English language Uncategorized

Carrot and/or stick

Q: I heard an NPR newscaster say that the U.S. is “offering Iran a package of carrots and sticks.” Does the phrase come from the idea of a carrot on a stick (an image burned into my brain by Warner Brothers cartoons) or is it a metaphor for reward and punishment (i.e., you get a carrot when you’re good and you get whacked when you’re bad)? If the latter, shouldn’t the newscaster have said the U.S. is “offering Iran a choice of carrots or sticks”?

A: This question came up some time ago during one of my monthly appearances on the Leonard Lopate Show, and the callers fell into two camps, both apparently correct!

“The carrot AND the stick” version usually refers to a temptation (carrot dangling from stick, as in the Warner Brothers cartoons). “The carrot OR the stick” version refers to the contrast between reward (carrot) and punishment (stick).

The Oxford English Dictionary cites both but says the oldest is the “allusion to the proverbial method of tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it.” The OED gives published references going back to 1895 for the dangling-carrot image and to 1948 for the reward-vs.-punishment image.

Personally, I’m in the kinder and gentler carrot-dangling-from-stick camp. But when I expressed my opinion on the show, I was surprised to find that most listeners disagreed. Although the temptation metaphor came first, the reward-punishment image seems to be the more common one these days.

PS: One listener later e-mailed me that Winston Churchill combined both images at a wartime press conference in 1943 when he said that “we shall continue to operate on the Italian donkey at both ends, with a carrot and with a stick.”

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Paradigm lost?

Q: I heard you mention on the air that you didn’t like the word “paradigm.” What’s wrong with it? I first learned of the word through reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. He uses “paradigm” to describe a conceptual framework that informs the way things are perceived and understood. Would you please clarify your objections?

A: My complaint is about the casual, mushy way that “paradigm” is used these days. It can mean an example, a model, a pattern, a standard, a framework, a prevailing viewpoint, a set of assumptions, and so on. And that doesn’t count all the times it’s mistakenly used for two entirely different words, “paragon” and “parameter.”

When the word “paradigm” first appeared in the 15th century, according to a Usage Note in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, it referred to an example or a pattern. For nearly 400 years, it has also referred to patterns of inflections in grammar. It wasn’t until the 1960s, Random House says, that scientists began using “paradigm” to mean a theoretical framework, as Kuhn apparently does in his book.

Again, I find the word “paradigm” too fuzzy. If you mean “model” or “pattern” or “framework,” why not say “model” or “pattern” or “framework”? Unfortunately, a lot of people like to dress up ordinary ideas with scientific-sounding words. They think of “paradigm” as a two-dollar word, but it’s only worth about twenty cents.

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A modest preposition

Q: Please help me win a bet. I’ve always believed that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. My boyfriend strongly disagrees. Which one of us is right?

A: I hope this isn’t something that you’ve bet a lot of money on. As I say in my grammar book Woe Is I, there’s no legitimate rule against ending a sentence with a preposition.

This isn’t a newfangled idea of mine, either. Eighty years ago, H.W. Fowler, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, included the preposition taboo among his Superstitions and Fetishes.

The 17th-century poet John Dryden concocted this so-called rule, apparently to make English act more like Latin, according to a Usage Note in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. But we can blame Robert Lowth, an 18th-century clergyman and Latin scholar, for popularizing it.

The prohibition caught on, perhaps because of its simple-mindedness, even though great literature from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton is full of sentences ending in prepositions (positioning words like “at,” “on,” “over,” “up,” and so on).

For more misconceptions about English, check out the Grammar Myths page of

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Is “boonswoggle” legit?

Q: I’ve been seeing the word “boonswoggle” a lot lately, especially online, but I can’t find it in my dictionary. Is it legitimate?

A: I hadn’t heard the word before and couldn’t find it when I went to my traditional language references, including the Oxford English Dictionary. I had almost 200 hits, however, when I Googled “boonswoggle” and “boonswaggle.”

Many of the “boonswoggle” hits referred to one of the Boos, characters in the Nintendo video game Luigi’s Mansion. Many other hits, for both the “woggle” and “waggle” spellings, appeared to be the result of inadvertently mushing together “boondoggle” and “hornswoggle.” The rest strike me as humorous attempts at wordplay, which is interesting because “hornswoggle” came into being (along with “absquatulate,” “bloviate,” “discombobulate,” and “skedaddle”) during an especially inventive period in American English.

