The Grammarphobia Blog

When ‘wood’ means ‘wooden’

Q: Are ‘wood’ and ‘wooden’ interchangeable?

A: The words “wood” and “wooden” can sometimes be used for each other, but we wouldn’t describe them as interchangeable.

When used adjectivally to describe something made out of the material from a tree, “wood” and “wooden” mean the same thing (as in “wood shutters” or “wooden shutters”).

But when used figuratively to describe something stiff, awkward, unnatural, or emotionless, only “wooden” will do (“wooden expression,” “wooden performance”).

Even when “wood” and “wooden” mean the same thing, we wouldn’t necessarily consider them interchangeable. The choice of one or the other often depends on rhythm, style, euphony, and so on.

If they were switched in these two passages, the iambic meter would be disrupted:

“Upon a wooden coffin we attend” (from Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part 1, believed written in 1591).

“the very sap of their wood-fewel burning on the fire” (from Milton’s Moscovia, an early work published posthumously in 1682).

Technically, “wooden” is an adjective while “wood” here is a noun used attributively—that is as an adjective. When a noun like “wood” is used adjectivally, it’s often referred to as an attributive noun, a noun adjunct, or a noun premodifier.

In general, adjectives are more flexible than attributive nouns. You can use an adjective as a simple premodifier (“blue scarf”), with an adverb like “too” or “very” (“a very blue scarf”), and as a comparative or superlative (“a bluer scarf”).

You can also use an attributive noun as a premodifier (“a wool pullover”), but it’s unidiomatic to use it with “too” or “very” (“a very wool pullover”) or as a comparative or superlative (“a more wool pullover”).

As for the attributive noun “wood,” it’s used only as a simple premodifier (“a wood floor”). It’s not used with “too” or “very,” or as a comparative or superlative.

However, the adjective “wooden” is quite flexible when used figuratively (“a wooden speech,” “a very wooden speech,” “a more wooden speech”).

Interestingly, the noun “wood” has been used since Anglo-Saxon times for the material that comes from trees, but it wasn’t used adjectivally (as either “wood” or “wooden”) until hundreds of years later.

So how did the Anglo-Saxons describe something composed of the substance that comes from the trunks, branches, and other parts of trees?

In Old English, the adjective describing a thing made of wood was tréowen, tríwen, or trýwen—from the noun tréow (“tree”) and the suffix -en (made of).

The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary has this early example from Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin, written around 995: “ligneus, treowen.” (Ligneus is classical Latin for “wooden.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary has this example from Old English Leechdoms, a medical text written around 1000: “getrifula on treowenum mortere” (“grind in a wooden mortar”). Treowenum is the dative case of treowen. As the object of a preposition, treowenum mortere is dative.

Although this adjective is now obsolete, it survived until the late 19th century, spelled treen in Middle and Modern English, according to the OED.

As for “wood,” it originally meant “tree” when it showed up in early Old English, spelled widu, wiodu, or wudu. The earliest Oxford example is from a Latin-Old English glossary dated around 725:

Pinus, furhwudu.” The Latin for “pine” is translated here by the Old English for “fir tree.”

The noun “wood” soon took on the sense of a “collection of trees growing more or less thickly together,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is an excerpt in Latin and Old English from Psalm 104:11 in the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript that the British Library dates to the second quarter of the 700s:

Omnes bestiae silvarum, alle wilddeor wuda.” In modern English, “All the beasts of the wood.” (The full passage in the King James Version of the Bible reads: “They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst.”)

A century and a half later, the noun took on the additional sense of the “substance of which the roots, trunks, and branches of trees or shrubs consist,” the OED says.

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

“Se se ðe unwærlice ðone wuda hiewð, & sua his freond ofsliehð” (“He who carelessly hews the wood, and so slays his friend”).

The use of the attributive noun “wood” and the adjective “wooden” to describe something made of wood both showed up around the same time in the early 1500s.

The first OED appearance for the attributive noun is in a 1538 will registered in the city of York: “All wodde implementes.” (From John William Clay’s Testamenta Eboracensia: A Selection of Wills From the Registry at York, Vol. 6, 1902.)

The earliest Oxford example for the adjective is from Sir Thomas Eliot’s 1538 Latin-English dictionary: “Durateus, wodden.” The usual Latin for “wooden” is ligneus; the less common durateus comes from the Homeric Greek term for the Trojan horse, δουράτεος ἵππος (dourateos hippos, or “wooden horse”).

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On dignity, with all due respect

Q: I keep seeing and hearing about people “treated with dignity.” Shouldn’t it be “respect”? While I can “respect” your “dignity,” I don’t “treat” you with it; it’s yours to have—not mine to confer.

A: Traditionally, “dignity” has meant the quality of being worthy, honorable, or esteemed, and traditionalists insist on using it that way.

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “Dignity is a quality one possesses. It is not a synonym for respect, so it’s mangled in the phrase treat with dignity.”

However, Garner acknowledges that the “undignified phrase is spreading in American print sources.” We’d add that it’s seen in both the US and the UK, and that it isn’t particularly new.

We’ve found written examples for “treat with dignity” going back hundreds of years. Before we get to them, though, let’s look at how “dignity” is treated today.

Several standard dictionaries accept the use of “dignity” to mean a calm, serious, or formal manner, so to treat someone or something with dignity would mean to treat them calmly, seriously, or formally—that is, in a dignified manner.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, says “dignity” can mean “formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language” as well as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.”

Merriam-Webster cites without comment (that is, as standard) several examples of the “undignified” usage criticized by Garner, including this one: “All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, in its US and UK editions, defines “dignity” as a “composed or serious manner or style” as well as the “state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect” (“honor” is spelled “honour” in the British edition).

Oxford cites without comment six examples of “treat with dignity,” including this one, “We are committed to treating all persons under coalition control with dignity, respect and humanity.”

This sense of “dignity” isn’t quite the same as “respect,” which Oxford defines as “deep admiration for someone or something” or “regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”

In fact, “respect” often accompanies “dignity” in the usage you’re asking about, suggesting that writers feel each word contributes something to the expression.

How common is the usage today?

Here are the results of our searches in the News on the Web corpus, which tracks online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters: “treated with respect,” 2,570 hits; “treated with dignity,” 1,299; “treated with dignity and respect,” 601; “treated with respect and dignity,” 321.

The usage seems to be especially common among health-care providers, as in these examples from the iWeb corpus, a database that follows nearly 95,000 English-language websites:

“Specialist healthcare professionals will make sure you are treated with dignity” … “Patients and their families have the right to be treated with dignity and respect” … “While in our care, patients are treated with dignity, respect and compassion” … “We work hard to ensure every patient receives proper treatment and is treated with dignity and respect” …  “It’s very important that the patient continues to be treated with dignity and they do not suffer.”

We suspect that “treat with dignity” is here to stay, and you’ll just have to get used to it. And as we’ve said, it’s been around for a long time. The two earliest examples we’ve found treat things, rather than people, with dignity.

The earliest is from an Aug. 13, 1736, letter in the Gentleman’s Magazine, commenting on a scholarly exchange of views in the London periodical about the Book of Job.

The author, who refers to himself as “Ignoto” (Latin for “Unknown”), says that in Job “a high philosophic Question is treated with Dignity, and the Decision given in great Majesty.”

(The lexicographer Samuel Johnson was a writer for the Gentleman’s Magazine. And some scholars believe Johnson’s 1755 dictionary may have influenced the author of our next citation.)

In an entry for the Roman historian Tacitus in Bibliotheca Classica (1788), a classical dictionary, the English classicist and lexicographer John Lemprière writes:

“Affairs of importance are treated with dignity, the secret causes of events and revolutions are investigated from their primeval source, and the historian every where shows his reader that he was a friend of public liberty.”

The next example appeared in the July 1792 issue of the Literary and Biographical Magazine and British Review (London). A dispatch from Paris during the French Revolution, dated June 22, 1792, reports on a letter written by the Marquis de Lafayette urging the French National Assembly to respect King Louis XVI:

“M. La Fayette concludes with exhorting the National Assembly to cause the King to be respected and treated with dignity.”

We found many written examples of the expression during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t mention the expression “treat with dignity,” but the OED entry for “dignity” hasn’t been fully updated since it was first published in 1896.

When the noun “dignity” appeared in English in the 13th century, Oxford says, it had three meanings: “The quality of being worthy or honourable” … “Honourable or high estate, position, or estimation” … “a high official or titular position.” The last sense, which has given us “dignitary,” is now archaic.

The earliest written example in the dictionary is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Nis naut edsene inhwich dignete ha is, hu hech is hire cunde” (“Nor is it easily seen of what dignity she [the soul] is, nor how noble is her nature”).

English borrowed the word from the Old French digneté, but the ultimate source is dignitātem, classical Latin for merit or worth, according to the OED.

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Multiple choices

Q: I often hear newscasters refer to a crowd or a group as “multiple people,” which just sounds wrong. I would say “several” or “many,” depending on the estimated number. What do you think?

A: For hundreds of years, the adjective “multiple” has been used to mean “many,” referring either to many things or to one thing made up of many parts.

But as you’ve noticed, the word is widely used these days, especially in the news media, as a substitute for almost any term for an inexact number: “several,” “few,” “many,” “numerous,” and so on.

We’ve found a great many (if not multiple!) examples of this online. Here’s a small sampling from a single day’s news reports:

“multiple people,” “multiple tornadoes,” “multiple vehicle crashes,” “multiple houses,” “multiple crews battling fire,” “multiple crime scenes,” “multiple dive teams,” “multiple roads closed,” “multiple felony counts,” “multiple new construction projects,” and “multiple cybersecurity officials.”

Why do journalists often use “multiple” when there are less imprecise words to choose from, depending on the rough size of the unknown number? We can think of several reasons.

In some cases, the writer may have no idea how many people or things are involved, so a less inexact term like “few” or “numerous” wouldn’t be appropriate. “Multiple” is suitably fuzzy.

In other cases, reporters may want to exaggerate the significance of a story or make their reporting sound more authoritative. An accident with “multiple” victims may sound more important than one with “several.”

Besides, some inexact terms can be used to magnify or minimize a number.

For example, the manufacturer of a defective product might use the terms “few” or “a handful” to play down the number of consumer complaints. But those same terms, used to describe the number of deaths caused by the product, would seem insensitive.

We’ve written before about words for inexact numbers. For instance, we’ve suggested that people may prefer a longer, more educated-sounding word (like “numerous“) to a shorter, everyday adjective (like “many”).

With words for inexact numbers, their meanings can depend on how they’re interpreted. So one person’s “several” might be another person’s “few.” And we even have words for exaggerated, imaginary numbers, like “umpteen” and “oodles.”

Getting back to “multiple,” it can mean an inexact large number or a small one, depending on the context. But unlike the other inexact terms, “multiple” can modify a singular noun or noun phrase, as in “the multiple Oscar nominee” or “a multiple count indictment,” or “the test was multiple choice.”

Before we go any further into the uses of “multiple,” let’s take a look at its etymology.

As you may know, the “multi-” prefix ultimately comes from Latin and means “many” or “much.” English acquired its “multi-” words after the Norman Conquest, mostly by way of French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says, “The majority of English words beginning with multi– before the late 16th cent. are related to or derived < [from] multiply and multitude.

The first, “multiply,” was adopted from Anglo-Norman and Old French sometime before 1275; “multitude,” which is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French and partly from Latin, dates back to around 1350.

As for “multiple,” it’s both a noun and an adjective adopted from Middle French, with the noun arriving first. Its more distant ancestor, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is the Late Latin multiplus (manifold).

In the OED’s earliest citation for “multiple” as a noun, from a document written sometime before 1595, the word means “a multitude, a great number.” But Oxford has only one example, and says that sense of the word is rare or obsolete.

However, other noun usages have survived, mostly with technical or scientific meanings.

For instance, in mathematics, “multiple” has been used steadily as a noun since the 1670s, according to our searches of historical databases.

Oxford defines the mathematical term as a “quantity which contains another quantity some number of times without remainder” or “a quantity which is the product of a given quantity and some other,” and adds: “Thus 4 is a multiple of 2; 6 is a multiple of 2 and 3.”

Beginning in the 1940s, the noun was used in the fields of electricity, telephony, and railway engineering. In these industries, the phrase “in multiple” means something like “in parallel” or “coupled together,” the OED says.

And since the early 1980s, Oxford says, the noun “multiple” has been used in the stock market to mean “a stock price expressed as a multiple of current or projected earnings per share.”

But the word is more commonly an adjective, a usage that dates from the mid-1600s.

It was first used to modify singular nouns and meant “consisting of or characterized by many parts, elements, etc.,” or “having several or many causes, results, aspects, locations, etc.,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example dates from 1647: “That Kings should bow down their necks under the double or rather multiple yoke of Pope and Archbishops.” (From Nathaniel Bacon’s An Historicall Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England.)

Here are some later OED examples: “the multiple development of malignant tumors” (1906); “the speed flash, also known as multiple or electronic flash” (1950); “a multiple fracture of the femur” (1984); “a multiple dovetail joint” (1990).

These days the adjective more often modifies plural nouns, a usage first recorded in the early 1660s. In this sense, the OED says, the adjective means “many” or “plural.”

The earliest sighting in the OED is from a treatise on taxes published by William Petty in 1662: “Why should not the solvent thieves and cheats be rather punished with multiple restitutions than death, pillory, whipping, &c.?”

And here are a few 19th- and 20th-century uses, again from the OED: “multiple ruffs of cloth” (1834); “multiple solutions” (1879); “multiple factors” (1915); “multiple bookings” (1949); “multiple injuries” (1980); “multiple taxes” (2000).

Standard dictionaries generally define the usage today as “more than one” or “many.”

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard dictionary, defines it as “numerous.” However, the examples the dictionary cites use the term as broadly as journalists do—as an inexact number ranging from “several” to “many.”

Here’s a sampling: “multiple locations,” “multiple medals,” “multiple perspectives,” “multiple elements,” “multiple boards,” “multiple medications,” “multiple questions,” “multiple sites,” “multiple counts,” “multiple movies,” and “multiple sources.”

In conclusion, we agree with you that “multiple” sounds strange in some contexts (especially “multiple people”), but we’ll probably just have to get used to it.

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How do you do?

Q: While enjoying old movies, I’ve noticed that one of the most common expressions is “How do you do?” Presumably, this was common in everyday speech as well. But no one, it seems, says that anymore—in film or out. Why the change?

A: It’s true that “How do you do?” has largely been replaced by newer “How” greetings: “How are you doing?” … “How are you?” … “How’s it going?” and so on.

These days, most of us don’t use “How do you do?” as the offhand, casual greeting it once was. We reserve it for formal introductions.

But all of these expressions are part of a long history of English pleasantries beginning with “how,” a tradition that got its start with “How do you?” in the Middle Ages.

Here the adverb “how” means “in what condition or state,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. And in this sense, “how” appears in “common phrases used in inquiring as to a person’s health.”

The original formula, dating at least as far back as the 1300s, was “how do” + pronoun (or name).

The OED‘s earliest example is from the Towneley Mystery Plays, dramatic depictions of biblical scenes that were probably first performed in the 1370s. (The only surviving manuscript is later, dating from sometime before 1460.)

This is the relevant line: “How do thay in Gessen, The Iues, can ye me say?” (“How do they in Goshen, the Jews, can you tell me?”)

In searches of early English databases, we’ve found many 15th, 16th, and 17th-century examples of this “how do” formula. Here’s a sampling (we’ll dispense with the question marks, since most aren’t complete sentences):

“how doth sir tristram” (1485); “how do ye mayster” (1499); “how doth my lady” (1560); “how doth my sonne” (1565); “how doest thou” (1548); “sir how do you” (1561); “how do ye to day” (1565);  “how dost thou” (1577); “How does all our friends in Lancashire” (1600); “how doeth my cousin” (1601); “how does thy mistrisse” (1608); “how do all our friends in Hampshire” (1693); “how does my lady” (1696).

In usages like that, “do” is the principal verb and its meaning is similar to “fare,” as in “How fare you?” But in the early 1600s another “do” crept into the formula, and “how do you” eventually became “how do you do,” with the first verb a mere auxiliary—as it would be in “How do you fare?”

