English language Uncategorized

What’s the origin of “willy-nilly”?

[Note: An updated and expanded post about “willy-nilly” was published on Nov. 6, 2020.]

A: Where does the phrase “willy-nilly” come from?

Q: The first citation for “willy-nilly” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1608. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says it’s a contraction of “will I, nill I” or “will he, nill he” or “will ye, nill ye.” The word “nill” is from the Old English “nyllan,” a combination of “ne” (no) and “willan” (will). The phrase “willy-nilly” means “unwillingly” or “haphazardly.”

English language Uncategorized

Why do we “take a flier”?

Q: You were discussing the expression “take a flier” the other day on the Leonard Lopate Show. I think that it derives from the famous Flexible Flyer sleds and that “taking a flier” means taking a wild ride, taking a chance—just as we used to do when we were kids by sledding without helmets.

A: I like the sledding image, but I didn’t find any mention of the Flexible Flyer in my research on the expression. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang gives several meanings for “take a flier (or flyer).” I’ve added a few parenthetical notes from the Oxford English Dictionary.

1. to place a bet or make a wager (the OED dates this to the 19th century);
2. to invest or speculate (ditto);
3. to make an attempt at something;
4. to make a suicidal leap;
5. to run off (OED: as far back as the 15th century, an escapee or fugitive was called a “flier”).

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No room to swing a cat

Q: In a recent appearance on WNYC, you discussed the phrase “no room to swing a cat” and said its origin was not known. I believe it refers to the difficulty of swinging a cat-o’-nine-tails on the crowded deck of a Royal Navy warship in olden days.

A: Several other radio listeners, and many Internet references, suggest (or even insist) that the expression refers to the use of the cat-o’-nine-tails on British naval ships. But I haven’t found any authoritative sources that back this up.

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “swing a cat” comes 30 years before the earliest citation for “cat-o’-nine-tails” and 123 years before the use of the word “cat” as a short form of “cat-o’-nine-tails.” All this suggests that “swing a cat” was in use well before the word “cat” was used to mean a whip.

A likelier and perhaps more gruesome explanation lies in the use of cats in target practice during the 16th century. E. Cobham Brewer’s 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says sometimes “two cats were swung by their tails over a rope.” At other times, according to the dictionary, a cat in a bag or a sack or a leather bottle “was swung to the bough of a tree.”

Shakespeare refers to the practice in Much Ado About Nothing: “If I do, hang me in a bottle like a Cat, and shoot at me; and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder, and called Adam.”

One final note. When Mark Twain used the phrase “swing a cat” in the 19th century in Innocents Abroad, he was obviously referring to a cat of the feline variety: “Notwithstanding all this furniture, there was still room to turn around in, but not to swing a cat in, at least with entire security to the cat.”

English language Uncategorized

No ifs about “and” or “but”

Q: I have a question regarding the use of the words “and” or “but” to begin sentences. All through my years of education I was taught that it is improper to begin a sentence with them. I am aware that there are exceptions, but I’m not sure what they are. Can you help?

A: Contrary to popular opinion (if not popular usage), there’s no grammatical foundation to the prohibition against starting a sentence with the conjunctions “and” or “but.” It’s one of the most common myths about English grammar.

Some English teachers have enforced the mistaken notion that these conjunctions should be used only to join elements within a sentence, not to join one sentence with another. Not so! It’s been common practice to begin sentences with “and” or “but” since at least as far back as the tenth century. But don’t overdo it or your writing will sound monotonous.

English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is he an “atheist” or an “agnostic”?

Q: I am having an ongoing argument with my girlfriend about whether I am an atheist or an agnostic. If asked if I believe in god, I would say “NO.” So, I think this classifies me as an atheist. On the other hand if I was then asked if I was positive that there is no god, I would say that I am not positive; I just don’t think that one exists. She say that for this reason I am an agnostic. I think that our problem lies in the word “belief.” Do you have to be positive of something you believe in? Is it possible to say you believe in something but still admit some doubt?

A: This is a complicated question because it involves fine shades of difference in religious skepticism. Here’s what I think (and I allow that some would disagree). An atheist denies altogether that there is a God or gods. He believes that God is impossible. An agnostic doesn’t deny the existence of God; he thinks the existence or nonexistence can’t be proved or disproved—in other words, certainty is impossible.

