English English language Etymology Expression Language Slang Usage Word origin Writing

Why we suck

Q: I often notice the word “suck” used when I think it’s inappropriate. The comedian Denis Leary, for example, has a book called Why We Suck. And a kid may tell a teacher, “I think Catcher in the Rye sucks.” This makes me cringe. My understanding is that “suck” here refers to oral sex. Am I being priggish?

A: The verb “suck” is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, and it’s perfectly acceptable in most of its senses.

“Suck” has been in the language since around the year 825, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning: “To draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum.”

All the other meanings (to suck something or someone dry of money, for example) stem from this one. [Note: A later post on the uses of “suck” appeared on the blog in 2017.]

The OED also lists the oral-sex definition, labeling it “coarse slang,” and dates that usage from 1928. However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two citations from the 17th century, including this one:

“O that I were a flea upon thy lip, / There would I sucke for euer, and not skip … / Or if thou thinkst I there too high am plast, / Ile be content to sucke below thy waste” (from The Schoole of Complement, a 1631 play by the English dramatist James Shirley).

Separately the OED lists “contemptible or disgusting” as slang meanings of the word (as in “he sucks” or “it sucks”), and dates that usage from 1971.

Is this negative sense of the word derived from the oral-sex usage? The OED doesn’t indicate that one sense comes from the other. But we assume that the two senses are related.

Are you being priggish? Perhaps. Most dictionaries label the negative usage as slang or informal, though Merriam-Webster says it’s sometimes vulgar.

[Note: This post was updated on April 25, 2020.]

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Lesbian rule?

Q: I was reading Shoot the Lawyer Twice, a mystery novel by Michael Bowen, and noticed the term “Lesbian rule.” It was said to be a flexible ruler used to measure curves. Can you tell me more about the term?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes a “Lesbian rule” as “a mason’s rule made of lead, which could be bent to fit the curves of a moulding.” It traces the term back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

In the 17th century, according to the OED, the phrase was commonly used in English in a figurative sense, referring to “a principle of judgement that is pliant and accommodating.”

In fact, the first known English use of “Lesbian” in this sense was figurative. The poet Samuel Daniel, in his “Epistle to Sir Thomas Egerton” (1601), writes that justice requires the law to be applied flexibly, like a “Lesbian square” that “Plies to the worke, not forc’th the worke to it.”

But what does the word “Lesbian” have to do with an instrument for measuring curves?

A pliable mason’s rule, it turns out, was made of a kind of lead, found on the island of Lesbos, that was flexible enough to be shaped to fit a curved edge.

In the passage from the Nicomachean Ethics mentioned in the OED, Aristotle uses the Lesbian rule both literally and figuratively:

“For when the thing is indefinite the rule also is indefinite, like the leaden rule used in making the Lesbian moulding; the rule adapts itself to the shape of the stone and is not rigid, and so too the decree is adapted to the facts.”

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It’s Yogi all over again

Q: I read this story somewhere, but I can’t track it down. When Yogi Berra was coaching the Mets, he said, “You’re never out of it ’til you’re out of it.” Many years later, a writer garbled this and misquoted him as saying “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” UNFORTUNATELY, Yogi used the misquoted version in a Yoo-Hoo commercial and now he believes that’s what he actually said. Do you know the source of this?

A: It seems that Yogi Berra is responsible for both versions.

Fred Shapiro, in his meticulously researched reference The Yale Book of Quotations, attributes “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” to Berra, as quoted in an article in the Washington Post on Sept. 26, 1977.

Shapiro notes that Berra later wrote in The Yogi Book (1998): “That was my answer to a reporter when I was managing the New York Mets in July 1973. We were about nine games out of first place. We went on the win the division.”

Shapiro adds that Berra was quoted in the New York Times on June 30, 1974, as using the similar expression “You’re not out of it until you’re out of it.”

By the way, Yogi used the expressions “Me for Yoo-Hoo” and “The Drink of Champions” in his Yoo-Hoo advertisements in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but I can’t find that he ever used “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” in promoting the soft drink.

In case you’re wondering about a similar expression, it was the sports publicist Ralph Carpenter who said, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

He was quoted in the Dallas Morning News on March 10, 1976, according to Shapiro. Carpenter made the remark during a basketball game between Texas Tech (where he was sports information director) and Texas A & M.

The expression was then used by the sportscaster Dan Cook in 1978 and still later by the NBA coach Dick Motta.

But Shapiro says another version, “Church ain’t out till the fat lady sings,” may suggest “an ultimate origin in Southern proverbial lore.”

Was Yogi the first person to say “It’s déjà vu all over again”? I had a blog item last year that discusses this.

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It ain’t necessarily so

Q: When my daughter says “aren’t I,” I correct her and tell her that it’s “ain’t I.” After all, “ain’t” and “won’t” have been in the language for the same length of time. Neither is a true contraction, so objecting to one but not the other makes no sense to me.

A: What can I say? I agree that “ain’t” (originally “an’t” when first seen in print in the late 1600s) was once just as dignified and honorable as “can’t” and “I’m.”

But “ain’t” began to drift away from respectability by the early 1700s, when it came to be a contraction not only of “am not” and “are not” (perfectly logical) but also of “is not.” By the 1800s, it was used for “have not” and “has not,” too.

When its parentage came into question in the 19th century, “ain’t” lost prestige. I think this is a shame, as my husband and I point out in Origins of the Specious, a book about language myths that’s coming out in May.

If you’re interested in reading more about “ain’t” now, I wrote a blog item some time ago about how this contraction ended up in the doghouse. (And it is in the doghouse now, so I wouldn’t encourage your daughter to use it, except in fun!)

As for “won’t,” it’s much, much older than “ain’t,” going back to Anglo-Saxon days. It was a “legitimate” contraction in Old English, when “will” was woll. Our “won’t” began life as a contraction of woll not.

Harebrained grammarians had forgotten this by the 18th century, when they began condemning “won’t” as illegitimate. Ain’t that a shame!

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Arabian flights

Q: Here’s a riddle: what’s the connection between “utter” and “mutter”? If you manage to get Umm Bab into your answer, I’ll fall face down into the gutter.

A: Get your mind out of the Qatar. (For any puzzled readers, Umm Bab is a city in the emirate of Qatar, which can be pronounced several ways in English, including “cotter,” “cutter,” and “gutter.”)

Now, let’s get serious. I’m glad you asked this question, since I had no idea that “utter” and “mutter” were unrelated. Now I know.

