English language

On “swine” and “pork”

Q: A French friend told me that the Norman invasion in 1066 gave the English-speaking world two sets of words for dealing with food, those of Anglo-Saxon origin and those from French. Is this true?

A: There’s some truth to what your friend said, though English has a smorgasbord of food words from many other languages—for instance, “pizza” (Italian), “bagel” (Yiddish), “curry” (Tamil), “ketchup” (Malay), and, of course, “smorgasbord” (Swedish).

Many of our words for barnyard animals are of Anglo-Saxon origin: “calf,” “cow,” “ox,” “pig,” “hog,” “swine,” and “sheep.” But many of the words for the meat that comes from those animals are of French Norman origin: “veal,” “beef,” “pork,” and “mutton.”

No big surprise here, of course, since Anglo-Saxon peasants raised farm animals for the Norman aristocracy that ruled them. In Ivanhoe, set in the 12th century, Sir Walter Scott’s Saxons see livestock in light of farming and husbandry while his Normans see it as something to go on a platter.

We have the Norman conquerors and their descendants to thank for many other food-related words in English: “butcher,” “sauce,” “boil,” “fillet,” “soup,” “pastry,” “fry,” “roast,” “toast,” “dinner,” “biscuit,” “vegetable,” etc. It makes me hungry just thinking about them.

Bon appétit!

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

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Do you champ or chomp at the bit?

Q: It seems as if “champ at the bit” has suddenly morphed into “chomp at the bit.” Why this shift? Has the new form become standard?

A: The traditional expression is “champ at the bit,” which means to show impatience. But a growing number of people are choosing “chomp at the bit.” I just did a Google search for both phrases. The results: 942 hits for “champ” and 14,900 for “chomp.” Like it or not, the “chomps” are making a chump of me. (I will resist making puns about Noam Chomsky!)

I still recommend using “champ at the bit,” especially when one’s language should be at its best, but I suspect that “chomp at the bit” will eventually become standard American English. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists only “champ at the bit.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now includes both expressions without qualification.

The word “champ” has meant bite, as in a horse’s biting impatiently at a bit, since at least 1577, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “chomp” has been a variant of “champ” since at least 1645, though the early references deal with chomping on food rather than at metal bits.

I can’t tell you why people began substituting “chomp” for “champ” in the first place. A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

English language Uncategorized

The mother of all boards

Q: I’m a teacher and I asked my class to track down the origin of the word “motherboard.” No one could find out who coined it. Do you have any leads?

A: The earliest known reference to “motherboard,” the main circuit board of a personal computer, comes from a 1971 article in the British journal Electrical and Electronics Abstracts, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The article refers to “one daughterboard mounted vertically on a computer size motherboard.”

Other early citations use the terms ‘mother’ board and mother-board. The OED doesn’t go further into the etymology of the word except to state the obvious: it’s a combination of “mother” and “board.” In other words, it’s the mother of all boards.

A website called the Technology Blog offers this additional bit of information:

As with so many other computer terms, the word ‘motherboard’ has its origins in the very early days of PC’s. At that time, computers and other electronic devices would have a main board into which smaller boards connected at right angles to add extra memory or perhaps network cards. These secondary cards were called daughterboards and the main board a motherboard. But there’s no such thing as a fatherboard or a sonboard!

I’m sorry that I can’t be more helpful. Perhaps one of the readers of The Grammarphobia Blog will have more to say on the subject.

English language Uncategorized

A few capital and capitol ideas

Q: I know a capital is a city that’s the seat of government and a capitol is a building where legislators meet. But why are the two words spelled differently?

A: The words “capital” and “capitol” come to us via different etymological routes. “Capital” is derived from “capitalis,” an adjectival form of “caput,” which means head in Latin. “Capitol,” on the other hand, comes from the Capitolium (the Temple of Jupiter) on the Capitoline, the tallest of the seven hills of Rome, though it can be traced to “caput” too.

The adjective “capital,” as in a head or capital city, probably originated in the early 15th century, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. But the noun “capital” (meaning a capital city) didn’t show up in any published references until the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Bryan A. Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes that a governor of Virginia decided in 1698 to name the seat of the General Assembly after a temple in Rome. The idea caught on. Since then, buildings have been “capitols” and cities have been “capitals.”

Interestingly, the word that’s not a capital is the one that’s capitalized when it refers to the building where the U.S. Congress or a specific state legislature meets.

