English language Uncategorized

A wonderful catastrophe

Q: Do you have any comments regarding why a word or phrase can completely reverse its meaning over time? For example, “hoi polloi” went from meaning the exclusive classes to the unwashed masses.

A: In fact, “hoi polloi” has meant the masses or the common people since classical times. Some folks erroneously believe it originally meant the elite, but that’s not true.

This misconception is probably the result of confusion with “hoity-toity,” an old expression that means, among other things, pompous or self-important. We recently wrote a blog item that touched on the expression “hoi polloi.”

As for your larger question, it’s true that words and phrases can change in such a way that their modern meanings become the reverse (or nearly so) of the originals.

The word “nice” is a good example. At various times in the past it has meant foolish, overly fastidious, wanton, and profligate. In other words, not very nice.

And “cute,” back in the days when it was short for “acute,” meant shrewd or perceptive or calculating (it has also meant bowlegged in regional American usage!).

“Sophisticated” once meant corrupted, and “silly” meant happy. Likewise, “awful” once meant deserving of awe; “terrible” meant terror-inducing; “wonderful” meant wonder-inducing.

So when you’re reading an 18th-century novel, it’s not surprising to find a magnificent cathedral described as “awful,” or a sudden catastrophe described as “wonderful,” or a fierce animal descrbed as “terrible.”

Why all this change? The reasons vary from word to word, but the short answer is that English is a work in progress.

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Catch words

Q: I was at a rent meeting where the term “catchment area” was used to describe a neighborhood. I thought it should be “cachement area,” along the lines of “cache,” the geeky word for memory storage. But when I tried to email someone about the meeting, the spell-checker suggested changing “cachement” to “catchment.” What’s the story?

A: Your email spell-checker is right this time. The correct word is “catchment,” not “cachement.”

I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the “cache” version catches on in this digital age. In fact, I got nearly 7,000 hits when I googled it, though that’s piddling compared with the nearly 5.5 million hits for “catchment.”

The term “catchment area” usually refers to a natural drainage area that “catches” or collects rainwater draining into a river or other body of water. It’s also called a “catchment basin.”

The shorter term “catch basin” usually refers to a receptacle that collects surface drainage or runoff. If you look under one of those grates that you see alongside roads, you’ll often find a catch basin.

The word “catchment,” in its drainage sense, entered English in the mid-19th century. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1847 book on hydraulic engineering: “A great portion of the catchment basin is very little raised above the level of the lake.”

But back to the rent meeting you attended and the usage you found so puzzling. Why is a neighborhood called a “catchment area”?

It turns out that in the mid-20th century the expression came to be used figuratively for a geographical region served by a specific school, hospital, or other institution.

In other words, the institution would “catch” students, patients, or whatever from its “catchment area.”

The first citation in the OED for this usage is from a 1959 article in the Times of London that describes the area served by the Leeds prison as a “catchment area” for the institution.

Of course one can catch lovers of whodunits as well as the crooks who’ve done it. A 1960 citation from a library journal defines “catchment area” as “the area from which readers may be expected to be drawn.”

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English language Etymology Usage

Double, double toil and trouble

Q: I’m noticing an increase in the use of doubled words for emphasis. I suspect that some of this doubled-wordiness is related to Rachel Maddow, who often says “really, really” on her MSNBC show. Is the use of a repeated word ever grammatically correct?

A: There’s nothing grammatically wrong with repeating a word once or twice for emphasis, but overdoing it can get tiresome and turn off listeners or readers.

Writers have been doubling and tripling words – adjectives, adverbs, verbs, pronouns, etc. – for hundreds of years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Dryden, for example, uses a tripled adjective in his 1697 ode “Alexander’s Feast”: “Happy, happy, happy pair! / None but the brave, / None but the brave, / None but the brave deserves the fair.”

In The Compleat Angler (1653), Izaak Walton includes a doubled adverb when he notes that the salmon “is very, very seldom observed to bite at a Minnow.”

Shakespeare uses a doubled verb to begin this passage from As You Like It (1600): “Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree / The fair, the chaste and unexpressive she.”

And of course the Three Witches do some doubling in Macbeth (written a few years later): “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

And a character in Thomas S. Surr’s 1806 novel A Winter in London employs a pair of tripled pronouns to explain why he’s using the first person: “I cannot unself or unsex myself sufficiently to write in the narrative form; it must be I – I – I, and all about me – me – me.”

As for “really,” people have been doubling it for more than a century.

The earliest citation in the OED is from a 1908 book by Granville G. Greenwood about questions concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s works: “Really, really, there must be some limits even to Stratfordian demands on our credulity!”

Is the usage being overused today? Probably. I got nearly 41 million hits when I googled “really, really,” and over 3 million more when I googled “really, really, really.”

But I don’t think you can blame Rachel Maddow for this. If you want to blame someone, blame the Spice Girls. In “Wannabe,” the group’s 1996 hit debut single, the girls sing: “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha.”

And that’s not all. The word “really” appears in the song 26 times — in singles, doubles, and triples. Really!

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Hidden in plain sight

Q: I was surprised that you didn’t mention “abscond” in your blog post about “nascond.” It was what I thought of as soon as I read the post, since both words have the same back half and similar meanings.

A: Thanks for pointing this out.

“Abscond,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered English in 1586 and originally meant to hide, conceal, or obscure. It has its roots in the classical Latin verb abscondere, meaning “to hide, conceal, to bury, immerse, to engulf, to keep secret.”

The Latin condere means to put together or to stow, and the preposition ab (which becomes abs before words starting with c) in this case means off, away, or from.

In the 1600s, the OED says, the English “abscond” acquired new meanings: “to hide oneself; to flee into hiding, or to an inaccessible place; to leave hurriedly and secretly, typically to elude a creditor, escape from custody, or avoid arrest.”

As for “nascond,” which was discussed in a May 10 blog item, the closest relative I can find is the Italian nascondere (to hide, conceal). The Italian word is derived from the Latin inabscondere, which in turn comes from abscondere (see the etymology above).

In the case of inabscondere, I assume that the prefix in isn’t a negative but rather serves as an intensifier or to convey the sense of inside or within. (Not all in prefixes in Latin are negative (inspirare, “to blow in,” inferre, “to bring in,” and many others).

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A burning question

Q: I am 58 years old and I learned back in sixth grade that “faggot,” the derogatory term for a gay man, is derived from a term for bundles of wood used to burn witches and anyone else thought to be evil. The last time I looked, Wikipedia pooh-poohed this idea. What’s the scoop?

A: When the word “faggot” first showed up in English around 1300, it meant simply a bundle of sticks, twigs, or small branches bound together for fuel, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

There was no suggestion that the resultant fire would be used to burn witches, heretics, or anyone else thought to be evil. The word is still used today in the sense of kindling, especially in Britain.

