,” and so on.

But first let’s look at “stewardess,” which is probably a much older word than you think.

It first appeared in writing in 1631 to mean a female steward (that is, a caretaker of some kind), and it was used for hundreds of years in caretaking, managerial, or administrative senses.

Only in later use did “stewardess” come to mean a female attendant on a ship (a sense first recorded in 1834), a train (1855), or a plane (1930).

“Stewardess” was of course derived from the gender-free noun “steward,” which is very old.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates written evidence of “steward” (stigweard in Old English) back to 955 or earlier, and notes that it was created within English, not derived from other sources.

“The first element is most probably Old English stig,” which means “a house or some part of a house,” Oxford says, noting that the Old English stigwita meant “house-dweller.”

In its earliest uses, the word meant someone who manages the domestic affairs of a household, and it later took on more official and administrative meanings in business, government, and the church.

The femininized “stewardess,” defined in the OED as “a female who performs the duties of a steward,” was first recorded in The Spanish Bawd, James Mabbe’s 1631 translation of a “tragicke-comedy” by Fernando de Rojas:

“O variable fortune … thou Ministresse and high Stewardesse of all temporal happinesse.”

We might be tempted to attribute that example to rhyme alone. But we found two more appearances of “stewardesse” in a religious work that was probably written in 1631 or earlier and was published in 1632.

These come from Henry Hawkins’s biography of a saint, The History of S. Elizabeth Daughter of the King of Hungary. Because Elizabeth gave her fortune to the poor, the author refers to her as God’s “trusty Stewardesse &; faithfull Dispensatress of his goods” and “this incomparable Stewardesse of Christ.”

Until the early 19th century, “stewardess” continued to be used in the various ways “steward” was used for a man. For example, the OED cites an 1827 usage by Thomas Carlyle in German Romance: “She was his … Castle-Stewardess.” (The book is an anthology of German romances, and the example is from an explanatory footnote by Carlyle.)

But as the old uses of “stewardess” died away, a new one developed. People began using “stewardess” in the 1830s to mean (like “steward” before it) a woman working aboard a ship.

The OED defines this use of “stewardess” as “a female attendant on a ship whose duty it is to wait on the women passengers.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an 1834 news article about a shipwreck that left only six people alive, a passenger named Goulding and five crew members:

“Mr. Goulding and the stewardess floated ashore upon the quarter deck.” (From the Oct. 16, 1834, issue of a New York newspaper, the Mercury.)

The OED’s earliest citation is a bit later: “Mrs. F. and I were the only ladies on board; and there was no stewardess” (from Harriet Martineau’s book Society in America, 1837).

The use of the word in rail travel came along a couple of decades later. We found this example in a news account of a train wreck:

“A train hand, named Miller, had his leg broken above the ankle, and seemed much injured. Margaret, the stewardess of the train, was likewise bruised.” (From the Daily Express of Petersburg, Va., Oct. 30, 1855.)

Soon afterward, on July 29, 1858, a travel article in the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in West Virginia noted that on the Petersburg & Weldon Railway, a “stewardess travels with each train to wait on the lady passengers—serve ice water to them—hold their babies and other baggage occasionally.” (Note the reference to “babies and other baggage”!)

The earliest example we’ve found of “stewardess” meaning an aircraft attendant appeared in the New York Times on July 20, 1930. The reporter describes firsthand his experience aboard a flight from San Francisco to Chicago:

“And then there is Miss Inez Keller, stewardess or rather traveling hostess. The Boeing system has solved the problem of looking after the passengers by putting girls on all the liners.”

Later that year, an Australian newspaper ran this item: “A successful trial flight was made with the finest and largest passenger air liners in the world, each having luxurious accommodation for 38 passengers, with smoking saloon two pilots, steward and stewardess.” (From the Western Herald, Nov. 18, 1930.)

The OED’s first example appeared the following year in a photo caption published in United Airlines News (Aug. 5, 1931): “Uniformed stewardesses employed on the Chicago-San Diego divisions of United. The picture shows the original group of stewardesses employed.”

Oxford defines the newest sense of “stewardess” this way: “A female attendant on a passenger aircraft who attends to the needs and comfort of the passengers.” It adds that the word also means “a similar attendant on other kinds of passenger transport.”

This brings us to the larger subject—the use of the suffix “-ess” to form what the OED calls “nouns denoting female persons or animals.”

The ancestral source of “-ess,” according to etymologists, is the Greek -ισσα (-issa in our alphabet), which passed into Late Latin (-issa), then on into the Romance languages, including French (-esse).

In the Middle Ages, according to OED citations, English adopted many French words with their feminine endings already attached, including “countess” (perhaps before 1160), “hostess” (circa 1290), “abbess” (c. 1300), “lioness” (1300s), “mistress” (c. 1330), “arbitress” (1340), “enchantress” (c. 1374), “devouress” (1382), “sorceress” (c. 1384), “duchess” (c. 1385), “princess” (c. 1385), “conqueress” (before 1400), and “paintress” (c. 1450).

Some other English words, though not borrowed wholly from French, were modeled after the French pattern, like “adulteress” (before 1382) and “authoress” (1478).

And in imitation of such words, “-ess” endings were added to a few native words of Germanic origin, forming “murderess” (c. 1200); “goddess” (some time before 1387), and obsolete formations like “dwelleress” and “sleeresse” (“slayer” + “-ess”), both formed before 1382.

As the OED explains, writers of the 1500s and later centuries “very freely” invented words ending in “-ess,” but “many of these are now obsolete or little used, the tendency of modern usage being to treat the agent-nouns [ending] in –er, and the nouns indicating profession or occupation, as of common gender, unless there be some special reason to the contrary.”

Some of the dusty antiques include “martyress” (possibly 1473), “doctress” (1549), “buildress” (1569), “widowess” (1596), “creditress” (1608), “gardeneress” (before 1645), “tailoress” (1654), “farmeress” (1672), “vinteress” (1681), “auditress” (1667), “philosophess” (1668), “professoress” (1744), “chiefess” (1778), “editress” (1799), and “writeress” (1822).

Still seen, though rapidly going out of fashion, are “hostess” (c. 1290), “authoress” (1478), “poetess” (1531), “heiress” (1656), and “sculptress” (1662).

Of the few such occupational words that are still widely used, perhaps the most common are “actress” (1586) and “waitress” (c. 1595). These “-tress” endings, the OED says, “have in most cases been suggested by, and may be regarded as virtual adaptations of, the corresponding French words [ending] in -trice.

In conclusion, “stewardess” was created at a time—in the 1600s—when English writers created all sorts of what the OED calls “feminine derivatives expressing sex.” It was also a time when educated English speakers regarded their native tongue as inferior to French and Latin, the gendered languages that were the lingua franca of nobles, clergy, and scholars.

