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Noun sequitur

Q: I couldn’t get through to you on WNYC – I was on hold at the end! I had a question about the propriety of describing a retired female college teacher as a “professor emerita.” In Latin, professor is a masculine noun. If one uses a Latin phrase, shouldn’t the grammatical gender agree: i.e., professor emeritus?

A: I’m sorry you were on hold and couldn’t get through to me on the Leonard Lopate Show. As for your question, there are two points of view here.

(1) This is the argument in favor of “professor emerita” for females:

“Professor,” while once a masculine noun in Latin, is now a bona fide English word, and is therefore neuter. It’s legitimate, therefore, to add case endings that indicate the sex and number of the professor(s) we’re talking about (“emeritus,” “emerita,” “emeriti,” “emeritae”).

(2) This is the argument against it, one that I tend to agree with:

You’re correct – the word professor is masculine in Latin, and case endings in Latin have to do with grammatical gender, not biological gender (sex, that is).

In Latin, therefore, professor takes the masculine adjective emeritus, whether a man or a woman is meant. The English phrase “professor emerita” confuses sex with grammatical gender.

Besides, if we’ve adopted “professor” as a neutral English noun, why not adopt “emeritus” as the corresponding neutral English adjective (plural “emeriti”)?

It makes sense, according to this argument, to use “professor emeritus” in English for both male and female professors, but it’s probably not going to happen, at least not in my lifetime.

Academic conventions don’t change overnight. Witness “alumnus,” “alumna,” “alumni,” and “alumnae” – two too many forms, if you ask me. (I once wrote a blog item about all those “alums.”)

Well, what do you expect from people who march around in caps and gowns to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”?

For the rest of us, Latin and other foreign words take on a life of their own once they enter English. If you’re up for more, I’ve written several blog items about the Anglicization of foreign plurals: “appendices,” “graffiti,” and “media.”

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What’s OK and what’s not

Q: Is it incorrect or impolite to say “What?” when not hearing something clearly? I’ve heard several people respond, “Don’t say ‘what’ to me,” which I found puzzling the first few times (of course, I responded with, “What?”). Have you heard of this?

A: In my youth, I was occasionally criticized by my elders for saying, “What?” But I never learned what was supposed to be so bad about it.

Maybe I was expected to say, “Could you please repeat that?” or “Excuse me?” or “What’s that again?” or something of the sort. I can’t remember.

At any rate, I see nothing about this supposed social faux pas in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.

I have to admit, though, that “What?” sounds abrupt, and implies that the speaker hasn’t been clear. I certainly wouldn’t use it in conversation with President Obama or Queen Elizabeth or Chief Justice Roberts.

Nevertheless, the usage has a long history. The Oxford English Dictionary says the interrogative “What?” used elliptically to stand for “What did you say?” or “What is it?” dates from the 1300s.

Here’s a citation from Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1837): ” ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Cold punch,’ murmured Mr. Pickwick, as he sunk to sleep again. ‘What?’ demanded Captain Boldwig. No reply.”

[Update: A British reader of the blog says, “Over here in class-riven England, the lower middle classes think ‘What?’ is rude and instruct their children to say ‘Pardon?’ instead. The upper classes, however, consider ‘Pardon?’ a lower middle faux pas and tell their children to say ‘What?’ “]

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Fired, sacked, and bagged

Q: You promised on WNYC that you’d get back to us about why we use the word “fire” to mean dismiss or sack someone. I haven’t seen anything on the blog yet. And, for that matter, why a “sack”?

A. Oops! My in-box has been overflowing and I didn’t have a chance to get to this until now.

The verb “fire” has several meanings in English: to ignite or set fire to; to kindle or inflame (as in passion); to discharge a firearm or start an engine; to become angry or inflamed; to bake pottery; to fuel a furnace; to set off a charge; to proceed energetically (“fire away”); to release a camera shutter.

But as we all know there’s another definition, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “U.S. slang” meaning “to turn (any one) out of a place; to eject or expel forcibly; to dismiss or discharge peremptorily.”

The usage was first recorded in 1882, according to another reference, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. In its earliest appearances, the verb phrase was “fire out.”

The OED says some have suggested that this sense is derived from an obscure meaning of “fire” – to drive someone away by fire – but the dictionary adds that this theory “seems unlikely.”

Could the usage be a pun on “discharge” (as if from a gun)? At least one WNYC listener has suggested this explanation, and the theory is mentioned in both Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

In addition, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests as much when it describes the slang expressions “fire” and “fire out” as meaning “to discharge from employment suddenly and unexpectedly.”

None of these sources give any evidence, though, and I think we have to say at this point that we don’t know for certain how “fire” came to mean “dismiss.”

As for the use of “sack” in the sense of “reject” or “dismiss,” Partridge says it was first recorded in English in 1840, but Brewer’s says “to get the sack” (or “to be sacked”) was current in France in the 17th century (on luy a donné son sac).

Supposedly, according to Brewer’s, workmen carried their tools with them from job to job in a sack or bag, and when a laborer was dismissed he took up his sack and left. Hence, he was “sacked” or “given the sack.”

But I’m skeptical about this explanation, since none of my other language references suggest it. And it wouldn’t account for other kinds of dismissals for which we use “sack” – to jilt a lover, for instance, or to expel a student from school.

Here’s another possibility. Maybe “sack” grew out of a similar usage of “bag” (this is just a supposition on my part).

In 16th-century England, to “give the bag” was to leave someone (an employer, for example) suddenly or without notice. But in more modern times, the OED says, the phrase has meant “to dismiss (a servant, etc.),” and “to get the bag” has meant “to be dismissed.”

Published citations for the expression in the sense of leaving one’s employer date back to 1592 (“To giue your masters the bagge”). In the late 1700s, according to Random House, the same phrases also meant to jilt a lover or be jilted.

As a variation on the theme, the rejected one was “given the bag to hold,” a usage that goes back to 1760, according to Random House.

Here’s George Washington: “He will leave you the bag to hold” (1791). And Thomas Jefferson: “She will leave Spain the bag to hold” (1793).