We owe the English verb “utter” partly to the word “out” (an early spelling of “utter” was “outer”) and partly to the Middle Dutch uteren (to drive away, announce, speak, show, make known) or to the Middle Low German üteren (to turn out, sell, speak, demonstrate). This comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the English word to around 1400.

In the early days, “utter” had at least three meanings: (1) to speak or send out an audible sound; (2) to put out goods for sale; (3) to put into circulation or pass off as legal tender (a usage that survives today in the verbal phrase “to utter a check”).

To my surprise, as I’ve mentioned, “mutter” is no relation. It entered English at about the same time, the OED says, noting that it bears similarities to the Latin muttire (to murmur or mutter) and to the Old High German mutilon (to murmur or trickle).

In modern German, though, mutter means mother, and that’s all I have to utter.

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Short stories

Q: John Mortimer’s recent death gave me just the encouragement I needed to reread some of the Rumpole books. I’ve noticed one thing I overlooked on first reading: Horace Rumpole uses a form of abbreviated English. For example, “rota” for “rotation” and “perf” for “performance.” Is this shortening of some words a British practice? Or do we do the same thing over here and I’ve just missed it.

A: The telescoping of words is not exclusively a British habit. It’s popular wherever English is spoken. Just look at “perp,” “dozer,” “ludes,” “ammo,” “con,” “meth,” “doc,” “bike,” “limo,” “deli,” and other Americanisms.

Although “rota” means a rotation of people or a round of duties, it’s probably not an abbreviated form of “rotation,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The two words are related etymologically, but “rota” is derived from the Latin rota (wheel), while “rotation” comes from the Latin rotare (to turn or swing around).

The OED’s first published citation for “rota” used in this sense is in John Ray’s Observations Made in a Journey Through Part of the Low-Countries (1673): “These [councillors] are taken out of the great Council, and go round in a rota.”

“Perf,” a shortened form of “performance,” first appeared as a “graphic abbreviation” in an advertisement, according to the OED. The first citation is from an ad in the Times of London in 1919: “Scala Theatre. Last two perfs. of The Lady of Lyons.”

I’m going to miss John Mortimer and the Rumpole books. I had the pleasure of reviewing one of the later ones for the New York Times Book Review. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

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How shameless can shameful be?

Q: In news reports on Jan. 30, 2009, it was variously reported that President Obama called the awarding of bonuses on Wall Street “shameful” or “shameless.” So, what did he say, and what is the difference?

A: Mr. Obama used “shameful” on Jan. 29 in remarks from the White House, according to the Associated Press. Here’s the AP report:

“President Barack Obama issued a withering critique Thursday of Wall Street corporate behavior, calling it ‘the height of irresponsibility’ for employees to be paid more than $18 billion in bonuses last year while their crumbling financial sector received a bailout from taxpayers. ‘It is shameful,’ Obama said from the Oval Office.”

If he also used “shameless,” I’m not aware of it. But even if he did, that wouldn’t necessarily have been inappropriate.

While “shameful” and “shameless” are technically opposites (meaning full of shame vs. without shame), they aren’t mutually exclusive and sometimes convey much the same meaning.

A behavior – let’s say corporate greed – can be shameful (something to be ashamed of), and yet be carried out in a shameless manner (that is, with no shame). Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual!

On the other hand, not everything that’s shameless is shameful. For example, a little child who takes off his clothes and runs around naked does this shamelessly (with no sense of shame). Is this shameful? No.

The noun “shame,” which has Germanic origins, was first recorded in Old English around 725, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines it as “the painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one’s own), or of being in a situation which offends one’s sense of modesty or decency.”

As for the adjective “shameful,” its first meaning (from around the year 950) was “modest, shamefaced,” according to the OED. Later it came to mean full of shame or causing shame (disgraceful, scandalous, degrading, and so on).

The first meaning of the adjective “shameless,” circa 897, was “lacking shame, destitute of feelings of modesty; impudent, audacious, immodest; insensible to disgrace.” Later it came to mean “indicating or characterized by absence of shame or modesty,” whether used to describe an action or the person acting.

When Arthur Sanders Way translated The Odyssey in 1880, he put both words in the mouth of Homer’s hero. In a big banquet scene, Odysseus speaks of his “ravening belly” and says, “This shameful shameless thing, crieth on me to eat and to drink, / Bidding me fill it, and suffers me not of my troubles to think.”

In poking around the Internet, I see there’s a rock group called My Shameful that Wikipedia describes as “a doom/death metal band with Finnish, German and American members.” Now is that a shameless name or not?

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What’s in a name?

Q: I am expecting (due date: 4/12/2009) and I would like to name my daughter Linnea. Which spelling is most correct: Linnea or Linnèa? I know the name stems from the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.

A: If your intention is to honor Linnaeus by naming your daughter after him, then the choice of whether or not to use an accent mark is entirely up to you.

But be aware that the surname Linnaeus is a Latinized version of a word in a Swedish dialect for the linden tree. Latin, of course, has no accents, though that doesn’t mean you can’t use one.

Later in life, after Linnaeus was ennobled, he adopted the name von Linné (note the acute accent).

If you do decide to go with an accent, I’d recommend an acute accent ( é ), like the one Linnaeus used, and not a grave accent ( è ), like the one you proposed. These point in different directions and have different pronunciations. Linnéa would be pronounced linn-AY-uh.

As you probably know, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is often called the father of taxonomy for his system of naming, ranking, and classifying organisms.

How did the Linnaeus family come to be named after a linden tree? Here’s the explanation, from a pamphlet by William T. Stearn and Gavin Bridson, courtesy of the Linnean Society of London:

“Carl Linnaeus’ paternal grandfather, like most Swedish peasants and farmers of his time, had no surname and was known, in accordance with the old Scandinavian name system, as Ingemar Bengtsson, being the son of Bengt Ingemarsson. When his son, Carl’s father, Nils Ingemarsson (1674-1733), went to the University of Lund, he had to provide himself with a surname for registration purposes. He invented the name Linnaeus in allusion to a large and ancient tree of the small-leaved linden (Tilia cordata Miller, T. europaea L. in part), known in the Småland dialect as ‘linn,’ which grew on the family property known in the 17th century as Linnegard.

“Other branches of the family took the names Lindelius and Tiliander from the same famous tree. The name Linnaeus was thus of Latin form from the beginning. Linnaeus, having been ennobled in 1761, first took the name of Carl von Linné in 1762, by which time he had published all of his most important works.”