Now “stewardess,” like so many of those feminized nouns, is rapidly becoming obsolete. But unlike the others, it hasn’t been replaced by a unisex “steward.”

Why? We don’t know the answer. But for whatever reason, as “stewardess” has fallen out of favor it’s taken “steward” down with it—at least in reference to air travel.

The usual replacement, “flight attendant,” showed up in the late 1940s, and passed “stewardess” in popularity in the late 1990s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The earliest example we’ve found for “flight attendant” is from the Jan. 26, 1947, issue of the Santa Cruz, Calif., Sentinel about a Hong Kong plane crash in which all four people were killed:

“The company listed those aboard as Capt. O. T. Weymouth, an American pilot, and a crew of three Filipinos, including Miss Lourdes Chuidian, flight attendant.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Have a good one

Q: I’m a reporter at a local public radio station who answers questions from listeners. I wonder if you can help me reply to a man who asks if “have a good one” is specific to the Northwest. I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no. But when and where was the expression first used?

A: You’re right. The expression “have a good one” is not specific to the Northwest. Our searches of digitized newspapers trace it back to the early 1970s. The first examples we’ve found are from papers in New York, Colorado, and California. Now, it’s heard across the US.

Although “have a good one” is relatively new, similar expressions are much older. In fact, “have a good one” ultimately comes from the medieval version of “have a good day.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “have a good day,” which we’ve expanded here, is from Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200:

“And habbeð alle godne dæie, to niht ich wulle faren awæi” (“And have all a good day, for tonight I will go away”). In the citation, Vortiger, the treacherous steward for King Constance, bids goodbye to his knights, who are drinking at an inn.

The dictionary’s next citation is from Sir Degare, a medieval romance dated around 1330: “Haue god dai; i mot gon henne” (“Have a good day; I must go hence”).

And this later example is from John Dryden’s Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), translations of classical and medieval poetry: “But fare well, and haue good daie.” The quote is from Dryden’s version of “The Knight’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386).

The OED defines the usage this way: “In imperative, used to wish someone a good, pleasant, etc., time or experience. Chiefly in phrases expressing good wishes on parting.” Until the 19th century, the dictionary says, the expression seems to have appeared only without the indefinite article “a.”

In the early 1800s, writers began using variations of the expression with the indefinite article, as in this example from Story of Jack Halyard, the Sailor Boy, an 1824 children’s book by the American writer William S. Cardell: “Go, Peter, by all means, and have a lively time with your mates.”

And here’s a variant from The Virginians, an 1859 historical novel by William Makepeace Thackeray: “ ‘Have a good time, Harry!’ and down goes George’s head on the pillow again.”

The first OED example for the original expression used with the indefinite article is from “Echo Hunt,” a hunting story by David Gray in the November 1902 issue of Century Magazine: “ ‘Good sport, Echo Hunt!’ she called. ‘Have a good day!’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the common variant “have a nice day” is from Loneliness, a 1915 novel by Robert Hugh Benson, an Anglican priest later ordained as a Roman Catholic:

“Ah! well. It can’t be helped. Have a nice day, my boy.” Benson died in 1914, a year before the novel was published as Loneliness in the UK and Loneliness? in the US.

In the mid-20th century, Oxford says, these expressions began showing up in US “commercial dealings, esp. in serving customers, as an expression of good wishes and general politeness.”

The dictionary specifically cites the business use of the variants “have a nice day” and later “have a good one,” and adds that the usage is ”sometimes perceived as insincere or shallow.”

The first commercial example in the OED is from the May 19, 1958, issue of Broadcasting magazine: “ ‘Have a happy day’ became his morning greeting to the staff. Now it greets telephone callers to the agency.” The reference is to the president of a Los Angeles ad agency.

The next example is from an ad in the June 3, 1965, New York Times: “Good morning. Today is the day you can start saving money on 914 toner. …. Have a nice day.” (The toner was apparently for the Xerox 914 photocopier.)

As for “have a good one,” the earliest written example we’ve found in our searches is from a personal ad in the Oct. 30, 1972, issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the student newspaper at Columbia University: “PRINCESS, Have a good one. With love, The Frog.”

The next is from the Nov. 6, 1975, issue of the Steamboat Pilot in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Here a columnist bids farewell to readers before leaving on a Mexican vacation: “I won’t say goodbye, only ‘Hasta luego’ have a good one!”

The earliest commercial example we’ve seen for “have a good one” is from a Dec. 25, 1976, ad in the San Bernardino Sun in California: “All May Co stores closed today, Christmas. Have a good one.”

And this one appeared the following year in a holiday message by the Public Service Company of Colorado to the utility’s customers:

“Using energy efficiently will help you get the most for your energy dollar … and leave you more for the holidays! Have a good one!” (From the Nov. 17, 1977, Louisville Times in Boulder County, Colorado.)

A letter in the Feb. 28, 1985, issue of the Daily Kent Stater, the student paper at Kent State University in Ohio, uses the expressing in commenting about the campus bus service:

“At 7 every morning, I am greeted with a sleepy ‘Good morning,’ and every night it was either ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Have a good one.’ ”

Finally, as of now the OED’s only example for “have a good one” is from Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991), by Marjorie Perloff:

“After we land, the smiling flight attendants will surely tell us, yet again, to ‘Enjoy.’ Or, in a slightly more ambiguous version now in vogue, to ‘Have a good one.’ ”

[NOTE: On Oct. 20, 2018, a reader commented, “George Carlin hated the expression ‘Have a good one’ and would answer, ‘I already have a good one. Now I’m looking for a longer one.’ ”]

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you feeling pressurized?

Q: To “pressurize” is, to my mind, quite different from to “pressure.” The former means to inflate something and the latter to put pressure on someone. So why does our inflationary language permit “pressurize” to have both meanings?

A: Well, “pressurize” isn’t a word we’d use in place of “put pressure on” or simply “pressure.” It’s one of those words that seem unnecessary, like “orientate” in place of “orient,” or “preventative” in place of “preventive.”

But to “pressurize” in the nonphysical sense—to put pressure on—is a legitimate usage, one recognized in some standard dictionaries though perhaps not fully accepted in formal American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for instance, labels the verb “informal” when it means “to subject to psychological, political, or other nonphysical pressure,” as in “pressurized the government to enact reforms.”

And the verb is listed as a British usage (often spelled “pressurise”) in three standard dictionaries from the UK: Oxford Dictionaries Online and the online Collins and Macmillan dictionaries.

