English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A wonky question

[An updated post about “wonk,” “wonky,” and “wonkish” appeared on the blog on July 2, 2014.]

Q: I’m reading an Angela Thirkell novel, High Rising, and one of the characters (young Tony Morland) repeatedly uses the term “wonky” to mean nutty or neurotic. Can you tell me more about the origin of this word?

A: Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “wonky” is chiefly British and means shaky, unsteady, or awry.

But many Americans these days use both “wonk” and “wonky” to mean overly studious or obsessed with details – that is, wonkish or nerdy. [See update below.]

The first reference for “wonky” in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1919 citation in which Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper magnate, writes of being “weak, and wonky, as the telephone girls say, after a bad morning with the subscribers.”

When Angela Thirkell wrote High Rising in the early 1930s, “wonky” was well established as an adjective to describe an unstable or unsound person or thing. Kipling, in his last collection of stories, Limits and Renewals (1932), refers to a wonky headlight. And Edgar Wallace, in his novel The Strange Countess (1925), refers to financial accounts “that went a little wonky.”

But where does “wonky” come from? American Heritage suggests that it may be derived from the Old English word wancol, meaning unsteady or insecure.

As for the noun “wonk,” it first appeared in print in 1929, according to the OED, and has had various meanings over the years, including a useless naval hand, a white person, and an effeminate man.

Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, has traced the use of “wonk” for a studious or hard-working person to a 1954 article in Time magazine. He says the usage may have originated at Harvard, where students were called wonks, preppies, or jocks, according to a 1962 article in Sports Illustrated.

The use of “wonk” or “wonkish” to refer to someone obsessed with minute points of policy is relatively recent. The first published reference in the OED is from a 1992 Washington Post article that refers to “a lot of wonkish material” (targeted tax cuts, community policing, education reform).

One apparently dubious suggestion is that “wonk” is “know” spelled backwards. Another is that “wonk” is related to the slang term “wanker,” meaning masturbator. A third is that it’s derived from Willy Wonka, Roald Dahl’s eccentric chocolate maker.

But all this is speculative. Most etymologists say the origin of “wonk” is unknown.

[Update, June 12, 2014: Newer definitions appear in later editions of the dictionaries we cited above. The OED includes this meaning of “wonkish,” which it says originated in American politics: “excessively concerned with minute points of (governmental) policy.” American Heritage (5th ed.) defines “wonk” as  “1. A student who studies excessively; a grind. 2. One who studies an issue or topic thoroughly or excessively: ‘leading a talkathon of policy wonks in a methodical effort to build consensus for his programs.  And the newest version of Merriam-Webster’s 11th says “wonk” means “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field; broadly ‘nerd,’ ” and gives the examples “a policy wonk” and “a computer wonk.”]


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“Islamic” or “Islamist”?

Q: Was there a memo sent out that I missed having to do with the suffix “ist” when used with Islam? The adjective used to be “Islamic,” but it now seems to have changed to “Islamist.”

A: “Islamic” is an adjective referring to Islam (the religion, the Muslim world in general, or Muslim civilization), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

“Islamist,” which can be either an adjective or a noun (meaning a person), refers to “Islamism” (an Islamic revivalist movement or the religious principals of Islam), according to American Heritage. The dictionary says the Islamist movement is “often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines an “Islamist” as an orthodox Muslim, includes published references dating back to this 1855 citation: “Caliphs who were, at least no longer, rigid Islamists.”

I mostly see or hear the term “Islamist” used these days in reference to orthodox or fundamentalist Muslims. But it seems to me (a language type, not a theologian) that the words “Islamic” and “Islamist” may overlap somewhat.

Crystal clear? Yeah, I thought so!

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Preventative medicine!

Q: On your last WNYC appearance, you discussed people who add extra syllables to words in an attempt to make them (the words and the people) seem more impressive: for example, “orientate” instead of “orient” and “preventative” instead of “preventive.” Here’s a little poem that came to me after listening to you:

An ounce of preventative’s
Worth two pounds of cure.
But just one pound of curative.
Of this I am sure.

The longer a word is
The more it will mean.
So don’t get a tetanus shot
Get a tetanus vaccine.

A: My hat’s off to you! Thank you very much.

The extra syllable in a word like “preventative” or “orientate” is ugly and unnecessary. In the “Pompous Circumstances” chapter of my writing guide, Words Fail Me, I compare these words to stretch limos that are used just to make an impression.