Michael Quinion, on his World Wide Words website, writes: “The 1830s—a period of great vigour and expansiveness in the US—was also a decade of inventiveness in language, featuring a fashion for word play, obscure abbreviations, fanciful coinages, and puns.” Among the inventions that didn’t survive, he says, were “blustrification (the action of celebrating boisterously), goshbustified (excessively pleased and gratified), and dumfungled (used up).”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says the earliest appearance of “hornswoggle” was actually in 1829, a year short of the 30s. The dictionary says it belongs to “a group of ‘fancified’ words that were particularly popular in the American West in the 19th century” and it might have been “invented to poke fun at the more ‘sophisticated’ East.”

As for whether “boonswoggle” is legit, it’s not standard English now, but only time will tell.

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The language of geometry

Q: Have you ever noticed that the adjective for “triangle” is “triangular” and for “rectangle is “rectangular”? Or that the adjective for “pentagon” is “pentagonal” and for “hexagon” is “hexagonal”? Or that the adjective for “square” is simply “square,” not “squarular” or “squaral”? What accounts for these differences?

A: The words “triangle” (three-angled) and “rectangle” (right-angled) are based on Latin roots, while “pentagon” (five-angled) and “hexagon” (six-angled) are based on Greek roots. The corresponding adjectival endings for “angled” are “angularis” in Latin and “gonos” in Greek. This probably explains the difference between the “angular” and “agonal” adjectives.

As for “square,” it’s been both a noun and an adjective since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so no additional ending is necessary. It came into English from Old French.

English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” or “Xp” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

But don’t blame secularists. Blame the medieval scribes who used the abbreviations while copying Old and Middle English religious manuscripts.

In the the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first recorded example, “Christmas” is written as Xpes mæsse (Christ’s mass) in an Old English entry for the year 1021 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“And se eorl Rodbeard her oð Xpes mæsse forneal mid pam cynge wunode” (“And Earl Robert stayed here [in Westminster] with the king [William II] almost until Christmas”).

The Xp at the beginning of Xpes mæsse comes from the Greek letters Χ (chi) and ρ (rho), the first letters of the word for “Christ” in ancient Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ or χριστoς (christos, anointed one).

In a Middle English citation dated around 1380, “X” alone stands for Christ in a homily by the English theologian John Wycliffe: “X betokens Christ.”

So for ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “Xp” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.”

The OED’s earliest example for the exact spelling “Xmas,” which we’ve expanded, is from an early 18th-century letter  by an English landowner to a son who was away at school:

“I hope you will eat at Xmas some roast beef out of the old kitchen” (from John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect: Letters to his son 1719-1729, edited by Alan Mackley and published by the The Norfolk Record Society in 2005).

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.

[Note: This post was updated on March 9, 2023.]

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English language Uncategorized

To split or not to split?

Q: You mentioned in passing on WNYC that the prohibition against splitting an infinitive is not a legitimate rule. Can you explain? I’ve always heard otherwise.

A: The belief that it’s wrong to split an infinitive is a notorious myth. Grammarians have been trying to debunk it for generations. This never was a rule. It was merely a misconception based on the wrong-headed notion that English (a Germanic language) should conform to the rules of Latin (a Romance language).

An infinitive is a verb in its simplest form and usually has the word “to” in front of it: “Darcy helped to find Lydia and Wickham.” But the “to” isn’t actually part of the infinitive and it isn’t always necessary: “Darcy helped find Lydia and Wickham.”

The myth against “splitting” an infinitive, which I discuss in my book Woe Is I, was born in the 19th century when Latin scholars misguidedly called it a crime to put a descriptive word between the prepositional marker “to” and the infinitive: “Darcy helped to quickly find Lydia and Wickham.”

Since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive, however, there’s nothing to split and the whole idea of “splitting” an infinitive is nonsense. (In Latin, the infinitive is a single word without a prepositional marker, and obviously can’t be split.)