The verb “pressurize” came along in the 20th century with a purely physical meaning, to manipulate atmospheric pressure in a closed space. And before long, it was being used in the sense you’re talking about, to manipulate a person—that is, to “put pressure on” or “pressure” someone.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the physical sense as “to produce or maintain pressure artificially in (a container, closed space, etc.); spec. to maintain a close-to-normal atmospheric pressure in (an aircraft cabin) at high altitudes.”

The earliest use we’ve found is from the late 1930s: “Without pressurized cabins, planes now fly as high as 14,000 feet; with them, passengers will feel no discomfort at DC-4’s service ceiling, 22,900 feet.” (From Time magazine, May 23, 1938. Here the verb is in the form of a participial adjective.)

The OED’s first citation also uses the verb “pressurize” adjectivally: “The pressurizing mechanism maintains ideal weather within this passenger chamber.” (From an Illinois newspaper, the Freeport Journal-Standard, March 19, 1940.)

The dictionary’s next citation is from a 1944 issue of the journal Aeronautics: “The fuselage will be pressurized so that at all altitudes cabin conditions will be equivalent to a height of 8,000 ft.”

Soon “pressurize” was being used in a more personal sense. The OED defines this as “to subject to moral, psychological, or other non-physical pressure; to put pressure on; to coerce, influence, or urge.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Thus, selective service continues to ‘pressurize’ recalcitrant military unfits into war plants.” (From an Ohio newspaper, the Lima News, Jan. 17, 1945.)

And this is the most recent: “Zia was also pressurized by the United States to roll back the nuclear weapons programme.” (From a 2002 book, The Nuclearization of South Asia, by Kamal Matinuddin.)

However, we’ve found an outlier, a rare example from the 1880s: “If they can wheedle or pressurise the rackrenters into doing what the Lansdownes and Lismores have found it necessary to do, they shall have our hearty good will in the operation.” (From an article about Irish politics, published in the Freeman’s Journal in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 15, 1887.)

We’ll disregard that flash in the pan, and say that for all practical purposes this nonphysical use of “pressurize” was born in the mid-20th century.

As far as we can tell, it’s not a common US usage. In news items, it mostly appears in articles from other English-speaking countries. Most Americans apparently use “pressure” or “put pressure on” when they mean to press, urge, or exert influence on.

The OED discusses the phrase “put pressure on” within its entry for the noun “pressure” as used in the sense of coercion, influence, or psychological force.

As Oxford says, “to put (also bring, exert) pressure on” means “to urge or press strongly or coercively,” or “to apply influence or psychological force.” And a similar phrase, “to bring pressure to bear,” means “to exert influence to a specific end, esp. on a person or thing.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for these phrases is from a 19th-century American newspaper: “The fleet going to the waters of an allied power, not for the purpose of injuring it, or putting any pressure on it, but on the contrary, to be ready to assist that power should it desire.” (The New-York Daily Times, Aug. 4, 1853.)

The earliest example of the “bring pressure to bear” version is from the other side of the Atlantic: “Some pressure had evidently been brought to bear.” (From a letter written by Sir William Hardman on April 21, 1864.)

The dictionary also has examples of variant phrases that mean the same thing, “bring pressure on” (1875) and “exert pressure on” (1961).

To clarify this use of “pressure,” perhaps we should begin with the word that started it all—the noun “press,” meaning a device for compressing, crushing, and so on.

This noun entered late Old English before the Norman Conquest as presse, an early borrowing from French. And in its earliest appearance, in a document that scholars have dated from the late 10th to early 11th century, the word meant a device for stretching and smoothing cloth.

Here’s the OED citation, from a partial list of the tools and machinery used in making textiles: “flexlinan, spinle, reol, gearnwindan, stodlan, lorgas, presse, pihten.” The list is from an Old English manuscript known as the Gerefa, outlining the duties of a gerefa, or reeve, a word that here refers to the steward or manager of an estate.

Those terms can be translated and explained as “flax lines” (for hanging spun flax), “spindle,” “reel” (or bobbin), “yarn winders,” “uprights” (for a vertical loom), “heddle rods” (allowing the weaver to insert the weft threads), “press” (for stretching and smoothing finished cloth), “comb-beater” (for compacting the weft threads).

Our explanation of those Old English terms comes from R. G. Poole’s article “The Textile Inventory in the Old English Gerefa,” published in the Review of English Studies, November 1989.

In later use, the noun “press” had many other meanings related to the exertion of a steady force or a heavy weight.

Instruments called “presses,” according to OED citations, were used in squeezing grapes and olives (circa 1390); in printing and engraving (1535); in torturing prisoners (1742); and in preserving plant specimens (1776).

Other nouns developed in turn, as in the use of “press” to mean a publisher (1579) and print journalism in general (1649).

The verb “press” came after the noun. It first appeared in Middle English around 1330 and had “multiple origins,” the OED says.

The verb was partly derived from the earlier English noun, the dictionary says, but it was also borrowed partly from the French verb presser (to torment, torture, squeeze, harass, crowd) and from the Latin verb pressāre (to exert pressure on, weigh down, press together, squeeze, suppress).

Since the Middle Ages, the English verb has had both literal and figurative meanings—to physically or mentally push, squeeze, crowd, compress, and so on.

For example, “press” in the sense of to bear down (1300s) gave us the adjective “hard-pressed.” Originally it had only the literal sense, firmly compacted (“harde pressed matter,” 1562). But the 18th century brought the figurative meaning: strained or in difficulty (“hard-press’d Virtue,” 1702; “hard pressed to defend themselves,” 1747).

This brings us to the noun “pressure,” which came into English in the late 1300s and originally meant physical pain or discomfort.

In the OED’s earliest example, from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384, “pressure” refers to the pains of childbirth: “Whanne sche hath borun a sone, now sche thenkith not on the pressure or charge for ioye” (“When she has borne a son, she no longer thinks of the pain and inconvenience because of the joy”).

Very soon, “pressure” came to mean “mental oppression or affliction; the burden of grief, troubles, etc.,” the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from The Imitation of Christ, an English translation in the late 1400s of the Latin devotional by Thomas à Kempis: “Þy grace … is … liȝt of þe herte, þe solace of pressure” (“Thy grace … is … light of the heart, the comfort for affliction”).

Then later, in the mid-1600s, “pressure” came to mean a state of difficulty (as in “financial pressure”). This, the OED says, led to the current meaning of “an external force or difficulty causing a person stress or tension,” and hence “a strain, a stress.” Here are a pair of the dictionary’s early and late examples:

“Now is the Time to relieve the poor Farmers, that they may recover their past Losses, and be free from the like Pressures for the future.” (From a British journal, the Landlord’s Companion, 1742.)