So an agnostic, while allowing that we can never know for sure, may or may not choose to believe in the probability of God’s existence. This means there are two kinds of agnostics. Both deny that we can be certain; one believes God probably exists and the other believes that he probably doesn’t.

Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, differentiates between “disbelief” and “unbelief.” He says one who disbelieves has considered the plausibility of God’s existence and rejected it. This person he defines as an atheist. The unbeliever has doubts about whether or not there is a God. This person he defines as an agnostic.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes that an agnostic does not deny; he merely holds that the answer isn’t knowable. (The word “agnostic” was apparently coined by Thomas Huxley in the 19th century. He believed that only material phenomena could be known with certainty.)

In short, the answer to your question is yes—it’s possible to say you believe in something but still admit doubt. That’s one kind of agnostic. Belief is not the same as certainty. So I guess I agree with your girlfriend that you’re an agnostic.

English language Uncategorized

Is language organic?

Q: My friends and I have an ongoing debate about the nature of language. I describe language as organic in the sense that it is constantly growing and changing, and my friends disagree with that statement on several levels. First, they say I shouldn’t use the word “organic” that way. Second, they say language is structured with rules and isn’t free flowing. Do you have any ideas on the subject?

A: This is a big question.

You could say that language is organic, if by “organic” you mean having characteristics in common with living organisms. After all, language doesn’t exist independently of the living beings who use it. Many linguists believe that language or the ability to construct language is wired into our DNA, and I think they’re right.

Similarly, we tend to adapt language to fit our needs. We may feel at times that we are training ourselves to conform to some ideal of language perfection, but that “ideal” is itself a human invention. Generation after generation, we discard outdated vocabulary, pronunciations, even what have been considered “rules,” because they no longer serve as aids to communication—we no longer recognize those signals because they aren’t useful anymore.

For example, it was believed for a (very brief) time a couple of hundred years ago that an English sentence shouldn’t end with a preposition. Why? Because English had emerged gradually and informally and naturally, and concern about rules came later. When questions of grammar arose in the 18th century, Latin scholars sought to impose the rules of Latin on English. But before long people realized that English wasn’t a Romance (Latin-derived) language. It’s a Germanic language, and Germanic languages commonly end in prepositions. So that brief “rule” was debunked, although many people still erroneously cling to it. A lot of former “rules” of grammar are old myths invented by Latinists in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Of course there is an underlying structure to language that doesn’t change. Subjects should have a particular relationship to verbs. We have to be able to keep time elements straight, and so tenses in a series have to make sense. We must be able to differentiate singulars from plurals, and in some cases masculine from feminine (as with pronouns). So yes, English is free-flowing, but within a structure that imposes an overall logic.

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Why do we say “spitting image”?

Q: I just finished reading My Home Is Far Away by Dawn Powell, which was written in 1944. The phrase “spit and image” appears at least three times. Most people today would say “spitting image.” I guess they are mishearing “spit and image” as “spittin’ image.” What is the derivation of the original phrase?

A: “Spit and image” is another of those phrases that can’t be pinned down with certainty. But it’s even more complicated than you’d guess! Michael Quinion, in his website World Wide Words, discusses the various versions of the phrase (“spitting image,” “spitten image,” “spit and image,” “the very spit of,” and “dead spit for”) and several theories of their origin. Here’s an excerpt:

“The two most common suggest that our modern phrase [‘spitting image’] is, via one or other of these forms, a corruption of spit and image. This contains the even older spit, which existed by itself in phrases such as the last two above. Larry Horn, Professor of Linguistics at Yale, argues convincingly that the original form was actually spitten image, using the old dialectal past participle form of spit. He suggests that the phrase was reinterpreted when that form went out of use, first as spit ’n’ image and then as spit and image or spitting image.

“But why spit? One view is that it’s the same as our usual meaning of liquid ejected from the mouth, perhaps suggesting that one person is as like the other as though he’d been spat out by him. But some writers make a connection here with seminal ejaculation, which may account for the phrase being used originally only of the son of a father.

“Quite a different origin is suggested by other writers, who argue that spit is really an abbreviation of spirit, suggesting that someone is so similar to another as to be identical in mind as well as body. Professor Horn is sure that this supposed derivation is wrong.”

English English language Linguistics Punctuation Uncategorized Writing

A comma, too?

