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Knuckle down!

Q: I saw the word “mibsters” in an item in the Atlantic magazine about the British and World Marbles Championship. Am I right in assuming that it refers to people who play marbles?

A: Yes, a “mibster” is a marbles player (or shooter), and “mibbies” are marbles.

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has traced “mibbies” to Cockney schoolchildren’s slang of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But games of marbles go much, much farther back. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first published citation for the game dates from 1681, and refers to “the little round stones wherewith Children play, called Marbles.”

The marble the mibster shoots with is known as a “taw” – a word the OED traces back to 1709. The word “taw” has also been used over the years for (1) the game of marbles itself, and (2) the line from which the mibster shoots.

“Mibbie” and “mibbies” are also popular Scots lingo for “maybe,” as in “Mibbies aye, mibbies naw!”

Remember: Knuckle down! (This phrase, dating back to 1740, comes from the game of marbles, and originally referred to how a mibster’s hand was placed on the ground before shooting the taw.)

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Illiterary criticism

Q: Is there any polite way to break people of the habit of using “myself” when they should be using “me” or “I”?

A: Unless you’re the parent or maybe the spouse of the offender, there’s no polite way to correct somebody’s grammar. Just keep using good English yourself and maybe it will rub off!

I was once taken to task for suggesting during a radio broadcast that one could respond to a mispronounced word by casually dropping it into the conversation with the correct pronunciation. A listener phoned in and said such a “casual” correction would be obvious and rude. I agree (she now says).

And if you attempt to correct the grammar of a child or a spouse, please be tactful – and (need I say?) correct.

You’d be surprised at how many people e-mail me with pet peeves that are in fact misconceptions, such as the myths against “splitting” an infinitive, ending a sentence with a preposition, or beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

As for “me,” “myself,” and “I,” I’ve discussed them before on the blog, including an item last summer entitled “Self improvement.”

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Say it again!

Q: It drives me bonkers when my friends from the Delaware area, where I went to school, pronounce “Mary” and “Merry,” “Carrie” and “Kerry,” and “Erin” and “Aaron” the same way. Please respond with an explanation that I can forward to them, backing my assertion that these are different-sounding words!

A: Sorry, but I can’t give you a simple yes or no answer about the right way to pronounce those pairs.

In some regions of the US, they’re pronounced alike, and in other regions, they’re similar but not quite the same. In the Midwest, where I hail from, all these pairs sound just alike.

What do dictionaries say? Well, many dictionaries don’t have entries for names, and the ones that do aren’t always definitive.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agrees with you about “Mary” and ”Merry,” for example, but it accepts two pronunciations for “Aaron,” including one that’s very much like its pronunciation of “Erin.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), on the other hand, accepts two pronunciations for “Mary,” including one that’s identical with its pronunciation for “Merry.” But it agrees with you about “Carrie” and “Kerry.”

Interestingly, many people (especially those on baby-name discussion sites) think that these similar-sounding pairs are the same names spelled differently, or that they’re male and female versions of the same names. Not so!

“Mary” is a Biblical name, usually a reference to the mother of Jesus. The Oxford English Dictionary says it can probably be traced to the Hebrew “Miryam,” which in turn may have its origin in an ancient Amorite word meaning “gift (of God).” But “Merry” is of Old English origin and comes from the adjective meaning festive or full or gaiety.

“Carrie” is commonly a pet name for “Caroline,” while “Kerry” is a cross-gender name that was originally a place name – there are Kerrys in both southwest Ireland and the Welsh border country.

“Erin” (Irish Gaelic for “peace”) is a poetic name for Ireland; it’s been used for both boys and girls. “Aaron” is another Biblical name; the most famous “Aaron” (from the Hebrew for “enlightened”) was a Jewish patriarch, the elder brother of Moses.

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Sporting the oak

Q: I thought I was reasonably adept at understanding British English, but I recently got my comeuppance. I was reading Above Suspicion, a 1940s thriller by Helen MacInnis, when this sentence floored me: “The oak was sported.” It was in a scene in which the wife of an Oxford don was approaching the door of her husband’s rooms. Please help!

A: To “sport oak,” “sport the oak,” or “sport one’s oak” is to close your outdoor door as a signal that you don’t want visitors. The verb “sport” in the expression means to display or exhibit, as in “He sported a new suit.”

The expression dates from the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and  was “originally and chiefly British University slang.”

Older college rooms often had an inner door for ordinary use and a wooden outer, called the oak, that was usually folded back against the outside wall. A closed outer door indicated one didn’t want to be disturbed.

The OED’s first citation is from a pamphlet in verse about life at the University of Oxford: “ ‘Tis prudent at first coming down to sport oak” (An Incredible Bore: A Familiar Epistle, 1780, by Roger Wittol).

The dictionary’s next citation, which mentions a slightly different version (“to sport timber”), is from a glossary compiled in 1785: “To sport timber, to keep one’s outside door shut: this term is used in the inns of courts to signify denying one’s self.”

The third citation is from James Beresford’s satirical work The Miseries of Human Life (1806): “Seeing the sun quietly slink behind a mass of black clouds, where he sports oak for the rest of the day.”

In the 19th century the expression “to sport oak” caught on at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where it became popular undergraduate slang.

