The Grammarphobia Blog

And then there were none

Q: I keep hearing from “educated” sources statements such as “none of us are going tonight.” It affects my ears like chalk scraping on the chalkboard. Do my old teachers’ rules no longer apply?

A: The belief that “none” is always singular is a common misconception. If you’re skeptical, check any dictionary.

“There is little justification, historical or grammatical, for this view,” says Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), adding that the pronoun “has been used for around a thousand years with both a singular and a plural verb, depending on the context and the emphasis needed.”

The truth is that “none” has been both singular and plural since Anglo-Saxon times. In general, it’s construed as singular if it means “none of it” and plural if it means “none of them.”

In the fourth edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she says that “generations of us were taught (incorrectly) as schoolchildren that none is always singular because it means ‘not one.’ ” In fact, she explains, “none” has been “closer in meaning to ‘not any.’ ”

Consequently, Pat adds, “most authorities agree it usually means ‘not any of them’ and is plural.”

She gives these examples (with the verbs underlined): “None of the cheese puffs were eaten. None of the buffalo wings were touched.”

None is singular,” she says, “only when it means ‘none of it’ (that is to say, ‘no amount’),” and gives the example “However, none of the beer was wasted.”

(We’ve also written about “none” several times on our blog, most recently in 2012.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says that since the days of Old English, “none” has been used as both a singular and a plural pronoun. However, “singular agreement,” the dictionary says, “has generally been less common than plural agreement, especially between the 17th and 19th centuries.”

The dictionary says that “none,” when it means “not any (one) of a number of people or things,” is used “commonly with plural agreement.”

In this way, the OED suggests, it’s similar to another definition of “none”—that is, “no people”—a definition that also dates from Old English and is construed as plural (“Now the commoner usage, the singular being expressed by no one”).

So how did generations of English teachers come to believe otherwise? As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “The notion that it [none] is singular only is a myth of unknown origin that appears to have arisen in the 19th century.”

Where did the notion come from? The answer probably lies in the word’s etymology. “None” is derived from Old English words for “not” and “one,” which seems to have led to a belief it can only mean “not one.”

Merriam-Webster’s comments: “The Old English nan ‘none’ was in fact formed from ne ‘not’ and an ‘one,’ but Old English nan was inflected for both singular and plural. Hence it never has existed in the singular only; King Alfred the Great used it as a plural as long ago as A.D. 888.”

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Ouija talk

Q: I’ve read that the word “Ouija,” as in “Ouija board,” comes from an ancient Egyptian term for good luck. Is this true? If not, what’s the real story?

A: As far as we can tell, no Egyptian term like that existed. At least we couldn’t find one in searching transliterations of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and cursive terms. You can blame the guy who patented the Ouija board for linking the name to Egypt and luck, presumably as a marketing ploy.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which says “Ouija” is of uncertain origin, notes three theories: it’s (1) a combination of oui and ja, the French and German words for “yes”; (2) “an ancient Egyptian word for ‘good luck’ (although apparently no such word exists),” and (3) from Oujda, the name of a city in Morocco.

The earliest written example we’ve found for the word is from a May 28, 1890, patent application for a “Ouija or Egyptian luck-board” that’s described as “a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions and having them answered by the device.”

The patent application was signed by Elijah J. Bond, identified as the inventor, and assigned to Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin, two owners of the Kennard Novelty Company, the first manufacturer of the Ouija board.

The patent was registered on Feb. 10, 1891, a week after a trademark for “Ouija” was registered with the US Patent Office. The patent and trademark are now held by Hasbro, the toy and board game company.

Although the name “Ouija” is usually capitalized when referring to the trademarked board game, it’s often lowercased in referring to other so-called talking boards used by spiritualists and others trying to communicate with the world beyond. As for the pronunciation, you can find both WEE-juh and WEE-jee in standard dictionaries.

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It’s Emma Woodhouse, you know

Q: In rereading Emma, I’ve noticed that several of Jane Austen’s characters, including Emma herself, repeatedly use the phrase “you know.” I would have thought that this was a modern verbal tic. When did people begin you-knowing each other?

A: English speakers have been using “you know” colloquially for emphasis since the Middle Ages. It’s short for “as you know,” “as you may know,” “as you should know,” and so on.

The parenthetical expression is so common that it’s also used as a conversational filler while a speaker considers what to say next. And, as you say, it’s often merely a verbal tic, one we ourselves have struggled to suppress.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the emphatic usage, which we’ll expand here, is from The Romance of William of Palerne (circa 1350), an anonymous Middle English translation of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale written around 1200:

“He is my lege man, lelly þou knowes, for holly þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“He is my liege man, truly you know, for wholly the land he has he holds for myself”). In feudal law, a liege man was a vassal.

As for Emma, “you know” is generally used for emphasis and (we assume) to add a conversational tone to the dialogue.

For example, Emma uses the phrase emphatically to remind Mr. Knightly that she arranged (or so she thinks) the marriage between Miss Taylor, her former governess, and Mr. Weston.

“I made the match, you know, four years ago; and to have it take place, and be proved in the right, when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for any thing.”

Emma’s father uses it for emphasis here: “Whenever James goes over to see his daughter, you know, she will be hearing of us.” James is the Woodhouse coachman, and his daughter Hannah is a housemaid for the Westons.

Harriet Smith uses it similarly while talking to Emma about Robert Martin: “I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time.”

The linguist Chi Luu, in a Dec. 12, 2018, article in JSTOR Daily, notes that Harriet overuses “you know” when she’s nervous. Luu considers it a verbal tic in this passage describing a chance encounter with Mr. Martin:

“I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how; and then I took courage, and said it did not rain, and I must go.”

Luu, who has degrees in literature and theoretical linguistics, adds that Austen uses “very,” another intensifier, “so much more in Emma than in any other work that it can’t be accidental.” She cites a study of the language in Emma by the linguist Janine Barchas.

In “Very Austen: Accounting for the Language of Emma,” Barchas includes figures showing that Austen uses “very” 1,212 times in Emma as opposed to 758 in the runner-up, Mansfield Park (from the December 2007 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature).

We’ll end with an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s review of Emma, in which he playfully notes Austen’s use of intensifiers: “Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.”

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Fixing the damn roads

Q: Gretchen Whitmer, our new governor in Michigan, ran at least in part on a pledge to “fix the damn roads.” She hauls out that line on a regular basis. When did “damned” shrink to “damn”? And for that matter when did “waxed paper” and “popped corn” become “wax paper” and “popcorn”?

A: Both “damn” and “damned” as well as “wax” and “waxed” have been used adjectivally for hundreds of years, while the movie munchie has been written variously as “popped corn,” “pop corn,” and “popcorn” over the last century and a half.

The loss of the “-ed” in these terms isn’t at all surprising. The “-ed” ending can be difficult to pronounce before a consonant. As a result, it’s often dropped in speech, or not heard when pronounced. This can lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

The use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation, which uses the word in both senses, is from The Taming of the Shrew, a Shakespeare comedy believed written in the early 1590s: “Where is that damned villaine Tranio?”

The earliest Oxford example for “damn” used similarly, which we’ll expand a bit, appeared in the late 18th century: “a man that was in Company there the evening before that cut up a caper and was noted for a damn cuss” (from a March 12, 1775, entry in the Narragansett [R.I.] Historical Register).

Although you can find this use of both “damn” and “damned” in standard dictionaries, the shorter version is more popular now in newspapers, magazines, and books.

A search of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, indicates that the expression your governor used, “damn roads,” is 20 times as popular as “damned roads.” A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows the unsuffixed version is more than twice as popular.

The earliest OED example for “wax” used adjectivally is from Anglo-Saxon times: “Funalia, cerei, waex-condel” (an entry for “wax candle” in the Corpus Glossary, circa 725, a Latin-Old English glossary preserved at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). The Old English waex in the compound waex-condel is an attributive noun—a noun used adjectivally.

The dictionary’s first example for “waxed” used as a participial adjective is from a Middle English account of St. Augustine’s life, written sometime before 1380. Here’s an expanded version of the citation from Sammlung Altenglische Legenden, an 1878 collection of medieval English legends edited by Carl Horstmann:

“Þe ache for þe tyme was so stronge / þat he lafte þe speche of his tonge. / Þerfore in a waxed table / he wrot þat alle men, wiþouten fable, / for him schulde preize God witerly” (“The ache was so strong that he was speechless for the time being. Therefore he wrote on a waxed tablet that all honest men should praise God truly”).

As for paper treated with wax, the phrase “waxed paper” showed up in the mid-18th century, while “wax paper” appeared in the early 19th, according to our searches of digitized books. Here are the earliest examples we’ve seen for each phrase:

“The merchant now thinks it necessary to enclose all his country despatches in oiled or waxed paper cases, as he is aware that the rivers will soon be flooded, and that the Tapall [postman] must swim over with the post-bags on his head” (from Sketches of India, 1750, by Henry Moses).

“The pattern must first be cut out, and afterwards traced on the wax paper with a pencil, and again cut out with a sharp pair of scissors” (from The Wreath, Or Ornamental Artist, 1835, written anonymously by “A Lady”). The passage is from instructions for making a decorative light fixture out of wax paper.

You can find both “wax paper” and “waxed paper” in standard dictionaries. The shorter version is nearly twice as popular in the NOW database of online newspapers and magazines, but the two phrases are equally popular in the digitized books searched by Ngram Viewer.

Finally, we get to “popcorn,” which was “pop corn” when it first appeared in writing in the 19th century as the corn grown for popping.

The earliest example in the OED is from a newspaper in Norwalk, Ohio: “We believe, if the pop corn was not flinty, it would be a better crop, and certainly a more productive one, than the large eared corn” (from the Huron [County] Reflector, May 15, 1838).

It’s “popped corn” in the dictionary’s first citation for corn that’s been popped: “I have been popping corn to-night, which is only a more rapid blossoming of the seed under a greater than July heat. The popped corn is a perfect winter flower, hinting of anemones and houstonias” (from a Jan. 3, 1842, entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal).

We’ve found several 19th-century examples of the snack written as “popcorn,” the only version now in standard dictionaries. This one is from the October 1879 issue of Potter’s American Monthly: “PopCorn balls and cider, that’s the bill of fare; popcorn and cider. There is something in a five-cent popcorn ball that just knocks a butter-brown country girl off her pins.”

Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example with the usual spelling: “He purchased a large bag of popcorn” (Just William, 1922, a collection of short stories by the English writer Richmal Crompton).

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Virile Viagra vs. wimpy sildenafil

Q: The brand names of drugs are often memorable while the generics can be tongue twisters. Where do generic names come from?

A: Yes, the brand names of drugs can indeed be catchy, while the generics are usually forgettable. The proprietary name “Viagra,” for example, suggests vigor and virility, while the generic name, “sildenafil,” is wimpy and hard to pronounce.

The names of modern generic drugs are made up of fragments, called “stems,” that are generally based on Latin and denote the drug’s medical function.

