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An update on updating

Q: I rarely get to hear you on the Leonard Lopate Show, but I’m hoping you’ll answer this. I’ve worked in information technology since 1981, so I’m used to techie terms, but I recently encountered a new (and annoying) one: “updation,” as in “document updation.” Please comment on its legitimacy or lack thereof.

A: “Updation” is a new one on me too. After a brief consultation with Dr. Google (2.4 million hits), I’d say the term seems to be most popular with tech heads, especially South Asians.

I can’t find the word in any of the references I usually consult, but the online Dictionary of Indian English gives this example to illustrate its use: “Write a program for creation, deletion and updation of database records.”

Wiktionary, a collaborative online dictionary, has three published references for “updation.” The first, from a 1998 book on parallel algorithms, says: “The above updation can be done through each vertex k.” (You may know what this means, but it beats me!)

As for the legitimacy of “updation” (or lack thereof), my feeling is that we already have two good words that cover all the bases: the noun “update” and the verbal noun “updating.” Examples: “Here’s an update” and “This needs updating.” Why would we need a third?

All the previous forms of “update” – whether noun or verb or adjective – are 20th-century coinages. But perhaps techies don’t find them sufficiently up-to-date!

And by the way, I have a WNYC page on with links to my old appearances on the Leonard Lopate Show. My husband, Stewart, and I try to update the page a few hours after my appearance each month.

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Jeeves! I’m in the soup.

Q: I might as well unload my frustration concerning the overuse and misuse of the word “scenario.” Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.

A: You’re right that “scenario” is getting a workout. The figurative use of the word isn’t necessarily an error, but the looser meanings sometimes go too far.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “scenario” as meaning “a sketch or outline of the plot of a play, ballet, novel, opera, story, etc., giving particulars of the scenes, situations, etc.”

The word has been used literally since the latter half of the 19th century and figuratively since the 1920s.

It first appeared in English, according to the OED, in an 1878 entry in the journal of George Henry Lewes, who was George Eliot’s companion and mentor.

Lewes wrote: “Schemed a scenario from Daniel Deronda.” (Lewes and Eliot were planning a play based on her 1876 novel.)

“Scenario” was adapted from the Italian word scena (a scene in a play) and its derivative, scenario (the arrangement of scenes in a play).

The Italian scenario had earlier given us our word “scenery,” which originally (then spelled “scenary”) was adapted into English in 1695 and meant an arrangement of scenes in a play.

Later, in the 1700s, “scenery” came to mean both a painted stage set and a picturesque natural landscape.

In English, “scenery” has been used in a figurative sense since 1770, with authors’ saying such things as “She’s part of the scenery” and “the shifting scenery of a man’s life.”

In fact, just to bring things full circle, here’s a figurative use of “scenery” from Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda: “Gwendolen was just then enjoying the scenery of her life.”

Like “scenery,” the noun “scenario” also developed figurative meanings in English. Here are a couple of figurative uses by a favorite author of mine, P. G. Wodehouse.

The first is from The Inimitable Jeeves (1923):

” ‘Jeeves!’
” ‘Sir?’
” ‘I’m in the soup.’
” ‘Indeed, sir?’
“I sketched out the scenario for him.
” ‘What would you advise?’ “

The next is from Bill the Conqueror (1924):

“A young man in a vivid check suit came out, a small young man with close-set eyes and the scenario of a moustache.”

In the second example, Wodehouse uses “scenario” to mean something like “sketch.”

Like you, many people think freer uses of “scenario” can get to be a bit much. The OED notes that “weakened senses” of the word include “circumstance, situation, scene, sequence of events, etc.”

R. W. Burchfield, a former editor of the OED, adds in a note: “The over-use of this word in various loose senses has attracted frequent hostile comment.”

Burchfield also edited The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in which he has this to say about “scenario”:

“It could hardly have been foreseen that it would become immensely popular from the 1960s onwards in the broad sense ‘a postulated sequence of (future) events.’ Every kind of circumstance, situation, relationship, train of events, etc., came to be called a scenario, and there is no sign of any weakening of the grip that the word has on the language.”

I’ll conclude with this advice from Burchfield: “A wise writer uses the word sparingly.”

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Suggestive language

Q: I had a difference of opinion with a British gentleman when I said I could “draw an implication” from a remark of his. He claimed I could only draw an “inference,” not an “implication.” I disagreed. Yes, he did the implying, but why couldn’t I draw an “implication” as well as an “inference” from his words?

A: We all know that to imply is to suggest or say something indirectly while to infer is to conclude or surmise from what is implied or suggested. So, to imply is to give a hint, and to infer is to take the hint.

Obviously, we can draw an inference; one definition of “infer,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “to bring in or ‘draw’ as a conclusion.” In other words, to draw an inference.

But can we draw an implication, too? Let’s see.

The very old word “draw,” first recorded in Old English in the 800s, has dozens of meanings in modern English. These all originated from five general notions: of dragging, of attracting, of extracting, of stretching, and of delineating.

Several meanings of “draw” are in turn derived from the third notion above (that of extracting, removing, withdrawing, or otherwise taking away with you), including these:

(1) To deduce or infer. Most of the OED‘s citations for this usage of “draw” have to do with arriving at a conclusion or an inference.

(2) To frame, formulate, or lay down. This usage of “draw” has to do with making “comparisons, contrasts, distinctions, etc.,” the OED says.

(3) To evoke or elicit. This usage of “draw” has to do with extracting (or causing to come forth) such things as information, responses, and so forth. This even includes the meaning, as your British friend might say, of drawing a fox from a covert.

My feeling is that while we draw an inference; we do not draw an implication. To draw an inference is to extract it from what’s given and take it in. An implication is not taken in; it’s given out. It is one of the givens from which we extract (or draw) a conclusion (or inference).

English is not written in stone, however, and here you may disagree. But I’ll have to side with your friend on this one. He makes an implication, and from what he implies, you draw an inference. He may in fact deny that he’s implied anything. You can still infer (from what he HAS said) that he’s implied something.

I’d better stop now. I’m starting to sound like a character in a Marx brothers movie.

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Moses’ older sister

Q: I am enjoying Origins of the Specious, but I think that you and Stewart got the origin of “Miriam” wrong. The Talmud says the name derives from the Hebrew word mar, or bitter. Miriam was given that name because at the time of her birth the situation for the Hebrews in Egypt was the most bitter ever.