I hope this helps, and that you have an easy and safe delivery!

PS: Personally, I like the name Linden.

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Tuh be or not tuh be?

Q: I have a bone to pick about the loss of an entire word due to the election of a hip president from Chicago. I’m talking about “to,” as in we have “tuh” stimulate the economy. The smartest of eggheads have stopped making a circle with their lips. I hope it’s a fad. It’s like Brian Lehrer in orange gauchos: make it go away!

A: Brian Lehrer in orange gauchos? Heavens!

In standard English, however, the word “to” is pronounced in two ways: TOO and TUH (with the vowel pronounced like the “a” in “about” or the “e” in “item”).

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list those two pronunciations. In fact, M-W also lists a third standard pronunciation, with the vowel pronounced like the double “o” in “foot.”

In short, our pronunciation of “to” is determined largely by what follows it.

So Obama is using standard English here, and he’s not responsible for all the tuh-tuh-ing by those smart eggheads.

I also wouldn’t blame the president for the tendency of people to shorten “to,” which is often pronounced as t’ and elided with the following word. I wrote a blog item about this not long ago.

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Taking irony’s pulse

Q: Can you explain why people declared after 9/11 that irony was dead? Which meaning of “irony” died and what did 9/11 have to do with it? I think “irony” is overused to mean something surprising or peculiar or coincidental. It means the opposite of what is expected, as “It is ironic that Eliot Spitzer got caught with his pants down after being critical of other people’s morals.”

A: Many commentators made statements about the death of irony in the days and weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

For example, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, told the online media-industry site “It’s the end of the age of irony.” And the essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote in Time magazine: “It could spell the end of the age of irony.”

Also, Gerry Howard, editorial director of Broadway Books, was quoted in Entertainment Weekly as saying: “I think somebody should do a marker that says irony died on 9-11-01.”

What they meant was that ironic, covertly sarcastic humor was no longer appropriate. Irony requires us to keep our distance from something in order to find humor in it. But here was an event that defied humor and defied us to maintain our cool detachment from reality.

Of course irony came back. It always does.

Interestingly, in recent months some pundits have suggested that the election of Barack Obama has killed irony.

An Op-Ed piece by Andy Newman in the New York Times on Nov. 21, 2008, ran under a headline proclaiming: “Irony Is Dead. Again. Yeah, Right.” What occasioned this were statements by Joan Didion and others that in the wake of the election, irony had once again kicked the bucket.

During a talk in New York, Ms. Didion remarked that in the Obama era the country had become an “irony-free zone,” where innocence and naïveté were prized, according to Newman’s Op-Ed article.

Later in the article, Newman quotes Rosenblatt as saying: “Irony is a diminishing act — the incongruity between what’s expected and what occurs makes us smile at the distance.”

But some events, like 9/11 and perhaps Obama’s election, “are so big that they almost imply an obligation not to diminish it by clever comparisons,” Rosenblatt reportedly said.

One of these days, someone is going to proclaim the death of statements that irony is dead!

As for the meaning of “irony,” you’re right. It’s not mere surprise or oddness or coincidence. I did a blog item a while back that addresses your complaint, and a later posting with more history. If your interest in the subject hasn’t died yet, check out my entry about the pronunciation of “irony.”

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Linchpins and lynching

Q: The mention of “linchpin” in your blog item about “hinge point” reminds me of this sentence in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye: “A high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back.” Whew!

A: Whew, indeed! I’ve done a little research into “linchpin” and “lynch,” and you might be interested in what I found.

“Linchpin,” a word that originated back in the 1300s, is a pin passed through the end of an axle-tree to keep a wheel in place. In even more distant times (as early as the year 700), the device was simply called a “linch,” spelled a variety of ways.

The “lynch” that now means to execute someone without a fair trial is named after Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Va., according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1780, Lynch and some of his neighbors devised a plan for dealing with outlaws without relying on the distant and slow-moving courts.

To avoid having to comply with what they considered the tedious, technical requirements of the law, the “Lynch-men” set themselves up as a self-constituted court, though they had no legal authority to do so.

Punishments inflicted by vigilantes or self-appointed tribunals were said to be done under “Lynch’s law” or “Lynch law.”

The earliest published reference for the phrase, according to the OED, is this 1811 citation from the journal of Andrew Ellicott, a well-known surveyor:

“Captain Lynch just mentioned was the author of the Lynch laws so well known and so frequently carried into effect some years ago in the southern States in violation of every principle of justice and jurisprudence.”

Although other Lynches have been mentioned in connection with lynching, the OED says, the “particulars supplied by Ellicott, together with other evidence, clearly establish the fact that the originator of Lynch law” was Captain Lynch.

In its earliest uses, to “lynch” did not necessarily mean to execute someone without a legal trial. Here’s how the OED defines the verb:

“To condemn and punish by lynch law. In early use, implying chiefly the infliction of punishment such as whipping, tarring and feathering, or the like; now only, to inflict sentence of death by lynch law.”

An ugly chapter in our history!

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The “some” also rises

Q: Could you please weigh in on the recent trend of inserting “some” before precise numbers rather than estimates? For example, “The report was some 158 pages long.” It seems to have really caught on among the cable news outlets.

A: This strikes me as a silly way for a talking head to talk. The word “some” used with a number means approximately, so it should go with an estimate, not an exact number.

No one would say, “The report was approximately 158 pages long.” There’s nothing approximate about an exact number; a round number like 150 or 160 perhaps, but not 158.

So, cable news people, don’t use “some” with a number if you wouldn’t use “approximately” with it!

A cable guy who speaks this way has apparently been given precise information, but doesn’t want to be held responsible if it’s not right. So he decides to hedge his bet and insert “some” to make it look like an estimate!

By the way, the use of “some” to make an approximation has been around since Anglo-Saxon days.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a reference from King Alfred’s Boethius circa 888 (“some ten years”), as well as one from Studs Terkel in 1980 (“sixty-some contestants “).

Now, that’s quite a long time – some 1,100 years!

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A way with words

Q: My friends and I had an ugly fight about the phrase “under way,” as in, “The campaign is under way.” What is the origin of the term? Please answer swiftly as I expect reprisals from my new enemies.

A: The phrase originated in the 18th century as a nautical term to describe a vessel that has begun moving through the water, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the first published reference in the OED, from A Voyage to the South-seas (1743), by John Bulkeley and John Cummins: “To prevent which, we do agree, that when Under-way they shall not separate.”