It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that the term was used in reference to the burning alive of heretics. The first citation in the OED, dating from around 1555, is by Hugh Latimer, an Anglican bishop.

In a collection of sermons and other writings, Latimer refers to “a few flying apostates, running out of Germany for fear of the fagot.” (Note that the term here refers to the kindling, not the heretics.)

In the late 16th century, “faggot” also came to be “a term of abuse or contempt applied to a woman,” according to the OED. The first citation for this usage is in a 1591 discourse on the immorality of Athens.

Thomas Lodge, the author of the discourse, uses the term “faggot” in reference to “an Athenian she handfull.” Why would a woman (even a “she handfull”) be called a “faggot”?

The word sleuth Dave Wilton, on his website, speculates that the usage “probably comes from the idea of a faggot being a burden or baggage (not unlike the modern ball and chain).”

Not until the early 20th century did the word “faggot” come to mean a male homosexual. The OED describes this usage as “slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.).”

The first published reference is from an entry in a 1914 slang dictionary: “Drag, Example: ‘All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.’ “

It’s no surprise, of course, that a term for a woman would one day be applied to a gay man. Another feminine term, “queen,” has been used since the 1890s to refer to a male homosexual.

“Fag,” in this sense, is simply an abbreviation of “faggot.” It’s been around since the 1920s.

In an early citation (from Death in the Afternoon, 1932), Hemingway sneers at “those interested parties who are continually proving that Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, etc. were fags.”

The noun “fag” has many other meanings today, especially in Britain. For example, it may refer to a cigarette or to a younger student who performs chores for an older one at an English public school.

Why is a public-school drudge called a “fag”? This meaning comes from the use of the verb “fag” in the sense of to work to exhaustion.

As for the cigarette sense, the OED suggests that it may be derived from the use of “fag” to mean something that hangs loose, as in the fag end of a piece of cloth. But where does this hanging-loose business come from?

It seems that an obsolete meaning of the verb “fag” was to droop, decline, or flag. The OED says this sense is of “obscure etymology,” but “the common view” is that it resulted from a corruption of the verb “flag.”

Enough already. I’m fagged, and it’s time for me to hang loose.

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Quotable and unquotable

Q: Is “unquote” proper in the expression “quote, unquote.” I hate it. Please tell me it should be “end quote.” Why would you want to unquote something that you’ve bothered to quote!

A: The expression “quote … unquote,” also written as “quote-unquote” or “quote, unquote,” has been in use for almost 100 years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The wording is “used in actual and reported speech to represent the beginning of a passage that one is quoting or purporting to quote,” the OED explains. The usage represents “opening and closing quotation marks around the quoted word or phrase.”

The first published citation listed is from a December 1918 article in a Connecticut newspaper, the Bridgeport Telegram: “Title of picture to be quote Watchful Waiting unquote.”

The OED also cites a 1921 reference from the Chicago Daily Tribune: “I knew her when she was a quote bear unquote period.” (Actually, that passage ought to read: “quote bear period unquote” but never mind!)

Although the early citations generally have “quote” before the quoted material and “unquote” after it, the entire phrase (“quote, unquote” or “quote-unquote”) is now often used in front of the quoted information.

Here’s an OED example of this front-loaded variation, from Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (2001), a collection edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes Rivera: “Occupation: jazz musician. Has clippings in pocket as quote-unquote proof.”

This information comes within the OED‘s entry for “quote” as a verb. The dictionary also lists “quote” as a noun meaning a quotation or a quotation mark (mostly in the plural).

Many usage experts frown on using “quote” as short for “quotation” or “quotation mark,” but these usages have been popular since the 1880s.

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On Language: All-Purpose Pronoun

Published July 26 in the New York Times Magazine

What can you say in 140 characters? On Twitter, that’s your limit per tweet. The Twitterati consider this the last word in writing lite, but they’ve devoted quite a few tweets to a venerable linguistic quest that has long thwarted old-media types: the search for an all-purpose pronoun that’s masculine or feminine, singular or plural. Scores of tweets in recent months — enough to inspire a CNN segment earlier this year — have agonized over the lack of a universal pronoun and bemoaned the verbal acrobatics it takes to say something like this in a nonsexist way: “Everybody thinks he’s hot” or “A texter worships his smart phone.”

Some of the suggestions? Combining his and her into hiser, and he and she into s/he or he/she or shhe. One tweeter asked plaintively, “Can we just accept that ‘they’ can be used as singular?” But another wrote, “I HATE it when people make improper use of plural pronouns for gender neutrality!” Several suggested writing around the problem (“Sometimes I try to alternate he and she, but bleh”). One tweet seemed to sum up the general attitude: “Damn you, English language!”

Traditionalists, of course, find nothing wrong with using he to refer to an anybody or an everybody, male or female. After all, hasn’t he been used for both sexes since time immemorial? Well, no, as a matter of fact, it hasn’t. It’s a relatively recent usage, as these things go. And it wasn’t cooked up by a male sexist grammarian, either.

If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.

The idea that he, him and his should go both ways caught on and was widely adopted. But how, you might ask, did people refer to an anybody before then? This will surprise a few purists, but for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine. Nobody seemed to mind that they, them and their were officially plural. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, writers were comfortable using they with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because it suggested a sexless plural.

Paradoxically, the female grammarian who introduced this he business was a feminist if ever there was one. Anne Fisher (1719-78) was not only a woman of letters but also a prosperous entrepreneur. She ran a school for young ladies and operated a printing business and a newspaper in Newcastle with her husband, Thomas Slack. In short, she was the last person you would expect to suggest that he should apply to both sexes. But apparently she couldn’t get her mind around the idea of using they as a singular.

In other matters, though, Fisher was eminently reasonable. Ever since English grammars began appearing in the late 1500s, for example, they were formed on the Latin model (the very word grammar originally meant the study of Latin). Fisher strongly condemned this classical bias and said that English suffered when it was forced into a Latin mold. She not only defended English against claims of inferiority but also said its lack of inflections and declensions (or, as she wrote, “needless perplexities” and “peculiarities”) was an advantage — a heretical view in its time. What’s more, she used plain words, calling a noun a “name” and an auxiliary verb a “helping verb.”

But alas, in swapping he for they, Fisher replaced a number problem with a gender problem. Since the 1850s, wordies have been dreaming up universal pronouns (thon, ne, heer, ha and others), but attempts to introduce them into the language have all flopped. “Among the many reforms proposed for the English language by its right-minded, upstanding and concerned users,” the linguist Dennis E. Baron has written, “the creation of an epicene or bisexual pronoun stands out as the one most often advocated and attempted, and the one that has most often failed.”