A: As with many ancient words, particularly those that come from even more ancient roots, linguists can only speculate as to the most probable or plausible origin of “Miriam.”

Our source for the roots of “Miriam” was the Oxford English Dictionary, which acknowledges that the etymology is “of uncertain origin.”

The OED speculates, however, that the Hebrew original “may be Amorite, with the meaning ‘gift (of God)’; compare the Akkadian root rym ‘to give as a gift’.”

This is why we hedged our statement about the origin of “Miriam” by writing that it “may have its origin in an ancient Amorite word meaning ‘gift of God.'”

Reading between the lines, it’s also possible to draw other inferences – that “Miriam” could be derived from roots meaning “gift of myrrh” or “bitter gift,” which would go along with the Talmudic interpretation.

You’ll note above that the Akkadian word rym meant to give. (Akkadian, the oldest Semitic language, existed as long ago as 2800 BC; here “Semitic” is a linguistic term, not an ethnic one.)

You’ll also note the mention of a possible connection with the word “myrrh.” It’s believed (though not certain) that “myrrh” came from the Akkadian word murra. Murra, according to the OED, was “an aromatic used in medicine, ritual, perfumery, and tanning.”

Similar words came to exist in later Semitic languages: Arabic (murr), Hebrew (mor), Aramaic (mora), and Syriac (mura), all meaning “myrrh” and all from an ancient Semitic base meaning “bitter.” This Semitic base is also thought to be the source of the Hebrew word mar (bitter).

In short, one can speculate, indeed MUST speculate, about the origin of “Miriam.” In cases like these, our practice has been to go with the best guess of our favorite etymological authority: the OED.

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Get on the stick

Q: My husband and I have been wondering about the origin of the phrase “get on the stick.” What stick?

A: I’ve been swamped with questions lately, which is why I’ve taken so long to answer this one, but I’ve finally managed to get on the stick.

The expression – meaning to get busy, get going, or get down to work – dates from the early 1900s and comes from the idea of getting a car going by using the gearshift, or stick, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “get on the stick” is derived from the shorter phrase “on the stick” (meaning “efficient, aware, in control”). Cassell’s says the stick in the phrases represents “the gearstick of a car or joystick of an aircraft, both of which exert control.”

Another reference, Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, notes that “stick” has been used colloquially to mean “joystick” since about 1925 and originated in the Royal Air Force.

“Joystick” itself, meaning the control level in a plane, was first recorded in 1910, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has since widened to mean any kind of control lever.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes that “joystick” has also been used to refer to a penis (1916), an opium pipe (1936), and a marijuana cigarette (1962). Slang is fertile – it begets more slang!

Although nearly all the references I’ve consulted say the stick in “get on the stick” is either a gearshift or a joystick, I did find one respectable dissenting opinion.

In “The Argot of the Dice Table,” a 1950 paper by David W. Maurer in the journal American Speech, the expression is defined this way: “To work at the crap table, either as a dealer or stick-man.”

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A devilish relationship

Q: My dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, seventh) has something odd in the entry for “parable.” It says the second part is related to “ballein” (to throw), but adds “more at DEVIL.” Please explain.

A: The entry in my newer Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has the same cross reference for “parable,” a story with a moral or religious lesson.

M-W says the word “parable” comes from the Greek parabole (comparison), which is derived from the Greek paraballein, to compare.

If you go to the entry for “devil” you’ll see that the word has its origins in the Greek diabolos (slanderer), which comes from diaballein (literally, to throw across).

The Greek ballein means to throw. The prefix dia means through or across, while para means beside, alongside of, beyond, aside from.

So “devil” (diabolos, from diaballein) and “parable” (parabole, from paraballein) have a common Greek ancestor, ballein.

Of the two English words, “devil” is by far the oldest, showing up around the year 800, spelled diobul and dioful, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The latecomer, “parable,” arrived four and a half centuries later.

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In the longue run

Q: In an otherwise well-written article in the New York Times, the writer mentions “two glowing chaise lounges.” Am I being too finicky to ask that “chaise longue” be spelled correctly? Or has “chaise lounge” been OK’d by the Anything Goes Crowd?

A: The original term is, of course, “chaise longue” (the Anglicized plural is “chaise longues”), and the phrase literally means “long chair” in French.

It was first used in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1800 in Elizabeth Hervey’s novel The Mourtray Family: “She only begged they would permit her to lie down on her chaise longue.”

Many usage guides (including the New York Times stylebook, by the way) insist that “chaise longue” is the only legitimate spelling. But people have been using the “lounge” version almost since the term entered English.

The OED has citations ranging from the early 1800s into the 21st century for “chaise lounge,” an alteration that it and other authorities chalk up to folk etymology.

Here’s the first citation, from an advertisement in the Times of London in 1807: “The drawing rooms … possess every article of use and variety … as curtains, chairs, sofas, chaise lounge, loo table.”

(Aside: Don’t be alarmed about the notion of a “loo table” in the drawing room. Loo tables were round or oval tables for playing “loo” and other card games in the 18th and 19th centuries. A loo table is mentioned in chapter 10 of Pride and Prejudice.)

But back to “chaise lounge.” Why has this spelling persisted for so long? Well, a “chaise longue” is for all practical purposes a lounge chair, and “lounge” differs from “longue” only in the order of its letters.

Is it correct, though? That depends on whom you ask.

The folks at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) essentially say no, since AH lists only “chaise longue.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has entries for both versions, though it says “chaise lounge” arose as a folk etymology. Still, it’s not labeled nonstandard, which means the lexicographers at M-W have nothing against it.

Then there’s Garner’s Modern American Usage, which calls the “lounge” variation “an embarrassing error” and “distinctly low-rent.”

My own opinion, which my husband and I share in our book Origins of the Specious, is that “chaise lounge” will become the standard English spelling in the longue run. It’s already the dominant one on Google.

Do Stewart and I use it? Not yet. To our ears, “chaise longue” sounds a bit too proper and “chaise lounge” not quite proper enough. We usually take the coward’s way out and say “lounge chair.”

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Hissy fits

Q: A guest on NPR, a young woman from an upper-middle-class background, recently pronounced “et cetera” as if it were spelled “ek cetera.” I’ve heard this before, but usually from less educated speakers. Is a shift taking place?

A: No shift has taken place – at least not yet. There’s no “k” or “x” sound in “et cetera.” The “ek cetera” and “ex cetera” pronunciations are very common, though.