All of the 18th century citations in the OED use the phrase in a nautical sense, but by the early 19th century the term was being used more generally to mean in progress or in the course of.

The first citation for this sense is from Byron’s satirical poem The Vision of Judgment (1822): “And Michael rose ere he could get a word / Of all his founder’d verses under way.”

Fifteen years later, the historian Thomas Carlyle used the term loosely in The French Revolution: “A courier is, this night, getting under way for Necker” (Jacques Necker was a banker).

Getting back to the seafaring origins of the phrase, it turns out that the word “way” has been used as a nautical term for the progress of a ship or boat through the water since the mid-1600s.

The first published citation in the OED for this usage is from Sir William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1663): “Those who withstand The Tide of Flood … Fall back when they in vain would onward row: We strength and way preserve by lying still.”

And here’s a citation from Samuel Sturmy in a 1669 reference for mariners: “If you sail against a Current, if it be swifter than the Ship’s way, you fall a Stern.”

This sense of the word “way,” according to the OED, may have been derived from “under way,” an expression adapted from the Dutch word onderweg (also onderwegen), meaning on the way or under way.

The chronology doesn’t seem right, however, since published citations for “under way” are all more recent than those for “way” in the nautical sense. But “under way” might have been in use for years without making it into print.

By the way (so to speak!), “under way” is often written “under weigh.” As the OED explains, this originated as a misspelling through an “erroneous association” with the phrase “to weigh anchor.”

What began as a mistake is now accepted by lexicographers as a variant spelling.

The confusion is understandable, since “to weigh anchor” is to heave up the anchor before sailing. And now it’s time for us to weigh anchor and get under way with another question from our in-box.

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Elect tricks

Q: Why do we say “president-elect” rather than “president-elected”? In other words, why is the infinitive used here instead of the past participle? Granted it sounds better, but that may be because we are accustomed to it.

A: Since the early 15th century, the word “elect” has been used as an adjective meaning picked out or chosen, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s derived from the Latin word eligere (to pick out or choose).

In fact, “elect” was used in this sense for a century and a half before the past participle “elected” was used adjectivally to mean chosen, according to OED citations.

Here’s the OED‘s first published reference for the adjective “elect,” from The Chester Plays, a collection of miracle plays written around 1400: “Man, I saye againe, which is his owne eleckte, / Above all creatures seculierlye seleckte.”

And here’s a citation from The Cronicles of Englond, published by William Caxton in 1480: “Saul … was a good man and elect of God.”

In the 17th century, people began using the word “elect” alongside a noun (as in “bishop elect,” “bride elect,” and so on), to refer to someone selected for a position.

John Milton used this construction in Paradise Lost (1667) when he referred to the Israelites as “the Race elect.”

The earliest example in the OED of “elect” used in something akin to our modern political sense is this quotation from a 1742 translation of Cicero: “Sextius was one of the Tribunes elect.”

In short, “president-elect” has a long heritage.

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Pat on WNYC: March 18, 2009

If you missed hearing Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show today, you can listen to her by clicking here.

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Bowel play

Q: Today I sit on the couch, but yesterday I sat on the floor. I hope my daughter doesn’t hit my son today, because she hit him yesterday. So which form do we follow when I tell someone about what my infant did in his diaper yesterday?

A: You went through some entertaining rhetorical contortions to avoid using our four-letter word meaning to void the bowels (which the Oxford English Dictionary says is “not now in decent use”).

But I probably won’t be able to answer your question without using the word, so I may as well get it over with. Dictionaries now recognized these forms of the verb: “shit” (present tense) … “shit” or “shat” (past tense) … “shit” or “shat” (past participle).

Like “hit,” this is one of a handful of English verbs that can have identical forms in the present, past, and past participle.

So where did “shat” come from?

In Anglo-Saxon days, the verb “shit” was scitan. The Old English forms of the verb were scitescatsciten. (The letters “sc” were pronounced “sh” then, so there was indeed an Old English past tense that sounded like “shat.”)

But by the early 1300s the common forms of the verb were “shit … shitted … shitten.” Over time, English speakers began using a single word for all three forms: “shit … shit … shit.”

The variant “shat,” though, didn’t entirely disappear. The OED has eight citations for it from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

In the early 20th century, “shat” emerged as a humorous variant for the past tense and past participle (along the analogy of “sit … sat … sat”).

Not unexpectedly, many people came to believe that the humorous variant was the legitimate form, assuming any form of a vulgar slang term can be considered legit.

Through such misunderstandings, language changes, whether we like it or not. In other words, shit happens (a slang expression that made its debut in 1983 at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, according to the OED).

Today, as I noted above, lexicographers recognize both “shit” and “shat” as the past tense and past participle, though “shit” is used more frequently.

If you’d like to read more, I had a blog item about the myth that “shit” is an acronym for “ship high in transport.” (My husband and I discuss many myths about English in Origins of the Specious, a new book that’s coming out in May from Random House.)

Now I need to walk my two Labs. It’s time for them to poop.

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Defining moments

Q: I see this kind of sentence all the time in The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc.: “A solar eclipse is when the moon blocks the sun.” My English teacher in high school would get very angry at the use of “is when” in definitions. Is it acceptable now? Shouldn’t the “is” be followed by a noun?

A: Although it was once common to use “is when” in definitions (for example, “Poverty is when your stomach is empty”), the usage has been considered colloquial since the mid-19th century. It’s common in speech, but good writers generally avoid it.

Usage authorities argue that a noun or gerund, not an adverb like “when,” should follow “is” in a definition. So it would be better to write “Poverty is an empty stomach” or “Poverty is having an empty stomach.”

Nevertheless, people have been using “is when” (and “is where”) in definitions for many centuries. I did a search of quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary for “is when” definitions and came up with hundreds, going back to the 14th century. Here’s a sampling.

1340, in The Psalter of Richard Rolle of Hampole: “The inspirynge of his ire is when he says stilly in oure hert ….”

1547, in a medical book by Andrew Boorde: “Abhorsion is when a woman is delyvered of her chylde before her tyme.”

1719, in John Quincy’s Lexicon Physico-Medicum: Or, a New Physical Dictionary: “Alcalization is when any Liquor is impregnated with an alkaline Salt.”

1788, in Thomas Reid’s A Brief Account of Aristotle’s Logic: “Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises.”

So who first said the usage was grammatically incorrect?