The earliest example of “how do you do” that we’ve been able to find is from Thomas Middleton’s comic play No Wit/Help Like a Womans, which Middleton scholars say was written and first staged in 1611: “Gentlemen, Out-laws all, how do you do?” (OED examples are not as old, since the dictionary’s “how” entries are not yet fully updated.)

The next example we found appeared after a gap of 45 years. It’s from Richard Flecknoe’s The Diarium (1656), a diary in comic verse: “Visits I made me two or three, / With reverence not very comely, / And complements indeed as homely; / As for example; ‘How do you do?’ /’Well I thank ye, How do you?’ ”

(Note that the author regarded “how do you do” as a “homely” compliment, suggesting that it was already a familiar greeting even then.)

We’ve also found several examples from the 1690s of “how dost thou do,” a more formal version of “how do you do.” And by 1700, according to our searches, the “how do you do” form had begun to replace the older “how do you.”

As is often the case with well-entrenched salutations, both versions spawned many abbreviated forms.

The OED mentions “how-do-ye,” “how-d’ye,” and “how dee,” which eventually became—you guessed it—”howdy”! The spelling “how dee” (as in “How dee neighbour”) appeared around 1600, the OED says. The earliest “howdy” spelling we’ve found is from 1694.

(All this, by the way, sheds new light on Howdy Doody, the famous puppet whose name is a mashup of these greetings. In Elizabethan times, he might have been known as “How-d’ye Do-d’ye.”)

Besides “do,” the common “how” greetings” include forms of the verbs “be” and “go.”

The OED has these as its earliest examples: “how is it with you” (1480) and “how goes it” (1598). However, we found uses of “go” that are slightly earlier: “How goes it, Sirs?” (c. 1589) and “How goes the world with thee?” (1593).

But the specific expression “how are you” apparently didn’t become common, at least in writing, until the 1600s. The earliest definite use we’ve found is from an exchange in another Thomas Middleton play, Women, Beware Women (c. 1621): “How are you now, sir?” … “I feel a better ease, madam.”

We also found examples in a play called Matrimonial Trouble (1662), by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. For instance, Sir William Lovewell says to Lady Hypocondria: “How are you, dear Wife? How do you feel your self now? How are you?”

Finally, as you might suspect, the more casual “how’s things” and “how’s tricks” came along in the first half of the 20th century. And while they may sound like American slang, they were first recorded in books by authors from Australia and New Zealand.

These are the earliest findings reported in the OED: “How’s things?” (Australia, 1926); “How are things?” (New Zealand, 1930); “How’s tricks?” (Australia, 1941); and a sighting of both, “How’s things? … How’s tricks with you?” (New Zealand, 1949).

By this time, of course, “How do you do” was no longer a casual “hello” but had developed into something more formal. We’ll conclude with a passage, headed “What to Say When Introduced,” from Emily Post’s Etiquette (1922):

“Best Society has only one phrase in acknowledgment of an introduction: ‘How do you do?’ It literally accepts no other. When Mr. Bachelor says, ‘Mrs. Worldly, may I present Mr. Struthers?’ Mrs. Worldly says, ‘How do you do?’ Struthers bows, and says nothing.”

When a reply is in order, however, it should NOT be “Charmed,” “Pleased to meet you,” or the like, she says. It should be a remark that can lead to conversation.

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Speaking with a forked tongue

Q: What is the origin of “to speak with a forked tongue”? Does the expression come from the snake that tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit?

A: The expression was probably inspired by the forked tongue of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. One of the earliest examples of the phrase “forked tongue” in the deceptive sense alludes to the passage in Genesis.

The image of a forked tongue has been used figuratively in English for hundreds of years to mean an intent to deceive. The earliest recorded example we’ve seen is from Magnificence, a morality play written around 1516 by the English poet John Skelton:

“Paint to a purpose good countenance I can, / And craftily can I grope how every man is minded; / My purpose is to spy and point every man; / My tongue is with favel [cunning] forked and tyned. / By Cloaked Collusion thus many one is beguiled.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the exact phrase “forked tongue” used this way suggests a serpentine origin, though not necessarily from the serpent in Genesis that tempts Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Here’s the passage from Poetasters, a 1601 comedy by Ben Jonson about versifiers who ape true poets:

“Are there no players here? no poet apes, / That come with basilisk’s eyes, whose forked tongues / Are steeped in venom, as their hearts in gall?” (A basilisk is a mythical serpent that can kill with a single glance.)

When Lancelot Andrewes, an Anglican bishop, used the phrase a few years later, he was clearly alluding to the forked tongue of the deceptive serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Andrewes, who may be best known for overseeing the King James Version of the Bible, used “forked tongue” twice in a June 8, 1606, sermon in Greenwich before King James I. Here’s one that mentions “in the beginning,” an allusion to Genesis:

“And so, the Devill hath his tongues. And he hath the art of cleaving. He shewed it in the beginning, when he made the Serpent, lingnam bisulcam, a forked tongue, to speake that, which was contrary to his knowledge and meaning.”

The full expression “to speak with a forked tongue” showed up in American English in the 19th century, according to our searches of digital archives.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from a March 23, 1829, letter by President Andrew Jackson addressed “To the Creek Indians”:

“You know I love my white and red children, and always speak straight, and not with a forked tongue; that I have always told you the truth.”

The letter, which urged the Creeks to move West, was part of  a plan by Jackson to move all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma. Defiant Creeks were driven out of Alabama and Georgia in the Creek War of 1836.

Several language references suggest that “to speak with a forked tongue” is derived from expressions in American Indian languages.

However, we haven’t seen any written evidence from the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries that Native Americans were using the full expression, either in English or in a native language.

Indians did apparently use the phrase “forked tongue” to mean deception as far back as the 1700s, but they could have picked up the term from English speakers, perhaps traders or missionaries relating the passage about Eve and the serpent in Genesis.

James Adair, an English trader and writer who lived among Native Americans in the Southeast in the mid-1700s, quotes a Chickasaw chief as using the phrase.

In this passage from The History of the American Indians, Adair’s 1775 account of Indian life, the Chickasaw tells a Muskogee emissary that without the help of the English, the French would set the Muskogee against one another, as they did with the Choctaw.

“Only for their brotherly help, the artful and covetous French, by the weight of presents and the skill of their forked tongues, would before now, have set you to war against each other, in the very same manner they have done by the Choktah.”

As for the Native American use of the full expression, the earliest example we’ve seen is fictional.

In “God and the Pagan,” a short story by W. A. Fraser in the July 1898 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a Blackfoot medicine man warns his people about a “paleface prophet who speaks with the forked tongue”—a priest seeking the release of a woman carried off in a raid.

When an actual American Indian is described in writing as using the expression in a native tongue, the translation is often questionable.

In Black Elk Speaks (1932), for example, John G. Neihardt puts these words into the mouth of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man:

“But could we believe anything the Wasichus ever said to us? They spoke with forked tongues.” (Wašícu is a word in Lakota and Dakota Sioux for people of European descent.)

However, we question the authenticity of a book by an American poet who didn’t speak Sioux about a Sioux who didn’t speak English. (Although Neihardt was helped by Black Elk’s son, scholars say he took many liberties with the translation.)

In “Black Elk Speaks With Forked Tongue,” a 1989 study, G. Thomas Couser writes: “we see Black Elk not face to face, but through the gloss of a white man—a translation whose surface obscures Black Elk by reflecting the culture of his collaborator.”

(The study appeared as a chapter in Couser’s 1989 book Altered Egos: Authority in American Biography. An earlier version appeared in Studies in Autobiography, a 1988 collection edited by James Olney.)

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Is the ‘d’ silent in ‘adjective’?

Q: Why is “d” silent before “j” in words like “adjective,” “adjust,” and “adjunct”? Is this an issue of phonology, or is it related to the etymology of these words and their Latin prefix?

A: The “d” isn’t silent in these words. It’s built into the letter “j” as pronounced in modern English. This “j” sound is rendered in phonetic symbols as /dʒ/.

In modern French, you may have noticed, the letter “j” is sounded by /ʒ/ alone—as in je and jeune—a sound similar to the one we hear in the middle of our word “vision.”

But in English, “j” is much stronger—as in “jury” and “banjo”—incorporating a touch of “d” at the beginning. This is why the English consonant is represented by the more complex symbol /dʒ/, reflecting both sounds.

We can’t say for sure why those words you mention kept the “d” in their spellings. Certainly they would be pronounced just the same without it. But your suggestion may be correct, and perhaps the “d” was retained for etymological reasons.

The “d” got there in the first place because all English words beginning with “adj-” are ultimately derived from Latin words prefixed with ad-. Such words include “adjacent,” “adjective,” “adjoin,” “adjourn,” “adjudicate,” “adjunct,” “adjure,” “adjust,” and “adjutant.”

The Latin prefix can denote motion “to,” “toward,” “near,” or “at,” and it can indicate “change into, addition, adherence, increase, or intensification,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Taking “adjective” as an example, it can be traced to the Latin ad– plus iacere (to lay, to throw). When it first came into English in the 14th century, it was spelled “adiectif” because English had not yet adopted the letter “j.”

Similarly, other “adj-” words that date from the Middle English period originally had no “j.” For instance, “adjacent” was spelled “adiacent”; “adjoin” was sometimes “adioyne” (among many other spellings); “adjourn” was “adiurne”; “adjunct” was “adiuncte”; and “adjure” was “adiure.”

Even later words like “adjutant” and “adjust,” which came along in the early 1600s, originally had two spellings, sometimes with “j” and sometimes with “i” (“adiutant,” “adiust”).

But even when spelled with “i,” such words were pronounced as if the letter were a modern “j.”

As the OED explains within its entry for the letter “j,” French spellings brought into English with the Norman Conquest introduced the Old French use of “i” as a consonant pronounced /dʒ/. This, the dictionary says, is the “sound which English has ever since retained in words derived from that source, although in French itself the sound was subsequently, by loss of its first element, simplified to /ʒ/.”

For a time, the double identity of “i” resulted in some confusion, because, as Oxford says, the letter “represented at once the vowel sound of i, and a consonant sound /dʒ/, far removed from the vowel.”

It wasn’t until the 17th century that “i” was consistently used for the vowel and “j” for the consonant.

In case you’re interested, we’ve mentioned the development of “j” in other posts, including one in 2013 about the name “Jesus.”

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Doctor’s or doctor appointment?

Q: Why do I use a possessive when I say, “I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday”? I never hear anyone say, “I have a doctor appointment.”

A: Of the two phrases, “doctor’s appointment” is much more common in digitized books, news, and other media, but “doctor appointment” is not unknown.

Searches of the News on the Web corpus, for example, indicate that “doctor’s appointment” has appeared 1,354 times since 2010 in the online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters tracked, compared to 78 appearances for “doctor appointment.”

Although the wording with ’s is more common for an appointment with a “doctor,” the plain construction is used more often for an appointment with a “dentist” as well as with a “cardiologist,” “dermatologist,” and some other medical specialists, according to our searches.

Strictly speaking, “doctor’s appointment” is a genitive construction, not a possessive. As we’ve noted several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is broader than “possessive.”

In addition to possession (“the lawyer’s office”), the genitive can indicate the source of something (“the girl’s story”), the date (“yesterday’s storm”), the type (“a women’s college”), a part (“the book’s cover”), an amount (“two cups’ worth”), duration (“five years’ experience”), and so on.

In the phrase “doctor’s appointment,” the noun “doctor” is being used genitively to describe the type of appointment, while in “doctor appointment,” the noun is being used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to do the same thing.

The term “doctor’s” in the first example is often called a “descriptive genitive,” and “doctor” in the second an “attributive noun,” a “noun adjunct,” or a “noun premodifier.”

There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for whether to use a noun genitively or attributively as a modifier before another noun. However, some usages are more idiomatic (that is, natural to a native speaker) than others.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors Randolph Quirk et al. say that genitives tend to premodify nouns referring to human beings, while attributive nouns are often closely related to the nouns they premodify.

So we might use genitives for “women’s college,” “cashier’s check,” or “learner’s permit,” and attributive nouns for “computer software,” “movie highlights,” or “pizza topping.”

However, there are many exceptions. For instance, one might use the genitive in that last example to be more specific (“the pizza’s topping was cold”).

It’s especially hard to pin down the use of the descriptive genitive. Another authoritative source, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, uses the term but describes it as “a somewhat unproductive category.”

As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, note, “while it is possible to have a summer’s day and a winter’s day, corresponding forms for the other seasons are quite marginal.”

Similarly, they write, “we have a ship’s doctor but not a school’s doctor—instead a plain-case nominative is used, a school doctor.”

And that takes us back to where we began: Why is “doctor’s appointment” more common than “doctor appointment,” while “dentist appointment” is more common than “dentist’s appointment”?

We haven’t found an explanation in the linguistic scholarship for why English speakers prefer the genitive to describe an appointment with a “doctor.”

However, we suspect an attributive noun is preferred for “dentist” or similar terms ending in “-ist”  because people are put off by the two sibilants at the end of “dentist’s,” “dermatologist’s, “cardiologist’s,” and so on.

Finally, here are search results from the NOW corpus for a few other noun-noun constructions, with the more popular version of each pair listed first:

“driver’s license,” 8,966 hits, “driver license,” 306; “attorney fees,” 884, “attorney’s fees,” 681; “survivor benefits,” 291, “survivor’s benefits,” 38; “learner’s permit,” 237, “learner permit,” 171; “cashier’s check,” 161, “cashier check,” 6.

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A question of beige

Q: A story in the NY Times Magazine about an outspoken academic who studies wolves says he stands out because scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species.” I googled the phrase “beige species” and found nothing. Puzzling, huh?

A: The word “beige” is sometimes used metaphorically to mean bland, similar to “vanilla.”

One of the definitions for “beige” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is “lacking distinction.” The dictionary adds that it has the same sense as “vanilla” when used to mean “plain, ordinary, conventional.”

So in noting that scientists “can be a maddeningly careful, even beige species,” the Times writer is saying that scientists can be overly careful and conventional.

Merriam-Webster is the only standard dictionary in which we’ve found this figurative sense of the word, and it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

However, the usage appears in several slang references in our library. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, says the adjective means “bland; uninteresting; unimaginative; boring.”

The earliest Random House example is from a Sept. 14, 1982, article in the New York Times about the spread of Valley Girl speak beyond California: “BEIGE: Boring, for sure.”

The citation is from a brief glossary at the end of the article. Earlier, the writer says it “would be, you know, a really beige thing to admit” being unaware of the upsurge in uptalk.

This later example is from Tricks of the Trade, a 1988 movie about a woman whose husband is killed in the apartment of a prostitute: “Maybe that’s what was wrong with your marriage—too beige.”

And we’ve expanded this Random House citation from Slang U., a 1991 dictionary of college slang by the UCLA linguist Pamela Munro: “beige boring: My date talked about his stamp collection the whole night. What a beige personality!”

Finally, here’s another example that we’ve found in Munro’s book, which includes contributions from students in her slang seminar: “my life was as beige as June Cleaver’s meatloaf.”

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A touching story

Q: I see the word “touchstone” in your recent post about “acid test.” I always pictured something like the Blarney Stone—touch it for good luck. I guess I was wrong about that.

A: Yes, the figurative sense of “touchstone”—a criterion for judging excellence—comes from its literal use in the testing of gold and other precious metals, as in an “acid test.”

However, “touchstone” is hundreds of years older than “acid test.” Long before acids were used in the assaying process, jewelers and others used their own eyes to examine the marks made by precious metals on touchstones.

Because of its ancient connection with gold, the rock known as a “touchstone” had a fascinating history even before it got its English name.

The word is thought to come from a 14th-century Middle French term, pierre de touche (literally “touch stone”), which the Oxford English Dictionary says was first recorded sometime before 1389.

A pierre de touche was (and still is) a piece of stone, typically black jasper or basalt, used in testing the purity of gold and other valuable metals. Similar Middle French terms of the 1400s included touchepiarre and pierre à toucher.