“Not that they do not want freedom; but it brings pressures and choices with which they find it hard to cope.” (The Times, London, March 30, 1976.)

The “pressure” that’s meant in the phrase “put pressure on” is the kind that comes from people and not from circumstances. The OED defines it this way: “Psychological or moral influence, esp. of a constraining or oppressive kind,” as in “coercion, persuasion, or dissuasion.”

The earliest recorded use of this sense of “pressure” is from an essay by Francis Bacon (1625), which mentions “pressure of Consciences.”

And the word still has that meaning. This is the OED’s most recent example: “An esthetic judgment can be changed, or confirmed, only under renewed contact with the work of art in question, not through reflection or under the pressure of argument.” (From the posthumously published Homemade Esthetics, 1999, by the art critic Clement Greenberg, who died in 1994.)

The latecomer here is the verb “pressure,” which appeared in the early 20th century and means “to apply pressure to, esp. to coerce or persuade by applying psychological or moral pressure,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from Debates of the House of Commons of Canada (1911): “Extreme protection brought the formation of gigantic trusts, which pressured the consumers, who are now in open revolt against that regime.”

In addition, “to pressure” can mean “to press or agitate” for something (first used this way in 1922), or “to gain through the application of pressure” (1944), as in to “pressure” a settlement.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Can a company be a ‘who’?

Q: I listen to NPR a lot and hear people say things like “a company who is hiring more workers” or “a school who is putting on a festival.” Did I miss the memo that said “who” had replaced “that” and “which”? What is your take on it?

A: We hadn’t noticed this use of “who” for things rather than people until you brought it to our attention. We’re now seeing it a bit, though not all that often in the mainstream media.

In fact, we’ve found only one example in a search of NPR transcripts. Here it is, along with some other “company who” sightings from news sites online:

“It isn’t the best look for a company who is trying to maintain investor confidence” (NPR, Sept. 25, 2018).

“As a company who is just beginning to take its technology out of the lab and into the market, focus is everything” (Forbes, Sept 10, 2018).

“We need to see some units designated as workforce housing and managed by a company who is (already) doing it” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 10, 2018).

“A company who is making more money by cutting back rather than by growing is not an attractive investment and the stock will drop” (Nasdaq, April 13, 2018).

In all those examples, speakers of standard English would normally use “that” or “which” in place of “who.” We should note that some of the examples are from people being interviewed on the news sites, not by journalists at those sites.

Typically, “who” is used only for people and animals with names. Inanimate things and nameless animals are referred to as “that” or “which.”

However, some sentences that at first glance look like those examples above are indeed standard English, as in this definition of “executive secretary” from Macmillan Dictionary online:

“someone with a senior position in a company who is responsible for helping people in senior positions with organization and management.” (The “who” here refers to “someone,” not “company.”)

In the uses we’re discussing, “who,” “that,” and “which” are relative pronouns, words that introduce dependent (or subordinate) clauses, as in these examples: “He’s the guy who stole my car” … “This is the car that [or which] he stole.”

By the way, many people erroneously believe “that” can refer only to a thing, not to a person. However, “that” has been used for both people and things for about 800 years, and the usage is standard English (as in “He’s the guy that found my car”).

On a related issue, a dependent clause that’s not essential (one that can be removed without losing the main point of the sentence) customarily begins with “which” and is set apart with commas: “Mac and cheese, which is our favorite dish, is on the menu twice a week.”

A dependent clause that’s essential can begin with either “that” or “which,” and has no commas: “We prefer the mac and cheese that [or which] comes with wieners.” As we wrote in 2013, “that” is more common in the US and “which” in the UK, though there’s no rule requiring either one in essential clauses.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

The ivied origins of ‘Ivy League’

Q: The Morrises say “Ivy League” comes from the 19th century, when a football league comprising four schools was  designated the “IV League.” This sounds too good to be true. As arbiters of usage, what say you?

A: The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2d ed., 1988), written by William and Mary Morris, presents two theories about the origin of the phrase “Ivy League”—one that it describes as “the more widely accepted” and that we accept too, and one that it calls “fairly plausible” and that we consider an etymological myth.

Let’s look at the facts first. (We’ll discuss the myth briefly later on.)

The term “Ivy League” showed up in writing in the 1930s as a noun phrase for a group of eight long-established colleges and universities in the eastern US: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. In early examples, the phrase was used figuratively for an unofficial sports league representing the colleges.

Most of the dictionaries we’ve consulted trace the usage to the ivy growing on older college buildings. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, explains it this way: “So called because of the ivy-covered older college buildings.”

In fact, the adjective “ivied” and the noun “ivy” were used much earlier to describe the walls of colleges and universities.

Here’s an “ivied” example from “A Reasonable Doubt,” a poem in the January 1888, issue of the Haverfordian, a literary magazine at Haverford College:

“When, from the ivied College Hall / The lights begin to glimmer, / And forth they stroll at even-fall / To watch the starlight shimmer.”

And this “ivy” example, from Red and Black, a 1919 novel by the American writer Grace S. Richmond, describes a country doctor as he prepares to leave for a college reunion:

“He had his ticket and a sleeper reservation—it was fifteen hours’ journey back to the old ivy-covered halls which had grown dearer in his memory with each succeeding year of his absence.”

The earliest known use of the phrase “ivy college,” according to The Yale Book of Quotations, is from an Oct. 14, 1933, football article by Stanley Woodward in the New York Tribune:

“A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.”

The first written example we’ve seen for “Ivy League” used in reference to the eight colleges is in the headline and text of a Feb. 7, 1935, Associated Press sports article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Headline: “Brown Seems To / Have Been Taken / Into ‘Ivy League.’ ” First paragraph: “The so-called ‘Ivy League’ which is in the process of formation among a group of the older eastern universities now seems to have welcomed Brown into the fold and automatically assumed the proportions of a ‘big eight.’ ”

All the examples for “Ivy League” in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 1930s and ’40s use the term in the sense of a sports league. But by the early 1950s, the citations show, the phrase was being used to identify the colleges collectively and to describe the characteristics of the group or the characteristics of its students and graduates.

Here are two OED examples for the new senses from J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye (1951): “My father wants me to go to Yale, or maybe Princeton, but I swear, I wouldn’t go to one of those Ivy League colleges” … “The jerk had one of those very phoney, Ivy League voices, one of those very tired, snobby voices.”

Although the eight colleges had competed against each other in various sports since the 19th century (some since the mid-1800s), it wasn’t until 1945 that their presidents signed the first Ivy Group Agreement, setting  academic, financial, and athletic standards for football teams. In 1954, the presidents voted to extend the agreement to all intercollegiate sports.

