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Why is the U.S. singular?

Q: I am a faculty assistant at Columbia Law and one of my professors recently came across a book that says the United States was frequently referred to as plural before the Civil War and singular after the war. Can you shed any light on this? Was the Civil War a linguistic as well as a historical turning point?

A: The Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, apparently saw the war as a turning point for singularity. I’ll quote from an article in John Hopkins Magazine (April 2001) about McPherson’s work:

“From his vast reading, he notes that before 1861, the public tended to treat ‘United States’ as a plural: ‘The United States are moving toward war.’ After the conflict, U.S. became singular: ‘The United States is looking forward to peace and reconciliation.’ McPherson traces changes in Abraham Lincoln’s vocabulary as well, with the word ‘nation’ gradually replacing ‘union’ in his speeches as the war progressed.”

Similar observations have been made by the historians Shelby Foote and Thomas E. Woods Jr. In an interview for Ken Burns’s documentary “The Civil War,” Foote remarked:

“Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are.’ Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.'”

But Benjamin Zimmer, editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, looked into the issue and concluded that the transformation of “United States” from plural to singular wasn’t nearly as smooth and symbolic as Foote suggested.

In an extensive posting to the Language Log, Zimmer offers evidence that the issue of whether “United States” should be singular or plural was still being debated nearly four decades after the war.

He cites a May 4, 1901, article in the New York Times under the headline, “ARE OR IS: Whether a Plural or a Singular Verb Goes With the Words United States.” The article, written by John W. Foster, a former Secretary of State, notes public figures who used the singular before and after the war.

The Civil War probably sped up the change from plural to singular, but the transformation apparently wasn’t as dramatic as some historians have suggested. In fact, Zimmer points out that the plural form is still around in some idioms, like “these United States.”

“So even now,” he writes, “the pluribus sometimes outweighs the unum.”

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An element of style

Q: HELP! The New York Times says things like this: “Nassau and Suffolk counties” and “First, Second, and Third avenues.” My knee-jerk reaction is to capitalize the “c” in counties and the “a” in avenues. WHY, why, why does the Times make them lowercase? Is this correct?

A: The Times practice is a matter of house style rather than of grammar. But I think it makes sense.

If you’re talking about several streets or avenues in combination, only the principal part of the name should be capitalized. The generic part (“streets” or “avenues”) shouldn’t be. So it would be correct to refer to “First, Second, and Third avenues.”

For the same reason, the principal names of counties are capitalized, but the generic part (when several names are combined) would not be: “Nassau, Suffolk, and Putnam counties.” Similarly, “the Chrysler, Empire State, and Citicorp buildings.”

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Starting positions

Q: I keep telling my office mates about you and your website, so by association, I have become the go-to person in the office for grammar questions (how scary is that?). Here’s a question I’ve been asked that only a guru like you would know: Is it wrong to begin a sentence with a preposition? You say in Woe Is I that it’s OK to put one at the end, but what about the beginning?

A: It’s perfectly normal to begin a sentence with a preposition (a positioning word like “after,” “between,” “in,” “over,” “toward,” and “within”). In fact (or should I say “After all”?), it’s extremely common.

As you note, a preposition can go at the end of a sentence, too, contrary to what a lot of people believe. See my blog entry about putting one at the end.

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Any way the wind blows

[Note: We had an updated post about “anyway” and “anyways” on Aug. 21, 2009.]

Q: Why do I hear people say “anyways” instead of “anyhow” or even “anyway”? It sounds awfully wrong to my ears! Or is it just me?

A: “Anyways”? No way, at least not in modern times. These days, the acceptable usages are “anyway” and “any way.” Here’s now they work.

It’s one word (“anyway”) if you want the adverb that means in any case or nevertheless: “He slipped but he won the race anyway.”

Otherwise, it’s two words (“any way”): “Is there any way to escape? There doesn’t seem to be any way out.”

Once upon a time, beginning in the 13th century or so, “anyways” and “anywise,” both adverbs meaning in any manner, were common usage. Now they’re considered archaic and nonstandard.

As for why so many people insist on “anyways,” that’s a mystery I can’t solve!

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Is her dad sketchy?

Q: My sisters use the word “sketchy” in odd ways: “That was a very sketchy thing to do” or “Dad is very sketchy.” I had previously heard the word used only as a synonym for incomplete: “We have a sketchy description of the murder.” Are my sisters using the word correctly?

