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Through the looking glass

Q: Please comment on the much-used term “transparent.” It has crept out of the political dialogue into general usage. Most people who use the word to mean frank or open are in fact more opaque than transparent. In fact, they’re about as transparent as jabberwocky.

A: I agree with you that many of the people who use “transparent” to refer to openness or frankness probably aren’t all that open or frank themselves! But I wouldn’t go so far as to compare them to the Jubjub bird or the frumious Bandersnatch.

Although the adjective “transparent” may sound modern to many ears, it’s actually been around for quite some time. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1413.

The word initially meant (and still does mean) capable of transmitting light and being easily seen through, but the metaphoric use of “transparent” for candid or open is pretty old too. In fact, the OED’s first citation is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590):

Transparent Helena, nature shews art,
That through thy bosome makes me see thy heart.

To be honest, I haven’t noticed a huge surge in the use (or abuse) of “transparent.” But now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll probably start seeing and hearing it everywhere.

Meanwhile, have a frabjous day!

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Is ‘ain’t’ misbehaving?

Q: I keep coming across “ain’t” in the dialogue of characters, whether they be upper class or lower, in Victorian novels, most recently in A. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. Since I was brought up to avoid that word, I am puzzled by its presence. Is it OK in the UK but not in the USA?

A: “Ain’t” is quite a phenomenon. It has kept linguists busy for generations (and knuckle-rapping grammarians for centuries), but I’ll try to summarize.

Historically, “ain’t” appears to have evolved in the late 1700s from an earlier form, “an’t,” which was first recorded in the late 1600s but was probably common in speech early in that century. So let’s start with the earlier form.

“An’t” was originally a contraction of “am not” (as in “I an’t going”) and “are not” (as in “you an’t” or “we an’t” or “they an’t”). The earliest published citations are 1695 (for “an’t” = “am not”) and 1696 (for “an’t” = “are not”).

But as early as 1710, “an’t” was also being used in place of “isn’t” as a contraction for “is not,” as in “that an’t fair,” or “he an’t here.”

These citations come from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and are earlier than those in the Oxford English Dictionary.

As for correctness, the OED labels “an’t” = “are not” simply as a contraction (presumably as correct as, say, “isn’t” or “don’t”). But it labels “an’t” = “am not” as a colloquial usage; that is to say, it was somewhat less correct. And finally the OED labels “an’t” = “is not” as an illiterate usage.

Thus, so far we have (1) the legitimate “an’t” – a contraction of “are not”; (2) the colloquial “an’t” – a contraction of “am not”; and (3) the illiterate “an’t” – a contraction for “is not.”

Strictly speaking, by the way, the contraction for “am not” should be “a’n’t” or “amn’t,” and in fact people once used “amn’t”; they still do in Irish English and Scots English.

Meanwhile, in the late 1700s people began spelling “an’t” as “ain’t,” which may have been closer to the way it was pronounced at the time. (A common pronunciation of “are,” for example, was “air.”) Before long, “ain’t” became the usual spelling, and by the late 1800s, “an’t” had disappeared. What disappeared along with it were any claims that “ain’t” may have had to being a legitimate contraction.

Keep in mind that “an’t” came along at a time when a large family of English contractions was being formed: words like “don’t,” “won’t,” “can’t,” “isn’t,” and many more that we now consider standard English.

“An’t” (and later “ain’t”) was just one of the crowd for many years, and was used by the upper classes as well as the lower, educated and otherwise. You see it in a lot of late 18th-century and early 19th-century English novels in the mouths of ladies and gentlemen.

But “ain’t” was different from the rest, and in the 19th century, criticisms arose. The other contractions seemed to have a clearly traceable parentage, while “ain’t” was all over the place. It just wasn’t as clear in its derivation as a word like “don’t” (do not), or “can’t” (cannot), or “won’t” (will not).

And to complicate the picture even further, uses of “ain’t” started multiplying, so that it was used as a contraction of “has not” (as in “he ain’t been here”) and “have not” (as in “we ain’t seen him”). Chaos!

For all these reasons, since the 19th century “ain’t” hasn’t been considered a legitimate contraction and is still described in dictionaries as “nonstandard.” But it does live on, and probably always will. When educated people use it now, though, they probably intend a kind of reverse snobbery or are trying for a humorous effect.

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Back in the day

(A new posting on “back in the day” appeared Sept. 12, 2012.)

Q: If you haven’t already addressed this subject, could you shed some light on the expression “back in the day.” Perhaps it maintains the illusion of youth – not sounding as fogy-like as “when I was young” or “years ago.”

A: The expression is derived from African-American or hip-hop slang dating back to the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as black teenage slang meaning, roughly, “once upon a time.”

I think its meaning is more nuanced than that, though. A WNYC listener once explained the phrase to me, and her explanation was so helpful that I’ll just share it with you:

“Those of us who grew up in the Bronx (or ‘da Bronx’) during the inception of hip hop use the phrase ‘back in da day’ to refer to the years (early 1980s) when we were pioneers molding and shaping hip-hop culture. In other words, the days when the boundaries were being pushed and we were making it up as we went along.

” ‘Da Day,’ at least for my age group, usually refers to the times of ‘old school rap’: Doug E Fresh, Slick Rick, Funky Four, Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash (whereas Run DMC would be at the tail end of old school).

“As the phrase spread, the white community seemed to use it to refer to its high school years or a ‘back in the day when I was cool’ kind of thing.