The US National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, maintains a list of these stems, and every generic drug has to have one somewhere in its name.

The stem is usually at the end, as with “sildenafil.” The “afil” stem means the drug increases blood flow to the penis and enhances erectile function (technically, it’s a phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitor with vasodilator action).

At least nine other generic drugs have “afil” in their names, including “vardenafil” (Levitra) and “tadalafil” (Cialis). In Latin, the “a-” prefix can mean “off” or “away,” while “filum” is a “thread” or “filament.”

The more familiar stems “micin” and “mycin (as in generic names like “gentamicin” and “lincomycin”) are for antibiotic drugs; the different spellings mean they treat different strains of bacteria.

Those stems were created in the mid-20th century from –myces, a suffix in scientific Latin that’s used in genus names and that comes from the ancient Greek μύκης (mukēs, fungus), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And the stem “vastatin” (as in “simvastatin,” “lovastatin,” “pravastatin”) is for antihyperlipidemics—that is, drugs that help reduce lipid levels in the blood and thus treat high cholesterol.

The “vas” in such names, the OED says, is “perhaps” modeled on physiological terms that include “vaso-” (from the Latin vās for “vessel,” the source of “vascular”). And the “statin” part is modeled on scientific terms that include “stato-” (from ancient Greek στατός or statós, for a standing still).

To use a more recent example, generic names for so-called “medical marijuana” drugs include the stem “nab” (as in “nabazenil” and “dronabinol”). The stem means the drugs are derivatives of cannabinol, a substance found in cannabis, a word found in classical Latin (cannabis means hemp), from the ancient Greek κάνναβις (kánnabis).

The procedures for assigning names to new drugs are quite complicated. Every drug that comes to market must have a generic name as well as a brand name, and there are separate sets of agencies and regulations involved in the approval of each, but we’ll concern ourselves only with generics.

In the US, manufacturers suggest possible generic names (each including the appropriate stem) to the United States Adopted Names Council. The council then submits its top three choices to the World Health Organization’s International Nonproprietary Names program, which chooses a single generic name by which that drug will be known worldwide.

The rules for all this are stringent. Because generic names are used in many different languages, for example, the letters “h,” “j,” “k,” and “w” are ruled out since they might create confusion. And names are carefully vetted to make sure they don’t have obscene or profane connotations in any of the World Health Organization’s member countries.

For more detail, there are interesting articles on the websites of the American Medical Association and Chemical & Engineering News.

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A pasta noodle maker?

Q: A friend of mine refers to his pasta maker as a “pasta noodle maker.” Since “pasta” by definition is a “noodle,” is that not redundant?

A: A noodle is a type of pasta, but not every type of pasta is a noodle.

Standard dictionaries define “noodle” as a long, narrow strip of dough, and most dictionaries say it’s usually made with flour, water, and eggs. However, “pasta” comes in many shapes (elbows, bow ties, tubes, shells, alphabet letters, etc.), and it’s often made without eggs.

We agree with you that “pasta noodle maker” is redundant, though we’re not particularly bothered by it. And some people might find it a colorful way of referring to a pasta machine that’s primarily used to make noodles. However, we’d refer to such a machine as either a “pasta maker” or a “noodle maker.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “noodle” as “a narrow, ribbonlike strip of dough, usually made of flour, eggs, and water.” It defines “pasta” as “unleavened dough, made with wheat or other flour, water, and sometimes eggs, that is molded into any of a variety of shapes and boiled.”

As for the history of these two words, English borrowed “noodle” from German in the 18th century and “pasta” from Italian in the 19th, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED says “noodle” comes from the German nudel, which is “probably a variant of knödel dumpling.” In medieval German, knödel could mean a small knot.

The dictionary’s first example for “noodle” in the pasta sense is from a 1779 entry in the journal of Lady Mary Coke: “A noodle soup—this I begged to be explained and was told it was made only of veal with lumps of bread boiled in it.”

An unrelated “noodle,” meaning “a stupid or silly person,” had appeared half a century earlier, as we note in a 2009 post about the various “noodle” terms in English.

That noun’s origin is uncertain, but the OED says it may be a variant of an even earlier word, “noddle,” which meant the head (or the back of the head) and was frequently used “in contexts suggesting emptiness or stupidity.”

As for “pasta,” the Italian word is derived from the medieval Latin pasta (pastry cake), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. It’s related to our words “paste” (originally a cooking term) and “pastry.”

The first OED citation for “pasta” is from an early 19th-century travel book: “Maccaroni, like vermicelli, is only one of the forms into which the Italians make what they call ‘pasta’ or paste. It requires a particular sort of wheat, a brittle, flinty grain, to make this pasta” (from Journal of a Tour in Italy, 1830, by James Paul Cobbett).

The OED also has a somewhat earlier example in which “pasta” is used in an Italian phrase: “The Italians prefer that [macaroni] which is fresh made, and made at home, and called pasta di casa, household paste” (from A Journey in Carniola, Italy, and France, 1820, by William Archibald Cadell; Carniola, ruled by the Austrian Empire at the time, was part of what is now Slovenia).

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Affirm or confirm?

Q: To affirm or confirm? That is my question.

A: The verb “confirm” has more meanings and is more widely used than “affirm,” though there’s some overlap in the use of these words.

Standard dictionaries say either can be used to mean validate or ratify. For example, these are among the definitions that Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) lists for the two:

Affirm: “to make valid; confirm; uphold; ratify (a law, decision, or judgment).”

Confirm: “to make valid by formal approval; ratify.”

Even though the verbs do overlap, we’re more likely to use “affirm” for a judicial action (as when a court “affirms” a lower court’s ruling) and “confirm” for a legislative action (as when the Senate “confirms” an appointee).

Apart from that sense of validating or ratifying, the two verbs differ in their meanings.

“Affirm” has only one other sense, and again we’ll use the definition in Webster’s New World: “to say positively; declare firmly; assert to be true: opposed to deny.”

“Confirm” has two other general senses: (1) “to make firm; strengthen; establish; encourage”; and (2) “to prove the truth, validity, or authenticity of; verify.” (In addition, “confirm” has a religious sense: to administer the rite of confirmation.)

So we can make a couple of broad statements about the non-overlapping senses of these verbs. When you assert something originally, you “affirm” it. When you corroborate an assertion, you “confirm” it—that is, you remove doubt about something previously believed or suspected.

Here’s an example. Say that a character in a mystery novel is asked by police where he was on the night in question. He may “affirm” that he was at home all evening. Then he may be asked whether a witness can “confirm” his statement.

We can confirm, by the way, what you no doubt already know—these words are etymologically related. Both can be traced to the classical Latin adjective firmus (stable, strong, immovable). From firmus, the Romans derived firmāre (to strengthen or make fast), which in turn led to the classical Latin verbs confirmāre and affirmāre.

Those words had similar meanings in classical Latin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confirmāre as “to make firm, strengthen, establish, etc.,” and affirmāre as “to add strength or support to, to confirm, to ratify, to assert, to swear, to express emphasis.” Here the suffix con- means “together, altogether,” the OED says, while af– (a form of ad-) conveys the sense of the preposition “to.”

Middle English acquired “confirm” (circa 1290) directly from Old French, but “affirm” had dual origins. It entered Middle English sometime before 1325, borrowed partly from classical Latin and partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

Our word “firm” appeared around that same period, first as a verb (1303), then as an adverb (1330s or ’40s) and an adjective (1370s), all acquired through Old French or directly from Latin.

The noun “firm,” however, was a latecomer adopted from Italian. It was first recorded in 1574 when it had a meaning that’s now obsolete—“signature.” It was a borrowing of the Italian noun firma (signature), from the Italian verb firmare (to sign; a derivative of the Latin firmāre).

In the 18th century, the OED says, the noun “firm” came to mean “the ‘style’ or name under which the business of a commercial house is transacted,” and hence a business partnership or a “commercial house.”

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Can not, cannot, and can’t

Q: Can you please dwell in some detail on why “can not” is now usually written as “cannot”? Is there a linguistic reason for this uncontracted form? Or is it just one of those irregularities that cannot be accounted for?

A: When the usage showed up in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, it was two words.

One of the oldest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the epic poem Beowulf, perhaps written as early as the 700s: “men ne cunnon” (“men can not”).

And here’s an expanded version that offers context as well as a sense of the Anglo-Saxon poetry:

“ac se æglæca etende wæs, / deorc deaþscua duguþe ond geogoþe, / seomade ond syrede; sinnihte heold / mistige moras; men ne cunnon / hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað” (“all were in peril; warriors young and old were hunted down by that dark shadow of death that lurked night after night on the misty moors; men on their watches can not know where these fiends from hell will walk”).

The combined form “cannot” showed up in the Middle English period (1150 to 1450), along with various other spellings: cannat, cannatte, cannouȝt, connat, connott, conot, conott, cannote, connot, and cannott.

The earliest OED example with the modern spelling is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at around 1280: “And þou þat he deed fore cannot sorus be” (“And thou that he [Jesus] died for cannot be sorrowful”).

In contemporary English, both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, though they’re generally used in different ways. The combined form, as you point out, is more common (Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online, says it’s three times as common in the Oxford English Corpus).

Here’s an excerpt from the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, on how the two terms, as well as the contraction “can’t,” are generally used today:

CAN NOT / CANNOT / CAN’T. Usually, you can’t go wrong with a one-word version—can’t in speech or casual writing, cannot in formal writing. The two-word version, can not, is for when you want to be emphatic (Maybe you can hit high C, but I certainly can not), or when not is part of another expression, like “not only . . . but also” (I can not only hit high C, but also break a glass while doing it). Then there’s can’t not, as in The diva’s husband can’t not go to the opera.

Getting back to your question, why is “cannot” more popular than “can not”? We believe the compound is more common because the two-word phrase may be ambiguous.

Consider this sentence: “You can not go to the party.” It could mean either “You’re unable to go” or “You don’t have to go.” However, the sentence has only the first meaning if you replace “can not” with “cannot” (or the contraction “can’t”).

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say that “You can’t/cannot answer their letters” means “It is not possible or permitted for you to answer their letters,” while “You can not answer their letters” means “You are permitted not to answer their letters.”

In speech, Huddleston and Pullum write, any ambiguity is cleared up by emphasis and rhythm: “In this use, the not will characteristically be stressed and prosodically associated with answer rather than with can by means of a very slight break separating it from the unstressed can.” The authors add that “this construction is fairly rare, and sounds somewhat contrived.”

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Pat reviews 4 language books

Read Pat in the New York Times Book Review on four new books about the English language.


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A newfangled suffix?

Q: I keep seeing “admonishment,” “abolishment,” and “diminishment,” though I assume that correct usage dictates “admonition,” “abolition,” and “diminution.” Are these “-ment” words recently fashioned? Do their users deserve punishment (or punition)?

