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Meet Pat today in Manhattan

Hear her answer questions like these: Do the British really speak better English than Americans? Why don’t French women wear brassières? Does “ain’t” deserve its bad rep? You may be surprised. As the title of her talk suggests, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Pat will be speaking at 6:30 PM at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. Admission is free.

Ask her if that pet peeve of yours should be making you peevish. She’ll also sign copies of the new third edition of her grammar book Woe Is I as well as her recent book about language myths, Origins of the Specious.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin Writing

Is there a cat in the corner?

Q: What is the origin of the expression “catty-corner” and does it have anything to do with cats?

A: The phrase, originally seen as “catty-cornered” or “cater-cornered” in 19th-century America, has no relationship at all to cats.

Although the “catty” version appeared first in print, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the “cater” version is closer to the phrase’s etymological roots.

The OED traces both of them back to a 16th-century verb, “cater,” meaning “to place or set rhomboidally; to cut, move, go, etc., diagonally.” So to move in a “cater-cornered” way is to go diagonally from corner to corner.

The English verb came from the French quatre (four). Since the early 1500s, the word “cater” has also meant the number four in games of dice or cards, though this usage is not common today.

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb “cater” is from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Conrad Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “The trees are set checkerwise, and so catred, as looke which way ye wyl, they lye leuel [level].”

And this OED citation,  written four centuries later, describes the motion of a wagon at a level railroad crossing: “ ‘Cater’ across the rails ever so cleverly, you cannot escape jolt and jar” (from an 1873 travel memoir, Silverland, by the British writer George Alfred Lawrence).

As for “catty-cornered,” the phrase has been spelled a number of ways over the years: “catacornered,” “katterkorner’d,” “cat-a-cornered,” etc. Since the early 20th century, it has often been seen without the “-ed” ending.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) has two examples in one sentence: “Lee Chongs’s grocery was on its catty-corner right and Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant was on its catty-corner left.”

The feline-sounding version of the expression probably began with a mispronunciation of the relatively rare word “cater.” Through a process that language types call folk etymology, a cat ended up in the corner.

Both “cater-corner” and “catty-corner” are still used today and can be found in contemporary dictionaries. But a latecomer, “kitty-corner,” which first showed up at the end of the 19th century, is the most popular one these days, according to Google.

And in some versions, the “corner” element disappears, as in the mid-19th-century “catawampous” or “catawampus.” The OED calls  this “a humorous formation” that meant not only ferocious (perhaps derived from “catamount,” the mountain lion) but also askew or awry.

Slang dictionaries also have the spelling “catter-wompus” (1851) for the askew or diagonal sense of the word, followed by “cattywampus” in the first decade of the 1900s.

And naturally there’s a “kitty” version too. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples of “kittywampus” dating from the 1940s.

[Note: This post was updated on March 22, 2020.]

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Politics and transparency

Q: I’m pretty certain the political use of “transparency” is European in origin, quite possibly of academic origin. I first noticed it about 15 years ago in UN speak and in the name of an NGO (non-governmental organization) called Transparency International (it’s dedicated to openness in government and fighting corruption).

A: Well, the usage does indeed seem to be of European origin, but it may be a lot older than you imagine – a century and a half older if you count Thomas Carlyle’s use of it to make a political point.

The Scottish man of letters uses the term in Past and Present (1843), a work in which he argues that authoritarianism, not democracy, is the remedy for political corruption.

In the book, Carlyle compares the chaotic democracy of industrial Britain in the 19th century with the ordered, hierarchical life of the English monastery Bury St. Edmunds in the 12th century.

He writes that Jocelyn de Brakelond, a monk at Bury St. Edmunds, chronicled life at the monastery with “child-like transparency, in its innocent good-humour, not without touches of ready pleasant wit and many kinds of worth.”

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary credits Shakespeare with being the first to use the adjective “transparent” in a figurative way to mean “frank, open, candid, ingenuous.”