English language Uncategorized

At sixes and sevens

Q: I heard you on WNYC when you were discussing the origin of the expression “at sixes and sevens.” I believe that it’s a reference to dice and that it comes from the phrase “at six and seven” in Cadenus and Vanessa, an early 18th-century poem by Swift.

A: You’re probably right about the dice, but the expression didn’t originate with Swift. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Troilus and Cresyda, a 14th-century poem by Chaucer that mentions setting the world “on six and seven” (or as Chaucer put it, “on sexe and seuene”).

The original expression was “based on the language of dicing,” according to the OED, and initially meant risking one’s whole fortune or acting rashly without considering the consequences. It now means in a state of confusion or disorder, according to the entry for “six” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Phrase-aholics have uncovered several other possible sources. One involves this excerpt from the Book of Job: “He shall deliver thee in six troubles; yea, in seven shall no evil touch thee.” Another involves a dispute between two trading companies in London during the 15th century. For more, see the “at sixes and sevens” entry on Michael Quinion’s website, World Wide Words.

As for me, I’ll stick with the OED’s explanation, but I won’t bet my fortune on it.

English language Uncategorized

Is a computer “backed up” or “back upped”?

Q: In relation to computer data, which is correct: “backed-up” or “back-upped”?

A: The simple past tense of “back up” is “backed up.” If you were to ask somebody about backing up (not “back upping”!) a computer document, for example, you might say, “Did you back it up?” and she might respond, “Yes, I backed it up.” (Not “Yes, I back it upped.”)

The term “back up” is called a phrasal verb—that is, a verb with two or more parts, like “back down” or “back off” or “back out.” The root (“back”) gets the “ed” ending. So, the somebody mentioned above would also say, “Yes, I backed it up” if she were talking about a pickup truck.

Bryan A. Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes that the parts of a phrasal verb should be separate, not hyphenated (“backed up” instead of “backed-up”).You can read more about these multipart verbs in The American Heritage Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs.

English language Uncategorized

Does “cache” rhyme with “sash” or “sashay”?

Q: I was listening to NPR and heard an American general report that U.S. troops had found a “weapons cachet” in Fallujah. I’m sure he meant “cache,” but he pronounced it like “cachet.” Since he’s a general and it’s a standard military term, I can only assume that this pronunciation is not limited to him. Is it so widespread that it’s now acceptable?

A: The word “cache” is widely mispronounced both in and out of the military. It should rhyme with “sash,” not “sashay.” I once led off my monthly appearance on WNYC with a discussion of fractured French. When we adopt a “French” pronunciation, we often get it wrong or at best sound pretentious.

Is the mispronunciation of “cache” so widespread that it’s now acceptable? The answer is no! Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary say only one pronunciation is on the money: the one that sounds like “cash.”

Interestingly, both “cache” and “cachet” come from the same Old French verb, “cacher,” meaning to hide or to press. A “cache” is a hiding place while a “cachet” is a mark of distinction or a seal on a document. Where does the word “press” come in? We stamp an impression on an official document to give it our seal of approval. And we used to secure a letter or an envelope by pressing sealing wax on it.

English language Uncategorized

Is a country a “she” or an “it”?

Q: I am a librarian and I put up a display entitled “Ireland and Its Books, Authors, and Countryside.” Was I correct to use the word “Its” or should I have used “Her”? What is the correct usage of pronouns in referring to countries? I know ships are often referred to as feminine, but what about countries?

A: The personification of nonliving nouns (such as nations, cities, hurricanes, ships, and other vessels) as “she” has fallen out of common usage. It’s now generally considered quaint or poetic.

Both the Associated Press and the New York Times style books, for example, recommend using “it” or “its” to refer to ships and countries.

Nearly five years ago, Lloyd’s List, the 273-year-old London-based shipping newspaper, officially dropped the gender personification and now refers to ships with the pronouns “its” and “it” instead of “her” and “she.”

English language Uncategorized

Let’s wax philosophical.

Q: My wife and I were taking our usual evening stroll when she admonished me not to “wax philosophical.” That led to a discussion about the origin of the expression. We couldn’t come up with an answer, so we thought of you. Will you please enlighten us about this phrase and others that start with “wax”?

A: I’m most familiar with “wax eloquent,” which I always thought would be a terrific name for a floor polish.

Seriously, the word “wax” is ancient, with Indo-European roots going back to prehistory. The earliest published reference in English dates from around 897 (it was spelled “weaxan” in those days), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Anglo-Saxon days, the verb “wax” (with its archaic spellings) was often used to mean grow or increase. That usage is much less frequent these days and has a literary flavor. You might say it has waxed and waned.