Meanwhile, many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars, never mind the grammarians. In fact, so many people now use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it. R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has written that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English: “The process now seems irreversible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already finds the singular they acceptable “even in literary and formal contexts,” but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) isn’t there yet.

It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural. But umbrage the grammarians took, and like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language. Yes, even those who use only 140 characters a pop.

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman are the authors of “Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.” William Safire is on vacation.

English language Uncategorized

On the road again

Q: I have been trying for years to get a definitive answer to the origin of the word “hobo.” There are some interesting theories, but nothing concrete. Can you shed any light on this truly important American cultural notion? I would be much obliged and quote you eternally!

A: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the only definitive answer to your question is that there is no definitive answer.

The word “hobo” first showed up in print in the northwestern United States in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation is from an 1889 article in the Ellensburgh (Washington) Capital: “The tramp has changed his name, or rather had it changed for him, and now he is a ‘Hobo.’ ”

Etymologists searching for the origin of the word “hobo” have come up with a lot of theories, some more likely than others, but none of them definitive.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang lists two “plausible” origins: (1) “hoe-boy,” a migratory farm hand; (2) “Ho, boy,” a term used by railroad mail handlers in the 1880s.

Random House notes, however, that there’s no paper trail for “hoe-boy,” and the documentation for “Ho, boy” is poor, though the expression has been traced to the 19th-century American Northwest, where “hobo” first appeared in print.

The dictionary also mentions an early, tantalizing use of “ho-boy” as a verb that seems to refer to traveling like a hobo.

Here’s the citation, from an 1848 article in the New Orleans Picayune: “A year’s bronzing and ‘ho-boying’ about among the mountains of that charming country called Mexico.”

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins lists “hoe boy,” “Ho, boy,” and one other possibility: “Hey, bo” (with “bo” a sarcastic corruption of the word “beau”).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds a couple of other hypothetical sources: “hawbuck” and “hawbaw,” 19th-century English dialect for a clumsy or coarse fellow.

I could go on. There are quite a few other theories, but most of them are too far-fetched to take seriously.

I’ll end this with an excerpt from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed., 1937):

“Tramps and hoboes are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.”

Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but not all questions have definitive answers.

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Invasive etymologies

Q: I live on Flag Swamp Road in a small town in northwestern Connecticut. I’ve been trying to no avail to learn whether the name of my street is a reference to the invasive yellow-flag iris or an old family called Flag, Flagg, Flagge, or something similar. Can you help?

A: The yellow-flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) is indeed an unwanted guest in swamps, marshes, and other wetlands in Connecticut, but the term “flag swamp” arrived in New England many years before the appearance of the invasive yellow flag.

The iris is believed to have been introduced in the region as a garden plant in the mid-1800s, according to the online Invasive Plant Atlas of New England.

The plant apparently began escaping from gardens and spreading to the wilderness in the second half of the 19th century.

The plant atlas mentions two early reports of yellow flags in the wild: the first in the Hudson River basin in 1868 and the second in Concord, Mass., in 1884.

However, the term “flag swamp” was in use in New England at least as far back as the early 1700s, well before the introduction of the iris.

A book on the history of Sunderland, Mass., for instance, says settlers referred to a wetland in the area as “flagg Swamp” in 1714.

And a book about the history of Falmouth, Mass., citing an anecdote “handed down by tradition” and “probably literally true,” suggests the term may have been in use even earlier than that.

The Falmouth book says the first settlers camped at a flag swamp in 1660. When a child was born at the encampment, the mother reportedly said, “He was born amongst the flags and his name shall be Moses.”

So where does the term “flag swamp” come from? That allusion to the biblical story about Moses in the bulrushes is a good clue.

When the noun “flag” first showed up in English in the 14th century, it referred to reeds, rushes, grasses, or other native wetland plants, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that the term came to be used for irises and other garden plants, but the older sense was still common until at least the late 19th century, according to published references in the OED.

Capt. John Smith, for example, used “flag” in the older sense in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624): “The chiefe root they haue for food is called Tockawhoughe. It groweth like a flagge in Marishes.”

I don’t know when your street was named, but an 1872 book about the early history of Woodbury and nearby towns in northwestern Connecticut mentions a “Flag Swamp, lying between Roxbury and Southbury.”

So, the term “flag swamp” was being used in your area of Connecticut at a time when the yellow-flag iris had barely begun escaping from cultivation and the older meaning of “flag” was in widespread use. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) still includes cattails and similar plants among its definitions of the noun “flag.”

Nevertheless, could a family called Flag, Flagg, Flagge, or whatever have been responsible for the naming of Flag Swamp Road in your town? Not likely.

Various “Flag”-type surnames have been common in New England, including eastern Connecticut, since Colonial times. But the name has been rarely seen in northwestern Connecticut, according to a survey of land and census records by Jeannine Green, a local historian in Litchfield County.

In short, the Flag Swamp Road in your town was almost certainly named for a swamp with wild rushes, reeds, or grasses, not for a family or an invasive iris.

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In a funk over thunk

Q: Is “thunk” a new word or did I miss out on this one in my 50-plus years? I hear it used now in reference to thinking. Example: “Who would have thunk?” It’s driving me insane.

A: Yes, the verb form “thunk” is a word, but it’s not a new one. The real question is whether it’s a legitimate word or not.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes it as a “nonstandard” past tense and past participle of the verb “think.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) calls it “dialect” for the past tense (“He thunk it looked funny”) and past participle (“I’ve thunk the same thing”).

However, I feel the Oxford English Dictionary gets to the heart of the matter by defining “thunk” as jocular dialect.

The OED‘s first published reference for the usage (spelled “thuongk’) is from an 1876 glossary of words in the mid-Yorkshire dialect in Britain.

But here’s a more interesting citation from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939): “I then tuk my takenplace lying down, I thunk I told you.”

Joyce apparently liked the usage. He liked it enough to use “thunk” not only as a verb but also as a noun meaning a thinking session. Here’s a citation from Ulysses (1922): “Have a good old thunk.”

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “thunk” is of US origin, but Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says it’s Canadian. I lean toward Yorkshire, the source of the first citation in the OED.

Interestingly, this “nonstandard” usage is older than the “standard” use of “thunk” as a noun for a dull, hollow sound, or as a verb for making that sound. The audible “thunk” dates from the mid-20th century.

So is it OK to use “thunk” as a past tense or past participle of “think”? If you think it’s the legitimate past tense or past participle, no. But if you’re trying to be funny, yes.

Even so, “Who would have thunk?” and similar expressions are getting a bit tired these days. It might be time to have a good old thunk in search of a fresher way to be funny.