In 1873, Joseph Ashby-Sterry wrote about the tradition (in an essay called, naturally, “The Sported Oak”): “Though believing implicitly in the sporting of the oak as a superb institution, I must say I have considerable sympathy for the sufferers on the wrong side of the door.”

The practice was alive and well in the mid-20th century, according to Prof. Michael Wolff of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Writing about his undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 1940s, Wolff said: “It was a great breach of decorum to open a sported oak.”

And the tradition is alive still. Here’s a line from Antonia Fraser’s contemporary mystery Oxford Blood, in which her sleuth Jemima Shore is shooting a TV exposé of undergraduate life: “Before Jemima could stop her, Tiggie had banged boldly upon Professor Mossbanker’s heavily shut door – his ‘sported oak.’ ”

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 5, 2023.]

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Scratch words

Q: What, if anything, does a cat-o’-nine-tails have to do with a cat?

A: The expression “cat-o’-nine-tails,” referring to the whip of nine knotted lashes, was first recorded in the late 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though it was probably well known before that.

Here’s the earliest citation, from William Congreve’s play Love for Love (1695): “If you should give such language at sea, you’d have a cat-o’-nine-tails laid cross your shoulders.”

Why a cat? The OED speculates that “the name was originally one of grim humour, in reference to its ‘scratching’ the back.”

Several people have asked me in the past if the cat-o’-nine-tails was somehow connected with the old expression “no room to swing a cat.” The answer is no. I discussed this myth in an Oct. 29, 2006, blog item.

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An article of faith

Q: I have a pet peeve about the italic notes under magazine pieces translated from other languages – e.g., “Translated from the Japanese by so-and-so.” Why is “the” necessary? Shouldn’t it simply say, “Translated from Japanese by so-and-so“?

A: In English, the definite article “the” has often been used in an idiomatic way with the names of things that wouldn’t appear to need an article (or could use the article “a” instead). For instance:

● With names of seasons, directions, and natural phenomena: “in the spring”; “I hate the cold”; “face the north,” and so on.

● With diseases: “she has the flu,” “have you had the measles?”

● With some titles: “the Reverend,” “the Honorable,” etc.

● With musical instruments: “she learned to play the piano,” “lessons on the viola.”

● And, finally, with the names of languages: “translated from the Spanish,” “borrowed from the German.”

Once the use of “the” with a language was much more prevalent than it is today. Here are two old citations from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Let not your studying the French make you neglect the English” (1760). And “Every advantage that … a complete knowledge of the Arabic could afford” (1795).

The OED says people use “the” with languages in an elliptical way – that is, they’re mentally deleting part of a longer phrase. Examples: “translated from the Spanish [version]” … or “from the [original] German” or “from the Japanese [language].”

At any rate, it’s not a mistake. It’s just a custom. Some people (and publications) adopt it and some don’t. And readers just accept this idiomatic “the” as, let’s say, an article of faith.

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A fraughtful question

Q: Did modern usage evolve when I wasn’t looking to allow “fraught” to be used without a preposition to mean uptight or tense? I’ve always believed that the correct usage was “fraught with” something. Do you agree?

A: The adjective “fraught” can be used correctly with or without a preposition. Both usages are found in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

M-W, for example, defines the adjective in two ways: (1) “full of or accompanied by something specified – used with ‘with’ (a situation fraught with danger)”; and (2) “causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension (a fraught relationship).”

You can stop reading there if you want, but here’s a little history of “fraught” in case you’re interested.

The noun “fraught,” first recorded in about 1330, meant the cargo or lading of a ship, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says it’s derived from a Middle Dutch word, vracht, a variant of vrecht, the word that gave us “freight.”

In the 1400s, the noun “fraught” was used more generally to mean a burden or a load. (The noun eventually was replaced by the more popular “freight.”)

Around the same time, “fraught” was also briefly used as a verb meaning to load, and it was used both with and without prepositions (“to fraught their ships with salt” …. “if we fraught any stranger’s ship”).

The old verb eventually became obsolete, but the past participle lived on – in the 1300s and for a couple of centuries afterward, a ship that was laden or loaded was said to be “fraught” or “fraughted,” both with or without prepositions. Voila! We now had a past-participial adjective.

Since the adjective “fraught” originally meant “laden,” it’s natural that this sense of being laden or burdened would come to be used metaphorically for things other than cargo.

In the 1400s, the usage was extended to people and other things besides ships, though a preposition was usually tucked in there somewhere.

Here’s a quote from a play of the 1400s: “With rich rents thou shalt be fraught” (I’ve modernized the spellings). Here’s one from 1530: “fraught full of vice.” And here’s one from Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605): “I would you would make use of your good wisdom (whereof I know you are fraught).”

The bare adjective that simply means distressed or uptight, rather than “laden” with something, has no need for a preposition. This is a much newer usage, which the OED dates from 1966. Here are a few citations: “All that had gone before led me to expect an end more fraught” (1966); “the next day was going to be particularly fraught” (1967); “Don’t look so fraught” (1970).

Interestingly, the past participle “freighted” has also been used as an adjective meaning “loaded,” as in this 1850 quotation from Washington Irving’s biography of Oliver Goldsmith: “Just arrived from College … full freighted with academic gleanings.”

I’ve gone on a bit, haven’t I? I hope you don’t find this answer too freighted.

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Psst! Naked pictures

Q: The term “naked picture” is often used by talking heads to describe a photograph of someone who’s naked. How can a picture be naked unless it’s missing a cover, frame, or protective coating?