The earliest objection I could find was in an 1851 handbook, The Grammar of English Grammars. The author, Goold Brown, says neither “when” nor “where” is “fit to follow the verb is in a definition … because it expresses identity, not of being, but of time or place ….” Goold later cites dozens upon dozens of such misuses, most of them in books by other grammarians!

(I could have saved myself lots of research by looking in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which notes that Goold Brown was the first to condemn this usage.)

At any rate, these “is when” definitions are best avoided, in my opinion, especially in writing. They may be handy, but the definitions are not grammatically parallel to the things being defined.

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Money matters

Q: I’ve come across a grammar question at work that I hope you can help me with. In describing one of our programs in a publication, we have this sentence: “Over $1.3 million have already been awarded.” A style guide at my office suggests “have” here is correct, but I think it should be “has.” I can’t explain why, but this usage sounds better. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

A: Amounts of money are considered grammatically singular. So it should indeed be “Over $1.3 million has already been awarded.” And: “Five dollars is a lot to pay for a cup of coffee.”

If you were talking about coins or bills as things rather than as amounts of money, then you would use the plural: “Three tens and two singles are in his wallet, and two quarters are in his pocket.”

On a (distantly) related subject, I had a blog item a couple of years ago about the annoying inclination of bureaucrats and other stuffed shirts to use “monies” when plain old “money” would do the job.

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Our neologists in chief

Q: When you were on the Leonard Lopate Show recently, you mentioned some presidential neologisms. Could you post the whole list to The Grammarphobia Blog?

A: Here are some of the words and phrases that American presidents have popularized or introduced into English:

Washington: “indoors,” “non-discrimination,” “off-duty,” “paroled,” “reconnoiter,” “bakery,” “average” (the verb), “ravine,” “rehire,” and “hatchet-man” (a pioneer, not a thug).

Jefferson: “lengthily,” “belittle,” “public relations,” “electioneering,” “indecipherable,” “monotonously,” “ottoman” (the footstool, not the empire), “pedicure,” and the noun “bid.” He even invented the word for inventing a word: “neologize.”

John Adams: popularized “caucus” and introduced “lengthy,” “bobolink,” “quixotic,” “spec” (short for “speculation”), and the verb “net” in the financial sense.

James Madison: “squatter.”

Abraham Lincoln: “relocate,” “relocation,” and “point well taken.”

Theodore Roosevelt: popularized “muckraker” and introduced “lunatic fringe” and “bully pulpit.”

Warren G. Harding: revived two older words, “bloviate” and “normalcy.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt: “cheerleader.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “military-industrial complex.”

Will Barack Obama contribute to this list? I wouldn’t misunderestimate him.

PS: President Harding was an infamous bloviator himself. In a blog item a couple of years ago about the origin of “bloviate,” I quoted H. L. Mencken’s colorful description of Harding’s oratory:

“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. But I grow lyrical.”

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Hat talk

Q: The other night a friend brought up the expression “talking through your hat” and wondered if it comes from the way Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, used to communicate with his famous “speaking stones” by burying his face in his hat. I said I’d ask Patricia! Whaddya think?

A: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “to talk through one’s hat” is an American expression from the late 19th century and means to talk nonsense, to boast, or to exaggerate. But Cassell’s doesn’t comment on the origin of the expression.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and the Oxford English Dictionary cite this quotation from the New York World in 1888 as the earliest printed example: “Dis is only a bluff dey’re makin’ – see! Dey’re talkin’ tru deir hats.”

Stephen Crane used the expression in his novel The Third Violet (1896): ” ‘Oh, you talk through your hat,’ replied Florinda. ‘Billie don’t care whether I like him or whether I don’t.’ “

Did the phrase originate with Joseph Smith? Well, there are several versions of how the Church of Latter Day Saints got the Book of Mormon.

In the one you’re referring to, Smith used a “seer stone” to translate ancient writing engraved on plates. In this version, he reportedly put the stone in a hat and then buried his face in the hat to block out the light.

So, does this account have anything to do with talking through one’s hat? Well, the translation business is said to have taken place in the 1820s, thus the timing is right. But I haven’t found any evidence that this is the source of the expression.

Several correspondents writing to the journal Notes and Queries in 1923 said that in the mid-1800s the phrase was applied to ostentatious Englishmen who upon entering a church stood with their hats in front of their faces and prayed into them to avoid having to kneel.

In the words of one writer, “As the custom died out, this kind of ‘talking through one’s hat’ may have seemed to a younger generation to have savoured of Pecksniffery.” Another writer, however, objected that this practice was called “talking to your hat,” not through it.

Whatever. It may be that the American expression and the now defunct British one came about independently.

Another heady phrase, “in your hat,” has been used to express “derision or incredulity” since the 1920s, according to Random House.

An article in Vanity Fair in 1927 said, ” ‘In your hat’ is equivalent to ‘applesauce,’ ‘boloney,’ ‘hooey,’ or ‘banana oil.’ ” (A little aside here. I had a blog item a while back on the subject of “Phooey!”)

But why “in your hat” rather than, say, “in your shoe”? Random House compares “in your hat” to a more vulgar expression, “go shit in your hat,” which it traces to the poet William Blake’s satirical work An Island in the Moon (circa 1784): “I’ll sing you a song said the Cynic. The Trumpeter shit in his hat said the Epicurean & clapt it on his head said the Pythagorean.”

Here are two more modern examples: From Jerome Weidman’s novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1937), “All I have to say is: In your hat and over your ears; you look good in brown.” And from Calder Willingham’s novel End as a Man (1947), “Go shit in your hat.”

With that, I’ll put on my impeccably clean hat and go for a walk.

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Valedictory addresses

Q: I’m writing about valedictions at the end of letters. Ask Oxford says “Yours faithfully” should be used if the addressee’s name is not known, and “Yours sincerely” if it is. What’s the logic behind this? What, in short, is the difference between the two valedictions?

A: I certainly can’t tell you the logic behind this usage. Maybe I’m dim, but I don’t detect any meaningful difference between the valedictions “Yours faithfully” and “Yours sincerely.”

Oxford University Press, on its Ask Oxford website, does indeed advise writers of business letters to use “Yours faithfully” when writing to an anonymous, unnamed recipient (a “Dear Sir or Madam”), but to use “Yours sincerely” when writing to someone who’s named.

The site appears to be quoting The Oxford Guide to Effective Writing and Speaking (2nd ed.), by John Seely. But Seely is not alone. The same advice is given for business-letter writing in Wikipedia and in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d. ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield.