A: The adjective “sketchy” originally referred to something that was outlined only slightly and with no details filled in, a meaning the Oxford English Dictionary traces back to 1805.

Another meaning (imperfect or superficial or flimsy or lacking in substance) evolved later, and the OED has citations for this dating from 1878. One of the quotations is from a letter written by E.B. White in 1943: “I am hoping that my health (which has been rather sketchy lately) will improve.”

It sounds as though your sisters’ usage is something like White’s, with a more pronounced negative meaning. Perhaps they’re using the word in a way that I’ve noticed in the last few years: something like shallow or one-dimensional.

This progression seems reasonable to me: 200 years ago, “sketchy” described a simple line drawing with no detail or depth, and today it can also describe something that’s shallow or skin-deep. I’ve also heard it used lately to mean questionable, iffy, or off-color. Thus does language change!

By the way, the adjective “sketchy” originally referred to something that resembled a rough drawing or “sketch,” a noun that first appeared in print in the late 17th century, according to the OED. The noun came to mean a short play or performance in the late 18th century.

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Stormy weather

[An updated and expanded post about “nor’easter” appeared on the blog on March 2, 2015.]

Q: Where does the word “nor’easter” come from? Is it short for “northeastern”? I live in Brooklyn and we recently experienced a nor’easter.

A: The word “nor’easter” is a contraction of “northeaster,” which is a noun meaning a strong northeast wind or a storm with heavy winds from the northeast.

The prevailing opinion among American broadcast and print journalists, who choose the contraction “nor’easter” by a wide margin over the longer version (just check Google), seems to be that “nor’easter” represents a regional New England pronunciation. This seems to be a myth, however. Many linguists and a great many coastal New Englanders insist that no such pronunciation existed in the region, and that locals have always pronounced the word without dropping the “th.”

According to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, “nor’easter” is a “literary affectation.”

The earliest published reference to “nor’easter” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1837 translation of an Aristophanes comedy, The Knights: “Slack your sheet! A strong nor’-easter’s groaning.” The English poet Alfred Austin (he was poet laureate from 1892 to 1913) used both “nor’-easters” and “sou’-westers” in his writing, according to the OED.

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Vowel play

Q: We used to recite a rhyme in the first grade (during the 50s in southwest PA). It had to do with vowels and went “A, E, I, O, U, sometimes Y and W.” I thought of it the other day while listening to you in the car from the DC area via satellite radio. W? I am at a loss to come up with examples of W being used as a vowel.

A: You asked about “w” as a vowel, but let me comment about both “w” and “y.” In my book Woe Is I, I used a little sentence to illustrate how “w” and “y” can sometimes act as vowels: “Few boys own many cows.”

The letters “w” and “y” are officially consonants, but they have characteristics of both consonants and vowels. (In fact, some people refer to them as semi-vowels.) Even when they are clearly acting as consonants, these letters are diphthongs, combinations of at least two vowel sounds. Take the words “wet” and “yet.” The initial letters are clearly consonants, but the actual sounds of these words are “oo-EHT” and “ee-EHT”; the “w” and “y” sound something like “oo-EH” and “ee-EH.”

When “w” appears in conjunction with a vowel (“awe,” “ewe,” “owe,” “own,” “sew,” “raw,” “how”, and others), it often acts as a vowel; the same happens with “y” in words like “toy” and “style.”

Keep listening, and keep your mind on the road!

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Pajama games

Q: Please, please, please explain to me why every dictionary shows the abbreviated version of pyjamas to be p.j.’s and Pj’s and other whackadoodle versions that ALL INCLUDE APOSTROPHES! What is going on here? There is no possession implied in the abbreviation. How can this be? It is driving me crazy and I will NOT accept it any way other than PJs or pjs or even p.j.s. I will sleep without them if this goes on!

A: Calm down, and don’t jump out of your pajamas. Here’s the lowdown on nightwear, plurals and otherwise, courtesy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

“pajama”; “pajamas”: the standard American spelling.

“pyjama”; “pyjamas”: the standard British spelling.

“pj”; “pj’s”: the standard singular and plural abbreviations.

I can see that you’re bothered by the apostrophe in the plural abbreviation. But many, many style books and grammar guides (including mine) recommend adding an apostrophe with the plural of a small letter in an abbreviation to make it easier to read.