Q: I’ve managed to get myself into a debate with my girlfriend that is now running to two weeks and threatening our relationship. The question is whether or not one should use a comma before the word “too” at the end of a sentence—e.g., “Steve likes chocolate ice cream too.” The Chicago Manual of Style says you shouldn’t, but my girlfriend has found a website that says you should. I’m no grammarian, but I’d appreciate something approaching a definitive answer. Can you help?

A: In the universe of yeses and noes, the comma-bef0re-“too” question is a maybe (which explains why two intelligent people can disagree about it). There’s no grammatical rule that says you must use a comma with “too” in the kind of sentence you describe. It’s largely optional, and depends on the inflection the writer intends. In the case of “too,” use a comma if you intend to be emphatic about it.

Take your example: “Steve likes chocolate ice cream too.” Context might call for a comma or it might not. If Grandma has just given Steve’s pushy little brother Sam a scoop of ice cream, and their mother wants to suggest that shy little Steve should get the same, she might say, “Steve likes chocolate ice cream, too.” (With a little lilt at the end, emphasizing the “too.”)

But if Mom is just describing a catalog of the stuff that Steve likes, and has already mentioned, say, vanilla ice cream, she might say, “Steve likes chocolate ice cream too.” (No particular inflection there.) It’s often a judgment call.

In the middle of a sentence, however, a comma before “too” can be a help to the reader.

[Update, Feb. 19, 2021: Since we published this post, almost 15 years ago, The Chicago Manual of Style (now in its 17th edition) has clarified its position. It now says (section 6.52): “The adverbs too and either used in the sense of ‘also’ generally need not be preceded by a comma.” One of the examples given: “Anders likes Beethoven; his sister does too.” It adds: “When too comes in the middle of a sentence or clause, however, a comma aids comprehension.” The example: “She, too, decided against the early showing.”]

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Is it “pleaded” or “pled”?

[Note: A later post on this subject was published on May 7, 2021.]

Q: When I was growing up and a person accused of a crime proclaimed his innocence or acknowledged his guilt, it was always stated that he “pled” guilty or innocent. Now I hear poeple say he “pleaded” guilty or innocent. When did the change occur? My tongue has to take the Fifth when pushed to speak that word.

A: American dictionaries generally list both “pleaded” and “pled” (in that order) as past tenses for the verb “plead.” So you can say a scofflaw “pleaded guilty” or “pled guilty” and be correct either way, though the first is the more common form.

Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage also says that “pleaded” is the predominant form in both American and British English. But in legal terminology, “pled” is a common variant in the U.S. (not in Britain). So it’s quite common to say of an American perp that he “pled guilty” or “has pled guilty.”

Since “pled” dates from the 16th century (even though it’s now all but obsolete in England), there’s no reason you shouldn’t stick to it if that’s your preference.

English language Uncategorized

The accent on “homage”

Q: I have a word gripe. I’ve recently heard any number of Americans pronouncing “homage” as if they were speaking French. Not only does this sound pretentious, but, I believe, it is incorrect. Are there any occasions where the French pronunciation is preferred?

A: “Homage” has been part of the English language since before 1300, and it’s correctly pronounced (in English) as HOM-idj or OM-idj. Whether or not the “h” is pronounced, the accent is on the first syllable. The French pronunciation “oh-MAHZH” is unnecessary. There are no occasions for which the French pronunciation is preferred unless one is speaking French. It sounds affected, and there are no grounds for claiming it has precedence over the English pronunciation. After all, the ultimate source is the Latin “homo” (man), which has a pronounced “h.” And Latin got there first.

English language Uncategorized

The whole nine yards

[Note: An updated post about “the whole nine yards” appeared on Dec. 14, 2016.]

Q: You said on the radio that nobody knows the origin of the expression “the whole nine yards.” I believe it comes from sailing days. When a captain wanted to push his clipper to the limit, he put on “the whole nine yards”—that is, the three yards, or spars, holding the biggest sail on each of the three masts. How does that sound?

A: Any mention of the expression “the whole nine yards” on the air always inspires several listeners to e-mail me with the “definitive” origin of the phrase—each of course different. Your explanation sounds very good, but so do many of the others that are competing for first place.