“Since I am a bit older (pushing 40), I think that this phrase may have taken on a different meaning for younger kids, but among those of us who participated in the intensely segregated culture of the late ’70s and early ‘80s, I think that we universally refer to those times.

“One other point: Although my generation really founded this phrase, we also use it to describe the ‘hard days’ of our parents and grandparents. Such as back in the days of the Civil Rights movement, or back in the days of Jim Crow, or back in the days when they lived in the islands.

“The important distinction is that ‘da day’ always refers to a significant period where people had to make the decision as to whether they were going to break through certain cultural boundaries or not.”

Thanks for the question, and I hope this helps.

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An interesting preposition

Q: I am helping a friend translate a letter from Italian into English. He wants to use the English phrase “interested to do,” but I told him the proper construction is “interested in doing.” He said he did a Google search and found more hits for “interested to” than “interested in.” Would you offer your opinion?

A: The standard construction is “interested in” followed by a gerund, like “doing.” We show an interest in something, not to it. (There’s a very handy book, Words Into Type, that has a long list of verbs together with the prepositions they usually take.)

It’s true that in casual speech many people say things like “I was interested to hear such and such,” but this wouldn’t be acceptable in formal writing.

By the way, I did my own googling and found just over 2 million hits for “interested to” and 346 million hits for “interested in.” It looks as if the ins have it by a wide margin.

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A Jamesian mystery

Q: Why is the reign of King James I of England referred to as Jacobean instead of Jamesian? Answer me that one! We don’t use the term “Jacobean” to refer to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, do we?

A: You can blame Latin for your confusion. In New Latin (the Latin used since about 1500), the name “James” was Jacobaeus. In Late Latin (the Latin from the 3d to 7th centuries), it was Iacobus.

Hence the reign of James I and his times came to be referred to as Jacobean, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

King James himself, however, wasn’t responsible for this. No one used the term “Jacobean” to refer to his period until the mid-19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

James I reigned from 1603 to 1625, succeeding Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1558 to 1603. In 1933, the English poet John Betjeman coined the term “Jacobethan” to refer to the combined Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

A Jacobite, by the way, refers to someone who supported the return of the Stuart Kings to the English and Scottish thrones in the 17th and 18th centuries. The term comes from James II and other Jacobite Stuarts.

I’ve probably given you more history than you wanted. So, I’ll quit now before adding another turn of the screw.

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The right orientation

Q: Hi! I would like to know if it is correct to use “orientate” instead of “orient.”

A: Although “orientate” is a very common usage in Britain, the simpler and older and more straightforward “orient” is preferred in the United States.

The verb “orientate” originated in the mid-19th century and may be a back-formation from the noun “orientation.” (A back-formation is a word created by dropping a prefix or suffix from an existing word – in this case, dropping the “ion” at the end of “orientation.”)

The noun “orientation” itself is derived from “orient,” which was originally both an adjective and a noun. By the 18th century, however, “orient” had also evolved into a verb.

“Orientate,” the longer word that’s popular in Britain, is considered a needless variant by most American usage experts. It’s easy to see why. The verb “orient” is older and more succinct. But the British have their ways, we have ours.

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Is he an old fuddy-duddy?

Q: Some supposedly educated people pronounce the word “mischievous” as mis-CHEE-vee-us instead of MIS-cheh-vus. Surely that rather demonstrates an ignorance of the word’s spelling, if nothing else. I’ve always thought that unless one keeps one’s standards up, the language will degenerate into a series of grunts and snarls. Am I right, or am I just an old fuddy-duddy?

A: You may be an old fuddy-duddy, but you’re also right.

“Mischievous” is among the most frequently mispronounced words in American English, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage. As you point out, it’s correctly pronounced MIS-cheh-vus.

In addition to being mispronounced, “mischievous” is often misspelled, but both vices have a long history. The common misspelling “mischievious” (note the extra “i”) goes back to the 16th century, so the mispronunciation (mis-CHEE-vee-us) probably does too.

I can’t explain why this mispronunciation is so common. It may be that people are picking up the sounds of words like “previous,” “devious,” and “lascivious”

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Noblesse oblige

Q: I see no significant reason to have both “oblige” and “obligate.” Any subtle differences in meaning seem fatuous. The first version is sufficient to provide the sense of its usage. (I’m British, so I may be a bit of a pedant.) I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A: I’m obliged to you for your comments, but I disagree with you about those two words. They serve different purposes in ordinary usage, and in fact are treated differently by lexicographers.

The verb “oblige” (to bind by oath, contract, promise, etc.) dates back to 1325, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Obligate,” which came along in 1533, adds a moral dimension to the sense of obligation; it means to bind morally, or to put (a person) under a moral obligation.

Certainly there is some overlapping, especially in modern usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, says one of the meanings of both words is to cause to be grateful or indebted. But on the whole most people, I believe, use “oblige” and “obligate” differently.

We usually say “I was obliged to move,” not “I was obligated to move.” When we say “I am obliged to you,” we may simply mean “Thank you”; there is no moral imperative to do something in return. But when we say “I am obligated to you,” we imply a duty or responsibility to pay the debt back in kind.

Furthermore, when we say “Can you oblige me by doing such-and-such?” or “I can oblige you in this,” we are usually speaking of something done as a favor or an accommodation (in this sense, “oblige” is a synonym for “accommodate”).

So I think the subtle differences are enough to justify the two different words.