A: I suppose you’re right on a very literal level. But phrases like “naked postcard,” “naked picture,” “naked painting,” and so on are pretty common, and there’s usually no chance that anyone will misunderstand them.

Think of it this way. In the phrase “dirty photo,” no one thinks the photographic print is soiled. What’s dirty is what’s depicted IN the photo.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to 1503 for a similar expression, “naked bed,” meaning a bed where one sleeps naked.

A good example of this is in a Sept. 7,1666, entry from The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “So here I went the first time into a naked bed, only my drawers on; and did sleep pretty well.”

Interestingly, the OED also has references going back to Anglo-Saxon days for “naked” used as a noun meaning a naked person or a nude in a work of art.

The dictionary says these usages are now rare, but it includes a relatively recent citation from Kenneth Rexroth’s poem The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952): “Too many nakeds for a chapel.”

It doesn’t seem to me that much of a stretch to speak of “naked pictures” as well as “nakeds” in a chapel – or on a street corner.

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Pleased as Punch

Q: I was reading the Dickens novel Hard Times recently and came across the expression “pleased as Punch.” Why is there a capital letter in “Punch” and where does the phrase come from?

A: The “Punch” in “pleased as Punch” (as well as “proud as Punch”) refers to the comic villain of the Punch and Judy puppet shows popular in Britain since the mid-1600s, though in decline in recent years.

The plots vary from show to show, but Punch typically bumps off folks left and right – his wife (Judy), his child, a policeman, even the hangman. Along the way he takes great pleasure and pride in each evil deed, hence those expressions.

Punch is a shortened version of Punchinello, which is an Anglicized version of Polichinello, a stock character in 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte. Samuel Pepys, in his 17th-century diary, reports seeing a play at King’s Theatre, then going “to Polichinello, and there had three times more sport than at the play.”

The first published reference for “pleased as Punch” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the poet William Gifford’s satirical writings (1797): “Oh! how my fingers itch to pull thy nose! / As pleased as Punch, I’d hold it in my gripe.”

The earliest citation for “proud as Punch” is in the Dickens novel David Copperfield (1850): “I am as proud as Punch to think that I once had the honor of being connected with your family.”

All of the OED’s 19th-century references cap the “P” in “Punch.” But some 20th-century citations lowercase it, as in this one from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928): “She wanted me, and made no bones about it. And I was as pleased as punch.”

Nowadays, you can find both capped and lowercase versions of “pleased as punch.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) caps it, but this is a matter of style. It’s your pleasure.

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A foot-and-a-half-long hot dog

Q: What is a word that means the use of long, rather obscure words? Not “pleonasm,” which means using more words than necessary; and not “lexiphanic,” which means using pretentious words (although that comes close).

A: I think the word you want is “sesquipedalian,” which literally means “a foot and a half long,” from the Latin words sesqui (one and a half) and pes (foot). Now, in words of few syllables (I hope), a little history.

We have the Roman poet Horace to thank for this word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In his Ars Poetica, Horace used the Latin word sesquipedalia (foot and a half long) to describe highfalutin words.

The first English citation for this usage is in a 1656 dictionary of obscure words: “Sesquipedalian words (verba sesquipedalia) used by Horace for great, stout, and lofty words; words that are very long, consisting of many Syllables.”

A shorter version, “sesquipedal,” entered English in 1611, and originally referred to size only, with no reference to words. But in 1624 Robert Burton remarked in his Anatomy of Melancholy on “Fustian, big, sesquipedal words.”

Meanwhile, “sesquipedalian” also had to do with simple measurement when it first appeared in 1615, according to the OED, originally referring only to “a person or thing that is a foot and a half in height or length.”

Both “sesquipedalian” and “sesquipedal” have survived to the present day, but the two words have different meanings now.

These days, “sesquipedalian” refers to long and ponderous words, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), while “sesquipedal” means merely a foot and a half long.

So, a “sesqipedal” hot dog” would be an example of a “sesquipedalian” usage.

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Isn’t it problematic?

Q: Can “problematic” and “problematical” be used interchangeably? Are both correct?

A: Yes, both words are legitimate, and they mean the same thing.

The longer one, “problematical,” first appeared in print in 1567, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “of the nature of a problem.”

The word was used later in the 1500s in reference to both geometry and logic. (The OED notes that a “problematical question” in logic was one “put forward merely for discussion, but not of any practical importance; an academic question.”)

The shorter version, “problematic,” was first recorded in 1609 and means the same thing, “of the nature of a problem.” (This too has a specific meaning in logic, where a “problematic” proposition is one that “asserts that a state of affairs is possible rather than actual or necessary,” according to the OED.)

In addition, “problematic” and the plural “problematics” are sometimes used as nouns in English, as in these recent citations: “the particular problematic of the day” (1997) and “the problematics of seeing” (2004).

Both “problematical” and “problematic” have been in use pretty steadily since they first appeared. If I had to choose, though, I’d go for the more concise “problematic.” A quick Google search tells me it’s vastly the more popular word.

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Sudden life

Q: I know someone who uses the expression “all of THE sudden” all of the time, and I just found it in a not very well-written novel. I consider it one more entry in the Ugly Lexicon, up there with “humongous” and “it’s so fun.”

A: The common expression in modern English is of course “all of a sudden.” It’s one of those idiomatic phrases that on the surface don’t make sense literally. But read on.