Without an apostrophe, the “s” in the plural abbreviation looks like part of the principal term. Imagine trying to pluralize the individual letters a, i, and u without using apostrophes: as, is, us. They’re much more readable as a’s, i’s, and u’s. No possession is implied.

Now keep those pj’s on, and go to sleep!

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From Zee to Zed

Q: I was just wondering if you knew why the letter “Z” is pronounced “zee” by Americans and “zed” by Canadians. My cousin is from Vancouver and it makes me giggle whenever I hear him say that.

A: Where the pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet is concerned, we in the United States are the odd ones out. The standard pronunciation in Britain and in all the old British Commonwealth nations is “zed.”

H.L. Mencken, in his book The American Language, says that the standard pronunciation “zed” became “zee” in the United States sometime in the 18th century, but he doesn’t go into why this happened.

One might speculate that the “zee” pronunciation was influenced by the parallel pronunciations “bee,” “cee,” “dee,” and so on. And it was probably helped along by Noah Webster’s preference for “zee” in his influential American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

The pronunciation “zed” for the letter “z” entered English in the 1400s, borrowed from the Middle French zède, which in turn was derived from zeta, the Latin and Greek name for the letter.

“Zed” and “zee” aren’t the only versions on record, though. In Samuel Johnson’s time, the letter was often called “izzard” or “uzzard,” and in fact “izzard” survived in odd pocket of the U.S. well into the 20th century. But it was mainly used as part of the expression “from A to izzard,” and was seldom used by itself.

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Q: My boyfriend and I have a quick question. I referred to a strong animal scent as being poignant. One of the definitions of “poignant” in the dictionary is pungently pervasive. But he thinks that describing a scent as poignant is not correct. What do you think?

A: One of the definitions of “poignant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is sharp, pungent, piquant to the taste or smell. But the OED says this meaning is now rare.

I believe that most people these days think of “poignant” as keenly moving or affecting. You might be understood in a roomful of lexicographers if you use “poignant” to mean pungent, but the rest of the world would respond with “Huh?”

I’d rather be understood than technically correct. It would be better, I think, to use “pungent” to describe a strong smell.

The word “poignant,” which goes back to the 14th century, comes to us from the Latin pungere, meaning to pierce or prick. The two earliest OED references are in The Canterbury Tales.

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Grammarphobia or grammarphilia?

Q: This has been bugging me since my first fortuitous encounter with the joys of Why “grammarphobia,” rather than “grammarphilia”? Can it be that you harbor a secret hatred of punctuation and syntax — or was it, simply, because “grammarphilia” was taken?

A: The name of the website comes from the subtitle of Pat’s first book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Pat wanted to show that her book and our website would be friendly and accessible to people who FEAR grammar (hence the “phobia”), as well as to language types who gulp down bowls of gerunds and subjunctives for breakfast in the morning.

The idea was to explain grammar (and other language issues) in terms that wouldn’t intimidate the ordinary reader, while not turning off those who already feel comfortable with the terminology and complexities of our language (grammarphiles).

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A jewel of a word

Q: Why do so many people mispronounce “jewelry”? I find this particularly ubiquitous and irritating. More often than not, the word comes out “JOO-lu-ree” rather than “JOO-ul-ree.” Recently, I even heard the abomination spoken on PBS by (shock, horror!) an English actor with perfect diction.

A: The word is usually spelled differently in the U.S. and the U.K., which may have something to do with the differences in pronunciation. In American English, the word is spelled “jewelry”; in British English, it’s most often spelled “jewellery.”

Despite the different spellings, however, the word should be pronounced the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, second edition, says the correct pronunciation is “JOO-ul-ree,” no matter how it’s spelled. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both “JOO-ul-ree” and “JOO-ul-uh-ree,” but says the first one is usual. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists only “JOO-ul-ree” as the proper way to say it.

The word, which comes to us from Old French, dates back to the 14th century and was originally spelled “iuelrye” and later “jowalre” in English, according to the OED. “Jewellery” first appeared in the late 18th century, and “jewelry” in the early 19th century.

The British spell the word “jewellery” in commercial usage, the OED says, but sometimes spell it “jewelry” in poetry, as in this example from “Alice du Clos” by Coleridge: “Smit by the sun the mist in glee / Dissolves to lightsome jewelry.”