A sentence often sounds better when the “to” is close to the infinitive, but there’s no harm in separating them by putting an adverb or two in between. Writers of English have been happily “splitting” infinitives since the 1300s. So, if you want to happily join them, feel free. For more about the so-called split infinitive and other misconceptions, go to the Grammar Myths page of

English language Uncategorized

Clothes vs. clothing

Q: Would you mind clarifying the difference between “clothes” and “clothing”? My friend and I disagree. I frequently use “clothing” in a sentence like “Don’t forget to pack some clothing for the trip.” He finds that “clothing” is inappropriate in this sense and should be “clothes.” I almost never use “clothes” – probably because I’m from New Jersey and I find it hard to pronounce.

A: My husband uses “clothing” as you do, while I normally say “clothes.” I think they’re pretty much interchangeable these days, and you’re not necessarily incorrect whichever you choose. But typically “clothes” is used to refer to specific items while “clothing” refers to garments in general.

I’d say “I packed my clothes,” or “She’s wearing her new clothes,” but “Your clothing should always be appropriate.” My husband, on the other hand, would say “clothing” for all three. That’s just his habit.

As far as how to say “clothes,” it may be easier than you think. The pronunciation listed first in most dictionaries sounds something like “close.” I don’t know many people who actually pronounce the “th” sound. Here’s the “clothes” entry from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, with an audio pronouncing guide.

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Damn Yankees!

Q: I’ve heard that “Yankee” comes from an old Indian word. Is that true?

A: The origin of “Yankee” is uncertain, but it’s believed to be derived from the Dutch word “Janke,” which is a diminutive of the name Jan. It originated in the 1680s, and was a derisive term used (among other things) to describe pirates.

The English started using the word to refer contemptuously to the Dutch who had settled along the Hudson River, and later to refer to American settlers in general. It wasn’t until the Revolutionary War that anti-British forces adopted “Yankee” as a term of pride.

In fact, the British initially used the song “Yankee Doodle” to insult the Colonials, according to Wikipedia, but the Americans adopted it with pride after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It’s now the state song in Connecticut.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “Janke” explanation is “perhaps the most plausible,” but it also cites less likely theories that “Yankee” comes from American Indian words for slave or coward or English.

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Is there a “hearse” in “rehearse”?

Q: It’s probably apocryphal, but I heard that the word “rehearsal” originated as a sort of contraction that combined the terms “re” and “hears” and “all,” as in the director “re-hears all” the play, etc. Any help?

A: The verb “rehearse” originally meant something like rake over, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology and the Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins. It comes from Old French, “re” (repeat) plus “hercier” (“to rake or harrow”). The Old French noun for a harrow, a plowing implement, was “herce.”

“Rehearse” was adopted into English in the 13th century and meant repeat or recite or say over again. By the 16th century, it was being used in the sense of practicing a play. Oddly, the English word “hearse” comes from the same source. In the 13th century the English borrowed from Old French to create the word “hers” to describe a framework, something like a harrow, used to hold candles and decorations in place over a coffin. By the 17th century, a “hearse” was a vehicle for carrying a coffin.

English language Uncategorized

On knickerbockers, knickers, and the Knicks

Q: I’m a Knicks fan and I know their name is short for Knickerbockers. But can you tell me how a basketball team got a name like that?

A: The word “knickerbockers” has been used over the years to refer to the early Dutch settlers of New York, the breeches that they wore, and New Yorkers, especially those of Dutch origin. The short form, knickers, has come to mean knee-length trousers for boys or men, and, primarily in Britain, women’s underpants (as in “Don’t get your knickers in a twist”).

The term originated with Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious pen name used by Washington Irving for his 1809 book, A History of New York. The name wasn’t entirely an invention, since Irving actually had a friend named Herman Knickerbocker, who lived near Albany.

In the late 19th century, newspaper cartoon representations of Father Knickerbocker came to symbolize New York much as Uncle Sam now represents the United States, according to the word sleuth Barry Popik.

As for the Knicks, the team’s website says the “original Knicks logo, used from the inaugural 1946-47 season through 1963-4, was that of a Father Knickerbocker figure dribbling a basketball.” What better name for a New York ball team than a symbol of New York!

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You’ve got to be kidding

Q: I cringe when I hear people say “I’ve got to do this” or “I have got to do that.” What’s wrong with simply saying “I have to do this” or “I must do that”?