Another listener offered this explanation: “During World War II the machine gun clips had exactly nine yards of ammunition, and soldiers would say, ‘Give ’em the whole nine yards!'”

In fact, no one really knows how the phrase originated, and many linguists and others have spent way too much time trying to track it down. One of the better explanations of this whole phenomenon is on Michael Quinion’s Website, “World Wide Words.” Here’s a link to his “whole nine yards” item.

English language Uncategorized

The Big Apple

Q: Why is New York City referred to as the “Big Apple”? As a New Yorker, I feel that I should be able to explain this term to my non-New York friends.

A: The term was popularized in the 1920s by a New York turf writer named John J. Fitz Gerald after he overheard two stable hands using it at a racetrack in New Orleans. In their conversation, the stable hands referred to the New York racing scene and to New York racetracks as “the big apple.” In the 1930’s, the expression was picked up by jazz musicians, who called New York (sometimes Harlem) “the Big Apple.”

In the 1950s the phrase faded into obscurity. It was revived in the 1970s by the New York Convention and Visitors’ Bureau for use in tourism, and it has stuck firmly ever since. In 1997 Mayor Giuliani designated the southwest corner of 54th and Broadway as “Big Apple Corner,” marking the building where Fitz Gerald lived from 1934 to 1963.

Two researchers, Gerald L. Cohen and Barry Popik, are responsible for discovering Fitz Gerald’s role and for tracking down the term to those two stable hands in New Orleans.

English language Usage

A “graduate” degree

Q: I have a beef about the verb “graduate.” For the first 30 years of my life, I always heard “graduate” used with the preposition “from,” never without it. For the last 40 years, I’ve heard the word used more and more without the preposition. This seems like a barbarism to me. What’s your take on it?

A: Traditionally, it’s the school that graduates the student, not the other way around.

In its original meaning, to “graduate” was to confer a degree on someone, so it was an action by the school. The student himself, on the other hand, “was graduated” by the school.

But for the last 200 years (since the early 1800s), it’s also been standard practice to say the student “graduated,” or that he “graduated from” the school. The usage you object to (“she graduated college” instead of “she graduated from college”) dates from the mid-20th century. Here are examples:

STANDARD: “Princeton graduated him in 1986.”

STANDARD: “He was graduated from college in 1986.”

STANDARD: “He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1986.”

NONSTANDARD: “He graduated Stanford in 1986.”

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A brief history of Father Time

Q: A retired friend of mine is trying to find out where the term “Father Time” originated from. Do you have any leads on this?

A: The Greek god Cronus, known to the Romans as Saturn, god of agriculture, is thought to be the source of the image of the bearded, scythe-carrying old man known as Father Time. Saturn is typically associated with the sowing of seeds and the tilling of the soil.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a week-long harvest festival in December, to honor Saturn, and it’s likely that the festival influenced Christian tradition. In A.D. 354, when Pope Liberius ordered that Dec. 25 be observed as the birthday of Christ, he cited the precedent of Saturnalia, probably hoping the new holiday would divert attention from the pagan revelry. That’s why the images of Father Time and Father Christmas, and the passing of the old year and the coming of the new have all come to be associated with one another over the centuries.

Scholars now believe that the name Cronus is actually pre-Greek and is not etymologically related to chronos, one of several Greek words for time. But the confusion between Cronus and chronos has probably reinforced the scythe-wielding Father Time image.

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An umlaut pan?

Q: I’ve noticed that the New Yorker magazine uses an umlaut in the word “reëlect.” I guess this is to show that the two e’s are not pronounced together, but I find it peculiar. Can you explain this to me and perhaps suggest other places where an umlaut might be appropriate in English? I do not intend to start using it; I’m just curious.

A: The mark you’re talking about is called a dieresis in English. The dieresis (pronounced dye-AIR-a-sis) is sometimes used when two vowels come together to show that the second is pronounced as a separate syllable. The mark was once more common, but you don’t see it much anymore (sometimes over the i in “naive,” the second o in “cooperate,” or the i in “Zaire”). The New Yorker is one of the few journals that still routinely use the mark, which to a lot of people looks antiquated or anachronistic.