Here’s the citation, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590): “Transparent Helena, nature shewes art, / That through thy bosome makes me see thy heart.”

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Does Wimpy need a spell-checker?

Note: The following question is from Florenz Eisman, whose husband, Hy, writes and draws the Popeye comic strip.

Q: Our dictionary says “Brussels sprout” is the correct spelling for this often disliked veggie, but we feel otherwise. Is it ever spelled “brussel sprouts”? This is for a gag where Hy is putting the words into Wimpy’s mouth. (Since Wimpy has 33 college degrees, the spelling must be correct.)

A: It’s properly called “Brussels sprouts.” The first word is capitalized because the vegetable is named after the city of Brussels, Belgium, and the second word is usually plural because we seldom eat only one sprout!

Here’s the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Brussels sprout (almost always pl.), the bud-bearing Cabbage (Brassica oleracea gemmifera), a variety producing buds like small cabbages in the axils of its leaves.”

The OED gives these published citations:

1796, from Charles Marshall’s A Plain and Easy Introduction to the Knowledge and Practice of Gardening: “Brussels sprouts are winter greens growing much like boorcole.” [If you don’t have the OED handy, “boorcole” is better known these days as kale; the word probably comes from a Dutch term for peasant’s cabbage.]

1861, from Eugene S. Delamer’s The Kitchen Garden: “And from the bud at the root of the foot-stalk of each, will appear a miniature cabbage, which is the Brussels sprout.”

“Sprouts,” according to the OED, are “young or tender shoots or side-growths of various vegetables, esp. of the cabbage-kind.”

But Wimpy, with his 33 college degrees, knows this stuff already, I’m sure!

PS: A few years back, Hy and Florenz corrected me after I misled listeners on WNYC about the origin of the word “jeep.” They should know, since the word comes from the Popeye comic strip. I had a chance to tell the real story on the blog in 2007 when a reader asked about it.

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Sympathy strike

Q: An FAQ on says “sympathy” is compassion for another person while “empathy” is imagining oneself in another person’s position. That’s backward from how I understand the two words. Who’s right?

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re with here. The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage nicely differentiates the two terms, so we’ll pass along the definitions:

Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it. Sympathy is compassion for or commiseration with another.”

“Sympathy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered English from Late Latin (sympathia), but comes ultimately from the classical Greek συμπάθεια (sympatheia), or “fellow feeling.” The roots literally mean “together” + “feeling.”

The word was first recorded in English in the mid-16th century, and its earliest meanings had to do with affinity, conformity, harmony, and the like. It came to mean feelings of compassion or commiseration in 1600, the OED citations suggest.

The noun has cousins in French (sympathie), Italian (simpatia), Spanish (simpatia), and Portuguese (sympathia).

“Empathy” is the English version of a German word, einfühlung (“in” + “feeling”), which the Germans adapted in 1903 from the Hellenistic Greek word for “passion” or “physical affection,” ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), also literally “in” + “feeling.” (In modern Greek, the word has the opposite meaning—hatred, malice, and so on.)

The OED defines “empathy,” which entered English in 1909, as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.”

In the 1940s the word acquired a meaning in the field of psychology, the OED says: “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives these examples of the two words at work: (1) “I have a lot of sympathy for her; she had to bring up the children on her own.” (2) “She had great empathy with people.”

Again, sorry to disappoint you. We sympathize with you over the disappointment, and we empathize with what you’re feeling.

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Batting practice

Q: While watching baseball on TV, I repeatedly hear announcers talk about RBIs. The abbreviation “RBI” is short for “run batted in.” The plural is “runs batted in,” not “run batted ins.” So why should the abbreviated plural end with an “s”?

A: Some abbreviated phrases (such as “POW”) form the plural by adding “s” to the end (“POWs”), even though the unabbreviated phrases pluralize a principal noun that’s not at the end (“prisoners of war”).

Other abbreviations with a principal noun that’s not at the end – like “rpm” (“revolutions per minute”), “mph” (“miles per hour”), and “mpg” (“miles per gallon”) – don’t add an “s” because they’re understood as plurals already.