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In years gone by

Q: Is “for” or “in” preferred in a sentence like this one: “I haven’t seen him in/for years.” I believe “for” is more common in Britain, while “in” is more common in the US.

A: The prepositions “in” and “for” have both been used since at least the 1400s to indicate durations of time. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary gives “for” as a meaning of “in” when used this way.

Although this “in” usage was once seen only in negative sentences (like the one you mention), it’s now used both negatively and positively, according to the OED.

The dictionary doesn’t label this usage as slang or as an Americanism. In other words, it’s standard English on both sides of the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, it’s clear from googling “I haven’t seen him in years” and “I haven’t seen him for years” that “for” is indeed much more common on UK websites, while both “in” and “for” are commonly used on US sites.

The first published reference in the OED showing “for” used to indicate the length time is in a medieval mystery play dating from around 1450: “Who seyth oure ladyes sawtere dayly for a yer thus.”

The earliest OED citation for “in” used this way is from Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1470-85): “He made them to swere to were none harneis in a twelue monethe and a day.”

But that’s just the beginning. The dictionary has a dozen citations for the “in” usage over 500 years, including a March 1, 1669, diary entry in which Samuel Pepys writes of returning “to Westminster Hall, where I have not been, I think, in some months.”

All the print references are negative until this one from a 1971 article in the Daily Telegraph that refers to the “first bridge across the Bosphorus in 2,300 years.”

That was the last British citation for the “in” usage. The two OED citations since then – one positive and the other negative – are from American sources.

The negative one is from Ed McBain’s novel Sadie When She Died (1972): “Arlene said that she had not played tennis in three years.”

The positive cite is from a 1973 article in Scientific American: “When Mariner 9 reached Mars on November 13, 1971, the greatest dust storm in more than a century was raging.”

In summary, it’s OK to use either preposition in a sentence like “I haven’t seen him in/for years.” But “for” seems to be more popular in Britain today, while both “in” and “for” are common in the United States.

By the way, I’ve written several blog entries about differences between American and British English, including one about the use of prepositions.

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A storied usage

Q: Two years ago I noticed “storied” rearing its head. “Aha,” I thought, “someone has figured out a way to get out of the ‘famous’ trap,” the trap being that you can’t call someone “famous,” because if he or she really is famous, you don’t need to say it. But “storied” is ever worse. “Famous” has its antipode, “infamous.” But “storied” doesn’t tell you anything, except this is someone or something often written about. Am I being a total crank?

A: My opinion is that this craze, too, will pass. Once “storied” becomes worn around the edges (and it must be getting there considering all the websites that have glommed on to it), people will go back to “fabled” and “legendary,” which used to drive me up the walls when I was an editor.

I wouldn’t, however, expect that we’ll ever see the last of “storied.” It’s had a long and at times storied history as an adjective and a past participle.

When it first appeared in print in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “ornamented with scenes from history or legend by means of sculpture, painting, needlework or other art; also, inscribed with a legend or memorial record.”

The OED’s first published reference for this usage is from one of the first illustrated books printed in England, William Caxton’s Myrrour of the Worlde (1481), which refers to “precyous bookes richely lymned storyed and wel adoubed.”

Alexander Pope was the first writer to use “storied” in the sense of “celebrated or recorded in history or story,” according to the ­OED.

In his 1725 translation of the Odyssey, Pope writes of the disasters that befall Odysseus: “Recite them! nor in erring pity fear / To wound with storied grief the filial ear.”

And speaking of the desperation for fresh (ha!) words in this general category, have you noticed the use of “infamous” to mean “famous” or “celebrated”? Perhaps people think the prefix is an intensifier rather than a negative. I wrote a blog entry a while back on this use of “infamous.”

Are you being cranky? Well, perhaps. But why not?

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Watering holes

Q: I was in West Virginia for a wedding at a stately old stone mansion. On the property was a wooden structure built over a water spring. I am wondering if the term “watershed” had its origin in this type of wooden shed.

A: A wooden shed over a spring may indeed be described as a water shed, but it isn’t the origin of the English word “watershed,” meaning a high point between two river systems, or a region that drains into a body of water.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the English term may have been influenced by wasserscheide, an equivalent word that has been in use in Germany since the 14th century. In the earliest published references in English, the term has the sense of a high point.

The first reference in the OED is from an 1803 collection of essays published by the Highland Society of Scotland: “This is a very high inland tract, being the water-shed of the country between the two seas.” (I’ve modified the citation a bit, based on the original text.)

Here’s another early OED citation, from Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1845): “The line of Water-shed which divides the inland streams from those on the coast, has a height of 3000 feet.”

The first OED citation for the use of “watershed” in a more general sense (“whole gathering ground of a river system”) is from an 1874 book on ornithology: “The Missouri Region, in its broadest sense, as embracing the whole watershed of that great river and its tributaries.”

Again, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Your suggestion is interesting, but it doesn’t hold water.

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Hyphenating rhythms

Q: Why do the NY Times and The New Yorker insist on hyphenating “teen-ager”?

A: Some words are like small construction projects. These compound terms start out life as different parts, but get mushed together (first with hyphens, then without) as they become more familiar.

For instance, the earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the adjective “teenage” shows it as two words.

Here’s the citation, from a 1921 article in a Canadian newspaper: “All ‘teen age’ girls of the city are cordially invited to attend the mass meeting to be held this evening.”

The next reference (from a 1935 issue of the journal American Speech) joins the two parts with a hyphen: “The dress is probably slinky and suitable for the teen-age group.”

Finally, a 1977 cite from the quarterly Daedalus has the term without a hyphen: “Society may wish to eliminate teenage street corner gangs, but this does not lead sociologists to write articles on the optimal techniques for eliminating such gangs.”

We’ve simplified this process somewhat. In the real world, English can be a messy business.

As for “teenager,” it’s hyphenated in the first published reference in the OED (from a 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly): “I never knew teen-agers could be so serious.”

But less than two decades later, Kingsley Amis drops the hyphen in his comic novel Take a Girl Like You (1960): “Jenny thought to herself that here she was nearly twenty-one, and instead of having been a teenager all she had managed to do was spend a certain amount of time getting from the age of twelve to the age of twenty.”

Since then, the trend has been toward a hyphenless “teenager,” but some publications have been slower than others to get with the program.

The New Yorker is definitely a slowpoke, as witness this Nov. 3, 2008, headline: “Red Sex, Blue Sex / Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?”

The New York Times, however, isn’t quite so poky. The latest Times stylebook (published in 1999) has “teenager” without a hyphen, though a search of the paper’s archive suggests that a few copy editors haven’t gotten the message.

[Update, April 30, 2019: The New Yorker continues to hyphenate “teen-age” and “teen-ager,” but the New York Times does not.]

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Is this something to lose sleep over?