“Sudden” came to us from Old French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and its ultimate source is the Latin subire, meaning to come or go stealthily.

It entered English in about 1300 as an adjective (spelled soden, sodeyne, sodein, swdan, and all sorts of other ways; the spelling wasn’t established until after 1700). Beginning in the 1400s, according to the OED, “sudden” was also used as an adverb, the way we use “suddenly” today.

But (and here’s the relevant part) in the 1500s people began using “sudden” as a noun. A “sudden” was an unexpected occurrence. So people spoke of events that happened at, in, of, or upon “the sudden” or “a sudden.”

Notice, though, how phrases with “the” came before those with “a.” H-m-m. Here are some citations from the OED of “sudden” at work with various prepositions:

• “at the sodeyne” (1559) vs. “at a sudden” (1560)
• “in the Sodeyne” (1559) vs. “in a sodaine” (1560)
• “of the suddeyne” (1570) vs. “of a sodaine” (1596)
• “upon the soden” (1558) vs. “vpon a sodayne” (1565)

At about this time, the use of “sudden” was extended to phrases that required the indefinite article “a,” like these: “upon suche a sodeyn” (1572); “upon a very great sudden” (1575); and “with such a sodaine” (1582). This may have influenced a general movement toward usages with “a” instead of “the,” a preference that eventually won out.

“All” didn’t enter the picture (as far as our phrase is concerned) until the 1600s. “All of a sudden” first appeared in 1681. So the historical progression of the phrase we’re talking about was “of the sudden” … “of a sudden” … “all of a sudden.”

Here and there, one comes across an “all of the sudden” on the Internet or heard on the street, but rarely in published writing. The expression is well established as “all of a sudden.” And in the 21st century it gives us our only remaining chance to use old “sudden” as a noun!

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Trough luck

Q: In Sunday school, we were told that Jesus was born in a manger, which my dictionary defines as a feed trough. Am I right to assume that “manger” is a corruption of the French manger, meaning to eat? Does anybody still use “manger” for a feed trough? Or was the word created so we wouldn’t have to sing, “Away in a feed trough”?

A: You’re on the right track, but it’s a twisty one that goes back many hundreds of years.

Our noun “manger” came into English in the 1300s from the Anglo-Norman mangure, which in turn came from the Old French maingeure. All these mean the same thing: a long open box or trough for feeding cattle or horses.

The source of them all, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the Old French verb mangier (“eat”), ultimately derived from the Latin manducare (“chew”). The modern French words are mangeoire for “manger” and manger for “eat.”

In the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a related verb in English for chowing down, “maunge,” but it’s gone by the wayside, replaced by “eat.”

The word “eat,” by the way, is ancient. It has old Germanic roots that go back many, many centuries, long before it first entered English in the year 825.

In preferring “eat” over “maunge,” speakers of English chose an old Anglo-Saxonism over a Latinate word.

But there are echoes of the old word “maunge” around today: in the British pudding “blancmange” (“white food”), in the disease “mange” (which is an eating-away of the skin), and in the related adjective “mangy.”

In fact, the OED says the word “munch” (and consequently, I guess, “munchies”) may have been influenced by the Old French word for eating.

And, yes, the term “manger” is still used for a feed trough, as in this excerpt from a Jan. 3, 1986, article in the British magazine Farmers Weekly: “We must do something about the troughing, both to improve intake by having feed constantly in the manger, and to cut down labour.”

In case you’re wondering about the expression “dog-in-a-manger,” the OED defines it this way: “A churlish person who will neither use something himself nor let another use it; in allusion to the fable of the dog that stationed himself in a manger and would not let the ox or horse eat the hay.”

With that, I’m off to put on the feed bag.

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Teacher education

Q: Gotcha! Your Sept. 16, 2006, post about “each other” says: “Short answer: you’re right and your teacher’s right.” Methinks you made an error here. You used the possessive “teacher’s” to modify the word “right.” That’s not right, unless you’re referring to something like a teacher’s inalienable right.

A: I’m surprised at you! The apostrophe in English has two functions: (1) to indicate a possessive; (2) to show where letters are omitted in a contraction.

In that sentence from the blog, “you’re” is a contraction of “you are” and “teacher’s” is a contraction of “teacher is.”

“Teacher’s” can be either a contraction or a possessive, as in these examples:

(1) “The teacher’s a firm disciplinarian.”

(2) “The teacher’s class is always well-behaved.”

In the first sentence, we have a contraction of “teacher is.” In the second, we have the possessive of “teacher.”

Now, go stand in the corner! (Just kidding.)

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Q: People usually talk about grammar and syntax as if they’re a package deal, like Proctor & Gamble or Cheech and Chong, but I wonder how many people actually know what syntax is. To be honest, I don’t. Can you help, please?

A: Grammar is a system of rules for combining words into sentences. It has two parts: the choice of words and the arrangement of words. Syntax (the second part) is the orderly arrangement of words to show their relationships.

To straighten out a sentence’s syntax, in the words of Jacques Barzun, is “to link or separate what has been wrongly split or joined.”

Here’s an example of a mistake in word choice: “Everybody love a lover.” Although we use the word “everybody” when we’re thinking of a crowd, it’s actually singular and goes with a singular verb: “Everybody loves a lover.”