The French began using pierre de touche figuratively in 1579, Oxford says, and around that same time the term also appeared in Spanish as piedra de toque (“touch stone”) in both “concrete and figurative senses.”

However, the practice of testing gold on such a stone preceded those French and Spanish terms by many centuries.

The first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, in his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia, referred to this stone as coticula (Latin for both “touchstone” and “whetstone”). In Book 33, devoted to metals, he writes:

“Auri argentique mentionem comitatur lapis, quem coticulam appellant. … His coticulis periti cum e vena ut lima rapuerunt experimento ramentum, protinus dicunt quantum auri sit in ea, quantum argenti vel aeris.”

(“A description of gold and silver is necessarily accompanied by that of the stone known as the touchstone. … Persons of experience in these matters, when they have scraped a particle off the ore with this stone, as with a file, can tell in a moment the proportion of gold there is in it, how much silver, or how much copper.”)

The use of similar stones was also known in ancient India, Egypt, and Greece, according to historians and metallurgists.

But let’s get back to English and the word “touchstone.”

In early uses, it was also spelled “twichstone,” “touche stone,” “towtchstone,” “tuitchstone,” and “tweichstaine.”

Here’s the OED’s earliest example of the literal usage: “Touche stone to proue golde with.” (From John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse, a 1530 French grammar book written in English.)

Oxford defines “touchstone” as “Fine-grained black stone (typically a type of chert) upon which objects made of gold or silver can be rubbed to determine their purity; a piece of this.” (The cherts are silica stones like flint, jasper, agate, onyx and others.)

As the OED explains the process, “the touchstone was originally used in conjunction with a set of touch needles of known purity, allowing visual comparison of the mark left on the stone by the object being assayed with those of the touch needles.”

The word must have been known before it was recorded in writing in 1530, since the figurative use appeared in the same year. Here’s the earliest example we’ve found:

“Ye scripture is y twichstone yt tryeth all doctrynes” (“The scripture is the touchstone that tests all doctines”). From William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch.

The earliest figurative example given in the OED is from John Frith’s A Disputacio[n] of Purgatorye (1531). Here Frith invites critics to test his arguments by consulting scripture: “Laye them to the touchstone and trye them with goddes worde.”

(In the treatise, Frith uses “touchstone” figuratively four times altogether. In another passage he says that the “worde of god” is the “perfeyte touchstone that iudgeth and examineth all things.”)

The OED defines the figurative sense of “touchstone” as “Anything which serves to test the genuineness or value of anything; a test, a trial; a criterion or reference point by which something is assessed, judged, or recognized.”

We should mention here that “touchstone” at one time had another meaning, one probably derived from the gold-testing term. It meant a “fine-grained dark stone used for building and monumental work; esp. a type of black marble,” the OED says.

In a chronological oddity, this use was found in writing in the 1480s, decades before the parent term. As Oxford explains, “in spite of the chronology of the examples, it is likely” that the use of “touchstone” to mean black marble developed from an earlier metallurgical sense—the black stone used to test gold.

As more old manuscripts are digitized and made available to scholars, earlier uses of “touchstone” may come to light.

Today, English speakers still use “touchstone”—and French speakers still use pierre de touche—in both literal and figurative ways.

The French-English online dictionary Linguee gives this figurative example: “Le livre était considéré comme la pierre de touche du genre fantastique” (“The book was considered the touchstone of the fantasy genre”).

And the OED has modern English examples for the gold-testing term as well as the figure of speech. Here’s a sampling:

“In a metals shop the most common method for determining the karat of gold is with the use of a touchstone.” (From The Complete Book of Jewelry Making, 2006, by Carles Codina, translated from Spanish by Laura C. Jones.)

“Fashion, literature and music are the cultural touchstones by which we navigate our recent history.” (From the online London newspaper City A.M., June 4, 2015.)

Finally, this one from the March 2012 issue of Vanity Fair uses the figurative word adjectivally. It’s from an article about the 1982 comedy Diner:

“For a certain 40-plus demographic … the movie became … a touchstone experience, its lines serving as passwords, signifiers of like-mindedness.”

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Masterminds, evil and otherwise

Q: I was surprised to find “master mind” in Framley Parsonage, an 1860 novel by Anthony Trollope. I had thought of it as a more recent usage. What more can you tell me?

A: The term is even older than that. When “mastermind” showed up in English in the late 1600s, it referred to someone with an outstanding mind. (We’ll use the one-word spelling here, though at first the term was hyphenated or two separate words.)

The earliest written example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cleomenes, a 1692 play by John Dryden about the warlike Spartan king of the late 6th and early 5th centuries BC:

“A Soul, not conscious to it self of Ill, / Undaunted Courage, and a Master-mind.”

As far as we can tell, Trollope’s use of the term in Framley Parsonage is the earliest written example of “mastermind” used for someone in charge of an elaborate scheme or undertaking, sometimes a questionable one.

In the novel, Mr. Supplehouse, a Machiavellian journalist among V.I.P.s visiting the Duke of Omnium, “felt that he was the master mind there at Gatherum Castle, and that those there were all puppets in his hand.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “mastermind” in this sense as a “person who plans and directs a complex and ingenious enterprise, esp. a criminal operation.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary for that sense is from a later Trollope novel, The Eustace Diamonds (1872): “The police thought that I had been the master-mind among the thieves.”

You can find both senses of “mastermind” today in standard dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines it as a “person with an outstanding intellect” as well as one “who plans and directs an ingenious and complex scheme or enterprise.”

The dictionary gives this example for the first sense, “an eminent musical mastermind,” and this example for the second, “the mastermind behind the project.”

And here’s a felonious example in our library from Indiscretions of Archie, a 1921 novel by P. G. Wodehouse:

“The usual bond-robbery had taken place on the previous day, and the police were reported hot on the trail of the Master-Mind who was alleged to be at the back of these financial operations”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several other posts about “master” on the blog, including one in 2017 about how “master” became “mister,” and one in 2015 about whether it’s legitimate to use the term “master” in education today given its historical ties to slavery.

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A puny subject

Q: I love Victorian novels and often read them on my Kindle. I just came across “puisne” in Vanity Fair. When I highlight the word, the dictionary tells me it’s a junior judge and pronounced like “puny.” Are these two terms related?

A: Not only are “puny” and “puisne” related, but they were essentially the same word when borrowed from puisné, Middle French for “younger.”

The Middle French term, a compound of puis (later) and né (born), is spelled puîné in modern French. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin post (after) and nātus (born).

When the word entered English in the 1500s as a noun and an adjective, it was spelled various ways: punie, punee, puine, puisne, and so on—all pronounced “puny,” an anglicized version of the French pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the English term was originally a noun for a new or junior student. The earliest OED citation is from a 1548 book by the historian William Patten about a trip that Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset, made to Scotland:

“Like yplay in Robin Cooks skole, whear bicaus the punies may lerne thei strike fewe strokes, but by assent & appointement.” (The new students were learning their assigned strokes at Robin Cook’s fencing school.)

When the word first showed up in print as an adjective, it meant “younger” or “junior.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Apologie of Fridericus Staphylus, Thomas Stapleton’s 1565 translation of a 1558 Latin treatise by the German theologian Friedrich Staphylus:

“Neither may you M. Grindall be offended herewith, when you shall vnderstand it, as I wish you maye, iff a young scholer and puine student in diuinite aduenter to encounter with you.” (Staphylus, a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism, is addressing Edmund Grindal, an English clergyman who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Later in the 1500s, the noun came to mean an inexperienced person, an inferior, a subordinate, someone of no importance, and a junior judge.

All those senses are now obsolete or rare except for the use of the term (now spelled “puisne”) in reference to a subordinate judge or justice, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective used in this sense is from The Common Welth of England (1589), by Sir Thomas Smith:

“The officer before whom the Clarke is to take these essoines, is the puny Iustice in the common pleas.” (The “essoines” here are excuses for not appearing in court on time before the subordinate justice.)

As for the noun, the first Oxford citation for this sense is from Skialetheia, or The Shadowe of Truth, a 1598 collection of poetry by Edward Guilpin:

“Oh he’s a puisne [lesser judge] of the Innes of Court, / Come from th’ Vniuersity to make sport.”

Since the mid-1600s, the term (now always spelled “puisne” and pronounced “puny”) has been used in the UK and some former British dependencies to designate “any judge, justice, etc., other than the most senior in the higher courts of law,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED citation refers to a case argued before “Mallet the puisne Judge” (from a 1648 collection of legal cases, compiled by the English barrister John March).

In Vanity Fair, the Thackeray novel that prompted your question, the term is similarly used to describe a less than senior judge. The novel, which was serialized in Punch from 1847 to ’48, describes Lady Smith as the “wife of Sir Minos Smith the puisne judge.”

Finally, we have Shakespeare to thank for the use of “puny” as an adjective meaning small, weak, or insignificant, the usual sense of the word today.

The Chambers etymological dictionary cites Richard II, which it dates at 1593, for the earliest example of the usage. In this passage, a pale, gloomy Richard, facing the forces of Bolingbroke, tries to snap out of his despondency:

I had forgot myself; am I not king?
Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
Ye favourites of a king: are we not high?

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Good monsters and bad

Q: How did “monster” come to mean something extraordinarily good (“a monster of the violin”) as well as something extraordinarily bad (“a bloodthirsty monster”)?

A: Let’s begin by going back to the Middle Ages, when the first lexical monsters stalked the English language.

English borrowed “monster” from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French word monstre, but it ultimately comes from mōnstrum, classical Latin for an omen, a monstrous creature, a wicked person, or an atrocity.

When “monster” showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s, it could mean something extraordinary, unnatural, or ominous, as well as a mythical creature like Cerberus, the many-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld.

Chaucer uses the term both of those ways in the two earliest written examples for “monster” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Boece (circa 1374), his translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, Chaucer uses “monster” to mean something extraordinarily worrisome:

“I vnderstonde þe felefolde colour and deceites of þilke merveylous monstre, Fortune” (“I understand the manifold wiles and deceits of this marvelous monster, Fortune”).

In “The Monk’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Chaucer uses the term for such mythical creatures as the half-man, half-horse centaurs, and the half-woman, half-bird harpies:

“Was neuere wight sith that this world bigan / That slow so manye monstres as dide he” (“Was never such a man since this world began / That slew so many monsters as did he”). The reference is to Hercules, who killed centaurs and harpies and kidnapped Cerberus.

Over the years, the noun “monster” took on many related senses, including a sea monster or other huge creature (c. 1450); a cruel, wicked, or otherwise repulsive person (before 1505); and an ugly or deformed person or thing (1715).

However, the word lost much of its negative sense when used adjectivally in the 19th century to mean extraordinarily large. Early OED examples include “monster ballroom” (1837), “monster product” (1839), “Monster Meetings” (1843), and “monster organ” (1845).

We assume that this gigantic sense of the adjective inspired the use of “monster” in the 20th century as both a noun and an adjective for hugely successful people or things, and for people with a great amount of knowledge or talent.

In the early 20th century, writers began using “monster” colloquially to mean remarkably successful, profitable, or good. The first Oxford citation is from the Sept. 22, 1912, issue of the Sunday Times-Tribune (Waterloo, IA):

“New Plays, new specialties and new people will add to the big show’s drawing power and the prospects for a monster week are bright.” (The word “monster” here is a noun being used attributively—that is, as an adjective.)

In the mid-20th century, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, writers began using the noun positively to mean “a formidable aircraft or automobile.”

The first two examples in the slang dictionary are from Aviation Cadet (1955), a young-adult novel by Joseph Archibald: “We’re really throwing the iron monsters around now” … “We thought cockpit procedure on the monsters was confusing.”

In less than a decade, the noun took on the sense of a remarkable or successful person or thing. The earliest Random House example is from an April 6, 1968, interview in Rolling Stone:

“Of course, man, she’s a monster. She’s like the best of that type of singer.” In the interview, the guitarist Mike Bloomfield is describing Aretha Franklin.

In that same interview, Bloomfield uses “monster” adjectivally: “When I was around fifteen I was a monster rock guitar player.”

And in the mid-1980s, according to Random House, it came to mean “a person having formidable knowledge or skill,” as in this 1986 example from the ABC television sitcom Head of the Class: “Darlene—a speech and debate monster.”

Today, the word “monster” can refer to all of the above: a mythical creature, a threatening force, something unusually large, someone extraordinarily wicked, a great success, a remarkable talent, and so on. It all depends on how it’s used.

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When ‘should’ means ‘would’

Q: In re-watching Downton Abbey, I’ve noticed that “should” is used in many places where I’d use “would.” For example, “If I were you, I should keep my mouth shut.” It’s very confusing at first to figure out what is meant. How did this usage evolve, and is it still heard in England?

A: We didn’t see that specific example in a search of Downton Abbey transcripts, but here’s a similar use of “should” by Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, from season 4, episode 3, of the TV series:

“If I were to search for logic, I should not look for it among the English upper class.”

In that example, “should” is used as an auxiliary verb to introduce a hypothetical future action, a usage that’s now generally expressed with “would” on both sides of the Atlantic.

The use of “should” for “would” can be confusing because “should” is commonly used to mean “ought to,” and “would” to mean “might.”

Why did Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, use “should” in that episode, which is set in the early 1920s?

To answer that, we’ll have to look at an old rule that drew a strict line between the use of “shall” and “will.” Here’s how we describe the rule in a 2011 post:

  • When expressing a future tense, use “shall” with the first person (“I” and “we”) and “will” with the second and third persons (“you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.).
  • When expressing determination, permission, or obligation, use “will” with the first person and “shall” with the second and third persons.

As we note in that post, this so-called traditional rule has been observed more often in the UK than in the US, and the British haven’t been very observant.

John Wallis, an English clergyman and mathematician, introduced the rule in the 17th century in Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, an English grammar book written (believe it or not) in Latin:

“In primis personis, shall simpliciter praedicentis est; will, quasi promittentis aut minantis / In secundis et tertiis personis, shall promittentis est aut minantis; will simpliciter praedicentis” (“In the first person, shall is simply for predicting, while will is for promising or threatening. / In the second and third persons, shall is for promising or threatening, while will is simply for predicting”).

Wallis applied the rule only to “shall” and “will,” but later usage writers broadened it to require “should” in the first person for future, conditional, and interrogative usages.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, not long after the events portrayed in that Downton Abbey episode, Henry W. Fowler writes:

“Plain future or conditional statements & questions in the first person should have shall, should; the roman-type wills and woulds in the following examples are wrong.” Fowler’s no-no’s include “we will teach” … “we will soon be” … “will, I fear” … “we won’t get” … “would be a knave” … “would not” … “we would always get.”

So a dowager countess might very well have used “should” instead of “would” in the early 1920s.

However, Wallis’s old rule for using “shall” and “will,” as well as its expansion to “should” and “would,” has never been widely observed in the US or the UK—except for the use of “shall” in the first person in questions and legal documents.

As Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), says in the latest (2015) version of the usage guide, “It is unlikely that the rule ever had its foundation in real usage, although it may have applied to some people some of the time.”

“The supposed rule is a dead letter in speech, and in most kinds of writing,” Butterfield writes. “It is broadly true that shall and should have largely retreated in the standard language even as used in England. In other English-speaking areas shall and should have been almost totally replaced by will and would, or by the reduced forms I’ll/we’ll. There is not much doubt that will will win, and shall shall lose, in the end.”

[Note, July 23, 2018. A reader in Australia writes: “I have never forgotten our English teacher’s explanation of the difference (London, England, late 1940s). You are on the beach and hear a voice calling out. By paying careful attention to the grammar, you can decide whether or not to enter the surf and risk your own life! ‘I shall drown! And no-one will save me!’ is a plea to be rescued. ‘I will drown, and no-one shall save me!’ is an announcement of firm intent to commit suicide!”

We’ve often come across this old memory aid, which was widely published in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest example we’ve found is more than 200 years old. It’s from a short “filler” item published in the Feb. 4, 1804, issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine: “Difference Between Shall and Will. A Frenchman tumbled overboard, and sang out: ‘I will drown, and nobody shall help me.’ The sailors told him ‘drown and be d—d.’  Had he said, ‘I shall drown, and nobody will help me,’ the sailors would have saved him.”]

