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Thus far, so good

Q: When I watch television, especially sports programs, I hear the term “thus far” used instead of “so far,” and it grates on my ears. My daughter tells me that she hears university lecturers using the term. I would appreciate clarification on this small matter.

A: I find the expression “thus far” a bit stuffy, but there’s nothing wrong with using it to mean “so far.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “so” as one of the acceptable meanings of “thus.” And M-W gives the phrase “thus far” as an example of “thus” used to mean “so” or “to this extent.”

In fact, this usage isn’t a new one either. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations going back to Anglo-Saxon days for “thus” used to mean “so” or “to this point.” The first citation is from Beowulf, but you’d have a hard time making out the Old English.

Here’s a more accessible example from the chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599):

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursu’d the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.

I hope this helps clarify things for you.

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Is “most” almost there?

Q: I recently read an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that said Big Brown’s trainer had “a list of violations longer than most anyone else’s in the history of the sport.” Is “most” beginning to replace “almost”?

A: I don’t believe “most” is about to replace “almost,” but it’s being used quite a bit these days to modify pronouns like “all,” “any,” “every,” “anyone,” and adverbs like “always,” “anywhere,” and “everywhere.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes the usage as informal and gives this example: “Most everyone agrees.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the usage is heard often in speech, but appears less often in written English. M-W notes, however, that the usage “is considered by some to be unacceptable.”

In other words, a lot of people do it, but the usage isn’t quite ready for prime time (though it’s often heard there).

Interestingly, the use of “most” to mean “almost” isn’t all that recent. The Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to the early 17th century. A 1770 entry in George Washington’s diary, for example, refers to “the Tassels of most all the Corn.”

In fact, the phrase “most all,” meaning for the most part or nearly, was alive and well in Anglo-Saxon times (it was mæst ealle in Old English). And the word “almost,” which dates from around the year 1,000, was originally formed by combining the Old English words for “all” and “most.”

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Is that what it’s all about?

Q: We seem to have lost a “that” (“The conference made clear [that] the two sides were divided”) and gained an “is” (“The thing is … is that I forgot to add the baking soda”). How do you explain these two phenomena?

A: Quite often, “that” is optional. I discussed this in a March 7, 2008, blog item, so you might want to take a look.

As for the “is … is” business, here’s my feeling. The speaker gets as far as the first verb (“The thing is …”), hesitates, and then continues, forgetting that a verb has already been used ( ” … is that I forgot to add the baking soda”).

People who do this are essentially treating a clause like “the thing is” or “the point is” or “the problem is” as the subject of the sentence as a whole.

They then have to give that subject a verb, so they forge ahead with another verb (“is that etc.”), mentally shifting gears and grinding them in the process. This often happens when the clause after “is” starts with “that.”

Two linguists, Michael Shapiro and Michael C. Haley, wrote about the subject in the journal American Speech in 2002, calling this kind of “is is” a “reduplicative copula.” (A copula is a linking verb, like “is.”)

The simple double copula, on the other hand, isn’t grammatically incorrect. Examples: “What that is is an armadillo,” or “What he is is a felon.” (Or, to use an example quoted by Shapiro and Haley: “What the problem is is still unclear.”)

But the kind of sentence we’re talking about (“The problem is is that I’m too busy”) is grammatically incorrect, or, as Shapiro and Haley would say, it’s a “nonstandard syntactic construction.” The phenomenon is recent but not particularly new. The two linguists cite examples going back to 1993.

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Capital crimes

Q: I think “without” should be capitalized in titles, but when I use it with an upper-case “w,” Microsoft Word lectures me with a wavy green line and a general explanation about some words this and some words that. I don’t know who designated Microsoft the über-grammarian. If I mail rotten eggs to the Capitals Committee in Redmond, WA, will the Post Office charge me postage?

A: This business about capitalizing or not capitalizing prepositions in headlines and titles and such is just a style convention, one that varies from company to company.

As you may have noticed, some book publishers lowercase all prepositions in titles, a practice that (in my opinion) makes words like “without” and “about” look silly.

At the New York Times, where I used to work, all nouns, pronouns, and verbs, as well as all other words of four letters or more, are capped in headlines and book titles (no matter what they look like on the books’ title pages).

Other words always capped in headlines and titles are “no,” “nor,” “not,” “off,” “out,” “so,” and “up.” Also capped are smaller prepositions when they take on the role of adverbs (as in “Cabbie Fills In as Maternity Nurse” or “Prepositions Take On New Role”).

Never mind what Microsoft Word tells you about capitalization in titles. I find the spell-checker helpful at catching typos, and I get a lot of laughs when it suggests off-the-wall changes for legitimate words. But you can forget the grammar-checker. I turn mine off.

Nobody (except perhaps the grammar cop in your computer) will throw the book at you if you do the reasonable thing and cap all prepositions of more than three letters in titles.