I believe the most common combinations today are “wax eloquent,” “wax philosophical,” and “wax sentimental.” But if you’re waxing nowadays, it probably involves a car, a floor, a table, or your legs.

English English language Etymology Expression Iowa Language Linguistics Phrase origin Uncategorized Usage

Paint the town red!

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2023.]

Q: My girlfriend and I have been arguing about the expression “paint the town red.” I’ve heard that it comes from ancient times when the Roman Legions used to wash the walls of conquered towns with the blood of the defeated people. My girlfriend is skeptical. Who’s correct?

A: Sorry, but we’re with your girlfriend on this one. We’ve found no evidence that the Romans routinely painted the walls of captured towns with the blood of conquered people.

Roman society depended heavily on slavery, and the Romans tended to enslave rather than massacre conquered people (see accounts by Livy, Josephus, and the modern historian K.R. Bradley of the conquests of Carthage, Jerusalem, Epirus, and so on).

At any rate, it’s hardly likely that Roman atrocities would be the source of “paint the town red.” The expression is relatively recent. The earliest published examples date from the 1870s.

Another widespread explanation is that the expression originated in 1837 when the Marquis of Waterford and a bunch of rowdy friends literally painted some public spots red in the English town of Melton Mowbray. That’s doubtful, since the earliest recorded examples appeared decades later—and in the United States, not Britain.

So where did “paint the town red” come from? The expression originated in the United States, according to the Oxford English Dicitonary, which defines it as “to enjoy oneself flamboyantly; go on a boisterous or exuberant spree.”

Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher with an interest in word sleuthing, found the earliest example we know of in a Nebraska newspaper and reported it to the Linguist List in October 2023. Here’s the quotation:

“Therefore we say, the day is not far off in the future, when all the Iowa roads will run their trains into Omaha’s mammoth depot, and in that day, as Harry Deuel says, ‘we’ll paint the whole town red and sing the hallelujah chorus’ ” (Omaha Daily Republican, July 31, 1874; Harry Deuel was a prominent Omaha citizen).

The coinage took off in the following decade. We’ve seen a couple of examples from 1880, and dozens from later in the ’80s.

Here’s the OED’s first reference: “He gets on a high old drunk with a doubtful old man, and they paint the town red together” (Semi-Weekly Interior Journal, Stanford, KY, March 10, 1882).

We haven’t seen any published examples that explain why the color red was used rather than, say,  green or blue or orange. There are a few modern theories, but none very plausible and none supported by any evidence. A full explanation may never be known.

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

English language Uncategorized

Ship High In Transport?

Q: I heard you discussing George Carlin’s seven dirty words and I beg to differ with you about one of them. The word “shit” isn’t a thousand years old as you believe. It comes from the 16th and 17th centuries when manure was shipped from the New World to the Old as fertilizer. The cargo had to be kept high in the hold so it would stay dry. If it got wet, the manure could produce methane gas and explode. So the label “Ship High In Transport” was stenciled on the crates, and the acronym “S.H.I.T.” became a new word for manure.

A: Thank you for your comment. It’s an interesting story and thousands of Web pages say it’s so (though many of them say the “T” is for “Transit”). However, it didn’t happen that way.

The word “shit” has been around a long time, probably longer than transatlantic shipping. In its earliest form, it appeared more than a thousand years ago as the Old English verb “scitan.”

Besides, good old farm manure was always plentiful wherever animals were domesticated, so there was no need for the Old World to import it.

Hugh Rawson, in his book Wicked Words, notes that “shit” has a long history of made-up acronyms. In the Army, for example, officers who didn’t go to West Point have referred to it as the South Hudson Institute of Technology.

English language Uncategorized

What’s the plural of maitre d’?

Q: Help! What is the proper way to make the term maitre d’ plural? Is it maitres d’ or maitre d’s?

A: When a compound word is split into parts, with or without hyphens (like “mother-in-law” or “attorney general”), the plural ending traditionally goes on the most important part (“mothers-in-law,” “attorneys general”).

But maitre d’ is a special case. The plural of the full version is maitres d’hotel, as one would expect, but the plural of the shortened form is maitre d’s, according to standard British and American dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary has references in English texts for maître d’hôtel, an expression borrowed from French, going back to 1540. (In English today, the circumflex is optional and the term is not italicized. We’ve used italics here only because quotation marks might be confusing.)

The early citations refer to the head domestic or butler or steward of an estate. By the late 19th century, the term was being used to refer to a hotel manager; in the mid-20th century, it came to mean the manager of a hotel dining room and eventually a headwaiter.