As for that English actor who mispronounced the word on PBS, he was either mistaken or affected.

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To hell in a handbasket

Q: Any ideas about the expression “going to hell in a handbasket”? I didn’t find a very satisfactory derivation on Google. One early 18th-century citation on Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words mentions a “head in a Handbasket.” Could the basket in question refer to a container used to catch the results of a beheading? (Or am I just being over-influenced by recently watching Mary Queen of Scots meet her end on DVD?)

A: I don’t see anything in my usual language references to link the expression with a beheading. You can find almost anything on the Internet, of course, but the only reference I’ve seen on a serious language site is this brief, uncertain mention on The Phrase Finder’s Discussion Forum: “It seems to me that someone suggested that the basket used to catch the head during a beheading gave rise to ‘hell in a handbasket.’”

Michael Quinion is extremely reliable on these matters and I wouldn’t hesitate to accept his entry on “hell in a handbasket,” even though it’s necessarily inconclusive. Here’s how he sums up the situation: “It’s a fairly common American expression, known for much of the twentieth century. But it’s one about which almost no information exists, at least in the two dozen or so reference books I’ve consulted.” In other words, some of these things will never be tracked down.

Another Internet source I trust is Evan Morris’s Word Detective site, which gives this explanation: “Clues to the origin of ‘going to hell in a handbasket,’ meaning ‘deteriorating rapidly or utterly,’ are, unfortunately, scarce as hens’ teeth.” He notes that Christine Ammer, in Have A Nice Day – No Problem, a dictionary of clichés, dates the expression from the early 20th century and suggests that the alliteration of ‘hell’ and ‘handbasket’ probably contributed to its popularity.

I might add that there are scores of variations on this theme: the poor victim may go to hell not only in a handbasket but also “on a poker,” “in a bucket,” “in a hack,” “in a handcart,” “on a handcar,” “in a basket,” “in a hanging basket” [probably a deliberately humorous mistake], “on a shutter,” “in a wheelbarrow,” “on a toboggan,” and even “schooner-rigged.”

Despite the 18th-century citation you mentioned about “head in a Handbasket,” which comes close to the usual expression, there are no published references to “hell in a handbasket” more than a century old.

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Is it “already” or “all ready”?

Q: Which is correct: “all ready” or “already”? I see the words (or word) both ways.

A: They’re not the same. “All ready” means prepared; “already” means previously.

Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I of the two terms in action: “Carrie and Samantha are all ready to boogie; in fact, they’ve already started.”

I hope this helps.

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So to speak

Q: At the company where I work, the project managers use the phrase “speak to” like this: “Would you be able to speak to this question?” Is that usage correct? Or is it just another “office-ism”?

A: People use the expression “speak to,” meaning to address an issue, in two different ways.

The first usage, as in the example “increased crime speaks to the need for vigilance,” goes back to the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this sense, “speak to” means to influence or to constitute evidence of something.

The second usage, as in “let me speak to that,” also goes back at least as far as the 17th century. The OED cites several published examples of “speak to” in the sense of to deal with or discuss or comment on. The first citation is from 1610: “I desire them therefore to speake to these foure points.”

So both usages are well-established. But these days they’re also much overused, especially in muddy or imprecise writing. I find the second one the most annoying. When I hear people say, “Let me speak to that,” I expect them to speak around a point without really addressing it. In other words, here comes a half-baked comment.

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When is a comma too much?

Q: I’m always delighted when you’re on WNYC. You’re such fun! And I learn so much, too. Which brings me to my question. I’m completely confused about when “too” should be preceded by a comma. For example, was it correct in my sentence above? What is the rule?

A: I usually tell people that a comma with “too” is optional: use one if you want to express a pause or emphasize something. In the sentence you asked about, I think the comma is right.

Although the presence or absence of a comma often doesn’t matter, it sometimes does make a difference. For example, both of these sentences may be punctuated correctly, depending on the emphasis:

a. “Steve likes ice cream, too.”
b. “Steve likes ice cream too.”

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 Steve likes, and she 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.

Sorry this isn’t more definitive, and I hope it hasn’t muddied the waters!

Note: I just realized that I answered a similar question last year. If anyone wants to compare the two replies, here’s a link to the old item.