A: Interestingly, all six of those nouns (the ones ending in “-tion” as well as those ending in “-ment”) showed up hundreds of years ago, borrowed to one degree or another from Anglo-Norman, Middle French, or Old French, but ultimately derived from Latin.

The “-tion” versions you prefer have been preferred by English speakers for centuries, though they seem to be used less these days. As far as we can tell, there’s been no significant increase lately in the use of the “-ment” versions.

That’s the impression we have after comparing the three pairs in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words or phrases in digitized books: (1) “admonition” / “admonishment,” (2) “abolition” / “abolishment,” and (3) “diminution” / “diminishment.”

We suspect that your belief that the “-ment” versions may be new is an example of the “recency illusion,” a term coined by the linguist Arnold Zwicky for “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

The oldest of these words, “admonishment,” appeared in the late 13th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Kentish sermon dated around 1275: “So us defendet þo ilke þinges fram senne and fram þe amonestement of þo dieule” (“So these very things defended us from sin and from the admonishment of the devil”).

“Admonition” showed up a century later. The earliest OED example is from Chaucer’s translation (circa 1380) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Nedeþ it ȝitte … of rehersyng or of amonicioun” (“It needs … of rehearsing and admonition”).

Both “admonishment” and “admonition” are ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb admonēre (remind, advise, urge, warn, inform, or rebuke).

As for “diminution,” the OED cites another Chaucer work, the poem Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1374), for the earliest example: “To encrece or maken dyminucioun Of my langage.”

“Diminishment” arrived nearly two centuries later. The first Oxford example is from a religous tract by the English cleric John Bales: “All is to demynyshment of a kynges power” (from The Actes of Englysh Votaries, a 1551 critique of the monastic system).

The two nouns ultimately come from two classical Latin words: the verb dīminuĕre (make smaller) and the adjective minūtus (small).

(We wrote a post in in 2014 on the common misspelling of “diminution” as “dimunition.”)

The last two words, “abolition” and “abolishment,” showed up around the same time in the early 16th century.

The first Oxford citation for “abolition” is from The Supplycacyon of Soulys, a 1529 treatise in which Thomas More defends the Roman Catholic clergy against Reformist critics: “They by the dystruccyon of the clergy, meane the clere abolycyon of Chrystys fayth.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “abolishment” is from Common Places of Scripture, Richard Taverner’s 1538 translation of the writings of the Lutheran theologian Erasmus Sarcerius: “Where so euer throughout the worlde the abolyshment of the bysshop of Romes vsurped power shal be bruted or cronicled.”

As for the suffixes, “-ment” ultimately comes from the classical Latin -mentum (used to form nouns from verbs), while “-tion” comes from -io and io-nem (added to the t ending of Latin participial stems to form nouns).

Getting back to your question, do the users of these “-ment” words deserve punishment (or punition)? No. We have no objection to the “-ment” versions. As for the relatively rare “punition,” that’s more likely to raise eyebrows these days.

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The true truth

Q: After recent unrest in Memphis, the city’s police director said he suspected that there were “some individuals who try to agitate a situation, and it’s unfortunate because it hinders the true truth coming out.” Is “true truth” a new concept in the era of “fake news”?

A: No, “true truth” is not a product of our times. It dates back to Renaissance England and is one in a long line of phrases implying that sometimes the truth is relative.

Other phrases include “plain truth,” “naked truth,” “whole truth,” “absolute truth,” “unadorned truth,” “unvarnished truth,” and “cold truth.” Nobody is much bothered by these expressions.

But “true truth” seems to cross a line, since the noun phrase is virtually self-modifying. After all, the truth by definition is true.

Redundant or not, the phrase “true truth” has been around since the 16th century, if not earlier. This is the oldest example we’ve found, from a poem believed to have been published around 1555:

“Nor stay is there none as the true truth sayth” (from The Tryumphe of Tyme, a translation by Henry Parker, Lord Morley, from Petrarch’s Italian).

We also found this example in a poem published in 1602: “With that true truth, his arrand [message] I had sed [spoken]” (from Three Pastoral Elegies of Anander, Anetor, and Muridella, by William Basse).

This 1611 use is a better illustration of the phrase’s meaning: Among the “gifts that gracious Heav’ns bestowe,” the poet says, is the ability “to discern true Truth from Sophistrie” (from Josuah Sylvester’s translation of a work by Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas).

We’ve also found the expression in religious tracts and philosophical treatises—not only in English but in French (la vraie vérité) and German (die wahre Wahrheit).

The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, writing around 1800, criticizes those who say to themselves, “we who speak have undoubtedly the true truth inborn in us, and, hence, the man who contradicts us must necessarily be in the wrong.” (From A. E. Kroeger’s English translation of “Fichte’s Criticism of Schelling,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, July 1878.)

“True truth” also crops up in journalism and in fiction. In “White Lies,” an anonymous opinion piece that ran in the weekly journal Truth (London, Sept. 1, 1881), the phrase appears 11 times.

Here are a few examples: “true truth is of all things the most impracticable” … “to say the true truth would be cruel” … “the true truth would sound too harsh.”

And in a romantic novel, Greifenstein (1890) by F. Marion Crawford, a character says: “But you have gone too far—you have lost sight of the true truth in pursuing a truth that was true yesterday.”

As far as we can tell, the only dictionary in which the phrase appears is Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary (1905 edition). Wright defines “the true truth” as “the plain, unvarnished truth.” He gives this example from James Prior’s novel Forest Folk (1901), in which a character speaks in a north Yorkshire dialect: “If we don’t speak the trew trewth this time, we are liars, sich un’s as yer don’t often see.”

Getting back to some of those other “truth” phrases we mentioned above, a couple date back to the 15th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the earliest known written uses of “plain truth” (circa 1425) and “naked truth” (1436). And in searches of historical databases, we’ve found early examples of “whole truth” (1549); “absolute truth” (1567); “unadorned truth” (1782); “unvarnished truth” (1820); and “cold truth” (1836).

Perhaps the most famous of such phrases is one from the 16th century: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The OED defines this expression and its variants as meaning “the absolute truth.” Specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “used to emphasize that something, esp. a statement, is or should be true in every particular, with no facts omitted or untrue elements added.”

“The phrase forms part of the oath or the affirmation … declared or agreed to by witnesses in court before giving testimony,” the OED explains. “A witness can choose to place one hand on the Bible when swearing the oath, but is now usually not required to do so.”

The earliest example in the OED is religious rather than judicial: “What shoulde we teache in matters of saluation [salvation] but the Truthe, and all the truthe, and nothyng but the truth?”  (From a sermon preached in 1571 by John Bridges at Paul’s Cross, an outdoor pulpit in London, and published the same year.)

This later 16th-century example refers to the oath taken by a jury foreman: “You shal present and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so helpe you God, and by the contents of this booke.” (From The Order of Keeping a Court Leete, 1593, by Jonas Adams. The “court leet,” which had jurisdiction over petty offenses and civil disputes, dated from medieval times and was held periodically in a local manor or district before a lord or his steward.)

Finally, in this OED citation from the early 17th century the oath is specifically for witnesses: “The oath giuen to Iurors [Jurors] is, That they shall deale iustly and truely betweene partie and partie; but the witnesses are to speake the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and so they take their oath.” (From Consuetudo, 1622, a tract on mercantile law by Gerard de Malynes.)

The oath has come down through the centuries largely intact. This OED example is from Martin F. Scheinman’s 1977 book Evidence and Proof in Arbitration (the brackets are in the original): “The oath generally used is: ‘Do you swear [or affirm] to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?’ ”

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Poaching eggs vs. poaching deer

Q: Why are poaching a deer and poaching an egg such different activities?

A: As unlike as the two actions are, poaching an egg and poaching a deer may be related etymologically, though the early history is uncertain and language authorities are divided over the issue.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, edited by Julia Cresswell, says the two meanings of “poach” are probably related:

“Poaching eggs and poaching game may seem vastly different activities, but they are both probably connected with the Old French word pochier or French pocher, ‘to enclose in a bag.’ ”

John Ayto goes a step further in his Dictionary of Word Origins, saying without qualification that “English has two words poach, both of which go back ultimately to Old French.”

The cooking term, Ayto writes, “is an allusion to the forming of little white ‘bags’ or ‘pockets’ around the yolk of eggs by the coagulating white,” while the hunting or fishing term “seems to mean etymologically ‘put in one’s pocket.’ ”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart, agrees that the kitchen sense of “poach” comes from the pocket meaning of pochier, but says the hunting sense is derived from another meaning of the Old French verb—poke out, which in turn comes from similar words in old Germanic languages.

We’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, have the last word. It says the use of “poach” in hunting and fishing is “of uncertain origin,” though “perhaps a borrowing from French.”

The OED adds that the “put in a bag” sense here is “apparently a primary one,” but the etymological connection between the French and English terms is unclear.

The dictionary defines “poach” in its cookery sense as “to cook (an egg) without the shell in simmering, or over boiling, water; to simmer or steam (an egg) in a poacher.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which uses the past participle as an adjective, is from a cookbook written around 1450:  “Pocched egges … breke faire rawe egges and caste hem in þe water.”

The first Oxford example for “poach” used purely as a verb in cooking is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I potche egges, je poche des œufs. He that wyll potche egges well muste make his water sethe first.”

As for the illicit sense of “poach,” the OED defines it as “to go in illegal pursuit of game, fish, etc., esp. by trespassing (on the lands or rights of another) or in contravention of official protection.”

In the dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the noun “poachers,” the verb is implied: “Many poachers ran vp [up] and downe ye countrye to espye where were any olde or sicke prelate, & there-vpon poasted to Rome to purchase a graunt of his lyuing [living].” (From Pageant of Popes, 1574, John Studley’s translation of a papal history in Latin by the English cleric John Bale.)

The next OED citation is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave: “Pocher le labeur d’autruy, to poche into, or incroach vpon, another mans imployment, practise, or trade.”

The first Oxford example that uses the verb in its hunting sense is from an early 18th-century English dictionary: “To poach … to destroy Game by unlawful means, as by laying Snares, Gins, etc.” (From The New World of Words, a 1706 dictionary edited by John Kersey. A gin is a trap for catching birds or small mammals.)

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Why ‘mayn’t’ may not live on

Q: I’ve encountered “mayn’t” often lately— e.g., in Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, etc.—but my usage manual says the contraction is now rare. What happened to it?

A: The use of “mayn’t” is indeed rare today, though it was common in the 19th century, when Lewis Carroll was writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and in the early 20th, when Kenneth Grahame published The Wind in the Willows.

Many standard dictionaries still have entries for “mayn’t,” the contraction of “may not,” but it’s rarely heard now in British English and it’s virtually nonexistent in American English.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “mayn’t is rare in all varieties of English.”

Suzanne Romaine, writing in The Cambridge History of the English Language (1992), says the contraction “moved from colloquial normality to great rarity in the course of the twentieth century.”

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum note the virtual demise of “mayn’t” as a negative auxiliary verb: “though current in the earlier part of the twentieth century, it has now virtually disappeared from the language.”