A good writer doesn’t use words that are longer than they have to be. Shorter is usually better, and often more beautiful, as in this excerpt from When You Are Old, a poem by Yeats:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

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Is it ih-RACK, eye-ROCK, or whatever?

Q: My 9-year-old son listens to a lot of NPR with me, and he would like to know if Iraq and Iran are pronounced ih-RACK and ih-RAN or eye-RACK and eye-RAN. We have heard both on NPR, and he really wants to know which is right.

A: Pronouncing “Iraq” with a long “i” (as in “eye”) is incorrect, according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), the two dictionaries I consult most often about U.S. pronunciations.

The dictionaries list two acceptable pronunciations. In both, the “i” in the first syllable is short, as in “pit.” The second syllable, which gets the accent, can be pronounced correctly as either “rack” or “rock.”

As for “Iran,” it has three possible correct pronunciations. In the first, the “i” is short, as in “pit,” and the “a” is short, as in “pack.” In the second, the “i” is short and the “a” is pronounced as in “father.” In the third, the “i” is long, as in “eye,” and the “a” is short, as in “pack.” In all cases, it’s the last syllable that’s stressed.

So, Iraq can be pronounced ih-RACK or ih-ROCK, and Iran can be pronounced ih-RAN or ih-RON or eye-RAN.

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A which’s brew

Q: How do you feel about using the relative pronoun “which” to modify an entire clause? Here’s an example: “We couldn’t find the answer on the Web, which always drives us nuts.” I often see this use of “which,” but it does not seem very elegant and it may sometimes be ambiguous. In the preceding example, what drives us nuts – the Web itself or the fact that we couldn’t find the answer on the Web?

A: Traditionally, the relative pronoun “which” modified a specific thing. Example: “We asked him to split the cost, which was considerable.” Obviously, the “which” clause (“which was considerable”) refers to the cost.

In the old days, the use of a “which” clause to modify an entire preceding clause (“We asked him to split the cost, which seemed only fair”), or even an entire preceding sentence (“We asked him to split the cost. Which he did.”), was regarded as a grammatical mistake by many – but not all – authorities.

In the last 75 years or so, however, the tide has turned, and this construction is so well established that it’s considered acceptable by every contemporary usage guide I’ve checked. But you’ve put your finger on the problem.

The trick is to make it crystal clear what the “which” refers to. In the following example, it’s hard to tell what “which” is supposed to modify: “We asked him to split the cost, which he thought was outrageous.” What did he think was outrageous: the cost, or his being asked to split it?

Our feeling is that this more relaxed usage has a lot going for it and allows us a greater range of expression – as long as it’s used clearly and elegantly.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Phrase origin Slang Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Nerds of America

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 24, 2020.]

Q: I was listening to a discussion on WNYC about the word “nerd” and began thinking of when I first heard the term. I’m a baby boomer and don’t remember encountering it in grammar school, high school, or college. I believe I first heard the word on the TV show Happy Days. Did I miss something or did “nerd” originate on the sitcom?

A: You must have had your mind on other things. Happy Days was on the air from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, but the word “nerd” (sometimes spelled “nurd” in its early days) originated in the United States in the early ’50s.

That’s about the only thing certain about “nerd.” Its origin has been much disputed and we may never know the real story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “nerd” as a “mildly derogatory” slang term for “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person” or one “who is boringly conventional or studious.” The word nowadays also has a more specific meaning, the dictionary adds: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”

The first published citation for “nerd” in the OED is from an article in Newsweek (Oct. 8, 1951): “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”

[Update: The Newsweek quotation suggests that the word was already attracting notice, at least in Detroit. In fact, the author and Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro spotted this slightly earlier example in the Detroit Free Press: “If the person in question (formerly known as a square) is really impossible, he’s probably a ‘nerd’ ” (Oct. 7, 1951).]

The OED mentions one plausible origin and several others that are more doubtful.

The plausible one suggests that “nerd” was inspired by a fictional character of the same name in a Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. The Nerd in the children’s book, according to the OED, was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.” That sounds pretty nerdlike.

Less likely, the OED says, are suggestions that “nerd” is an alteration of “turd” or that it is back-slang for “drunk” (which contains the letters n-u-r-d) or that it is derived from the name of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.