I don’t think, though, that the Post Office would appreciate the rotten eggs. If you’re charged, it probably won’t be for postage.

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“Aluminum” vs. “aluminium”

Q: I’m a Brit and I take issue with the way one-eyed Americans spell the metal that the rest of the world calls “aluminium.” Look at the periodic table. Can you find another element ending in “um” instead of “ium”?

A: You’re right that Americans are in the minority on this one, but we’re not entirely alone. Canadians, for example, call the metal “aluminum” too.

And there are several other elements in the periodic table that end in “um”: molybdenum, tantalum, platinum, and lanthanum. But the fact that most of the other elements end in “ium” isn’t much of an argument.

So why do the Americans use one “i” and the Brits two for this word? Here’s the story.

In 1808 Sir Humphry Davy, the British chemist who discovered the metal, named it “alumium.” With just one “i” and an “ium” ending, it straddled the two competing versions we have today.

Four years later, however, Davy changed his mind and gave the metal the name “aluminum” (yup, the one-“i” American version). In his book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, published in 1812, Davy wrote, “As yet Aluminum has not been obtained in a perfectly free state. “

But later that same year other scientists decided “aluminum” didn’t sound sufficiently Latin, so they began calling it “aluminium.” Here’s a quote from the Quarterly Review: “Aluminium, for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.”

The scientists also perhaps believed the “ium” ending was more consistent with other elements. However, “aluminum,” as we know, isn’t the only element to break the “ium” pattern. Not to mention the elements with entirely different names, like gold, copper, zinc, nickel, sulfur, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, boron, argon, krypton, iron, tungsten, neon, mercury, iodine, tin, and others.

At any rate, throughout the 19th century, both “aluminum” and “aluminium” could be found in the US as well as in Britain, though the “ium” ending was predominant in British English.

This was such a rare metal in the 1800s, though, that we’re not talking about a common household word; it was mainly known among scientists.

Only at the turn of the century, when production on a large scale became practical, did the name of the metal start becoming a familiar word. And that’s when Americans – after some to-ing and fro-ing, of course – began to clearly prefer the simpler “aluminum” (which had been favored, incidentally, by Noah Webster).

Eventually “aluminum” became the standard name for the metal in North America and was officially adopted in the 1920s by the American Chemical Society.

Elsewhere, though, scientists generally use “aluminium.” The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry uses “aluminium” as the standard international spelling but also recognizes “aluminum” as a variant.

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“And thence my Lady Sandwich”

Q: I was reading Pepys’s diary and saw the word “thence” used time and time again. What’s the correct way to use it today?

A: I don’t think there’s a correct way to use “thence” now, except perhaps to make a humorous point. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, describes it as an archaism that should be avoided “unless you’re being jocular.”

“Thence” means “from that place” (as in “I went to the opera and thence home”). But it can also mean “from that time” or “from that fact or circumstance” or “from here” (as in “the house is ten miles thence”).

This is a dusty old expression, like “hence,” “whence,” and “thither,” and it’s rarely heard or read today in ordinary American usage. I can’t speak for the Brits, but I don’t suppose they use “thence” much either.

You do find “thence,” however, in things like legal documents, border treaties, property descriptions, and such. You can also find it in religious writing, like the Roman Catholic catechism: “From thence he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

The term is quite old, dating from the late 1200s. Here’s an example from a June 2, 1665, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Thence to visit the Duke of Albemarle, and thence my Lady Sandwich and Lord Crew.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “thence” is now chiefly literary. The last published reference in the dictionary is an 1895 report of a ship’s leaving Liverpool “on a voyage thence to Melbourne.”

The OED describes the phrase “from thence,” as redundant (remember, “from” is part of the meaning of “thence”).

But the dictionary then goes on to list citations from the 14th to 19th centuries for “thence” used in just that redundant way. Here’s a 1703 example from Pope: “Begin from thence, where first Alpheus hides His wand’ring stream.”

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Plutonic relations

Q: I noticed a recent usage that might amuse you. Last month, a spokesman for Roger Clemens said the pitcher’s relationship with a 15-year-old girl was “strictly plutonic.” Any comment?

A: Thanks for your tip about “strictly plutonic,” but I suspect this may be another case of a language story that’s too good to be true.

I haven’t been able to find a legitimate news report in which a spokesman for Roger Clemens says his relationship with the country singer Mindy McCready was “strictly plutonic” or, for that matter, “strictly platonic.”

The New York Daily News, which broke the story in early May, quoted Clemens’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, as saying the pitcher “has never had a sexual relationship with her.” But Hardin didn’t use the word “plutonic” or “platonic” to describe the relationship.

It turns out that the mother of the 33-year-old singer did, however, say her daughter had a “platonic relationship” with Clemens when she was a teenager. Not “plutonic,” though.

Some people commenting online about the situation seem to have messed up the facts and inaccurately said Clemens or his spokesman had referred to the relationship as either “strictly plutonic” or “strictly platonic.”