A: I’m sorry that I have to disagree with you about “have got to” in place of “have to” or “must.” The “have got to” construction, conveying an obligation or a duty, has been an accepted idiom since the 1860s.

Published examples can be found in the writings of Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, John Ruskin, and others. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference is in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865): “The first thing I’ve got to do is to grow to my right size again.”

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Why does the Bronx have a “the”?

Q: I listen to you whenever you’re on WNYC, but I can’t call in because I’m driving a bus during the broadcast. My question is this: Why do we refer to Bronx, New York, as the Bronx? We don’t use “the” with Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, the other New York City boroughs. Why do we use it with the Bronx?

A: Dr. Peter Derrick of the Bronx Historical Society says the Bronx has a “the” because it’s named after the Bronx River, which runs through the borough. The Bronx River, in turn, was named after Jonas Bronck, the first European settler in the area, according to Dr. Derrick. One common misconception, he says, is that the borough got its ‘the’ from people who said they were going up to visit the Broncks on their farm.

There’s a capital “T” in the official name of the borough, according to Dr. Derrick, so it should be The Bronx, not the Bronx. But most newspapers (and this blog) prefer a lower-case “t.”

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“All is” vs. “all are”

Q: A contributor to a publication I edit has complained that I wrongly changed the sentence “All is returned to a simmer” to “All are returned to a simmer.” Is she right? If so, oops!

A: “All” is a two-faced word. It can be either singular (“is”) or plural (“are”). If a writer means “all of it,” she should use “is.” If she means “all of them,” she should go with “are.” So it depends on whether your contributor was thinking of the whole dish or the various things in it: “All [the soup] is returned to a simmer” or “All [the ingredients] are returned to a simmer.”

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The pedigree of “pet peeve”

Q: Where does the phrase “pet peeve” come from?

A: “Pet peeve,” an alliterative expression referring to something that bugs you, is relatively recent in origin and dates to about 1919. Here’s the entry from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

The noun “peeve” isn’t much older, going back to only 1908, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. It comes from the much older word “peevish,” an adjective from the 1300s. The derivation of “peevish” is unknown, but the Barnhart dictionary suggests that it might be linked to perversus, the Latin word for perverse.

Interestingly, one of the oldest meanings of the noun “pet” is a fit of peevishness. (The Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to the late 16th century.) As an adjective, “pet” can mean “favorite,” as in “pet project” or “pet topic” or, getting back to the subject at hand, “pet peeve.”

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Dissing the Democratic Party

Q: Why do Republicans refer to the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party? The first time I remember hearing this was out of the mouth of Newt Gingrich.

A: I too have noticed that Republicans often use the noun “Democrat” as an adjective in phrases like “Democrat Party” or “Democrat platform” or “Democrat politician.” The correct adjective is “Democratic,” as we all know and as dictionaries will confirm. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, defines “Democratic Party” this way: “One of the two major political parties in the United States, owing its origin to a split in the Democratic-Republican Party under Andrew Jackson in 1828.”

But deliberately messing up someone’s name—mispronouncing it or otherwise misusing it—is an age-old form of disrespect. The misuse says, in effect, “You’re not worth the effort of getting your name right.”

Also, some Republicans are reluctant to use a favorable adjective like “democratic” to describe the opposition party or a politician belonging to it. And those Republicans say they want to be able to refer to one of their own as a “democratic” politician with a small “d” and not have him be confused with a big “d” politician.

William F. Buckley Jr., writing in the National Review in 2000, acknowledged the possible confusion between big “d” and small “d” politicians, but he nevertheless had “an aversion to using ‘Democrat’ as an adjective.”

“It has the effect of injecting politics into language, and that should be avoided,” he wrote, adding that “it’s our job to get the correct meaning transmitted without contorting the language.”

Yes, Newt Gingrich did a lot to encourage the use of “Democrat Party” as a not-so-subtle form of denigration, but the practice began well before he arrived on the scene. During the Truman-Dewey presidential election campaign in 1946, for example, B. Carroll Reece, who was then chairman of the Republican National Committee, used the adjective “Democrat” as a weapon. (Truman, in turn, suggested calling the GOP the Publican Party, a reference to the tax collectors of the New Testament.)