Here are some “nerd”-related word formations, from Green’s Dictionary of Slang and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: the adjectives “nerdy” (1960s) and “nerdly” (1990s) are self-explanatory; the verb “to nerd” (1980s) means to study, but “to nerd around” (1970s) is to goof off; a “nerd magnet” (1980s) is a woman who attracts nerds; a “nerd pack” (1980s) is a pocket protector for holding pens.

We don’t recall hearing “nerd” during our school careers, either (Stewart, class of ’63; Pat, ’71). But we remember the type—the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t party or do drugs, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. We think they got the last laugh.

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Grammar Usage

One of these days

Q: In yesterday’s blog entry, “Several interpretations,” there is an error in the last sentence. It should read: “This is one of those words that HAS to be interpreted.”

A: The sentence you mention (“This is one of those words that have to be interpreted”) is correct. But we can understand your confusion. A lot of people are confused by sentences with “one of the,” “one of these,” and “one of those” constructions. In some cases, the verbs that follow are singular; in other cases, they’re plural. Here’s how Pat explains the difference in her grammar book Woe Is I:

(1) If “that” or “who” comes before the verb, it’s plural: “He’s one of the authors who SAY it best.”

(2) If not, it’s singular: “One of the authors SAYS it best.”

In the first example, “one” is not the subject of the verb “say.” The subject is “who,” which is plural because it refers to “authors.” In the second example, the subject is “one.”

If you’re still uncertain, turn the sentences around in your mind and you’ll end up with the correct verbs: “Of the authors who SAY it best, he is one.” … “Of the authors, one SAYS it best.”

We hope that helps.

[Update, Sept. 28, 2016: We have substantially revised our opinion on the proper verb to use in constructions like “one of those who” and “one of the few that.” Usage commentators now acknowledge that while a plural verb is technically correct, there are times when a singular verb may be preferable. See our latest post on the subject.]

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Several interpretations

Q: If someone tried to get in touch with me several times, was it a few times or many times? In other words, how hard did he try?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “several” as “more than two or three but not many” or “an indefinite small number; some or a few.”

But as for your question, it all depends.

If someone says, “I tried to reach you several times,” he probably means two or three, but that may seem like a lot to him. He may think he tried very hard, but you may think it was a half-hearted attempt.

I’m sorry I can’t be more definite. This is one of those words that have to be interpreted.

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Lend me your earmarks

Q: Would you consider discussing the origin of the political term “earmark”? I hear it all the time, but I can’t find its derivation.

A: The word “earmark” comes from the centuries-old practice of notching the ears of livestock for identification.

The noun dates from 1523 (spelled “eare-marke”) and the verb from 1591, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (These citations represent the first published references that have been found.)

The use of the verb “earmark” to refer to setting aside funds for a specific purpose dates from 1868, according to the OED. Interestingly, none of the dictionaries I consult the most include a similar definition for the noun.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define the noun “earmark” just as an identifying characteristic or a mark on the ear of an animal.

When I googled “earmark,” however, I found numerous examples of the noun used in the U.S. political sense: a provision inserted in legislation to finance a lawmaker’s pet project or organization or whatever. It’s only a matter of time before dictionaries get on the case.

Though not every earmark is pork, I’m told, it strikes me as fitting that the term comes from notching the ears of pigs and other livestock.

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Whiteboard rafting

Q: “Whiteboarding” is the new corporate jargon for talking while drawing on napkins (i.e., giving dynamic presentations online with digital whiteboards). Can I use “whiteboard” as a verb?

A: Lots of people are doing it, but dictionaries haven’t caught up with this usage yet. In fact, they haven’t even caught up with the digital version of the white plastic board that has all but replaced the blackboard in schools.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “whiteboard” as that glossy analog thingie that you write on with erasable markers. Neither dictionary includes the word as a verb.

The “old” whiteboard isn’t all that old, of course. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1966 citation about “an up-to-date plastic white-board, on which one wrote with a coloured wax crayon.”

The new whiteboard is a shared digital drawing and writing surface that several people can use electronically, thanks to computer software that simulates a physical whiteboard.

So when people use the verb “whiteboard” or say they’re “whiteboarding,” they may be referring to the electronic whiteboard or to the white plastic job. Or, perhaps, they’re talking about dinner napkins!

I imagine dictionaries will eventually add the verb “whiteboard” (unless whiteboarding is replaced by something even newer). In the meantime, I don’t see any objection to using “whiteboard” as a verb as long as all parties know which kind of whiteboard you mean.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Word origin Writing

Continuing education

Q: I am curious about the words “continual” and “continuous.” Is there a difference between them and when should each one be used?