Q: What is the history of the phrase “this, that, and the other thing”? I find it to be one of the most vacuous expressions in the English language. I have a near visceral reaction when it falls upon my ears.

A: Well, this may not be the meatiest of expressions, but the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t consider it quite as empty as you do.

The OED defines the phrase “this, that, and the other” as meaning every possible or every imaginable or every sort of. It’s listed in a group of phrases contrasting “this” and “that.”

In fact, English speakers have been pairing “this” and “that” in expressions since the 14th century. For example, John Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis (1390) says: “In ech of hem he fint somwhat / That pleseth him, in this or that.”

The first published reference for “this, that, and the other thing” in the OED is from Sir Walter Scott’s novel St. Ronan’s Well (1824): “I am sure I aye took your part when folk miscaa’d ye, and said ye were this, that, and the other thing.”

The OED has a more recent citation from the Ngaio Marsh mystery Artists in Crime (1938): “It’s a bit awkward what with this and that and the other thing.”

I’m not especially bothered by this expression. Is it vacuous? Well, I usually hear it used loosely in the sense of every sort of, rather than with the somewhat more precise meaning of every possible or every imaginable.

So, you may have a point. But I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over it.

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You can’t take it with you

Q: I asked you on the air about “spendthrift,” which means the opposite of what one might think, and you promised to look into it. Have you discovered why this odd thing happened?

A: Yes, it’s one more example of the many puzzles, surprises, and muddles that have resulted from changes in our ever-changing language.

The word “spendthrift” refers to someone who spends money recklessly, not wisely as one might expect from the modern meaning of “thrift,” the careful or frugal management of money and other resources.

But in the early 1600s, when “spendthrift” first showed up in English, “thrift” meant, among other things, wealth or savings. Thus, someone who spent his wealth, rather than saved it, was a spendthrift.

Shakespeare uses both “thrift” and “spendthrift” in these senses: “thrift” to mean wealth and “spendthrift” to mean someone who wastes it – that is, if you consider one’s words to be valuables.

In The Merchant of Venice (1596-98), for example, Shylock remarks that “thrift is a blessing, if men steal it not.” And in The Tempest (1610-11), Antonio says: “Fie, what a spendthrift is he of his tongue!”

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “spendthrift” is from a 1601 English translation of Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis: “What would he have cost our prodigal spendthrifts, if hee had been taken upon our coasts neere Rome?”

Finally, here’s a 1670 quote from Dryden: “Thus, as some fawning Usurer does feed / With present Sums th’unwary Spendthrift’s Need.”

As I said, “spendthrift” is just one example of the confusion sowed by changes in the language. In my latest book, Origins of the Specious, I discuss many myths and misconceptions that have resulted from the evolution of English.

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Steep learning curves

Q: I recently came across a blog post about a struggling rookie football player “experiencing a steep learning curve.” The author clearly intended to say the athlete faced a long, difficult learning process. However, it’s my understanding that a steep learning curve would depict learning something very quickly. Why not replace this inaccurate cliché with “steep hill to climb”?

A: Technically, you’re right. A learning curve is a graph that represents the rate of mastering a skill against the time required to master it. A steep learning curve would therefore show the quick and easy mastery of a skill.

The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define the term “learning curve” in pretty much this way.

But the people who actually speak and write the English language generally seem to use “learning curve” in a figurative way that has little to do with its technical meaning.

Thus, a “steep learning curve” in common parlance refers to the difficulty of learning something.

In a search of the New York Times archive, I found 108 references to “steep learning curve” since 1981. I checked out a few dozen, and all of them used the expression in the “inaccurate” figurative way.

I suspect that the lexicographers at my favorite dictionaries are a bit behind the curve here, and that they’ll eventually catch up with the rest of us.

I agree with you, however, that “steep learning curve” has become a bit of a cliché and that perhaps we should give it a rest. I’m not sure that a “steep hill to climb” is the answer.

In looking for a better way to describe such a challenging situation, you may face a steep learning curve.

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… and yes I said yes I will Yes

Q: I was appalled at your nonchalance on WNYC about the use of “absolutely” in place of a simple “yes.” Surely this is a juvenile ramping up of ordinary conversation, usually for no valid reason. Example: “Do you want fries with that? ABSOLUTELY!” Consider this new ending of Ulysses: “… and absolutely I said absolutely I will Absolutely.”

A: I don’t remember exactly what I said on WNYC about using “absolutely” in place of a simple “yes,” but I’m sorry that you found it appalling. (Nevertheless, your version of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy made me laugh!)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “absolutely” for “yes” as colloquial, but cites published references for it by major writers going back nearly two centuries.

Here’s a citation from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): “Is such really the state of matters between you and Rivers?” “Absolutely, sir!”

And here’s one from Mark Twain’s The American Claimant (1892): “Do you mean to say that if he was all right and proper otherwise you’d be indifferent about the earl part of the business?” “Absolutely.”

Also, Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth (1917): “But, sir, was it true to Harrow life?” “Absolutely; and it’s as true to the life of any other Public School.”

More recently, here’s Rex Stout’s The Red Box (1937): “I trust that we are still brothers-in-arms?” “Absolutely. Pals.”

I see nothing wrong with using “absolutely” in place of plain “yes” once in a while in speech or informal writing, but I wouldn’t recommend overdoing it. Once in a while, yes, but not every other sentence.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. If you miss a program, get the podcast on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Don’t count on it!

Q: Is the English language growing or shrinking? And is the rate of evolution faster or slower than in the past? I’m a scientist, not a linguist, but I’m familiar with statistics and I’ll take a swing at reading anything.

A: It’s difficult to answer your questions precisely because nobody knows quite how to count all the words in English. They’re literally countless. Here’s how I explain the problem in my latest book, Origins of the Specious, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman:

“Is ‘sleep’ one word or two (a noun as well as a verb)? Is “sleeps” yet another one (or two)? Does “sleepy” count as a separate word? And should we count the gazillion (give or take) scientific and medical and technological terms (‘2,4,5-Trimethylbenzaldehyde,’ for example) that only specialized dictionaries include, not to mention all the acronyms and abbreviations and texting wrds and so on? The lexicographers at Oxford University Press, publisher of the OED, think we probably have a quarter to three-quarters of a million English words, minus all those 2,4,5-Trimethyl-whatevers—way more than French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, and so on.”

But back to your questions.

Is English growing? The linguist Mark Liberman wrote an interesting item about this on the Language Log website back in 2003. Liberman said it was “almost impossible” to count “in any useful way” the number of new words that enter English each year.

“Nevertheless,” he added, “it’s easy to come up with some specific numbers that are not completely devoid of interest.”