So the use of the term “Democrat Party” is quite an old trick. In fact, researchers have found references from as far back as 1855, though at that time the term may have been inoffensive and not intended to show disrespect. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has cited negative references from the early 20th century, but he says the practice didn’t become “a Republican tic” until mid-century.

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Port and Starboard

Q: I’m reading a Patrick O’Brian novel and I find myself wondering about the origin of the words “port” and “starboard.” I guess “port” must come from the side of a ship that faces the port, but what’s the etymology of “starboard”?

A: The term “starboard” refers to the right side of a ship when facing the bow or front. It’s a very old word (dating way back to the 9th century) for the side from which a ship is steered. (“Steor” was the old word for rudder or paddle; “bord” was the word for side.) Boats used by the early Germanic tribes were steered from a paddle on the right side of the boat. “Stern,” the term for the rear of a boat, comes from the same source.

The term for the left side of a ship used to be “larboard,” which came from the Middle English “ladde-borde” or loading side of a ship, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. In the 16th century, sailors began using the word “port” to refer to the loading (or port) side. In recent times, the word “port” has generally replaced “larboard” to avoid confusion with the similar-sounding “starboard,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs

Q: I was reading the other day about the death of the singer Georgia Gibbs. The obituary in the New York Times reminded me that she was referred to as “Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs.” Where did the term “his nibs” or “her nibs” come from?

A: “His nibs” or “her nibs” is an informal expression used to refer to a “person in authority, especially one who is self-important,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. The dictionary speculates that the word “nibs” may be an alteration of the word “nob,” chiefly British slang for a “person of wealth or social standing.” The word “nob,” which American Heritage suggests might be a variant of “knob,” is also slang for the human head.

In cribbage, a jack is known as either “His Nibs” or “His Nobs.” In fact, the first citation for “his nibs,” from 1846, in the Oxford English Dictionary may be a reference to cribbage, though the second citation, from 1877, clearly refers to a person in authority.

The OED says the origin of “his nibs” is obscure, but it might have come from the slang term “my nabs,” meaning “my gentleman” or “myself.” The word “nab,” according to the OED, refers to a head or a coxcomb (a fop or a dandy).

The word “nib,” of course, refers to a bird’s beak or the business end of a pen. But the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a citation from 1812 in which “nib” was used to mean “a gentleman or person of the higher order.”

By the way, I didn’t find any references that link “his nibs” to the word “nabob,” which comes from Arabic and Hindi, and also refers to an important person.

As for Miss Gibbs, the TV host Garry Moore dubbed the singer “Her Nibs,” probably because the phrase rhymed with her name and reflected her prominence in the world of popular musical.

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Why is the proof in the pudding?

Q: I don’t get the expression “the proof is in the pudding.” It doesn’t make sense to me. Could it have anything to do with the rum or brandy in a Christmas pudding?

A: You deserve a toast for that idea! As for the actual origin of the pudding business, it’s a shortened version of an old proverb popularized by Cervantes in Don Quixote: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The Mavens’ Word of the Day, a Random House website, says the proverb has been around in various guises since about 1300.

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The origin of “randy”

Q: My name is Randy, which may explain my interest in the adjective “randy.” Do you know the origin of the word?

A: The adjective “randy” originally meant rude, disorderly, or aggressive, and dates back to the late 17th century in Scotland.

It was first used to describe beggars, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, most likely “implying vagrant habits as well as rude behavior.” It probably originated with an old Dutch word, “randten,” meaning to rave or talk foolishly, which also gave us the English word “rant.”

It wasn’t until the 1840s that “randy” came to mean wanton, lustful, or sexually aroused.

We don’t know why it took on that meaning, though it already had an element of coarseness and that quality may have been exaggerated to include the sense of lewdness. (In Scotland, according to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “randy” can still mean “having a coarse manner.”)

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Two ways to be possessive

Q: Which is correct? “Patricia is a guest of Leonard.” Or: “Patricia is a guest of Leonard’s.” Is there a name for the second example?

A: Either of them is correct. Both are standard English. Some language mavens have called the “Patricia is a guest of Leonard’s” construction a double possessive. No matter what you call it, though, it’s OK to use.

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A one-dimensional character?