And the British linguist David Crystal, in a Jan. 25, 2015, entry on his website, says “mayn’t” is “very rare in British English, and would hardly ever be used in American English.”

Why is “mayn’t” dying out or dead? Probably because English speakers are using “can’t” instead. And that’s undoubtedly the result of the increasing use of “can” for “may” as an auxiliary verb to ask or grant permission, a subject that we discussed in 2017.

As we say in the earlier post, the traditional rule is that “can” means “able to” and “may” means “permitted to.” For example, “Jesse can run fast” and “May I go for a jog, Mom?”

However, standard dictionaries now accept the use of both “can” and “may” as auxiliary verbs for asking permission, though some suggest that “can” here is informal.

As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, “The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts.”

The M-W lexicographers suggest that the permission sense of “can” evolved from the use of both auxiliaries to express possibility, “because the possibility of one’s doing something may depend on another’s acquiescence.”

The contraction “mayn’t” showed up in writing in the early 17th century, according to citations in the OED. The dictionary’s earliest example is from “On the University Carrier,” a 1631 poem that Milton wrote during his Cambridge years: “If I mayn’t carry, sure I’ll ne’er be fetched.”

The comic poem marks the death of Tobias Hobson, driver of the coach that carried students between the university and The Bull, a London Inn. Hobson also hired out horses. The expression “Hobson’s choice” is said to come from his insistence that anyone hiring a horse must choose the one nearest the stable door.

We’ll end with a “mayn’t” example from Alice in Wonderland. It’s a bit long, but we couldn’t resist the pun at the beginning of this excerpt.

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,” added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth. At last the Gryphon said to the Mock Turtle, “Drive on, old fellow! Don’t be all day about it!” and he went on in these words:

“Yes, we went to school in the sea, though you mayn’t believe it—”

“I never said I didn’t!” interrupted Alice.

“You did,” said the Mock Turtle.

“Hold your tongue!” added the Gryphon, before Alice could speak again. The Mock Turtle went on.

“We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—”

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A pot to piss in

Q: An email is making the rounds that includes the derivations of several common phrases; one of them links the expression “a pot to piss in” with the collecting and selling of urine to fur tanners. Any truth to this?

A: No, that story is a hoax.

It’s true that in preindustrial times, urine was sometimes used to remove hair from animal hides before they were tanned. But the 20th-century expression “a pot to piss in” has nothing to do with making leather.

We wrote about the verb and noun “piss” in 2016 and about varieties of “pot” in 2017, but we’ve never discussed “a pot to piss in.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “not to have a pot to piss in” as “to be penniless, to have no money or resources.” The dictionary says it’s slang that originated in the US and was “in early use more fully not to have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it from and variants.”

The earliest written example, the OED says, is from a 1934 typescript of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (published in 1936): “My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on dog, and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”

This OED example from 20 years later also has the long version of the expression: “A woman must be crazy to … take up with a loafer that ain’t got a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out.” The passage was recorded in 1954 by the American folklorist Vance Randolph and later published in his book Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1976).

The dictionary’s earliest example of the short version (minus the window) is from later in the ’50s: “Some don’t even have a pot to piss in but nevertheless they think that they are a lot better than you are.” From Herman R. Lantz’s People of Coal Town, a 1958 study of a midwestern coal-mining community.

As we said before, it’s fictitious that “a pot to piss in” originated in the tanning trade. This false etymology (along with that of “piss poor” and other expressions), is sheer invention and has been debunked by etymologists.

For the record, the phrase “piss poor” simply means really poor or, as the OED says, “of an extremely poor quality or standard.”

Here, “piss” is an intensifier, an element used for emphasis. In this usage, which Oxford says originated in the US in the mid-20th century, “piss” is “prefixed to an adjective (occasionally to a noun) as an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability.”

The dictionary’s earliest use of “piss poor” is from MacKinlay Kantor’s Glory for Me (1945), a novel in blank verse: “I guess I know I’m piss-poor in a job like this. It’s trivial, it’s dull: I hate it more and more each day.”

Oxford also has this early use of “piss elegant” (flashy or affectedly refined): “The cast is very good. Gertie is enchanting at moments but inclined to be piss-elegant” (from Noel Coward’s diary, Oct. 9, 1947).

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Progressively more?

Q: I’ve read that the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been subjected to “progressively severe” punishment. I see that sort of usage a lot, and it seems to require a “more” (“progressively more severe”). Am I too picky?

A: Yes, you’re too picky. This doesn’t raise a red flag with us, perhaps because the use of the adverb “progressively” to mean “gradually” or “steadily” seems to have a built-in sense of “more”—that is, it suggests an increase unless a word like “less” is added to indicate otherwise.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “progressively” in this sense as “by continuous advance; step by step, gradually; successively.”

Cambridge Dictionary online, one of the few standard dictionaries with an entry for “progressively,” defines it similarly and cites “increasingly” as a synonym. (Most dictionaries list “progressively” without comment in their entries for the adjective “progressive.”)

Another standard dictionary, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), defines the adverb as “steadily” or “in stages,” and has more than half a dozen examples in which “progressively” is used by itself  to mean “increasingly” or “increasingly and steadily.” Here are a few of them:

“Over the past decade, straw burning has been progressively prohibited” … “The drought situation is getting progressively worse” … “An ever-increasing population is progressively intensifying the stresses on the environment” … “He has progressively moved his students towards a fully integrated digital design process.”

Lexico also has several examples with “more,” including these: “The approval process became progressively more difficult and politicized” … “It was progressively more difficult to find work in the theatre” … “I created a situation in which my job could only get progressively more difficult.” Although “more” in these examples adds emphasis, it could be dropped without significantly changing the sense.

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples in which “progressively” is used with “less” to mean “decreasingly,” but here’s one from a recent news article about the impact of testing driverless cars on public streets:

“Still, we can rest assured that the testing will become progressively less disruptive to us as the technology advances” (the Hill, May 14, 2019).

When the adverb “progressively” showed up in the early 17th century, it meant “in a progressive manner; in the way of progression or progress,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Syntagma Logicum, a 1620 treatise on logic, in which Thomas Granger writes of “the conforming, adapting, and disposing” of things “being inuented progressiuely.”

In the 20th century, the dictionary says, “progressively” developed its modern sense of “in a forward-looking, innovative, or avant-garde manner.” The first Oxford citation is from The Miracle of Right Thought (1910), a self-improvement book by the American writer Orison Swett Marden:

“The man who would succeed must think success, must think upward. He must think progressively, creatively, constructively, inventively, and, above all, optimistically.”

The adverb is derived from the adjective “progressive,” which was originally a term in astronomy for “moving forward in space,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation for the adjective is from a late 14th-century translation of a Latin treatise that purports to predict the weather by using astrology:

“A good shorte table for to knawe when all the planetis are stacionarye or retrograde or progressive.” (From Exafrenon Prognosticationum Temporis, by the English mathematician, astronomer, and abbott Richard of Wallingford. The Latin treatise was written in the early 1300s, and the OED dates the anonymous English translation at sometime before 1388.)

Over the years, the adjective “progressive” has taken on many other senses. Here are the current meanings, with examples, from Lexico:

  • “Happening or developing gradually or in stages: a progressive decline in popularity.”
  • “(Of a medical condition) increasing in severity: progressive liver failure.”
  • “(Of taxation or a tax) increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases: steeply progressive income taxes.”
  • “(Of a person or idea) favouring social reform: a relatively progressive Minister of Education.”
  • “Favouring change or innovation: the most progressive art school in Britain.”
  • “Relating to or denoting a style of rock music popular especially in the 1970s and characterized by classical influences, the use of keyboard instruments, and lengthy compositions: classic progressive albumsprogressive bands like Black Sabbath and the Edgar Broughton Band.”

The adverb “progressively” has evolved too, though not as extensively. It is now primarily used in only the gradually developing and innovative senses of the adjective, as in these Lexico definitions and examples:

  • “Steadily; in stages: successive governments progressively increased expenditure on welfaresymptoms become progressively worse over a period of years.”
  • “In a forward-looking, innovative manner: we have a strong product but to retain this momentum we must think progressivelya circle of progressively minded reformers.”

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A wretched creature

Q: A friend gave me a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Almost from the start, the creature is referred to as “the wretch.” An online search indicates that some variation of “wretch” appears 64 times in a novel of only 200 pages—more often than “monster” (33) or “dæmon” (20). But “wretch” seems to have lost its punch in our times.

A: In modern English, “wretch” principally means someone who’s extremely unfortunate, an object of pity. But less commonly it also means one who’s despicable, an object of loathing.

Both senses of the word have been around for more than a thousand years, and nearly all standard dictionaries still accept both. But the bad-guy sense has slipped to second place, and today some British dictionaries label it “literary” or “humorous” or “informal” (as in “those ungrateful wretches!”).

In Mary Shelley’s time, both meanings of “wretch” were common and she uses them both in her novel. Sometimes she calls Frankenstein’s creature a “wretch” because he’s suffering in misery and loneliness, and the reader is supposed to feel sorry for him. But at other times, as when he murders a child, the “wretch” is loathsome, a “filthy dæmon” that must be destroyed.

The two meanings developed from an earlier and now obsolete sense of “wretch”—an outcast. This use dates back to Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation from the poem:

“Ða wæs winter scacen, fæger foldan bearm; fundode wrecca, gist of geardum” (“Then winter was gone, earth’s lap grew lovely, longing woke in the cooped-up exile for a voyage home”). We’ve used Seamus Heaney’s translation, which renders the Old English word for “wretch” (wrecca) as “exile.”

The OED cites another Old English use: “Ða lioð þe ic wrecca geo lustbærlice song ic sceal nu heofiende singan” (“The songs that I, an outcast, once sang joyfully I must now sing grieving”). From King Ælfred’s translation, circa 888, of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ.

The OED defines that original use of “wretch,” which has now died away, as “one driven out of or away from his native country; a banished person; an exile.”

It was from that sense that the two modern meanings developed in Old English. The first to come along, according to OED citations, was the sense of a terrible person. This is the earliest known example in writing:

“Hyre se feond oncwæð, wræcca wærleas, wordum mælde” (“To her the fiend answered, faithless wretch, and spoke his words”). From Juliana, an account of the martyrdom of St. Juliana of Nicomedia, presumed written by the poet Cynewulf between 970 and 990. The “wretch” in the passage is the demon Belial.

The OED says “wretch” in that sense means “a vile, sorry, or despicable person; one of opprobrious or reprehensible character; a mean or contemptible creature.”

The other modern sense, in which a “wretch” is miserably unhappy or unfortunate, was first recorded circa 1000, Oxford says.

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Ne mæg mon æfre þy eð ænne wræccan his cræftes beniman” (“No one can ever rob a wretch of his skills more easily”). From the Metres of Boethius, a later rendering of De Consolatione Philosophiæ.