The word we abbreviate as “etc.” can be pronounced with either three syllables or four, but the first consonant sound is a “t.”

Here’s how I’m putting it in the upcoming third edition of my grammar and usage book Woe Is I (in a section called “Hissy Fits”):

“People often put an ‘s’ sound where an ‘x’ sound belongs. They get all hissy. They say ‘asseptable’ for acceptable, ‘assessories’ for accessories, ‘essentric’ for eccentric, ‘estatic’ for ecstatic, and ‘estraordinary’ for extraordinary. This is definitely unacceptable!

“Sometimes speakers do the reverse, putting an ‘x’ sound where it doesn’t belong. They say ‘excape’ for escape, ‘expecially’ for especially, ‘excetera’ for et cetera, and ‘expresso’ for espresso. This gives me fits.”

If you want to read more, I wrote a blog item a couple of years ago on the pronunciation of “et cetera.”

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Check it out

Q: Your recent discussion on WNYC about the use of “check” to mean a restaurant bill made me think of the French term for this: l’addition. I love it because it’s so logical.

A: Although “check” may not be as logical a choice for a restaurant bill as l’addition, I suspect that the English word has a more interesting history.

All of the modern senses of “check” (a bank draft, a move in chess, a bar tab, and so on) are ultimately derived from a Persian word that I’m sure you know: shah, or monarch, as in the Shah of Iran.

Shah was also a term in chess, a game played in Persia long before it was introduced in Europe, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

A Persian chess player would say shah, explains American Heritage, as a warning that an opponent’s king was under attack. The Persian word then passed through Arabic and probably Old Spanish before ending up as eschec in Old French.

Now things really got interesting. In the early 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Old French eschec and its plural eschecs gave us our name for the game, “chess,” as well as our interjection or warning, “check.”

Since then, “check” has evolved in all sorts of directions – as a noun, a verb, and an interjection – from that initial idea of checking the king in chess.

The various usages, according to the OED, “have acted and reacted on each other, so that it is difficult to trace and exhibit the order in which special senses arose.”

The original “check” in chess has given us the adjectives “checked” and “checkered” (that is, marked with a chessboard pattern); the verb “check” in its many senses, including to stop, to verify, even to check one’s coat; a check mark; a bank check (originally a receipt stub to help check or stop fraud); and finally (in 1869) a restaurant tab in the US.

In Britain, by the way, some forms of “check” began to be spelled “cheque” in the 17th and 18th centuries. And our game “checkers,” so called because it’s played on a checkered board, is called “draughts” across the pond.

The word “Exchequer” (the royal treasury, originally spelled “escheker”) is thought to refer to a tablecloth divided into large squares on which the king’s accounts were toted up. The cloth resembled a “checker” (chessboard).

You might say the word “check” has had a checkered history.

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Bigger than the both of us

Q: I pricked up my ears when I heard Pat say “the both of us” on WNYC. I have always thought that one says either “the two of us” or “both of us.” I grew up in Norway and was taught British English. I also had an English grandmother who would never have said “the both of us.” Please let me know your thoughts.

A: “The both of” is an extremely common idiom, especially in the United States. But it’s not unheard-of in Britain and Ireland.

When the usage showed up in the mid-19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the first two examples were from Irish writers

In fact, the phrase “the both” was first used to mean “the two” in the 1500s, according to the OED, though the usage is now considered colloquial or regional.

Speakers in Ireland (and, in some of the following cases, Wales and elsewhere) often insert the definite article (“the”) in contexts where it’s not commonly found in standard British English.

Examples: “the both of” … “the half of” … “the whooping cough [mumps, etc.]” … “in the hospital” … “the cold [heat, etc.]” … “on the bus [plane, etc.]” instead of “by bus [plane, etc.]” … “in the summer [winter, etc.],” and others.

Some of these are also found in certain dialects in England as well. This information comes from The Grammar of Irish English, by Markku Filppula.

Americans are familiar with every one of these constructions. We commonly say “the both of us” (especially in the expression “bigger than the both of us”), “you don’t know the half of it,” “he has the measles [flu, etc.],” “she’s in the hospital,” “he can’t take the cold [heat, etc.],” “we go there in the summer.”

The use of the definite article is a complex subject, and in practice very idiomatic. Of the above-mentioned uses, only “the both” and “the half” would not be appropriate in formal written English in the US, though they’re acceptable in speech and informal writing. All the rest are considered standard in American English.

(We’ve revised our opinion on this use of “the half” and now consider it standard English. We discuss our change of heart in an April 21, 2011, posting on the blog.)

As for the usage experts, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage isn’t worried about “the both of us [you, etc.].” The conclusion: “There is no reason you should avoid it if it is your normal idiom.”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage includes some British examples: “In spoken English, the use of both preceded by the is not uncommon: Good Morning from the both of us – BBC Radio 4, 1977. It is more frequently encountered in regional speech, as, for example, the both of you heard on The Archers (BBC Radio 4, 1976). The both should not be used in formal prose.”

If you’re interested in reading more, a blog item a while back on UK-vs.-US English touches on the subject of the use (or non-use) of articles .

Was it OK for Pat to use “the both of us” on the air? Well, she does misspeak once in a while during her impromptu exchanges in the broadcast booth. But not in this case.

There’s nothing wrong with using this idiomatic expression in conversation, even on public radio. However, we wouldn’t use it in formal writing.

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‘Anyways,’ said the damsel

Q: I grew up in the Midwest (Chicago, Catholic school) and never added an “s” to “anyway.” I live now in New York (Manhattan) and hear “anyways” all the time. I also hear it on TV. Pat has said on the air that she grew up in the Midwest. Did she say “anyway” or “anyways”?

A: Growing up in Iowa, Pat occasionally heard people say “anyways,” but that wasn’t the usual practice. Mostly it was “anyway.”

The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult label “anyways” as informal, dialectal, colloquial, or nonstandard. In other words, you wouldn’t use it when your language should be at its best.

Nevertheless, “anyways” is heard across the US, according to citations in the Dictionary of American Regional English, which notes that it first showed up in English in the early 13th century and was in standard literary use into the early 19th century.

In fact, the term was originally spelled with an “s” (actually two of them) when it appeared in Middle English in the early 13th century, meaning “in any manner” or “by any means,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first citation (with “anyways” spelled “eanies-weis”) is from a manuscript about the legendary life of St. Margaret the Maiden and Martyr:

“Ȝef ich mahte eanies-weis makien ham to fallen” (“if I might in any-ways make them fall”). From Seinte Marherete þe Meiden ant Martyr, edited in 1934 by Frances May Mack for the Early English Text Society.