Q: A book review in the New York Times referred to the characters as one-dimensional. If my memory of high school physics serves me correctly, all physical objects have three dimensions: length, width, and depth. If a book reviewer wants to suggest a lack of depth, shouldn’t he refer to a character as two-dimensional? Please answer before I worry myself into the fourth dimension.

A: When I was an editor at the New York Times Book Review, there were certain clichés that we tried to keep out of reviews: “rite of passage,” “richly woven tapestry,” “stunning debut,” “shock of recognition,” “keen ear for dialogue,” “keen eye for detail,” “sense of place,” and so on.

We should have also forbidden “one-dimensional character,” which deserves a place right alongside the other clichés above. Interestingly, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary consider “one-dimensional” a legitimate term meaning superficial or lacking depth. And the dictionaries say the word “dimension” can be used in a non-scientific sense to mean aspect or quality or trait. Nevertheless, I don’t think a cliché like “one-dimensional” belongs in a book review—unless perhaps the subject is Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.

English language Etymology Usage

“Historic” vs. “historical”

Q: I often hear talking heads on TV refer to a current event as “historic” or “historical.” Shouldn’t these adjectives be used only when one is talking about an event in the past? Also, I’ve been told that “historical” should be reserved for momentous events. Isn’t that very subjective?

A: Traditionally, the two words have different meanings. If something has an important place in history, it’s historic. If something has to do with the subject of history or existed in the past, it’s historical. Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “There’s not much historical evidence that the Hartletops’ house is historic.”

Can either “historic” or “historical” be used to describe something that’s happening now? I would say no for “historical” and yes for “historic.” If you witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers or the Challenger disaster or the first moon walk, you could justifiably have said they were historic even as you were observing them in progress.

Despite the traditional distinction between “historic” and “historical,” the two words are often used interchangeably these days. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language now accepts “historical” as a secondary meaning of “historic.”

English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

The evolution of “peruse”

Q: I have always used the word “peruse” to indicate a skimming through. But I was recently told that the word actually refers to a thorough reading, which, according to the dictionary and to my surprise, is correct. Was I ever right? (I have heard others use “peruse” to indicate a skimming through.) What is the word’s history?

A:  You’re quite correct in your use of “peruse.” It’s true that the most commonly accepted meaning today is to read thoroughly. But in the last decade or so [see our note at the end], the sense in which you use the wordto skim through, glance at, or briefly consulthas seen a revival and has made great gains. It’s considered acceptable in many standard dictionaries and hovers on the edge of respectability in others.

First, some history. “Peruse” comes from an old word in Middle English, “perusen,” which meant to use up.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference dates to the late 15th century, when the word meant to go through or examine a number of things one by one, or to use up or wear out something. It has meant to read thoroughly or examine in detail since the early 16th century.

But that’s not all it has meant. As the OED adds, the verb has also been used to mean “to look over briefly or superficially; to browse,” as well as simply “to read.”

Oxford notes that despite the claims of some modern dictionaries and usage guides, “peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading.”

“The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development,” the dictionary adds.

The OED’s citations include this quotation by Samuel Johnson, from The Idler (1759): “Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused.”

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), the word “has a long literary history with many fine shades of meaning.”

These are among the current definitions given in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged:

(1) “to examine or consider or survey (something) with some attention and typically for the purpose of discovering or noting one or more specific points :  to look at or look through fairly attentively”;

(2) “to look over or through (something) often in a casual or cursory manner”;

(3) to “read.”

Merriam-Webster’s has a worthwhile usage note on “peruse,” which we’ll quote:

“It was a more ordinary word in the past than it is now, although it still has considerable use. About 1906 a writer on usage decided that peruse could mean only ‘to read with care and attention,’ for what reason we do not know. In time this opinion was echoed by a number of commentators, right down to the present. Peruse has indeed been used in the ‘careful and attentive’ sense, but writers almost always signal that meaning with a modifier.”

The dictionary cites such usages as “with heed peruse,” “attentively peruse,” and “peruse thoroughly.”

At least one dictionary hasn’t yet caught up with the explanation in the OED.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the word as meaning “to read or examine, typically with great care.” The use of the word to mean “to glance over” or “skim” is labeled a “usage problem.”

