English language Uncategorized

Stiff upper lips: 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 British vs. American English.)

(1) Did Americans once speak with British accents?

(2) Is the word “apartment” an American barbarism for the British term “flat”?

(3) Did the British ever use “gotten” as a past participle of the verb “get”?

(4) Which is older: “whilst,” which is commonly heard in Britain, or “while,” the preferred American version?

(5) Did Winston Churchill ever describe the US and England as “two nations divided by a common language”?


(1) The truth is the other way around. In many respects, the English spoke in the 17th and 18th centuries much the way Americans do today. The accent we now associate with educated British speech didn’t develop until after the American Revolution.

(2) “Apartment” was the usual word for a suite of rooms in 17th-century England. The British didn’t start using “flat” for a dwelling until the 1820s or so.

(3) At one time, English routinely used both “got” and “gotten” as past participles of the verb “get.” But after the two branches of English split in the 18th century, Americans retained both forms while the British abandoned “gotten.”

(4) Although “whilst” has an air of antiquity about it, “while” is actually the older word, dating back to the year 1000.

(5) No, but George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde made similar cracks.

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English language Uncategorized

I heard it through the grapevine

Q: I was in an NYC restaurant on the site of The Old Grapevine, a tavern that an article on the wall claimed to be the origin of the term for a rumor mill. The artists and intellectuals who hung out there would pass around rumors heard through the grapevine, according to this article. Is this true?

A: Sorry, but I haven’t found any evidence that The Old Grapevine is the source of the old slang usage, though it may have helped popularize it.

The use of “grapevine” to refer to a rumor mill began life in the mid-19th century as “grapevine telegraph,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Random House defines this usage as “any informal or unofficial method of relaying important or interesting information, esp. by word of mouth,” or “the means by which gossip or rumor travels.”

The first published citation for “grapevine telegraph” in Random House is from 1852: “By the Grape Vine Telegraph Line … we have received the following.”

Both the short and the long versions appear in this quote from 1862: “We get such ‘news’ in the army by what we call ‘grape vine,’ that is ‘grape vine telegraph.’ It is not all reliable.”

I’ve done lots of looking but haven’t found any solid historical evidence for a connection with the old tavern, only hearsay. What’s needed here are published references from that time.

A July 18, 1915, article in the New York Times about the closing of the old tavern makes great reading, but it has no mention of the pub’s connection with the use of the word “grapevine” to mean a rumor mill.

However, the pub and its name may have reinforced the slang usage. I found this in a footnote in a book called The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech, by Irving L. Allen (Oxford University Press, 1993), page 263:

“The mid-nineteenth-century expression on (or through) the grapevine (i.e., on or through a social network of rumor) is a self-evident metaphor probably taken from the image of a winding, spreading vine. But its popularity in New York may have been influenced by the name of The Old Grape Vine tavern that once stood on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street from 1838 to 1915. It was a hangout and gossip center for local artists, who naturally would have said they heard something ‘at the Grape Vine’ and, thus, make a clever pun.”

By the way, Marvin Gaye recorded the best-known version of the song “I Heard It Though the Grapevine” in 1968, but he wasn’t the first to make it a hit. The song, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, was a big winner for Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967.

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Good on ya, mate

Q: Where does the phrase “good on you,” or the Aussie version, “good on ya,” come from? I’ve used the Aussie rendition myself instead of “kudos.”

A: The exclamation “Good on you!” is associated with Australia, but according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, it’s “equally common in Ireland.” Some have suggested an origin in the Gaelic expression maith thú (“good to you,” “well done”).

The phrase originated in the 20th century as “a general expression of approbation, thanks etc; also abbr. to good,” Cassell’s says.

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English notes that the vocal emphasis is on the middle word: “on” (as in, “Good ON you!”). The book’s editor, Paul Beale, comments that the phrase is often shortened to something like “On ya!”

What is its ultimate origin? Here opinions differ.

Partridge says: “The phrase, although acknowledged to be quintessentially Australian, may well have been borrowed from Cockney: ‘Good on ’em!’ = good for them, well done!, appears in the caption of a Punch cartoon 10 Oct. 1917.”