Here’s an example of a problem involving syntax: “Tail wagging merrily, Bertie took the dog for a walk.” As the words are arranged now, the tail is attached to Bertie, not to the dog. Let’s put the tail where it belongs: “Tail wagging merrily, the dog went for a walk with Bertie.”

This common error, called a dangler, involves putting a word or phrase in the wrong place so it describes the wrong thing. You can find a lot more examples of screwy syntax in “The Compleat Dangler” chapter of my grammar book Woe Is I.

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Home sweet home

Q: Why is it that we go to school, go to work, and go to church, but we don’t go to home?

A: The words “school,” “work,” and “church” in your question are nouns that represent places. We use a preposition (a positioning word like “to”) when we talk about movement toward a place.

The word “home,” on the other hand, is an adverb above and modifies the verb “go.” We don’t need a preposition with an adverb: “Let’s split and head home.”

The word “home” has been a noun, adjective, and adverb since Anglo-Saxon days. The earliest published reference for the adverb in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from around the year 1,000.

A similar word, “south,” can also be a noun, adjective, and adverb. Here’s the adverb in action: “When the temperature fell, he headed south.” No preposition needed.

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Dracula and other phenomenons?

Q: It seems to me that “phenomenon” has two valid plurals: “phenomena” and “phenomenons.” Example: Federer is a “phenomenon.” Nadal is a “phenomenon.” They are “phenomenons” or “phenomena.” Right?

A: Modern dictionaries do accept “phenomenons,” but I think anyone who uses the term as the plural of “phenomenon” is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Mine, for instance.

Traditionally, the singular is “phenomenon” and the plural “phenomena,” although, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, the “singular phenomena and plural phenomenons are both frequently found (especially in speech and in informal writing).”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says that “phenomenon” is the only singular form, and that “phenomena” is the usual plural. But it adds that “phenomenons” may be used as the plural “in nonscientific writing when the meaning is ‘extraordinary things, occurrences, or persons.’ “

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agrees for the most part. It says the singular is “phenomenon” and lists two possible plurals: “phenomena,” for more than one observable fact or event, and “phenomenons,” for more than one “exceptional, unusual, or abnormal person, thing, or occurrence.”

So I suppose that bird migrations, moon phases, or the mating habits of insects might be observable “phenomena,” while Dracula and the Frankenstein monster would be “phenomenons.”

Merriam-Webster’s also remarks in a usage note that “Phenomena has been in occasional use as a singular for more than 400 years and its plural phemonenas for more than 350.”

But M-W calls the singular “phenomena” a nonstandard usage, noting that it has “nowhere near the frequency of use” of words like “stamina,” “agenda,” and “candelabra,” all of which were once strictly plural and are now recognized as singulars.

Phenomenal, isn’t it?

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Bigger than a breadbox

Q: The other day I told my dad that I had gotten him a birthday present, and he said, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” Where did this expression come from?

A: The question “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” was popularized by Steve Allen when he was a panelist on the TV quiz show “What’s My Line.”

The object of the show was to guess the occupation of a mystery guest. This meant that panelists often had to ask questions about a product invented or produced by the mystery guest.

The breadbox question became a comic refrain on “What’s My Line,” the longest-running game show in the history of prime-time network TV. It lasted for 18 seasons, from 1950 to 1967. Allen, a comedian, composer and writer, later wrote a book entitled Bigger Than a Breadbox.

Descriptive phrases like “no larger than a breadbox” and “not much bigger than a breadbox” were known in the 1940s. But it was Allen’s “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” that kept the usage alive long after breadboxes were a distant memory.

Other panelists on “What’s My Line” (no, there was no question mark) included the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, the publisher Bennett Cerf, the actor Arlene Francis, the comedian Fred Allen, and the poet Louis Untermeyer, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and forced off the show.

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Odds and endings

Q: I’m an editor who works with writers at a trade journal. Why does the word for my job end in “-or” while the word for someone I edit ends in “-er”?

A: Suffixes, or word endings, can be a challenge. (“Suffix,” by the way, is from the Latin for “to fasten.”)

We add the suffixes “-er” or “-or” to the ends of words to make them what are called agent nouns. (An agent noun is a name for a doer, somebody who does something.)

Here are some examples of doers: “editor,” “singer,” “rider,” “writer,” “doctor,” “auditor,” and so on. Sometimes the sound of the last syllable is spelled “-or” and sometimes “-er.” How do we know which one to use, and when?

In general, agent nouns with “-er” endings come from old Germanic roots. So words like “sing,” “ride” and “write,” all derived from old Germanic sources, become agent nouns with the addition of “-er.”

In general, agent nouns with “-or” endings come from Latin. That’s why “edit,” from the Latin editus, “audit,” from the Latin auditus, and “doctor,” from the Latin docere, all become agent nouns with the addition of “-or.”

This is just a very general rule. There are many exceptions (“plumber,” for instance, is ultimately derived from the Latin plumbum, but it ends in “-er”).

In addition, some English words have both endings (like “adviser/advisor”). Where both exist, the “-er” ending is often the older one.

In the case of some legal terms, it appears that lawyers historically have been fonder of the more pompous-looking Latinate endings than of the simple Teutonic ones.

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Is conciser always nicer?

Q: I don’t see the need for including “different” in a sentence like “He visited 14 different countries on his tour.” Does “different” serve to emphasize an unusually large number for an activity? Or is it simply redundant?