American Heritage elaborates in a usage note:

Peruse has long meant ‘to read thoroughly,’ as in He perused the contract until he was satisfied that it met all of his requirements, which was acceptable to 75 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2011 survey. But the word is often used more loosely, to mean simply ‘to read,’ as in The librarians checked to see which titles had been perused in the last month and which ones had been left untouched. Seventy percent of the Panel rejected this example in 1999, but only 39 percent rejected it in 2011. Further extension of the word to mean ‘to glance over, skim’ has traditionally been considered an error, but our ballot results suggest that it is becoming somewhat more acceptable. When asked about the sentence I only had a moment to peruse the manual quickly, 66 percent of the Panel found it unacceptable in 1988, 58 percent in 1999, and 48 percent in 2011. Use of the word outside of reading contexts, as in We perused the shops in the downtown area, is often considered a mistake.”

But even that last usage is now accepted by Merriam-Webster, as noted above. The dictionary’s examples include “peruse the museum” and “shoppers perusing saris.”

In recent years, more dictionaries have endorsed your use of “peruse.”

For example, the definition in the Cambridge Dictionaries online has “to read or look at something in a relaxed way” as well as “to read carefully in a detailed way.” And the Collins English Dictionary online (both British and American editions) has “to browse or read through in a leisurely way” alongside to read or examine with care; study.” 

At least one dictionary lists yours as the only definition. The Macmillan Dictionary, in its American and British online editions, defines “peruse” as meaning “to read something.”

[Note: This posting was updated on Dec. 25, 2014.]

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A “likely” story

Q: News writers seem to have dropped the word “probably” in favor of “likely.” Now you hear sentences like this: “The president will likely sign the bill.” In fact, “likely” seems to have completely replaced “probably.” Is this grammatically correct?

A: “Likely,” according to traditional usage, can be either an adjective (“that’s not likely”; “a likely story”), or an adverb (“he’ll very likely quit”). But when it’s used as an adverb, tradition says, “likely” should be modified by a word like “very” or “most” or “rather” or “quite.”

The use of “likely” as an adverb all by itself, unadorned, has long been considered substandard or dialect. The New York Times stylebook still subscribes to this belief. However, some recent dictionaries say it’s acceptable in all but the most formal writing. Here’s what The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has to say about “likely.”

I’m with you, though. I think “the president will likely sign the bill” is too informal for a new sgtory. I’d prefer “the president will very likely sign the bill” or “the president is likely to sign it” or even “it’s likely that the president will sign.”

So the answer is no. People who use “likely” as an adverb all by itself, in place of “probably,” are not using the word in its traditionally accepted sense.

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An “actionable” usage

Q: What’s happening with the word “actionable.” Many people (most recently, Condoleezza Rice) use it frequently to describe something that can be acted upon, but my dictionary says it should describe something that can be grounds for legal action. I hear the first usage in business speak so much that it drives me crazy.

A: The usual definition of “actionable,” which dates from the late 16th century, is subject to legal action, or supplying the grounds for a lawsuit. The more recent meaning (capable of being acted on, as in “actionable information,” or usable, as in “actionable data”) is listed in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as a secondary meaning.

Most other dictionaries that I’ve checked, including the Oxford English Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, don’t list the secondary meaning. So that usage isn’t standard (at least not yet) and it sounds like gobbledygook to me.

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Is the adverb losing its -ly

Q: What’s happening to adverbs? Is the “ly” going to disappear completely from our language? I’m thinking particularly of “slow” and “slowly.”

A: No, we don’t think “ly” adverbs are disappearing, but it may seem that way from some of the signs (“DRIVE SLOW”), ad slogans (“Think Different”), and informal expressions (“hang tough”) that have been popular in recent decades.

In fact, adverbs without “ly” (they’re called simple or flat adverbs) were more common in the past, though they may be making a revival now from all the complaints that we hear about them.

Many adverbs, including “slow” and “slowly,” exist in both forms (with or without the tail, as Theodore M. Bernstein puts it in The Careful Writer). Authorities on grammar and usage generally recommend the ones with the tail in formal writing, but there are many exceptions.

No one would complain about phrases like “sitting pretty” or “come close.” And a lot of tail-less oldies are still going strong (“fast,” for example, has been an adverb since around 900).

Here’s some history. We’ve had adverbs with and without the “ly” (or archaic versions of it) since Anglo-Saxon days. In Old English, adverbs were usually formed by adding “lice” or “e” at the end of adjectives.