The OED says the clipped maitre d’ (for a headwaiter) is an American usage. The dictionary’s first published reference is from an article about a Hollywood restaurant in the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune, Feb. 24, 1942:

“Marcel, a plump and smiling Frenchman, is Earl-Carol’s maitre d’. … Marcel guesses he is the only combination psychoanalyst and maitre d’ in the business.”

[Note: We discuss the possessive forms in a later post.]

English language Uncategorized

On “bring” vs. “take”

Q: I live in the East where people are always misusing “bring” and “take.” That’s why my kids don’t have a clue about using them right, no matter how many times I try to explain. “Will you bring me to school?” they ask when they should be saying, “Will you take me to school?” Do you have a simple way to explain to my children how to use “bring” and “take” correctly?

A: In my new grammar book for kids, Woe Is I Jr., which is coming out in May, I put it like this:

“Which way is the stuff moving? Is it coming or going? If it’s coming toward you, someone’s bringing it. If it’s going away from you, someone’s taking it. ‘Bring me my desert,’ said Stewie, ‘and take away these vegetables.’

Things get a bit more complicated, however, when you’re the one who’s carrying the stuff. This is how Woe Is I Jr. deals with it:

“Are you bringing it or are you taking it? It all depends on on which end of the journey you’re talking about. If you’re talking about where the stuff is coming from, you’re taking it. I’m taking you from the dragon. If you’re talking about where the stuff is going, you’re bringing it. Lord Farquaad wants me to bring you to him.

I hope this helps. Show it to the kids and maybe light bulbs will come on!

English language Uncategorized

A lot of malarkey

Q: Do you know the origin of the word “malarkey” (as in “a bunch of malarkey”). My mother, may she rest in peace, liked to use it. I hope it’s not vulgar!

A: “Malarkey” (also spelled “mullarkey,” “malarky,” “malaky,” etc.) is slang for humbug, foolishness, or nonsense. It’s certainly not vulgar, but not much else is certain about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary, whose first published reference for “malarkey” is from 1929, says the origin of the word is unknown.

Some researchers have suggested possible links to the Irish word “mullachan,” meaning a strong boy or a ruffian, or to the modern Greek word “malakia,” which means, among other things, worthlessness.

Others think it might come from the Irish family name “Mullarkey” and its various spellings. Both Michael Quinion (World Wide Words) and Evan Morris (The Word Detective) suggest the source may be a notorious, long-forgotten Mullarkey.

The word seems to have been popularized by the American newspaper cartoonist T.A. Dorgan, known as Tad, who also helped popularize the terms “hard-boiled” and “kibitzer” in his drawings.

Since we’ll probably never know for sure where the word comes from, all this speculation may turn out to be a lot of malarkey.

PS: You might be interested in knowing that there’s a board game called Malarky in which players try to separate real answers from, well, malarkey. The game is based on the Imponderables books by David Feldman.

English language Uncategorized

“Goons and ginks and company finks”

Q: I was watching “The Sopranos” and I got to wondering about the word “goon.” Do you know the origin of the term?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that “goon” may be related to “gooney,” an older word meaning booby or simpleton. The OED’s earliest published reference for “gooney” goes back to 1580. By the early 19th century, the word was also being used by sailors to refer to the awkward-looking albatross.

The OED’s first citation for “goon,” meaning a dull or stupid person, dates from 1921 (in a Harper’s Magazine article). The word gained in popularity when the cartoon character Alice the Goon, a hulking bodyguard, showed up in the Popeye comic strip in 1933.

By the late 1930s, “goon” was being used to mean a thug, especially one hired to terrorize workers. Some language people trace the thuggish meaning to Alice the Goon. But Hugh Rawson, in his book Wicked Words, suggests that the source may be “gunda,” a Hindi word for hired tough.

The union-busting meaning was well-established by 1940 when Woody Guthrie’s song “Union Maid” referred to the “goons and ginks and company finks” who tried to intimidate workers. (A gink, by the way, is a stupid guy.) For more, check out the “goon” entry on Evan Morris’s website, The Word Detective.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is noon 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.?

Q: The parking signs in my town refer to noon as 12 p.m. Since “p.m.” stands for “post meridiem” (“after noon” in Latin), can 12 p.m. be used for noon itself?

A: The simple answer is yes, but we’d advise against it. By convention, the term “12 p.m.” is used for noon in countries like the US with a 12-hour clock.