If in doubt about the plural of an abbreviation, check your dictionary.

As for “RBI,” it can be pluralized either way (with or without an “s” at the end), according to the new third edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary. But that’s just the short answer.

Dickson cites the work of the late baseball researcher Charles D. Poe, who found a confusing collection of written plurals for the abbreviation: “RBIs,” “RBI,” “rbi’s,” “RBI’s,” “R.B.I.,” “R.B.I.’s,” and “rbi.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has both “RBIs” and “RBI” as standard plurals, but it lists the “s” version as slightly more common.

I prefer “RBIs,” and that’s the plural I hear the most. But I’ll let E. J. Dione Jr. (writing in the Oct. 19, 1997, issue of the Washington Post) have the last word:

“To refer to RBIs is redundant, strictly speaking. Yet those who decline to pluralize it (‘He has 120 RBI’) sound a little strange.”

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Plane English

Q: Please take on the use of the terminally vague word “midair” to describe airborne collisions between aircraft. I had thought it was eliminated years ago for vagueness, but everyone, including the government, seems to have re-embraced it lately.

A: Yes, “midair” is about as vague as a word comes. What’s “mid” about “midair” – that is, what midpoint is being referred to, if any?

The word “midair,” a noun often used adjectivally, is no more precise than “air” or “airborne.” Besides, it seems unnecessary. Unless planes collide on a runway, collisions between them necessarily happen in the air.

Nevertheless, “midair” is well established, probably because “air collision” doesn’t have the punch of “midair collision.”

I can find nothing against it, either in the style books of the Associated Press or the New York Times, or in general usage guides.

After a small plane and a sightseeing helicopter collided over the Hudson River last Aug. 8, killing nine people, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (and I’m sure many other papers as well) described the incident as a “midair collision.”

The accident happened at about 1,100 feet – a low altitude, by aviation standards, but probably high enough to qualify as “midair,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines “mid-air” (it uses the hyphen) as “a part or region of the air not close to the ground (or some equivalent surface).”

Other dictionaries are also imprecise about how high “midair” is.

In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), “midair” is “a point or region in the air not immediately adjacent to the ground.”

And in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), it’s merely “a point or region in the air.” That’s a lot of latitude in terms of altitude.

The OED‘s first published citations for the word are from the 17th century and have nothing to do with aircraft.

The earliest use, in the form of a noun, is from a 1605 translation by Josuah Sylvester of a work by Guillaume du Bartas, referring to “Th’ excessiue cold of the mid-Aire.”

The first use of the phrase “in mid-air” is from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Zophiel, of Cherubim the swiftest wing, / Came flying, and in mid Aire aloud thus cri’d.”

The OED‘s first citation that has anything to do with aviation comes from a letter written by the English art critic and Bloomsbury figure Roger Fry in 1928: “Reports of aeroplanes that catch fire and grill the passengers in mid-air.”

However, I found a few earlier aviation citations myself (probably not the first) in a casual search of the New York Times’s online archives.

This headline appeared on March 6, 1912: “MAN STRANGLES IN MIDAIR. / Runaway Airship Carries Foreman Off with Rope Around His Neck.”

The following year, another German airship accident was described in the Times as a “Midair Tragedy.”

Less grim was an 1890 article headlined “WEDDING IN MIDAIR,” announcing a marriage ceremony that had taken place on a balloon flight.

The word seems to have been used steadily ever since in aviation journalism. This is a representative citation from the Guardian (1970): “If something is not done soon about these near misses, there is bound to be a mid-air collision.”

By the way, what people mean by “near miss” is “near collision.” But over the years, “near miss” has become so common that it’s gained acceptance as an idiomatic expression.

Of course it’s not literally correct – a plane that’s had what we call a near miss doesn’t nearly miss disaster, it DOES miss it! But the phrase is now accepted even by dictionaries as meaning “a narrowly avoided collision.”