The usage was standard for centuries, as in this expanded citation from the Anglican Communion’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer: “Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are any ways afflicted, or distressed in mind, body, or estate.”

Today, however, the OED describes this use of “anyways” for “anyway” as colloquial and chiefly North American.

Similarly, the dictionary says the use of “anyways” as a sentence adverb (one that modifies an entire sentence or clause) is colloquial and chiefly North American, though the earliest two Oxford examples are from British sources.

The OED cites this example from the 1865 Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend: “ ‘Anyways,’ said the damsel, ‘I am glad punishment followed, and I say so.’ ” We’ve expanded the citation, one of five appearances of “anyways” in the book.

Would we use “anyways”? No way.

[Note: This post was updated on June 24, 2020.]

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The dog what bit me

Q: We’re hearing more people put “what” into a sentence comparing things. For example: “He can run faster than what I can.” What goes?

A: Grammatically, the “what” is unnecessary, redundant, and nonstandard. But this usage is a common regionalism in parts of the South.

A similar speech pattern, and one that used to be a lot more common, involves the use of “what” in place of “that” or “who” or “which.” Here are some examples:

“This is the dog what bit me” … “Who’s the one what did this?” … “She also brought the egg salad, what made so many people sick.”

All these usages are nonstandard, but they’ve been around for a long, long time. It may be that they just entered your radar recently.

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Home economics in “Hamlet”

Q: Your blog post on “spendthrift” cited Shakespeare’s use of “thrift” to mean wealth. That reminded me of another time Shakespeare used the word. In Hamlet, when Horatio agrees that the queen’s marriage “followed hard upon” the king’s funeral, Hamlet replies: “Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” That sounds to me like the more modern definition of “thrift.” Did the word have both meanings at the time?

A: Yes, “thrift” could mean, among other things, either wealth or frugality in Elizabethan times, although the use of the word for household economy was relatively new when Shakespeare wrote those sarcastic lines.

The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition of “thrift” in the sense you mention: “Economical management, economy; sparing use or careful expenditure of means; frugality, saving; euphemistically, parsimony, niggardliness (obs.).”

The OED’s first citation for this meaning, from 1553, says “foode is never founde to bee so pleasaunte” as when “thrift hathe pincht afore.” In other words, you appreciate food more when you have to economize and don’t have enough of it.

The dictionary has published references from the early 14th century to the late 19th century for “thrift” used in the sense of wealth, savings, or earnings, though it says this usage is now considered archaic.

Hamlet was probably written between 1599 and 1601, when both meanings of “thrift” were there for Shakespeare to use. And use them, as you point out, he did.

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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, you can get it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Line drawings

Q: I hear politicians talk a lot about drawing lines in the sand, which makes me wonder how we got this expression. It seems to me that a line in the sand could easily be erased—not a very good metaphor for issuing an ultimatum.

A: There are at least two theories about what historical incident, if any, inspired the expression “line in the sand.”

A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, the title of a book by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, refers to one theory, which the authors say may be far-fetched and then again may not be.

In 1836, as the small band of Texans in the Alamo was about to be overrun by Santa Anna and his Mexican forces, Col. William Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword, according to this version of history.

Col. Travis, so the story goes, then invited those who wished to fight and die with him to cross the line. All but one did, supposedly the guy who lived to tell the tale, which was later passed on by others.

Another line in the sand was drawn some years before the Alamo—168 BC, in fact. The Roman historian Livy writes of a meeting in Egypt between King Antiochus IV of Syria and a Roman Consul, Gaius Popilius Laenas.

Popilius, who was trying to prevent a war between Syria and Egypt, told Antiochus in effect that the Roman Senate wanted him to get his army out of Egypt or else. Here Livy describes the scene:

“Popilius, stern and imperious as ever, drew a circle round the king with the stick he was carrying and said, ‘Before you step out of that circle give me a reply to lay before the senate.’ ”

For a few moments, Antiochus hesitated, “astounded at such a peremptory order, and at last replied, ‘I will do what the Senate thinks right.’ Not till then did Popilius extend his hand to the king as to a friend and ally.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t state an opinion as to what might have inspired “line in the sand.” It defines the verb phrase “(to draw, run, etc.) a line in the sand” as meaning “(to establish) a limit or boundary; (to specify) a level of tolerance or a point beyond which one will not go.”

The OED’s first published citation for the expression is from the Boston Post (July 23, 1850): “He would prefer striking out the clause prohibiting the establishment or exclusion and extending the Missouri line without an express recognition of slavery south of it. It would be running a line in the sand.”

And among its later examples, the OED has this one from the Scotsman (July 23, 1996):  “Whenever John Major draws a line in the sand, you can be sure some Eurosceptic bully will come along and kick it in his face.”

The dictionary describes the usage in these examples as figurative, meaning that the line drawn (or run) was metaphorical rather than physical.

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, cites a clearly figurative usage from a July 1978 issue of Newsweek: “Brzezinski is more eager to draw a line in the sand and dare the Russians to cross it.”

In recent years, the expression has been used numerous times and has become a near cliché among journalists. Take out the sand, and the expression is even more common—and older.

The OED says that in modern colloquial usage “to draw the line” (or “to draw a line”) means “to lay down a definite limit of action beyond which one refuses to go.”

The first citation in the OED comes from the trial in 1773 of a Scottish Unitarian minister, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, who was found guilty of sedition and sent to Botany Bay for circulating a political handbill calling for parliamentary reform.

One of the judges says (we’re supplying a bit more of the quotation from the transcript): “It is difficult to draw the line between trying to inflame the people against the King … and endeavouring to overthrow not only the King, but the King, Lords, and Commons, which cannot be a lesser crime.”

The expression was probably in use well before that. Somehow we doubt that Lord Eskgrove, the Scottish judge in the Palmer case, made it up.

More recently, the first President Bush issued a line-drawing ultimatum of his own after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990: ”A line has been drawn in the sand.” We wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking of the Alamo.

The President’s son, George W., definitely had the Alamo on his mind when he used the expression in a fund-raising letter opposing Ann Richards’s election as Governor of Texas in 1990, as William Safire pointed out in the New York Times.

“When Col. Travis drew the line in the sand at the Alamo,” the younger Bush reportedly said, “he discovered immediately who had the courage to stand and fight for the Texas Republic.”