Nevertheless, I’m glad you wrote me about this. In googling “strictly plutonic,” I got nearly 2,500 hits, many of them meant to be serious. Is this the start of a new usage? Let’s hope not.

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A tissue of lies

Q: You were discussing the expression “a tissue of lies” on the radio some time ago. I think it may come from un tissu de mensonges, French for “a tissue of lies.” The noun tissu is the past passive participle of the archaic verb tistre, meaning to weave, according to my Harrap’s Shorter French and English Dictionary. Hence the French expression would indicate a number of lies closely woven together.

A: The word “tissue” (originally spelled “tyssu”) entered English in the mid-14th century. It’s derived from an Old French noun, tissu, meaning “a kind of rich stuff,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In English, a “tissue” originally meant a rich cloth often interwoven with gold and silver.

The first citation for the word in the OED is from The Romaunt of the Rose, an English translation (often attributed to Chaucer) of a French allegory: “The barres were of gold ful fyne, / Upon a tyssu of satyne.”

By the early 18th century, the word “tissue” was being used in a figurative way to mean a network or web of negative things. In 1711, for example, Joseph Addison dismissed some poems as “nothing else but a Tissue of Epigrams.”

In 1762, Oliver Goldsmith referred to the history of Europe as “a tissue of crimes, follies, and misfortunes.” And in 1820, Washington Irving complained about a “tissue of misrepresentations.”

I haven’t researched this usage in a French etymological dictionary, but nothing in the OED suggests that we got the negative use of “tissue” from France. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the French got the usage from us.

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Captain, may I?

Q: I was brought up with a children’s game in which you had to say “Mother, may I” before you could move. I guess that dates me! Anyway, this is why I’m writing. My impression is that one uses “may” for permission and “can” for ability. But the State of Pennsylvania has signs that say “Bridge may be icy.” Do the bridges need permission to ice up? Or has the meaning of “may” changed?

A: In my day, we said, “Captain, may I?” So that dates me as well!

Anyway, the distinction between “can” and “may” is a bit more relaxed today than when you were playing that children’s game, but careful writers still observe it in formal writing or speech.

For example, the overwhelming majority of the usage panel at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) rejects the use of “can” in this sentence: “Can I take another week to submit the application?”

Traditionally, “can” means able to and “may” means permitted to. Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “I can fly when lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag,” said Sister Bertrille. “May I demonstrate?”

But grammarians and usage experts are willing to cut people some slack in casual usage. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, notes that “only an insufferable precisian would insist on observing the distinction in informal speech or writing.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if even the most stickling sticklers say “Can’t I help with that?” instead of the stilted “Mayn’t I help with that?” Or “You can’t come in yet” instead of “You mayn’t come in yet.”

However, the “may” in those Pennsylvania bridge signs is another animal altogether. This isn’t the “may” that indicates permissibility. It’s a “may” that indicates likelihood, a term similar to “might.” So “Bridge may be icy” means it’s possible that the bridge will ice up. An entirely different meaning of the word.

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Ringing in the posies!

Q: The “Ring a ring of rosy” nursery rhyme I heard growing up in Britain ends with “Atchoo, atchoo, / We all fall down.” The “atchoo” is someone sneezing, I was told, and it’s about the Great Plague. Not a very happy rhyme, is it?

A: Many people believe, as you were told, that the children’s rhyme has something to do with the Great Plague of London in 1665. But the available evidence doesn’t support that theory, according to the language sleuths who’ve looked into the issue.

Hugh Rawson, in his book Devious Derivations, notes that the rhyme wasn’t included in the first book of English nursery rhymes, Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744), which was published 79 years after the plague.

In fact, the rhyme didn’t appear in print until well over two centuries after the plague. And when it did appear, sneezing wasn’t mentioned. Here’s the earliest known version of the rhyme, published in an 1881 edition of Mother Goose illustrated by Kate Greenaway:

A pocket full of posies;
Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!
We’ve all tumbled down.

There have been many other versions since then. Here’s the one I heard growing up in Iowa:

Ring around the rosy,
A pocketful of posy,
Ashes, ashes,
All fall down.

Unfortunately, many of the most interesting word or phrase origins turn out to be myths. Well, perhaps not unfortunately, since the subject of my next book will be myths about English.

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From “izzard” to “zed” to “z”

Q: I am among thousands of amateur radio operators in the US who use “zed” for the letter “z.” Using “zed” in place of “zee” avoids confusion with “c” and other similar-sounding letters. Any thoughts?

A: Radio operators aren’t the only ones who use “zed” instead of “zee.” In fact, we in the United States are the odd ones out where the word for the last letter of the alphabet is concerned. The standard pronunciation in Britain and all the old Commonwealth nations is “zed.”

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

One possible explanation, according to linguists, is that Americans simply like having their word for “z” sound more like “bee,” “cee,” “dee,” and so on.