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Is “root cause” redundant?

Q: I’m not sure whether this question is properly directed to you or to William Safire, but here goes: Is the phrase “root cause” proper English, or is it redundant? Wouldn’t the same meaning be conveyed if “root” were omitted? Or are there different degrees of “cause”?

A: In my opinion (and I can’t speak for Safire), the expression “root cause” isn’t redundant. I think one can argue that there are different levels of causality.

I may have an overly complicated view of all this since I was a philosophy major in college. But I think of causes in at least four different ways—material, formal, efficient, and final causes.

The material cause of something is what it’s made of. A house is “caused” by the wood and other materials it’s built from.

The formal cause is the set of characteristics that make it what it is. A house is “caused” by the fact of its having walls, a roof, rooms, or whatever qualities make it a shelter.

The efficient cause is what brings it into being. A house is “caused” by the builder.

The final cause is the greater purpose or good that it serves. The final “cause” of a house is our need for shelter.

This is an Aristotelian view of “cause.” For many of the same reasons, I think almost anything can be said to have multiple causes. Probably the “root” cause of something is its ultimate purpose. But there are no doubt lesser “causes” along the way that contribute to its coming into existence.

This is a very windy way of answering your question. To paraphrase Pascal, I’ve made it too long because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.

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“We” vs. “us”

Q: In the following sentence, which is correct, “we” or “us”? “This was a ritual that [we/us] kids looked forward to with anticipation.” I favor “we,” but a friend suggested “us” might be correct.

A: In this case, “we kids” is right. However, you could say something like this: “It was a ritual that was greatly anticipated by us kids.”

In the first example, “we kids” is the subject of a clause; in the second, “us kids” is the object of a preposition.

Hope this helps.

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Cohort in crime?

A: One contemporary phrase that bothers me is “cohort in crime.” I maintain that “cohort” is a Latin noun describing a Roman military unit of 300 to 600 men, rather than a single individual who is an associate of a criminal. What do you think?

Q: “Cohort” has undergone quite a change over the years.

In the military parlance of Caesar’s time, a “century” (centuria in Latin) was a unit of 100 Roman soldiers, commanded by a “centurion.” Six centuries, or 600 soldiers (the exact numbers vary at different times in antiquity), constituted a “cohort” (cohors in Latin), and 100 cohorts, or 6,000 men, were a “legion” (from the Latin verb legere, to gather).

So “century,” “cohort,” and “legion” corresponded roughly to our modern “company,” “battalion,” and “regiment” (our regiments are not so large).

But in English, “cohort” has pretty much lost its military meaning and gone civilian. It’s used loosely to mean either a group or an individual.

The first definition for “cohort” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is a group or band of people, and the second definition is a companion or an associate.

In a “Usage Note” following the entry, however, American Heritage says “the use of cohort to refer to an individual rather than to a group has become very common and is now in fact the dominant usage.”

It should be noted that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has as its first definition “one of ten divisions of an ancient Roman legion.” But M-W lists definitions in historical order, not in the order of common usage. Not one in a thousand people would use “cohort” in this way.

M-W‘s later definitions correspond to those in use today. A “cohort” can mean either (1) a group, or (2) a companion or associate. The examples given include “a cohort of premedical students” and “a few of their … cohorts decided to form a company.”

To make a long story short, it’s not surprising that “cohort in crime” and “companion in crime” should be used interchangeably in modern times.

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Who’s a bonehead?

Q: I try not to use the term “bonehead” because I suspect that it might have racist overtones. I remember the old cartoon depictions of Africans with bones in their hair. Is my rationale justified?

A: The short answer is no.

The words “bonehead” and “boneheaded” are slang or informal terms that originated in the U.S. in the early 1900s. They refer to someone who’s a blockhead, or who’s thick-headed or stupid.

The first published reference, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in Smart Set magazine in 1903: “You talk like a bone-headed fool!”

There are no ethnic or racial overtones—the implication is that the person’s head has more bone than brain.

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A “brand-new” question

Q: My late father, who was educated at an English public school, was irritated by the use of “brand new” instead of the proper “bran new.” He said something fragile (i.e., a china service) used to be packed in bran, the husk residue from milling grains, but excelsior, a byproduct of manufacturing wood products, replaced bran in the early 20th century.