A: In an expression like “14 different countries,” the word “different” is of course optional. Although it’s not necessary, the writer or speaker many be using it for emphasis.

Depending on the context, it may or may not be an outright redundancy. For example, a traveling salesman might want to use the word “different” to emphasize that he visited some countries more than once: “Last year I made 25 sales trips to 14 different countries.”

But if someone were to ask, for instance, how many people were coming to dinner, I would respond, “Eight people.” I certainly wouldn’t say, “Eight different people.” There would be no justification for such a redundancy.

I suppose what I’m saying is that some redundancies are more redundant than others.

If you don’t think it’s redundant to read on, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an informative usage note on “redundancy.”

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A fool, a fool, a motley fool

Q: I tried to call you on the air but couldn’t get through, so I’m e-mailing my question. What is the origin of all those “motley” expressions: “motley fool,” “motley crew,” and “mötley crüe”?

A: As you probably suspect, all three are fruit of the same family tree. The mother of them all is the word “motley,” which first showed up in English in the 1300s.

We don’t know for sure where “motley” comes from, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it’s related to the Anglo-Norman word motlé, meaning variegated, which may be derived from the Old French medlee, or conflict.

“Motley” originally referred to cloth woven from threads of several colors. Here’s a late 14th-century quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “In motlee, and hy on horse he sat; / Upon his head a Flandrish bever hat.”

From its earliest days, the word was used as both a noun for the cloth and an adjective for something multicolored like the cloth. By the 15th century, it was also used as a verb meaning to give something a multicolored appearance.

In the late 16th century, the noun came to mean the multicolored outfit worn by a court jester or fool. And in the early 17th century it was used to refer to the fool himself, as in this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110 (1609): “Alas ‘tis true, I have gone here and there, / And made my selfe a motley to the view.”

By the 17th century, the noun and adjective were also being used to refer, often negatively, to a hodgepodge of people or things. That’s pretty much the usual meaning of “motley” today.

Churchill, in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956), uses the word in that way when he refers to “a motley, ill-knit collection of states, flung together by the chance of a single marriage, and lacking unity both of purpose and strength.”

As for the phrase “motley crew,” the earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1827 comic poem by George Canning: “But if, amongst this motley crew, / One man of real parts we view.”

Another early citation is from the 1848 diary of Henry Greville, a British diplomat: “This motley crew … dressed more ludicrously than any masks on a Mardi-gras.”

As for the heavy-metal band Mötley Crüe, the guitarist Mick Mars apparently came up with the name, thanks to hearing another group referred to as “a motley looking crew.” This comes from Wikipedia, which attributes the umlauts to a German beer that the band members were drinking at the time.

Interestingly, one of the early spellings of “crew,” dating from 1455, is indeed “crue.” No umlauts, though!

As for “motley fool” (and its modern incarnation as a financial website), the first published reference for the phrase is in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1616): “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest, / A motley fool; a miserable world!”

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

What’s buttery about butterflies?

Q: I’ve read that the large-winged insect we see every summer was originally called a “flutterby,” but a tongue-tied VIP in England could only say “butterfly” and that name caught on. This makes sense to me since butterflies do more fluttering than buttering. Do you agree?

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but “butterfly” is as old as English words come. In written use it goes back to about the year 700, when Anglo-Saxons were speaking Old English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Epinal Glossary, a list of terms in Latin and Old English: “Papilo, buturfliogae” (butur- was the compound form of buter or buture, Old English for “butter,” while fleoge and flyge were terms for a winged insect).

The OED says the reason for the name is unclear, but it “may arise from the pale yellow appearance of the wings of certain European butterflies (perhaps specifically the brimstone butterfly), or from a supposed tendency to feed on or hover over butter or buttermilk, or from a folk belief that butterflies (or even witches in the form of butterflies) steal butter.”

The dictionary notes similar words in other Germanic languages. A popular name for the insect in 16th-century Dutch, for example, was botervlieg, while popular names in Middle High German were bitterflivge and brutflevg. The insect is normally called vlinder in Dutch and schmetterling in German.

The OED also cites several Dutch and German regional terms that reflect the folk belief in butterfly thievery and witchery: botterheks (“butter witch”) in Dutch as well as butterhexe (“butter witch”) and “milchdieb (“milk thief”) in German.

The dictionary notes the use in Dutch of “boterschijte, lit. ‘butter shit,’ which has led to the (improbable) suggestion that the insect was so called on account of the (supposed) appearance of its excrement.”

In fact, butterflies don’t produce excrement, according to A World for Butterflies. However, the website and book by Phil Schappert note that caterpillars do poop and at least one of them has yellow excrement.

The word “butterfly,” according to the OED, has been in use steadily in various spellings since it first appeared in Old English. It can be found in the works of major English writers through the ages: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and so on.

The earliest Oxford citation with the modern spelling is from the early 17th century: “As Butterflies quicken with heat, which were benummed with cold” (from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Naturall Historie, 1626).

As for “flutterby,” there’s a lot of etymological nonsense about it on the Internet, but we can’t find a single published reference for the word in the OED.

The closest thing is this citation from 2000 in the dictionary’s entry for “pillock,” an obscure North English term for penis: “Why did the butterfly flutter by? Because she saw the caterpillar wave his pillock at her.”