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Is it ‘realtor’ or ‘Realtor’?

Q: Why is “realtor” often capitalized? It drives me crazy. It’s just a job description, like “chef” or “dog catcher.” What’s so special about realtors?

A: The term is often capitalized because it’s a registered trademark in the US for a member of the National Association of Realtors.

Most standard dictionaries capitalize the term, including the online Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries. One notable exception is Oxford Dictionaries online, which lowercases the term in its US version.

The Associated Press Stylebook capitalizes “Realtor,” but recommends using “real estate agent” instead unless “there is a reason to indicate that the individual is a member” of the association.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage capitalizes the term too, and says the “preferred generic terms are real estate agent and real estate broker.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, lowercases “realtor.”

The OED says it’s a “proprietary name” for a member of the association, but adds, “Also in extended use,” which we take to mean that “realtor” is also used as a general term for anyone who sells real estate.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) has this to say: “Few people seem to know about the trademark, and consequently in AmE [American English] the term is used indiscriminately of real-estate agents generally.”

As for the etymology, Charles N. Chadbourn, a real estate agent in Minneapolis, coined the term in a March 15, 1916, article in the National Real Estate Journal, according to the OED.

Chadbourn, a member of the National Association of Real Estate Boards (predecessor of the National Association of Realtors), proposed  “that the National Association adopt and confer upon its members, dealers in realty, the title of realtor (accented on the first syllable).” And don’t misplace the “l”; it’s REAL-ter, not REE-luh-ter.

Interestingly, the term is lowercased there by Chadbourn, as well as in three of the other four examples for the usage in the OED. With language authorities divided over whether to capitalize it or not, the decision is up to you or the style manual you follow.

As for us, we normally use the term “real estate agent” when we refer to someone who sells real estate, whether a member of the association or not. The term “realtor” strikes us as too puffed up.

Sinclair Lewis, whose 1922 novel Babbitt is cited in the OED, apparently felt the same way. Lewis describes George F. Babbitt as “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

In the OED citation, Babbitt is quoted as saying, “we ought to insist that folks call us ‘realtors’ and not ‘real-estate men.’ Sounds more like a reg’lar profession.”

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Cycles and sickles

Q: Why does “bicycle” rhyme with “pickle,” and “motorcycle” with “Michael”?

A: Yes, “motorcycle” does usually rhyme with “Michael,” which has inspired various naughty playground rhymes (like “Michael, Michael, motorcycle, / Turn the key and watch him pee”).

However, “motorcycle” also rhymes with “pickle” in several regional dialects, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

DARE has examples from Appalachia and the Gulf region, including contributions from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

One example cites a lyric from “The Motor Cycle Song,” quoted in This Is the Arlo Guthrie Book (1969): “I don’t want a pick-le / Just want to ride on my mo-tor-sick-le.”

However, “motorcycle” (as well as “monocycle” and “unicycle”) normally rhymes with “Michael,” while “bicycle” (like “tricycle”) rhymes with “pickle.”

So why does the “y” in those four-syllable words sound like the long “i” of “sigh,” while the “y” in the three-syllable words sounds like the short “i” of “sick”?

This has to do with the way those syllables are stressed. A vowel is often pronounced one way in a stressed syllable and another way in an unstressed syllable.

The “y” of “bicycle,” for example, is unstressed and pronounced as a short, or reduced, vowel. But the word “cycle” itself has a “y” that’s stressed and pronounced as a long vowel. Similarly, the “y” of “motorcycle” has a secondary stress and a long pronunciation.

(By the way, “motorcycle”—like “monocycle” and “unicycle”—is made up of two trochees. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.)

As for the etymology, “cycle” first appeared in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally meant a recurring period of time, such as a “lunar cycle” or a “solar cycle,” and it ultimately comes from the words for “circle” in classical Latin (cyclus) and Greek (κύκλος).

The noun took on the sense of a pedal-powered, wheeled vehicle in the 1870s, when it began to be used as a short form of the somewhat older words “bicycle,” “tricycle,” “monocycle,” and “unicycle.”

Earlier in the century, the term “velocipede” was used for a lightweight wheeled vehicle propelled by the rider. (As the OED comments, it was also called a “bone-shaker.”)

Oxford’s earliest example of “velocipede” is from a June 19, 1818, entry in the diary of William Sewall:

“Then I went to the circus and rode on the velocipede, which is a new machine.” (The diary begins in Maine, Sewall’s birthplace, and ends in Illinois.)

The dictionary’s earliest example for “bicycle” and “tricycle” is from the Sept. 7, 1868, issue of the Daily News (London): “Bysicles and trysicles which we saw in the Champs Elysées and Bois de Boulogne this summer.”

The words “monocycle” and “unicycle” showed up the following year in The Velocipede: Its History, Varieties, and Practice, an 1869 book by J. T. Goddard:

“A New York mechanic has devised a monocycle or single machine, which consists of a wheel eight feet in diameter, with a tire six inches wide” … “Hemming’s Unicycle or ‘Flying Yankee Velocipede.’ ” (We’ve expanded the first OED citation.)

The short use of “cycle” to mean a pedal-powered vehicle showed up the next year in “The Natural History of Bicycles,” an article in the February 1870 issue of Belgravia, a London magazine:

“Another idea for a monocycle (which, by the way, might be called a ‘cycle’ at once, for shortness) was to make a gigantic wheel, some twelve feet in diameter, with cranks on each side of the axle, and short stilts attached to these, to be worked by the rider’s feet.” (Again, we’ve expanded the OED citation.)

Later that same year, in August 1870, this passage appeared in the journal English Mechanic and Mirror of Science:

“I have never yet seen a bicycle, tricycle, or any other kind of cycle … which did not completely use up the whole muscular energy of the most muscular of muscular Christians.”

Finally, the first Oxford example for “motorcycle” is from the Atlanta Constitution, June 17, 1894:

“Some inventive genius with more activity in his brain than in his legs, has devised a cycle which appears to meet the utmost requirements of pure laziness. It is called the motor cycle and the propelling power is produced by coal oil.”

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‘More’ or ‘-er’? ‘Most’ or ‘-est’?

Q: Is there a rule for when to use “more” and “most” to form comparatives and superlatives, and when to use “er” and “est”? Why do we have two ways to do this?

A: There’s no “rule” about using “more” and “most” versus “-er” and “-est” to express the comparative and superlative. But there are some common conventions.

With “most adjectives and adverbs of more than one syllable, and with all those of more than two syllables,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the normal mode” of forming the comparative and superlative is by using “more” and “most.”

A few one-syllable words (like “real,” “right,” “wrong,” and “just”) also normally form comparatives and superlatives with “more” and “most” instead of with “-er” and “-est” suffixes, according to the OED.

The dictionary adds that “more” is also sometimes used with words of one or two syllables that would normally have “-er” comparatives, like “busy,” “high,” “slow,” “true,” and so on. Why? Here’s how Oxford explains it:

“This form is often now used either for special emphasis or clearness, or to preserve a balance of phrase with other comparatives with ‘more,’ or to modify the whole predicate rather than the single adjective or adverb, especially when followed by than.”

So we might choose “much more humble” instead of “much humbler.” Or we might say “so-and-so’s voice was more quiet but no less threatening.” Or “that’s more true than false.” Or even “his feet are more big than ungainly.”

The OED offers additional details about the the use of the “-er” and “-est” suffixes with adjectives and adverbs.

In modern English, the dictionary says, “the comparatives in -er are almost restricted to adjectives of one or two syllables,” while longer adjectives as well as two-syllable adjectives not ending in “-ly” or “-y” form the comparative “by means of the adverb more.”

The same goes for the “-est” suffix, which is used similarly to form the superlative of adjectives (Oxford points to its “-er” comparative entry for the “present usage” of the “-est” superlative).

As for the use of “-er” and “-est” with adverbs, those that have the same form as corresponding adjectives (“hard,” “fast,” “close,” etc.) chiefly form the comparative and superlative with “-er” and “-est,” while adverbs that end in “-ly” form the comparative with “more” and the superlative with “most.”

There are quite a few exceptions, of course. For a more comprehensive guide to how the comparative and superlative are expressed in English today, check out Jeremy Butterfield’s entry for “-er and -est, more and most” in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.).

How did we end up with two ways to express the comparative and superlative in English? In a 2008 post, we discuss the etymology of “more” and “most” as well as the history of the suffixes “-er” and “-est.”

As we say in that post, the “-er” and “-est” suffixes have been used to make comparisons since the earliest days of English, and it’s a practice handed down from ancient Indo-European.

The Old English endings were originally spelled differently than they are today: -ra for the comparative, and -ost (sometimes -est) for the superlative.

Taking the word “old” as an example, the Old English forms were eald (“old”), yldra (“older”), yldest (“oldest”). And taking “hard” as another, the forms were heard (“hard”), heardra (“harder”), heardost (“hardest”).

Meanwhile, there was another set of Old English words: micel (meaning “great” or “big”), mara (“more”), and maest (“most”).

While “more” and “most” (or their ancestors) were around since the earliest days of English, it wasn’t until the early 1200s that we began using them as adverbs to modify adjectives and other adverbs in order to form comparatives and superlatives—that is, to do the job of the “-er” and “-est” suffixes.

For a few centuries, usage was all over the place. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for even one-syllable words to be used with “more” and “most,” according to The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. The authors cite the frequent use of phrases like “more near,” “more fast,” “most poor,” and “most foul.”

And multi-syllable words were once used with “-er” and “-est,” like “eminenter,” “impudentest,” and “beautifullest.”

Pyles and Algeo say there were even “a good many instances of double comparison, like more fittermore better, more fairer, most worst, most stillest, and (probably the best-known example) most unkindest.”

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Is that an “alum” on your bib?

Q: I am making some surprise bibs for a friend who is not sure of the baby’s sex. I want to put my friend’s college logo on the bib and write something along the lines of “Future (insert Logo here) Alumni.” I know “alumni” is plural and “alum” is slang, but I am not sure which word to use for a single person of unknown gender. My friend is a grammar geek and will not put her child in something with improper English.

A: If you don’t know whether the bib is for a future “alumnus” (boy) or “alumna” (girl), we’d recommend using “alum.”

Most standard dictionaries describe “alum” as “informal”—that is, suitable for relaxed or conversational usage. The term is increasingly being used, especially in American English, to describe a graduate of either sex.

It strikes us as just the right word for a baby’s bib, though we wouldn’t recommend it for a scholarly paper. If you think of “alum” as slangy, however, why not use “graduate” or the informal “grad”?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has a usage note entitled “Is it acceptable to use alum for alumnus or alumna?”

“Traditionally,” the dictionary says, “the word alumnus has been used to refer to a single male, whereas alumna has been used for a single woman. Initially the plural forms were alumni to refer to multiple men (or multiple men and women) and alumnae for multiple women.”

A little over a hundred years ago, according to M-W, “the shortened form of alum began to be used to describe a graduate or past attendee of either gender. Although many people feel that alum is informal, it is in increasing use, and we appear to be moving toward a greater acceptance of the word. The plural of alum is alums.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed “alumnus” and “alumna” from classical Latin, where an alumnus was a foster son, male child, protégé, ward, or pupil, and an alumna was its feminine counterpart.

When the two terms first appeared in English in the early 1600s, they referred to male and female students, not to graduates.

The earliest example for “alumnus” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1602 religious tract by the English writer Anthony Copley: “Neither was I an Alumnus of the Colledge, being the Popes pensioner.”

The dictionary’s first example for “alumna” is from The Treasure of Vowed Chastity in Secular Persons, John Wilson’s 1621 translation from the Italian of a work by two Jesuit theologians, Leonardus Lessius and Fulvius Androtius:

“Take none of the younger sort of widowes, &c. which is meant that they should not be admitted into the function or ministery of diaconisses, or into the number of the Alumnae or Pupills of the Church.” (The plural is used here and in several other Oxford citations).

The first OED example for “alumnus” as a graduate or former student is from the Nov. 20, 1800, issue of the Maryland Gazette: “At the same time Messrs. Charles Alexander, … John Shaw and Carlisle F. Whiling, alumni of St. John’s college, were admitted to the degree of master of arts.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “alumna” as a graduate or ex-student is from the October 1843 issue of the Knickerbocker, a New York monthly magazine: “So favorably are we impressed with these ‘exercises’ of the alumnæ of the Albany Female Academy.”

Interestingly, a short form of “alumnus” and “alumna” showed up in the late 1600s, meaning a foster child, ward, protégé, or charge, but that sense is now considered obsolete or rare.

The only OED example is from a June 21, 1683, letter by John Eliot, a Puritan missionary: “Your hungry alumns do still cry unto your honour for the milk of the word.”

The first OED citation for a short form used to mean a graduate is from an 1877 speech by the Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour.

At a Swedish ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the University of Uppsala, he expressed hope that “Sweden may continue to send forth many alumns who shall do credit to her great Educational Institutions.”

Finally, the earliest Oxford citation for “alum” with the usual contemporary spelling is from the Dec. 13, 1928, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune: “The local Harvard ‘alums’ have a number of parties in the incipient stage of planning.”

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When ‘nor’ means ‘neither’

Q: Will you please address the use of “nor” in Shakespeare? Sometimes it differs from modern usage (“Of hot and cold, he was nor sad nor merry,” Antony & Cleopatra), and sometimes not (“He swore, had neither motion, guard, nor eye,” Hamlet).

A: You’ve spotted a construction that’s rare today—the poetic use of “nor” to mean “neither.”

This is sometimes seen in older poetry and drama, with “nor” replacing “neither” at the beginning of a series. So instead of writing “neither X nor Y,” a Shakespeare or a Dryden or a Pope might have written “nor X nor Y.”

As you noticed in Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1607) and Hamlet (c. 1600), Shakespeare might have used “nor” or “neither” at the beginning of a series—a choice undoubtedly determined by rhyme or reason.

The “nor” usage showed up in English writing around the beginning of the 16th century but is now rare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s usually found in the construction “nor — nor —” and is chiefly poetic, the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from Scotland, and the use is official rather than poetic:

“Nor ȝitt [yet] at the Sowth Loch nor yitt [yet] the North Loch.” (The phrase “nor yet” here means “and also not.” This passage, dated 1499-1500, was published in 1869 in Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh.)

All of the dictionary’s subsequent examples are from poetry or drama. Here’s a sampling, century by century.

1558: “Mischief close in keele doth growe, / Nor might of men can helpe, nor water floodes that on they throwe.” (From Thomas Phaer’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.)

1697: “Nor Bits nor Bridles can his Rage restrain.” (From John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics.)

1726: “Now let our compact made / Be nor by signal nor by word betray’d.” (From Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.)

1800: “Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken.” (From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

1913: “Nor God nor Daemon can undo the done, / Unsight the seen.” (From Thomas Hardy’s poem “To Meet, or Otherwise.”)

The most recent OED example is from Untitled Subjects (1969), a collection of poems by Richard Howard: “your only troth was plighted to Lady Laudanum, / to whom nor gout nor Paris could make you untrue.”

In a 2017 post, we discussed the use of the adverbs “neither” and “either” to introduce a series of more than two items, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing” (Coriolanus, c. 1605-08) … “Thou hast neither heate, affection, limbe, nor beautie” (Measure for Measure, c. 1604) … “They say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1597).

As we remarked in 2017, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that “neither” and “either” can be used “in multiple as well as the more common binary coordination.”

There’s a similar explanation in the OED. It says that “following a word, phrase, or clause which is negated with neither,” the conjunction “nor” is “used before the second or further of two or more alternatives, normally to negate each.”

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The El Niño problem

Q: Can you discuss the double-article problem that occurs when “the” is added to a phrase beginning with a definite article in another language? I am bothered to read or hear things like “The El Niño weather pattern is building.”

A: Technically, you’re right: “the” plus “El” does add up to “the the” when translated literally. But when a foreign phrase is established in English, the foreign article often isn’t translated literally—that is, interpreted as a separate instance of “the.”