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Nothing but the ruth

Q: I tried to phone you at WNYC, but couldn’t get through. In frustration I tracked down your website. Ergo, this question: We know what “ruthless” means, but what is “ruth” and where does it come from? I thought at first of Old Norse, but I speak Swedish and Danish and don’t believe that’s the source.

A: I’m so glad you found us! As it happens, I’ve already written a blog item that discusses “ruth,” “gruntled,” and other linguistic relics. The noun “ruth”’ is an old word that’s rarely seen now, except as part of the word “ruthless.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) do have entries on “ruth,” defining it as compassion for the misery of others or sorrow for one’s faults.

But just because a word appears in a dictionary doesn’t mean it gets around much. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any published references for the usage since the 19th century. And I don’t recall seeing or hearing “ruth” in recent years except in attempts to be funny.

The blog entry doesn’t say so (though it should have), but the noun “ruth” (circa 1175) comes from a much earlier noun, “rue,” first recorded in Old English (as hreow) in Beowulf in the early 8th century. It meant sorrow or regret.

The verb “rue” was first seen in Old English (as hreowan) the following century, in the year 888. Similar words existed in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and other Germanic languages, and there was a related form in Old Norse (so says the OED).

There’s no connection, by the way, between the noun “ruth” and the Biblical name Ruth, which comes from Hebrew.

In case you’re interested, I’ve written a blog item on another word that’s rarely seen without its appendage, “scrutable,” which I hope describes this answer.

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Down the shore, and over the house

Q: I’ve been dying to ask you about something that irks me! When I moved to New York, I was fascinated (and a little disgusted) at how my friends from New Jersey would leave out words without noticing. For example, “I’m going down the shore” or “Come over my house.” Is there a secret understanding that allows them to leave out prepositions?

A: The expression “down the shore,” meaning at the beach, is a common regionalism in North Jersey, Philadelphia, and some parts of inland Connecticut.

In 1993, a one-act play called Down the Shore, by Tom Donaghy, had a run Off Broadway. Donaghy is from Philadelphia, where the play takes place.

“You guys goin’ down the shore?” one character asks the others. Later he says, “Don’t think about much down the shore.” Another replies, “Beach makes you stupid.”

As for “over my house” instead of “over to my house,” that’s much more widespread. People have reported hearing it from Milwaukee to the East Coast.

I wrote a blog entry last year about “come over” and I wrote one a few months ago about a clipped form that’s probably even more common, “come with.”

These abbreviated ways of talking are usually more common in speech than in writing, as are most regional peculiarities. I don’t think we should condemn them, or even find them irritating.

This is a big country, after all, with many fascinating groups of people. Naturally, they develop special ways of talking to one another.

Even smaller countries like Britain are chock-full of regional differences in speech and usage. I find these differences interesting and charming, and would hate to see them go.

These regionalisms may not be acceptable in formal writing, but I see nothing wrong with them in casual speech or idiomatic writing.

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I say father and you say pater

Q: I just finished Origins of the Specious and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. But I have one minor issue. I fear that your disdain for Latinistas has led you to accept too many Anglicized plurals. I teach biology and see nothing wrong with using “fora” instead of “forums.” Unfortunately, I see “fora” less and less, and “forums” more and more. Sigh! One other disagreement, sort of. I LIKE “an historic,” and I was taught the “an” is expected.

A: Thanks for your comments, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I also appreciate hearing your opinions about Latin plurals.

But “fora”? You have to be kidding! I’m not surprised that you’re seeing it less and less. I’m surprised that you’re seeing it at all outside your classroom.

The “forum” entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which has five and a half centuries of citations, doesn’t include a single example for the plural “fora.” The only plurals cited are Anglicized, as in this example from a 1647 English translation of Juvenal: “The city of Rome had four great forums or piazzas.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “forums” as the primary plural of “forum,” though they do include “fora” as a less frequently used, secondary variant.

As for “historic,” why say “an historic” if you don’t say “an house” or “an hot dog” or “an haircut”?

The article “an” before a sounded “h” is unnatural in English and in fact is discouraged in Britain as well as the United States.

Check out the British dictionary Longman’s, which, under its entry for “historic,” gives these example of its proper use: a historic meeting of world leaders and “It is a historic moment,” he told journalists.

If you’d like to read more about this aitch business, I wrote a blog entry on the subject a couple of years ago.

Sorry if I sound cranky; I don’t mean to be. To end on a lighter note, here’s a Latin lesson from Ira Gershwin: “I say father and you say pater, / I say mother and you say mater; / Father, mother, auntie, uncle – / Let’s call the whole thing off!”

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At wit’s end

Q: I find the English language challenging. Why does “ought” rhyme with “thought,” but “tough” with “rough”? And why do we say “to wit” instead of “to whit”? I’m at my wit’s end.

A: People love to point to words like “ought” and “tough” as examples of how wacky English spellings can be. Not so wacky when you look closely. I recently wrote a blog item about these “gh” words and other spelling oddities.

As for why it’s “to wit” and not “to whit,” we’ll have to go back in time, very far back.

In Anglo-Saxon days, a now-archaic verb “wit” meant something like to know, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s earliest example of this usage is in King Alfred’s translation of Boethius from around the year 888.

The expression “to wit,” first recorded in 1320, originally meant “it is to be observed, noted, or ascertained.” Later (around 1400), it came to mean “to be sure” or “indeed” or “namely.”

The “wit” part of the phrase was written all sorts of ways for the first few hundred years: “wite,” “witen,” “wetynge,” and so on.

It wasn’t until the late 16th century that the expression “to wit” took on its modern meaning: namely or that is to say. The earliest citation in the OED (from 1577) says “the beginning of vertue is of Nature, to wyt of Perfect Nature.”

As a nature junkie, I especially like this citation from an 1875 book about the history of Maine: “Thrice nine ridges … to wit, nine of bog, nine of smooth and nine of wood.”

“Whit,” a much newer word, means an itty-bitty amount or the tiniest part of something. It first showed up in the 16th century during the early days of Modern English.

And that, to wit, is that.

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Bon appétit

Q: Why does everyone now spell “barbecue” as “barbeque”? Isn’t this wrong? Wouldn’t the “q” version be pronounced bar-BEK? À votre santé.

A: It does seem that a word spelled “barbeque” might be pronounced bar-BEK. (Some kind of Parisian cookout, perhaps?) In fact, the usual English spelling is “barbecue,” and it’s “barbecue” in French too.