And here’s a humorous citation from Sir Walter Scott’s 1822 novel Peveril of the Peak: “What! when I thought I had the prettiest girl in the Castle dancing after my whistle, to find that she gave me the bag to hold, and was snuggling in a corner with a rich old Puritan!”

This usage, as you’ve probably guessed, gave rise to the familiar expression “left holding the bag.”

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How sacred is sanctity?

Q: A recent New York Times article referred to “the sanctity” of a prosecutor’s obligation to disclose helpful information to the defense. This misuse of “sanctity” is pervasive and a product of our culture’s cavalier relationship with the divine. Interestingly, I never see “sacred” similarly misused. Thank you for your interest.

A: It’s been my experience that the words “sanctity,” “sacred,” and “sacrosanct” are commonly used loosely or figuratively, often in a satirical way (as in “Copy editors maintain the sanctity of proper punctuation,” or “Mom believed that cleanliness was a sacred trust”).

But sometimes, as you’ve noticed, the use of such terms becomes routine, with no humor intended. This practice, too, has a long history – particularly with the word “sacred.”

“Sanctity,” which was first recorded in English circa 1394, has its origins in the Latin sanctitas, from sanctus (“holy”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first meaning of “sanctity” was holiness or saintliness, the OED says, and that’s still pretty much the literal meaning of the word. Yet it and its variations are often used figuratively in a humorous sense. Just think of “sanctimonious.”

“Sacred” has a more interesting history. It began around the year 1225 with the verb “sacre,” meaning to “consecrate (the elements, or the body and blood of Christ) in the Mass,” the OED says.

Later, to “sacre” was to celebrate the Eucharist; to sacrifice; to worship; to consecrate a king, bishop, or the like into office; to unite in the sacrament of marriage; to hallow, bless, sanctify, and so on.

The verb “sacre” was used in this way until well into the 17th century.

Similarly, someone or something that underwent this process was said to have been “sacred,” because “sacred” was the past participle of the verb “sacre.”

Here’s an example from 1606: “Rodolph the second, eldest son of Maximilian, was sacred Emperour in the yeare 1577.”

As the participle “sacred” grew weaker over the years, the OED explains, it was gradually replaced by the adjective “sacred,” which first appeared in 1380 and is the equivalent of the Latin sacer.

The original meaning of the adjective was “consecrated” in the religious sense (that is, dedicated to a sacred purpose).

It often appeared in the phrase “sacred to,” meaning, the OED says, “consecrated to; esteemed especially dear or acceptable to a deity.” Examples: “sacred unto Jupiter” (circa 1430), and “sacred to Venus” (1874).

But the adjective “sacred” has long been used in a figurative sense meaning “regarded with or entitled to respect or reverence similar to that which attaches to holy things,” according to the OED.

This usage has been recorded in print steadily since 1560, when John Daus translated the Latin in tam augusto conventu as “in so sacred a senate.”

Later, Shakespeare, in Henry VI, Part 1 (1588-1590) wrote: “He … Doth but usurpe the Sacred name of Knight, Prophaning this most Honourable Order.”

Over the years, figurative uses of “sacred” even took on a sarcastic tone, as in these lines from Shelley’s Oedipus Tyrannus (1820): “And these most sacred nether promontories / Lie satisfied with layers of fat.” And: “That her most sacred Majesty / Should be Invited to attend the feast of Famine.”

Here’s another sarcastic example from an essay by Matthew Arnold (1865): “To obtain from Mr. Bentham’s executors a sacred bone of his great, dissected Master.”

Today, we often hear “sacred” used in a nonreligious way. One definition of the word, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), is “worthy of respect, venerable.”

Here are some related words that began life as religions terms and are now freely used in nonreligious contexts: “sanctuary” (originally a consecrated place); “sanctum” (ditto); “to sanction” (to make holy); “sacrifice” (an offering, usually a slaughtered animal, to a deity); and even “sacrum” (the last bone of the spine, originally “holy bone”).

You may regard figurative or nonreligious uses of terms like these “cavalier,” but the process seems to be natural and well established.

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Is uptalk a silly affectation?

Q: Can you explain why uptalk is so popular in the media and common speech? Does raising the pitch of one’s voice at the end of a phrase convey any meaning not in the words themselves? It seems to me like a silly affectation.

A: Uptalk (rising inflections at the end of sentences that are statements as opposed to questions) does indeed carry a meaning not conveyed by the words alone, according to linguists who have studied these speech intonations or contours.

Uptalk (technically, “rising terminals” or “recurrent intonational rises”) is used for a reason: to gain a listener’s approval or attention, to invite a reaction, to emphasize an opinion, or to retain a turn in the conversation.

Two British authorities, Paul Foulkes and Gerard Docherty, reported in 2005 in the Journal of Phonetics that uptalk had begun showing up in English dialects where it wasn’t prevalent before. It had already been observed, they said, in other dialects in Britain as well as the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

“In most locations, it is characteristic mainly of young speakers,” they wrote. “In the USA, Australia, and New Zealand it is also most common in lower class and/or female speech, but by contrast it seems to be associated with the upwardly mobile in England.”

Another author, Marcel Danesi, compared the rising intonation in adolescent speech to the familiar “tag question” often added to a declarative sentence (as in, “Nice, huh?” or “We’re going now, okay?”).

“In North American adolescent talk,” Danesi wrote in 1997, “utterances such as ‘We called her up? (intonation contour like a question) … but she wasn’t there? (same contour) … so we hung up? (same contour)’ show a pattern of rising contours (as if each sentence were interrogative).”

This feature, he said, “is, in effect, a tag question without the tag.” A tag, he explained, “is a word, phrase, or clause added to a sentence to give emphasis, to seek approval, to ascertain some reaction, etc.”

By the way, the terms “up-speak” and “up-talk” (now simply “uptalk”) began appearing in 1993, according to the journal American Speech.

Even back then, USA Today reported that the phenomenon had spread throughout the country. Some have suggested it began in California with “Valley Girl” speech, but we don’t know for sure.