In our opinion, “El Niño” has been assimilated and the Spanish term for the weather phenomenon can be used with an English definite article (as in “The El Niño weather pattern was blamed for the drought”). We’ll have more to say about this term later. First, a little background.

When a proper noun in a foreign language includes an article, the general practice is to use either the foreign article or “the,” but not both.

So in each set of examples below, you could use either version:

“They sang ‘La Marseillaise’ and marched to l’Arc de Triomphe” … “They sang the ‘Marseillaise’ and marched to the Arc de Triomphe.”

“La Costa Brava is our favorite region of Spain” … “The Costa Brava is our favorite region of Spain.”

“Don’t miss El Museo del Barrio” … “Don’t miss the Museo del Barrio.”

“We heard Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth” … “We heard the Meistersinger at Bayreuth.”

In cases like those, it would be redundant to use both the English and the foreign article (“the ‘La Marseillaise’ ” … “the Die Meistersinger,” and so on). This is because ordinarily the foreign article is interpreted as meaning “the,” even in an English context.

As The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says, “An initial the may be used if the definite article would appear in the original language.” Its examples include this one: “A history of the Comédie-Française has just appeared.”

There are exceptions, however, such as with the names of foreign newspapers. The Chicago Manual recommends that the foreign article should be retained if the newspaper’s name includes it.

The examples given include “El País” in Madrid, “Il Messagero” in Rome, “La Crónica de Hoy” in Mexico City, and “Al Akhbar” in Cairo. Each includes an article equivalent to “the.”

So, for instance, one would write, “He subscribes to Le Monde,” not “He subscribes to the Monde” (and definitely not “the Le Monde”).

And as we’ve said, a foreign article often isn’t treated as an actual article when a term of foreign origin becomes part of the English language. A few obvious examples are the Spanish names Los Angeles (literally, “the angels”) and Las Vegas (“the meadows”), and the French name for the game of lacrosse (“the stick”).

Despite their foreign derivations, and despite the literal meaning of los and las and la, these names have become thoroughly English and are used with English articles if an article is needed (“the Los Angeles Dodgers,” “the Las Vegas casino,” etc.).

We’re reminded of “the hoi polloi,” an expression that’s generally accepted by usage writers even though “hoi” represents “the.” The expression, whether two words or three, means “the masses” or “the common man” in English, and comes from οἱ πολλοί, classical Greek for “the many.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “the three-word phrase has spread since about 1850, has become common, and ought to be accepted.”

Jeremy Butterfield, writing in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says “the hoi polloi” has “an impressive literary pedigree,” and leaving out the English article may be interpreted as “linguistic snobbery, misguided pedantry, or even unwholesome one-upmanship.”

Interestingly, the expression first showed up in English as “the οἱ πολλοὶ.” In a 1668 essay on dramatic poetry, John Dryden writes: “If by the people you understand the multitude, the οἱ πολλοὶ, it is no matter what they think; they are sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong: their judgment is a mere lottery.”

The first few examples for “hoi polloi” in the Oxford English Dictionary combine the English article with the original Greek phrase. The earliest OED citation for the Greek phrase written with the English alphabet also includes the English article.

In Gleanings in Europe by an American (1837), James Fenimore Cooper writes that a few great men lead every honorary institution “after which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest.”

Getting back to the weather, we think “El Niño” has become so familiar in English that the foreign article has been absorbed into the name and has lost its separate sense of “the.”

We haven’t found much guidance on this issue, but judging from published examples, the “El” of “El Niño” is virtually never interpreted as a separate “the” in an English context. “El Niño” is treated as a phrasal noun for a weather phenomenon.

The New York Times’s stylebook is ambiguous on the subject, but it’s clear that Times editors don’t interpret “El” as “the.” We say this because Times articles have included phrases like “an El Niño,” “there was no El Niño,” “another El Niño,” “this new El Niño,” “a strong El Niño,” “the recent El Niño,” and “an El Niño year.”

If the Spanish article were being interpreted literally as “the,” those noun phrases would mean “a the Niño,” “there was no the Niño,” “another the Niño,” and so on. If there were any chance of such an interpretation, the editors would have omitted the foreign article (“a Niño,” “there was no Niño,” “another Niño”).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has several examples in which the Spanish article clearly isn’t being interpreted as a separate “the.” These include “the El Niño,” “the El Nino effect” and “the last five El Niños.” The dictionary doesn’t describe the examples as nonstandard or unusual in any way.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard dictionary, also cites many examples of the three-word expression without reservation: “the El Niño weather pattern” … “the El Niño phenomenon” … “the El Niño climatic conditions,” and so on.

Popular science publications, too, are willing to use English articles with these climate terms.

We’ve found examples in Scientific American of “the El Niño,” “the El Niño cycle,” “an El Niño,” “an El Niño event,” “the most recent El Niño,” “the last El Niño,” and “one of the strongest El Niños.”

And in Science magazine, you’ll find “the El Niño,” “an El Niño,” “this El Niño,” “the current El Niño,” “a strong El Niño event,” “the 1997–1998 El Niño,” and so on.

There’s less of this in academic journals, which tend to use “the El Niño Southern Oscillation” on first reference and “ENSO” on subsequent references. The longer technical name reflects the fact that El Niño results from an oscillation of atmospheric pressure in the tropical Pacific Ocean basin.

In Spanish, el niño means “the child.” The weather phenomenon is named for the Christ child, since its warmest sea surface temperatures off the South American coast are often recorded around Christmas.

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An acid test—with real acid

Q: I see the phrase “acid test” often used during the World Cup competition in Russia to mean a crucial test for a team. Did it once refer to a test with real acid?

A: Not only did the phrase once mean a literal acid test—it still does, though the figurative sense is much more common.

When the term first showed up in writing in the mid-18th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant a “chemical test involving reaction with an acid.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which refers to boric acid, is from a 1759 essay by the English chemist Robert Dossie: “It has not the acid test of changing the colour of vegetable tinctures.”

However, the figurative use of the phrase to mean a crucial or conclusive test—such as the test facing a team at the World Cup—was inspired by the use of nitric acid to test gold for purity, according to the OED:

“The test for gold from which the figurative use developed typically involves making a mark on a touchstone with a piece of the metal in question and treating this mark with nitric acid, which dissolves other metals more readily than gold.”

As the dictionary explains, “The effect of the acid in dissolving the mark is compared with its effect on marks made by specimens of known gold content.”

Interestingly, the first Oxford example for “acid test” used to determine the purity of a precious metal refers to silver, not gold:

“The gentleman would then offer to bet $5 that the quarter was good, and would stand the acid test, which, as it was good silver [it] would of course do” (from the July 29, 1844, issue of a Philadelphia newspaper, the North American and Daily Advertiser).

The OED’s first gold example is from the Nov. 14, 1860, issue of a Wisconsin newspaper, the Monroe Sentinel: “The outside film of gold, though less than the two hundred thousandth part of an inch in thickness, is yet enough to cover up the base metal, and protect it from the usual acid test.”

However, we’ve found an earlier gold example in the Chemist, a London journal, in which the word “nitric” precedes “acid test.”

In an Aug. 15, 1850, letter, William Griffiths, a goldsmith in Dublin, reports an example of “the alloying of metals so that they should present the appearance of gold and be capable of being apportioned, so as not only to resist the nitric acid test but to deceive the most experienced as to color and weight.”

The first OED citation for the figurative sense is from the Nov. 18, 1854, Columbia Reporter, a Wisconsin paper: “Twenty-four years of service demonstrates his ability to stand the acid test, as Gibson’s Soap Polish has done for over thirty years.”

Here’s a more recent example from Spectacles, Lorgnettes, & Monocles, a 1989 book by D. C. Davidson: “Even an expert would hesitate to distinguish 9 carat from 12 and 14 carat gold without resorting to an acid test.”

As for today, the website of the Gemological Institute of America has a description of the touchstone acid test for gold. And you can find many acid-testing kits on

We’ll end with a July 2, 2018, headline from the Northern Echo, a regional daily in the English town of Darlington.

“World Cup 2018: England about to face their acid test.” (England passed the test, beating Colombia to reach the quarterfinals.)

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Why apposite isn’t opposite

Q: I have to stop and think every time I come to the word “apposite.” It looks something like “opposite,” but it means pretty much the opposite. I’ll bet there’s an interesting etymology here.

A: You betcha. “Apposite” and “opposite” look alike because they’re related. The two adjectives have a common ancestor, ponere, classical Latin meaning to put or place, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Adding the prefix ad- (toward) to ponere gave Latin apponere (to place near) and the past participle appositus (near or appropriate), which ultimately gave us “apposite.”

Adding the prefix ob- (against) to ponere gave Latin opponere (to place against) and the past participle oppositus (against or opposite), source of our word “opposite.”

In the late 1300s, the word “opposite” showed up in English as both a noun and an adjective.

As a noun, it meant the opposite side or region; as an adjective, it referred to being on the opposite or farther end of a line. Both senses reflected the meaning of the Latin past participle oppositus.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“Estward ther stood a gate of marbul whit, / Westward right swich another in the opposit” (“Eastward there stood a gate of white marble, / Westward another just the same in the opposite”).

The dictionary’s first example of the adjective is from The Equatorie of the Planetis (circa 1392), an anonymous Middle English treatise describing the construction and use of an instrument for calculating the position of the planets:

“Procede in the same litel cercle to ward lettere E opposit to D.” (Some scholars believe the treatise may have been written by Chaucer, based on the handwriting, style, and dialect of the manuscript.)

When “apposite” appeared in English in the early 1600s, Oxford says, it meant “well put or applied; appropriate, suitable (to),” similar to the sense of the Latin past participle appositus.

The earliest OED example is from The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton’s wide-ranging treatise on a malady widespread in Jacobean England:

“A most apposite remedy.” (The remedy here is moderate sexual activity, as opposed to “Immoderate Venus,” which is said to cause the blues.)

Today, “apposite” means pertinent, relevant, or appropriate—that is, apt. And “opposite” as a noun refers to someone or something totally different from someone or something else, while as an adjective it means facing, on the other side of, or of an entirely different kind.

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She’s gonna raise Cain

Q: I just came across an old joke (but new to me): “Adam and Eve were the world’s first troublemakers. They raised Cain.” Which makes me wonder about the origin of the expression “raise Cain.”

A: The verb “raise” in this expression originally meant to conjure up something like a spirit or demon, a usage that’s been around since the Middle Ages.

In the 19th century, this conjuring sense of “raise” inspired the use of the verb in various figurative phrases meaning to cause trouble.

One of them, to “raise Cain,” an American expression first recorded in the 1830s, would literally mean to summon the spirit of the biblical killer of Abel.

The literal use of “raise” in its conjuring sense first appeared in writing in the late 14th century.

In this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it means “to cause (a spirit, demon, ghost, etc.) to appear, esp. by means of incantations; to conjure up.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from “The Yeoman’s Tale,” part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“I haue yow told ynowe / To reyse a feend al looke he neuere so rowe” (“I have told you enough to raise a fiend, look he never so fierce”).

Spirits “raised” in 15th-century writings included “deuils” (devils), “the devull,” and a “nygramansour” (necromancer or sorcerer). And in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they included ghosts, shades (apparitions), assorted dead notables, and “Grisly Spectres” (Milton, Paradise Regain’d, 1671).

In the 19th century, as we said, this sense of “raise” became figurative, which brings us around to Cain. To “raise the devil” or “raise Cain” came to mean, in the words of the OED, “to create a disturbance; to cause trouble, uproar, or confusion.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “raise Cain” is coincidentally a version of that old joke about Adam and Eve:

“Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were both rowdies? Because … they both raised Cain.” (From a St. Louis newspaper, the Daily Pennant, May 2, 1840.)

However, we found a variation on the joke in a newspaper published two years earlier: “Why was Eve the first Sugar Planter? D’ye give it up? Because she raised Cain.” (From the Sangamo Journal/Illinois State Journal, April 7, 1838.)

If the phrase was familiar enough to be used in jokes and puns, “raise Cain” had obviously been around in common usage before those examples were published.

We’ll cite a handful of later 19th-century examples from the OED:

“They will feel that they have been raising Cain and breaking things” (from an 1841 collection of comic pieces, Short Patent Sermons, by “Dow, Junior,” the pen name of Elbridge Gerry Paige).

“Topsy would hold a perfect carnival of confusion … in short, as Miss Ophelia phrased it, ‘raising Cain’ generally” (from Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852).

“I expect Susy’s boys’ll be raising Cain round the house” (from Stowe’s novel Oldtown Folks, 1869).

“If I get the horrors, I’m a man that has lived rough, and I’ll raise Cain” (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, 1883).

As for “raise the devil,” the OED’s earliest confirmed example is from 1841, but we found this slightly earlier usage in a Virginia newspaper:

“Wm. Colson came up, and says, ‘Don’t talk so loud, for there are a great many Albany people on board, and if they find out that I’m engaged in this business, they will raise the devil with me’ ” (from court testimony in a fraud case, published in the Richmond Enquirer, Nov. 3, 1840).

Other satanic specters were apt to be “raised” in the troublemaking sense. Some related expressions, and the earliest dates we’ve found, include “raise Ned” (1845, a euphemistic reference to the devil), “raise mischief” (1840, another euphemism for the devil), and “raise Hell” (1803).

On that last expression, the OED has this fascinating aside: “The slogan ‘Kansas should raise less corn and more hell’ is attributed to Mrs. Mary Ellen Lease (1853–1933) but proof is lacking.”

We’ll end with a musical rendition of “raise Cain.” It’s from Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the 1932 song “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Bernard Dougall. Here are a couple of stanzas:

I’ll be hard to handle
I’m telling you plain
Just be a dear
And scram out of here
I’m gonna raise Cain.

I’ll be hard to handle
I’m no ball and chain
I’ll find some means
To call the Marines
I’m gonna raise Cain.

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A picayune question

Q: Why is something small and insignificant called “picayune”? And what is the word doing in the name of a New Orleans newspaper?

A: The word “picayune” comes from picaillon, a southern French regional term for a small coin of foreign origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the French regionalism is derived from picalhon, an Occitan term for a 17th-century copper coin that was minted in the Savoy and Piedmont regions of southern Europe, and that inspired similar cheaply made coins elsewhere in Europe.

When “picayune,” an Anglicized version of picaillon, showed up in Louisiana in the early 1800s, it was a noun that referred to a Spanish medio real, or half real, a coin worth a little more than six cents, and later to a US nickel, according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford example for “picayune” is from a Nov. 4, 1805, entry in the journal of the Philadelphia antiquarian John Fanning Watson: One can’t buy anything [at New Orleans] for less than a six cent piece, called a picayune.”

We suspect that French speakers in Louisiana may have used picaillon earlier for the coin, but we haven’t found written evidence to support this. (The Louisiana region was variously ruled by France and Spain before becoming an American territory in 1803. Spanish coins were legal tender in the US from 1793 to 1857.)

In a few decades, the OED says, “picayune” was being used as an adjective meaning of “of little value; paltry, petty, trifling; unimportant, trivial; mean; contemptible.”

This example is from an 1837 congressional debate: “The hon. Senator from Kentucky … by way of ridicule, calls this a ‘picayune bill.’ ” (From the Congressional Globe, which recorded debates of the 23rd through 42nd Congresses, 1833-’73.)

A year later, the noun came to mean a small amount of something, as in this Oxford example from the February 1838 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a Philadelphia magazine: “I have nothing, not one sous—not a picayune to give her!”

And in the early 20th century, “picayune” took on the sense of a “worthless or contemptible person.” The first OED citation is from a 1903 issue of Scribner’s Magazine: “A pack of jealous picayunes, who bickered while the army starved.”

Why does the word “picayune” appear in the name of the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper? Because when it was founded in 1837, the Picayune (the paper’s name before it merged with the Times-Democrat in 1914) cost one picayune, or Spanish half real.

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Going Berserk with a capital ‘B’

Q: I was reading an old Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery, The Circular Staircase, when my eyes fell upon this passage: “I had gone Berserk, I think. I leaned over the stair-rail and fired again.” Why is “Berserk” capitalized?