A: Many usage guides make this distinction: “continual” means going on regularly or frequently but with breaks in between; “continuous” means going on steadily and without interruption. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, offers a trick for telling them apart—imagine that the “ous” ending is short for “one uninterrupted sequence.”

These days, however, so many people use the two words interchangeably that the distinction may someday be lost. In fact, a case can be made that the difference between “continual” and “continuous” has never been quite as clear-cut as the sticklers insist.

The word “continual,” for instance, has been used to mean both continuing without interruption and repeated with brief interruptions since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The 17th-century newcomer “continuous,” the OED says, means uninterrupted or unbroken.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “continuous” as uninterrupted, but they say “continual” can mean either uninterrupted or recurring regularly.

Because people use both to imply without interruption, it’s better to use “repeated” or “intermittent”  instead of “continual” to describe something that starts and stops.

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“Wait” watching

Q: I’ve always thought that one “waits for” someone or something (a friend, a bus, etc.), and that a waiter “waits on” someone. These days, however, “waiting on” seems to be used more and more instead of “waiting for,” as in this sentence: “I’m waiting on my mom to pick me up.” We even have the John Mayer song “Waiting on the World to Change.” Is this incorrect? Was it ever incorrect? Has common usage made it acceptable?

A: To my ears, “wait on” someone sounds more colloquial or informal than “wait for” him. But for centuries, one of the meanings of “wait on” has been “wait for.” Here’s a 1694 example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “We were forced to wait on him above half an hour, before he came from underneath the Ice.”

Even today, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists one of the meanings of the phrasal verb “wait on” as “to await.”

In short, “wait on” in the sense of “wait for” is long established and there’s nothing unacceptable about it. But you might want to save it for informal or casual usage.

[Update: We ran a later post on June 13, 2010.]

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English language Grammar Usage

Quoth the maven: “Anymore”?

Q: I was surprised to encounter the positive use of “anymore,” as in this sentence: “They’ve started talking funny anymore.” I was further surprised to learn that it’s a known usage with a history.
A: In its primary sense, “anymore” is an adverb used in a negative statement to mean any longer or from now on.

Take these two sentences: (1) “I don’t drive.” (2) “I don’t drive anymore.” The first implies that the speaker has never been a driver. The second implies that he once was a driver but is no longer. So in that case “anymore” has provided additional information.

There’s a secondary sense of “anymore” that used to be considered dialect (that is, not standard English). In this sense, it means “nowadays” or “these days” in a positive statement. Here are a couple of examples: “I take the bus anymore”; “She wears black anymore.”

This second usage is no longer termed dialect in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). Both say it’s widely used in many regions of the US.

The two definitions are listed in American Heritage as No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. Ditto in Merriam-Webster’s. M-W notes that while the second meaning originated in the Midwest, it’s now widespread across the U.S., with the exception of New England.

For example, it’s common in the Midwest, according to American Heritage. This makes sense, since I grew up in Iowa and heard it routinely: “I get headaches anymore”; “We hay that field anymore”; “The days are getting shorter anymore.”

Old dictionaries list it as dialect in positive constructions. Not so in new dictionaries. Thus does language change.

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English language Etymology Grammar Usage

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

Q: As a teacher of English as a second language, I’ve wondered about the use of the “tag” question “aren’t I?” at the end of a sentence, e.g., “I’m right, aren’t I?” One ought to say, “I’m right, am I not?” but doing so sounds too formal for ordinary conversation. The problem, of course, is that “aren’t I?” uses the plural verb “are” with the singular subject “I.” It feels like the grammatical equivalent of a pebble in one’s shoe. So, what’s a grammarian to do?

A: Let’s get rid of that pebble. “Aren’t I?” is correct, standard English.

“Am,” of course, is the proper first-person singular form of the verb “to be.” But in the negative interrogative, where the subject and the auxiliary verb are inverted, “aren’t I?” replaced “amn’t I?” over the years because of the awkwardness of the regular negative form “amn’t.”

The “m” in “amn’t” was dropped early on for reasons of euphony. Earlier spellings (like “a’n’t I?” and “an’t I?”) were eventually replaced by “aren’t I?” – but only in the interrogative. One would never say “I aren’t going.”