One number is his estimate that the Oxford English Dictionary was adding about 2,500 to 3,000 new items a year. He said lexicographers were undoubtedly aware of other new words that didn’t make it into dictionaries, but he doubted that the total number of new coinages or borrowings was more than 5,000 a year.

Is this rate of change faster or slower than in the past? Well, if 2,500 words were added to English each year since the early Anglo-Saxon era 1,500 years ago, we’d now have about 3.75 million words. However, the online OED – the granddaddy of English dictionaries – had “only” 616,500 main entries and derivative word forms as of 2005.

So, yes, we do now seem to be gaining words at a faster clip, though I suspect that the rate of increase has gone up and down over the years. I had a blog item earlier this year about the myth that English was about to reach – or had reached – a million words.

Another complication here is that we’re losing as well as gaining words. But when is a rare word considered lost? Many terms listed in dictionaries as obscure or archaic are still occasionally used. Should we count them or not? H-m-m.

Over all, though, we seem to be gaining more words than we’re losing, the linguist Morris Swadesh suggests in The Origin and Diversification of Language (1971), edited by Joel F. Sherzer.

“Since human cultures have tended to acquire more and more artifacts and concepts, one of the main directions of change in lexicon has been expansion,” Swadesh writes. “In English, for example, dictionaries of the epoch of Beowulf list some thousands of meaningful items, or lexemes, as against hundreds of thousands today.”

By comparison, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), by Samuel Johnson, had nearly 43,000 words, and Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) had 70,000 words.

I’m sorry that I can’t be more precise, but this is a case where the math really is fuzzy.

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Attention, please

Q: I recently came across an article in the Atlantic that described readers in the digital age as “ADD’ed out on an infinitude of choices.” I haven’t seen another example of this initialism used as a participial adjective. Have you? I don’t expect the usage to be widely taken up, but I rather like it.

A: I hadn’t noticed this evolution of the abbreviation for Attention Deficit Disorder. And it doesn’t yet appear to be on the radar of the language types who track such linguistic UFOs.

However, a bit of googling has produced a few dozen examples (spelled a variety of ways) of “ADD out” used as an intransitive verb (“I ADD’d out on it”), a past participle (“you have definitely a.d.d.’ed out”), and as an adjectival phrase (“the ADD’d-out techno-junkie”).

It’s probably politically incorrect for me to say so, but I agree with you: I rather like this usage too.

I’ll bet we soon hear about this hyped-up initialism on language websites. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term “initialism,” it refers to an abbreviation formed from the first letters of the words in a phrase.)

Will this usage have staying power? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t count it out!

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Seasonal employment

Q: This one has been driving me crazy. In my first 45 years, I always heard TV meteorologists say “seasonal” with regard to weather conditions. Now, I hear them all saying “seasonable.” Which is correct and why?

A: I can see why you’re confused.

“Seasonal” and “seasonable” are both legitimate words, and they do overlap a bit. But they have somewhat different meanings when talking about the weather and other things that vary with the seasons.

The adjective “seasonal” refers to things that depend on, or occur in, specific seasons of the year. Example: “Hurricanes are seasonal in Florida.” In other words, hurricanes occur in Florida during the hurricane season, from June 1 to Nov. 30.

The word “seasonable” refers to something that is timely or appropriate to the season. Example: “Heavy rains are seasonable during the hurricane season.” In other words, you can get heavy rains at any time of the year, but they’re likely during the hurricane season.

That’s the short answer to your question. You can stop here. But read on if you’d like to find out more about these two tricky words.

“Seasonal” is relatively new, as words go. It was first recorded in print in the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and meant “pertaining to or characteristic of the seasons of the year, or some of them.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Robert Mudie’s book Man, in His Physical Structure and Adaptations (1838): “The call of the partridge – the seasonal song of the nightingale.”

Today, we use “seasonal” to describe things that vary from season to season, depend on the seasons, or are typical of them (as in “seasonal migrations” and such).

The adjective “seasonable” is hundreds of years older. It made its first published appearance around 1380 in a sermon by the English theologian John Wycliffe.

When Wycliffe wrote that “tyme is lesse sesounable, and charite withdrawen,” according to the OED, the meaning was “suitable to the time of year.”

A similar meaning, “occurring at the right season, opportune,” was first recorded around 1412. And today we also use “seasonable” to describe something that’s timely, occurring at the proper time, or suitable to the season or circumstances.

So it’s correct to describe as “seasonable” anything (weather, for instance) that’s appropriate to the season.

However, there are right and wrong ways to use “seasonable.”

The OED notes that “seasonable” is sometimes erroneously used in place of “seasonal” when describing workers or trades dependent on a particular season.

The dictionary cites this line from a Glasgow newspaper in 1923 as an erroneous usage: “Persons engaged in seasonable trades in which the duration of seasonable employment is too short to enable them to qualify for benefit.”

It also has an excerpt from a letter to The Listener in early January 1980: “Will the BBC please note that the word they want is ‘seasonable,’ not ‘seasonal.’ One has seasonable items like mince pies and carols; ‘seasonal’ is applied to rainfall and fluctuations in car sales, i.e., things that happen with the changing seasons.”

That letter-writer’s view may be a bit narrow, however. We in the states (and our retail outlets) often describe tinsel and holiday gift wrap and pumpkins and turkeys and Valentine cards as “seasonal” merchandise.

That description seems accurate to me: tinsel, Valentine cards, and so on are dependent on particular seasons. Their appearance could, of course, be called “seasonable” as well: timely and appropriate to the season.

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Tickled to death

Q: I think of the past participle of “slay” as “slain,” but a recent item on USA Today’s website referred to people who think “they’ve slayed the dragon” by beefing up security. Any comments?

A: The USA Today writer should have used “slain” (unless the dragon was tickled to death).

When “slay” means to kill, the principal parts of the verb are “slay” (present), “slew” (past), and “slain” (past participle), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

But when “slay” is used in the sense of to overwhelm (as with laughter), the dictionary says, “slayed” is “often” used for the past tense and past participle. The past participle is the form of a verb used with “has,” “have,” or “had.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) agrees somewhat. It says “slayed” is “also” used instead of “slew” for the past tense, “especially” when the meaning is “to delight or amuse immensely.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has only one published reference for “slayed” used in the sense of tickled to death: “Well, anyways, my dear, it simply slayed me” (Just Between Us Girls, 1927, by Lloyd Mayer).

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A few things to chew on

Q: I’d like to know whether the following sentence is correct: “I stayed there in front of the door, ruminating my sourness, until I heard them take their leave.” It feels to me as if it should be “ruminating on,” but my writing partner disagrees.

A: The verb “ruminate” can be transitive (“She’s ruminating her future”) as well as intransitive (“She’s ruminating” or “She’s ruminating on her future”).