However, some English dictionaries now accept “barbeque” as a variant spelling. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for instance, lists “barbecue” as its main entry and “barbeque” as a “secondary variant” that “occurs appreciably less often.” (Both versions are pronounced BAR-buh-kyoo.)

Although the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster’s are technically correct – “barbeque” does seem to occur a lot less often than “barbecue” – both spellings are very popular. Here’s the Google scorecard: “barbecue,” 29.9 million hits; “barbeque,” 9.3 million.

I was surprised to find that the word “barbecue” has been around since the 17th century. The verb was first recorded in English in 1661, borrowed from the Spanish barbacoa, a word from Arawak that the Spaniards picked up in Haiti. The indigenous word barbakoa meant a treehouse or a wooden framework set on posts, and not a cooking apparatus.

As first used in English, “barbecue” (both the noun and the verb) referred to the drying or curing of meat or fish on a framework.

The first use of the word in English for the actual cooking of meat or fish over a fire came along in 1690. As they say, the rest is history!

What about the spelling? It has varied over the years (“borbecu” … “barbecu” … “barbicu” … “barbikew” and so on), but has pretty much been “barbecue” from the 19th century onward.

The OED doesn’t include “barbeque” among the many spellings, but it does mention (and debunk) a myth that the word comes from a French expression: The alleged Fr. barbe à queue ‘beard to tail’ is an absurd conjecture suggested merely by the sound of the word.”

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Time piece

Q: I was listening to you on my iPod the other day when you discussed neologisms on WNYC. This reminded me of a recent email from a South Asian colleague who wanted me to “prepone” a scheduled meeting – that is, move it up in time. He was using “prepone” as the opposite of “postpone.”

A: You’re not the first person to write me about this usage, so it must be in the air!

I don’t see it in the dictionaries I usually consult, but several online references, including MSN Encarta, define it as Indian English meaning to reschedule something for an earlier time. That may explain its use by your colleague.

In fact, a bit of googling suggests that “prepone” is very much in the air. I had 118,000 hits, many of them from South Asians or people puzzled when South Asians used the word.

But believe it or not, this word isn’t quite the neologism you think it to be. The verb “prepone” was around as far back as the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was first recorded, “prepone” meant to place in front of or set before – in a more or less literal sense, such as placing something before someone. The word was borrowed from the Latin praeponere (to place in front of).

The first writer to use it in print, as far as we know, was Robert Crowley, a Puritan social reformer who wrote in 1549: “I do prepone and set the Lord alwaye before myne eyes.” The OED has no citations for this usage after 1656.

Then centuries later, just before World War I, “prepone” surfaced again, according to the OED, this time meaning “to bring forward to an earlier time or date. Opposed to postpone.”

The dictionary says the first use of this new incarnation of “prepone” appeared in the New York Times in December 1913. In a letter to the editor, a reader wrote:

“For the benefit mainly of the legal profession in this age of hurry and bustle may I be permitted to coin the word ‘prepone’ as a needed rival of that much revered and oft-invoked standby, ‘postpone.’ “

The word hasn’t been seen much in the US or Britain since the mid-20th century. In recent decades, according to the OED, its use has been “most frequent in Indian English.”

The latest published reference for the word in the OED is from a 2001 article in the Times of India about a decision “to ask schools to prepone their examinations and start summer vacations in April.”

Will “prepone” catch on in the West (after a long postponement)? Only time will tell.

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The Three Princes of Serendip

Q: My girlfriend met a woman from Mauritius on a recent safari in South Africa and then learned that they had gone to the same college in Boston. We seem to have such encounters every day. Is there a word for this sort of random coincidence or connection?

A: I’m not sure this will fill the bill for you, but how about “serendipity,” a word formed from the old Persian and Arabic names for Sri Lanka?

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as the “faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) adds that it’s the “phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

Horace Walpole, an 18th-century English man of letters, coined the term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In a 1754 letter, he writes about a discovery that “is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

In Walpole’s letter to an English friend living in Florence, he explains that the word was inspired by a “silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip.

As the three princes in the Persian story traveled, he says, “they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

H-m-m. Sounds a lot like Walpole’s own serendipitous discovery.

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A Sisyphean profusion

Q: I was listening to WNYC the other day when I heard one of the commentators use the word “Sisyphusian.” I believe the word should be “Sisyphean.” Your comments please

A: Sisyphus, the late king of Corinth who was forced to roll a huge rock up a hill in Hades, only to have it roll down again, gave us the adjective “Sisyphean,” a handy word for describing useless labor.

I can’t find an entry for “Sisyphusian” in any of the dictionaries I regularly consult. But two of them, the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), include a lesser-known spelling, “Sisyphian.”

In fact, the “Sisyphian” version apparently showed up first. The earliest published reference for it in the OED is from a 1599 poem that describes silkworms as “Sisyphian soules.”

The more common word, “Sisyphean,” first appeared in a 1635 poem: “I barter sighs for tears, and tears for grones, / Still vainly rolling Sisyphean stones.”

I don’t know whether “Sisyphusian” will ever make it into my favorite dictionaries, but I suspect that it’s on the radar of the lexicographers who update those dictionaries.

I had 21,600 hits when I googled the word – from “Sisyphusian tasks” to “Sisyphusian bailouts” to “Sisyphusian vacuuming.”

Where does this new coinage come from? Perhaps a profusion of Sisyphean tasks may be described as Sisyphusian.

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Is it a tittle, a square, or a tee?

Q: I heard you for the first time on a recent broadcast of the Leonard Lopate Show. I was fascinated and wondered if you could help me with a language question. I’m interested in learning about the history of the expression “to a T.”

A: The phrase “to a T” (sometimes written “to a tee”) has meant “exactly, properly, to a nicety” since it first appeared in English more than three hundred years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published reference in the dictionary is from The Humours and Conversations of the Town, a 1693 satirical work by James Wright: “All the under Villages and Towns-men come to him for Redress; which he does to a T.”

Word sleuths have spent a lot of time trying to track down the source of the “T” in the phrase, but the evidence is still inconclusive. That may be why several of the dictionaries in my office give different explanations for the expression.

My old unabridged Webster’s Second, for example, suggests the “T” stands for “T-square,” while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it’s short for “tittle,” or tiny thing.

The Oxford English Dictionary mentions those two explanations as well as the tees in the sports of curling and golf, and the fact that a “T” is properly completed by crossing it.