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Seasonal disorder

Q: I’ve recently noticed that the names of seasons are not being capitalized. Is this something new? Or was I just absent the day it was discussed in school? I see on WikiAnswers that a season should be capitalized when paired with a noun (e.g., “Spring semester”). What do you say?

A: Beware what you find on reference wikis! Collaborative websites are only as good as their collaborators. Some contributors are good and some aren’t. In this case, you can forget the advice.

In contemporary English usage, the names of seasons are not capitalized, even if used adjectivally (as in “spring semester” or “fall harvest”).

The exception, of course, would be (as WikiAnswers notes) when the word comes at the beginning of a sentence.

You can find evidence for this in many usage guides, including Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style (look under “capitalization”), as well as in dictionaries (look up the entries for the individual seasons).

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BBQ, part 2

Q: I had a thought while reading your blog post on the “barbeque” spelling of “barbecue.” I don’t know which came first, but could the variant “q” spelling have developed out of “BBQ”? Thanks for letting me put my two cents in.

A: Thanks for your suggestion. And it’s definitely worth more than two cents.

The earliest citation for “BBQ” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1938 advertisement in the Los Angeles Times: “Rambling Ranch $14,500 – Rail fence and olive trees! Built around a large brick patio with BBQ, wonderful for parties!”

However, the OED has an even earlier example for “Bar BQ.” Here’s the 1926 citation from the Mansfield (Ohio) News: “The Bar BQ Ranch is jest over that rise.”

And a search of the America’s Historical Newspapers databank suggests that an abbreviated form of the word was popular in the late 19th century.

Here’s an intriguing Oct. 4, 1898, snippet from the Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times: “As to these elaborate preparations for the peace jubilee,” remarked Rivers, “it seems to me that there isn’t any too much time. Whatever is done ought to be done p. d. bar b. q.”

This item seems to be an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune. I guess the Wilkes-Barre editors were amused by the mushing together of “p.d.q.” and “bar b.q.”

As I said in my earlier blog item, the OED doesn’t have any published references for the “barbeque” spelling, but a search of America’s Historical Newspapers finds lots of examples from the early 1920s. Here’s one from an AP article in the Nov. 11, 1922, issue of the Miami Herald Record:

“Mayor J. C. Walton of Oklahoma City, next governor of Oklahoma, today announced plans for a monster inaugural party, the features of which will be a barbeque and old-time square dance at the state house.”

Interestingly, the word is spelled “barbecue” in the headline: “Will Slaughter 300 / Cattle for Barbecue / At His Inauguration.” Perhaps the Associated Press writer preferred one spelling and the Miami editors another, and somehow the AP spelling slipped into the paper. (The current AP style is “barbecue.”)

Could one of the many abbreviated versions of “barbecue” have led to the “barbeque” spelling? I don’t know, but the chronology seems to be right. If I learn more, I’ll let you know.

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Auntie anxiety

Q: I would like to know why some people pronounce “aunt” like AHNT and others like ANT. I grew up in the Midwest where everyone said ANT, but I now live in NYC where everyone says AHNT. Please explain which is correct.

A: A blog reader wrote in earlier this year with this explanation: an AHNT is a very rich ANT. But, seriously, the word “aunt” has two correct pronunciations: ANT (like the insect) and AHNT.

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

The first (ANT) is by far the predominant American pronunciation. The second (AHNT) is common in the Northeast, some Southern dialects, and among African Americans.

British speakers today also prefer the second pronunciation (AHNT), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But many phonologists and other scholars have shown that the pronunciation of “aunt” varies widely in Britain, and that “ant” and “aunt” are pronounced the same by many speakers in the northern counties.

In fact, ANT was once the preferred pronunciation in Britain, so the dominant American pronunciation is actually older, a relic of British usage in the late 18th century.

The linguist and lexicographer M. H. Scargill has written: “Acceptable late-18th-century British pronunciation rhymed ‘clerk’ with ‘lurk,’ ‘caught’ with ‘cot’ and ‘aunt’ with ‘ant,’ and those pronunciations are the ones immigrants brought with them.”