That sense of the word, still the most common in standard English, is defined in the OED as “one who is sunk in deep distress, sorrow, misfortune, or poverty; a miserable, unhappy, or unfortunate person; a poor or hapless being.” (In an offshoot of that usage, the OED says, “wretch” is sometimes used playfully, a meaning that emerged in the 15th century.)

A final note about the history of “wretch.” It can be traced to an ancient Indo-European word stem that linguists have reconstructed as wreg-, meaning to push, drive, or track down. (This root wreg, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is also the source of our words “wreck,” “wrack,” and “wreak,” a verb that originally meant to avenge, punish, or drive away.)

After wreg– entered prehistoric Germanic, it became a noun, wrakjon, which American Heritage says meant both “pursuer” and “one pursued.” Later, in the era of writing, this old noun took different directions in different Germanic languages.

What developed into our word “wretch” became recke in German, which means a warrior or hero. As the OED comments, “The contrast in the development of the meaning in English and German is remarkable.”

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An indisputable choice?

Q: “Undisputed” or “indisputed”? Is there a clear winner? My sense is “undisputed” means neither party disputed the facts, which is the sense I’m seeking, while “indisputed” means not capable of dispute. Can you help?

A: If your choice is between “indisputed” and “undisputed,” there is no choice. The adjective “indisputed” is now considered archaic or obsolete. However, “indisputable” is a possibility. In choosing between “undisputed” and “indisputable,” the word you want is “undisputed.” Here’s the story.

We’ve checked ten standard dictionaries and none regard “indisputed” as standard English. In fact, only two even mention it. Merriam-Webster Online and the subcription-based Merriam-Webster Unabridged both describe “indisputed” as an “archaic” synonym for “undisputed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “indisputed” is an “obsolete” adjective meaning “not disputed; undisputed, unquestioned.”

“Indisputable,” the oldest of the three adjectives, showed up in the mid-16th century, the OED says, and describes something “that cannot be disputed” or is “unquestionable.” It’s derived from the medieval Latin indisputābilis, combining the negative prefix in- and the classical disputābilis (disputable).

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation of Utopia (1516), a Latin political satire by Thomas More: “[That] whiche with good and iust Judges is of greater force than all lawes be, the kynges indisputable prerogatiue.”

“Undisputed,” which showed up a couple of decades later, originally meant “not disputed or argued with,” according to the OED, but now generally means “not disputed or called in question.” Standard dictionaries agree.

The first OED citation for “undisputed” is from a 1570 edition of Actes & Monumentes, an ecclesiastical history by John Foxe: “So in the end the bishop making to our Ambassadours good countenaunce … dismissed them vndisputed wythall.” The reference is to a clerical appointment made without opposition.

Etymologically, “undisputed” ultimately comes from disputāre, which meant to compute, investigate, or discuss in classical Latin, but took on the sense of to dispute or contend in colloquial Latin.

“Indisputed,” which appeared in the 17th century, meant not disputed. The first OED citation is from Religio Medici (1643), a wide-ranging memoir by the English polymath Thomas Browne:

Natura nihil aget frustra, is the only indisputed Axiome in Philosophy.” The Latin axiom means “Nature does nothing in vain.”

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On snooting and snouting

Q: My grandfather used a lot of idioms that I’ve never heard outside Pequannock, Lincoln Park, or Montville, N.J. (all settled by the Dutch—good farmland). One was “snout,” meaning to complain loudly and make the listener feel as if he/she were at fault. Would love to know the origin.

A: The words “snoot” and “snout” have been used by Americans in various ways since the mid-1800s to express disdain for someone. Both terms ultimately come from the contemptuous use of “snout” for a big or oddly shaped human nose, a usage that dates back to England in the mid-13th century.

We suspect that this 19th-century American sense is the source of your grandfather’s use of “snout” to mean complain loudly and critically. But it may also have been influenced by expressions in German or the variety of German spoken in Pennsylvania, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

In the 19th century, DARE says, Easterners began using the expressions “make a snout” or “make snoots” in the sense of “to grimace, to make faces (at someone).” The dictionary suggests that this “US use may in some cases reflect the equivalent Ger phr eine Schnauze (or Schnute) machen, PaGer en schnut mache.”

The regional dictionary’s earliest example is from a New York newspaper: “This reminds us of the language of the little fellow to the chap that had him down … ‘If I can’t lick you, I can make snoots at your sister!’ ” (Brooklyn Eagle and Kings County Democrat, June 20, 1844.)

The only other 19th-century DARE citation is from a newspaper in Frederick, Md.: “She made a snoot at me and told me to scat.” (Daily News, Aug. 27, 1884.)

An early 20th-century example from southeastern Pennsylvania supports the dictionary’s suggestion that the usage may have been influenced by German, especially the dialect spoken in Pennsylvania, which is also known as Pennsylvania Dutch:

“Make a snout (snoot). Grimace. ‘Teacher, he’s making snouts at me.’ … fr. Pa. Ger. schnoot mŏchă; Ger. schnauze machen.” (From German American Annals, Philadelphia, January-February 1908.)

(German-speaking settlers and their descendants in Pennsylvania were often referred to as “Dutch” because the word “German” was Deutsch in German and Deitsch in the local dialect.)

DARE doesn’t have any examples for “snoot” or “snout” used by itself as a verb meaning to complain or grimace. However, all five standard American dictionaries now list “snoot” as a verb that means to treat disdainfully or condescendingly.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has several 20th-century American examples of “snoot” used in the sense of “to snub; to treat scornfully or with disdain.”

The earliest OED example is from A Couple of Quick Ones, a 1928 novel by the New Yorker writer Eric S. Hatch: “I followed him … up the street to where the Wright limousine was snooting the world in general at the kerb.”

The latest Oxford citation is from a review of The Slipper and the Rose, a film updating the Cinderella story: “Cinderella (Gemma Craven) gets snooted by her Stepsisters and gazes sorrowfully into the flames of the scullery fire.” (Time, Jan. 17, 1977.)

Oxford doesn’t connect the pejorative use of “snoot” and “snout” in verb phrases with the use of “snoot” alone in the scorning sense, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a connection is found one day.

Interestingly, the OED does have several examples of “snout” used in much the way your grandfather used it, but they’re all from Australia. The dictionary says that in Australian slang, “snout” means “to bear ill-will towards; to treat with disfavour, to rebuff.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Moods of Ginger Mick, a 1916 novel about World War I by C. J. Dennis: “An’ snouted them that snouted ’im, an’ never give a dam.”

If your grandfather served in World War I or II, he may have picked up his use of “snout” in the fault-finding sense from Australian soldiers, though we think a more likely source is the grimacing American use of “snoot” and “snout” in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both the Australian and American usages ultimately come from the scornful use of “snout” in medieval England for a big or odd human nose, a sense that showed up in King Horn, a Middle English poem of chivalry and romance dating from the mid-1200s:

“He lokede him abute, / Wiþ his colmie snute” (“He looked all about / With his sooty snout”).

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Cannon fodder

Q: Three “cannon” or three “cannons”? Is this a uniquely UK English problem?

A: The answer is yes. After checking ten standard British and American dictionaries, we can safely say that the plural of “cannon” is a bone of contention only in the UK.

In the US, this noun has two plurals and you’re free to use either one—“cannons” or the collective noun “cannon.” All five standard American dictionaries agree.

But opinion in the UK is mixed. Three of the British dictionaries list only “cannons” as the plural, and the two that do include “cannon” differ about the usage—one say it’s “mainly UK,” the other says it’s American.

Our advice? If you live in the US, either plural will do. If you live in the UK and you want to be in the majority, use “cannons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical records, has plenty of evidence for both plural forms—“cannons” (dating from the 15th century) and “cannon” (from the 16th). But Oxford doesn’t say which is more common in the US or the UK.

As for its etymology, “cannon” is a relative of the word “cane” (as in sugar cane), and its name comes from the gun barrel’s resemblance to a hollow reed.

The noun came into English in the 1400s from Anglo-Norman and Old French (canon), in which it meant a pipe, tube, or artillery piece, the OED says.

Earlier ancestors were the Old French cane (hollow reed) and the Italian cannone (organ pipe, reed, tubular object), both from the Latin canna (a hollow reed or cane).

The Romans acquired canna from the Greek κάννα (kanna, reed), and the OED says it “perhaps” can be traced even farther back to Hebrew and Arabic, which have similar words.

From the beginning, however, “cannon” in English meant the big gun. The OED defines it this way: “A large, heavy piece of artillery formerly used in warfare, typically one requiring to be mounted for firing, usually on a wheeled carriage; now chiefly used for signaling, ceremonies, or re-enactment.”

The oldest recorded examples of the noun are in the plural. Oxford’s earliest citation is from a work on the art of war written in the late Middle Ages, in the days when cannons shot projectiles of lead, iron, or stone:

“The canonys … bloweth out … stonys grete” (“The cannons … shoot out … great stones”). From Knyghthode and Bataile (circa 1460), an anonymous Middle English work that rewrites, paraphrases, and puts into verse a fourth-century Latin book on war, De re Militari, by Publius Vegetius Renatus.

The modern spelling first appeared in the 16th century in the state papers of King Henry VIII. These are the OED citations, which treat the word as an ordinary noun (singular “cannon,”  plural “cannons”):

“5 gret gonnes of brasse called cannons, besides sondery [sundry] other fawcons [small cannons]” (1525) … “To  sende unto Tynmowthe … a cannon, a saker [light cannon], etc.” (1545).

(A note of explanation. Old ballistic weapons were often named after birds of prey or venomous snakes, and the passages just quoted mention some of these: the “falcon,” spelled “fawcon” above; the “saker,” for the lanner falcon or Falco sacer; and the “basilisk” and “culverin,” both serpents. This naming practice also accounts for “musket,” an archaic word for a sparrowhawk.)

The collective use—the plural without the “s”—was first recorded, the OED says, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598), though with the French spelling: “Thou hast talkt … Of basilisks, of canon, culuerin.”

Examples of both plurals, “cannons” and “cannon,” are common from the 1600s onward. Here are the most recent OED citations for each:

“I got to walk around one battlefield after another, posing for pictures with cannons and Colonial reenactors” (from The Darkest Minds, a 2012 novel by Alexandra Bracken).

“There’s definitely a regiment readying to move out. They’ve got supply wagons and cannon lined up” (from Madness in Solidar, a 2015 novel by L. E. Modesitt Jr.).

Perhaps the most memorable use of “cannon” in the plural is from Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), in which you can almost hear the galloping hoofs: “Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them, / Cannon in front them / Volley’d and thunder’d.”

Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), quotes the poem to illustrate the use of “cannon” as a collective noun. He notes that historically, the word has been used both ways—“as an ordinary noun, with plural cannons; but also collectively.”

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Watch it back

Q: What’s the story behind the expression “watch it back”? It’s used so often on TV, especially reality shows where people say something like “When I watch it back, I realize how dramatic I was being.”