For those who argue that noon and midnight are neither a.m. nor p.m., we can only cite the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (online 5th ed.), which has the following usage note with its entry for “PM”:

“By convention, 12 AM denotes midnight and 12 PM denotes noon. Because of the potential for confusion, it is advisable to use 12 noon and 12 midnight where clarity is required.”

(The print version of the dictionary’s 5th edition, which isn’t as up-to-date as the online version, has “by definition” instead of “by convention.”)

We agree that “12 a.m.” and “12 p.m.” are confusing and should be avoided, but one could also argue that “12 noon” and “12 midnight” are redundant. Why not simply say “noon” and “midnight”?

You may be interested in knowing that “meridiem” actually means midday in Latin, and that the terms “noon” and “midday” have not always been synonymous in English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word “noon,” dating back to the year 900, originally meant “The ninth hour of the day, reckoned from sunrise according to the Roman method, or about three o’clock in the afternoon.” By the 14th century, according to the OED, the word “noon” had come to mean 12 o’clock.

Although dictionaries usually define “midday” as the middle of the day or noon, it’s often used more loosely than the word “noon.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, we prefer to lowercase and punctuate the terms “a.m.” and “p.m.,” as recommended in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.).

Well, that’s enough noon-sense for now.

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 16, 2015.]

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

English language Uncategorized

A bun in the oven

Q: I heard you say on the radio that you had a bun in the oven. Good luck with your pregnancy! And what is the origin of the phrase “a bun in the oven”?

A: Oops! My face is red. Sorry for the confusion, but the “bun” in question is a children’s grammar book, not a child. Woe Is I Jr. will be out in May. But thank you for the congratulations anyway.

As for the origin of “bun in the oven,” the earliest published references date back only to the mid-20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation comes from The Cruel Sea, a 1951 novel by Nicholas Monsarrat.

But the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes that the word “oven” has been used to mean “vagina” or “womb” since the end of the 17th century. And the late scholar Beryl Rowland has described the expression as “a colloquial use of an ancient folk metaphor” with roots in classical times. In an article in the journal American Speech, she wrote:

“The ancient gods such as Zeus were conceived as millers and their consorts as mills; the human race was the product they ground and baked, and on a terrestrial scale, man and woman performed similar functions.”

PS: I guess confusion is the price one occasionally pays for using figurative speech. Go figure.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar

Growing pains

Q: Please pass judgment on the use (or rather abuse) of the word “grow” in a phrase like “grow a business.” Is this a legitimate use of the verb “to grow,” according to formal standards of usage (if indeed such standards continue to exist at all)? Of course one can grow flowers (transitive) or grow tall (intransitive), but my ear is thrown by the idea that one can grow a business.

A: The transitive use of “grow,” as in “grow crops,” is well established, as you point out. The Oxford English Dictionary lists published citations dating back to 1774. (A transitive verb needs an object to make sense: He grows dahlias. Intransitive verbs make sense without one: The dahlias grow.)

But this newer transitive use of “grow” applied to nonliving things (as in “grow the economy”) seems to have emerged during the 1992 presidential election, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Many (though not all) language authorities frown on a usage like “grow our business,” including 80 percent of American Heritage’s Usage Panel.

Nevertheless, the dictionary’s editors say in a note, “these usages have become very common and are likely to see continued use in business contexts.”

Another widely used dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is more accepting. It recognizes without comment the use of “grow” in the sense “to promote the development of” and gives as an example “start a business and grow it successfully.” So in the view of the M-W editors, this usage is now standard English.

Speaking for ourselves, we hope this remains corporate jargon and doesn’t become more widely used. Even worse, though, is the phrase “grow down,” as in “I promise to grow down the deficit.” Anyone capable of speaking in such a way should grow up.

[Note: This entry was reviewed and updated on Aug. 4, 2014.]

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

English language Uncategorized

Why is a Jeep called a Jeep?

Q: You were discussing “Jeep” on the air and you said something about Popeye but I didn’t catch it all. Anyway, I saw on the Internet that “Jeep” comes from GP, an Army abbreviation for “general purpose” vehicle. I hope you find this helpful.

A: Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, you can’t believe everything that you see on the Internet. So keep an open mind.

For the real story, let’s go back to 1936 when Eugene the Jeep, a cartoon character, first appeared in the Popeye comic strips. Eugene was a cute little guy—a fuzzy creature the size of a small dog, with the ability to disappear into the fourth dimension in an emergency and to foresee the future. He ate a diet of orchids and the only sound he could make was “jeep, jeep.”