The “a” in words like “after,” “aunt,” “last,” “past,” “class,” “dance,” “path,” and “chance” is pronounced the old way (like the “a” in “bat”) by most Americans, while most British speakers now pronounce it as “ah.”

In its entry for “aunt,” the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary notes that the ANT pronunciation “was brought to America before British English developed the ah in such words as aunt, dance, and laugh.“

“In American English,” Random House adds, “ah is most common in the areas that maintained the closest cultural ties with England after the ah pronunciation developed there in these words.”

If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog item earlier this year about the pronunciation of “vase.” Yes, once again the typical American pronunciation has history on its side.

I go into much more detail about British and American pronunciation in “Stiff Upper Lips,” a chapter in Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart.

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Forward thinking

Q: I saw this question on Boing Boing: “Let’s say a meeting, originally scheduled for Wednesday, has been moved forward two days. What is the new day of the meeting?” It seems that people who say “Friday” are angrier than people who say “Monday.” I’m a good-natured “Monday” person, but I wonder if there’s a linguistic convention for this. Which is most correct?

A: The question here is whether moving an event “forward” means it will happen earlier or later. I say earlier (I must be good-natured too), and I’m surprised that some people think otherwise.

As one who has dealt with deadlines all my adult life, I can assure you that moving a deadline “forward” in a newsroom means moving it closer to the present, or earlier. And moving a deadline “back” means the opposite: away from the present, or later.

In both cases, the deadline is of course in the future; it’s moved either “forward” or “back” in terms of its proximity to the present.

Those who disagree probably picture a calendar in their minds. “Forward” to them means to the right: Friday is to the right of Wednesday, or further into the future. Similarly, “back” means to the left.

In my opinion, this is the wrong perspective from which to view future events that are either in the forefront (earlier) or the background (later).

One of the earliest definitions of “forward,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “the first or earliest part of (a period of time, etc.).”

This sense was recorded as far back as the year 900, when forewearde neaht (“forward night” in Old English) meant early evening.

As for modern usage, you have to look far and wide to find a dictionary that’s specific about what “forward” means in terms of time.

For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has this: “At or to a different time; earlier or later: moved the appointment forward, from Friday to Thursday.” In the example, the word means “earlier,” but the definition (“earlier or later”) is noncommittal.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) is refreshingly unambiguous. Among its definitions of the adverb “forward” is this one: “to an earlier time or date (to move a meeting forward).” It gets my vote. I think this is how the vast majority of people use the word.

I recently wrote an item on my blog about a similar issue: the use of the word “prepone.” It means to move an event ahead in time – that is, the opposite of “postpone.”

If “prepone” catches on, that would solve the problem for people who can’t agree among themselves what moving a meeting “forward” actually means.

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Crying over spilled milk

Q: I’m wondering if you can tell me where the idiom “it’s no use crying over spilled/spilt milk” comes from. The Online Etymological Dictionary attributes it to Thomas C. Haliburton in 1836. But why milk?

A: In its first incarnation, in the mid-1600s, the phrase was about “shed” milk. Back then, one of the meanings of the participial adjective “shed” was spilled. (The verb “shed” meant, among other things, to let a liquid pour out by accident.)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase “it’s no use crying over spilt milk” and its many variations as meaning “it is futile to regret what cannot be altered or undone.”

The dictionary’s first published citation comes from a collection of English proverbs by James Howell (1659): “No weeping for shed milk.”

The fact that Howell was recording a proverb rather than inventing something new indicates that the saying had been around long before 1659. Here are some later citations, and their dates, from the OED.

1681, from England’s Improvement by Sea and Land, by Andrew Yarranton, an engineer and industrialist: “Sir, there is no crying for shed milk, that which is past cannot be recall’d.”

1738, from Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation:
“‘Tis a Folly to cry for spilt milk.”