These days “amn’t” is heard mostly in certain dialects in Ireland and Scotland, according to the linguist David Crystal. In informal English, of course, the infamous “ain’t” is heard both in statements and in questions.

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A Junie B. in your bonnet?

Q: My daughter, now 25, sent me a link to a recent NY Times article in which detractors of the Junie B. children’s books wax wroth about the mangled English. My daughter—pursuing a master’s degree—writes, “I readed those bookses when i were littler, wats the problum?” (I will allow that her spelling, even when she’s serious, leaves much to be desired. She relies heavily on computer software that checks her output.)

Although I’m appalled to hear (presumably well-read) adults trip over the present perfect of irregular verbs or confuse word pairs that I learned about in second grade, I can’t get too worked up over stories that have fun with children’s—even fictional children’s—misspeakings. What say you?

A: I haven’t read the Junie B. Jones books, but my opinion is that anything that gets kids to read is a good thing. Whatever it takes to draw them in, short of tales of outright mayhem, can be justified.

My feeling is that Junie B. will lead on to Harry P. and Lemony Snicket and Jean Fritz and Roald Dahl and other well-written, grammatically impeccable reading.

I also feel that kids can tell the difference between an informal literary voice and a more correct one. Just as kids in bilingual households (lucky them!) can keep their languages straight, children who read a lot of different writers will learn to keep their Englishes straight.

Some of the same arguments against the Junie B. books could be used to prevent children from reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other first-person novels whose narrators mangle the Queen’s English.

In the real world, there are no filters. Children are influenced by TV, MySpace, music, advertising, movies, school, parents, heard-on-the-street vernacular, and so on. Their reading, too, isn’t all of a piece. It varies wildly. I say, let them sort it out. The more they read, the better.

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Can a woman be a mensch?

Q: Is there a feminine form of “mensch”? Is the word used only for men? I wouldn’t want to call a woman a “wensch” since she would surely confuse it with “wench.”

A: “Mensch” or “mensh” comes from Yiddish by way of the German word mensch, or “person.” The standard dictionaries I’ve checked define “mensch” (or “mensh”) as an admirable or honorable human being, which of course could go either way.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a more expansive explanation: “In Jewish usage: a person of integrity or rectitude; a person who is morally just, honest, or honourable.” Sounds unisex, no?

And yet by far most of the examples I come across refer to men. One rarely hears a woman referred to as a “mensch.”

But Leo Rosten, in his book The Joys of Yinglish, notes: “The most withering criticism one can make of someone else’s conduct or character, manners or taste is to say, ‘He’s not a mensh’ or ‘She did not act like a mensh.’ “

So it would seem that, at least according to Rosten, “mensh” (the spelling he prefers) is an equal-opportunity word. Too bad. I kind of like “wensch” (though Rosten would have spelled it “wensh”).

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Q: I caught you on WNYC recently while driving through the NY area. Serendipity for sure, especially while at a dead stop on the Merritt Parkway. I have always been troubled by the slogan of the United Negro College Fund: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” A mind is not a “terrible” thing. It would be terrible to waste a mind. Are these proponents of higher education grammatically correct?

A: Well, grammatically (or syntactically), the slogan isn’t perfect. But sloganeers often come up with stuff designed to catch our attention precisely BECAUSE of their imperfections or their oddities or their unusual uses of language.

And you have to admit that the original slogan is sheer poetry compared with Dan Quayle’s version when he addressed the United Negro College Fund: “… what a waste it is to lose one’s mind or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” (The New York Times, 6-29-89.)

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Don’t be cute!

Q: This is a comment, not a question. I always seem to catch your appearances on WNYC when I am not near a phone, thus I missed a chance to call in during the recent discussion of “cute.” The fact that one of your listeners heard New York City detectives using the word in a negative way struck me as owing to the strong influence of the Irish on the culture of the NYPD.

I have spent a good deal of time over the years with relatives in Ireland, where the word “cute” has always seemed to mean “clever,” but in a pejorative sense. Dubliners, for example, refer to the people from Cork as being “very cute,” implying: “Keep an eye on your wallet.”

I would maintain that this usage is not, as stated on the program, derived from our contemporary meaning of the word (usually said of attractive children), but rather from the Latin acutus, meaning sharpened. Pardon the pedantry. I guess it is my way of making up for all the Latin that I was forced to endure over the years—and now the Pope seems to be threatening to bring it all back!

A: Thanks for your interesting comments. I wish you’d been near a phone when I appeared last on the Leonard Lopate Show!