Eugene was tremendously popular and adopted as a mascot by several government contractors and other corporations in the late 1930’s. A bomber plane, a naval boat, an Army truck, and other military vehicles were whimsically referred to as Jeeps. Some even had Eugene’s picture painted on the side.

When the Army introduced its small all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle in 1941, the little car was made mainly by two big companies, Willys-Overland and Ford. It just so happened that Ford, on its models, used the factory designation GP (G for government contract and P as a code for 80-inch wheelbase).

So GP wasn’t an Army designation, it didn’t stand for “general purpose,” and it wasn’t the origin of the name “Jeep.” When Willys-Overland unveiled its prototype, reporters wanted to know its name. The publicist said, “You can call it a Jeep.” Later Willys began using the name officially. The company changed hands over the years and now the trademark “Jeep” is owned by Chrysler.

English language

Hunting the origin of “snarky”

A: I see the word “snarky” in newspapers and hear it on TV all the time, but I can’t figure out what it means. Please help!

Q: I can understand your confusion. It sometimes seems as if “snarky” has as many definitions as users.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the slang term “snarky” as irritable or short-tempered. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as crotchety or snappish. The Mavens’ Word of the Day, a Random House website, says it means critical in an annoying, sarcastic, grumpy, wisecracking, or cynical way. Other definitions that I’ve seen include witty, ironic, curmudgeonly, snide, snotty, and arrogant. It’s your pick.

Now for a little history. The earliest published reference for the verb “snark,” meaning to snore or snort, is from 1866, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s related to “snarken,” an old Germanic word for snore. By 1882, the OED says, the verb “snark” also meant to find fault with or nag. The adjective “snarky,” according to the OED, dates to 1906 and originally meant “irritable.”

The unrelated noun “snark” was coined by Lewis Carroll in “The Hunting of the Snark” (1876), a poem about the search for an imaginary creature. However, Carroll at one point in his poem uses “snark” as a verb:

Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes:
A thing, as the Bellman remarked,
That frequently happens in tropical climes,
When a vessel is, so to speak, “snarked.”

I hope I haven’t left you confused or, for that matter, snarked.

English language Uncategorized

Is it “butt naked” or “buck naked”?

[Note: An updated post about “butt naked” and “buck naked” appeared on July 13, 2020.]

Q: Why do so many people mistakenly say “butt naked” when it should be “buck naked”? This common mistake really annoys me.

A: You’ll be surprised to learn that the language world has debated the issue quite a bit. Some language types believe that “butt naked” is a mispronunciation of an earlier “buck naked.” Others think that “buck naked” is a euphemism for an earlier “butt naked.”

So which came first? The “butt” or the “buck”? We may never know for sure, but I think the available evidence indicates that “buck naked” came first and “butt naked” was the result of phonic confusion.

The first published reference to “buck naked” in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from 1928, while the first citation for “butt naked” comes from a 1966-70 DARE survey.

On the other hand, both DARE and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language speculate that “buck naked” may be an alteration of “butt naked,” indicating that “butt” may have come first.

Meanwhile, why a “buck”? Michael Quinion, in an entry for the word “buff” on his website World Wide Words, suggests that “buck” may refer to “buckskin,” which is supposedly the color of naked skin exposed to the sun.

At this point, I’ll butt out.

English language Uncategorized

Getting the hang of hung

Q: Why are pictures hung and people hanged?

A: Both past tenses have been around for hundreds of years, but it’s been customary since the 16th century to use “hanged” for executions and “hung” for other meanings. Why? It’s an impossibly complicated history and takes up about a zillion (give or take) pages in the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ll summarize.

The story begins with several different verbs that were imported into different parts of England by different invaders who brought with them different forms of old Germanic tongues. In these different regions, different dialects evolved. Over the centuries, the English present tense (variously “hing,” “hang,” “heng,” “hong”) stabilized as “hang.”

Meanwhile, the past tense and past participle eventually stabilized as “hung,” a form popular in northern England that by the 16th century had spread to the south and superseded the many older forms for those tenses.

However, one old past tense and past participle, “hanged,” survived in a single sense: to put to death by hanging. The OED suggests that this archaic form was preserved in legal language, since it was used by judges to pronounce sentences in capital crimes.

English language Uncategorized

Is “flaccid” pronounced FLASS-id or FLAK-sid?

Q: Most people pronounce “flaccid” to rhyme with “acid,” but it looks like it should be pronounced to rhyme with the first two syllables of “accident.” What are your thoughts?