The New York Times has mostly dropped it, except in “naïve,” “Citroën,” “Saint-Saëns,” “Perrier-Jouët,” and a few other examples. Rather than use a dieresis, the Times hyphenates the word “co-op” (for a cooperative apartment) to differentiate it from the kind of “coop” that means a chicken coop. The Times does use umlauts in some German names (like Düsseldorf) but not others. For instance, the Times uses “Goering” for the name of the infamous Nazi, instead of “Göring.” All this stuff is a matter of style, and varies from newspaper to newspaper, company to company. The result is that in the New Yorker you’ll see “reëlect” while in the Times you’ll see “re-elect.”

English language Uncategorized

“Each” and “every” headache

Q: What is the difference between “each” and “every,” as in “Each time I visit my mother, I get a headache,” or “Every time I visit my mother, I get a headache”?

A: “Each” means one of two or more people (or things), considered individually. “Every” means all the members of a group, without exception. The words may seem to mean the same thing in a larger sense, but there are nuances of difference. “Each member of the choir” is considering all of them one by one; “every member of the choir” is considering them as a collection, one from which no member is excluded.

When you say, “Each time I visit my mother, I get a headache,” you’re thinking of headache after headache after headache, with each individual visit. When you say, “Every time I visit my mother, I get a headache,” you’re stating a rule—something that happens without exception.

Again, the difference is very small but worth preserving, I think. And by the way, the expression “each and every time,” which some usage experts consider a misuse (or a redundancy at best), is pretty common these days and of course combines both meanings.

English language Uncategorized

Bringing up “baby-sit”

Q: I’m confused about the verb “baby-sit.” Common usage today seems to be this: “I baby-sit my little brother.” My belief is that it should be “I baby-sit with my little brother.” Also, would one baby-sit with a neighbor? Or with a plant? Can you clear this up for me?

A: The verb “baby-sit” (sometimes “babysit”) has an interesting history. It was apparently formed from the noun “babysitter.” The noun came first (in the 1930s), followed by the verb (in the 1940s). Linguists call this a back-formation.

As a verb, “baby-sit” can be either transitive (“She baby-sits my little brother”) or intransitive (“She baby-sits for [or “with”] my little brother.”) And, yes, one can baby-sit with a neighbor or a plant.

All this comes from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which has an interesting word history for baby-sit.”

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“Down the tubes”

Q: What are the “tubes” in “down the tubes”?

A: I searched the American Dialect Society‘s discussion groups and found a suggestion that the “tubes” are sewer pipes. Thus, “down the tubes” is another way of saying “down the drain.” The expression, which means “into a state of failure or ruin,” is an Americanism dating to the early 1960’s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED entry also cites a relationship between “tubes” and “drain.”

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A “forward” (or “foreword”) pass

Q: Why do most people pronounce the word “forward” (the opposite of “backward”) the same as “foreword” (meaning “preface”)? And why do so many people mix them up and misspell them?

A: Count me among the people who pronounce these two words the same way. In fact, all the dictionaries I’ve checked say the two are pronounced identically in American English. There’s no phonetic difference. Their sounding alike may explain why, as you say, so many people confuse them and their spellings.

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Let’s “vet” this

Q: I’ve been hearing the word “vet” used a lot lately, especially in the media. Is it a Briticism? Is it a new coinage?

A: The word “vet” is often used as a verb meaning to “check out” or “evaluate.” Believe it or not, this usage has been with us for at least a century.

The noun “vet,” short for “veterinarian,” dates back to 1862. By 1891, the word was also being used as a verb meaning “to submit to a veterinarian’s care.” In other words, to “vet” your dog was to take it to a vet for a checkup. The first recorded use of the verb “vet” to mean “evaluate” in a general sense was in 1904.

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On “frogs” and “frog-eaters”

Q: What’s the origin of the epithet “frogs” in reference to the French people?

A: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “frogs” has been used as a term of abuse for men and women since the 14th century. During the 17th century, it was used to refer to the Jesuits and the Dutch.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable traces the use of the word “frogs” for the French to both the eating of frogs’ legs and the fleur-de-lis, the French heraldic device, which was sometimes described as three frogs or toads saluting. In the 16th century, Nostradamus, alluding to the fleur-de-lis, used the word “toads” for Frenchmen, according to Brewer’s. In the late 18th century, the dictionary says, the French court routinely called the people of Paris grenouilles, or frogs.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, “frogs” and “frog-eaters” began showing up in English as derogatory terms for the French people.