So, according to these usage gurus, we’re supposed to be “faithful” to those addressees who are faceless and genderless, but “sincere” to those whose names we’ve been able to obtain. H-m-m. Do I hear the sound of hairs being split?

As it turns out, not all usage guides make this distinction. Here’s Kenneth G. Wilson in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English:

“The complimentary close of a letter often uses sincerely in certain formulaic ways: sincerely yours, very sincerely yours, yours sincerely, and sincerely. Americans frequently use truly in place of sincerely in all but the single word closing formula. Some Britons, and a few Americans too, may also use faithfully in some of these formulas. The tone or style of these is mostly a matter of convention, but the single-word versions are probably the most informal, and the three-word models the most overtly formal.”

Could this “sincerely”-vs.-“faithfully” business be, as Wilson’s words perhaps suggest, a British thing?

For another viewpoint, here’s an interesting and amusing exchange of letters on the subject, though the parties are more concerned with whether a complimentary closing must include “yours.”

Irritably yours!

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State secrets

Q: Do you have a theory about the phrase “lying in state?” Why “in state?” Does it refer to the state or the nation?

A: The word “state” didn’t originally mean a geographical or governmental entity. When it entered English in the early 13th century, “state” meant a condition or manner of standing in the world. Think “status.” In fact, “state” comes from the Latin status, meaning standing, position, or condition.

Among the many definitions of “state” in the Oxford English Dictionary are these: “Status; high rank; pomp,” and “Costly and imposing display, such as befits persons of rank and wealth; splendour, magnificence.”

So men of stature in olden times were said to conduct their lives and their affairs “in state” – that is, with pomp and solemnity.

Similarly, a “man of state” was a high-ranking dignitary, and to “travel in state” was to travel in high style with all the trappings of office.

These are the meanings embedded in the verb phrase “to lie in state,” which the OED says is used when a celebrated person’s body is “ceremoniously exposed to view before interment.”

Beginning in the late 13th century, “state” was also used to mean the condition “of the Church, a country, realm, etc. in regard to its welfare and polity,” according to the OED.

It’s this sense of the word that gives us the modern political meaning; “state” was first used in 1538 to mean a governmentally organized body politic: “The kyng, prynce, and rular of the state.”

And that’s, more or less, the status quo.

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Graduate degrees

Q: Shouldn’t the graduates of a coed institution be “alumnae,” not “alumni”? My understanding is that “alumni” is the plural of “alumnus,” and “alumnae” pertains to both male and female graduates. Thanks for your help.

A: A group of alumnae is not a mixed group. Here’s the deal with all those alums:

“Alumnus”: singular, for a male graduate

“Alumna”: singular, for a female graduate

“Alumni”: plural, for either male graduates or males and females together

“Alumnae”: plural, for female graduates only

The term “alums,” which I used above, dodges the gender issue (as does the singular “alum”).

The short form “alum” is considered “informal” by The America Heritage Dictionary of English Usage (4th ed.), but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without comment.

Interestingly, both the short and long forms entered English in the 17th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the long one in 1645 and the short one in 1683 (spelled “alumn”).

But the short version seems to have fallen into disuse, according to the OED citations, and didn’t show up in print again until the early 20th century.

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OK, already!

Q: I wonder if you would comment on that great Americanism “OK.” Didn’t it come from a president? I remember the nickname “Old Kinderhook,” but not the rest of the story. And what is a kinderhook?

A: Etymologists say “OK,” meaning “all right,” originated as a corrupted abbreviation of “all correct,” a phrase common in the Southeastern US and often humorously written as “orl [or oll] korrect.”

Interestingly, the earliest published references for the abbreviation in the Oxford English Dictionary are from publications in New England, not the Southeast:

1839, in the Boston Morning Post: “He … would have the ‘contribution box’, et ceteras, o.k . – all correct – and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”

1839, in the Salem Gazette: “The house was O.K. at the last concert, and did credit to the musical taste of the young ladies and gents.”

1839, in the Boston Evening Transcript: “Our Bank Directors have not thought it worth their while to call a meeting, even for consultation, on the subject. It is O.K. (all correct) in this quarter.”

1840, in the (Boston) Atlas: “These initials, according to Jack Downing, were first used by Gen. Jackson. ‘Those papers, Amos [Kendall], are all correct. I have marked them O.K.’ (oll korrect). The Gen. was never good at spelling.”

Contrary to popular opinion, “OK” did not originate as an abbreviation of “Old Kinderhook,” which was Martin Van Buren’s nickname during his 1840 presidential reelection campaign.

The nickname came from the town of Van Buren’s birth, Kinderhook, NY. The town’s name is derived from the Dutch for “children’s corner” (“kind” is child and “hoek” is corner in Dutch).

Van Buren and the Democratic Party did indeed use “OK” in the election campaign “because it conveniently suited his nickname,” according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Etymology. In fact, Van Buren’s supporters in New York called themselves the O.K. Club.

The OED suggests that the two versions of “OK” overlapped during the 1840 presidential campaign, and that the widespread use of the political slogan helped popularize the earlier “OK.”

As for the punctuation/spelling of “OK,” that has varied over the years. I had a blog entry on the subject last year.

I hope this explanation is OK with you.

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A serpentine etymology

Q: I’ve been hearing the term “draconian” used a lot to describe brutal budget cuts. It’s the latest buzz word designed to get people upset and call them to action. I’d love to know your take on the use of this term.

A: Both “draconian” and its earlier form, “draconic,” are derived from the Athenian legislator Draco, who in the 7th century BC established a set of brutal laws so extreme that even minor offenses (idleness and petty theft, for instance) were punishable by death.

Draco’s legal code was reformed by Solon in the 6th century BC, but his cruelty has survived in the adjective “draconian,” which The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines as exceedingly harsh or very severe.

The first citation for “draconic” in the Oxford English Dictionary is by Peter A. Motteux in a 1708 translation of works by Rabelais: “Any Law so rigorous and Draconic.”

In 1872, John Yeats used the term in a discussion of human sacrifice by the Carthaginians: “Their religion reflected its character upon their criminal code, which was Draconic in severity – crucifixion, for example, being a common punishment.”

The old “draconic” was eventually overtaken by “draconian” in the late 19th century. The newbie first appeared in print, as far as we know, in 1876, in a description of a London church service where it appeared to mean merely strict or unvarying:

“The Swedenborgian rubrics (if there be such things) are not so Draconian as those of the Establishment, but leave some little discretion to the minister to suit the wants of his congregation.”