Reading between the lines, however, it’s apparent that the OED‘s lexicographers think the “tittle” suggestion is the most likely.

For one thing, the “tee” version, which might support a golf or curling origin, didn’t appear in print until 78 years after the phrase first showed up, according to the OED citations.

The earliest “tee” cite is from a 1771 poem by someone identified only as J. Giles: “I’ll tell you where / You may be suited to a tee.”

Does the “T” come from “T-square”? This explanation is a bit more plausible chronologically (the first OED citation for “T square” is from 1701), but there’s no evidence to support the connection between the drafting ruler and the expression.

Or, as the OED says, this theory appears “on investigation to be untenable.” There’s also no evidence to support that business about the crossing of the “T.”

However, the OED points out, “it is notable that to a tittle (i.e. to a prick, dot, jot) was in use nearly a century before ‘to a T’, and in exactly the same constructions.”

The first citation for “to a tittle,” which the dictionary defines as “with minute exactness” or “to the smallest particular,” is from The Woman Hater, a 1607 comedy by Beaumont and Fletcher: “I’ll quote him to a tittle.”

If I had to guess, I’d go with “to a tittle” as the source of “to a T,” but the origin of this expression isn’t known to a T.

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The haves and the have-nots

Q: The president of the college where I teach asked me why we use the possessive in “doctor’s appointment” when the appointment is the patient’s. She also wondered why we don’t use it in “dentist appointment.” I thought I’d better check with you before answering her.

A: We use the term “possessive” today to describe relationships that involve more than possession.

Before we started calling this form (or case) the “possessive,” it was called the “genitive.” These days, only grammarians and other language types use the term “genitive,” but in some ways that old term was less confusing.

Genitives involve relationships much wider than simple possession or ownership. For example: measurement (“a week’s vacation”), affiliation (“Sylvia’s book club”), kinship (“Percy’s cousin”), description (“a bachelor’s degree”), and so on.

To these examples I would add “doctor’s appointment,” a phrase that describes the kind of appointment, not who owns it. Literal ownership is not involved.

Why don’t we say “dentist’s appointment”? Well, many of us do in fact say it, but the additional “s” often isn’t heard because the “st” at the end of the noun runs into it.

I hope this helps. As I say in my grammar book Woe Is I, for an acquisitive society, we have an awful lot of trouble with possessives.

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Songful conviction

Q: I was reading on your blog about the use of “were” versus “was,” and your explanation of the subjunctive. Suddenly, I remembered the song “Dixie” and its lyrics: “I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!” Shouldn’t that be “were?”

A: In any other context, the grammatically correct sentence would be “I wish I were in Dixie.” But, thank heavens, writers of song lyrics are exempt from the rules of English grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, pronunciation, and even logic!

So, the grammar police didn’t give Bob Dylan a ticket for singing “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed.” Or, for that matter, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole for singing “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby.”

However, Bruce Springsteen got an A in grammar as well as music when he sang, “I wish I were blind / When I see you with your man.”

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Fun, funner, and funnest

Q: Is it correct to use “fun” as an adjective? I hear sentences like this everywhere: “We had such a fun day!” Is the usage an example of English as an evolving language? Or is it just some cutesy-poo infantilism that is being adopted by trendy semi-literates? You can probably guess which side I’m on.

A: I wrote a blog entry last year about the adjectival use of “fun” and one earlier this year about the etymology of “funny.” But I suppose we can allow ourselves a “fun” update!

Whether “fun” is a bona fide adjective depends on the dictionary you consult.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes an adjectival definition of the word, without labeling it “nonstandard” or a usage problem or anything else questionable. In other words, M-W considers it standard English.

Merriam-Webster’s even includes the comparative “funner” and the superlative “funnest,” though both have the modest comment “sometimes” attached. That’s not exactly a wholehearted endorsement in lexicographerese.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), however, feels the adjective is not yet ready for prime time.

In a usage note, American Heritage says the “use of fun as an attributive adjective, as in a fun time, a fun place, probably originated in a playful reanalysis of the use of the word in sentences such as It is fun to ski, where fun has the syntactic function of adjectives such as amusing or enjoyable.“

“The usage became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, though there is some evidence to suggest that it has 19th-century antecedents, but it can still raise eyebrows among traditionalists,” AH adds. “The day may come when this usage is entirely unremarkable, but writers may want to avoid it in more formal contexts.”

I’m with American Heritage on this. When too many people still find a usage remarkable (to put it nicely), it doesn’t yet belong in formal English. But I think it’s acceptable to use “fun” as an adjective in speech or informal writing.

As for “funner” and “funnest,” we are not amused.

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An apple for Mizz Grundy

Q: Growing up in Louisiana in the ’40s and ’50s, I frequently encountered the use of “Mizz” for a lady of unknown marital status. It was commonly used to address teachers. I found it very amusing in the ’60s when “Mizz” suddenly took on the “Ms.” spelling and a feminist connotation.

A: The term “Ms.” was used as a courtesy title for a woman long before you were in knee pants and probably before your father was in knee pants too.

I discussed this on WNYC last month and cited the efforts of the linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer to track down the (so far) earliest known sighting, or antedating, of the term.

Zimmer, the executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, has traced the term back to Nov. 10, 1901. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he or another word sleuth finds an even earlier example before long.

In “Hunting the Elusive First ‘Ms.,’ ” an article for his interactive reference site, Zimmer describes the detective work involved in finding the usage in the Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican.

If you can read the tiny and rather blurred print of the original news clipping, which Zimmer reproduces, you’ll see that writer who uses “Ms.” recommends the pronunciation you grew up with:

“For oral use, it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice, long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

Back then, of course, the use of “Ms.” was not a feminist issue, but one of convenience. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary describes the term now:

Ms has been adopted esp. in formal and business contexts as an alternative to Mrs and Miss principally as a means to avoid having to specify a woman’s marital status (regarded as irrelevant, intrusive, or potentially discriminatory).”

By the way, the OED also has entries for “Miz” and “Mizz.”

The earliest OED citation for “Miz,” described as “a southern U.S. pronunciation of Miss,” is from an 1858 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger magazine: “I soon becum a grate favrit with all the ladis, aspeshly Miz Hanscum.”

The “Mizz” entry describes the term as “representing the spoken realization of Ms.”