A: The proper expression, according to every reference I’ve checked, is “brand-new,” not “bran-new.” The “d“ in “brand” is often unpronounced, however, so the phrase sounds like “bran’-new.”

Interestingly, “brand-new” didn’t originally refer to a brand name, or to something so new that it still carried the label or or to a newly introduced product.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase dates back to 1570 (at that time it was spelled “brande-newe”), and the “brand” referred to was a branding iron hot from the fire.

The OED defines the original expression “as if fresh and glowing from the furnace,” and goes on to liken it to Shakespeare’s phrase “fire-new.” The term is now used, of course, to mean quite new or perfectly new.

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English language Etymology Usage

Let’s fathom a “sea change”

Q: Where does the term “sea change” come from? I know what it means, but I don’t know anything about its origin.

A: The expression “sea change” originally referred to a change caused by the sea, but it’s now used figuratively to mean a significant change or transformation.

The phrase was coined by Shakespeare in The Tempest to describe the vision of a drowned body. In Act I, scene 2, Ariel sings to Ferdinand about his father, Prospero:

“Full fathom five they father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”

The entry for “sea change” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes this modern quote from the playwright Harold Pinter: “The script suffered considerable sea changes, especially in structure.”

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Saying is believing

Q: Do you know of any CDs with pronunciations of English words, especially more obscure ones?

A: I’ve heard good things about the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary, which comes with a CD, though I haven’t actually heard it myself. You can find it on

Here’s a comment from someone who e-mailed me about it: “Love it! I’m ordering one for each of my kids. I especially love that it has both British and American English. This should resolve many a dispute between me and my British friends.”

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Ginning up the politics

Q: I hear the term “gin up” used more and more these days, especially by politicians. Do you know its origin? Does it have anything to do with a gin pole?

A: The term “gin up” dates back to the 1880s, and originally meant to drink hard liquor. The first reference I could find comes from a book called Saddle and Moccasin: “They were ginning her up, that’s a fact.”

In the early 20th century the term also came to mean to drink before going to a party—I suppose for the purpose of getting a head start on the other drinkers.

In the 1970s “gin up” took on a third meaning: to stir up or excite or get something going. That’s the way it’s generally used now. One pol, for example, might accuse another of ginning up a phony crisis.

As for your second question, I don’t see evidence that “gin up” has anything to do with a gin pole, a lifting device for oilfields, construction sites, ships, etc.

The two boozy meanings probably come from drinking gin, an alcoholic beverage flavored with juniper. The word “gin” is short for geneva or Hollands Geneva, the original Dutch name of the booze. (The Dutch word for juniper is jeneverbes.)

As for the more recent usage (to stir up, etc.), some language authorities speculate that it may be related to “generate” or “engineer” or “ginger up” (as in adding spice to something or getting someone’s spirit up).

Most of this comes from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and a posting by Douglas G. Wilson on the American Dialect Society’s Linguist List.

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Should “banal” rhyme with “anal”?

Q: I believe the correct pronunciation of the word “banal” is “BAY-nul,” but people say “bu-NAHL” because of embarrassment at the rhyme with “anal.” What are your thoughts?

A: I don’t think there’s a single correct way to pronounce “banal.” The two dictionaries I consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, each list at least three acceptable pronunciations.

The first one in both dictionaries is bu-NAL (rhyming with “canal’). Others are BAY-nul (rhyming with “anal”) and bu-NAHL (the last syllable rhymes with “doll”). Merriam-Webster’s also lists bay-NAL (the last syllable is accented and rhymes with “pal”).

American Heritage’s Usage Panel is all over the place on this, with 46 percent preferring bu-NAL, 38 percent favoring BAY-nul, and 14 percent going for bu-NAHL. For what it’s worth, I’m in the bu-NAL camp. But I agree with American Heritage that the “pronunciation of banal is not settled among educated speakers of American English.”

If in doubt, of course, you can always use “trite.”

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A hot time next door!

Q: Here’s an unusual word for your consideration: “ucalegon,” a neighbor whose house is on fire. Can you tell me anything about its use and origin?

A: Wow—what a word! I couldn’t find it in any of my modern dictionaries, but it’s in my old Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed., 1954). I’ll copy the entry, which explains its derivation:

“Ucalegon … In Trojan legend, one of the ancient counselors who sat with Priam on the wall. Aeneas speaks of the flames reaching Ucalegon’s house, next to that of Anchises, before he fled from the city. Hence, a next-door neighbor, or a neighbor whose house is on fire.”