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An abuser manual

Q: I used to listen to you live on WNYC when I lived in the NY area. Now that I’m in Idaho, I hear you on the Web. We recently bought an iron at Macy’s (yes we have them in Boise, too.) The owner’s manual, along with a few awful academic papers, has some of the worst writing I’ve read. I’m attaching a scan of the cover and an inside page so you know I’m not making this up.

A: I would have believed you even without the scans. You can’t make this stuff up. I’ll copy a sentence from the manual for readers of The Grammarphobia Blog:

“The inside of the soleplate can be cleaned after some usage calcium build up has occurred inside the soleplate by holding the iron over the ironing table placing a towel on the ironing table and allowing it to steam freely for a minute or 2 under the self cleaning position on the variable steam button-some dirty water droplets will come out onto the towel.”

I know some very good technical writers, but the bad ones can be b-a-a-d! It’s actually difficult to write like that. You have to work for a small-appliance manufacturer that sends you to a special school where you’re deprogrammed and then infused with great gobs of obfuscation.

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Not to mention the goldfish

Q: After years of using the phrase “not to mention,” I wonder if I should be writing “not to forget” instead. It seems illogical to use “not to mention” to introduce something that you’re about to mention, as in this sentence: “My favorite desserts are apple pie and cheesecake, not to mention chocolate ice cream.”

A: The phrase you mention (“not to mention”) is an idiomatic expression in English similar to another one, “let alone.” What the speaker means is that the thing that follows, whatever it is, hardly needs to be mentioned, or is to be taken almost for granted, or is so obvious that it’s practically unnecessary to say it.

Examples: “She has three dogs and five cats, not to mention the goldfish.” Or: “We’ve never been to Canada or Mexico, let alone Asia.”

It’s true, as you say, that the thing not to be mentioned is in fact mentioned, just as the thing to be let alone is NOT let alone; it is in fact very relevant. Such are the oddities of idiom!

Although “not to mention” may not make literal sense, it’s been in common use in English since at least the 17th century. The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Milton’s 1644 treatise Of Education: “Not to mention the learned correspondence which you hold in forreigne parts ….”

However, we’ve found earlier 17th-century uses, including this one from a treatise on the Anglican liturgy, criticizing the servants of “Don Beel-zebub” for encouraging equivocation and deception:

“Not to mention here their vnsufferable correcting, yea corrupting of all Authors” (An Exposition of the Dominicall Epistles and Gospels Used in Our English Liturgie, 1622, by John Boys, Dean of Canterbury).

We were asked not long ago about another idiomatic expression, “it’s not for nothing that” (meaning “it’s significant that” or “there’s a reason that”). We found many citations for this usage in the OED, including this one from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “It was not for nothing that my nose fell a bleeding on blacke monday last.”

Speakers (or writers) use expressions like these – “not to mention,” “let alone,” “not for nothing,” and so on – as signals to clue the listener/reader in to the greater (or lesser) significance of what follows.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 16, 2023.]

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Bacon, bats, and girls

Q: As a child, I attended an all-girls’ academy up in Albany, NY. Every year, we had a field day that included sports and a picnic. This outing was traditionally called a Bacon Bat. The bacon part I get (there was a barbecue involved in the original Bacon Bat). But what is a “Bat”? I don’t think this has anything to do with baseball. Is there some kind of old-fashioned meaning for “Bat”?

A: A slang meaning for “bat,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) is binge or spree. So, a Bacon Bat could be a bacon binge. But the term “bat” suggests drinking and carousing. I’m not sure your girls’ academy had that in mind.

The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that this usage may be derived from “on the batter,” meaning on a binge, a British expression that originated in the early 19th century.

The first published reference in the OED for “bat” as binge dates from 1848: “Zenas had been on ‘a bat’ during the night previous.” The last citation is in Evelyn Waugh’s 1941 novel Put Out More Flags: “Why don’t you switch to rum? It’s much better for you …. When did you start on this bat?”

Again, I doubt that your school had booze in mind when field day was named a Bacon Bat. But it’s the best that I can come up with.

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Watch your aitches

Q: When I was a young lad, I learned to use “a” in front of words that start with a consonant and “an” in front of words starting with vowels. I was taught to make an exception for words pronounced differently than they are spelled. For example, it is “a Ouija board” because the “O” is pronounced like “w.” And it is “an hour” because “hour” sounds as if it starts with “o.” However, I hear people, especially politicians, say “an historic” while pronouncing the “h.” Isn’t this incorrect? Some British speakers use “an historic” with a silent “h,” which is OK for me, but “an” in front of a hard “h” sounds wrong.

A: You’re right on all counts. The short answer is that “an history,” in the mouth of somebody who pronounces the “h,” is an affectation.

The rule is that you use “a” before a word or acronym that starts with a consonant SOUND (“a eulogy,” “a hotel,” “a unicorn,” “a YMCA”), and you use “an” before a word or acronym that starts with a vowel SOUND (“an uproar,” “an hour,” “an unending saga,” “an M&M cookie”).

It’s not the LETTER at the start of the word or acronym that determines the article; it’s the SOUND. So a word starting with “h” can go either way. Similarly, it’s correct to say “a rhinoceros” but “an RFP from a client,” because the letter “R” is pronounced as if it begins with a vowel.

There has been a long fluctuation in the pronunciation of the initial “h” in an unstressed syllable (as in “historic”), according to the grammarian George O. Curme.