1824, from The Pink Tippet, a story by Lucy L. Cameron: “‘There is no use in crying for shed milk,’ answered Betty.”

1860, from Anthony Trollope’s novel Castle Richmond: “It’s no use sighing after spilt milk.”

1893, from New England Magazine: “His ‘sober second thought’ decided him to face the music, confess his fault and make the best of it, feeling it was of no use to ‘cry for spilled milk,’ and leave the matter to terminate as it might.”

Although the expression is frequently seen with either “spilled” or “spilt” as the participial adjective, the “spilled” version is noticeably more common today, especially in the United States, according to Google searches.

By the way, the verb “spill” itself has an interesting history. In Anglo-Saxon days, spelled spillan, it meant to destroy, kill, or mutilate. We’ve lost most of the violent senses of the word, though we still speak of spilling blood as well as milk, water, and other liquids.

But back to this business of crying over spilled liquids. You ask why milk is spilled as opposed to grog or some other venerable beverage?

Unfortunately, I can’t find any authoritative source that answers the question. Perhaps the original reference was to little children, weeping after spilling their milk (and perhaps fearing their mother’s wrath). We may never know.

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Vice isn’t nice!

Q: At my place of employment, management has circulated a memo requiring employees to use the word “vice” instead of “versus.” So a company document might read: “Consider performing maintenance vice replacing the faulty part.” I would appreciate any insight you can provide.

A: Your bosses are recommending a term that’s not common, except perhaps in the military. This is the use of the preposition “vice,” a Latin borrowing, to mean “instead of” or “in place of.” 

(Think of the related term “vice versa,” which is also from Latin and means “conversely,” or “in reversed order.”)

This “vice” can be pronounced as one syllable (rhyming with “nice”) or as two (VYE-see), according to standard dictionaries.

A Google search finds that your bosses aren’t alone in using “vice” instead of “versus,” though this is certainly not common in ordinary English. These days, the “instead of” sense of the word is more common in prefixes and adjectival nouns in titles.

For example, we use it (pronounced as a single syllable) in terms like “vice president” and “vice consul,” where it means someone who represents or serves in place of a superior. A  “viceroy,” to use another example, rules a province or country as the representative of his sovereign.

The preposition “vice” as used by your bosses first showed up in written English in a military usage in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the OED citation: “6th reg. of foot: Capt. Mathew Derenzy to be Major, vice John Forrest; by purchase.” (From a 1770 issue of the Scots Magazine.)

[Note: The military use is still alive. Two readers of the blog report that “vice” is used for “in place of” in armed-forces documents.]

Later OED citations include uses in sports, diplomacy, and music. Here’s one from a book Pat is currently reading:

“He was gardener and out-door man, vice Upton, resigned.” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1849.) 

As a noun, of course, “vice” can mean a lot of nasty things: depravity, corruption, evil, and so on. The OED says the noun, first recorded in English in 1297, is from a different Latin source: vitium (“fault, defect, failing, etc.”).  

But getting back to your company’s memo, we see nothing wrong with “versus,” a preposition meaning “against” that’s been in steady since the 15th century. Like the prepositional “vice” and its derivatives, “versus” is from Latin, in which it means “against.”

As you’re probably aware, “versus” may have inspired a popular colloquial usage: the word “verse” as a verb meaning to compete against. We recently wrote on the blog about  this use of “verse.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2016.]

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Why are we linguistic lemmings?

Q: I recently changed jobs and encountered a new usage: my coworkers use “showstopper” to mean something so horribly wrong that a project comes to a screeching halt, heads roll, and nobody sleeps until we find a solution. Who hijacked “showstopper”? And why do people act like linguistic lemmings and turn a perfectly good word on its head?

A: When the term “showstopper” entered English in the 1920s, it referred to a song, an act, or a performance that gets so much applause the show is temporarily stopped.