The following year the word appeared in a book about Russia, where the phrase “Draconian legislation” was used to refer to brutal Czarist law.

I can’t tell you exactly when “draconian” was first used in reference to budgets. The OED doesn’t have any citations for this usage, but it has been around since at least the early 1930s and probably earlier.

A Sept. 12, 1931, article in the New York Times, for example, referred to “Draconian measures” adopted to balance the British budget. And a Nov. 15, 1925, article in the Times about a financial crisis in France mentioned “Draconian tax decrees.”

Coincidentally, both “draconic” and its successor “draconian” have had another meaning as well: dragon like! The word “dragon” comes from the Latin draco, derived from the Greek drakon, meaning serpent. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains:

“Originally the word signified simply ‘snake,’ but over the centuries this ‘snake’ increased in size, and many terrifying mythical attributes (such as wings and the breathing of fire) came to be added to it, several of them latterly from Chinese sources. The Greek form is usually connected with words for ‘look at, glance, flash, gleam,’ such as Greek drakein and Sanskrit darc, as if its underlying meaning were ‘creature that looks at you (with a deadly glance).’ “

The OED‘s first published reference to the dragon-like “draconic” is from Henry More’s Apocalypsis Apocalypseos: Or, the Revelation of St. John Unveiled (1680): ” ‘The great Dragon was cast out.’ … This … signified the destruction of the Empire as Draconick and Idolatrous.”

And in 1880, an article in the Daily Telegraph used “draconian” in the dragon-like sense: “In the course of one of these draconian performances … the mummer’s tail came off.”

Since then, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), “draconic” and “draconian” have gone their separate ways. “Draconian” now means cruel, while “draconic” means dragon like.

Before I drop the subject of dragons and brutes, however, I should mention that the name “Draco” also lives on in Draco Malfoy, the bigoted bully in the Harry Potter books.

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A hinge point of history

Q: You were asked on the air about Rick Warren’s use of the term “hinge point” in his invocation at the inauguration of President Obama. I believe you thought he said “linchpin,” but he did indeed use the term “hinge point.”

A: You’re right. I thought I was hearing “linchpin.” But Rick Warren was using “hinge point,” a relatively unfamiliar phrase (at least to me) in the inaugural invocation.

His words: “Now today, we rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time, we celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States.”

While Obama is the 44th president, this was the 43rd transfer of power, not the 44th. But that’s beside the point. The point we’re discussing is “hinge point.”

The phrase has several applications in the technical language of engineering, construction, anatomy, even orthopedic reconstructive surgery. Generally, it’s the point where a mechanism pivots.

The evangelical minister was of course using the term metaphorically as a turning point or point at which a significant change takes place.

The term doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, but another listener sent me this snippet from an entry about the philospher Johann Friedrich Herbart in the 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911):

“What is it? The answer to this question is the second hinge-point of Herbart’s theoretical philosophy.”

She also provided several references from theological texts to “hinge points” of some historical period, or of Christianity itself, as in these partial quotes:

“… the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the hinge point of the Christian faith,” and “… the hinge point of the entire story is set on the record of how David rose to become Israel’s king, replacing the ineffective Saul.”

I suspect that Warren, the senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA, picked up the phrase from religious texts like those.

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In the beginning were the latkes

Q: Can you use the verb “inaugurate” for an object as well as a person? I sometime use it that way, as in “We’re inaugurating this frying pan by making latkes.”

A: Yes, you can inaugurate an object, a phase of some program or other, or even a frying pan! This of course would be a metaphorical use of the word, since “inaugurate” usually means to introduce something solemnly.

Here’s one of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary: “To initiate the public use of, introduce into public use by a formal opening ceremony (a statue, fountain, building, etc.).”

So why not go one step further and initiate a frying pan for private use? In fact, one definition of the verb in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is simply “to bring about the beginning.”

The word “inaugurate,” which first showed up in print in the early 1600s, comes from the Latin inaugurare, meaning to consecrate or install after taking omens from the flight of birds, according to the OED.

In fact, Samuel Johnson, in his famous 1755 dictionary, defined the word as “to begin with good omens,” though in modern English “inaugurate” has lost its sense of “augury.”

As for “latkes,” the Yiddish word for potato pancakes, the earliest citation in the OED is from a 1927 article in the American Mercury magazine about Jewish cooking. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“Similarly, Chanukah, to the Jewish bocher, meant not only slim, yellow candles in a glistening menorah, but luscious potato latkes – pancakes made of grated, raw potatoes, mixed with flour and shortening and fried in schmaltz (rendered chicken or beef fat).”

A “bocher,” by the way, is a young man in Yiddish.


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Hi tech and low

Q: My son works for a small startup – let’s call it Hi Tech – where he’s the only native English speaker. He’s editing a document, but he’s not sure when to use the possessive of the company’s name. Example: “Hi Tech (or Hi Tech’s) engineers will be happy to answer any inquiries.” Is there a rule?

A: What your son wants to do is to use the company name to modify another noun.

If the noun is plural (like “engineers”), the company name (let’s make it “GM” here) can be used either as a straight adjective (“GM engineers have invented a new solar battery”) or as a possessive adjective (“GM’s engineers have invented a new solar battery”).

With the straight adjective and a plural noun, the article “the” or some other modifier (“some,” “these,” “several,” “our,” etc.) is optional, depending on context.

If the noun being modified is singular (like “engineer”), the company name can also be used as a straight adjective (“A GM engineer has … “) or a possessive adjective (“GM’s engineer has … “).

But with a straight adjective and a singular noun, an article or some other modifier is required (“the GM engineer” …. “a GM engineer” … “another GM engineer” … “this GM engineer,” etc.).

That’s why he wouldn’t write “Hi Tech approach is unique and efficient.” He’d write either “The Hi Tech approach …” or “Hi Tech’s approach …..”

I hope this low-tech answer helps.

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Nutso, cracko, & co.

Q: My mother, born and raised in Worcester, MA, often uses the expression “nutso cracko,” which drives me nutso cracko. Can you tell me how this phrase came to be? I hope my query doesn’t drive you over the edge.

A: My guess is that your mom is being inventive with compound modifiers.

The adjective “nutso” (crazy or nuts) has been around since the late 1970s, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Another source, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, lists “cracko” (eccentric or insane) as being in use since the 1980s.

Seems to me that “nutso cracko” is a pretty nifty combination, but your mother isn’t the only person to use it.