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees with you that “cute” comes from the Latin word acutus. In fact, the earliest published references for “cute” in the OED, going back to the 18th century, use the word to mean acute, clever, or shrewd, much as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson used “acute” in the 16th century.

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Casualties of war

Q: Often I notice war commentators using the term “casualty” to mean a fatality. The word should refer to someone who is killed, injured, or taken prisoner, not just a fatality. Am I missing something?

A: When it first came into English, in the early 1400s, “casualty” meant chance or accident (the fuller form was “casuality”). By the late 1400s, it was being used to mean a chance occurrence or an accident, especially an unfortunate one.

In recent centuries, “casualty” in the military sense has meant any kind of loss, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the word has referred to “losses sustained by a body of men in the field or on service, by death, desertion, etc.” as well as to “an individual killed, wounded, or injured.”

That meaning has survived to the present day, and current dictionaries agree that “casualties” include deaths as well as injuries and other losses.

The entry for “casualty” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, includes this definition: “a military person lost through death, wounds, injury, sickness, internment, or capture or through being missing in action.”

So, you’re right—and, no, you’re not missing something!

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Puny tunes

Q: I’ve been reading to my daughter from a book that was written in the 1940s and takes place in the ‘20s. A character refers to a young woman as “puny” and, given the context, means it as a compliment. I understand “puny” to mean small and weak, and my dictionary agrees with me. Do you have any other info?

A: This is a situation in which English borrows a word from another language, then splits it in two: two different spellings with two different meanings.

The word “puny” comes from the Old French word puisne, meaning born later. It originally was something like “junior,” and when it was adopted into English (in the 1300s) it was spelled “puisne.”

Later (in the 1500s) the phonetic spelling “puny” came into being. But interestingly, both spellings, “puisne” and “puny,” survived (they’re pronounced identically), and the two words gradually took on different meanings, Today, “puisne” means junior, subordinate, or lower in rank, while “puny” has come to mean primarily feeble or weak or small. “Puisne” isn’t seen much in American writing, and is chiefly used in Britain.

In American English, “puny” means inferior in size, strength, or significance, and is sometimes used to refer to people who are sick or ailing. It’s had these meanings for the last couple of hundred years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It could be that the book you’re referring to used “puny” in the sense of tiny, and was meant affectionately (as in “my little chickadee”). One of the pleasures of older books is that you come across meanings that take you by surprise.

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Missing links

Q: Recently, I’ve noticed a more frequent use of the expression “having said that.” I think I’ve heard it most often from TV political reporters. It’s used without reference to something having been said, more as a linking expression akin to “and so.” Have you noticed this? It strikes me as yet another superfluous phrase that has slipped into common usage.

A: Yes, I’ve noticed this too. In many cases, the phrase “having said that” is a lazy connective device, along with “that said,” “that being said,” and others. What the writer really means is “I’ve finished saying that and now I’ll say this.” Such phrases can be plopped into sentences quite freely in an effort to make a speaker’s (or writer’s) thoughts seem more organized than they really are.

In some cases, though, these phrases do serve a purpose—to introduce an objection to something previously mentioned (“that being said, I think the evidence suggests otherwise”).

Recent draft additions to the Oxford English Dictionary include a half-dozen citations for this usage going back to the early 20th century. (Technically, these are phrases used to introduce concessive clauses.)

Here’s a 1908 quotation from a Canadian newspaper, the Manitoba Morning Free Press: “The story of Sir James Douglas might have been told in smaller compass … That being said, James Douglas certainly deserved a place among the makers of Canada.”

These phrases don’t bother me as long as they serve a legitimate purpose. But often they’re meaningless, and just enable the speaker or writer to jump from subject to subject with no real link in between.

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“Had” tricks

Q: Every time I hear you on WNYC, I think about my grammar-school English teacher (calling it grammar school reveals my age, I think). He had a test that I am sure you are familiar with. Punctuate the following: John where James had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher

A: Whew! It takes some doing to get one’s mind around that hunk of words, but here goes:

John, where James had had “had had,” had had “had.” “Had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.

I have to admit that I had (or had had) a bit of help here. Some time ago a listener sent me a similar puzzle, not precisely this one but close.

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A case of backwardness

Q: I’m curious about the usage of “backward” and “backwards” as adverbs. Are they interchangeable? My summer-school teacher didn’t seem to know and I knew you would.