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The only one

Q: I was flabbergasted to hear you say on the air that “We only see ulterior when it’s linked with motive” when you should have said that “We see ulterior only when it’s linked with motive.” My father taught me that “only” should be as close as possible to the word it modifies.

A: Your father was right. I included a section on this in my book Woe Is I, using the sentence “The butler says he saw the murder.” The following examples show how the placement of “only” can change the meaning:

Only the butler says he saw the murder. (The butler, and no one else, says he saw the murder.)

The butler only says he saw the murder. (The butler says, but can’t prove, he saw it.)

The butler says only he saw the murder. (The butler says he, and no one else, saw it.)

The butler says he only saw the murder. (He saw – but didn’t hear – the murder.)

The butler says he saw only the murder. (He saw just the murder, and nothing else.)

But in many cases, if not most, the placement of “only” won’t be misunderstood. In fact,”only” often seems more natural immediately before the verb.

For example, “I was only trying to help.” Or, “She’s only skied the beginners’ slope.” Or, “He only started packing at noon.” It would be pedantic to argue for rearranging those sentences: “I was trying only to help.” Or, “She’s skied only the beginners’ slope.” Or, “He started packing only at noon.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) remarks in a usage note with its entry for “only” that “there are occasions when placement of only earlier in the sentence seems much more natural, and if the context is sufficiently clear, there is no chance of being misunderstood.”

As for the sentence I perpetrated on the air, it could not have been misunderstood. Still, I wish I had moved “only” a couple of spots back. I hate to give listeners a reason to scold me!

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A buoyant principle

Q: I’m writing an article that includes a quote from Archimedes’ (or Archimedes’s) principle of buoyancy. Wikipedia, Britannica Online, and my Random House unabridged dictionary make “Archimedes” possessive by adding just an apostrophe, but proper grammar would require an apostrophe plus the letter s. Or am I missing something?

A: You’re right that a singular word, including a name, usually becomes possessive with the addition of an apostrophe and the letter s. My grammar book Woe Is I has this example: “The dress’s skirt, which resembled a tutu from one of Degas’s paintings, was ruined.”

But there are a couple of exceptions to this rule. When a classical or Biblical name ends in s, the general practice is to add only the apostrophe to make it possessive.

Here’s an example from Woe Is I: “Whose biceps were bigger, Hercules’ or Achilles’?” And Garner’s Modern American Usage has these examples: “Aristophanes’ plays,” “Jesus’ suffering,” “Moses’ discovery,” and “Xerxes’ writing.”

Also, we traditionally drop the s in a lot of “sake” phrases – “for goodness’ sake,” “for conscience’ sake,” “for righteousness’ sake,” etc. – to avoid adding another sibilant syllable to a pileup of hissing sounds.

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A question of rhetoric

Q: Whenever I hear the word “rhetoric,” it’s in reference to inane, worthless speech, as in “empty political rhetoric.” Yet my dictionary renders a completely different meaning: the art of using language effectively. What’s with that?

A: Politicians and hucksters have given “rhetoric” a bad name, that’s what! It used to be considered a noble endeavor, one of the seven “liberal arts” of the Middle Ages.

The Oxford English Dictionary primarily defines “rhetoric,” which entered English in the 1300s, as “The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence.”

What’s often missing today is the eloquence, but this isn’t especially new or surprising. Nor is the dismissive meaning of “rhetoric.” The word has been used for several hundred years to refer to artificial or ostentatious language.

An OED citation from 1570, for example, refers to “rashe ragged Rhetorike” and one from 1615 to “gaudy Rhetoricke.” Milton, Swift, Cowper, and Macaulay used the term in a disparaging way over the next two centuries. And Swinburne, in an 1880 monograph, refers to the “limp loquacity of long-winded rhetoric.” Could he have been guilty of it himself?

Although both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list the traditional definition in their entries on “rhetoric,” they also include meanings that are somewhat less admirable.

M-W, for example, says “rhetoric” may refer to “insincere or grandiloquent language,” while AH says it may be used for language that’s “elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous.”

Someone accused of displaying “rhetoric” today is probably not being complimented. I’m glad Aristotle (whose Rhetoric I read as a philosophy major in college) isn’t around to hear it.

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There, there now

Q: I cringe every time I hear an interviewer or an interviewee use “there’s” to refer to more than one thing. What’s going on? I believe this is an egregious error that undermines consideration of one’s point of view. Agreed?

A: Yup, agreed.

When “there” is the subject of a sentence (even if it’s something of a phantom subject), it can be either singular or plural. Examples: “There’s a fly in my soup”; “There are fleas on my dog.”

But many people don’t seem to realize this and resort to “there’s” for all occasions. Why? There’s many reasons. (Just kidding there!)

One reason may be that people find “there are” too much trouble to pronounce (not to mention the questionable contraction “there’re,” an awkward muddle that’s best avoided anyway).

Another reason may be this. When a sentence starts with “there,” the “real” or grammatical subject (the “fly” or the “fleas” above) follows the verb, and that’s what determines (though a bit after the fact) whether the verb is singular or plural.

Many people (perhaps most) speak before they’ve thought their sentences through. For them, it’s easier to start out with “there’s” and pray (often to no avail) that the rest of the sentence will take care of itself.