I got three hits on Google for “nutso cracko” as well as two for “nutso-cracko,” one for “nutso, cracko,” another for “nutso/cracko,” and one more for this extended mouthful: “nutso, cracko-whacko, weirdo, strange, hippie, pothead.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Now, there’s a saying that’s been around a bit longer. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for this pipe-smoking expression is from Americans Abroad (1824), a two-act comedy by R. B. Peake. The next cite, a dozen years later, is from The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens’s first novel.

But how did pipe-smoking get into an expression about dealing with something whether you like it or not? The saying is apparently derived from a belief that pipe-smoking and meditation go together, according to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, edited by Paul Beale.

Today, given what we know about carcinogens, someone who smoked while meditating would be considered ill-advised – and, perhaps, nutso cracko.

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Spinning out of control

Q: These days we hear a lot of people say the financial markets could “spin out of control.” Why do things “spin” out of control, as opposed to “run” or “jump” out of control? What is the origin of this phrase?

A: The verb of choice to use with “out of control” certainly does seem to be “spin.” I had more than 800,000 hits on Google for versions of the phrase “spin out of control.”

Clearly, there are alternatives. A search for “out of control” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes up with these citations: “balloon out of control” (1988); “get out of control” (1942); “swerved out of control” (1963); “surge out of control” (1979); “spiraling out of control” (2000), and “slide out of control” (2000).

Also, “skidded out of control” (2000); “ran out of control” (1971); “raged out of control” (2002); “acting out of control” (1994); “went out of control” (1959); “drop out of control into a whirling dive” (1961, said of an aircraft); “tumbling out of control” (1975); and of course “spin out of control” (2004).

The dates given aren’t necessarily for the first uses of those expressions. The earliest published reference in the New York Times archive for a version of “spin out of control” is from a Jan. 7, 1981, Associated Press article about rioting in Miami: ”The windshield was smashed and the car spun out of control, hitting Shanreka and a pedestrian, Albert Nelson, 75.”

The earliest reference I see in the OED that includes “spin” and “control” in the same sentence is this one, from a July 1914 issue of Aeroplane magazine: “If a ‘scout’ started to spin round its own nose it would never come into control again.”

Interestingly, it would seem from the OED that “spin out of control” could be considered redundant. The entry for “spin out” (1954) describes the verb phrase as North American slang meaning “of a vehicle: to skid round out of control.”

The noun “spin” in the political sense (manipulation of public perception of an event or situation) apparently came along in the 1970s.

The OED‘s first published citation is from the Guardian newspaper in January 1978: “The CIA can be an excellent source [of information], though, like every other, its offerings must be weighed for factuality and spin.”

And here’s a citation from the Washington Post in March 1979: “American spokesman Jody Powell gave a press briefing and put a negative spin on the talks.”

The OED dates “spin doctor” from 1984 and “spinmeister” from 1986, though it has no entry for “spin control.”

But John and Adele Algeo, writing in the fall 1988 issue of the journal American Speech, reported finding “spin control” in this quote from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Nov. 7, 1987): “In political parlance, it is called ‘spin control’ – a campaign’s attempt to influence reporters’ interpretations of an event.”

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A love story, By n Large

Q: I recently screened “WALL-E” and got to thinking about By n Large, the company that made the eponymous robot. What the heck is the origin of the phrase “by and large” and what does it mean?

A: The adverbial phrase “by and large,” meaning generally or for the most part, was originally a seafaring expression.

When a ship was sailing “by” the wind, it was moving toward or into the wind. When a ship was sailing “large,” the wind was coming from abaft the beam (that is, from somewhere in the rear half of the ship).

The expression “by and large,” meaning to the wind as well as off it, was first used in print in 1669, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest recorded use of it was by a 17th-century writer on seamanship, Samuel Sturmy, who said, “Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and learge.”

Obviously the term was in use by sailors before that. A ship that sailed well “by and large” was one that handled nicely in a variety of circumstances.

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Doc in a box

Q: My daughter, an attending physician, is on the hospital floor to advise or assist residents. In OB, her specialty, she also covers for private physicians who are unable to get to the hospital in time to deliver babies. The universal expression there for someone who covers for other obstetricians is “doc in a box.” Any idea where this medical usage comes from?

A: The website HowStuffWorks, a subsidiary of the company that owns the Discovery Channel, has a list of medical slang terms, including “doc in a box,” which it defines as “a small health-care center, usually with high staff turnover.”

A contributor to Urban Dictionary (which is not an authority by any means, but has its finger on the pulse of the blogosphere) defines a “doc in the box” as “any doctor at a walk-in clinic.” Another contributor to this online slang site gives “McDoc” as a synonym.

The expression “doc in a box” was used in the sense of a clinic by participants in an online discussion on the Atlantic magazine’s website in 2007 about walk-in clinics. But this usage has been around for a while, since at least the 1980s, and probably earlier.

The first published reference for “doc in a box” in The New York Times archive is from a May 10, 1987, article about the efforts of hospitals to market their services to the public. One of the efforts was the creation of neighborhood clinics. The writer uses the expression to refer to the clinics, not the doctors working in them:

“Many hospitals now have neighborhood centers – known as ‘Doc in a Box’ – for cash customers who want quick, cheap medical advice on cuts, colds and other problems not serious enough to warrant an emergency room visit.”

The expression “doc in the box” (with “the” instead of “a”) first appeared in the Times in a Dec. 5, 1982, article in which a doctor dismisses clinics at shopping centers: ”They want to put up a ‘Doc in the Box’ sign every place there’s a McDonald’s.”

In 1991, Robert A. Burton, a San Francisco neurologist, published a novel called Doc-in-a-Box, about a failed plastic surgeon who’s had his license suspended and who practices illegally in a seedy street clinic in Venice, CA.

Although we’ve found a few examples of “doc in a box” used to refer to an attending physician and “doc in the box” to describe teaching sessions at a medical school, the two phrases are usually seen in references to walk-in medical clinics, especially dismissive references.

We can’t find anything definitive about the origin of the phrase, but it seems apt for a walk-in clinic. The expression conjures up an image of an instant, anonymous doctor, one who’s ready when you are and available without notice to see you in a nearby cubicle.

No doubt the amusing echo of “Jack-in-the-box” helps keep the usage alive.

Speaking of which, a “Jack-in-the-box” was originally (back in the 16th century) a term of contempt for a Communion wafer in its container or a reference to a thief whose MO was to substitute an empty box for one full of money.

It wasn’t until the early 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that the expression was used for the toy with a figure that springs out of a box.

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