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

“Zed” and “zee” aren’t the only word for “z” on record.

In Samuel Johnson’s time, the letter was often called “izzard” or “uzzard.” In fact, “izzard” survived in odd pockets of the US well into the 20th century. But it was mainly used as part of the expression “from A to izzard,” and was seldom used by itself.

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Aggressive behavior

Q: If a batter takes too many pitches in baseball or a fielder doesn’t charge a grounder, it’s said that the batter or fielder doesn’t exhibit enough aggression. Every time I hear that, I think it should be “aggressiveness.” It seems to me that “aggression” has more to do with warlike actions and has a darker meaning than “aggressiveness.” Am I wrong?

A: “Aggression” is a lot older than “aggressiveness,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it seems to be a lot more common too, if one can judge from the number of citations in the OED and the number of hits on Google..

The word “aggression,” meaning an attack, first showed up in English in 1611, borrowed from the French agression. By the early 1700s, it also referred in a general way to the making of such attacks.

The latecomer, “aggressiveness,” which the OED defines as “the quality of being aggressive,” first showed up in an 1859 British comment about “the insatiable aggressiveness of France.”

Although both words are still being used in this bellicose way, “aggression” and “aggressive” took on a new meaning in the early 20th century when psychologists and psychiatrists began using them to refer to hostile or destructive behavior.

The term “aggression,” according to the OED, has been used in a positive way for about half a century to mean a “feeling or energy displayed in asserting oneself, in showing drive or initiative; aggressiveness, assertiveness, forcefulness.”

The first published reference for this sense comes from Summerhill (1960), a book by the Scottish educator Alexander Sutherland Neil: “Well, every child has to have some aggression in order to force his way through life.”

A 1968 citation from the now-defunct British magazine The Listener describes a broadcast as “presented with aggression and self-confidence.”

Curiously, I can’t find any citations in the OED for the use of “aggressiveness” in this positive way, but I think this is an oversight, since the word “aggressive” has been used that way since 1930, when a Canadian help-wanted advertisement sought an “aggressive clothing salesman with ambition.”

So, in answer to your question, one could make an etymological case for using either “aggression” or “aggressiveness” to refer to self-assertion in sports. But I agree with you that “aggressiveness” seems more appropriate than “aggression.”

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You axed for it!

Q: When I was growing up, I used to hear people in some African-American and Southern white communities pronounce “ask” as “ax.” Where does this come from?

A: The “ax” pronunciation isn’t limited to some African-Americans or Southern whites. Pat heard it when she was growing up in Iowa, from whites as well as blacks.

In a 19th-century English novel that she’s reading now, the Irish servants use it, and it’s still heard in parts of Britain.

Today this pronunciation is considered nonstandard, but it wasn’t always so.

The verb entered Old English in the 8th century and had two basic forms, “ascian” and “acsian.” During the Middle English period (1100-1500), the latter form (“acsian”) became “axsian” and finally “ax” (or “axe”), which was the accepted written form until about 1600.

Chaucer, in The Parson’s Tale (1386), writes of “a man that … cometh for to axe him of mercy.” And in Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible, there are lines like “Axe and it shal be giuen you,” and “he axed for wrytinge tables.”

In the early 17th century, “ask” (which had been lurking in the background) replaced “ax.”

Though the spelling changed and the consonant sounds were switched in standard English, the old pronunciation survived in some parts of England.

The “ax” version is still heard in the Midland and Southern dialects, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And it’s also heard in the US, as we know.

Some have speculated that perhaps the earlier “ax” was somehow passed on to slaves (which could help explain why it survived among blacks). But there’s no evidence to support that theory. And many whites use the pronunciation too.

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When did those upper lips stiffen?

Q: At what point in US history did we stop speaking with a British accent? Did the founding fathers have British accents? Any information you can give me would be helpful.

A: A better question would be, When did the British stop speaking like us?

The accent we recognize as British today developed after Britain and the Colonies went their separate ways (late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries). Americans never spoke this way, and before the late 1700s neither did the British.

The British once spoke much the way we do today. The dropped “r” (“fah” instead of “far”), the broad “a” (“lawf” for “laugh”), the dropped penultimate syllables (“secretry” instead of “secretary”), and so on are all relatively late developments.

An upcoming book about language myths that I’ve written with my husband will cover some of these issues, but it won’t be out for about a year.

In the meantime, you might look at a book called American Pronunciation, by John Samuel Kenyon (George Wahr Publishing Co., 1966). It’s on the scholarly side, and you’ll probably have to buy it used.

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Thong tied

Q: Until I was about 10, I pronounced “upheaval” as you-FEE-val. Maybe that’s why I notice that many people now pronounce the first syllables of “diphthong” and “amphitheater” as DIP and AMP. Are those pronunciations acceptable now?

A: Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accept two standard pronunciations for “diphthong.” Both list DIF-thong first and DIP-thong second, without comment (which means they’re about equally common).