A: Traditionally, dictionaries have listed FLAK-sid as the first, or more common, pronunciation, with FLASS-id given as second choice (if listed at all; very old dictionaries list only FLAK-sid).

In more recent editions of many dictionaries, though, the editors have reversed themselves and listed FLASS-id first and FLAK-sid second, as in these entries from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

It may be that the newer (mis-)pronunciation arose by association with the word “placid.” At any rate, FLASS-id has become not only acceptable but finally the more common.

English language Uncategorized

Reluctant vs. reticent

Q: I wonder if you’d comment on the misuse of “reticent” when the speaker means “reluctant.” Don’t you think we should preserve the distinction between these two words?

A: I share your concern about “reluctant” and “reticent,” and I think it’s important to preserve the distinction. In fact, I added them to the second edition of my grammar book Woe Is I. I hate to see two such valuable words ride off into the sunset!

Reluctant” means unwilling while “reticent” means silent. “Reluctant” comes from a Latin word that means to struggle. “Reticent” comes from a Latin word meaning to keep silent; the same Latin word gives us “taciturn” (uncommunicative) and “tacit” (unspoken).

English language Uncategorized

One fell swoop

Q: Do you know the origin of the phrase “one fell swoop”? I’ll bet there’s an interesting story behind it.

A: Interesting, indeed! The expression once brought to mind a terrible, even blood-curdling image, but it’s now used with nary a thought to mean all at once or suddenly.

The phrase has been around since Elizabethan times. In fact, the first recorded use is by Shakespeare in Macbeth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. On hearing that his whole family has been slain, Macduff asks:

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Michael Quinion, on his website World Wide Words, notes that an audience in Shakespeare’s day would have immediately pictured “a falcon plummeting out of the sky to snatch its prey.”

But the key word, the adjective “fell,” which is rarely used now, has nothing to do with falling. It means cruel, evil, fierce, deadly, or sinister. “Fell” comes from Old French and gives us the modern English word “felon.” The noun “swoop” comes from Old English and gives us the modern verbs “sweep” and “swoop.”

English language Uncategorized

Is a person a “who” or a “that”?

Q: I wonder what your feelings are on the use of “that” instead of “who” to refer to people. It seems to me that even well-educated speakers now use sentences like “He’s the doctor THAT diagnosed my Lyme disease” instead of “He’s the doctor WHO diagnosed my Lyme disease.” Am I the only one who’s disturbed by this?

A: Despite what many people believe, a person can be either a “that” or a “who.” There’s no foundation for the widespread belief that the word “that” should refer only to things and “who” only to people.

There may be a politeness issue here, though. Some may think using “that” in place of “who” or “whom” demeans or objectifies a human being. Still, there’s no grammatical or usage reason for such a rule, even though many style books persist in spreading the misconception.

A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen and Cornelia Evans, has a good entry on the history of the relative pronouns “that,” “who,” and “which.” Here’s an excerpt:

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.”

You can undoubtedly find writers on grammar and usage who disagree with this conclusion, but I think it’s sound.

English language Uncategorized

Is “media” singular or plural?

Q: I was listening to you on the radio and tried to call but couldn’t get through. I wanted to hear your view on the word “media.” I think that radio is a medium, TV is a medium, and together they are media. In other words, “medium” is singular and “media” is plural. I just heard on the TV news a few minutes ago that “the media was all over this story” and I cringed. Is “media” now accepted as singular as well as plural or am I right in my feelings about the word?

A: You’re right, at least for now. The word “media” is still considered a plural noun and should take a plural verb (as in “the media were all over this story”). Use of “media” in the singular is widely considered a misuse.

But stay tuned. Many usage experts have predicted that in a generation or two “media” will be considered acceptable as a singular noun. Why? Because plurals with Latinate endings take a beating in English, and tend to become Anglicized over time. They either become singular (like the formerly plural “agenda,” “opera,” and “insignia”) or adopt different plural endings (like “syllabuses,” “curriculums,” “gymnasiums”).

For example, “data” is now considered singular by a great many usage experts. “Media” will undoubtedly get there someday. The fact that journalists are already using “mediums” as the plural seems to point the way to the eventual acceptance of “media” as a singular noun. And to be honest the fight about “media” is easier for me to concede than some others (for example, losing the meanings of words like “comprised” and “bemused” and “nonplussed”).

[An updated posting about “media” appeared on the blog on Sept. 25, 2010.]

English language Uncategorized

I could care less

[Note: A more complete discussion of this subject, updated in 2021, can be found in a later post.]