The linguist Cynthia McLemore, who researched uptalk among a group of University of Texas sorority sisters in 1991, has said it may represent a “dialect shift,” a change in the way we talk.

Why has the trend caught on and become so ubiquitous? It would take a sociolinguist to try to answer that. Perhaps it’s simply contagious. (Or maybe I should say, “Perhaps it’s simply contagious?”)

[Update, Aug. 15, 2014: For more theories about the origins of the rising inflection, as well as some earlier sightings, see this article from the BBC’s website, published on Aug. 10, 2014.]

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Verbal promiscuity?

Q: I recently came across the use of “front-burner” as a verb. A trade paper said the stimulus package “has goaded the government to front-burner ubiquitous availability” of broadband. This is new to me. Is it legitimate, or just another example of promiscuous verb-from-noun horribilation?

A: Fortunately, I have never run across the clunky use of “front-burner” as a verb phrase. And I hope I never do.

As for any question of “legitimacy,” that depends on whether the expression catches on and enters the language (shudder).

I doubt that it will; it seems too ungainly.

But the people who use the English language decide what’s legit and what’s not. You and I have only one vote apiece.

In my opinion, you summed it up pretty well: another example of promiscuous verb formation.

By the way, I like “horribilation.” I can’t find it in any of my language references, but I do see an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for “horribility,” which once meant something horrible.

I do, however, find an entry for “horripilation,” a bristling of the hair on the head or body from fear, cold, or sickness, perhaps from seeing a horribilation! (I wrote a blog item a couple of years ago on this hair-raising phenomenon.)

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The anatomy lesson

Q: Pity us poor old geezers who tend to be purists. The word “dissect,” which I pronounce dih-SECT, keeps getting pronounced as DIE-sect, even by NPR announcers. I suppose it’s the influence of “bisect,” which is properly pronounced BYE-sect. How can we change the world?

A: Language is a living thing, and “dissect” has been changing right along with it. My 50-year-old, unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) offers only one pronunciation: dih-SECT.

But contemporary dictionaries are all over the place.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists dih-SECT, die-SECT, and DIE-sect, in that order.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) goes with die-SECT, dih-SECT, and DIE-sect, but it says the last two are less common.

With all those choices, it would be pretty hard to mispronounce “dissect” today.

The word comes from the Latin dissectus, the past participle of the verb dissecare (to cut). Both Latin words begin with a “dih” rather than a “die” sound, so I imagine a Roman would have preferred your pronunciation.

The word first showed up in English in 1607, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a description of chickens “being dissected or cut in pieces when they are warm.”

By 1611 the word was being used in its human anatomical sense, which brings to mind “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” In Rembrandt’s 1632 painting, Dr. Tulp is seen lecturing before the dissection of the corpse of a criminal hanged for armed robbery.

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Short and smelly

Q: I’ve heard that “odiferous” is not a real word, but a mispronunciation or incorrect contraction of “odoriferous.” Yet I’ve never heard anyone use “odoriferous.” I’m of the mind that common usage rules the day here, but I’d feel better if “odiferous” had the Grammarphobia stamp of approval.

A: “Odiferous” is indeed a contracted form of “odoriferous.” Whether it’s legitimate or not depends on which reference book you consult.

Garner’s Modern American Usage describes “odiferous” as an “erroneous shortening,” and the word doesn’t appear at all in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), just “odoriferous.”

However, “odiferous” shows up in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) as an adjective formed by contraction from the original.

“Odiferous” also appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, described as a shortened form of “odoriferous.”

The shortened form dates back to about 1500 and there are citations throughout the following centuries. The original word, “odoriferous,” isn’t much older than that, since it first appeared in print circa 1487.

My guess is that the five-syllable “odoriferous” has always been a mouthful, so it sometimes lost a syllable.

Although “odoriferous” now means having an odor, especially a strong or unpleasant one, it didn’t originally suggest being stinky. At first, according to the OED, it described something with “a pleasant scent; sweet-smelling; fragrant.”

A case could be made for using “odiferous,” but I wouldn’t use it. If you’d like to dodge the “correctness” angle when you smell something with a strong or questionable odor, you could always fall back on “odorous” or “malodorous.”

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More about less

Q: I would like to know the rules for when to use “less” as distinguished from “fewer.” And is there a mnemonic for this?

A: The traditional rule has been that we use “fewer” for things we can count (“fewer cookies”), and “less” for quantities we can’t count (“less milk”).

But “less” is also used in cases like these (I’m supplying links to blog entries I’ve written on the subject):

(1) With “one” (as in “one less case on the docket”).

(2) With fractions (“less than one-quarter of the students”).

(3) With percentages (“less than 10 percent of the puppies”).

(4) With mass measurements involving money (“less than $10”), time (“less than two weeks”), distances (“less than five miles” … “less than ten yards”), weights (“less than 150 pounds”), and measurements of degree (“less than 50 miles an hour” … “less than 30 degrees” … “less than 18 decibels”).

In addition, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “less” is sometimes used in the phrases “no less than X” (as in, “no less than 20 people were arrested”) or “X words or less” (as in “25 words or less”).

I don’t recommend “no less than 20 people,” but I think “25 words or less” is an acceptable idiom.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) goes even further than American Heritage, and states: “Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing.”

Well, “less” may have history on its side, but not modern English usage – at least not yet.

If Merriam-Webster’s is right, though, we’ll be seeing less of “fewer,” and using it fewer and fewer times. And that’s the best mnemonic device I can think of right now.

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Presenting the future

Q: I was reviewing my German grammar the other day and read that you can use the present tense to describe something in the future, but you generally need an adverb – for example, “I’m going to Europe soon.” This made me wonder if it’s proper in English to say merely “I’m going to Europe.”

A: We can indeed indicate a future trip by saying “I’m going to Europe.” No adverb is necessary.

In fact, we have quite a few ways of speaking about the future without actually using a future tense.

One common way of indicating the future in English is by using a form of the verb “be” plus “going to” plus an infinitive. Examples: “She is going to call Mom,” “We’re going to see a movie,” “Thanks for asking, but I’m not going to go.”