For “amphitheater,” American Heritage, which is the more conservative of the two, recognizes only AMF. But M-W includes both AM(P)F – the parentheses mean that sometimes the P is sounded along with the F – and “also” AMP. The “also” means the second pronunciation is much less common.

Interestingly, the earliest English spellings of “diphthong,” dating back to the late 1400s, were “diptong” and “diptonge,” suggesting that the word was originally pronounced with a DIP, not a DIF.

In fact, it was adopted from the h-less Middle French diptongue, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. But the DIF sound is found in the ultimate source of “diphthong”: the Greek diphthongos, meaning double sound.

As for “amphitheater,” we borrowed it in the mid-16th century from the Latin amphitheatrum, which came in turn from the Greek amphitheatron, a theater in the round.

As far as I can tell, “amphitheater” was pronounced with an AMF from its earliest days in English. But as you point out, and Merriam-Webster’s confirms, AMP seems to be creeping into the language.

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Store gazing

Q: I am curious about the expression “to put store by.” I think I understand the gist of the meaning: to believe in or count on. Am I correct? And how do those words come together to create this expression?

A: The more familiar forms of the expression are “set store by” or “set store on.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines “set store by” as meaning to value highly. Here’s how it came about.

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun “store” (sometimes pluralized as “stores”) meant one’s goods or possessions or money laid up for future use.

Around the same time, this sense of “store” as goods held in reserve for the future gave us another usage: something that lies ahead was said to be “in store” for us.

Later in the 14th century, according to the OED, the word meant a treasure or something precious. Thus it came to be used in phrases having the sense of to value or to prize.

So to value something highly was to “set (great) store by” or to “put (or set) store upon.” Similarly, to “set something at little store” was to devalue it.

Here’s the phrase in action, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847): “He set store on her past everything.”

The sense of a “store” as a place where goods are sold (more an American usage than a British one) didn’t come into being until the middle of the 18th century.

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Plurals of wisdom

Q: In polishing a neighbor’s translation from Japanese to English, I’m finding plurals like “carps,” “salmons,” etc. I want to explain to her that not all English words are pluralized by adding “s,” but I can’t find a rule to explains this. Is there one?

A: Unfortunately, there’s no rule. One just has to get a feel for these idiomatic plurals or else look them up.

Many nouns for animals are both singular and plural: “deer,” “moose,” “vermin,” “elk,” “sheep,” “swine,” and “fish” (also some individual kinds of fish like those you mention).

Some words ending in “s” are also the same in singular and plural: examples are “series,” “species,” and “headquarters.”

What’s more, some words look plural because they end in “s,” but they’re treated as singular: “molasses,” “news,” “whereabouts,” “checkers” (also “billiards,” “dominoes,” and other games); and “measles” (also “mumps,” “rickets,” “shingles,” and other diseases).

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APB: Whither “the”?

Q: I wonder if you have anything to say about the disappearance of the definite article before phrases like “point is” “trouble is,” “thing is,” and so on. Coming upon this usage in even The New Yorker has led me to send out this APB. Whither “the” and why?

A: In this case, dropping “the” is just a clipped mannerism.

Why is it done? The answer is that fashions in speech come and go, and this one is probably another manifestation of our fast-forward, New-York-minute culture!

It’s like saying “HTH” instead of “hope this helps.” Or, for that matter, “APB” instead of “all points bulletin.”

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A family affair

Q: I’ve studied German for many years and clearly see similarities in sentence structure with English. But I also see many English words of Latin or Greek origin. Why is English considered a Germanic and not a Romance language?

A: Many centuries ago, what etymologists and linguists now call the Germanic family of languages covered much of northern Europe and included early Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian, High and Low German, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, English, and Gothic, among others.

Those old Germanic languages were the foundations for modern English, German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages.

So structurally, English is Germanic. It had its beginnings 1,500 years ago, when the Angles (hence the name “England”) arrived in ancient Britain along with Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and probably other Germanic tribes. This was the beginning of Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon.

The other major European language group – the Romance family derived from Latin – includes French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. Over the centuries, English absorbed huge numbers of Latin vocabulary words, but it has resisted attempts by Latinists to impose Latinate sentence structure as well.

These language categories aren’t as clear-cut as they appear. There’s been borrowing between the language families, as well as between the languages within families. (Latin, for example, derived much of its vocabulary from Greek.)

What’s more, all these languages (Germanic plus Romance), along with some in southern Asia, have a common ancestor: they’re all descended from a prehistoric language, Indo-European.

This accounts for why the words “one,” “two,” and “three,” for example, are so similar in languages as varied as English, Welsh, Dutch, Icelandic, German, Latin, and Greek. And why the verb “bear” (meaning to carry) is strikingly similar in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, and Old English.

Much of this information comes from a wonderful book, The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.), by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

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One less question to answer

Q: The Burt Bacharach song “One Less Bell to Answer” can’t possibly be correct, but it sounds more natural than “One Fewer Bell to Answer.” Am I missing something here?