A: In Britain, the adverb is commonly spelled “backwards,” but the usual spelling in American English is without the final “s.” However, both ways are correct—with or without the “s.” The one you choose is a matter of taste.

Interestingly, the usual American spelling of the adverb is older than the “s” version commonly seen in Britain, going back to around the year 1300, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s first citation for the adverb “backwards” is from 1513.

One last point: although the adverb can be spelled either way, the adjective “backward” (as in “a backward glance” or “their backward technology”) doesn’t have an “s” in standard English.

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Points about price

Q: When did the phrase “price point,” as in “we expect the $499 price point to be maintained,” become common usage? And will it (we hope) and its superfluous “point” disappear?

A: You may be surprised to learn (I know I was!) that the expression “price point” goes back to the 1890s and has been in use pretty steadily since then.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Denton (Md.) Journal of April 21, 1894: “Women’s capes … More than five hundred styles of them, reaching up to—almost any price point you please.”

The OED describes “price point” as a marketing term originating in the U.S. and meaning “a retail price, selected from the range of available or established prices as that most liable to attract consumers and ensure profitability.”

Despite the dictionary’s technical definition, I find that “price point” is often used in place of plain old “price.” And I too find the “point” superfluous (not to mention annoying) in ordinary usage. But I wouldn’t bet on its disappearance. I just googled “price point” and got nearly 2 million hits!

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A deconstruction site

Q: Eek! Apropos of current usage, what do you make of the verb “deconstruct,” now popularly used for analyzing something to discover its inner truth. As far as I know, it really refers to a particular brand of literary criticism that exposes how elusive meaning can be in any text. How odd that it should be used to suggest finding out what the actual meaning is.

A: Great observation! You’re quite right, and this had never occurred to me. I often hear people use “deconstruct” these days as a verb meaning to make sense of something. In fact, “deconstruct” might better be described as a verb meaning to show how impossible it is to make sense of something, though I imagine literary scholars would object to such a glib definition.

Despite its wide usage, I don’t find this new meaning in either The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) or Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). The traditional definition is still the first one listed in the “deconstruct” entry in Merriam-Webster’s, but it’s second in American Heritage. The primary definition in American Heritage is to break down something into components.

The earliest published reference for “deconstruct” in the Oxford English Dictionary is in a 1973 translation from Jacques Derrida, the constructor of deconstruction: “One cannot attempt to deconstruct this transcendence.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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An annual exam

Q: Is it ever correct to use the term “first annual”?

A: I see the problem you have with this expression: the word “annual” seems unnecessary.

But I think “first annual” makes a certain amount of sense. Calling an event the “first annual” whatever lets people know two things: (1) this is the first time the event has been held, and (2) the intention is that subsequently it will be held every year.

For what it’s worth, the expression has been with us for quite some time. Here’s a 1796 citation from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Report of the Board of Health, at the first annual Meeting, May 27.” I imagine I could find even older references if I did some more poking around.

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Subs and Burbs

Q: Does the “sub” in “suburban” mean substitute and refer to a place that’s a substitute for an urban area? Or does it mean subordinate and refer to a place that’s secondary to a city?

A: Neither, it seems.

One of the meanings of the prefix “sub,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “near to (a particular region or point),” as in the Latin word suburbanus, which means just what you’d think it does. So “suburban” in English means near or adjacent to a city.

The adjective “suburban,” by the way, goes back in English to the early 17th century. The first citation in the OED (from The Faithful Friends, a play of disputed authorship) refers to “some suburbane strumpet.”

The noun “suburb” is even older, going back to the 14th century. In The Canterbury Tales (“The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue”), Chaucer refers to “the suburbes of a toun.”

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“Am I being an old fart?”

Q: I write and edit a weekly newsletter and people come to me with grammar concerns, but I sometimes have questions of my own and nowhere to turn. One thing that comes up a lot is the use of “over” vs. “more than.” I had learned to use “more than” if you’re talking about numbers: “There were more than 50 people at the party.” But everyone else seems to say, “There were over 50 people at the party.” Is this a case where the language has evolved? Am I being an old fart?

A: Many people who consider themselves sticklers insist that “over” shouldn’t be used for “more than” in a sentence like this: “I’ve seen more than a dozen Bergman films.” These fusspots believe “over” should refer to a higher physical location (“the Goodyear blimp flew over the ballpark”), not to a higher number.