There are other ways, too. The italic verbs or verb phrases in the following sentences indicate an action to take place in the future. (The examples are from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.)

(1) Give her my regards.

(2 It is essential that she tell the truth.

(3) The match starts tomorrow.

(4) If she goes, I’ll go too.

(5) I may see her tomorrow.

(6) I want to see her tomorrow.

(7) I am seeing her tomorrow.

I hope this helps.

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Let’s try, try again

Q: I want to report a cringe moment on NPR: Seymour Hersh said, “They will try and fix the situation….” What? The expression “try and” from such a well-respected journalist? I asked you about this some time ago and you agreed with me on the blog.

A: As you mentioned, we wrote a blog item a few years ago about “try and” (often substituted for “try to”). As we said at the time, “try to” is correct in formal English, but “try and” is gaining acceptance in spoken and informal usage.

Now we’d like to defend the usage a little more vigorously. As we write in our new book, Origins of the Specious, the expression “try and” has been around since at least the early 1600s, and nobody minded until the late 1800s.

In fact, “try and” may be older than “try to,” according to etymologists. We often find “and” between two related verbs, and nobody squawks.

Similar expressions, like “come and” (as in “come and visit me”) and “go and” (as in “go and see if it’s there”) have been around since the 1200s.

Why object to “try and see him” when it’s acceptable to say “come and see him” or “go and see him” or “stop and see him”?

The phrase has history on its side and we should try and get used to it. But be aware that some sticklers may find it trying!

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Damned if you do

Q: This one may be easy for you, but quite a few other people don’t know which of these forms is correct: “I have to cut down that damned tree” or “I have to cut down that damn tree.” What’s your verdict?

A: Both sentences are correct.

The Oxford English Dictionary (a damn good dictionary and pretty damned authoritative) says “damn” and “damned” can be either adjectives or adverbs.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agrees. M-W says either word can be an adjective (as in “a damn/damned shame”) or an adverb (as in “a damn/damned good job”).

The OED says these adjectives and adverbs are derived from the verb “damn,” which English borrowed from Old French around the year 1300. The ultimate source of the word is the Latin verb damnare, meaning to inflict damage or condemn.

That damn near sums it up, dammit (which the OED defines as a version of “damn it”).

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Pat on WNYC: May 20, 2009

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

English language Uncategorized

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM to discuss her new book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, and to take calls from listeners.

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The pursuit of happiness

Q: The phrase in the Declaration of Independence about “the pursuit of happiness” is used to justify almost anything these days, but I don’t believe the Founding Fathers used “happiness” in the modern sense. In the 18th century, I’ve heard, “happiness” meant the right to better oneself based on merit. Is this true or am I totally off base?

A: I find three definitions of “happiness” in the Oxford English Dictionary, all of them in use well before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

(1) “Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity” (first recorded in 1530).

(2) “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” (1591).

(3) “Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability, or appropriateness; felicity” (1599).

As a former philosophy major in college, I can tell you that Aristotle considered happiness (eudaimonia in Greek) to be the ultimate good, the highest goal. All other goods (pleasure, wealth, health, power, honor, etc.) are subordinate. He was closer to definition #2, since he said attainment of happiness consists not merely in virtue but in virtuous activity (that is, good works).

I’m reluctant to try to get into the minds of the Founding Fathers. It’s not exactly my bailiwick. You’d have to ask a Constitutional scholar or perhaps a psychoanalyst about this. But as far as I can tell the three definitions of “happiness” listed above were the only ones around at the time the Declaration of Independence was written.

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Good manners and good English

Q: A lot of people “would like” to do things instead of “wanting” to do them or actually doing them. Examples: “I would like to thank the people who put this event together” and “I would like to apply for the position of assistant pastry chef.” This usage is driving me nuts. I hope you can help me make peace with it.

A: People tell a waiter “I would like (or I’d like) the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts” because it sounds more indirect, hence more polite and less demanding, than “I want the braised sirloin tips with artichoke hearts.”

Don’t think of “would” here as merely a conditional auxiliary. Think of it as what some grammarians call it, a term of “tentative volition” – that is, a less demanding way of saying you want something.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language discusses this issue in some depth. Take the use of “would” in a sentence like “I would like to see him tomorrow” (vs. “I want to see him tomorrow”) or “Would you tell them we’re here” (vs. “Will you tell them we’re here”).

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say that “would” often “introduces a rather vague element of tentativeness, diffidence, extra politeness, or the like.” They go on to describe “would like” as “more or less a fixed phrase, contrasting as a whole with want.”

This “would”-vs.“-will” business is nothing to get upset about.

In your first example, “would” strikes me as more polite than “want.” And using neither one seems too abrupt: “I thank the people who put this event together.”

I agree, however, that someone applying for a job should show more audacity than to say “I would like to apply for the position of assistant pastry chef.”

In everyday conversation, though, a little politeness goes a long way.

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Q: My 11-year-old son just asked me why the kitchen isn’t called a “cooking room,” since the other rooms in our house have the word “room” in them: “dining room,” “living room,” “playroom,” “bedroom,” etc. I immediately thought of you.

A: Your son is right: We incorporate “room” into most parts of our homes. In addition to the rooms you mention, here are a few more: “bathroom,” “mud room,” “laundry room,” and “guest room.” But the kitchen is the kitchen – it’s not the “cooking room.”

Why is this? Perhaps because the word “kitchen” is so old, and has been in the language longer than the other terms.

The word “kitchen,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first recorded in the year 1000, when it was used in two separate writings (the Old English spellings used back then were cycene and kycenan).

In fact, we got the word “kitchen” at about the same time we got the word “room” (spelled rum in Old English). But the words for the separate rooms in the house came along hundreds of years later.

The word “bedroom,” for example, was first recorded in 1590, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Then by your side, no bedroome me deny.”

“Guest room” was first recorded, as far as we know, in 1638; “dining room” in 1601; “playroom” in 1725; “bathroom” in 1780; “living room” in 1825; “mud room” in 1950; “laundry room” in 1967.