In literary usages, it was long common in England to drop the “h” sound if the syllable was not stressed, and to use “an” instead of “a.” This is no longer the case. (In the US, in Ireland, in Scotland, and in extreme northern England, people never did drop their aitches.)

Nowadays standard English pronunciation, both here and in Britain, calls for sounding the “h.” Not all Brits do, though, so it’s natural they would say “an ’istory.” 

When you see “an” before a word beginning with “h” in British literature, that means the “h” was pronounced either weakly or not at all. In the 1500s, this was true even for words of one syllable (“hill”), and of words in which the first syllable was stressed (“history,” “hundred,” “humble”). That’s why you will see “an hundred” in Shakespeare and “an hill” in the King James version of the Bible.

Later on, aitches were dropped in literary usage only with unstressed syllables, and to this day some British writers persist in using “an hotel” or “an historic.” But that too is now falling away and is considered overly “literary,” even in England. In fact, Henry Fowler called it “pedantic” back in 1926.

In my opinion, the persistence of some Americans in writing and saying “an historic” or “an hotel” is another example of Anglophilia gone haywire.

This is probably more than you wanted to know. But if you’re still game, I have two related items on the blog: one about “herb” and the other about “homage.”

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A dark and goosey night

Q: Time flies. Halloween will be here before long. Last year, you talked about names for the night before Halloween. When growing up in the 1950s, the night before Halloween was known as Goosey Night in the Paterson/Clifton area of New Jersey. It was Cabbage Night in Jersey City when my grandfather was growing up. It was the generic Mischief Night in other parts of northern NJ.

A: Thanks for your comment, but before I respond let me say a few words about Halloween itself, a holiday with roots in the pre-Christian British Isles. It began with a Celtic festival, Samhain, that marked the end of the harvest season.

The Celts referred to the last night of October, the eve of Samhain, as the night of all witches, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As Christianity took hold, Samhain was transformed into All Hollows’ Day (or All Saints’ Day). And the eve of Samhain, in turn, became All Hallow Even (the Eve of All Saints’ Day). All Hallow Even, of course, evolved into Halloween.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary has references for “all hallows,” meaning all saints, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, the first citation for “All Hallow Even” doesn’t appear until the mid-16th century.

As for your comment, it confirms what a great many listeners wrote to tell me last fall. Cabbage Night, Goosey Night, Devil’s Night, Mischief Night, and so on, were the night BEFORE Halloween, not Halloween itself.

Now I know when I should be doing all that mischief!

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Stop on it!

Q: A word from France on your post about stop signs. Using the verb stopper to mean stop is considered a barbarism here because we have a perfectly acceptable equivalent, arrêter. But stopper has another meaning that is quite acceptable – to darn or repair small tears and holes in clothing. Stoppage – stopping a hole from getting larger – used to be a common service here, but as the price of labor has risen and the price of clothing has dropped, this painstaking repair service has disappeared. Is there a similar usage in English?

A: One meaning of the verb “stop” in English is to close an opening or a hole (“Her hair stopped the shower drain”). Another meaning is to fill up, repair, or make good (The plumber stopped the leak”).

Indeed, the verb “stop” has been used in English as far back as the 15th century to refer to mending a garment, though I don’t see any modern references for this usage in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Nevertheless, I remember hearing the word “stop” used to refer to interrupting the course of a run in a nylon stocking – this was back in the days when nylon stockings were common.

If a woman saw or (and this was an odd sensation as I recall) felt a run start creeping up or down her leg, she grabbed a bottle of nail polish to “stop” the run.

This really dates me, I know! Microfiber stockings have put a “stop” to that, for the most part.

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The $64,000 question

Q: I was looking through some letters online from people who lived in the 19th century and I noted that they wrote more, shall I say, elegantly than we do. I’ve read collected letters from contemporary people and have not found near the level of style and sophistication that I see exhibited in the letters of people who lived more than a century ago. We tend to use lots of $50 words where a $1 word will do, but the people from the past had a flair for sophisticated prose without seeming pretentious. Why is this?

A: That is the $64,000 question. The fact is that in the 19th century people understood more about sentence structure (they learned grammar in school, for example), read more (and I’m talking about literature), and regarded letter writing as an invaluable skill.

If you have a chance, look at some letters that Civil War soldiers wrote home. Privates with only a few years of formal education wrote more clearly than many college students do now. Simple language became eloquent in their hands.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Are we losing “-ed” adjectives?

Q: Have you noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective? I see lots of signs that say “ice tea” and people talk about “mix tapes.”

A: No, we haven’t noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective, though some words that began life with the suffix are often seen without it.

For example, the use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, while “damn” used in this sense didn’t appear until the late 18th century and is now much more popular.

The loss of the “-ed” ending here is is no surprise. The fact is that “-ed” can be awkward to pronounce before a consonant. This can sometimes lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

As for the chilled tea served over ice, both “iced tea” and “ice tea” showed up in the 19th century (the version with “d” in 1839 and one without it in 1842, according to citations in theOxford English Dictionary). You can find both versions in standard dictionaries now, though the suffixed one is far more popular.

A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, shows that “iced tea” is five times as popular as “ice tea.” And the longer version is even more popular in a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books up until 2008. 

In short, the “-ed” adjective is alive and well in writing, though it’s often dropped in speech. We’re used to hearing things like “corn beef,” “mash potatoes,” “grill cheese,” “chop liver,” and “whip cream,” but people generally preserve the “-ed” endings in writing these noun phrases.