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for both usages going back to the 16th century. In fact, Shakespeare’s characters “ruminate” both transitively (with a direct object) and intransitively (without one).

In Titus Andronicus (1588), for example, Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, uses “ruminate” with the direct object “plots”: “Knock at his study, where, they say, he keeps, / To ruminate strange plots of dire revenge.”

In Henry VIII (1613), the Surveyor uses the word without a direct object: “The monk might be deceived; and that ’twas dangerous for him / To ruminate on this so far.”

The word “ruminate” is derived from the Latin ruminare (to chew the cud), and the English verb is still sometimes used that way: “The Holsteins are ruminating in the field.”

The cud, by the way, is the regurgitated grass chewed by those grazing Holsteins and other ruminants (sheep, goats, deer, etc.)

The word “ruminate” was first used in English in its literal — that is, bovine — sense in 1547, says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

But it was used even earlier, as far back as 1533, to mean “turn over and over in the mind” or “meditate deeply upon,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

One last thing to chew on: The earliest published reference in the OED for the noun “rumination” is from Shakespeare. In As You Like It (1588-1600), Jaques tells Rosalind of “my travels, in which my often / rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.”

Are you puzzled by that reference to “humorous sadness”? In Shakespeare’s day, “humorous” (derived from the bodily humors or fluids) meant moody, fanciful, or peevish.

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The missionary pronunciation

Q: I’ve wondered about this ever since I was a schoolchild many years ago: When did we start pronouncing “Christ” with a long “i”?

A: In Old English and Middle English, the name was Crist (“the anointed one”); the “ch” spelling didn’t become standard until after 1500, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The word is an Anglicization of the Greek title Kristos (Latin Christus), meaning “anointed.” In the classical languages, the first vowel had a short “i” sound (as in “mist”).

The name was pronounced with a short “i” in Old English too – until Irish missionaries in England in the 600s and 700s encouraged the long “i” pronunciation (as in “heist”).

I haven’t been able to find out why the missionaries did this. However, the derivatives “Christian,” “Christmas,” and all the rest kept the short “i.”

German, by the way, retains the old short-“i” pronunciation. The name Kriss Kringle comes from the German Christkindl (German for “Christ child”). In German, “Christ” sounds like “Kriss” with a “t” at the end.

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Nobody fixes grits like Mom

Q: Being from the south, we eat grits on a fairly regular basis, and the discussion inevitably turns to telling the chef (I use that term loosely) how good the day’s preparation tastes. So here’s the question: “The grits is good” or “The grits are good”? (Of course, nobody fixes grits like Mom.)

A: The word “grits” is considered a plural noun, but it can be used with either a plural or a singular verb, according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

So it’s acceptable to say either “The grits are good” or “The grits is good.” I like “are” better myself.

You may be surprised to learn that “grits” is a very, very old word with roots in the early days of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons.

The word was written as grytt when it was first recorded in English around the year 700, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The plural was grytta or gretta. It originally meant bran, chaff, or mill dust, but that sense is now obsolete.

By the 16th century, the term was being used for oats that had been husked but not ground or oats that had been ground coarsely – that is, coarse oatmeal.

In the United States, of course, “grits” usually refers to corn, not oats. The first citation in the OED for this usage is from 1886, but Merriam-Webster’s gives 1876 as the earliest date for “hominy grits.”

As for “hominy” (hulled, dried, and boiled corn), it’s believed to come from an Algonquin word for parched corn, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The word (spelled “homini”) first showed up in 1629 in the writings of Capt. John Smith, who refers to “Milke Homini, which is bruized Indian corne pounded, and boiled thicke, and milke for the sauce.”

Finally, here’s a yummy quote from The Yearling, the 1938 novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: “Jody heaped his plate. There were grits and gravy, hot cakes, and buttermilk.”

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Keeping score

Q: I’ve always assumed that “know the score” is a sports expression, but a friend of mine used it in reference to a violinist performing the Brahms Concerto in D. So did it originate in the sporting or musical worlds?

A: I think your friend may have unwittingly – or perhaps wittingly – made a nice pun! “Score” itself is an interesting word, so I’ll back up a bit before getting to your question.

The noun “score” originally meant a cut or a notch, and the verb meant to cut or notch something, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. These senses are still alive and well, of course.

Both noun and verb were first recorded around 1400. But we know the word was around much earlier than that.

The OED says a “score” meant a group of 20 as far back as 1100, apparently from the practice of counting large herds of sheep or cattle, and making a “score” or notch on a stick at every 20 animals.

In the 1200s, the verb “score” in the counting sense meant to record debts. The amount owed was “scored” (that is, cut or scratched) on a tally of some kind: notches in a stick or marks on a slate, for instance. In those days, a “score” at a public house was a bar tab.

Here’s a humorous citation from Chaucer’s The Shipman’s Tale (1386), in which a husband tries to get money from his wife. She replies: “For I wol paye yow wel and redily / Fro day to day, and if so be I faille, / I am youre wyf; score it upon my taille, / And I shal paye as soone as ever I may.”

Soon the word was being used to mean “count” in a more general way: to record a number of anything.

And in 1742 the verb “score” came to mean adding points to one’s game; the first published use was in Edmond Hoyle’s A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. From card games, “score” made a short jump to team sports in the mid-19th century.

Meanwhile, back once more to the Middle Ages. Another early meaning of “score” was to mark something with a line or lines.

This sense of the word later gave us the musical meanings: a “score” is music written on lined paper with the staves connected by vertical lines; to “score” a ballet or movie or whatever is to write music for it.

So where does “know the score” come into the picture?

Both Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English claim the expression grew out of sports imagery. But the OED doesn’t say as much, and I’m not convinced.

The OED traces the use of “score” to mean “the essential point “ or “the state of affairs” to the late 1930s. The citation given for this sense is from the journal Better English (1938), in which the word “dope” is defined as “a guy who doesn’t know the score.”

Does the guy fail to “know the score” in the game sense, or in the more general sense of what it all adds up to? We don’t know.

The musical “score” is probably out of the running. But as with so many expressions, it’s difficult to tell the original source of this one.

Sorry I can’t be more definitive.

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More than you know

Q: On a professional blog, I criticized someone for saying “one of the most.” Shouldn’t it be either “the most” or “one of the more”?

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “one of the” plus a superlative, as in “one of the most” or “one of the best” or “one of the worst.”

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with using “one of the” plus a comparative, as in “one of the more” or “one of the better” or “one of the worse.”

Since the late 18th century, the convention has been to use the comparative (the intermediate degree of comparison) when two things are being compared, and the superlative (the extreme degree of comparison) for three or more.

However, the so-called “superlative of two” – as in “she’s the oldest” when there are only two people – has a long history and is common in everyday usage.