The word comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. It’s part of the phrase proximus ardet Ucalegon, meaning Ucalegon burns next. (The house of Ucalegon, an elder of Troy, burned down when the city was sacked, according to Virgil’s account.)

The Latin phrase seems to have been used quite often in the 19th century to refer to a dangerous situation. It was apparently so common at one time that Thomas de Quincey, in his 1849 essay “The English Mail-Coach,” calls the expression trite. It appears in early 20th-century versions of Roget’s Thesaurus (meaning a pitfall or source of danger), but not in modern ones.

Homer’s Iliad, in describing the battle for Troy, mentions Ucalegon only briefly and doesn’t include the fire story. By the way, Ucalegon’s name in the Iliad (usually spelled “Oukalegon” in English) combines the Greek words for “not” and “care.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “ucalegon,” though the word does appear in an early 20th-century citation for the OED’s entry on “neighbor”: “But proximus ardet Ucalegon, which is to say, ‘Don’t care’s house is afire, and his neighbour is quaking.’”

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A “pitchy” usage

Q: I’m a fan of “American Idol,” but the judges use a word on the show that drives me crazy. When they want to tell someone that he’s singing off pitch, they tell him that he’s a little pitchy. This can’t be right, can it?

A: I don’t watch “American Idol,” and look what I missed! I’ve never heard or seen “pitchy” used in this way. In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, “pitchy” is defined as covered with pitch (something like tar) or as the color of pitch.

Usually singing or playing that’s off key is described as either sharp (too high) or flat (too low). I suppose “pitchy” might come in handy if you can’t tell which.

I just Googled “pitchy” and came up with 332,000 hits—most of them, it seems, about singing, not roofing. Well, “pitchy” still sounds lame to me, but maybe it has legs!

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Taxi! Taxi!

Q: I’m a WNYC listener in Minnesota. I have a comment, not a question. You were discussing the origin of the word “taxi” on the last show. I believe it comes from the Greek tachis, meaning fast or swift.

A: I’ve done some rooting around for the root of “taxi” and here’s what I’ve found.

“Taxi” is a shortened form of “taxicab,” and both first appeared in print in 1907. The two words are derived from the expression “taximeter cab,” meaning a cab with an automatic meter (or taximeter) for recording the distance traveled and the fare.

The meter itself (the word “taximeter” dates from 1898) took its name from the French taximètre (earlier spelled taxamètre), which came in turn from the German word taxameter, a meter used in horse-drawn cabs.

The “taxa” portion of the original word comes from Medieval Latin and means, literally, a “tax” (from the verb taxare, to tax or assess or evaluate).

The Greek taxis means arrangement or division, and is unrelated. It’s the source of our words “taxonomy” and “taxidermy.” The Greek takhos (speed) is the root of “tachometer” but not, it would appear, of “taximeter.”

I’d better stop now before this becomes too taxing.

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Compound interest

Q: Here’s a question about compound nouns. I’ve seen “try out,” “try-out,” and “tryout.” Are they all correct? Or is only one proper?

A: The current preference is for one word, no hyphen: “tryout.” This comes from the most recent editions of my two principal dictionaries: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

The present style for “tryout” is likely to persist, since compound nouns tend to start life as two separate words, then become hyphenated, and over time lose their hyphens and become one solid word.

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Language (and marriage) counseling

Q: My husband and I have two points of contention: the pronunciation of the words “respite” and “angst.” He prefers reh-SPITE and AHN-gst, but they make my skin CRAWL. I prefer the much more common (and CORRECT!) reh-SPIT and AANG-st. For the sake of the English language and the welfare of my marriage, can you please, for once and for all, clarify the CORRECT pronunciation of these words?

A: Rather than insert myself into a marital tiff, I’ll let The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language do the deciding.

The “a” in “angst” is pronounced like the “a” in “father”: it sounds like ahng-kst (but with one syllable).

The two-syllable “respite” is accented on the first syllable, and the “i” is short, not long: it sounds like RESS-pit.

You win some and you lose some.

If the biggest problem in your marriage is that you say reh-SPIT and he says reh-SPITE, let’s NOT call the whole thing off!

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