As for the compilation of music from multiple sources, it’s usually “mixtape” now, though it was “mix tape” when it showed up in writing in the 1980s and has sometimes been “mix-tape,” according to our searches of newspaper databases. It has seldom been written as “mixed tape.” The word “mix” in the compound “mixtape” is an attributive noun—one used adjectivally.

[Note: This post was updated on July 12, 2019.]

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The theory of devolution

Q: I am frequently hearing speakers, especially on NPR, using the verb “devolve” to refer to a negative development or change, e.g., “The political debate devolved into a brawl.” Has the meaning of the word evolved? Or have NPR announcers never learned about the War of Devolution?

A: “Devolve,” a word that dates back to 1420 (almost 250 years before the War of Devolution between France and Spain), literally means to roll or revolve downward. It was originally used in the physical sense (for example, rivers devolving to the sea), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but those literal uses are all now obscure or archaic.

By the mid-1500s “devolve” was used to refer to the handing down or passing down of something to a successor or heir. (The thing devolved might be property, duties, responsibilities, rights, or obligations.) And that’s roughly how we use it today.

A briefly used negative sense, “to fall or sink gradually, to degenerate,” is considered obscure by the OED, which has no citations for it since the early 1800s. This negative usage isn’t even listed in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). However (and I think oddly), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), does include it as the last among its definitions.

Perhaps the NPR folks you mention are reviving an old obscurity? It’s more likely, though, that the verb they mean is “degenerate.”

As for that 17th century war, it was fought over the devolution of Spanish-ruled Belgium and Luxembourg (in other words, who would get them) when the Spanish king’s daughter married the king of France. No Belgian waffling in those days!

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Kansas City, here I come

Q: I saw a story on the NPR website with this title: “Kansas City’s Wholesome Image Belies Mob Past.” I would have expected Kansas City’s mob past to belie its wholesome image, not the other way around. How can an image belie a reality? Have I got things backwards?

A: I checked out the NPR story. Who knew Kansas City had such a rich history of mob bosses and rubouts? But on to your question about “belie,” which means, among other things, to show something to be a lie or to give a false impression.

Other definitions include to picture falsely, to misrepresent, or to show to be false, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Additional references, including the Oxford English Dictionary, give even more meanings: to falsify, to disguise a person or thing so it appears other than it is, to deny the truth of, to contradict as a lie, or to run counter to.

So it would be correct, according to these definitions, to say either that Kansas City’s past belies its reputation (fact belies image) or that its reputation belies its past (image belies fact). I think many people use “belie” simply to mean to conceal or distort the truth, which is a legitimate usage.

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Ever more or less

Q: Thanks for the lessons! And I’d like your opinion of the phrase “ever since,” which sounds redundant to me. My little Random House dictionary prefers “It has been raining since noon” to “It has been raining ever since noon.”

A: My big Random House dictionary doesn’t have anything to say against “ever since” and uses “ever since then” in an example. In that expression, the “ever” serves to add emphasis.

You may regard “ever since” as redundant (and sometimes it is), but it has its uses and is firmly entrenched in idiomatic English. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for it dating back to the early 18th century: “The Coffee-houses have ever since been my chief Places of Resort” (Joseph Addison, 1714).

The grammarian Otto Jespersen, in Essentials of English Grammar, explains that “ever” is often used loosely in casual speech, as in “Who ever told you that’s a robin’s egg?” or “We saw ever so many bluebirds.” In some expressions, he adds, it corresponds roughly to “always,” as in “Ever since their marriage.”

There may be times, though, when “ever” is redundant. It certainly is in the phrases “rarely ever” (“rarely” or “rarely if ever” is better), and “seldom ever” (“seldom” or “seldom if ever” is preferred).

Many times, though, the uses of “ever” are idiomatic (“Did she ever!” or “I’m ever so sorry”). They don’t always make sense literally, but are used as intensifiers or for emphasis.

I think “ever” serves a purpose if it helps to clarify something. For instance, someone might say her roses “bloomed yesterday for the first time ever.” That would mean they had NEVER bloomed before. If she’d said they “bloomed yesterday for the first time,” it might mean for the first time this season.

The issue isn’t one of correctness or incorrectness, but of gracefulness of expression. Sometimes “ever” serves a purpose, sometimes not.

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A scramble before eggs

Q: I know the words “preprandial” and “postprandial” refer to before and after dinner, respectively. Are there words for before and after breakfast?

A: In English, the adjective “prandial” means “of or relating to a meal,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), so it could refer to any meal.

“Preprandial” and “postprandial,” says American Heritage, mean before and after a meal, especially dinner. But they too could refer to before or after breakfast, lunch, supper, whatever.

In fact, if you were speaking to great Caesar’s ghost and you used the term “preprandial,” he’d probably think you meant before breakfast or lunch, not dinner! That’s because “prandial” comes from the Latin prandium (a late breakfast or lunch).

The first published reference for “prandial” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the mid-1700s. The befores and afters, “preprandial” and “postprandial,” arrived on the scene in the early 1800s. For a while, both “anteprandial” and “preprandial” referred to before eating, but “pre” eventually bested “ante.”

The word “breakfast,” by the way, dates from 1463. It refers to the meal that we eat to “break” our overnight “fast.” That reminds me of a poem by Shelley that compares breakfasts “professional and critical” to dinners “convivial and political.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Heavens to Betsy!