A: The word used to be capitalized in English because it was originally a proper noun. The “Berserks” were legendary Norse warriors who went into battle in a wild, murderous frenzy, according to Scandinavian mythology.

The novel you mention was published in 1908, over a century ago, and “berserk” was often capitalized in those days.

The word came into English as a noun in the early 19th century, but by the late 1800s, it had become an adjective, as it is in that quotation (“I had gone Berserk”).

English acquired “berserk” from Old Icelandic, where berserkr is a singular noun, berserker the plural, and berserk the accusative (the form used for a direct object), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sir Walter Scott introduced the word into English in 1814 as “Berserkar,” the singular noun for the warrior, and “Berserkir,” the plural. (Later, Scott used “Berserkars” for the plural, and other 19th-century authors shortened these nouns to “Berserk” and “Berserks.”)

In an article summarizing the Eyrbyggja Saga, a 13th-century work in Old Icelandic, Scott describes the warriors this way:

“Berserkir, men who, by moral or physical excitation of some kind or other, were wont to work themselves into a state of frenzy, during which they achieved deeds passing human strength, and rushed, without sense of danger or feeling of pain, upon every species of danger that could be opposed to them.”

The article (published in the anthology Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, Vol. I) uses both the singular (“a haughty, fiery, and robust damsel, well qualified to captivate the heart of a Berserkar”) and the plural (“the two Berserkir”) several times.

The OED cites Gudbrand Vigfusson and Johan Fritzner, Old Norse and Old Icelandic scholars, as saying the original meaning of “berserk” was probably bear-shirt or bear-coat.

(In Old Icelandic and Old Norse, serkr means “coat” or “shirt”; it’s a cousin of an obsolete English word for a shirt, “sark.”)

Some etymologists have disagreed with this explanation, arguing that the ber– element in Icelandic was for “bare,” not “bear,” suggesting that the warriors went into battle without any armor, either bare-chested or wearing only their shirts.

Scott himself probably contributed to this belief. In his novel The Pirate (1822), he mentions “those ancient champions, those Berserkars,” and in a note to the 1831 edition explains that they were “so called from fighting without armour.”

We may never know which etymology is correct. What we do know is that the Berserks showed up in many of the medieval Icelandic and Norse narratives, from the 9th century onwards, that describe events in ancient Scandinavian mythology.

This line from a 9th-century Old Norse poem by Thornbjorn Hornklofi is one of the earliest known examples in writing: “Grenjuðu berserkir, guðr vas þeim á sinnum” (“Berserks bellowed; battle was under way for them”).

The OED defines the noun “berserk” as “a wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage, who fought on the battle-field with a frenzied fury known as the ‘berserker rage’; often a lawless bravo or freebooter.”

Today, Oxford adds, the word is used as an adjective meaning “frenzied, furiously or madly violent,” and it’s commonly found in the phrase “to go berserk.”

In addition to Scott, the OED cites a few other 19th-century authors who used long forms of the word: “Berserkers” (1837), “Berserkir-rage” (1839), and “bersarkar” (in the singular, 1861). Still later, the nouns “Berserk” and “Berserks” appeared.

The dictionary’s earliest use of the short form “berserk” is also its earliest use of the adjective. It’s from Charles Kingsley’s novel Yeast (1851): “Yelling, like Berserk fiends, among the frowning tombstones.”

Perhaps “berserk” was a household word with the Kingsleys. Charles’s younger brother, Henry Kingsley, used the adjective in his novel Silcote of Silcotes (1867): “With her kindly, uncontrollable vivacity, in the brisk winter air she became more ‘berserk’ as she went on.”

In many later appearances the adjective was still being capitalized, as in this OED example: “He … was filled with a Berserk rage and thirst for retribution.” (From James Hannington, First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, a biography written in 1886 by Edwin C. Dawson and published in 1887.)

In searches of historical newspaper databases, we found instances of “became Berserk” (1867) and “turn Berserk” (1877), but none with forms of the verb “go” until the 1890s.

The earliest example we’ve found (“going berserk”) is from the April 6, 1894, issue of the Aspen (CO) Daily Times:

“He never had the gold or diamond or colonial fever; instead of going berserk, he evidently preferred a frock coat and patent leathers.” (From an anonymous short story, “The Panic.” Though the story is credited to the London Illustrated News, we failed to find it there.)

The following year this example appeared in “The Child of Calamity,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “Then he went Berserk before our amazed eyes.”

(The story was published in March and April 1895 in several newspapers in Australia and the US. The Idler, a British magazine, published it under a different title, “My Sunday at Home,” in April 1895.)

We also found many uses of “go” plus “berserk” in newspapers published in the early 1900s. Note the differing capitalization styles:

“It would be dangerous to allow the smaller settlers to go berserk before the board, and meet the serried ranks of officialdom.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 15, 1905.)

“We knew him as a dashing and fearless old campaigner, one who had gone Berserk many a time to rescue the gallant Lat Sahib he fought under.” (This passage appeared in another Australian newspaper, the Register, Adelaide, on Oct. 14, 1905. It’s from a serialized novel, Tales of Sahib Land, by the Anglo-Indian writer F. D’A. C. De L’Isle.)

We found many other pre-World War I examples illustrating the different capitalization styles, including “go Berserk” (1908), “went ‘berserk’ ” (1908), “went Berserk” (1909), and so on.

Even during WWI, some authors were still capitalizing the word, as in this OED example from Rudyard Kipling’s novel A Diversity of Creatures (1917):

“ ‘You went Berserk. I’ve read all about it in Hypatia.’ ” (Kipling is apparently referring to Charles Kingsley’s novel about Hypatia, a philosopher in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. We haven’t found “berserk” in the novel, though Kingsley uses it in at least two others.)

Before long, however, the adjective became established in its lowercase form. The OED cites this headline from the Nov. 10, 1940, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “America goes berserk.”

The article below the headline comments upon “The recent addition of the word ‘berserk,’ as a synonym for crackpot behaviour, to the slang of the young and untutored. … American stenographers … are telling one another not to be ‘berserk.’ ”

But “berserk” was not a slang or “untutored” usage, as we’ve seen. And for generations it has continued to be used—as an adjective, lowercased, and mostly with the verb “go”—as standard English.

It has even retained its sense of violent frenzy, though the violence is milder today that it was in the days of the Vikings.

In tribute to the old sagas, we’ll conclude with a passage from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Skeleton in Armor” (1842):

Many a wassail-bout
Wore the long Winter out;
Often our midnight shout
   Set the cocks crowing,
As we the Berserk’s tale
Measured in cups of ale,
Draining the oaken pail,
   Filled to o’erflowing.

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Are you anxious or eager?

Q: In 2012, the two of you were divided over the use of “anxious” to mean “eager.” I’m eager to learn if you’re still at odds, and anxiously await an update.

A: Put your mind at rest. We both now agree that one can be “anxious” as well as “eager” to do something, though not all language mavens are ready to join us.

The naysayers reject a sentence like “We were anxious to see the new musical.” They believe “anxious” can be used only if there’s anxiety involved: “She’s anxious to see a cardiologist about the palpitations.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “when no sense of uneasiness is attached to the situation, anxious isn’t the best word” and “it displaces a word that might traditionally have been considered its opposite—namely eager.”

However, the anxiety-free use of “anxious” to mean “eager” was well-established before American usage authorities began questioning the practice in the early 20th century.

English borrowed the adjective “anxious” from classical Latin, where anxius meant worried, disturbed, uneasy, and so on. But “anxious” began evolving soon after it showed up in English in the 16th century.

When it first appeared in writing, “anxious” referred to someone “experiencing worry or nervousness, typically about the future or something with an uncertain outcome,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from Nicholas Lesse’s 1548 translation of a Latin treatise by the French theologian François Lambert: “Wherfore do we then endeuour oure selues to do anie thinge, wherefore are we so anxiouse & careful?”

In a couple of decades, however, “anxious” was being used before an infinitive to express a strong desire or eagerness to do something, sometimes with anxiety and sometimes without.

The first Oxford example for the new sense is from Actes and Monuments of Matters Most Speciall and Memorable, Happenyng in the Church (2nd ed., 1570), an ecclesiastical history by John Foxe.

In the citation, Prince Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, is described as “very anxious and inquisitiue to heare the iudgementes of other, which were both aged, & learned.”

As far as we can tell, there’s no anxiety here. Although Frederick faced an important decision, Foxe earlier describes him as an easygoing man who “loued best quietnes & cōmon trāquilitie” and was “trustyng to hys owne iudgemēt.”

(After consulting Erasmus, the Prince decided to protect Martin Luther despite the opposition of Pope Leo X and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has many anxiety-less, infinitive examples in which respected writers use “anxious” to do something in the sense of “eager” to do it:

Lord Byron, in Canto XV of his poem Don Juan (1824), writes: “His manner was perhaps the more seductive, / Because he ne’er seem’d anxious to seduce.”

And in Omoo (1847), a semi-fictionalized South Seas memoir, Herman Melville writes that “the men looked hard at him, anxious to see what sort of looking ‘cove’ he was.”

Charles Darwin, in On the Origin of Species (1859), says, “I could give many facts, showing how anxious bees are to save time.”

And in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island (1883), Jim Hawkins, the narrator, says “anxious as I was to tell them my story, I durst not interrupt.”

Merriam-Webster’s conclusion? “Anyone who says that careful writers do not use anxious in its ‘eager’ sense has simply not examined the available evidence.”

As far as we can tell, writers used “anxious” in place of “eager” for hundreds of years before anyone raised an eyebrow at the usage.

“The discovery that anxious must not be used to mean ‘eager’ seems to have been made in the U.S. in the early 20th century,” M-W says

The first usage guide to criticize the practice was Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right (1909). But several years earlier, in July 1901, the language writer Alfred Ayres criticized it in “A Plea for Cultivating the English Language,” an article published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine.

Interestingly, British usage writers haven’t been troubled by the use of “anxious” for “eager.” Henry W. Fowler, in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), describes it as a “natural” development and “almost universally current.”

The latest version of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), by Jeremy Butterfield, describes the use of “anxious” for “eager” as “historically well attested” and “absolutely standard.”

In recent years, American critics of the anxiety-free use of “anxious” with an infinitive have been coming around.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes in its online edition: “In our 1999 survey of the Usage Panel, 47 percent approved of the sentence We are anxious to see the new show of British sculpture at the museum, whereas in 2014, this sentence was acceptable to 57 percent of panelists.”

“Although resistance to the use of anxious to mean eager is waning,” American Heritage cautions, “writers should be aware that there are still those who frown upon using the word in situations where no anxiety is present.”

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Is ‘film’ classier than ‘movie’?

Q: When did the medium “film” become the “film” we watch? Did English speakers think “film” was a classier word for the art form than “movie”? As a Sam Shepherd character says in True West, “In this business we make Movies, American Movies. Leave the Films to the French.”

A: English speakers didn’t begin using “film” for a motion picture because they wanted an artier, Frenchified word than “movie.” In fact, this use of “film” showed up in English before “movie.” And we didn’t get “film” from French—the French got it from us. Here’s the story.

When “film” appeared in Old English (spelled filmen, filmin, fylmen, etc.), it meant a “thin layer or sheet of tissue in an animal or plant, or in a product of an animal or plant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from Bald’s Leechbook, a medical text believed written around 900: “Her sint tacn aheardodre lifre, ge on þam læppum & healocum & filmenum” (“Here are the symptoms of a liver hardened on the lobes and the recesses and the films”).

In the early 1600s, “film” took on the sense of a “very thin sheet of any substance,” according to the dictionary, and by the mid-1800s it came to mean “a thin layer of light-sensitive material, typically applied to photographic paper or plates and used to record a photographic image.”

The OED’s earliest example of “film” used in the photographic sense refers to the sheet of silver-plated copper used to make a daguerreotype image:

“We must separate carefully the chemical changes which iodide of silver undergoes in the sunbeam, from the mechanical changes which happen to the sensitive film” (from an 1840 issue of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science).

By the late 1800s, the word “film” was being used for “a thin flexible strip of celluloid, plastic, etc., coated with light-sensitive emulsion, used in photography and cinematography to record a series of images.”

The first written use in the OED is from an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog: “Roll Film, for 25 exposures.”

In the early 1900s, according to Oxford, “film” took on the sense you’re asking about: “a representation of a story or event recorded on film” and “shown as moving images in a cinema or (latterly) on television, video, the Internet, etc.”

The dictionary’s first citation (which we’ve expanded) is from the Jan. 21, 1905, issue of the Westminster Gazette (London):

“The plaintiff is an eminent Parisian surgeon, the defendants a firm who took cinematograph films of his operations. This he allowed them to do, so that he might get scientific records, but the films once obtained have been sold and even exhibited at country fairs.”

The earliest Oxford example of “movie” used in this sense appeared more than five years later. “I finally decided to have a look-in on some of the programs of vaudeville and movies” (from the May 22, 1910, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer).

But before either “film” or “movie” appeared on the scene as a cinematic work, the terms “moving picture” and “motion picture” were used similarly.

The dictionary’s first “moving picture” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an Oct. 3, 1896, letter written by Queen Victoria from Balmoral Castle in Scotland:

“At twelve went down to below the terrace, near the ballroom, and we were all photographed by Downey by the new cinematograph process, which makes moving pictures by winding off a reel of films.” William Downey’s moving picture of the Queen is available online.

Oxford’s earliest citation for “motion picture” used this way is from the November 1900 issue of Catholic World:

“That evening, during a reproduction of the Passion Play in motion pictures, a magnificent tenor, interspersing the pictured scenes with arias appropriate to the theme, was received with enthusiasm.”

(The OED has an 1891 citation for “motion picture,” but the term is used to mean a movie camera, not a movie.)

By the way, the colloquial term “flick” first appeared in The Square Emerald, a 1926 mystery by the English writer Edgar Wallace: “We’ll occupy the afternoon with a ‘flick.’ I love the movies—especially the romantic ones.”

The word “flicker,” used the same way, showed up in print a year later. But we suspect that it was around earlier in speech, and that “flick” was a shortening of “flicker.” Both apparently refer to the flickering appearance of old movies.

Now for the latecomer, the French use of film to mean an oeuvre cinématographique.

The earliest example in Le Trésor de la Langue Française, an etymological and historical dictionary of the French language, is from Histoire de l’Art du Cinéma des Origines à Nos Jours, a 1949 book by the cinema writer Georges Sadoul:

“L’ému et tendre Silence est d’or a été le meilleur film qu’ait dirigé René Clair depuis son départ de Paris” (“The moving and tender Silence Est d’Or was the best film directed by René Clair after his departure from Paris”).

When the French originally borrowed the term film from English in the late 1800s, it referred to a bande de pellicule (“strip of celluloid”) used to make photographs or motion pictures.

The French dictionary describes the use of the medium “film” for a work made from it as an example of metonymy, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used as a substitute for something it’s closely associated with

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Are families people or things?

Q: My work at a university involves writing about families. When referring to them, should I use “who” or “that”? For example, “families who eat together” vs. “families that eat together.” In other words, are families people or things?

A: “That” is our oldest and most flexible relative pronoun. It’s been used since the Middle Ages for both people and things. If in doubt, you can’t go wrong with “that.”

The relative pronoun “who,” on the other hand, is used exclusively for people and animals personified with personal names.

Grammatically speaking, the noun “family” (like “class,” “committee,” “orchestra,” “faculty,” and so on) is a thing, even though it’s made up of people. So your example should read “families that eat together.”

But even if one argues that the noun “family” implies people, “that” is an appropriate relative pronoun, since it can be used for both people and things.

Despite what many people think, there’s no foundation for the widespread belief that “that” should refer only to things and “who” only to people.

As Pat writes in her grammar book Woe Is I, “that has been used for people as well as inanimate things for some eight hundred years, and it’s standard English. The girl that married dear old Dad was Mom.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has examples from Anglo-Saxon times for “that” (ðæt, ðet, and þhet in Old English) used as a relative pronoun for both people and things.

The dictionary’s earliest example of “that” in reference to a thing is from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript written around 825: “In bebode ðæt ðu bibude” (“In the command that thou commanded”).