You would think that “bathroom” would be among the oldest words (since people have always had use for such facilities!). But before the invention of modern plumbing, people who relieved themselves at home used chamber pots and washed in their bedrooms – that is, if their homes had more than one room!

While we don’t say “cooking room,” we once used a similar term, “cook room” (first recorded in 1553), but it didn’t catch on. People apparently were happy with the word “kitchen.”

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Are the lexicographers on board?

Q: I often hear “onboard” used in a bureaucratic sense, as in “The entire committee was onboard with the decision to move forward.” However, I’ve looked the word up in my dictionary and it only has it in a nautical sense. Is there such a word? And if so, what does it mean?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has the word “onboard” both as an adjective (“an onboard child-safety seat”) and as an adverb (“come onboard”). The only definition given is “carried or used aboard a vehicle or vessel.”

But under its entry for “board,” American Heritage lists the phrase “on board” as an idiom meaning either “aboard” or “on the job.” That second meaning (“on the job”) is similar to the now familiar bureaucratic jargon.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has both “onboard” and “on board” (see under “board”) as adjectives.

M-W defines “onboard” as carried within or aboard a vehicle. “On board” is defined as meaning either “aboard” or “in support of a particular objective.” The example given is “needed to get more senators on board for the bill to pass.”

So, the lexicographers at both dictionaries give two separate words, “on board,” for figurative meanings similar to the one you are asking about.

The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet recorded this newer meaning of “on board.” (It does, however, include “board shorts,” the baggy shorts originally worn by surfers, a word born in Australia, circa 1975.)

The OED explains that in common usage, “on board” means on or in a ship or boat. It’s a shortened form of “on ship-board,” a term that’s been around since Middle English (originally, “within schippe burdez”). Here “boards” supposedly means the deck.

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With or without

Q: I’m from the Midwest and live in Connecticut. My entire family often ends sentences with the word “with,” but my husband laughs at us and says this is wrong. Is it a Midwestern thing to say, “Do you want to come with,” without really finishing the sentence?

A: I too am from the Midwest (Iowa) and now live in Connecticut. And I too grew up hearing people say, “Want to come with?” and “Shall we go with?”

But we aren’t the only ones. While the usage is widespread in the Midwestern US, it’s also common in South Africa. And it was known in England back in King Alfred’s day.

In a 1997 article in the journal American Speech, Michael Adams calls this usage the “elliptical with,” and says it’s a phenomenon that “eludes lexicographers by appearing in unexpected venues and in speech more often than in print.”

Because speech doesn’t leave a written record as print does, this usage is hard to trace. The Oxford English Dictionary has very few examples, and they’re all quite old – ranging from circa 888 to 1450.

In this sense, the OED defines “with” as an adverb meaning “in collocation, company, or association; together.” Is there a connection with the modern use of the word? Probably not. It’s more likely that today’s shorthand arose independently.

In the Midwest, as in old England, this kind of construction uses “with” as an adverb meaning “along” (“Let’s invite him to go with”). Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English records a related use of “with” in South Africa dating back to 1913 (using the example “Can I come with?”).

A similar usage is well known in restaurants, bars, delis, and diners, where “coffee with” means coffee with cream, “a burger with” means one with everything, “a margarita with” means a margarita with salt, and so on. In this kind of clipped speech, “with” is a preposition with its object omitted.

This tradition goes back to 19th-century tippling in England, where “with” meant mixed with sugar. For example, “Bring me a whiskey with” meant “Bring me a whiskey with sugar.”

In the same vein, there’s also the “elliptical and,” as in “Come on over to the house for coffee and.” Here, “and” means “and whatever goes with it.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of these elliptical usages. They’re fine old colloquialisms along the lines of “come to” (meaning to one’s senses), “do without” (without luxuries), “come by” (by our house) and “drop over” (over to our house).

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English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Herbal treatment

Q: I’m a South African and I wonder why Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB. Isn’t this a French affectation?

A: Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB because that’s the way the word was spoken when the Colonists left England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Britons began pronouncing the “h” in “herb” in the early 19th century. Before then, both Brits and Americans pronounced it ERB.

In fact, the word was usually spelled “erbe” for the first few hundred years after it was borrowed from the Old French erbe in the 1200s.

The “h” was added to the spelling later as a nod to the Latin original (herba, or grass), but the letter was silent in English.

Today, Americans pronounce “herb” the way Shakespeare did, with a silent “h,” while the Bard wouldn’t recognize the word in the mouths of the English.

If you’d like to read more about British-vs.-American English, check out my latest book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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Semi serious

Q: Can you please describe the accepted usage of the semicolon? I tend to see the connection between thoughts and probably use it excessively; rather than write a separate sentence.

A: Here’s how I describe the use of the semicolon in my grammar book Woe Is I:

(1) Use a semicolon to separate clauses when there’s no connecting and or but between them and each could be a sentence in itself. Andy’s toupee flew off his head; it sailed into the distance.

(2) Use semicolons to separate items in a series when there’s already a comma in one or more of the items: Fred’s favorite things were his robe, a yellow chenille number from Barneys; his slippers; his overstuffed chair, which had once been his father’s; murder mysteries, especially those by Sue Grafton; and single-malt Scotch.

By the way, a semicolon always goes outside quotation marks. Here’s an example from Woe Is I: Frank’s favorite song was “My Way”; he recorded it several times.

The semicolon is one of the handiest – and least used – punctuation marks. I suspect that people avoid it because the semicolon intimidates them.

You obviously don’t have that problem. Quite the contrary. As you suspect, the semicolon in your second sentence is unnecessary since “rather than write a separate sentence” couldn’t be a sentence itself and isn’t an item in a series.

I hope this helps.

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Sound effects

Q: I think it’s pretentious to pronounce “vase” as if it rhymes with “Oz” (as in the Wizard of Oz). I’ve always pronounced it to sound like VAZE – that is, with a long “a.” Is there a correct pronunciation?