If you’re interested in reading more, check out a blog item I wrote a few years ago about whether or not to use a dot with “Ms.” And don’t forget to look at Zimmer’s interesting article.

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Pretzels, chips, whatever

Q: The word “whatever” is listed only as a pronoun in my dictionary, but don’t you think it’s also an adjective and an adverb in today’s language?

A: It depends on which dictionary you look it up in.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, lists “whatever” as a pronoun (“I’ll eat whatever you cook”), an adjective (“He’ll take whatever terms you offer”), and an adverb (“I’m doing my best, whatever”).

Merriam-Webster’s says “whatever” has been used as a pronoun and an adjective since the 14th century.

As a pronoun, it means anything, everything, and no matter what. As an adjective, it means any or all that, no matter what, or of any kind at all.

The adverbial usage (meaning “in any case” or “at all events”) is more recent, but it’s almost a century and a half old, according to M-W.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists “whatever” as a pronoun and an adjective, but it describes as an interjection what Merriam-Webster’s calls an adverb “sometimes used interjectionally.”

Merriam-Webster’s treats all three usages as standard English. American Heritage generally agrees, though it describes as informal the pronoun use in a sentence like “Bring something to the party – pretzels, chips, whatever.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, considers the use of “whatever” as an adverb to be colloquial.

I think it’s OK to use “whatever” as a pronoun, an adjective, and an interjection (or an adverb used interjectionally, as M-W puts it), but let your ear be the judge. If the usage seems too casual, save it for speech or informal writing.

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Term limits

Q: I’m a research assistant on a team studying the people tweeted about on Twitter. To present our work succinctly, we’d like to distinguish between pronouns that refer to people and those that refer to places or things. Are there terms for such pronouns?

A: As you’re aware, a pronoun is a word (like “who” or “which”) that can be used in place of a noun (like “Bertie” or “Jeep”). We’re not aware, though, of a term for a pronoun that can stand in for only a person, or a term for a pronoun that can stand in for only a place or a thing.

English has many kinds of pronouns (personal, reflexive, demonstrative, indefinite, interrogative, relative), but each category includes words for people as well as words for things. In fact, not even every personal pronoun refers to a person. “It,” for example, is a personal pronoun that’s used in place of a thing.

If this isn’t confusing enough, the relative pronoun “that” can refer to either a person or a thing, despite the common misconception that it can stand in for only a thing. We wrote a blog item a few years ago about “that” vs. “who.”

In the glossary at the end of Pat’s book Woe Is I, she describes the different kinds of pronouns. If you want to brush up on them, here’s an excerpt:

“A personal pronoun can be a subject (I, you, he, she, it, we, they); an object (me, you, him, her, it, us, them); or a possessive (my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs). Some of these (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) are also called possessive adjectives, since they describe (or modify) nouns.

“A reflexive pronoun calls attention to itself (it ends with self or selves): myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. Reflexive pronouns are used to emphasize (She herself is Hungarian) or to refer to the subject (He blames himself).

“A demonstrative pronoun points out something: this, that, these, those. It can be used by itself (Hold this) or with a noun, as an adjective (Who is this guy?).

“An indefinite pronoun refers to a vague or unknown person or thing: all, another, any, anybody, anyone, anything, both, each, either, every, everybody, everyone, everything, few, many, much, neither, no one, nobody, none, one, other, several, some, somebody, someone, something, such (All is lost). Some of these, too, can serve as adjectives.

“An interrogative pronoun is used to ask a question: what, which, who, whom, whose (Who’s on first?).

“A relative pronoun introduces a dependent (or subordinate) clause: that, what, whatever, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose (He’s the guy who stole my heart).”

We hope this helps, and good luck in your research.

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An ulterior motive

Q: Here’s my question: “interior” and “exterior” are antonyms with the same ending; so are “superior” and “inferior.” Is there a matching antonym for “ulterior”?

A: An antonym for “ulterior” with the same suffix? As far as I can make out, there isn’t one.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the English adjective “ulterior,” first recorded in 1646, comes from the identical Latin ulterior, meaning “further, more distant.” The Latin root is ulter, or “that is beyond.”

The first English meaning of “ulterior,” according to the OED, was “lying beyond that which is immediate or present; coming at a subsequent point or stage; further, future.”

But in the mid-1700s the word gained another meaning: “lying beyond what is openly stated, avowed, or evident; intentionally kept in the background or concealed.”

Like the other words you mention, “ulterior” is a combination of a stem (in this case the Latin ulter) plus the suffix ior, which was used in Latin to form comparatives. The Latin ending has given us such English pairs as “inferior/superior,” “junior/senior,” and “interior/exterior.”

Although “ulterior” was formed in exactly the same way, there’s no opposite side to this coin.

But let’s play Invent a Word! If there WERE to be an etymologically similar antonym, it could be “propior,” “proximior,” “propinquior,” or the like.

In Latin, prope (an adverb) and propinquus (an adjective) mean near or close to. The Romans’ comparative adjective (nearer) was propior and their superlative (nearest) was proximus, from proximare, the verb meaning to draw near or approach.

But even if we had concocted one of these inventions as an English word meaning the opposite of “ulterior,” it probably wouldn’t have evolved the way “ulterior” has. In other words, it’s not likely that it would now mean open and aboveboard.

Oh well. You can’t have everything.

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English language Uncategorized

Smiling out loud

Q: I was watching The Story of G. I. Joe on cable TV when a character used the term “SOL” – the abbreviation, not the sun or the musical note. I had thought that this shorthand was of recent vintage, but there it was in a 1945 movie.

A: The abbreviation “SOL,” pronounced ESS-OH-EL, is a lot older than that World War II movie. How about World War I?

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says it’s been around since the 1910s as an adjective meaning “unfortunate, unlucky, in a difficult situation.” And, as Cassell’s adds, “[abbr. shit out of luck].”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a US abbreviation for “soldier out of luck,” “surely out of luck,” and, of course, “shit out of luck.”

The first citation in the OED is from a 1917 description of slang used by the American Expeditionary Forces in Word War I:

“S.O.L. — Payroll abbreviation for Soldier, adapted to mean Soldier Out ‘a Luck or Certainly Out ‘a Luck, according to the way you spell it. Applicable to everything from death to being late for mess.”

This initialism (an abbreviation formed from the first letters of the words in a phrase) is alive and well today, with even more meanings.

In cyberspace, for example, “SOL” may stand for not only all of the senses mentioned above, but also “smiling out loud” and “sooner or later.”

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