The OED’s earliest example of “that” referring to a person is from the Lambeth Homilies, written around 1175: “Þes Mon þhet alihte from ierusalem in to ierico” (“This man that descended from Jerusalem into Jericho”).

And “that” has been used in both ways ever since.

A post we wrote in 2007 includes an excerpt from A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, about the history of the relative pronouns “that,” “who,” and “which.” It’s worth repeating:

That has been the standard relative pronoun for about eight hundred years and can be used in speaking of persons, animals, or things. Four hundred years ago, which became popular as a substitute for the relative that and was used for persons, animals, and things. Three hundred years ago, who also became popular as a relative. It was used in speaking of persons and animals but not of things. This left English with more relative pronouns than it has any use for. … Who may in time drive out that as a relative referring to persons, but it has not yet done so.”

As we said in 2007, you can undoubtedly find writers on grammar and usage who disagree with this conclusion, but we think it’s sound. We still do.

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The prepositional subject

Q: I’m studying English in Japan, and I’m confused by the use of prepositional phrases as subjects, as in this example: “Across the field is the nearest way to the lake.” Is this a common usage? Can prepositional phrases be objects too?

A: A prepositional phrase can be the subject, object, or complement of a verb. This is a common construction in English, and often the verb is a form of “be,” as in your example. Here are a few more illustrations.

As subject: “Over the mantle is a good place for the mirror” … “From five to seven would be the best time.”

As object: “He directed between 50 and 60 movies” … “The project will take over a week.”

As complement: “A good place for the mirror is over the mantle” … “The best time would be from five to seven.”

(With a linking verb like “be,” a subject complement occupies the position of the object.)

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language cites these examples, with “spent” as the verb: “Over a year was spent on this problem” (subject) … “I spent over a year here” (object).

Prepositional phrases can be modifiers, too. So they can act as adverbs (“Puffin lies on the bed” … “In the afternoon, Puffin naps”) or as adjectives (“The cat on the bed is Puffin” … “Naps in the afternoon are her favorite”).

In fact, a prepositional phrase “is by far the commonest type of postmodification in English,” according to A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al.

The authors give many examples of such modifiers following nouns, including “the car outside the station,” “the road to Lincoln,” “this book on grammar,” “passengers on board the ship,” “action in case of fire,” “the house beyond the church,” and “two years before the war.”

In addition, the authors explain, prepositional phrases can complement a verb (“We were looking at his awful paintings“) or an adjective (“I’m sorry for his parents“).

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‘Hogwash’ vs. ‘claptrap’

Q: I characterized a theory in an academic paper as “hogwash.” A well-read colleague thought “claptrap” might have been better. I can’t figure out a meaningful distinction. I suspect this would not be interesting to your readers, but just in case …

A: Yes, there isn’t much of a distinction between “hogwash” and “claptrap” these days, but we don’t think a discussion about their use in academia would be academic to our readers.

Although both “hogwash” and “claptrap” mean nonsense, “claptrap” may also suggest pretentiousness and insincerity to those aware of its etymology, while “hogwash” may still have a whiff of the barnyard for some.

When “hogwash,” the older of the two terms, showed up in the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “kitchen refuse and scraps (esp. in liquid form) used as food for pigs.”

The earliest OED example is from Jacob’s Well, an anonymous Middle English sermon cycle, written around 1450, in which the human soul is likened to a foul well in need of cleansing. Here a humble nun is humiliated by other nuns in her convent:

“Þey in þe kechyn, for iape, pouryd on here hefd hoggyswasch” (“For a joke, they had poured hogwash on her in the kitchen”).

In the early 1600s, Oxford says, “hogwash” took on the sense of a “liquid for drinking that is of very poor quality, as cheap beer, wine, etc.”

The dictionary cites A New Description of Ireland (1610), by the English writer and soldier Barnabe Rich: “The very remembrance of that Hogges wash which they vse to sell for ij.d. the Wine quart, is able to distemper any mans braines.”

In the late 1800s, the word took on the modern meaning of “nonsense; esp. worthless, ridiculous, or nonsensical ideas, discourse, or writing.” The first OED example is from an article by Mark Twain in the June 1870 issue of Galaxy Magazine, a short-lived American monthly:

“I will remark, in the way of general information, that in California, that land of felicitous nomenclature, the literary name of this sort of stuff is ‘hogwash.’ ” (The “stuff” here is “sham sentimentality” in literature.)

However, the term “hogwash” hasn’t entirely escaped its porcine origins, especially for punning headline writers, as you can see from these examples:

“Swine intervention: California animal lovers call pig rescue a load of hogwash” (The Guardian, June 16, 2017), and “No hogwash: Pigs shut down Ky. highway after semi overturns” (the Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, IA, Aug. 9, 2017).

As for “claptrap,” it originated in the early 1700s as theatrical jargon for a “trick or device to catch applause; an expression designed to elicit applause,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Universal Etymological English Dictionary (Vol. 2, 1727), by Nathan Bailey:

“A CLAP Trap: A name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them go off with; as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap by way of applause from the spectators at a play.”

By the early 1800s, “claptrap” was being used to mean catchy language or cheap, showy sentiment, as in this OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, from Byron’s satirical poem Don Juan (Canto II, 1819): “I hate all mystery, and that air / Of clap-trap, which your recent poets prize.”

And by the late 1800s, the word had acquired its modern meaning of nonsense, as in this Oxford example from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1880 novel Endymion: “He disdained all cant and clap-trap.”

You’re right that most people would see no meaningful distinction between “hogwash” and “claptrap.” But a sensitive academic with the OED handy might be ticked off more by one than the other, though we can’t imagine which term would be more upsetting.

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When Dickens don’t use ‘doesn’t’

Q: While reading Dickens, I’ve noticed the use of “don’t” where we would now use “doesn’t.” In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for example, the boastful auctioneer Thomas Sapsea says, “it don’t do to boast of what you are.”

A: What standard dictionaries say today about these contractions is fairly clear cut:

  • “Doesn’t” (for “does not”) should be used in the third person singular—with “he,” “she,” “it,” and singular nouns.
  • “Don’t” (for “do not”) is correct in all other uses—with “I,” “we,” “you,” “they,” and plural nouns. In the third person singular, “don’t” is considered nonstandard.

As you’ve noticed, however, it’s not unusual to find “don’t” used in place of “doesn’t” in 18th- and 19th-century fiction, like the example you found in that unfinished 1870 novel.

Was the usage ever “correct”? As is often the case with English, this is not a “yes or no” question.

In our opinion, this way of using “don’t” was always somewhat irregular (the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it was regional or nonstandard from the start).

And as we’ll explain later, we think that in your example Dickens used “it don’t” colloquially to show that Mr. Sapsea didn’t speak the very best English.

The history of these contractions begins two centuries before Dickens. Both were formed in the 17th century, at a time when all forms of “do” were unsettled, to say the least.

For one thing, “does” and “doth”—both spelled in a variety of ways—were competing for prominence, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out.

For another, some writers used the bare (or uninflected) “do” as the third person singular, according to M-W. The usage guide cites Samuel Pepys, writing in 1664: “the Duke of York do give himself up to business,” and “it seems he [the king] do not.”

With the verb itself so unsettled, it’s not surprising that the state of the contractions was even more chaotic.

In fact, M-W suggests that the use of the uninflected “do” for “does,” as in the Pepys citations, may have influenced the use of “don’t” as a contracted “does not.”

It’s significant that “don’t” was on the scene first; for a long while it was the only present-tense contraction for “do.” It was used as short for “do not” and (rightly or wrongly) for “does not.”

The earliest known written uses of “don’t” are from plays of the 1630s, though spoken forms were surely around long before that. And in the earliest OED examples, it’s used in the standard way—as short for “do not.”

The dictionary’s first example is dated 1633: “False Eccho, don’t blaspheme that glorious sexe.” (From Jasper Fisher’s Fuimus Troes, a verse drama; though published in 1633, it was probably performed a decade or so earlier.)

The next example is from William Cartwright’s The Ordinary, believed written about 1635: “Don’t you see December in her face?”

The OED also has a citation (with “I don’t”) from a comedy first acted in 1635 and published in 1640, Richard Brome’s The Sparagus Garden. And we’ve found a couple of interrogative uses (“dont you” and “dont they”) in a 1639 comedy, Jasper Mayne’s The City Match.

But “doesn’t,” with various spellings, wasn’t recorded until decades later—spelled “dozn’t” in 1678 and “doesn’t” in 1694, according to OED citations.

Even after “doesn’t” came on the scene, it apparently wasn’t common until at least a century later. Most uses of “doesn’t” that we’ve found in historical databases are from the 1760s or later, and it didn’t start appearing regularly (at least in writing) until the 1800s.

Before then, most writers used the uncontracted form, “does not,” even in fictional dialogue. The use of “don’t” in the third person singular was apparently irregular. The OED cites “he don’t,” “she don’t,” and “it don’t” among examples of regional or nonstandard uses, dating from 1660.

But to be fair, it seems only natural that mid-17th century British writers seeking a contraction for “does not” would use “don’t” in colloquial dialogue if “doesn’t” was unknown to them.

And no one can argue the fact that the earliest contraction people used for “does not” was “don’t.” Many continued to do so long after “doesn’t” came into the language.

M-W says, for example, that from the 17th through 19th centuries, the third person singular “don’t seems to have had unimpeachable status.” It cites examples (mostly in letters) by Horace Walpole, Charles Lamb, George Bernard Shaw, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Only after the usage was condemned in the latter half of the 19th century, M-W says, was this sense of “don’t” considered nonstandard.

We don’t agree entirely with M-W here. We’ve found hints that this use of “don’t” was regarded as less than exemplary by novelists of the 18th century.

For example, there are no irregular uses of “don’t” in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), in his Moll Flanders (1722), or in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (completed in 1767).

All three novels freely use “don’t” in the standard way and “does not” in the third person singular.

In Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740), we counted 14 examples of “don’t” in the third person singular—all but four used by servants—compared with 54 of “does not.”

We found no irregular uses of “don’t” in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and only two in his Tom Jones (1749)—spoken by a clerk and a servant.

Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771) has four uses of this irregular “don’t,” three by servants and one by an eccentric duke. Otherwise Smollett uses “does not” in the third person singular.

So apparently the principal novelists of the 18th century did not consider the third person singular “don’t” a normal usage, except sometimes among the rural or working classes. (None of them ever used “doesn’t” in writing, as far as we can tell.)

Even in 19th-century fiction, it’s mostly working-class characters who use “don’t” in a nonstandard way (though the occasional aristocrat uses it in a slangy, casual manner).

Let’s consider your quotation from Charles Dickens. When he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he deliberately put the nonstandard “it don’t” into the mouth Mr. Sapsea, a conceited fool who is convinced he’s brilliant and has pretensions to good breeding. The character is introduced with these words:

“Accepting the Jackass as the type of self-sufficient stupidity and conceit—a custom, perhaps, like some few other customs, more conventional than fair—then the purest Jackass in Cloisterham is Mr. Thomas Sapsea, Auctioneer.”

Sapsea isn’t the only character in the novel to use this irregular “don’t,” but the others are mostly laborers or servants. Those with higher education (teachers, clergy, etc.) use “does not.”

You don’t have to read 18th- or 19th-century fiction, however, to find nonstandard uses of “don’t.” They can be found in modern writing, too, mostly when the author intends to convey dialectal, regional, or uneducated English.

Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938), for instance, has many examples in the speech of working-class characters: “That don’t signify” … “it don’t make any odds” … “it don’t seem quite fair.”

But modern British authors sometimes use this irregular “don’t” in portraying sophisticated, affluent characters who are deliberately (even affectedly) careless or casual in their speech.

Take, for example, Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic, Oxford-educated detective in Dorothy L. Sayers’s novels of the ’20s and ’30s. He not only drops a “g” here and there (“an entertainin’ little problem”), but he often uses “don’t” in the third-person singular.

To cite just a handful of examples: “gets on your nerves, don’t it?” … “it don’t do to say so” … “when he don’t know what else to say, he’s rude” … “it don’t do to wear it [a monocle] permanently” … “it don’t do to build too much on doctors’ evidence” … “it don’t account for the facts in hand.”

Lord Peter isn’t an 18th-century character. He’s a 20th-century snob, and when he uses such English, he’s slumming linguistically.

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Birth of the conspiracy theory

Q: I read with interest your posts about “false flag” and “crisis actor.” But you used the term “conspiracy theory” without explaining its origin. I’ve read online that it was invented by the CIA after the assassination of JFK to discredit people who thought the shooter didn’t act alone.

A: The CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” It’s been in circulation since at least as far back as 1868, almost 100 years before President Kennedy was assassinated and nearly 80 years before the CIA existed.

Of course there have been conspiracy theories since ancient times—alternate views of history that interpret events as the products of secret conspiracies designed to conceal the truth.

One of the best known is the hypothesis that the Emperor Nero, for one reason or another, secretly orchestrated the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. (Modern scholars think the fire probably started by accident.)

But while conspiracies (both real and imagined) have always been a part of human history, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was recorded in writing.

Before we get to the early examples of the expression, though, let’s look at its definition.

A “conspiracy theory,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties.”

More specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.”

The definitions in standard dictionaries are similar though shorter, like this one: “A theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” (Merriam-Webster Unabridged).

It’s interesting that the two earliest examples of “conspiracy theory” that we’ve found are from the same year but in different countries—the US and England.

The first is from a news story in the Boston Post on April 16, 1868:

“The testimony of Gen. Sherman has blown the conspiracy theory of Gen. Butler to the winds; and, of course, it was in a sure anticipation of such a result that he so steadily and brazenly objected to nearly every question put by the counsel for the defence which was calculated to bring it out.” (The testimony was given in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.)

Later that same year, a British periodical printed the phrase in an article about a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in Scotland:

“She may seem to award to her present Premier a degree of favour which, considering how direct and plain her dealings have ever been, appears to denote her sympathy with his policy, but she surely comprehends that his conspiracy theory is a mere party battle-horse for which she need not find stable room.” (The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art, and Science, December 1868.)

In the 1870s and afterward, examples of “conspiracy theory” become much more common.

In April 1870, for example, another British periodical, The Journal of Mental Science, used the term in replying to allegations that mental patients were being severely beaten by keepers in insane asylums. The journal advanced another hypothesis to account for the patients’ injuries, and called the allegations of beatings a “conspiracy theory.”

Many sightings of “conspiracy theory” in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s are from news stories about crimes and courtroom proceedings. In such articles, it usually meant a hypothesis that an act was committed by more than one person.

This quotation, for example, is from a San Francisco newspaper’s account of a murder trial in which charges against a family of four were dismissed:

“The conspiracy theory was too intricate. He [the judge] was certain Blanche was not in it and how she could be left out he could not understand.” (The Daily Alta California, Aug. 30, 1873.)

And in a report about a far more sensational case, Henry Ward Beecher’s trial for adultery, this headline appeared: “How Bessie Turner’s Testimony Upsets the Conspiracy Theory.” (The Nashville Union and American, June 25, 1875.)

The first use of “conspiracy theory” in reference to a presidential assassination was in connection with the shooting of James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. (Garfield died several weeks later.)

This small headline appeared within one news report: “President Garfield and all His Cabinet Reject Conspiracy Theory.” The fact that New York police detectives had been called to Washington, the newspaper said, “started the sensational report that there had been a conspiracy to murder the President.” (Indianapolis Evening Star, July 4, 1881.)

The hypothesis—soon disproved—that the assassin did not act alone was also labeled “The Conspiracy Theory” in a headline on a different story published that same day in the Indianapolis Star.

Predictably, the expression got a good workout 20 years later after another president was assassinated.

By Sept. 8, 1901, two days after President William McKinley was shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, “conspiracy theory” began popping up in the news. The theory here—that the shooting was an anarchist plot—was never proven. But it had some credibility, since Czolgosz admitted that he had been inspired by the writings of other anarchists.

For example, the headline “Conspiracy Theory Confirmed” appeared above a report that “an Italian” had been standing in front of Czolgosz until just before he fired the shots. (From a bulletin wired from London Sept. 8 and published the next day in the Adelaide Register in Australia.)