A: The word “vase” can be correctly pronounced three ways: as if it rhymed with (1) “base,” (2) “haze,” or (3) “Oz,” like the Wiz.

All three pronunciations are given, in that order, in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Merriam-Webster’s notes that #1 is used “oftenest” in the US. The #2 pronunciation is heard “usually” in Canada but “also” in the US. And #3 is heard “usually” in Britain, “also” in Canada, and “sometimes” in the US.

While the British now pronounce “vase” with a broad “a” (the “Oz” version), it wasn’t always so.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the Brits once pronounced it with a long “a” (rhyming with “base” or “haze”), and that these “earlier pronunciations … are still current in America.”

The OED cites examples of English poems in which “vase” rhymes “face” (Swift, 1731), as well as “place” and “grace” (Byron, 1822). Nineteenth-century American poets rhymed “vase” with “grace” (Emerson, 1847), “chase” (Whittier, 1857), and “case” (Lowell, 1860).

So your pronunciation with a long “a” has history on its side. I go into a lot more detail about British and American pronunciation in “Stiff Upper Lips,” a chapter in my new book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart.

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Yikes, yoicks, and hoicks!

Q: Why has the awkward and ugly word “conflate” suddenly appeared in the media? There are so many more pleasant synonyms, but this clunker has become the rage. Yoiks!

A: I’m surprised that you don’t like “conflate.” It’s actually a pretty handy term, meaning to bring together or fuse. It’s not new, either. It’s been around since 1610, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It comes from the Latin verb conflare, meaning “to blow together, stir up, raise, accomplish; also to melt together, melt down (metals),” according to the OED.

“Conflate” in its figurative sense, meaning to fuse two texts or pieces of information, dates from the 19th century.

The earliest citation in the OED for this usage, from an 1885 article in the American Journal of Philology, refers to two Greek terms that “are undoubtedly early, since they are conflated.”

So, this is a case of an old term being revived and looking new again.

Speaking of old terms, “yoicks” (the usual spelling), began life in the 18th century as a call used to urge on foxhounds. It may be related to an even earlier hunting term, “hoicks,” which the OED traces back to the beginning of the 17th century.

“Yoicks” is occasionally used (as you used “yoiks”) in a more general way “as an exclamation of excitement or exultation,” according to the OED.

Here’s an 1884 citation for the exclamation from Blackwood’s Magazine: “With renewed spirits he jumped into a hansom, and gave the direction … ‘Yoicks!’ cried he to himself, ‘I’m going it!’ “

Of course you may have meant “yikes,” a relatively recent term that the OED dates back to only 1971. The dictionary defines it as an exclamation of astonishment of unknown origin, though it notes similarities with … yes … “yoicks.”

H-m-m. Is “yikes” a conflation of “yoicks” and “hoicks”?

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Hits, myths, or maybes

If you missed any of the five quizzes that appeared on The Grammarphobia Blog last week, just click on the links in the posting below.

English language Uncategorized

Are you myth informed?

Test your knowledge of English with five quizzes based on Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

Stiff upper lips: British vs. American English.

Sense and sensitivity: Politically correct facts and fictions.

An oeuf is an oeuf: Fractured French.

It ain’t necessarily so: “Ain’t,” “nucular,” and other bad boys of English.

Jeepers creepers: Misbegotten word and phrase origins.

For more on these and other myths about English, check out Origins of the Specious.

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A charlady at Margate

Q: I’m reading The Goshawk, T. H. White’s 1951 book about falconry. In describing how silly his goshawk looked while taking its first bath, White compares it to “a charlady at Margate.” Later, he describes a falconer “nasconded some fifteen yards away” from a lure. I can’t find either “charlady” or “nasconded” in the Oxford English Dictionary, let alone the significance of “Margate” in this context. Help!

A: You’re right. The OED doesn’t have an entry for “charlady,” but it does have one for “charwoman,” defined as “a woman hired by the day to do odd jobs of household work,” as opposed to a live-in servant. The word dates back to 1596.

The “char” portion of the compound is an archaic form of the noun “chore,” according to the OED, and dates back to the early 1300s, when it meant “an occasional turn of work, an odd job, esp. of household work.”

Words like “charlady,” “chargirl,” “charboy,” “charmaid,” and “charfolk” are variations on the theme of “charwoman.” Here’s an 1895 citation for “charlady,” from the Westminster Gazette: “She had a good post to offer to the charlady.”

Margate is an English seaside resort town, so “charlady at Margate” is probably an imaginative reference to a charwoman on holiday at the beach, gingerly easing herself into the water.

As for “nasconded,” I can’t find it (or “nascond”) in any of my English dictionaries. However, there is an Italian verb, nascondere, which means to hide or conceal or disguise. The expression niente da nascondere means “nothing to hide.”

So if an English writer were to borrow the verb “nascond” from Italian (as White seems to have done), it would presumably mean the same thing, and “nasconded” would be the past tense (“hid”) and past participle (“hidden”).

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Of mice and men

Q: My dictionary says the plural of a computer mouse can be either “mice” or “mouses,” but both of them sound funny to me. Which do you prefer?

A: A live “mouse” has baby “mice,” but a computer “mouse” multiplies as either “mice” or “mouses.” It’s your choice.

I agree with you, though, that either plural sounds silly. That may be why I’ve never used the plural, and why some wags prefer “meece,” “rats,” or “rodentia.”

I got an interesting email from a listener after the subject came up during one of my appearances on WNYC. Here’s an edited excerpt:

“In the technical circles I run around in, mice is used more frequently, but on rare occasions I hear people say mouses, usually with question marks in their voices.

“However, I can’t recall ever hearing anyone use either term with an entirely straight face. There seems to be something inherently absurd and humorous about trying to pluralize this word. The use of mice in this context is often followed by some sort of mouse joke or by the substitution of meece to emphasize how ridiculous the whole thing is.

“It’s not uncommon to hear tech folk refer to the general class of mouselike pointing devices (mice, track balls, touch pads, etc.) as rodentia. Of course there are diehards who feel that controlling computers with keyboards is vastly superior to any kind of pointing device and that the computer mouse is just a pest. These folks refer to that device as a rat.”