Aside from this sort of comparison, where one side of the equation consists of a single member, there are comparisons where groups are compared with groups.

For example, I might say, “That’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.” The meaning is that I’ve tasted many good things: some good, some better, and some best. And while this may not be THE best, it is AMONG the best.

Here’s a further example. I might say, “That’s one of the most frightening movies I’ve ever seen.” The meaning is that I’ve seen many frightening movies: some merely frightening, some more frightening, and some most frightening. And while this may not be THE most frightening, it is AMONG the most frightening.

In case you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog item last year about comparatives and superlatives.

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Watch words

Q: Why do we watch things “on” television, but we watch them “at” a movie house and “from” the balcony of a theater?

A: English has an incredible array of prepositions, and it often seems that we have far more than we need!

Generally, when we talk about the place where we do the viewing, we use “at,” as in “I watched the movie AT home … or AT the movie theater … or AT Jennifer’s.”

When we talk about the medium on which we view the movie, we generally use “on,” as in “I watched it ON my new flat-panel TV … or ON DVD … or ON film.”

When we talk about the position from which we watched something, we usually use “from,” as in “I watched FROM the 50-yard line … or FROM the third row … or FROM my armchair.”

I wrote a blog entry a while back about some of the oddities of prepositions.

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Graphic arts

Q: I’ve had many discussions with people (including some New York Times writers) who misuse the term “graphic designer” by adding “s” to “graphic.” We don’t say “dresses designer,” do we?

A: When I worked at the Times, editors on the Culture Desk used the term “antiques dealer” rather than “antique dealer.” I suppose the thinking was that the person was a dealer in antiques, not an antique himself.

But I feel that if no misunderstanding is possible, a phrase like “graphic designer” is fine. To my ear, “graphics designer” sounds unnecessarily fussy. Let common sense and your ear be your guide. Go with what sounds idiomatically right.

In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists “graphics” as a noun and “graphic” as an adjective. The dictionary also has separate entries for “graphic arts,” “graphic design,” “graphic novel,” etc.

And if those Times writers you mentioned insist on using “graphics designer,” you might mention (tactfully, of course) that the Times stylebook says the phrase should be “graphic designer.”

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Vowel mouthed

Q: I was on Facebook the other day when this ad popped up: “Are you smarter then the President? Take our IQ test to see.” I see this “than/then” mistake more and more, and it drives me crazy (not a far drive – more like walking distance). I know languages evolve. Should I just relax and accept this vowel movement?

A: You’re right, of course, that English is always evolving, but not in this case. The words “than” and “then” are similar only in the way they sound.

I explain the difference between them this way in my grammar book Woe Is I: “If you’re comparing or contrasting things, use than, as in more than or less than. If one thing follows or results from another, use then (as in, Look, then leap).”

Here’s an example I give of the two words at work: The next morning, Paolo was sicker than a dog. He took some aspirin, then went back to bed. “If gin disagrees with you, then avoid it,” said Francesca.

As I say in Woe Is I, if a sentence like “He’s taller then his brother” doesn’t make your hair stand on end, you should go stand in the corner. Not you, of course! But you might be interested in a blog item I wrote last summer about “than I” versus “than me.”

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A judgment call

Q: Now that Sonia Sotomayor has been named a candidate to the Supreme Court, I have a question: Is she a “Latina” or a “Hispanic”? The talking heads on television have been using those two words interchangeably. She was born in the Bronx, but her roots are from Puerto Rico.

A: The short answer is that a case could be made for using either one. If we had to choose between them, however, we’d go with “Latina.” Here’s our reasoning.

The noun “Hispanic” (derived from Hispania, Latin for the Iberian Peninsula) is considered the more far-reaching term, referring to a male or female person who has roots in any country where Spanish is spoken.

(Although the Iberian Peninsula includes Portugal, the term “Hispanic” is generally not used to refer to people with roots in Portuguese-speaking countries.)

The noun “Latina” is thought to be a short form of Latinoamericana, Spanish for (among other things) a female Latin American. The noun “Latino” is believed to be a short form of Latinoamericano, Spanish for a male Latin American, one whose sex is unknown, or in the plural Latin Americans of both sexes.

Both “Hispanic” and “Latina” are widely used in English for a woman living in the United States who has roots in a country where Spanish is spoken.

The New York Times, for example, has used both “Latina” and “Hispanic” in referring to Judge Sotomayor.

The Times stylebook’s entries on “Latino” and “Hispanic” say the two words, as both nouns and adjectives, can refer to someone with roots in a Spanish-speaking land or culture. Here’s an excerpt from the 1999 stylebook:

“The use of Latino, long preferred in the West and Southwest, is spreading in the United States; for now, though, Hispanic remains in wider use. When writing about specific people or groups, use the term they prefer.”

That concluding piece of advice makes sense to us.

Since Judge Sotomayor has repeatedly referred to herself as a “Latina,” and seems to prefer that word, we’d refer to her that way too.

The term “Latina” would also be more precise in her case, since she’s a woman with Latin American roots who lives in the United States.

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Pictures at an exhibition

Q: This has been driving me nuts. No one can answer me: Are the words “exhibit” and “exhibition” interchangeable sometimes? For instance, “I’m going to an art exhibit/exhibition.”

A: When I worked at the New York Times, editors on the Culture Desk used “exhibition” for the show and “exhibit” for something being shown. So a reporter would write, “The exhibition’s most popular exhibit was the dinosaur skeleton.”

But the Times stylebook didn’t (and still doesn’t) deal with this “exhibit/exhibition” business, and dictionaries say a show itself can indeed be termed an “exhibit.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, gives “exhibit” as one of the meanings of “exhibition,” and “exhibition” as one of the meanings of “exhibit.”

In fact, the use of “exhibit” to mean an “exhibition” isn’t a particularly recent phenomenon, at least not in the United States and Canada.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which describes the usage as North American, has published references dating back to the 1890s. Here’s one from an 1894 guide to a farm exhibition in California: “The following are the groups into which the exhibit in the Agricultural building is divided.”

The OED also has a few published references, dating from the late 18th century, for “exhibition” used in the sense of “exhibit.” A citation from around 1790, for example, refers to some “excellent prints” as “exhibitions.”

Interestingly, the word “exhibitionism” has occasionally been used to mean a mania for exhibitions, but the OED says this sense of the word is rare.

The more usual sense is, in the dictionary’s words: “Indecent exposure of the sexual organs, esp. as a manifestation of sexual perversion. Also fig. and gen., a tendency towards display; indulgence in extravagant behaviour.”

The first OED citation is from an 1893 translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which refers to the “hereditary and degenerate impulsive exhibitionism” of a man who exposes himself to “young, voluptuous women.”

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