Q: I saw the expression “Heavens to Betsy” in the paper the other day and it reminded me of my late, dearly beloved mother, who used to use it at least once a week. Where does the expression come from, and who was Betsy?

A: Word sleuths have long asked themselves the same questions about “Heavens to Betsy,” an exclamation of surprise, shock, or fear.

All they’ve been able to learn is that the expression can be traced to 19th-century America. But “Betsy” herself remains stubbornly anonymous. As the Oxford English Dictionary comments: “The origin of the exclamation Heavens to Betsy is unknown.”

The earliest published reference found so far, according to the OED, comes from an 1857 issue of Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine: “ ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, ‘I’ve cut my head off!’ ”

Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations, found this hyphenated example in an an 1878 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “Heavens-to-Betsy! You don’t think I ever see a copper o’ her cash, do ye?”

And the OED has this one from a short-story collection by Rose Terry Cooke, Huckleberries Gathered From New England Hills (1892): “’Heavens to Betsey!’ gasped Josiah.” (“Betsy,” as you can see, is spelled there with a second “e.”)

The OED says the word “heaven,” used chiefly in the plural, has appeared since the 1500s in “exclamations expressing surprise, horror, excitement, etc.” It’s frequently accompanied by an intensifying adjective, Oxford adds, as in “good heavens,” “gracious heavens,” “great heavens,” “merciful heavens,” and so on.

In later use, the dictionary says, “extended forms” have included “Heaven and earth,” “Heavens above,” “Heavens alive,” and “Heavens to Betsy,” which it says originated and is chiefly heard in the US.

Some people have suggested that the exclamation was inspired by the Minna Irving poem “Betsy’s Battle Flag” (about Betsy Ross) or the nickname of Davy Crockett’s rifle, Old Betsy, but language authorities have debunked these ideas.

In a posting to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, the etymologist Gerald Cohen has suggested that Betsy Ross may indeed have inspired the expression even if the Irving poem didn’t. He adds that “Heavens to Betsy” may be an elliptical way of saying “may the heavens be gracious to Betsy.”

As for any more definitive explanation, we can’t offer one. This is one of the many language mysteries that we simply have to live with.

It’s even possible that the expression referred to nobody in particular, and that “Betsy” was used simply because it was a familiar feminine name. The generic use of names isn’t uncommon in such expressions, as we’ve written in posts about “Tom, Dick, and Harry”  and “Johnny-come-lately.”

The lexicographer Charles Earle Funk, in his appropriately titled book Heavens to Betsy!, says he spent “an inordinate amount of time” on this problem before deciding that it’s “completely unsolvable.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 23, 2018.]

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English language Usage

You’re welcome!

Q: The next time you appear on the Leonard Lopate Show, I wish you would address the unfortunate demise of “You’re welcome.” No one uses it anymore. The automatic reply to “Thank you” is now “Thank you!” Am I the only one who didn’t get the memo? Is it an affront to say “You’re welcome?”

A: Listeners have e-mailed me before to suggest that when Leonard thanks me at the end of my appearance I should respond with “You’re welcome” instead of my usual “Thank you!” Why do I thank him back? Am I afraid that if I don’t I’ll be guilty of gratitude aversion? What goes on here?

In truth, I think the explanation is diffidence or plain modesty. When someone thanks me for being his guest, and I reply, “You’re welcome,” I’m granting that yes, indeed, my presence is rather a gift. He is quite right to thank me for showing up.

By saying “Thank you,” on the other hand, I’m implying that the honor is all mine, and that I’m in his debt, not the other way around.

That’s my explanation, but it’s really no excuse. The traditional reply is a gracious “You’re welcome.” And, by golly, I’ll say it next time. Thank you!

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Prior considerations

Q: There seems to be a trend in conversation these days to replace the more traditional “prior” with “previous” in certain prepositional phrases. For example, in Leonard Lopate’s recent interview with Alan Greenspan on WNYC, Greenspan uses the phrase “previous to that.” The word “prior” seems more appropriate here. Is it grammatically correct to use “previous” in such instances?

A: The phrases “prior to” and “previous to” have long histories, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Both date back to the 1600s.

They’re prepositions that can act as either adjectives or adverbs. We’ll invent an example with both kinds: “Construction prior to [adjective] 1900 is reviewed prior to [adverb] demolition.” In either case, “previous to” could be substituted, with no grammatical error.

In fact, both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “previous to” as “prior to” or “before.”

Grammar is one thing and style is another, however. “Prior” and “previous” all by themselves can be used as adjectives (“prior construction,” “previous regulations”) without raising any eyebrows.

But many style guides frown on the adverbial use of “prior to” and “previous to” in the sense of  “before.” Some critics have complained that “previous to” should be “previously to” when used as an adverb.

“Prior to” is more common in ordinary usage than “previous to.” (Google: “prior to,” 391 million hits; “previous to,” 2.5 million.) But we don’t particularly like either one. Using them for “before” is like using “subsequent to” for “after.” We much prefer “before” if it works.

Now we’ll sign off, prior to becoming cross-eyed.

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Need to know

Q: Hello from North Dakota. I’m writing about the rampant use of “need” to replace “must” or “should” or “ought” or “have to,” as in “you need to” or “he needs to.” I hear “need” used for all kinds of other things too. I was in Kmart and heard an employee there say to a shopper: “I need you to take that to the customer service counter.”