As for the myth you asked about, the Morrises cite a single Columbia College graduate as the source of the erroneous belief that the phrase “Ivy League” is derived from the use of a Roman numeral in the phrase “IV League” in reference to a 19th-century sports league that included four teams: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton.

We haven’t found a single written example of “IV League” in newspapers and books from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Representatives of the four schools did meet on Nov. 23, 1876, in Springfield, MA, and agreed on rules for football, according to Football, the American Game (1917), by the football historian Parke Hill Davis. Three of the schools formed The Intercollegiate Football Association, but Yale didn’t join.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When a bomb goes boom

Q: I’ve come across a cartoon online that raises a good question: If “tomb” is pronounced TOOM and “womb” is pronounced WOOM,” why isn’t “bomb” pronounced BOOM?

A: In the past, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” and probably pronounced that way too. In fact, a “bomb” was originally a “boom,” etymologically speaking.

The two words have the same ancestor, the Latin bombus (a booming, buzzing, or humming sound). The Romans got the word from the Greek βόμβος (bómbos, a deep hollow sound), which was “probably imitative in origin,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Latin noun produced the words for “bomb” in Italian and Spanish (bomba), French (bombe), and finally English, where it first appeared in the late 1500s as “bome,” without the final “b.”

The “bome” spelling was a translation of the Spanish term. It was first recorded in Robert Parke’s 1588 English version of a history of China written by Juan González de Mendoza. Here’s the OED citation:

“They vse … in their wars … many bomes of fire, full of olde iron, and arrowes made with powder & fire worke, with the which they do much harme and destroy their enimies.”

After that, however, the word disappeared for almost a century, reappearing as a borrowing of the French bombe, complete with the “b” and “e” at the end.

The earliest English example we’ve found is from A Treatise of the Arms and Engines of War, a 1678 English translation of a French book on war by Louis de Gaya. A section entitled “Of Bombes” begins:

“Bombes are of a late Invention. … They are made all of Iron, and are hollow … they are filled with Fire-works and Powder, and then are stopped with a Bung or Stopple well closed; in the middle of which is left a hole to apply the Fuse to.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest “bombe” example appeared a few years later: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece” (from the London Gazette, 1684).

The first appearances we’ve found of the modern spelling “bomb,” without the “e” on the end, are from a 1680 edition of The Turkish History, by Richard Knolles. The word “bomb” appears more than a dozen times, as both noun and verb.

Here’s a noun example: “twenty of them were killed that day by one Bomb.” And here’s one with the verb: “the Captain General form’d all the Trenches and Traverses for an Attack, and Bomb’d the Town with twenty Mortar-pieces.”

By the mid-1690s the “bomb” spelling had become established enough to appear in an English-to-French dictionary, Abel Boyer’s A Complete French Mastery for Ladies and Gentlemen (1694): “a bomb, une bombe.” That final silent “b” remained in the word, probably for etymological reasons, forever after.

The pronunciation of “bomb” has varied over the centuries, and it still does. Today three pronunciations are considered standard, according to the OED.

The dictionary, using the International Phonetic Alphabet, gives them as /bɒm/, /bʌm/, and /bɑm/, which we might transcribe as BOM, BUM, and BAHM (the first two are British, the third American).

The three vowels sound, respectively, like the “o” in “lot,” the “u” in “cup,” and the “a” in “father.” Furthermore, the British pronunciations are short and clipped in comparison with the American, which is more open and drawn out.

The second British pronunciation, BUM, was “formerly usual” in the British Army, Oxford says. And it apparently was widespread in the 18th century, since it’s the only pronunciation given in several dictionaries of the time, including the most popular one, John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791).

As for the BOOM pronunciation, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” or “boomb,” suggesting that it was pronounced that way too. The OED cites both spellings in an anonymous 1692 diary of the siege and surrender of Limerick: “600 Booms” … “800 Carts of Ball and Boombs.”

And the dictionary points readers to rhymes in poetry, where “bomb” is sometimes rhymed with “tomb” and “womb,” which were pronounced TOOM and WOOM at the time.

Here’s an Oxford citation from “The British Sailor’s Exultation,” a poem Edward Young wrote sometime before his death in 1765: “A thousand deaths the bursting bomb / Hurls from her disembowel’d womb.”

We’ve found a couple of additional examples in poetry of the 1690s.

In a 1692 poem written in rhyming couplets and based on Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, John Crown rhymes “bomb’d” with “entomb’d.” Here are the lines: “The wealthy Cities insolently bomb’d, / The Towns in their own ashes deep entomb’d.”

And Benjamin Hawkshaw’s poem “The Incurable,” written in rhyming triplets, rhymes “womb,” “tomb,” and “bomb.” These are the lines: “It works like lingring Poyson in the Womb, / And each Day brings me nearer to my Tomb, / My Magazin’s consum’d by this unlucky Bomb.” (From Poems Upon Several Occasions, 1693.)

What’s more, the word “boom” (for a loud hollow noise) was sometimes spelled “bomb” or “bombe,” which suggests that the pronunciations occasionally coincided.

This example, cited in the OED, is from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, a natural history, or study of the natural world, published in 1627, a year after his death:

“I remember in Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, there was an Vpper Chamber, which being thought weake in the Roofe of it, was supported by a Pillar of Iron … Which if you had strucke, it would make a little flat Noise in the Roome where it was strucke; But it would make a great Bombe in the Chamber beneath.” (We’ve expanded the citation to give more context.)

And we found this example in a work that discusses sound production, Walter Charleton’s A Fabrick of Science Natural (1654): “As in all Arches, and Concamerated or vaulted rooms: in which for the most part, the sound or voyce loseth its Distinctness, and degenerates into a kind of long confused Bombe.”

In short, it’s safe to say that that “bomb” was probably pronounced BOOM by some educated speakers in the 17th century.

As we’ve noted, the word didn’t appear until 1588, during the modern English period. As far as we know, the final “b” was never pronounced. But the other words you mention, “womb” and “tomb,” are much older, and the “b” in their spellings was originally pronounced.

In the case of “womb,” a Germanic word that dates back to early Old English, it originally had a different vowel sound, too. But beginning in the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1500), the “oo” vowel sound developed and the “b” became silent.

As for “tomb,” a Latin-derived word that English borrowed from the French toumbe around 1300, it came with the “oo” vowel sound, and the “b” became silent in later Middle English. The “b” remained in the spelling, though in the 16th and 17th centuries the word occasionally appeared as “toom” or “toome,” according to OED citations.