Citations in the OED haven’t yet caught up to these earlier sightings of “conspiracy theory.” The dictionary’s first example is from 1909:

“The claim that Atchison was the originator of the repeal may be termed a recrudescence of the conspiracy theory first asserted by Colonel John A. Parker of Virginia in 1880.” (From a review of a book, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, in the American Historical Review, July 1909.)

Published appearances of “conspiracy theory” continued right through the 20th century—with a spurt of activity after the JFK assassination—and on into our own time.

Along the way, a parallel term developed, “conspiracy theorist,” a noun phase that’s included in the OED and in standard dictionaries. Most don’t define it, however. An exception is the Cambridge Dictionary online: “someone who believes in a conspiracy theory.”

We haven’t found any examples of “conspiracy theorist” that predate the first citation given in the OED. It’s from the May 1, 1964, issue of the New Statesman:

“Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction.” (The comment was about a literary magazine’s transition to a broader coverage of the arts.)

Over the years, these terms have taken on a darker meaning. Today the “conspiracy” goes beyond the notion of someone’s acting with accomplices instead of alone. It also implies the involvement of entire governments or vast interests, not mere individuals.

Many of the OED’s citations reflect this broader use of “conspiracy theory,” like this one from the early 1950s:

“I call it the ‘conspiracy theory of society.’ It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon.” (From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, rev. 2nd ed., 1952.)

And we found this early example from the 1970s of the wider meaning of “conspiracy theorist”:

“An invisible ‘supergovernment’ consisting of ‘organized crime, intelligence fronts, and war industry’ controls America, conspiracy theorist Rusty Rhodes told an audience of 250 last night in Cubberley Auditorium.” (The Stanford Daily, May 16, 1974.)

Rhodes, according to the article, went on to say that this “supergovernment … committed such wildly diverse acts as the assassination of President John Kennedy and the kidnaping [sic] of Patty Hearst.”

In short, the CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” And we’ve found no evidence that the agency tried to popularize it to make critics of the Warren Commission report look foolish.

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The cultured life of kefir

Q: I have heard the word “kefir” pronounced a number of ways. I would prefer to use a pronunciation that gives honor to its etymological origin. My research shows Caucasian languages as the possible source for the name. Any data on this topic that you would like to pass along?

A: “Kefir” is the English name for the fermented, yogurt-like drink made from cow’s milk, and its usual pronunciation in standard English dictionaries is keh-FEER.

Although etymologists say the term originated in the Caucasus, English speakers wouldn’t understand if you used a Caucasian pronunciation for the drink.

For example, the Georgian word for the drink, კეფირი, is kʼepiri in Latin script, while the Mingrelian word, ქიფური, is kipuri, according to the multilingual dictionary Glosbe.

In fact, English adopted the word from Russian, where the term for the drink, кефир, sounds much like the standard English pronunciation of “kefir.” The Russian term may ultimately come from a Turkic language spoken in the Caucasus.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the Russian term is derived “probably ultimately from Old Turkic köpür, (milk) froth, foam, from köpürmäk, to froth, foam.

Getting back to your question, we’d recommend using the standard English pronunciation, keh-FEER. If you were to walk into a grocery and ask for köpür, kʼepiri, or kipuri, the clerk wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, defines “kefir” as an “effervescent liquor resembling koumiss, prepared from milk which has been fermented.” Koumiss is a drink made from fermented mare’s milk.

The earliest example of the term in the OED is from the July 3, 1884, issue of Nature: “Kephir has only been generally known even in Russia for about two years.”

The next citation is from the Nov. 3, 1894, issue of the Lancet: “Koumiss and kefyr are examples of sour fermented milk containing an excess of carbonic acid gas.” (After checking the original, we corrected an OED typo—“are examples,” not “and examples.”)

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How to say you’re not quite sure

Q: What is the difference in meaning between “John didn’t come yesterday—he must have been ill” and “John didn’t come yesterday—he will have been ill”? I realize that “must” is more popular than “will” in such constructions, but does one express more certainty than the other?

A: The words “will” and “must” in your examples are epistemic modal verbs, auxiliary verbs that express probability.

As Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum explain in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “epistemic modality qualifies the speaker’s commitment to the truth.”

“While It was a mistake represents an unqualified assertion,” Huddleston and Pullum write, “It must have been a mistake suggests that I am drawing a conclusion from evidence rather than asserting something of whose truth I have direct knowledge.”

In your first example (“John didn’t come yesterday—he must have been ill”), the auxiliary “must” indicates that the writer (or speaker) believes John was probably ill.

In our opinion, the expression “he will have been ill” indicates somewhat more probability than “he must have been ill” (though some might argue the point). And both of them indicate a much greater probability than “he may have been ill”—another example of epistemic modality.

Huddleston and Pullum note that epistemic modality is “commonly expressed by other means than modal auxiliaries.” For example, by adverbs (“he was probably ill”), verbs (“I believe he was ill”), adjectives (“he was likely to be ill”), and nouns (“in all likelihood, he was ill”).

There are two other principal kinds of modality: deontic, which expresses permission or obligation (“He may have one more chance, but he must come tomorrow”), and dynamic, which expresses willingness or ability (“I won’t come today, but I can come tomorrow”).

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the authors, Randolph Quirk et al., say, “At its most general, modality may be defined as the manner in which the meaning of a clause is qualified so as to reflect the speaker’s judgment of the likelihood of the preposition it expresses being true.”

Quirk divides the modal verbs into two types:

“(a) Those such as ‘permission,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘volition’ which involve some kind of intrinsic human control over events, and

“(b) Those such as ‘possibility,’ ‘necessity,’ and ‘prediction,’ which do not primarily involve human control of events, but do typically involve human judgment of what is or is not likely to happen.”

Quirk adds that the two categories “may be termed intrinsic and extrinsic modality respectively,” since “each one of them has both intrinsic and extrinsic uses: for example, may has the meaning of permission (intrinsic) and the meaning of possibility (extrinsic); will has the meaning of volition (intrinsic) and the meaning of prediction (extrinsic).”

“However, there are areas of overlap and neutrality between the intrinsic and extrinsic senses of a modal: the will in a sentence such as I’ll see you tomorrow then can be said to combine the meanings of volition and prediction.”

Another point to consider, Quirk writes, “is that the modals themselves tend to have overlapping meanings, such that in some circumstances (but not in others), they can be more or less interchangeable.”

In other words, there’s a lot of ambiguity here. Or, as Quirk puts it, “the use of modal verbs is one of the more problematic areas of English grammar.”

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Are your ears burning?

Q: I wonder if “Are your ears burning?” is an expression that you may want to parse.

A: The expression is derived from an old belief that one’s ears can somehow sense that one is being talked about, even if the talking is going on at a distance.

The ears supposedly respond to such gossip by burning or glowing or ringing or some other physical change.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (3d ed., 2009), edited by John Ayto, says “someone’s ears are burning” means “someone is subconsciously aware of being talked about, especially in their absence.”

But The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), written by Christine Ammer, defines “one’s ears are burning”  as being troubled by overhearing an actual conversation:

“Be disconcerted by what one hears, especially when one is being talked about.”

As far as we can tell, the belief that one’s ears can sense something said about one in absentia first showed up in the writings of the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder.

In Naturalis Historia (also known as Historia Naturalis), Pliny’s 37-volume encyclopedia of fact, myth, and speculation, he writes:

Quin et absentes tinnitu aurium præsentire sermones de se receptum est (“Those absent are warned by a ringing of the ears when they are being talked about,” from volume 28, chapter 5).

The first example of the usage we’ve seen in English is from Troilus and Criseyde, a Middle English poem written by Chaucer in the 1380s:

“And we shal speek of the somwhat, I trowe, / Whan thow art gon, to don thyn eris glowe” (“And when thou art gone, I trust, we shall speak of thee somewhat to make thine ears glow”).

The earliest example we’ve come across that specifically mentions burning is from Of the Burning of the Eares, a 16th-century poem by James Yates:

“That I doe credite give unto the saying old: / Which is, when as the eares doe burne, some thing on thee is told” (from The Castell of Courtesie, a 1582 collection of Yates’s poetry).

The first example we’ve seen for the version of the expression you cite (“Are your ears burning?”) is from the July 6, 1892, issue of Our Church Paper, a Lutheran weekly in New Market, VA.

The paper reprinted a letter from Japan to children in the states. The letter, apparently written by the father of the children, suggests that their ears may be burning because he’s been thinking of them:

“Well, children, are your ears burning today? Whether they are or not, I have been thinking about you a great deal. For I have read over again the letters that came from childish pens away across the sea, in order that I might answer some of the questions you have asked me.”

There have been many related superstitions, such as that the ringing of the right ear signifies you’re being praised, while the ringing of the left indicates you’re being criticized. Enough said. We’re up to our ears.

Let’s end with an example from Shakespeare of an actual conversation that’s overheard. In Much Ado About Nothing, believed written in the late 1590s, Beatrice’s ears burn when she overhears Hero and Ursula speaking of her:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.

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Roots of the grapevine

Q: I assume the word “grapevine” originally referred to a vine on which grapes grow. When did it come to mean a casual way of passing information along, as in the Motown song of the ’60s?

A: Yes, “grapevine” did originally refer to Vitis vinifera, the vine of the common grape. It first showed up in New England in the mid-17th century as two words.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ll expand here, is from a Jan. 19, 1654, entry in the town records of Providence, RI:

“five Acres of Low Land Layd out on the South side of the West River for Robert Pike to make Medow, bounded on the West End with a black Oak markt on 4. Sides, and on the East end on the lower side (that small slipe of low Land) by the grape Vines.”

The use of “grapevine” to mean an informal source of information began life in the mid-19th century as “grapevine telegraph,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The slang dictionary defines the usage as “any informal or unofficial method of relaying important or interesting information, esp. by word of mouth,” or “the means by which gossip or rumor travels.”

When “grapevine telegraph” first appeared in the early 1850s, it referred to the transmission of questionable or outdated information.

The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of digitized newspaper databases are from two weeklies that were published on the same date—April 17, 1852—in different states.

This one is from the editorial page of the Freeman (Fremont, OH): “The following important dispatch was recived [sic] by the ‘Grape Vine’ telegraph—It came to hand just in time for this week’s ‘issoo,’ and the attentive ‘operator’ at Tiffin city has our thanks for his invaluable favor.”

What follows is an anonymous, satirical letter to the editor, full of outlandish misinformation about an election for township offices.

The second example published that day is from the Wabash Courier (Terre Haute, IN): “the aforesaid writer is awfully behind the times, a resident, perhaps, of some deep diggings where the sun never shines, and the inhabitants get their news by the grapevine telegraph. It would be no easy matter to ascertain the number of people badly fooled.”

The fact that the expression appeared on the same day in different states suggests that it was around much earlier in speech.

It shows up again a couple of months later, on June 30, 1852, in another Terre Haute weekly, the Wabash Express: “We suppose the information came from Maine and California (the Aroostook and Sierra Nevada,) by the mud turtle line, or the grapevine telegraph.”

And the July 17, 1852, issue of the Wabash Courier uses the phrase to introduce a mock letter from James Buchanan, then a former secretary of state and later a president, to Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan:

From the Pittsburgh Despatch. By the Grape Vine Telegraph line, in connection with Virginia Fence and Mason & Dixon’s Line, we have received the following interesting correspondence—far ‘ahead of the foremost,’ which we hasten to lay before our readers.”

(The word sleuth Barry Popik has found an earlier reprint of that passage in a New Jersey newspaper, the Trenton State Gazette, June 22, 1852. We haven’t been able to find the original Pittsburg Dispatch article.)

During the American Civil War, “grapevine telegraph” was used to describe doubtful information about the war that was passed along from mouth to mouth. Union supporters often used the phrase for what they considered Confederate propaganda, as in this example from the Jan. 8, 1862, Evansville (IN) Daily Journal:

“Some of those who are so very anxious that the South should have its rights, were very much elated at the news by grapevine Telegraph from Evansville via Phillipstown, to the effect that there had been a fight in Kentucky, in which the Federals were badly whipped, and were rushing into Evansville by the thousands, perfectly panic-struck.”

And this example comes from the June 12, 1862, Daily Alta California (San Francisco): “Yesterday the rebel grapevine telegraph was actively employed. It gave out oracularly that [Maj. Gen.] Sterling Price had crossed the Tennessee River near Florence, Ala., with 10,000 men, and was making his way to Nashville.”

The OED notes that the word “grapevine” was also used by itself during the war to mean a false or unfounded rumor or story. The dictionary cites a passage, which we’ve expanded, from “The Old Sergeant,” an 1863 poem by Forceythe Willson.

In the poem, a dying Union soldier imagines that he wasn’t really wounded at Shiloh and that his memory of being cut down is all in his mind: “It’s all a nightmare, all a humbug and a bore; / Just another foolish grape-vine—and it won’t come any more.”

Random House has a somewhat earlier example that uses both long and short versions of the expression:

“We get such ‘news’ in the army by what we call ‘grape vine,’ that is, ‘grape vine telegraph.’ It is not at all reliable.” (From an 1862 diary entry by James A. Connolly, first published in the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1928. Connolly enlisted as a private in the Union Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.”

The next Oxford example is from a postwar article by Horace Carpenter, a former lieutenant in the Ninth Louisiana Battalion, about life at Johnson’s Island, a prison-of-war camp for Confederate officers in Lake Erie near Sandusky, OH. Here Carpenter discusses rumors of prisoner exchanges:

“The ‘grape-vine’ spoke to us of little else. The main feature of this prison telegraph was its complete unreliability. As I remember, it was never correct, even by accident.” (We’ve expanded the citation, from the March 1891 issue of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.)

Today the word “grapevine” refers to the informal transmission of information that may or may not be true. As the OED explains, “Now in general use to indicate the route by which a rumour or a piece of information (often of a secret or private nature) is passed.”

The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), the second novel in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy: “Down there at that express company they find out about everything a guy does. They got the best grapevine in the world.

Random House has an earlier example from John Brown’s Body, a 1928 poem by Stephen Vincent Benét: “And the grapevine whispered its message faster / Than a horse could gallop across a grave.”

In a 2009 post, we dismissed the notion that the usage ultimately comes from The Old Grapevine, a Greenwich Village tavern frequented by politicians, artists, and intellectuals.

We’ve found no evidence that the tavern was the source of the old usage, though it may have helped popularize it. We also haven’t seen evidence that the usage was inspired by hastily strung early telegraph wires that twisted like grapevines.

The expression “grapevine telegraph” showed up in the US as telegraph wires were spreading across the country. Samuel Morse sent his famous message, “What hath God wrought,” from Washington to Baltimore in 1844.

We suspect that the simple presence of telegraph wires inspired the figurative use of “grapevine telegraph” for the informal transmission of information. As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, the usage was “probably so called from the grapevine’s being thought of as a humble substitute for a telegraph line.”

A similar expression, “clothesline telegraph,” appeared during the Civil War. The March 22, 1862, Cambridge (MA) Chronicle describes Southern women who spread Confederate propaganda as “tattlers, and operators upon the clothesline telegraph, mischief makers.”

Similarly, the figurative expression “bush telegraph” showed up in the late 19th and “jungle telegraph” in the early 20th century.

In his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington writes that slaves on the plantation where he grew up used the “grapevine” expression for their whispered conversations about the war:

“Though I was a mere child during the preparation for the Civil War and during the war itself, I now recall the many late-at-night whispered discussions that I heard my mother and the other slaves on the plantation indulge in. These discussions showed that they understood the situation, and that they kept themselves informed of events by what was termed the ‘grape-vine’ telegraph.”

However, we haven’t seen any written wartime examples for “grapevine” or “grapevine telegraph” used to describe such slave discussions. And as we’ve said, “grapevine telegraph” was often used during the war in the sense of Confederate propaganda.

We’ll end with a few lines from Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the Motown song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, that was a hit in the 1960s for Gaye as well as Gladys Knight & the Pips:

You could have told me yourself
That you loved someone else
Instead I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
And I’m just about to lose my mind

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