A: “Need” is a confusing verb. But the short answer is that your first examples (using “need to” to replace “must” or “should” or “ought to” or “have to”) are grammatically correct. I’ll get to the Kmart example later.

As a verb, “need” can be either the main verb (“he needs glasses”) or the auxiliary. Usually “need” is the auxiliary verb only on special occasions: in present-tense questions (“need he wear glasses?”), negative statements (“he need not wear glasses”), or conditional clauses (“if need be”).

Here’s the confusing part. As a main verb, “need” can also be used with the “to”-infinitive (as in “he needs to go”; “the house needs to be cleaned”), in much the same way we use auxiliary verbs like “can” or “may” or “must.” But this is a legitimate use of “need,” going back at least as far as the 14th century. We also pair it up with the present participle (“he needs talking to”; “the house needs cleaning”). This too is a legitimate use.

What some usage authorities consider illegitimate is dropping “to be” and using a PAST participle, as in “the house needs cleaned” or “that child needs spanked.” There’s a good explanation of this in the usage note with “need” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

However, this truncated expression (“needs washed,” “needs fixed,” and so on) is a well-known usage common to many widely scattered regions of the United States. It’s even more common in Britain, particularly northern England and Scotland. I would classify it as a dialectal usage, rather than incorrect.

There are two other ways to say this, both well established and both considered correct: “needs to be washed,” or “needs washing” (which I always heard as a kid growing up in Iowa). Since “washing” in this case is a gerund, meaning that it serves the function of a noun, “the car needs washing” is perfectly logical, like “he enjoys swimming.”

As for the Kmart example (“I need you to take that to the customer service counter”), it’s heard a lot in informal speech but it’s not good usage, in my opinion. (As a variation on this theme, some speakers add the preposition “for,” as in “I need for you to take that to the customer service counter.”)

The Kmart employee might just as well have said, “Please take that to the customer service counter.” I suspect this use of “I need you to” can be blamed on excessive politeness, or an unwillingness to ask for something more directly.

Hope this answers your needs!

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The promised land

Q: A friend and I were discussing the use of the word “prom” without an article, as in “We’ll see you at prom,” rather than “We’ll see you at the prom.” We wondered if this might be a regionalism, since we both grew up in the Northeast and never heard it there. Thanks for any light you can shed on this.

A: In my day, the big dance at high school or college was “the prom,” but it appears that times have changed and many young people have dropped the definite article somewhere on the gym floor.

The first published reference for “prom” (short for “promenade”) in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1879 article in the Yale Courant, which referred to “the Junior Prom. Com.” (the Junior Promenade Committee, I presume).

The article “the” is present in all of the OED‘s subsequent “prom” citations through 1991, when a film script has the line, “There’s no way you are going to the prom.” But a 2001 entry reads: “I needed a date for senior prom.” No article!

My diligent research took me to a website that ought to know, promspot, where I found quotations like this one: “There’s a wonderful sense of calm when an established couple decides to go to prom together.” And this: “After prom, the couple headed to a school-sponsored after-party.”

Nevertheless, I find that the article “the” is still boogying, even if it doesn’t get asked to the dance as often as it did in my prom days. I googled “to the prom” and got 423,000 hits while “to prom” got 478,000.

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Bronx cheers

Q: Was the Bronx cheer born in the New York borough of the same name?

A: How did you guess? Actually, the Bronx may have given us the term, but not the sound of contempt made by sticking one’s tongue between the lips and letting out air.

A far older term for this sound is “raspberry,” which may in turn (though this is debatable) be derived from “raspberry tart,” Cockney rhyming slang for “fart.”

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the contemptuous “raspberry” dates from 1890 – a reference in a slang dictionary to “a particularly squashy noise that is extremely irritating.”

The expression “Bronx cheer” doesn’t show up in the OED until a 1929 issue of Collier’s magazine. But I prefer the dictionary’s next citation, a quote from the P.G. Wodehouse novel Hot Water (1932): “She told me … that she was through .… No explanations. Just gave me the Bronx Cheer and beat it.”

The expression “Bronx cheer” purports to describe the bad manners exhibited by residents of the Bronx, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, but I beg to disagree. I’m married to a particularly well-mannered former denizen of the Bronx.

The word sleuth Barry Popik says the term has long been associated with Yankees fans and Yankee Stadium, which is in the Bronx. And anyone who has attended a ballgame at the Stadium knows what rude noises Yankees fans are capable of making when they’re displeased.

Over the years, some Bronx officials have not been happy to be associated with the “cheer.” On his website, The Big Apple, Popik quotes a former borough president as saying, “The Bronx cheer was brought here from outside somewhere and for some inexplicable reason was named for our borough.”

Yeah, yeah!

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A possessive maitre d’

Q: I’m an editor at a travel magazine and I have an apostrophe problem. How do I refer to the duties of a maître d’? Is it maître d’s, maître d”s, or something else?

A: We can’t find any style manuals that address this issue directly, so we’ll have to tippy-toe into unknown waters and rely on common sense!

But first let us recommend the cowardly solution. Why not avoid the issue? You could say the maitre d’hotel’s duties or the duties of the maitre d’. If you insist on facing this possessive problem head on, though, here are our thoughts.

You have two needs for an apostrophe in this case: the apostrophe of elision (the one that stands for what’s missing in maitre d’hotel) and the apostrophe of possession. If any reference book did advise you to use both apostrophes, we’d say it was nuts. So we advise maitre d’s as the possessive.