Several other words ending in “b” (“lamb,” “dumb,” “comb,” “climb,” “plumb”) originally had an audible “b,” but it became silent during the Middle English period. Linguists refer to this shift in pronunciation from “mb” to “m” as an example of “consonant cluster reduction.”

We wrote a post in 2009 about other kinds of spelling puzzles—why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme, and why silent letters appear in words like “sword” and “knife.” And in 2017 we discussed “-ough” spellings (“enough,” “ought,” “though,” “through,” etc.), which are pronounced in many different ways.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

A verb to be suspicioned?

Q: I recently saw this pitch online for a silk throw: “Comes complete with the Hyena label to show you really are as cool as your friends had suspicioned!” I can’t believe that use of “suspicion” as a verb is ever correct. Or am I just behind the times? (I’m almost 65.)

A: You can find the verb “suspicion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, as well as in several standard dictionaries.

However, the usage is variously described as informal, dialectal, colloquial, or substandard. We’d add unidiomatic—that is, not natural for a native speaker of standard English.

The use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect” appeared in English in the early 1600s, according to the OED, but this early sighting “appears to be a fortuitous occurrence unrelated to later uses.”

Here’s the early outlier: “Suspicioning of himselfe, that if he should grow negligent, he might come to loose his magnanimity” (from the English scholar Nicholas Ferrar’s translation, sometime before his death in 1637, of a treatise by the Spanish religious writer Juan de Valdés).

The usage, described as “dialect and colloq.” in the OED, reappeared in the early 1800s on the other side of the Atlantic, and it’s been found since then in both American and British English.

The earliest US example we’ve seen, cited by the Dictionary of American Regional English, is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, a New Englander, about his travels in the South and West:

“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense … as … to suspicion one.” (Knight, who later became an Episcopal clergyman, published a collection of his letters in 1824 under the pseudonym “Arthur Singleton, Esq.”)

The OED’s first 19th-century British example (from Frederick Marryat’s Diary in America, 1839) quotes an American: “I suspicion as much.”

The next one is from Stanton Grange: or, At a Private Tutor’s (1864), by John Christopher Atkinson: “They suspicioned all wasn’t reet” (“right” was pronounced “reet” in some British dialects).

DARE describes the usage as “old-fash.” and says it’s especially found in the  South and South Midland regions of the US.

The regional dictionary has more than two dozen US examples. The latest four, dated 1986, are from Tennessee (“They suspicion he did it”), Georgia (“Where you might be suspicioned”), Arizona (“It was suspicioned”), and Florida (“They sort of suspicioned”). DARE cites the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States: Concordance, edited by Lee Pedersen, for these four examples.

The OED citations indicate that the verb “suspicion” is usually transitive (with an object), as in Mark Twain’s 1876 novel Tom Sawyer: “Anybody would suspicion us that saw us.”

But the verb is occasionally intransitive, as in “An Habitation Enforced,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling in the August 1905 issue of Century Magazine: “An’ d’you mean to tell me you never suspicioned?”

We’ve found four standard dictionaries that include the use of “suspicion” as a verb meaning “to suspect.” It’s labeled “informal” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), “chiefly dialectal” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “Informal or Dial.” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), and “chiefly substandard” in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.

As for the etymology, the noun and verb “suspicion” as well as the noun, adjective, and verb “suspect” ultimately come from suspicĕre, classical Latin for “look up to,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As Ayto explains, suspicĕre “evolved metaphorically along two lines: ‘look up to, admire,’ which has since died out, and ‘look at secretly,’ hence ‘look at distrustfully,’ which has passed into English.”

The English word “suspect” comes from suspect-, the past participial stem of suspicĕre, while the English word “suspicion” comes from suspectio, a medieval Latin derivative of suspicĕre.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

When writing is ‘boilerplate’

Q: Why are standard clauses in contracts and stock phrases in speeches called “boilerplate”? I can’t see what this usage has to do with boilers or plates.

A: When “boilerplate” first appeared in mid-19th-century English, it referred literally to the rolled iron plates used to make steam boilers.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from an 1860 history of coal mining and iron making by William Fordyce:

“The Staffordshire iron-masters enjoyed almost exclusively the advantages conferred by the rolling-mill in the production of various descriptions of Iron, such as nail-rods, boiler-plates, hoop and sheet iron, wire &c.”

And this example is from Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines (1875), by Robert Hunt and Frederick William Rudler:

“Boiler Plate: ‘Sheets of iron used for making boilers, and now largely employed for constructing railway bridges, ships, tanks, &c.’ ” The OED uses a different example from Ure’s Dictionary.

In the late 19th century, according to Oxford citations, the term “boilerplate” also took on the sense of “syndicated matter issued to the newspaper press.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an Aug. 18, 1893, item in the Congressional Record about the use of political handouts as news: The country weeklies have been sent tons of ‘boiler plates’ accompanied by … letters asking the editors to use the matter as news.”

But we’ve found several earlier examples. In the two earliest, an Arizona newspaper, the Daily Tombstone, calls a competing paper “the ‘boiler plate’ ” because of its reliance on syndicated material.

In its April 10, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The vandal who edits the ‘boiler plate’ around the corner … uses the columns … to vent his spleen upon the Irish, and continues to do so in every issue.”

And in its April 23, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The ‘boiler plate’ this morning uses language … which is unfit for publication, let alone to go into families where there are young children.”

We also found this example from the July 19, 1888, issue of the Stark County Democrat in Canton, OH: “It is conceded that our esteemed evening contemporary is printed largely from boiler plate matter, and not from type set up by home labor in the home office.”

So why was syndicated news copy referred to as “boilerplate”?

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “The syndicates delivered that copy on metal plates with the type already in place so the local papers wouldn’t have to set it. Printers apparently dubbed those syndicated plates boiler plates because of their resemblance to the plating used in making steam boilers.”

“Soon boilerplate came to refer to the printed material on the plates as well as to the plates themselves,” M-W adds. “Because boilerplate stories were more often filler than hard news, the word acquired negative connotations and gained another sense widely used today: ‘hackneyed or unoriginal writing.’ ”

In our research, we came across an interesting description of boilerplate editing in the 19th century:

“In these days of ‘boiler plate’ most of the editing … is done with an axe and a saw. The ‘plate’ matter is cut so as to fill whatever space is allotted to it, and after that is done the paper is ready for the press.” (From the Oct. 20, 1894, issue of Our Paper, the newspaper at a reformatory in Concord Junction, MA.)

It’s hard to tell exactly when the term “boilerplate” came to mean formulaic writing. Many of the examples we’ve seen in searches of digitized books and newspapers could be using the term for either syndicated material or formulaic writing.