But “over” and “more than” have been used interchangeably for six centuries or more, Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage. He says “the charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for “over” with numbers or quantities since Anglo-Saxon days. Here’s an example of “over” with a number in Jane Austen’s novel Emma: “It had not been over five minutes, when in came Harriet.”

Theodore M. Bernstein, in Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, says the “superstition” apparently originated with Ambrose Bierce, who didn’t give any reason for objecting to the use of “over” with numbers.

I also discuss this widespread misconception in “The Living Dead,” the chapter on grammar myths in my book Woe Is I.

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Days of infamy

Q: Lately it seems that newscasters and newspapers are regularly using “infamous” to mean noteworthy or famous. Is this another lost cause?

A: “Infamous” instead of “famous”! What is the world coming to?

No, it’s not a lost cause … yet. Celebrated people, the merely famous, don’t cross the line into infamous until, like Lindsay Lohan and a few others I could mention, their fame gets the better of them.

Famed people are famous, and ill-famed people are infamous (and deserving of infamy).

You’re right, however, that some people are using “infamous” to mean famous. And naturally the issue has been discussed on the Linguist List, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society.

Jonathan E. Lighter, editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, has posted several examples, including these two from 2005:

• The restaurant Simpson’s-in-the-Strand is described in View London, an online guide, as “infamous for being one of London’s most historic restaurants.”

• Victory Records calls the hardcore band Hoods “infamous for their determination and no holds barred work ethic.”

The Yale linguist Laurence R. Horn has also noticed this phenomenon, but he doesn’t think it’s a simple case of “infamous” being used for “famous,” at least not so far. He says the new “infamous” means something like “famous in a pop-cultural domain” or “famous (only) for being famous.”

To test his theory, I did two Internet searches similar to a couple of his. I Googled “infamous Paris Hilton” (693 hits) and “infamous Albert Schweitzer” (0 hits). Hmm.…

Of course, one could argue that someone who writes about Paris Hilton is more likely to be a dim bulb than someone who writes about Albert Schweitzer. Excluding yours truly, naturally!

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Dutch treats

Q: I’m not sure if you’ve ever been asked about the phrase “going Dutch,” but I’m curious about its origins.

A: The expression “to go Dutch” means to pay your own way, or to split the check. “Dutch treat,” “Dutch lunch,” “Dutch party,” and “Dutch supper” are other ways of referring to paying your own way or bringing your own food—and suggesting that the Dutch are stingy penny-pinchers.

Those are among many derisive expressions that the Oxford English Dictionary traces to the rivalry and enmity between the English and the Dutch in the 17th century.

To be “in Dutch” means to be in disfavor, for example, and a “Dutch auction” is one in which the bidding starts high and gradually drops down to a fair price.

Quite a few expressions allude to the supposed drinking habits of the Dutch (a 1654 citation in the OED, for example, refers to “Dutch Bargains…made in drinke”).

Typical of the anti-Dutch slights is this quotation from the Fielding novel Tom Jones (1749): “I’m afraid Mr. Jones maintained a kind of Dutch defence, and treacherously delivered up the garrison without duly weighing his allegiance to the fair Sophia.”

Nowadays, of course, friends often “go Dutch” by pre-arrangement, and no offense is taken.

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The ring of truth

Q: Did the slang term “ringer” originally refer to someone who brings people into a carnie show?

A: I’ve searched the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources, but I can’t find any evidence that the term was ever used to mean a barker at a carnie show.

The noun “ringer” has lots of other meanings, of course, including a horseshoe thrown around a stake as well as somebody who rings a bell or chime. The two most common slang definitions are someone who looks like another person, and a contestant entered dishonestly into a competition.

Since about 1785, the verb “ring” has meant to manipulate or change illicitly, according to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. An 1812 citation in the OED defines “to ring castors” as to leave a shabby hat in church and take a good one in its place. (A “castor” is an old term for hat.)

The noun “ringer” was later used to describe something stolen and then altered or disguised, like a horse. And since the 1890s, “ringer” has also been used to describe a horse or athlete or other competitor entered fraudulently. An 1890 citation in the OED refers to “the most notorious ‘ringer’ on the turf.”

Evan Morris’s Word Detective website says the idiom “ring of truth” harks back to the early 19th century, when counterfeit coins were common. Merchants detected fakes by dropping coins on the counter and listening to the sound. The ring of an adulterated coin would be dull compared to the sound of one made from pure silver or gold.

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