One clue you could use to justify this is that The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language  says the plural of maitre d’ is maitre d’s. American Heritage is a dictionary that makes single letters (like d) plural by adding an apostrophe plus s (‘s). With maitre d’, however, it drops one of the apostrophes.

In other words, the dictionary pluralizes maitre d’ as maitre d’s, not as maitre d’’s. One can only assume that it would have done the same for the possessive, if it had dealt with the issue.

A couple of parting remarks. In English, one doesn’t italicize maitre d’. We’ve used italics here to avoid the quotation marks that we normally use to set off words. And in English usage, the circumflex is optional: “You can call him maitre d’, maitre d’hotel, or headwaiter, but he’s George to me.”

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Etch a kvetch

Q: I don’t want to kvetch too much, but I’m seeing the phrase “etch out” used in place of “eke out.” If this catches on, I’ll have this to say: “E-e-e-k!”

A: I’ve seen this usage a couple of times, but I don’t think you have to worry about the loss of “eke out” in the foreseeable future. I googled “etch out” and found the correct meaning clearly engraved on the minds of most people.

The verb “etch,” by the way, comes from an old Germanic word meaning to cause to eat or be eaten. When the word first appeared in English in the early 17th century, this eating business clearly referred to the eating away of a surface with acid – that is, engraving.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary has two early citations for the use of “etch out” to mean “eke out,” but that usage apparently died out in the 17th century (the OED describes it as obsolete).

The verb “eke” is derived from an Old English word meaning to enlarge or increase. It didn’t come to mean to achieve with great effort (as in “eke out a living”) until the 19th century. The first citation for this usage in the OED is from Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiography (1825): “To eke out the existence of the people, every person … was called on for a weekly subscription.”

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Is resistance futile?

Q: We have a bet going on (thankfully no more is at stake than a Caramel Frap at Starbucks). I say the word “futile” is pronounced as FEW-tile. A coworker thinks it’s pronounced FEW-dul (kind of like “feudal”). I’m thinking that a billion Borg drones, saying “resistance is futile,” can’t be wrong.

A: The adjective “futile” is most often pronounced FEW-till, less often with a long “i,” as in FEW-tile. Both pronunciations are correct.

As for FEW-dul, it sounds as if your coworker’s pronunciation has been influenced by the knights of Camelot, not the cyborgs of Star Trek.

The word “futile,” by the way, comes from the Latin futtilis, meaning leaky, untrustworthy, or useless.

Enjoy your Caramel Frappuccino – and your biological distinctiveness. Watch out for the Borg!

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As German as apple pie!

Q: You mentioned on your blog that the word “stop” has roots in Old English and other early Germanic languages. It got me to thinking that we would be saying “stoppen” and “halten” instead of “stop” today if German hadn’t missed by one vote from becoming the official language here.

A: Thanks for writing, but I have to tell you that this business about German almost becoming the “official” language of the United States is a myth. In fact, there has never been an official language in the U.S.

The true story dates back to 1794, when a group of German American farmers from Virginia asked Congress to publish Federal laws in German as well as English.

In early 1795, the House considered the request but ultimately decided to publish Federal laws in English only. During the debate about the farmers’ request, a vote to adjourn failed by one vote, which apparently led to this myth.

Goodbye to another language legend. Or, as those farmers would have said, “Auf Wiedersehen!”

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Goodbye, Ruby CHYOOZ-day

Q: A reporter on the NPR news recently pronounced “Tuesday” as CHYOOZ-day. Is this considered standard English?

A: No, it’s not an accepted pronunciation. In American English, “Tuesday” is usually pronounced TOOZ-day. An acceptable variant, chiefly heard in the South, is TYOOZ-day. In British English, the usual pronunciation is TYOOZ-day, though TOOZ-day is also acceptable. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English doesn’t include CHYOOZ-day, but this pronunciation is widespread in Britain.

Britons also use CHYOO for many similar words. Some examples are “tube”‘ (TYOOB, which becomes CHYOOB), “tune” (TYOON, which becomes CHYOON), and “tulip” (TYOO-lip, which becomes CHYOO-lip). None of these CHYOO versions are in Longman’s.

In American English, “tu” sounds usually are only pronounced as CHOO/CHYOO when they are inside words, not at the beginning. Typical examples are “natural,” “eventual,” and “punctual.”

In some parts of Appalachia, however, people do say CHOOZ-day or CHYOOZ-day. In addition, “Tuesday” is spelled “Chuesday” in Gullah, an English-based creole language spoken by African-Americans in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. The word also appears as “Chuesday” in some 19th-century slave narratives.

Here’s an interesting sidelight. In 2001 a pair of scholars published a paper in the journal American Speech based on their study of letters written by semi-literate white overseers on rural Southern plantations before the end of the Civil War.

Since these largely uneducated men wrote words the way they were pronounced (one example: “poly” for “poorly”), the letters give us a picture of how they spoke. At least one of the overseers wrote “chusday” for guess which day of the week?

Studies of the development of Southern American English have at times been controversial. Some scholars believe many field slaves learned much of their English by exposure to illiterate or semi-literate overseers. But other scholars feel many slaves picked up some English from Europeans before leaving Africa. One has to be very careful before drawing conclusions from this about the development of Black English in general. Still, it’s interesting to think about!

Getting back to that NPR reporter, most Americans would think that someone who pronounced “Tuesday” as CHYOOZ-day was speaking with a mouthful of marbles or a bad case of Anglophilia.

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