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Jeepers creepers: Are you myth informed?

(The Grammarphobia Blog is featuring five daily quizzes this week to mark the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. This quiz is about misbegotten word and phrase origins.)

(1) Is the word “jeep” derived from GP, an Army abbreviation for “general purpose” vehicle?

(2) Does the expression “three sheets to the wind,” meaning drunk, refer to loose sails flapping in the wind?

(3) Does “no room to swing a cat” refer to the cat-o’-nine-tails once used to keep wayward sailors in line?

(4) Is the term “cop” derived from the copper buttons or badges on police uniforms?

(5) Is “Xmas” part of a modern secular plot to x-out Jesus from the holiday?


(1) Think again. The true source is Eugene the Jeep, a character in the old Thimble Theater cartoon strips featuring Popeye, Olive Oyl, and company.

(2) To a sailor, sheets are lines (ropes, to a landlubber), and not sails. The sheets are used to trim, or adjust, the sails. If the sheets are loose, the sails can’t do their job, leaving the vessel out of control, not unlike a drunken sailor.

(3) The “cat” in question is actually of the feline variety. The expression has been traced to Elizabethan times, when archers put cats in leather sacks and swung them from trees for target practice.

(4) The best evidence is that the noun “cop” comes from the verb “cop,” which has meant to seize or nab since at least the early 1700s.

(5) Modern? Not by a long shot. And secular? Think again. The usage has been around for nearly a thousand years. The real culprits were monks in Britain who used the Greek letter X (short for ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, or “Christ”) when transcribing classical manuscripts into Old English.

For more on these and other myths about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore,, or Barnes&

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The meme generation

Q: I believe the word “meme” can be used in a broader sense than the way you described it on WNYC the other day. I first encountered it when I read John H. McWhorter’s Losing the Race, a book in which the word is used to encompass a self-destructive subculture in the black community.

A: You’re right. I said on the air that I thought a “meme” was a linguistic unit that couldn’t be divided into smaller parts. But I was wrong. That’s a “morpheme,” not a “meme.”

A “meme” (pronounced MEEM) is a unit of cultural information (an idea, a style, a usage) that spreads from one mind to another. In the example you cited, anti-intellectualism among young African-Americans could be an example of a meme.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “meme” as “a cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.”

It’s a shortened form of “mimeme,” which is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “that which is imitated.”

The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, who said in his book The Selfish Gene (1976): “The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”

The word “mimeme,” Dawkins continued, “comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ “

“I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme,” he said, adding, “It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

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It ain’t necessarily so: Are you myth informed?

(The Grammarphobia Blog is featuring five daily quizzes this week to mark the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. This quiz is about “ain’t,” “nucular,” and other bad boys of English.

(1) Was “ain’t” ever legit?

(2) Are African-Americans responsible for the mispronunciation of “ask” as AX?

(3) Was George W. Bush the first president to mangle “nuclear”?

(4) Can “literally” be used with figurative expressions?

(5) Is there a case to be made for the use of “like” to quote or paraphrase people? Example: “She’s like, ‘Get off my case, puh-leeze!’ ”


(1) Although “ain’t” is now a symbol of the illiterati, it was routinely used by the upper classes as well as the lower, educated and otherwise, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. At first, the word was a legitimate contraction of “am not” and “are not.” But it fell into disrepute when people began using it for “is not,” “has not,” and “have not.”

(2) The AX pronunciation is also heard among whites – and on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, the word “ask” was spelled – and pronounced – “axe” when it first appeared in print in the 14th century. It wasn’t until the 17th century that “ask” replaced “axe,” but the old pronunciation hasn’t quite died out.

(3) Bush’s partners in crime include Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. A veritable “nucular” explosion!

(4) In standard English, “literally” means “to the letter” or “word for word.” And that’s what it meant when the word first showed up in English in the 16th century. But many well-known writers, including Thoreau, Dickens, Twain, and Thackeray have used the word to underscore figurative expressions.

(5) Linguists like this usage and call it the “quotative like.” Sticklers may grumble, but dictionaries now include it as informal speech.

For more on these and other myths or misconceptions about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore,, or Barnes&

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Synecdoche on his mind

Q: I recently watched the film “Synecdoche, New York,” and wonder if you would comment on the screenwriter’s use and understanding of the first word in the title.

A: We haven’t seen the film, so we can’t comment on the relevance of the title. We know it’s an intellectually playful movie, and it’s set partly in Schenectady, so the pun was no doubt irresistible to the director and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

Years before the film came out, Leonard Lopate and Pat were asked on the air to discuss the difference between “metonymy” and “synecdoche.” Leonard can never resist a pun. He said, “Isn’t the second one a town in upstate New York?” He was ahead of his time!

(We mention this story at the beginning of “In High Dungeon: And Other Moat Points,” a chapter in Origins of the Specious, a new book we’ve written to debunk common myths about the English language. In fact, the title of the chapter comes from another of Leonard’s puns.)

“Synecdoche” and “metonymy” are figures of speech in which one thing is used to represent another. In both of these rhetorical figures, the original term and the substitute are closely identified or associated with each other.

In this respect, “synecdoche” and “metonymy” are different from “metaphor,” in which the terms are unrelated yet imaginatively similar (as when you call your ’67 Pontiac “a boat”).

With, “synecdoche,” a part is used to represent the whole or vice versa. Examples commonly cited are the use of “hand” to mean a sailor and “the cavalry” to mean a single trooper. It’s pronounced sin-EK-duh-kee and comes from a Greek word meaning “to take with something else.” (“Schenectady,” the ninth-largest city in New York State, is pronounced skuh-NEK-tuh-dee.)

With “metonymy,” the substituted word is not a part (or an extension) of the original but something associated with it. Classic examples are “the crown” to represent the monarchy and “the sword” to represent military power. It’s pronounced met-ON-uh-mee and comes from a Greek word meaning “change of name.”

Here’s a simple illustration of the difference. A new guy at the office might be described as “a new face” (synecdoche) or as “a new suit” (metonymy).