Q: One of the most annoying of misused phases is “I COULD care less” when the meaning is really “I COULDN’T care less.” If I could, I’d outlaw it. Comment please?

A: The idiomatic expression “I couldn’t care less” means “I’m completely uninterested” or “I’m utterly indifferent.” It first appeared in print in 1946 as the title of a book by Anthony Phelps about his experiences ferrying British aircraft during World War II, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The expression has been used on both sides of the Atlantic since then.

A shortened version, “I could care less,” has been gaining popularity in the since the 1960s. It has the same meaning as the original expression but without the negative. The OED’s first published reference comes from an article in the Seattle-Post Intelligencer in 1966.

Although many people are disturbed by the abbreviated idiom, it doesn’t bother us. It may be intended ironically. The message, perhaps, is  “I don’t even distinguish this by identifying it as the thing I care least about.”

You might be interested in reading what the M.I.T. linguist Steven Pinker says on the subject of “I could care less,” which he calls “an alleged atrocity” and a favorite target of language mavens.

As he points out in his book The Language Instinct (p. 377), the melodies and stresses in “I couldn’t care less” and “I could care less” are very different, and the positive version indicates youthful sarcasm: “By making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, ‘Oh yeah, as if there was something in the world that I care less about.’ ”

All things considered, we see nothing wrong with using “I could care less” as long as the user is aware that many sticklers still view it as an atrocity.

English language Uncategorized

Why is a funeral director called an undertaker?

Q: Without giving it much thought, I’d often assumed an “undertaker” was called that because he took someone under the ground. But on reflection, I wonder if it comes from the fact that he undertakes something we don’t want to talk about. Am I right?

A: Yes, you’re right. The word “undertaker” (someone who undertakes a task) has been a euphemism for “funeral director” since the late 17th century. The word has had a long history and many other meanings.

The earliest published reference for “undertaker,” dating from 1382, refers to a helper or an assistant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the years, the word has been used to mean a businessman, a writer, a lobbyist, a contractor, a tax collector, a scholar, and an impresario, among others.

English language Uncategorized

Does Mrs. Malaprop have a rival?

Q: I’ve always thought that the terms “malaprop” and “malapropism” come from a character in a Sheridan play. But I recently heard that they predate the play and come from a French expression. Which is right?

A: The terms “malaprop” and “malapropism” refer to the unintentionally comic misuse of a word, especially by confusing it with a similar-sounding one. An example might be President Bush’s remark at a bill-signing in 2002 about “weapons of mass production.”

The nouns “malaprop” and “malapropism” were indeed inspired by Mrs. Malaprop, a character in “The Rivals,” a 1775 play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And they did not predate Sheridan’s play.

In fact, the earliest OED citation for “malaprop” is from 1823, 48 years after the play appeared. The earliest citation for “malapropism” (in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley) is from 1849, 74 years after the play.

Of course Sheridan’s name for the character was obviously suggested by the adverb “malapropos,” which has been part of the English lexicon since at least 1668. But “malapropos” merely means in an inappropriate or inopportune manner, and doesn’t suggest a misuse of words. It comes from the French phrase “mal á propos,” which means much the same as the English version.

I can’t conclude this without mentioning what many people consider the pinnacle of Mrs. Malaprop’s malapropisms: “He is the very pineapple of politeness.”

English language Uncategorized

Who’s the “Charley” in “charley horse”?

Q: I heard you discussing the phrase “charley horse” on the air and you said the origin was unknown. I looked it up on the Internet and found that the original Charley was a lame horse that used to pull a roller across the infield in the 1890s at the old Chicago White Sox ballpark. I hope this helps.

A: Several listeners messaged me with various explanations from the Internet, some more interesting than others. Yours is among the more interesting, but unfortunately the term “charley horse” was in use before the 1890s.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references from the 1880s, all of them related to baseball. Both the OED and The Random House Dictionary of the English Language say the origin of the phrase is unknown.

Another explanation, which comes to us via H. L. Mencken, traces the expression to Charley Esper, a Baltimore Orioles pitcher who was said to walk like a lame horse. Unfortunately, the term “charley horse” was in use before Esper joined the Orioles, according to the The Mavens’ Word of the Day, which cites The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary.

One more interesting explanation, from the American Dialect Society’s archives (via Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words), traces the term to the pitcher Charley (Old Hoss) Radbourne, who reportedly had a muscle cramp during a game in the 1880s.

The chronology is right, but I still think this is one of the many cases where we may never be certain about the origin of an expression. Or, as Quinion puts it, “We’re not sure where it comes from, but there are lots of theories.”