The earliest definite example that we’ve found is from Influencing Human Behavior, a 1925 book by the American writer and lecturer Harry Allen Overstreet: “The inveterate cliché-ist is apt to be the inveterate platitudinarian. He is animated boiler plate.”

Finally, the use of “boilerplate” for standard legal clauses apparently showed up in the second half of the 20th century. We haven’t seen an earlier legal example than this expanded OED citation from Doll, a 1965 novel in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of police procedurals:

“The rest of the will was boilerplate. Meyer scanned it quickly, and then turned to the last page where Tinka had signed her name.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

‘Whatever’ or ‘what ever’?

Q: Is the one-word or two-word form correct here? Or are both correct? If not, which is preferred? And why? (1) Whatever happened to so-and-so? (2) What ever happened to so-and-so?

A: The compound words formed with the adverb “ever” were originally two separate words, though today they’re nearly always written as one: “whoever,” “however,” “wherever,” and so on.

But in the case of “what” + “ever,” you have a choice when asking a question. “Whatever” is more common, but “what ever” is also used to underscore the emphatic nature of “ever” (as in “What ever do you mean?” or “What ever could have happened?”).

Most standard dictionaries don’t include a separate entry for “what ever.” The few that do say “what ever” is more emphatic than “whatever.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, says “what ever” is “used for emphasis in questions, typically expressing surprise or confusion,” and it gives this example: “What ever did I do to deserve him?”

The online Macmillan Dictionary says the two-word version is “used for emphasizing a question, especially when you are surprised or upset,” and gives this example: “What ever gave you that idea?”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has no separate entry for “what ever,” but mentions it in a usage note in its entry for “whatever”:

“Both whatever and what ever may be used in sentences such as Whatever (or What ever) made her say that? … In adjectival uses, however, only the one-word form is used: Take whatever (not what ever) books you need.”

We mention “whatever” (also “whatsoever”) in a 2011 post we wrote about similar two- and three-word compounds. Among the other words we discuss are “albeit,” “heretofore,” “inasmuch,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and “notwithstanding.”

Most of the “ever” combinations came along during the Middle English period—roughly from the late 11th to the late 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Although they started out as phrases, they’re now “usually” or “always” written as single words, depending on where you look in the OED.

As the dictionary explains, “ever” is used “following interrogative adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions (e.g. how, what, when, where, who, why), to intimate that the speaker has no idea of what the answer will be.”

So the “ever” in “whatever” lends emphasis to a question that could very well be asked with “what” alone. (In fact, “whatever” is sometimes called an emphatic interrogative pronoun.)

And the two-word “what ever,” which isolates and underscores the “ever” part of the compound, further accentuates the note of surprise, bewilderment, or disbelief.

The earliest “ever” compound, and the only one known to have existed in Old English, was the pronoun “whoever” (written hwa æfre), according to Oxford citations.

The others, along with the dates they first appeared, include the pronoun and adjective “whatever” (written “what euer,” early 1300s); the adverb “however” (“hou-euer,” c. 1380); the adverb and conjunction “whenever” (“whanne evere,” c. 1380), the adverb and conjunction “wherever” (“ware euere,” c. 1275); and the adverb “why ever” (1660), the only one still generally written as two words.

The OED’s earliest citation for “whatever” is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “But what euer he had in þouȝt” (“But whatever he had in thought”). Here the word is a pronoun introducing a clause.

Soon the compound was also being written as one word, as in this OED example: “Son, what may al this noys be … Whateuer sal it sygnyfy?” (From a manuscript of The Seuyn Sages that probably dates from around 1330.) Here the pronoun is interrogative.

The OED has many examples of both “whatever” and “what ever” over the centuries. And the two-word version is still around, as in this citation from Vanity Fair in November 2013: “What ever happened to style?”

“Whatever” is also used following a noun to mean something like “at all,” in which case it behaves like an adverb. The examples range from 1623 (“more withered and dry than … any other Tree whateuer”) to 1884 (“had no chance whatever”). In this usage, it’s always one word.

And as we all know, “whatever” is also used as an interjection in a sometimes dismissive way, as in “Yeah, whatever.”

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker’s reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.”

Oxford labels the usage colloquial and says it originated in the US. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1965 episode of the TV series Bewitched.

As fans of the sitcom will recall, Samantha’s mother, Endora, persisted in mispronouncing her son-in-law’s name. Here’s the exchange cited in the OED:

Endora. “Good morning, Derwood.”
Samantha. “Darrin.”
Endora. “Whatever.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

What the rooster useter do

Q:I run a class for language-obsessed retirees in Australia, where “useter” is commonly used for “used to,” as in “I useter drive a Volvo” or “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” May I ask you to write about this usage?

A: The word spelled “useter” represents the way some people pronounce “used to”—same meaning, different spelling. And it’s found in the US and Britain as well as in Australia.

So a sentence spoken as “I useter drive a Volvo” would be written more formally as “I used to drive a Volvo.” And the question “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” would be written as “Didn’t you use to drive a Volvo?”

The spelling “useter” arose as a variant “representing a colloquial pronunciation of used to,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When “useter” appears in the dictionary’s written examples, it’s always an attempt to imitate the spoken usage.

The OED cites published examples of “useter” in both American and British English dating from the mid-19th century. In its earliest appearance, the word is spelled “use ter”:

“You don’t know no more ’bout goin’ to sea than I knows about them ’Gyptian lookin’ books that you use ter study when you went to College.” (From an 1846 novel, The Prince and the Queen, by the American writer and editor Justin Jones, who wrote fiction under the pseudonym Harry Hazel.)

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper, the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), dated June 14, 2003: “They useter ’ave a big Rockweiler … but it got nicked.”

Among the OED’s examples is one spelled “useta,” representing what’s probably the more common American pronunciation:

“I useta beg her to keep some of that stuff in a safe-deposit box.” From The Burglar in the Closet (1980), by the American mystery writer Lawrence Block.

As we said in a recent post, this sense of “use” in the phrase “used to” refers to an action in the past that was once habitual but has been discontinued.

We won’t say any more about the etymology of “use,” since we covered it in that post. But we’ll expand a bit on the sense of “use” as a verb that roughly means “customarily do.”

This sense of “use” has died out in the present tense. A 17th-century speaker might have said, “John uses to drink ale,” but today the present-tense version would be “John usually [or customarily or habitually] drinks ale.”

In modern English, this sense of “use” is found only in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally he drives a Ford, but he used [or did use] to drive a Volvo.”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, the phrase sounds like “use to,” and people sometimes write it that way in error.

As the OED explains, the “d” and the “t” sounds in “used to” became “assimilated” in both British and American English, and “attempts to represent these pronunciations in writing gave rise to use to as a spelling for used to.” The “use to” spelling “occurs from at least the late 17th cent. onwards,” the dictionary says.