A: Bryan A. Garner has a good explanation of this “one-less” business in Garner’s Modern American Usage. “If, in strict usage,” he writes, “less applies to singular nouns and fewer to plural nouns, the choice is clear: one less golfer on the course, not one fewer golfer.”

The usage is tricky, he adds, “only because less is being applied to a singular count noun, whereas it usually applies to a mass noun.” Burt Bacharach “got it right,” he says, and “most contemporary writers get it right” too.

“Nearly a quarter of the time, however, writers use one fewer, an awkward and unidiomatic phrase,” he goes on, attributing the error to “a kind of hypercorrection induced by underanalysis of the less-vs.-fewer question.”

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of American Usage agrees. In a discussion of “less,” the editors note: “And of course it follows one.” Examples given include “one less scholarship” and “one less reporter.”

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English language Grammar Usage

Get around much anymore?

Q: I see lots of “anymore” as opposed to “any more” these days. What’s correct?

A: These are two different usages, and each is standard English. They’re both used here: “I can’t take any more of this movie. I guess I just don’t like Rogers & Hammerstein anymore.”

“Anymore” is an adverb meaning “any longer” or “now,” as in “I don’t live there anymore.” It’s often seen in negative contexts like that one.

The phrase “any more” is most often used to talk about quantities of things. “Would you like any more dessert?” … “I don’t care for any more, thank you.”

People often ask about another sense of “anymore,” one that used to be termed a dialectal usage (that is, not standard English). In this sense it means “nowadays” or “these days” in a positive statement.

Here are a few examples: “I prefer to take the bus anymore”; “She wears black anymore”; “Jobs are getting scarce anymore”; “The days are getting shorter anymore.”

That usage is no longer termed dialectal in either The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) or Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). Both say it’s widely heard in many regions of the US.

For example, it’s very common in the Midwest, and I heard it all the time when I was growing up in Iowa.

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English language Uncategorized

Anti accidents

Q: I’m a cranky old grammar and pronunciation lover who has just finished reading your entire blog. Whew! Now, I’d like to ask you about the proliferation of the long “i.” It finally went beyond tolerance for me when I heard a newscaster talking about ant-eye-freeze. Next, will it be hem-eye-sphere? What’s wrong with the good old short “i”?

A: I haven’t heard this proliferation of the long “i” that you’ve noticed, but I’m going to keep my ears open for it!

As an aside, I should mention that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives both ANT-eye and ANT-ee as correct pronunciations for “anti” before vowels, but ANT-ih (with the second vowel as in “hit”) before a consonant.

So the newscaster should have said ANT-ih-freez.

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English language Uncategorized

A skeevy etymology

Q: I could not find the verb “skeeve” in my dictionary, though I’ve always understood it to mean to cause disgust or to be disgusted. If a guy tells me, “I skeeve you,” is he disgusted by me or am I disgusted by him?

A: The verb “skeeve” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as American slang from the 1980s meaning (1) to disgust or repel, as in “you skeeve me,” or (2) to loathe or dislike intensely, as in “I skeeve that.” It sometimes appears as “skeeve out.”

So both senses of the verb are correct, and you’d interpret the meaning from the context.

The OED says the word comes from an earlier adjective dating from the 1970s, “skeevy” (disgusting, distasteful, dirty, sleazy).

“Skeevy,” in turn, probably comes from a regional Italian adjective, schifo, used in Tuscany, according to the OED lexicographers.

The American slang version may have originated in Philadelphia. The OED‘s first citation for “skeevy” is from Philadelphia Magazine in March 1976: “The word ‘skeevie’ used by South Philadelphians to indicate something disgusting is from Italian ‘schifare,’ to loathe.”

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English language Uncategorized

Emotional baggage

Q: I was reading Casino Royale and came upon “emotional baggage,” a phrase I never would have expected in an Ian Fleming novel: “Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.” The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t quote this, or any other use of “emotional baggage” before the novel’s pub date (1953). I wonder if you know of any prior uses.

A: I don’t know of any earlier usages. I checked out several of my references, including the comprehensive Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, but couldn’t find anything.

Interestingly, I did learn of an article in the journal Applied Linguistics that discusses the phrase, but I haven’t read it. The article, “The Emergence of Metaphor in Discourse,” by Lynne Cameron and Alice Deignan, is available (for a fee) through Oxford Journals. Here’s the link.

I’m not sure the OED folks were setting out to print the earliest examples of each of those “baggage” compounds (“cultural baggage,” “emotional baggage,” “intellectual baggage,” and so on). But perhaps you ought to email them with your find in case they’re interested in what they call an “ante-dating” for the phrase. Here’s a link that might be useful.

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Meet the pundit

Q: I don’t know if you’ve commented on this, but I’m peeved by the mispronunciation of “pundit’ as PUN-dint. I just had a look on Google, and have discovered I’m not alone. A word for the season, in any case.