A: The expression “watch it back,” meaning to watch a replay of something, showed up in writing a couple of decades ago, though the verb phrase hasn’t yet made it into any of the standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries we’ve checked.

However, it’s definitely out there, as you’ve noticed, especially in the movie, TV, and sports worlds. A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, found 268 examples.

Here’s a recent example in which Bella Ramsey describes how Lyanna Mormont, the character she played in Game of Thrones, is crushed to death by a giant zombie as she fatally stabs him:

“When you watch it back, you can hear him crushing her ribs. But I think her adrenaline got her through it. She was in a lot of pain, but at that moment, her aim was to kill the giant. The way I thought about it, she was taking her last breath to do this. It was her final moment before he squeezed her to death” (New York Times, April 30, 2019).

The expression “watch it back” (a conflation of the more common “watch it” and “play it back”) may have originated in the film business. The earliest example we’ve seen is from an interview with Thandie Newton about playing Tom Cruise’s love interest in Mission: Impossible 2, a 2000 film directed by John Woo:

“Tom and I, for example, we’d organize a scene that felt right, we’d block it, and we’d think that was great. And then John Woo walks over and says ‘why don’t you try walking around each other like this’ and it felt very unnatural. But then we’d watch it back and that’s why he’s so phenomenal—it’s in the way he orchestrates the scene” (Box Office Guru, June 5, 2000).

A few months later, the English actor Julian Sands used the expression in an interview about acting in Timecode (2000), an experimental film directed by Mike Figgis:

“We rehearsed it through a couple of times but really we learned it by doing it, and after each run-through we would chill for an hour or two and then watch it back (on four monitors) and refine it some more” (the Guardian, Aug. 19, 2000).

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A writerly and painterly subject

Q: When, where, why, and how did such a word as “writerly” enter the writers’ writing scene? Are there some good writerly examples?

A: The adjective “writerly,” which usually means author-like or consciously literary, showed up in print in the 1950s.

A more scholarly sense appeared in the 1970s, as literary theorists began using “writerly” to describe a text with various possible interpretations.

The earliest example for the adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Times Literary Supplement (Aug. 16, 1957): “Serious Canadian writers at present are firmly resolved to concentrate upon the writerly virtues.”

The OED defines the original meaning of the adjective as “appropriate to, characteristic or worthy of a professional writer or literary man; consciously literary.”

But it’s often hard to tell from the dictionary’s examples whether “writerly” is being used to mean author-like or deliberately literary.

It can be read either way, for instance, in this  citation: “A clever and writerly book” (Spectator, Jan. 24, 1958).

As for the etymology, Oxford says “writerly” was modeled after the much older adjective “painterly,” which meant characteristic of a painter or artistic when it showed up in the late 16th century:

“It was a very white and red vertue, which you could pick out of a painterly glosse of a visage” (from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published in 1590, four years after the author’s death).

Although the OED also has two 19th-century citations for “painterly,” it says the usage was “rare before 20th cent.,” when an additional sense appeared: “Of a painting or style of painting: characterized by qualities of colour, stroke, and texture rather than of contour or line.”

The new sense showed up in Principles in Art History, M. D. Hottinger’s 1932 translation of Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, a 1915 work by the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin: “in the painterly style of the Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century.”

The phrase “in the painterly style” here is a translation of “in dem malerischen Stil.” In a note on malerisch, Hottinger explains his translation:

“This word has, in the German, two distinct meanings, one objective, a quality residing in the object, the other subjective, a mode of apprehension and creation. To avoid confusion, they have been distinguished in English as ‘picturesque’ and ‘painterly’ respectively.”

The OED’s earliest 20th-century citation for the original, “artistic” sense of “painterly” is from the Times (London, May 14, 1941): “He painted architectural subjects in a highly personal way, showing remarkable painterly gifts.”

Getting back to “writerly,” the dictionary says the scholarly sense is derived from the use of the term scriptible by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes.

In his 1973 book Le Plaisir du Texte (The Pleasure of the Text), Barthes uses the terms lisible (readable) and scriptible (writable). Lisible texts are easily readable, while scriptible texts challenge readers.

He says the lisible texts give readers plaisir (pleasure) while the scriptible ones give them jouissance (a French term for enjoyment that can mean delight, bliss, or orgasm).

The first OED citation for “writerly” used in the academic sense is from Richard Miller’s 1974 translation of S/Z, a 1970 study by Barthes of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine:

“The writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.” We’ve expanded the citation to give readers a better sense of Barthesian style.

In literary theory, Oxford says, “writerly” describes a text “admitting of a range of possible interpretations; demanding the active engagement of the reader.”

The dictionary adds that literary theorists usually contrast “writerly” with “readerly,” which it defines as “admitting only of a fixed interpretation; immediately comprehensible without demanding active engagement on the part of the reader.”

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Were it not for the grammar

Q: I’ve noticed what I take to be an instance of hypercorrection in this sentence: “Were it not for my grandfather, I would never be born.” I would say, “Had it not been for my grandfather, I would never have been born.” I feel in my grammar bones that the subjunctive is wrong here. I await your exegesis.

A: The opening clause of that sentence, “Were it not for my grandfather,” is grammatically equivalent to “If it were not for my grandfather” (we’ll explain why later). So the sentence is conditional, the kind that often begins with an “if” clause or the equivalent and continues with a “would” clause.

The only thing wrong with the sentence is the second clause, “I would never be born.” It should read, “I would never [or “not”] have been born.”

Because that clause refers to an event in the past—the speaker’s birth—the verb is in the conditional perfect tense (“would have been”), not the simple conditional (“would be”).

The simple conditional is used in a “would” clause that refers to the present or future: “Were it not for my grandfather’s money, I would be poor.” (We wrote about how to juggle tenses with “would” in 2011 and in 2015.)

As we said above, the first clause of that sentence is fine. “Were it not” is a rather formal way of beginning a conditional sentence, but it’s not wrong or “hypercorrect.” (As we wrote in 2009, hypercorrectness is making a mistake in an attempt to be ultra-correct.)

A less formal version would have begun with “If,” as in “If it weren’t for my grandfather.” But there are other options as well, like the one you suggest, “Had it not been for my grandfather,” as well as “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather.”

All four beginnings—(1) “Were it not,” (2) “If it were not,” (3) “Had it not been,” and (4) “If it hadn’t been”—are grammatically equivalent.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would describe all four as “remote conditionals.” These are conditional statements that pose a hypothetical situation (in this case, the nonexistence of a grandfather) that’s unlikely, impossible, or unreal.

Since the grandfather did in fact exist, making the condition unreal, the verb in that clause is in the subjunctive mood, a mood used to express hypothetical situations that are contrary to fact. (The classical example: “If I were king.”)

This accounts for the use of the subjunctive “were” instead of “was” in versions #1 and #2. (In 2014, we discussed this use of “were.”) But the subjunctive mood doesn’t alter verbs in perfect tenses, like the past perfect “had been” in versions #3 and #4.

Now, on to the issue we mentioned above—why the “if” versions (“If it were not,” “If it hadn’t been”) are equivalent to those without it (“Were it not,” “had it not been”). What happens grammatically when we swap one for the other?

To put it simply, we drop the “if” and switch the order of the following elements—the subject and its verb or auxiliary. Here’s how this works with our examples:

“If it were not” → “Were it not” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and verb “were”)

“If it hadn’t been” → “Had it not been” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and auxiliary “had”)

As the Cambridge Grammar explains this process, the “if” here is replaced with a “subject-auxiliary conversion.” The result is what the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, call an “inverted conditional.”

Here are a few of the examples they give of inverted conditionals (we’ll show only the relevant clauses):

“If that were to happen” → “Were that to happen”

“If he had seen the incident” → “Had he seen the incident”

“If I had had any inkling of this” → “Had I had any inkling of this”

One more characteristic of inverted conditionals: When they’re expressed in the negative, the negative element comes after the subject (“had he not seen”), instead of before (“had not he seen”).

This means that contractions aren’t used in inverted conditional statements. We say, “Had it not been for my grandfather” (not “Hadn’t it been”), and “Were it not for my grandfather” (not “Weren’t it”). The negative element follows the subject, “it.”

The Cambridge Grammar illustrates with the example “Had it not been for the weather,” noting that the contracted form (“Hadn’t it been for the weather”) isn’t normal English.

A final note before we leave the subject of remote conditional statements. The “if” clause (or equivalent) doesn’t have to include a verb. It could begin with “But for” or “If not for.”

So our original sentence, beginning “Were it not for my grandfather,” could have verbless versions as well: “But for my grandfather” and “If not for my grandfather.”

That last construction always reminds us of Bob Dylan’s If Not for You. And that gives us an excuse to share the original version of the song, which Dylan himself recently posted to the Internet.

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Screw the pooch

Q: I’m reading a book that uses the phrase “screw the pooch.” I can tell what it means, but I can’t even imagine where it originated.

A: The expression “screw the pooch,” which is another way of saying “screw up,” appeared in writing in the 1970s and may possibly be a couple of decades older, though the evidence for the earlier origin is quite iffy.

The earliest written example we’ve seen is from The All-American Boys, a 1977 memoir by the NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham, written with the assistance of the American journalist and biographer Mickey Herskowitz:

“The accident board convened, took weeks to gather its findings, took months to file a report, and finally confirmed what everyone had assumed: pilot error rather than equipment failure. The betting in the office on the Apollo 17 crew had long since switched—aviators characteristically do not wait for the accident report—‘That sure cinches it for Dick,’ the refrain went. ‘Ol’ Gene just screwed the pooch.’ ”

(Gene Cernan had been involved in a helicopter accident, but it did not affect his scheduled assignment to command Apollo 17. If Cernan had lost the command, Richard F. Gordon Jr. would have replaced him. Dick Gordon had been scheduled to command Apollo 18, but the mission was canceled.)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “screw the pooch” as a chiefly US colloquial expression that means “to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something,” and compares the usage to the more common phrase “screw up.”

The dictionary says the expression was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s use of it in The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the space program: “Grissom had just fucked it, screwed the pooch, that was all.”

(The reference is to an incident on July 21, 1961, at the end of the second Mercury mission. After splashdown, the hatch on Gus Grissom’s capsule blew, and he had to jump into the water. Grissom denied causing the hatch to blow.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, suggests that “screw the pooch” may “perhaps” be derived from the “coarse slang” American expression “fuck the dog,” which it defines as “(a) to shirk one’s duties or responsibilities; to mess about or waste time; (b) to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something.”

Oxford compares “fuck the dog” to the usual X-rated phrasal verb for failing, “fuck up.” The dictionary’s first citation for the three-word expression is from A World to Win, a 1935 novel by the American writer Jack Conroy:

“ ‘One of the first things you gotta learn when you’re f——n’ the dog,’ said Leo, ‘is t’ look like you’re workin’ hard enough t’ make yer butt blossom like a rose.’ ”

The Dictionary of American Regional English, in its entry for “fuck the dog,” points readers to the earlier use of the verb “dog” in the sense of “to shirk or not do one’s best, especially on the job; to waste time, loaf; to malinger.”