But Cassell’s cites a source that has linked the phrase to an Irish expression, rinne sé mhaith orm, which means “he made/did his good on me.” Others, as we said above, have cited the Gaelic maith thú. Since “Good on you!” is common among the Irish, Gaelic seems the likelier origin.

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Talking the talk

Q: It seems to me there are two standards of pronunciation: one for public radio and another for the public at large. Examples: BY-oh-pic on NPR versus by-OP-ic everywhere else; car-NEGG-y on the radio versus “CAR-nuh-gee”; huh-RASS versus HAIR-us. It’s driving me crazy! Who’s correct?

A: The word “biopic” may look like a term in ophthalmology, but it’s not pronounced that way. It’s a relatively new word for a film biography, formed from the terms “bio” (pronounced BY-oh, for “biography”) and “pic” (for “picture”). It’s properly pronounced BY-oh-pic.

“Biopic” has been in use since the early 1950s, and we have the editors of Variety to thank. Here are a couple of early citations from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1951, from the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
” ‘Variety’ coins another word for show biz – ‘biopic,’ meaning a biographical film.”

1975, from the Toronto Globe & Mail: “Warners … dares to document the social problems of the time … educating an unsophisticated audience with its historical and medieval bio-pics.”

As for “Carnegie,” there are differences of opinion.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list two pronunciations: CAR-nuh-gee and (roughly) car-NAIG-gee.

Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland and pronounced his name as the Scots do, with the accent on the second syllable.

In his Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, he wrote that as boys, he and his cousin George Lauder called each other “Dod” and “Naig,” and that Carnegie was always “Naig” to his Scottish relatives.)

In Pittsburgh, where Carnegie made his reputation as a captain of industry, people still pronounce his name car-NAIG-ee (though when run together, it sounds more like car-NEGG-y).

But the far more common American pronunciation is CAR-nuh-gee. The first syllable is also stressed in the names of Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Dale Carnegie.

As for “harass,” it has two legitimate pronunciations – huh-RASS and HAIR-us. The choice is up to you – and NPR.

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English language Uncategorized

The stimulative power of cow chips

Q: In an economic discussion on WNYC, Brian Lehrer asked a guest which parts of the stimulus bill were most “stimulating.” He then corrected it to “stimulative.” It seems that many of us are using “stimulative” to refer to the economy, instead of “stimulating,” which I’d guess is more emotionally suggestive. Are there any interesting distinctions between the two words?

A: The adjective “stimulative” has been around for nearly 300 years, though it has largely been replaced in everyday usage by “stimulating.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “stimulative” means “having the property of stimulating; of a stimulating nature or character.”

It’s generally used in constructions with “of” or “to,” as in “the stimulative power of manure” (I’m not kidding; see below). Here are some citations given in the OED:

1791, from A Tour in England and Scotland in 1785, by Thomas Newte: “This would be like spreading the stimulative power of manure over large tracts of waste land.”

1836, from The Tin Trumpet, by Horatio Smith: “More stimulative of the risible faculties.”

1906, from Silanus the Christian, by E. A. Abbott: “This belief I found also stimulative to well-doing.”

By the way, “stimulative” has been a noun, too, but this usage is now labeled “rare or obscure” in the OED. Its job seems to have been taken over by “stimulant,” “stimulus,” and “incentive.”

But getting back to adjectives, “stimulating” is only slightly older than “stimulative.” Here are a few OED citations:

circa 1732, from John Gay’s Fables (the speaker here is an ox): “Urg’d by the stimulating goad, I drag the cumbrous waggon’s load.”

1873, from On Some Influences of Christianity Upon National Character, by R. W. Church: “The sentences of Seneca are stimulating to the intellect.”

1908, from Stewart of Lovedale, by James Wells: “Admirable and stimulating as he was as a preacher, Mr. Stewart was even more stimulating as a teacher.”

The OED doesn’t make much distinction between the two words. But “stimulating” does seem to convey emotional overtones (excitement and so on) that are lacking in “stimulative.”

Maybe all the commentary about the economic stimulus package will stimulate “stimulative” into making a comeback!

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