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“Nauseous” vs. “nauseated”

Q: I’m sick of hearing people say they’re nauseous when they should be saying they’re nauseated. It makes me want to puke!

A: I’m with you. If someone is sick to his stomach, he’s nauseated. If something is sickening, it’s nauseous. Never say, “I’m nauseous.” Even if it’s true, why admit it?

(A post in 2012 expanded and updated our views on “nauseous” and “nauseated.”)

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Computer “mouses” or “mice”?

Q: My husband and I have been debating the correct plural of the computer mouse. “Mice” elicits a giggle and “mouses” elicits a cringe. Kindly help us out of this trap.

A: The newest editions of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary list both “mice” and “mouses” as acceptable plurals for the computer mouse.

But another source, Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, prefers “mouses.” His reasoning is pretty sound: for the plural of “louse,” we use “lice” for more than one insect, but “louses” for more than one cad.

My preference is “mouses.”

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Are you “dubious” or “doubtful”?

Q: Please help me. What’s the difference between “dubious” and “doubtful”?

A: These words are very similar and have overlapping meanings. Something that is doubtful is IN DOUBT; something that is dubious is a CAUSE OF DOUBT. Both have the same ancient Indo-European root, “dwo,” which gives us scores of words, including “two,” “double,” and many more. (You might say that someone who’s in doubt is wavering between two alternatives.)

Here are the acceptable meanings.

“Dubious” can mean: (1) questionable in character, or untrustworthy, as in “the company’s earnings report was dubious” or “her résumé was full of dubious job references”; (2) undecided or uncertain, as in “he’s dubious about switching jobs”; (3) open to question, as in the old cliché about the “dubious distinction.”

“Doubtful” can mean (1) subject to doubt, as in “his chances for recovery are doubtful”; (2) undecided or uncertain, as in “he’s doubtful about switching jobs”; (3) in doubt, as in “we were doubtful that it would work”; (4) suspicious, as in “she has a doubtful reputation.”

As you can see, there’s a lot of room for duplication. In some cases, you could choose either word; the difference would be one of nuance. But it seems that “dubious” has a more negative or ominous tone.

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A “pandemic” epidemic!

Q: When did “pandemic” replace “epidemic” to mean everybody gets the same sickness everywhere? Also, why did the usage change?

A: A disease is said to be “epidemic” when it becomes widespread within a specific community or population at a particular time and later subsides. It’s said to be “endemic” when it exists all the time in (or is native to) a given community or population. It’s said to be “pandemic” when it spreads throughout a whole country or continent or the world.

An easier way to remember: the prefix “epi” means “upon” or “close to”; “en” means “in” or “within”; “pan” means “all.” I do think that newscasters and writers sometimes use the word “pandemic” because they think it’s scarier than “epidemic,” which I suppose it is!

English language Uncategorized

Is “whereabouts” singular or plural?

Q: I wonder if you could comment on this grammar question that keeps coming up at work. When we have clients who cannot be found, we document the record as follows: “The client’s whereabouts is unknown.” Is that correct or should we be saying, “The client’s whereabouts are unknown.” Does it depend upon the context? Could you help our team with this?

A: The noun “whereabouts” takes either a singular or a plural verb, so you could say “his whereabouts is unknown” or “his whereabouts are unknown.” Both are correct.

Considered from the standpoint of sense alone, the singular seems more correct to me, since the meaning of the word is something like “location.” The New York Times stylebook has long required that “whereabouts” be treated as singular.

But one’s ear sometimes disagrees. And Bryan A. Garner notes in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage that the plural verb is 10 times as common as the singular in printed sources. So I guess you could conclude that the plural verb is preferred by most writers.

If this provides any guidance at all, you’re welcome to it!

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“Disinterested” vs. “uninterested”

Q: What is the current status of “disinterested”? MSN’s online dictionary, Encarta, defines disinterested as both “impartial” and “not interested.” Is the second definition now acceptable? The incorrect use of “disinterested” is a long-time pet peeve of mine, but maybe I require an attitude adjustment.

A: This whole issue is a tangled mess. “Disinterested” once meant “not interested,” back in the 17th century. This sense became outmoded in the 18th century, when “disinterested” was taken to mean “impartial” or “objective.” That was a handy thing, because then we had a distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested” (not interested). But in the 20th century, people again started using “disinterested” to mean “not interested” and the tendency shows no indication of disappearing.