A: I hadn’t heard the pronunciation PUN-dint, but it’s definitely not standard. The word is pronounced just as written: PUN-dit.

It’s an interesting word. It comes from the Sanskrit pandita, a learned man. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

“In India: a learned or wise person; a person with knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, religion, and law; (also) a Hindu priest or teacher. Sometimes used as a title of respect.”

A year or so ago I read a book called The Far Pavilions, by M. M. Kaye, which takes place in 19th-century India. I remember coming across a passage about someone traveling “in the guise of a Kashmiri pundit.”

Naturally I had visions of a guy in a suit being interviewed on “Meet the Press.”

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English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

To incent and incense

Q: I recently saw an interview with Carly Fiorina, who kept using the words “incent” and “incenting.” My dictionary has never heard of these forms of “incentive.” Is my dictionary out of date? Or is Ms. Fiorina inventing words?

A: We’ve found “incent” in four standard dictionaries, though two of them (Collins and Oxford Dictionaries online) describe it as an American usage, and Collins adds that it’s “not standard.”

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list it without comment (that is, as standard English).

“Incent” is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from “incentive.” As you might suspect, it means to provide an incentive or to incentivize.

Although “incent” hasn’t been accepted wholeheartedly by all standard dictionaries, it’s been around for more than a century and a half.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the word appears in an 1840 issue of the Rover, a New York literary weekly:

“Incented by the stupid ambition of an ignorant mother, she thought that the purse of the one was far superior to the heart of the other.”

The next OED citation, dated 1898, is from a British source, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates: “The noble Lord went so far … as to charge … Mr. Tilak with incenting to murder.”

Back-formations are pretty common in English. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”), and “curate” (from “curator”).

Among back-formations that are frowned upon by some commentators are “incent,” “administrate” (from “administration”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), “liaise” (from “liaison”), and “orientate” (a mid-19th century back-formation from “orientation,” which itself is derived from a verb, “orient”).

Not every word you find in dictionaries is pleasing to every ear. We, for example, find “administrate” unnecessary since the older “administer” is a perfectly good word.

Though “administrate” doesn’t have any more syllables than “administer,” it’s longer and newer, which may be its attraction for people who enjoy using bureaucratic language.

An example of a back-formation that’s out there but not (yet) in standard dictionaries is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.”

[Note: This post was updated on July 6, 2016, at the suggestion of a reader.]

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English language Uncategorized

Is it HUN-ta or JUN-ta?

Q: With Burma in the news recently, the word “junta” has been showing up a lot. I’ve heard three different pronunciations from newscasters: the “j” is sometimes pronounced like a “j,” other times like a “y,” and still others like an “h.” Which would be considered the most correct?

A: The word “junta,” usually meaning a council of military rulers, can be pronounced all sorts of ways. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives three pronunciations, all of them standard:

(1) HUN-ta (the “u” pronounced as in “foot”);

(2) JUN-ta (the “u” pronounced as in “ugly”);

(3) HUN-ta (the “u” pronounced as in “ugly).

The word is derived from the Spanish junta (pronounced pretty much like No. 1), and ultimately from the Latin juncta (feminine past participle of jungere, to join).

The word has been in English since 1623, when it referred to a council in Spain or Italy, but it wasn’t used in the military sense until the early 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the summer of 1808, the OED says, the term was used for the local councils established in different districts of Spain to conduct the war against Napoleon. Later in the year, a central junta was formed.

An alternative spelling, “junto,” has been in English since the mid-17th century. The OED describes it as an “erroneous form,” but Merriam-Webster’s simply defines it as “a group of persons joined for a common purpose.”

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A Japanese import?

Q: I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your detailed response to my question about “hunky-dory.” If I am permitted a follow-up, did GIs bring back the word “honcho” from Japan after World War II? In Japanese, hon usually means main or central, and cho can be a suffix that means ultra or most.

A: The word “honcho” was adopted from the Japanese word hancho, meaning “group leader,” and it first showed up in English (in print, anyway) in 1947, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED‘s first citation is from a book by James Bertram, The Shadow of War: A New Zealander in the Far East, 1939-1946: “But here comes the hancho. This boat must be finished to-night.”

The earliest published reference with the spelling “honcho” is from a 1955 article in the journal American Speech. The article defines the term as “man in charge,” and adds:

“This is a Japanese word translated roughly as ‘Chief officer,’ brought back from Japan by fliers stationed there during the occupation and during the Korean fighting.”

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Whooping it up!

Q: Your Eminences, what is the derivation of “oops”? And what about “whoops”?

A: There’s more to this “oops” and “whoops” business than meets the eye. And the ultimate answer may go back to Jonathan Swift in the 18th century.