The scribblers at Variety, who coined such beauts as “boffo,” “flack,” “flopperoo,” and “showbiz” itself, appear to be responsible for this one too.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the usage is from a 1926 issue of Variety that describes “two show-stoppers … the Dixie Four … who stopped the show … with their ‘itch’ dance finish, and Dave Apollon and Co., who stopped it, closing the first half.”

In addition to its literal entertainment meaning, “showstopper” has also been used figuratively in the sense of an especially arresting person or thing that draws attention from others or brings action to a halt.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include both these senses.

None of the dictionaries I usually consult include the meaning used by your coworkers: “something so horribly wrong the project comes to a screeching halt, heads roll, and nobody sleeps until we find a solution.”

However, a little googling discovers that techies have adopted “showstopper” to describe a computer bug that’s arresting in a very negative way – a bug that’s flopperoo rather than boffo.

The Jargon File, an online glossary of techie and hacker slang, defines “showstopper” this way: “A hardware or (especially) software bug that makes an implementation effectively unusable; one that absolutely has to be fixed before development can go on. Opposite in connotation from its original theatrical use, which refers to something stunningly good.”

I suspect that your fellow workers, especially the techies among them, may have improvised on this computer slang to come up with a colloquial usage more compatible with your company’s line of work.

Why do people act like linguistic lemmings in adopting such jargon? Probably for much the same reason that lemmings act like lemmings. Our two species seem to have a biological urge to follow the crowd.

Interestingly, lemmings don’t commit mass suicide, as many people believe, though these rodents do migrate in large groups. This myth has been popularized by, among other things, the Disney film White Wilderness.

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You can’t underestimate this … or can you?

Q: Why do people say we “can’t underestimate” something significant when they mean we “can’t overestimate” it? People seem to take a liking to such a mistake and never listen to themselves to question whether it makes any sense.

A: You’re right. People do say we can’t underestimate something when in fact they mean we can and do underestimate it!

But would it be more accurate to say, as you suggest, we “can’t overestimate” it? The answer isn’t quite as simple as you think.

The linguist Mark Liberman has written an interesting post on the Language Log about whether the usage you object to is indeed wacky, and why it’s so persistent.

If “can’t underestimate” is illogical, Liberman would argue, it’s because our “poor monkey brains” have a hard time dealing with complex statements, especially those involving more than one negative idea, or because English simply has a lot of nutty idioms (like “I could care less”).

But on the other hand, perhaps it’s not so illogical after all. Liberman also discusses the argument that this usage makes perfect sense if “can’t” is defined loosely as “may not” or “must not” or “should not.”

In other words, when people say we “can’t underestimate” something, what they may really mean is that we “shouldn’t underestimate” it.

Although many usage experts frown on the looser uses of “can,” especially as a substitute for “may,” this usage is common in speech and informal writing. For example, when we say, “Hey, you can’t do that,” we mean it’s not allowed.

I’ve greatly simplified Liberman’s comments. If you’d like to get the full story, check out his post on the Language Log.

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A new “Woe Is I” is here!

Why do we need another edition of the bestselling grammar classic? Because books about English like Woe Is I have to grow and change along with the language and the people who use it.

Publishers Weekly says this updated and expanded third edition “is as vital as a dictionary for those who wish to be taken seriously in speech, in print or on Facebook.”

Check out the new Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English at your local bookstore, , or Barnes&

English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Herbal remedies

Q: I can’t help responding to your blog posting regarding “a herb” vs. “an herb.” Any word that starts with a vowel has “an” in front of it. “Herb” does not start with a vowel, no matter how the word is pronounced. No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense. A vowel is a vowel and that’s that. A herb is a herb too! Thanks much for listening (I hope!).

A: Sorry to disappoint you. When using an indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) before a word, the determinant is the SOUND the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

Check any reference source you want and you’ll learn this. The word’s spelling is irrelevant.

If the word begins with a vowel SOUND, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” “an honor,” “an herb,” “an umbrella”).

If the word begins with a consonant SOUND, the article is “a” (as in “a hotel,” “a house,” “a utopia,” “a unit,” “a university,” “a use,” “a European,” “a one-time offer,” “a once-over”).