Another irregularity is that people commonly—but redundantly—use “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to drive a Volvo?” But with “did,” the normal form is “use” (“Did he use to drive a Volvo?”).

As Pat explains in her book Woe Is I, “did use” is another way of saying “used,” just as “did like” is another way of saying “liked.” And just as we don’t write “did liked,” we shouldn’t write “did used.” She gives this usage advice:

  • If there’s no “did,” choose “used to” (as in “Isaac used to play golf”).
  • If there’s a “did,” choose “use to” (as in “Isaac did use to play golf” … “Did Isaac use to play squash?” … “No, he didn’t use to play squash”).

As you’ve noticed, questions and negative statements like those last two are sometimes constructed differently.

Americans, and many speakers of British English, typically say, “Did he use to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he didn’t use to drive a Volvo.”

But sometimes, sentences like these get a different treatment in British English: “Used he to drive a Volvo?” …”Usedn’t he to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he used not [or usedn’t] to drive a Volvo.”

What’s happening in those negative examples? The OED says that “not” sometimes directly modifies “use,” resulting in “the full form used not… although usedn’t occasionally occurs as well as usen’t.”

In closing, we’ll share a few lines from Irving Berlin’s 1914 song “I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm)”:

I miss the rooster,
The one that useter
Wake me up at four A.M.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you feeling cantankerous?

Q: Many of the recent articles about John McCain have described the late senator as “cantankerous,” which leads me to ask you where this odd-looking word comes from.

A: When the word first appeared in writing in the early 1700s, it was described as a term in the Kentish dialect spoken in southeast England. In the late 1700s, it was said to be a term in the Wiltshire dialect in southwest England.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the dialectal usage may have evolved from the Middle English contak or conteke (quarreling) and contekour or conteckour (a quarrelsome person)—perhaps influenced by a word like “rancorous.”

The OED defines “cantankerous” as “showing an ill-natured disposition; ill-conditioned and quarrelsome, perverse, cross-grained.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from An Alphabet of Kenticisms (1736), by the antiquarian Samuel Pegge: “Contancrous, peevish, perverse, prone to quarrelling.”

The next Oxford example is from She Stoops to Conquer, a 1773 comedy by Oliver Goldsmith: “There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous toad in all Christendom.”

This citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Rivals, a 1775 comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan:

“But I hope, Mr. Faulkland, as there are three of us come on purpose for the game—you won’t be so cantanckerous as to spoil the party by sitting out.”

And in this entry from A Provincial Glossary: With a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (2nd ed., 1790), the lexicographer Francis Grose tracks the usage to Wiltshire: “Contankerous. Quarrelsome. Wilts.”

The first OED example with the modern spelling cites a March 24, 1842 letter by the English author Mary Russell Mitford addressed “To Miss Barrett, Wimpole Street”:

“I rather have a fancy for Mr. Roebuck, who is as cantankerous and humorous (in the old Shakesperian sense) as Cassius himself.” (From an 1870 collection of Mitford’s letters, edited by Alfred Guy Kingan L’Estrange.) John Arthur Roebuck was a British politician.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

The Grammarphobia Blog

Aurelians or lepidopterists?

Q: I’m writing an article about a European lepidopterist, and I’ve discovered that a butterfly collector in Europe is sometimes called an aurelian. I’ve found several tangential connections to a Roman emperor, but nothing solid. Can you help me explain the usage to my readers?

A:Yes, “aurelian” is a rare old term for “lepidopterist.” It’s still alive, though barely. We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and only one includes the usage. Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “a collector and breeder of moths and butterflies.”

The noun isn’t related to Aurelian, the third-century Roman emperor whose Latin name was Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus. It’s derived from “aurelia,” the chrysalis or pupa of an insect. The chrysalis, as you know, is the hardened outer covering of the pupa, an insect in the immature, non-feeding stage between larva and adult.

The words “aurelia” and “chrysalis” are ultimately derived from the Latin and Greek terms for gold, aurum and χρῡσός (chrisos).

The Latin chrȳsallis comes from the Greek χρυσαλλίς (chrysalis), meaning “the gold-coloured sheath of butterflies,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Although some butterfly chrysalises are gold in color, others are black, brown, green, pink, purple, and so on.

The first of these terms to show up in English was “aurelia,” which the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines as “the chrysalis or pupa of an insect, esp. of a butterfly. (Now scarcely in use, chrysalis being the ordinary term.)”

The earliest example in the dictionary for “aurelia” (as the plural “aureliaes”) is from a 1608 treatise on zoology by the English clergyman and writer Edward Topsell: “All Catterpillers are not conuerted into Aureliaes.”

The term “chrysalis” (in the plural “chrysallides”) appeared in 1658 in an expanded version of Topsell’s treatise that was revised posthumously: “Transmutations … of Catterpillers … into Chrysallides (that shine as if leaves of gold were laid upon them).”

As for the people who study butterflies, moths, and other insects, the terms “entomologist” and “aurelian” appeared in writing in the late 18th century and “lepidopterist” in the 19th century.

The first OED citation for “entomologist” is from an April 18, 1771, report in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: “The entomologists have ranked the bivalve insects under the genus of the monoculi.” (The italics here are in the original, though not in the Oxford citation.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the noun “aurelian” is in the title and text of a 1766 book by the English entomologist Moses Harris: The Aurelian: or, Natural History of English Insects; Namely, Moths and Butterflies. The subtitle says the book uses the “standard names, as given and established by the worthy and ingenious Society of Aurelians.” (The OED cites a 1778 edition of the book.)

In his preface, Harris notes that the Society of Aurelians used to meet in the 1740s at the Swan Tavern in London, but disbanded after March 27, 1748, when a fire destroyed the tavern along with the society’s specimens, illustrations, and library. Harris formed a new Aurelian Society in 1762, one of several short-lived societies with that name. We haven’t found any earlier written mention of the first society.

”Lepidopterist,” the latecomer entomologically as well as etymologically, appeared in the early 19th century. The OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from An Introduction to Entomology; or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects (1826), by William Kirby and William Spence:

“If a Lepidopterist goes into the wood to capture moths in the day-time, he finds them often perched on the lichens that cover the north side of the trunk of a tree, with their wings and antennae folded.”

Oxford says the term comes from Lepidoptera, modern Latin for a “large order of insects, characterized by having four membranous wings covered with scales; it comprises the butterflies and moths.”

Interestingly, this modern Latin term is derived from the old Greek words λεπίς (lepis, scale) and πτερόν (pteron, wing). A modern Latin word made of two old Greek terms? Well, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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