The word “oops” is an interjection expressing “apology, dismay, or surprise, especially after an obvious but usually minor mistake,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says it’s perhaps a natural expression or possibly a shortening of an earlier expression, “upsidaisy,” which is now usually spelled “upsy-daisy” when it appears in standard dictionaries.

The OED‘s first citation for “oops” in print is from a 1922 caption (not sure whether it was for an illustration or a photo) in the Washington Post.

The related interjection “whoops” is considered a variation of “oops.” It often appears in a more elaborate version, “whoopsie-daisy,” also derived from “upsidaisy.”

The OED‘s first “whoops” and “whoopsie” citations are from the 1920s and ’30s. In 1925, for example, the New Yorker printed a caption reading “Whoopsie Daisy!” And in 1937 Ezra Pound wrote in a letter: “Whoops! And do I envy you. I do.”

Now, on to “upsy-daisy.” The OED gives “upsidaisy” as the primary spelling and lists a whole batch of variant spellings: “oops-a-daisy,” “upsey-daisy,” “upsa daesy,” “ups-a-daisy,” “upsy daisy,” and so on.

These started appearing in the mid-19th century. Here are some of the OED‘s earliest citations:

1862, C. Clough Robinson, The Dialect of Leeds and Its Neighbourhood: “Upsa daesy! a common ejaculation when a child, in play, is assisted in a spring-leap from the ground.”

1904, Saturday Review: “There is little Freddy waiting … to be lifted – ‘upsidaisy’ – into his perambulator.”

1912, John Sandilands, Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book: “Ups-a-daisy, the tender words of the fond father when engaged in baby-jumping.”

1934, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nine Tailors: “Hoops-a-daisy, over she goes!”

And here are some shortened forms:

1922, James Joyce, Ulysses: “Hoopsa! Don’t fall upstairs.”

1928, E. M. Forster, The Life to Come: “Upsa! Take care!”

“Upsidaisy” and its variants are all considered outgrowths of an earlier interjection, “up-a-daisy,” which the OED describes as “an exclamation made to a child on encouraging or assisting it to rise from a fall, etc., or to surmount an obstacle, or when raising it in the arms or jerking it into the air.”

Jerking? Oh well. Anyway, here are its earliest appearances in print.

1711, Jonathan Swift, The Journal to Stella: “So – up a-dazy.”

1756, William Toldervy, The History of Two Orphans: ” ‘Up-a-daisey,’ said Miss Bella, and then … gave him a push behind.”

1854, A. E. Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases: “Up-a-daisy, a fondling expression of a nurse to a child whilst lifting it from the ground, encouraging it to assist itself in rising.”

If this doesn’t answer your question, I can only say “oops!”

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English language Uncategorized


Q: Some time ago, I read that “hunky-dory” was a corruption of a Japanese word by American sailors. It was apparently the name of a red-light district, and I guess the sailors felt hunky-dory after visiting it. Is there any truth to this?

A: Over the years, a few word sleuths have suggested Japanese connections for “hunky-dory,” but others have pointed out holes in these theories.

In 1877, for example, John Russell Bartlett suggested in his Dictionary of Americanisms that the expression was derived from a street or bazaar in Edo (he spelled it “Yeddo”), a former name for Tokyo.

He said the phrase was believed to have been introduced in the US around 1865 by Thomas Dilward, a black minstrel performer known as Japanese Tommy.

But scholars have raised doubts about the existence of a street named “hunky-dory” (see below), and the only thing Japanese about Tommy, as far as I can tell, was his stage name.

Other language types have theorized that the expression comes from “honcho dori,” the name of a street in Yokohama frequented by American sailors visiting Japan in the 19th century.

Anatoly Liberman, a University of Minnesota etymologist, has said this idea “deserves some credence” because many people in Japan believe it. But Liberman, commenting on an Oxford University Press blog, then went on to point out two big holes in the theory.

First of all, according to Liberman, “honcho dori” isn’t exactly the name of a street in Yokohama. It means, he said, something like “the street where the head honcho lives.” Second, the first part of the expression, “hunky,” may very well have Dutch, not Japanese roots.

So what is the origin of “hunky-dory”?

The Oxford English Dictionary says the first part comes from the Dutch word honk, meaning the goal in a game, and can be traced to earlier Germanic words for a home, a place of refuge, or a safe abode.

The Dutch, of course, had a great influence on the English spoken in New York (aka New Amsterdam). In the mid-19th century, New York schoolchildren used the phases “to reach hunk” or “to be on hunk” to describe being safe or reaching home in games.

The word “hunk” soon came to mean safe or in good condition, as in this 1856 citation from the New York Tribune: “Now he felt himself all hunk, and wanted to get this enormous sum out of the city.”

The OED says the origin of the second part of “hunky-dory” is unknown. The first published reference in the dictionary for the full phrase (more or less) is from an 1866 article in Galaxy magazine: “I cannot conceive on any theory of etymology … why anything that is ‘hunkee doree’ … should be so admirable.”

Sorry I can’t be more definitive.

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