Over the years, the “lice” adverbs evolved into the modern “ly” ones and the adverbs with a final “e” lost their endings. In recent centuries, writers have tended to add “ly” to the end of the simple adverbs or to prefer the “ly” adverb when two versions existed.

Which brings us back to “slow” and “slowly.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first published reference for “slowly” dates from around 897 while the OED’s first citation for “slow” as an adverb is from around 1500.

Both adverbs are legit, and both have long histories, but be aware that sticklers consider “slow” a second-class citizen, good only for informal speech or writing.

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The scoop on newspaper jargon

Q: I read many blogs on the Web. One word that I keep seeing is “lede.” It is usually used as the equivalent of “lead,” as in the lead, or opening, paragraph. My compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary seems to indicate that it is an obscure variant of “lead.” Has the Web brought this word to life?

A: Thanks for the question. The word “lede” is newspaper language for the lead paragraph (or “graf”) in a news story. The headline is called the “hed,” which often includes a “subhed,” perhaps an overline (or “deck”) and, if it jumps to the inside, a “jumphed.” The abbreviations “HTK” and “LTK” mean “hed to come” and “lede to come.”

This is just industry jargon. It wasn’t intended to make its way into the language, but it sometimes slips by the copy desk and gets into a newspaper. As you point out, such newsroom talk can also be seen on websites, especially those popular with journalists, journalism groupies, or people who want to show what insiders they are.

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The origin of “caucus”

Q: I’ve been reading a lot lately about Democratic and Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill. Do you know the origin of the word “caucus”?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary’s first published citation is from 1763 (a reference in John Adams’s diary to meetings of the “caucus club” in Boston). The precise origin of the word is unknown, however, and seems lost in the mists of time. There are three theories, two of them are doubtful.

The first questionable theory is that “caucus” comes from the Greek “kaukos” or the Medieval Latin “caucus,” meaning drinking cup. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers this view, but I think it’s improbable. If true, why would the term go underground for centuries and then show up out of nowhere in colonial Boston? Where was it all that time?

The second dubious theory is that “caucus” might be a corruption of “caulkers,” named after a political meeting first held in a caulkers’ shop in the shipbuilding district of Boston in 1770. The weakness of this theory is that the word “caucus” is at least seven years older than the political gathering.

The most likely theory, in my opinion, is that the word is of Algonquian origin. An authority on Native American languages, Dr. J. H. Trumbull, suggested in the “Procedures of the American Philological Association” in 1872 that the word might be derived from an Algonquian word, “cau´-cau-as´u,” mentioned in the writings of Capt. John Smith in the 17th century. The word was said to mean “one who talks with or advises.”

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An ATM machine?

Q: What do you think of people who say “ATM MACHINE”? It is like saying “AUTOMATED TELLER MACHINE MACHINE.”

A: You’re right that the phrase “ATM machine” is redundant. In fact, it’s famous for being redundant. Since you’re interested in redundant acronym phrases, here’s a link to a site devoted to the subject, the Redundant Acronym Phrase project.

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A murderous mob of crows

Q: Do you know why a group of crows is called a murder of crows? I’m a reference librarian and a patron asked me this. I couldn’t find the answer, though I did find a reference to the term.

A: The phrase “a murder of crows” is a poetic term, not a scientific one. The more common expression is “a flock of crows.”

The poetic version is one of the whimsical names for congregations of animals that can be found in James Lipton’s book An Exaltation of Larks. Other collective terms include “a covey of partridges,” “a rafter of turkeys,” “a brood of hens,” “a fall of woodcocks,” and “a wedge of swans.”

Lipton traces “a murder of crows” back to the 15th-century phrases a “mursher of crowys” and a “murther of crowes.” I’ve found postings online mentioning similar citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, but I couldn’t find such references in my CD-ROM version of the OED.

I’ve seen speculation on the Internet that the expression is based on a spurious folk belief that flocks of crows hold trials and execute (that is, murder) members for bad behavior. I’ve also read online that crows sometimes feed on the carcasses of dead crows and may occasionally kill a crow from another flock. I can’t vouch for either of these explanations.

[Note: A later post on this subject appeared in 2008.]