The first DARE citation for “dog” used this way is from the New York Evening Journal (March 20, 1910): “He [Stanley Ketchel] says that Papke couldn’t beat him in Pittsburg, and that Papke was dogging it at the end.”

(The passage apparently refers to the boxer Billy Papke’s loss to Frank Klaus the year before. Ketchel and Papke fought four times for the Middleweight championship, but not in Pittsburgh. Ketchel won three times, Papke once.)

Getting back to your question, the linguist Ben Zimmer looked into a suggestion that “screw the pooch” originated during a discussion in the spring of 1950 between two students at Yale, Jack May and John Rawlings.

Zimmer tracked down a 2010 memoir by May, An Alphabet of Letters, that describes an exchange in which May chides Rawlings for being late with a school project:

“JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.

“JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.

“JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.

“JOHN: (shrill laughter).”

May goes on to explain that Rawlings enlisted in the Air Force and helped design early prototypes of space suits for chimpanzees on NASA missions. When May saw the film of The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that Rawlings had introduced the expression to the space program. However, May couldn’t confirm this, since Rawlings had died in 1980.

Well, it’s a good story, but we’ll stick with the earliest written evidence: Walter Cunningham’s 1977 memoir of his days in the space program.

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Happy belated birthday?

Q: Why do we say “happy belated birthday” when it should be “belated happy birthday”? The “happy birthday” is belated, not the “birthday.” Please help me understand the proper syntax.

A: Like you, we wouldn’t describe the syntax, or word order, in “happy belated birthday” as logical. But we doubt that anyone would have trouble with the semantics, or meaning, of the expression.

As you point out, the congratulatory phrase “happy birthday” is the thing that’s belated, not the “birthday” itself. Therefore, the logical arrangement of the words would be “belated happy birthday.” So why do many people find it more natural to say “happy belated birthday,” logic be damned?

We believe this is because of a clash between the logical order of the words and the natural order of adjectives. We’ve written several times about the order of adjectives, including a post in 2010 about why people say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress,” and one in 2017 about why a toy is “my nice new blue plastic truck” rather than “my plastic blue new nice truck.”

As we say in those earlier posts, it’s natural for an adjective that expresses subjective opinion (like “happy”) to come before an adjective that expresses age (like “belated”). So one would refer to “a delightful old recipe,” not “an old delightful recipe,” and “a risky premature birth,” not “a premature risky birth.”

As for “happy belated birthday” and “belated happy birthday,” you can find both expressions in books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and social media. The first version is generally more popular in less edited sources, and the second in more edited ones.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in books, shows that the logical version (“belated happy birthday”) is significantly more popular in these more closely edited works. However, a general Google search as well as a search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines, indicates that “happy belated birthday” is more popular.

Greeting card companies generally offer a wide variety of ways to say “happy birthday” belatedly. Although “happy belated birthday” seems to be the most common, “belated happy birthday” is also offered, as well as “belated birthday wishes,” “belated birthday greetings,” and “belated”-free offerings like “happy birthday … fashionably late” and “I feel horrible about missing your birthday … console me with leftover cake.”

As far as we can tell, the phrase “happy birthday” didn’t show up until the mid-19th century. At first it was literal, referring to the occasion itself. Later, it came to be a formulaic congratulatory expression.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from “Pauline,” a short story by Elizabeth Scaife in the 1843 edition of the Keepsake, an annual literary magazine in London:

“Remembrance painted another birthday of younger years—a happy birthday—the birthday of her first love—a birthday of abounding and exulting expectation, and she could not but feel how different were the hopes she then cherished, and the realities which had overshadowed them.”

The first example we’ve found for the formulaic expression is from Mary’s Birthday, a play by the American writer George Henry Miles: “I wish you a very happy birthday, Miss Mary, and many happy returns.” (The comedy was published in 1858 and performed in the 1859 Broadway season.)

How did people wish each other a happy birthday before “happy birthday” appeared on the scene? The answer is in the previous example. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, people used “many happy returns,” “many happy returns of the day,” “many returns,” and so on as “conventional wishes and greetings on a special day, now spec. on a person’s birthday.”

The noun “return” here refers to the “act or fact of recurring or coming round again” or “each of a series of repetitions of an action,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation refers to New Year’s Day:

“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years” (from The Church of England Not Superstitious, 1714, by William Teswell, an Anglican rector).

The OED’s earliest use of “returns” in connection with a birthday is from The Battle of Life (1846), a novella by Dickens. We’ll expand the quotation for context:

“ ‘The notion of wishing happy returns in such a farce as this,’ said the Doctor to himself, ‘is good! Ha! ha! ha!’ ” Dr. Jeddler, who finds life a farce, has just kissed his daughter Marion on her birthday and said “many happy returns of the—the idea!—of the day.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including these in the title and first stanza of “Many Happy Returns of the Day,” a verse by Sylvanus Swanquill, pseudonym of the English writer John Hewitt:

“So this is your birthday, my friend! / You’re just sixty-seven, they say; / You look eighty-eight, but I wish you / Many happy returns of the day.” (From the Court Journal, London, Oct. 17, 1835.)

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Urine analysis

Q: I’ve had quite a few doctor’s visits and laboratory tests lately and the medical personnel I’ve encountered use “pee” for urinate, both as a directive (in a cup) or while discussing results. I don’t object to this usage, but I wonder if it isn’t a bit informal in this setting. What do you think?

A: We’ve had this experience, too. At doctors’ offices, not only are we invited to “pee” into a cup, but sometimes we’re even asked how regularly we “poop.”

It may be that in medical settings, this deliberate informality is intended to make patients comfortable and put them at ease—a welcome contrast to the bewildering technical terminology the patients are faced with.

Or perhaps it’s an extension of the calculated familiarity that’s sometimes called the “hospital we,” as in “How are we feeling this morning,” a usage we wrote about in 2011.

We aren’t bothered by these usages in a medical setting, largely because our minds are focused on more important things—like whether we’d better start putting our affairs in order!

As for the words themselves, we’ve written before about the etymology of “poop,” which didn’t mean “defecate” until the late 19th century.

And though we have discussed “piss” and words derived from it, we’ve never written about “pee.” So here goes.

As a verb meaning to urinate, “pee” is simply a shorter form of “piss.” It originally developed in the 18th century, when it stood for “the initial letter of piss,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was first used, “pee” was a transitive verb—that is, it required an object, the thing that was urinated in or on.

The dictionary’s earliest example is about a cat: “He never stealt, though he was poor, / Nor ever pee’d his master’s floor” (from Ebenezer Picken’s Poems and Epistles, Mostly in the Scottish Dialect, 1788).

Early in the 19th century, the verb was also used intransitively (without an object), and again the OED’s earliest citation is Scottish: “To pee, to make water” (from John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1825).

Standard dictionaries in the US and the UK now describe the use of “pee” to mean urinate as informal—that is, acceptable in speech and casual writing.

Here’s an example from Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online: “In the bathroom, the girl in the next stall answers her cell phone while she’s peeing.’

In modern British English, the phrase “peed off” is used in the same sense as “pissed off,” according to Lexico, which includes this among its examples:

“She looked really rather peed off but it made for a nugget of great telly.”

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Careering or careening?

Q: My brother claims that a reckless driver “careens” off the road, but I think the proper word is “career”? Who’s right—or does anybody care?

A: The answer depends on whether the accident happens in Devonshire or Dubuque. A British speaker is more likely to use “career,” while an American would choose “careen.” Both are acceptable.

This wasn’t always the case, however. Until the early 20th century, a traditional distinction was made between the two verbs. “Career” meant to rush recklessly and out of control, while “careen” meant to tilt, tip, or heel over (as a ship might do).

But as we wrote in 2006, “careen” is now broadly accepted—in common usage as well as in standard dictionaries—for both senses. We felt then (and still do) that the old distinction between “career” and “careen” had become obsolete in American usage.

In fact, we’ve found examples of the hurtling sense of “careen” in American publications dating from the 1860s, though the usage didn’t become widespread until the 1920s.

As we pointed out in our post, some usage guides were still insisting on the traditional distinction even then. But they’ve since changed their positions.

For example, the 1999 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage included an entry for “careen, career,” recommending that “precise writers” recognize the difference. But that entry disappeared with the manual’s fifth edition, published in 2015.

Nowadays the Times uses both verbs (but mostly “careen”) in the high-speed sense. Here are recent examples of each: “A Greyhound driver who authorities say fell asleep before the bus careened off a road in the Utah desert …” (May 15, 2019). “The vehicles careered through a guardrail into southbound traffic” (Jan. 3, 2019).

We also noted in 2006 that Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage upheld the old distinction and recommended “careering out of control,” not “careening.” But the fourth edition, published in 2016 as Garner’s Modern English Usage, says that American English “has made careen do the job of career, as by saying that a car careened down the street.”

We checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries, and all of them currently accept both “career” and “careen” in the sense of moving fast and without control. Six of them (one American, five British) label “careen” as mainly a North American usage.

While some dictionaries simply accept “career” and “careen” as synonyms, a few say that the movement implied in “careen” includes a lurching, swaying, or otherwise erratic course. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note:

“Both words may be used to mean ‘to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner.’ A car, for instance, may either careen or career. Some usage guides hold, however, that the car is only careening if there is side-to-side motion, as careen has other meanings related to movement, among which is ‘to sway from side to side.’ ”

We would argue, however, that back-and-forth movement isn’t necessary and that a vehicle can also “careen” by hurtling in a straight line. The linguist and lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield apparently agrees.

In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Butterfield writes that because the original nautical meaning was to lean over or tilt, the verb “carries a residual notion in non-nautical contexts of leaning or tilting.”

But he continues: “In a separate modern development in American English, since the 1920s, careen has rapidly become standard in the sense ‘to rush headlong, to hurtle, especially with an unsteady motion,’ i.e. the speed is more central to the meaning than any latent notion of leaning or tilting.”

Butterfield adds that this modern meaning of “careen” is found “much less often in British English, the broad sense being often covered by the verb career.”

Etymologically, “career” and “careen” are unrelated, though both have roots in classical Latin. “Career” can be traced to carrus (wagon) and “careen” to carīna (keel of a boat).

Both words first entered English as nouns in the 16th century, when they were borrowed from French. The first to appear in English writing was “career,”  which the OED says was first recorded in 1534 when it meant a “course” (as in the path of a star through the heavens) or a “running” (as in terms of horsemanship like “full career” for full gallop).

The French source was carrière (racecourse), a noun acquired from the late Latin carrāria, which the OED says meant “carriage-road” or simply “road,” a derivation of carrus (wagon).

Later in the 16th century, the English noun “career” was also recorded in the sense of a race track. It wasn’t until the 19th century that “career” developed the sense of a person’s path in life, the OED says, and it didn’t specifically mean “a course of professional life or employment” until the 20th.