The fact is that many educated people—probably most—still cling to the old distinction. The latest dictionaries point out the difference of opinion, the tangled history, and tend to endorse both meanings of “disinterested,” with No.1 being “impartial” and No. 2 being “uninterested.”

What all this means to me is that the word “disinterested” has become useless, since two reasonable people can mean different things by it. Too bad.

English language Uncategorized

Pregnant or “knocked up”?

Q: Here’s a question that’s been on my mind ever since my wife took a pregnancy test this morning. What’s the origin of the phrase “knocked-up”?

A: According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the phrase “knocked up,” meaning pregnant, first appeared in print in 1830! An 1860 slang dictionary defined the term this way: “Knocked up. … In the United States, amongst females, the phrase is equivalent to being enceinte.”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the expression back as far as 1813 and says it’s of American origin. An OED citation from 1836 refers to slave women who are “knocked down by the auctioneer, and knocked up by the purchaser.”

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Can “Esq.” be used after a woman’s name?

Q: Here’s a question I’d love to see addressed in a future edition of Woe Is I. Should “Esq.” be used after a woman’s name? I’m a professional editor and this question just came across my desk, but I have no answer for it. I’ve checked The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, Words into Type, and Wired Style, but found no opinions. One dictionary I consulted listed it as a masculine title, but most avoid the subject altogether. Help!

A: For an answer, I went to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, whose author, Bryan A. Garner, is both a lawyer and a usage expert.

He says “Esq.” can be used in American English these days after the names of men and women alike to signify that they’re lawyers. But he says people shouldn’t use it after their own names—on their stationery and cards and so forth. Although it’s OK to use “Esq.” in reference to other people who are lawyers, it’s not necessary and it’s never used with another title, such as Mr. or Ms.

So if you’re the kind of person who likes to append “Esq.” to a male lawyer’s name, you should do likewise for a female. You might pretend it stands for “Esquiress,” a term the Oxford English Dictionary has recorded as being in use as far back as 1596.

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How arguable is “arguably”?

Q: Why don’t you add “arguably” to the list of verbally abused words in your book Woe Is I? I’ve read numerous articles and books in which “arguably” is mistakenly used to mean “undoubtedly.”

A: Thanks for the tip. I’ve discussed the problem during my monthly radio appearances on WNYC, but I’ll make a note to consider adding it to the next edition of Woe Is I.

Some people are confused about whether “arguably” is negative or positive. Does it mean you can make a case for something or against it?

One reason for the confusion is that the adjective “arguable” can be either positive or negative. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) says it’s used for something that can be “open to argument” or “convincingly argued.”

But the adverb “arguably,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “is used in a positive sense” and “is primarily a qualifier or hedge against too strong a statement.”

M-W Collegiate says “arguably” describes something that “may be argued or shown by argument.” It gives these two examples: “an arguably effective strategy” and “arguably the greatest writer of his era.”

So when you say somebody is “arguably” the best slugger in baseball, the word “arguably” is intended to convey something stronger than “possibly” but not quite as strong as “undoubtedly.” That is, you could argue convincingly that he’s the best.

English language Uncategorized

A “moot” point

Q: I don’t know if you’ve ever considered the current use of the word “moot.” My dictionary defines it as “open or intended for discussion: debatable.” Now it’s commonly used with the exact opposite meaning: not open for debate. I find this interesting and annoying. Any comment?

A: The word “moot” is more complicated than you might think. It started life as a noun, meaning something like “meeting” or “gathering.” In the mid-16th century, the noun “moot” was used to refer to a gathering of law school students in which a hypothetical case was being discussed.

From this usage, the adjective developed in the 17th century. A “moot” case was a theoretical one being argued by law students; a “moot” court was a mock court; a “moot” point was an arguable or debatable one.

So far, so good. But ambiguity raised its ugly head in the 19th century, when the hypothetical aspect of “moot” led people to interpret it as meaning something like “irrelevant” or “insignificant” or “of no practical value.”

Today, most dictionaries define “moot” as either “debatable” or “irrelevant.” In the United States, the predominant meaning is “irrelevant.” In Britain, it’s “debatable.” Because of the ambiguity, you should be sure that the context makes clear which sense is meant.