If you’d like to read about a related subject, we wrote a  blog item last year about metaphors and similes.

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An oeuf is an oeuf: Are you myth informed?

(The Grammarphobia Blog is featuring five daily quizzes this week to mark the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. This quiz is about fractured French.)

(1) Is a nom de plume a pen name in France?

(2) Why don’t Frenchwomen wear brassières?

(3) Is “niche” pronounced NITCH or NEESH in English?

(4) What do the French shout when they want Sam to play it again?

(5) Are négligées worn in Parisian boudoirs?


(1) No, nom de plume is not a French expression. The British made it up in the 19th century. The French for an assumed name is nom de guerre or pseudonyme.

(2) The French term for what an English speaker calls a brassiere is soutien-gorge. In Paris, a brassière is usually a baby’s undershirt.

(3) NITCH is the traditional English pronunciation, but the Frenchified NEESH has been gaining in popularity, and dictionaries now accept both of them.

(4) The French shout Bis! or Une Autre! or Un Rappel! English speakers have shouted “Encore!” since the early 17th century, perhaps in an attempt to sound French.

(5) No, the French don’t call that frilly nightie a négligée. A Frenchwoman might wear a robe de chambre, a peignoir, or a chemise de nuit. The French verb négliger means to neglect, and a négligé is someone who’s careless or sloppy or poorly dressed.

For more on these and other myths about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore,, or Barnes&

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Full fathom five thy father lies

Q: I keep hearing people say they can’t “phantom” something. This must be wrong! Do they mean they can’t allow things to haunt them the way a bad usage haunts grammarphobes?

A: The word these people should be using is “fathom,” not “phantom.” This is a fabulous example of a malapropism, one I hadn’t noticed before. (I’ve already written about malapropisms on the blog.)

Since you emailed, I’ve found thousands of examples of this particular malapropism on the Internet, including these:

“I can’t phantom the thought of eating mac and cheese” … “I can’t phantom paying full-price” … “I can’t phantom why we should even entertain the idea of a Big 3 bailout” … “Some things like tragedy, disaster, sorrow, our mind can’t phantom.”

In all cases, “fathom” is the correct word, and a very interesting word it is!

Today the verb “fathom,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “to get to the bottom of, dive into, penetrate, see through, thoroughly understand.”

But when it first entered the language more than a millennium ago, it meant to encircle with outstretched arms. By the 1600s, people were using the verb “fathom” to mean to measure something by means of a person’s two arms, extended from the sides.

The word developed from the Old English faethm, which dates back to about 725, and was a noun meaning the length of the outstretched arms.

As the OED explains, a “fathom” once meant “the length covered by the outstretched arms, including the hands to the tip of the longest finger,” a measure later standardized at six feet and used to measure the depth of water.

In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1610 or 1611), for example, Ariel sings: “Full fathom five they father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade.…”

The noun “fathom” is now seen mostly in nautical terminology, where until the mid- to late-20th century it was used in charting depth soundings; a depth of 100 fathoms, for example, was 600 feet.

These days, international practice is to measure water depth in meters instead of fathoms, though many older charts still give soundings in fathoms.

Now we’ve gotten to the bottom of this one!

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Sense and sensitivity: Are you myth informed?

(The Grammarphobia Blog is featuring five daily quizzes this week to mark the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. This quiz is about politically correct facts and fictions.)

(1) Does the expression “rule of thumb” have anything to do with wife beating?

(2) Is it racist to “call a spade a spade”?

(3) Did the term “shyster” originate as an anti-Semitic allusion to Shylock?

(4) Is “wop” an acronym for “without papers” and was it used at Ellis Island to identify immigrants without proper documentation?

(5) Are male chauvinists responsible for the use of “he,” “him,” and “his” to refer to both men and women?


(1) No one has ever found an old English law allowing a husband to beat his wife with a rod no thicker than his thumb. The phrase “rule of thumb” refers to using body parts (hands, feet, thumbs, etc.) for rough measurements.

(2) “Call a spade a spade” has nothing to do with race. In its earliest versions, in ancient Greece, the saying was about figs and troughs, not spades. During the Renaissance, the Greek word for trough was mistranslated as the Latin word for spade.

(3) We can’t thank Shakespeare for “shyster.” We got it in the 19th century from a vulgar German word, scheisser, literally “one who shits,” or as an American would put it, an asshole.

(4) “Wop” has been a derogatory term for Italians since at least 1908, 10 years before immigration documents were required of newcomers. The term is derived from guappo, a word in Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects for a thug.

(5) If any one person is responsible for this usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book.

For more on these and other myths about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore,, or Barnes&

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I’m glad you axed

Q: I gotta axe you this question: What’s the origin of the wonderful pejorative “battleaxe”? (“Battleaxes” are always “old,” aren’t they?)

A: The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says “battle-ax,” meaning “a quarrelsome, unattractive, old, or domineering person; specif. a combative, domineering old woman,” can be traced to late-19th-century America.

It was first used, according to Random House and the Oxford English Dictionary, in George Ade’s novel Artie (1896): “Say, there was a battle-ax if ever you see one. She had a face on her that’d fade flowers.”

It’s an expression with staying power. Here’s a more recent usage, from Punch (1959): “Though slim as an arrow / A girl can wax / In the course of time / To a battle-axe.”

Battles, it seems, have loomed large in slang terms devoted to unpleasant women, whether old or young. Similar terms for such harpies (most of these are from Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang) were “battleship” (late 19th century), “battler” (1900s), “battle-cruiser” (1910s), and “battle wagon” (1940s).

The original “battle-ax,” the kind used in hand-to-hand combat, made its first appearance as an English phrase in about 1380, according to the OED.

Here’s the citation, from a medieval Scottish poem about the deathbed advice left by Robert the Bruce for the defense of his kingdom: “… bow, and spier, / And battle-axe, their fechting gear.”

And, by the way, it wasn’t always wrong to “axe” (or “ax”) for something. If you don’t believe us, check out this blog item.

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