This is Oxford’s first example of the modern meaning: “The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert” (Literary Digest, June 25, 1927). There “career” is an attributive noun—that is, a noun used as a modifier.

As for the verb “career,” it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says, when it meant “to take a short gallop” or “to charge.” This sense led in the 1600s to a related sense that the OED calls a “transferred and figurative” meaning: “to gallop, run or move at full speed.”

That’s the latest sense of the verb for which the OED has citations, and they extend only to 1856. This one is a representative example: “The little Julian was careering about the room for the amusement of his infant friend” (from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Peveril of the Peak, 1823).

Moving on to “careen,” it was first recorded in 1591 as a noun meaning “the position of a ship laid or heeled over on one side,” as in the expression “on (upon) the careen,” Oxford says.

Shortly afterward, in 1600, “careen” appeared as a verb meaning to turn a ship on one side for cleaning, repairs, etc. And in the 18th century it came to mean to tilt or lean over, first in the seagoing sense and later more generally (as when vehicles or buildings were said to “careen”—that is, tip or fall sideways).

The modern meaning of “careen” is defined in the OED as “to rush headlong, to hurtle, esp. with an unsteady motion,” and it’s labeled “chiefly US.”

As we mentioned above, we’ve found “careen” used this way in American publications dating back to the 1860s.

The earliest example we’ve spotted is from an unsigned short story in a California newspaper. In the relevant passage, a character reveals himself by flinging aside his disguise:

“Off flew the bottle-green overcoat—away went the red wig—across the room careened the green spectacles.” (“The Lover’s Masquerade,” Red Bluff Independent, Feb. 25, 1869.)

We’ll give a few more examples from subsequent decades, just to show that the 1869 usage wasn’t an oddity:

“The horse careened down the avenue and broke the wagon to pieces by collision with a wood team.” (Indianapolis News, Oct. 31, 1876.)

“The sleepers [sleeping cars] on the eastern express from Chicago, due at Minneapolis at 7:30 this morning, were thrown from the track at Mendota and careened down a sixty foot embankment to the river.” (Bismarck Tribune, Dakota Territory, Jan. 2, 1880.)

“After a dozen spirits [of the departed] had come from the cabinet, careened through the atmosphere and vanished into space, a particularly depressing scene took place.” (From an article about a seance, Salt Lake Herald, April 24, 1892.)

The OED’s earliest example is from an early 20th-century science fiction novel describing the motion of a spaceship: “The cruiser ‘Vanator’ careened through the tempest.” (From The Chessmen of Mars, 1923, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

A couple of decades later the American linguist Dwight L. Bolinger wrote: “Careen of recent years has come to mean ‘to rush headlong,’ or ‘hurtle,’ doubtless because of its resemblance to career—but this is rather an example of displacement than of pairing, for one rarely reads or hears the word career nowadays.” (From “Word Affinities,” a paper published in the journal American Speech, February 1940.)

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Why is a ‘square meal’ square?

Q: Why do we call a balanced meal a “square meal” rather than a well-rounded one?

A: The phrase “square meal” is derived from the use of the adjective “square” to mean just, equitable, honest, or straightforward, senses that began showing up in the late 16th century and gave rise to such expressions as “playing square,” “a square deal,” “the square thing,” “on the square,” and “fair and square.”

An early example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “square” meaning honest is from a pamphlet that purports to be a defense of Elizabethan con men, but actually exposes their tricks with humorous tales of double-dealing:

“For feare of trouble I was fain [glad] to try my good hap [fortune] at square play” (The Defence of Conny Catching, 1592, by Cuthbert Cunny-Catcher, pseudonym of the English author Robert Green). “Coney catching,” Elizabethan slang for chicanery, comes from “coney” (spelled various ways), a tame rabbit raised to be eaten.

Over the years, the adjective “square” took on various other senses that may have contributed to its use in the expression “square meal,” which showed up in the US in the mid-19th century.

In the early 17th century, “square” was used to describe someone who was “solid or steady (at eating or drinking),” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example refers to “a square drinker, a faithfull drunkard; one that will take his liquor soundly” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

The next citation, which we’ve expanded, describes gluttons: “By Heaven, square eaters! More meat, I say! Upon my conscience, the poor rogues have not eat this month! How terribly they charge upon their victuals!” (from Bonduca, a tragicomedy written sometime before 1625 by the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher).

In the early 19th century, “square” came to mean balanced or in good order. Here’s an OED example from Mr. Midshipman Easy, an 1836 novel by Frederick Marryat:

“If she is unhappy for three months, she will be overjoyed for three more when she hears that I am alive, so it will be all square at the end of the six.”

As for “square meal,” when the phrase showed up in American English it referred to a “full, solid, substantial” meal, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an article about the American West in a British periodical. We’re expanding the quotation to give more of the context:

“Roadside hotel-keepers are every now and then calling the miners’ attention to their ‘square meals’: by which is meant full meals, in contradistinction to the imperfect dinner a man has to put up with on the mountains.” (From the Sept. 19, 1868, issue of All the Year Round, a literary magazine edited and owned by Charles Dickens.)

However, we’ve seen several earlier examples online, including this one from a restaurant ad in an American newspaper:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice” (from the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., Nov. 8, 1856).

Standard dictionaries now define “square meal” as one that’s balanced or nutritious as well as substantial.

Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) defines it as “a substantial, satisfying, and balanced meal,” and gives this among its examples: “Daily physical fitness is just as crucial to good health as getting three square meals and eight hours of shut-eye.”

As for the early etymology, English borrowed the adjective “square” from Old French in the late 14th century, but it ultimately comes from exquadrāre, a colloquial Latin term composed of ex- (out) and quadrāre (to make square).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective refers to “a Square plate perced with a certein holes” (from A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1391, an instructional manual by Chaucer for an instrument used by astronomers and navigators to take celestial readings).

The Latin term exquadrāre is also the source of the noun “square,” which showed up in the 13th century, and the verb, which appeared in the late 14th. The noun originally referred to an L-shaped carpenter’s square while the verb meant to reshape something into a square form.

The first OED citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1300:

“And do we wel and make a toure / Wit suire and scantilon sa euen, / Þat may reche heghur þan heuen” (“And let us make a tower with square and gauge that may reach higher than heaven”). The poem expands on Genesis 11:4 by adding the reference to “suire and scantilon,” Middle English terms for a carpenter’s square and gauge for measuring dimensions.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb, which we’ve expanded, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The kyng comaundide, that thei shulden take the greet stoonus, and the precious stoonus, into the foundment of the temple, and thei shulden square hem” (“The king commanded that they should take the great stones, and the precious stones, and they should square them for the foundation of the temple”). The biblical passage is 1 Kings 5:17.

In closing, we should note that there are several myths about the origin of “square meal.” The most common folk etymology is that the expression is derived the square wooden plates once used for meals in the Royal Navy. Forget about it.

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When a family daughters out

Q: In his novel Money for Nothing, Donald E. Westlake has a character say a family “daughtered out.” The meaning is clear, the family name went extinct for lack of male heirs. Did Westlake invent this use of “daughter”?

A: The phrasal verb “daughter out” is familiar to genealogy buffs. A family name is said to “daughter out” when there are no sons to pass it on. (The assumption, of course, is that daughters always take their husbands’ names.)

The expression appeared in writing in the 1940s, but it can’t be found in the usual standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries. And unfortunately, there’s no mention of it in the Dictionary of American Regional English, so we can’t say where it might have originated.

However, “daughter out” is included in the collaborative Wiktionary, which defines it this way: “(of a surname or of heritable property in a patrilineal naming or inheritance system) To expire due to having only females surviving the death of the last male in a line.”

Wiktionary also lists the principal parts of the verb: “third-person singular simple present daughters out, present participle daughtering out, simple past and past participle daughtered out.”

Westlake used “daughtered out” twice in the same scene of his 2003 novel Money for Nothing.

The characters Josh and Robbie are in a taxi, and the driver tells them that the woman they’re going to see, Mrs. Rheingold, “was one of the Caissens, old-time family around here, you know. Early settlers. Daughtered out.”

She got married, the cabbie says, “just around the time the last of her aunts expired, leaving her the absolute last Caissen, and not even a Caissen anymore but a Rheingold.”

“Daughtered out,” Robbie then says, and Josh suspects that Robbie repeated it “because he’d just now figured out what it meant.”

Westlake apparently liked the expression, because he’d used it decades earlier.

In his novel Brothers Keepers (1975), two monks are speaking and one says, “The Van deWitts daughtered out during the Civil War.” He later explains that the “line eventually produced no sons … and therefore the name ceased to exist.”

As we said above, the expression has been in use since the 1940s, if not before. The earliest example we’ve found is from a nonfiction book about a historic New Hampshire mill:

“The name of Goffe ‘daughtered out’ one hundred years ago, but the descendants persisted on the location just the same.” (John Goffe’s Mill, 1948, by George Woodbury.)

The phrase also cropped up in 1957 in a short item in Reader’s Digest: “New England expression: ‘The family name daughtered out’ (Paul Flowers in Memphis Commercial Appeal).”

A letter to the editor of the journal American Speech (February 1961) cites the use of the expression in The Devil in Bucks County, a 1959 novel by Edmund Schiddel:

“There used to be lots of Coatesworths here in the early days, and they did own land up your way. But they were daughtered out, long ago.”

An article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (October 1967) uses the term in reference to a New Hampshire family named Merrow: “Meanwhile Deacon Daniel’s progeny proliferated Merrows well into the twentieth century before they almost ‘daughtered out.’ ”

It’s possible that “daughter out” was a New England expression. We’ve seen much later examples in which it’s said to have originated in Massachusetts, Maine, or Vermont. But we’ve also seen suggestions that it comes from Canada or the South.

One late 20th-century example connects the term to a particular genealogist: “The Joyce family surname died out in this line of the Joyce family—‘daughtered out’ as the late great genealogist, Maclean W. McLean used to say” (from the Mayflower Quarterly, 1997).

McLean did use the term, but he apparently didn’t coin it. The earliest uses by him that we’ve been able to find are from a 1972 issue of the American Genealogist, in which he uses the term twice in separate articles: “this Whelden family had not ‘daughtered out’ ” … “the [Harper] family ‘daughtered out.’ ”

These days, “daughtered out” is commonly used on genealogical websites and can often be found in other kinds of writing as well. It’s not to be confused with the title of a reality-TV program, OutDaughtered, which is about a young couple with six daughters (five of them quintuplets).

The couple, Danielle and Adam Busby, are certainly overwhelmed by daughters, but there’s no suggestion that the Busby name will be “daughtered out.” Adam could have other male relations named Busby—or a future son-in-law could adopt the Busby name!

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In the weeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On ‘equity’ and ‘equality’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conceptually speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sick of politics? Want a break?

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

Swan Song

By Stewart Kellerman

Chapter 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How appropriate is ‘apropos’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is ‘suicide’ a forbidden word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trouble’s weird sister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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