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

A dilemma inside an enigma

Q: I have a question that has plagued me since childhood: Has the spelling of “dilemma” changed in the past 35 or so years? I could have sworn that it was “dilemna” when I learned to spell in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I remember this because I used to pronounce it phonetically – i.e., “di-lem-na” – as a joke.

A: Welcome to the Twilight Zone!

The word “dilemma,” which has been in English since the 1500s, has always been spelled with a double m. And yet legions of English-speakers from around the world not only spell it “dilemna,” but also (and here’s where Rod Serling steps out from behind a tree) INSIST that their teachers drummed this into them and ridiculed any “mistaken” efforts to spell it with two m’s.

No matter what you were taught, the correct spelling is “dilemma.” The word is derived from the Greek di (twice) and lemma (assumption). What it means, as you probably know, is a choice between two or more alternatives, all unfavorable. (Despite the “di” prefix, the word is now widely accepted as applying to more than two choices.) The alternatives are sometimes called the “horns” of the dilemma.

You can check the Oxford English Dictionary. There are no variant spellings given, and no citations in which the “dilemna” spelling appears. We’ve also consulted every standard dictionary we have access to, including some bizarre 19th-century ones. No dice. Or, rather, no “dilemna.”

However, the misspelling has cropped up here and there over the centuries. And internet searches of contemporary databases turn up hundreds of hits, including the CNN headline “Seoul’s Missile Dilemna.” In searching the New York Times archive, we found 11 appearances of “dilemna” since 1981.

Mostly, though, we find cries in the wilderness from people (both American and British) whose teachers apparently insisted on the spelling “dilemna” so vigorously that it became engraved on their brains. Who were these teachers and where did they get this harebrained idea? Did they (on both sides of the Atlantic) descend from a single Proto-Teacher born on another planet?

The odd “mn” spelling does have parallels in English: “condemn,” “solemn,” “alumna,” “limn,” “autumn,” “indemnity,” “damn,” and others. Oddly, we came across many language sites noting that the French for “dilemma” is dilemme, yet the word is widely misspelled in France as dilemne. As one site pointed out, “En effet, la forme ‘dilemne’ n’existe pas.” This gets curiouser and curiouser.

Some things, and this apparently is one of them, are beyond us. We can’t account for the bizarre phenomenon of so very many people being taught – and taught INSISTENTLY – that “dilemna” is correct. If we ever become enlightened on this mysterious subject, we’ll report back!

With apologies to Winston Churchill, this is a dilemma, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

[Note: We published a later post on this subject in 2011.]

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Q: I’m too shy to call in when you’re on the radio so I’m writing. Why do people say “ivory tower” in reference to academia? The phrases “ivy tower” or “ivied tower” would seem to make more sense.

A: The expression “ivory tower” has a long and interesting history, dating back to the Old Testament. Here’s an excerpt from the King James translation of the Song of Solomon: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon.”

In the 17th century, several English writers used the phrase in poems influenced by the Song of Solomon. Here’s an example from A Paraphrase Upon the Canticles (1679) by Samuel Woodford: “Thy neck is like a Tower of Ivory, Hung with the Trophies of Love’s Victory.”

All these early references seem to refer to purity or beauty. But in 1837, the French literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve used the expression tour d’ivoire to describe what he considered the aloof, unworldly poetry of Alfred de Vigny.

This usage of “ivory tower,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a condition of seclusion or separation from the world” or “shelter from the harsh realities of life,” made its way into English in the early 20th century.

The OED’s first English citation for this sense is from a 1911 translation of an essay in which Henri Bergson says each member of society “must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.”

For decades, the phrase was primarily used to describe writers, artists, and occasionally public officials who were isolated from the realities of life. In fact, none of the early citations in the OED refer to academia.

The first published reference that puts “ivory tower” on campus is in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group (1963): “We called you the Ivory Tower group. Aloof from the battle.” An article in the Economist that same year refers to dons “attached to academic ivory-toweredness.”

As for all those “ivy” and “ivied” expressions that refer to academic life, the earliest citation I find in the OED is one from the late 19th century about “the ivied wall of the Bodleian,” the library at Oxford University.

A 1933 article in the New York Herald Tribune refers to football “among the ivy colleges.” And a 1939 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly says: “The ‘Ivy League’ is something which does not exist and is simply a term which has been increasingly used in recent years by sports writers, applied rather loosely to a group of eastern colleges.”

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Benign neglect

Q: A newspaper article about Atlantic City’s war on seagulls says a casino employee “is not so benign about the birds that have seemingly taken over the world’s most famous boardwalk.” I question this use of the word “benign.” Do you think it is correct?

A: Well, the adjective “benign” can mean kind or gentle, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

And the Oxford English Dictionary has published citations for this usage going back to the days of Chaucer and earlier. In Troilus and Criseyde, for example, Chaucer uses it (spelled “benyng” in those days) to mean showing a kindly feeling: “Benyng he was to eche in general.”

The word “benign,” it seems, has had that meaning since the 14th century. (Another 14th-century meaning – humble, meek – is now obsolete, however.)

So the newspaper’s choice of words isn’t wrong. But I think that the “kindly” meaning for “benign” is rapidly getting obsolete too. These days, most people use “benign” in the sense of harmless, as in “a benign tumor.”

If I had written that story, I would have used something like “benevolent,” “generous,” “charitable,” “tolerant,” or “kindhearted.” When a usage pulls you up short (as this one did you and me), it’s probably worth changing.

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