In American English, the “h” in “herb” is not sounded; it is silent, so it’s preceded by “an.” In British English, the “h” in “herb” is sounded, so it’s preceded by “a.”

You say, “No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense.” Of course they do! All words beginning with a silent “h” are preceded by “an.” Are you telling me you actually say “a honorary degree from an university”?

What I’m telling you is common knowledge. Check any dictionary or usage guide.

I’ll quote The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (a frog, a university). The form an is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an orange, an hour).”

And this is from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert H. Burchfield (who uses “AmE” for American English, “BrE” for British English): “AmE herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in BrE, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.”

I can cite many, many more authorities if you’re still unconvinced.

American Heritage has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. I quoted it in that earlier post, but it bears repeating:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

In case you’re wondering, the “h”-less American “herb” is the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the word was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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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 listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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A tall individual in a short suit

Q: I’m curious about the word “individual.” I recall reading somewhere in the distant past that it was coined by Dickens as a humorous term for a person. Of course a person is an individual entity. You can’t divide one unless you draw and quarter him or her. Can you shed any light on this?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “individual” first appeared around the year 1425 as an adjective referring to “one in substance or essence; forming an indivisible entity; indivisible.”

The OED says this sense of the word is now considered obscure. It was derived from the medieval Latin word individualis, meaning indivisible or inseparable.

In the17th century, according to the OED, the adjective took on new meanings, including “numerically one, single” and pertaining to “a single person or thing, or some one member of a class.”

This was when the noun form came into being and meant what it does today – a single person or thing.

So Dickens (a 19th-century writer) wasn’t the first one to call a person an individual.

That honor, according to the OED, goes to the Puritan minister John Yates, who wrote in Ibis ad Cæsarem (1626): “The Prophet saith not, God saw euery particular man in his bloud, or had compassion to say to euery Indiuiduall, Thou shalt liue.”

However, Dickens must have liked the term. He used it many, many times. Here are a couple of examples.

Sketches by Boz (1836): “At the lower end of the billiard-table was an individual in an arm-chair, and a wig …”; Great Expectations (1861): “… a murderous-looking tall individual, in a short suit of white linen and a paper cap.”

As you can see, the use of the noun “individual” for a person has history on its side. But many usage guides insist there’s a right way and wrong way to use this noun.

The New York Times stylebook, for instance, says it’s OK to use “individual” to distinguish one person from a group, but it’s stilted to use the term for a person in general.

So, according to the Times, it would be fine to say someone is only one individual in a large company, but stilted to say the company has hired three individuals.

The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage speculates that much of the “tooth-gnashing” over the usage “can be blamed on police-blotter jargon.”

Garner’s generally prefers the more specific terms “man,” “woman,” and “person” over “individual” when the “person” isn’t being singled out from a group.

I agree. Let’s leave this use of “individual” in the squad room.

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You do something to me

Q: I was the guy who called you on Iowa Public Radio about the incorrect use of the subjunctive. I have another pet peeve: the use of “do … do.” Example: “Do you do copying here?” Is there ever a time when such a double use of the same word is anything but redundant?

A: As a matter of fact there is. The use of “do … do” that you mention is legitimate, and not ungrammatical at all.

The first “do” in that sentence is an auxiliary verb (as in “Do you make copies here?”) and the second one is the principal verb. The auxiliary “do” is often used with a “to”-less infinitive to form a question (“Do you snorkle?”).

As a verbal auxiliary, “do” can also be used, among other things, for emphasis (“Do be careful”) and to make a negative sentence (“I don’t know the answer”). The principal verbs in those two examples, “be” and “know,” are also infinitives.

Here are some other examples of “do” acting as an auxiliary:

(1) Do you do that? … Yes, I do do that. [Or, elliptically: Yes, I do.]

(2) Did you do that? … Yes, I did do that. [Or, elliptically: Yes, I did.]

(3) Do you see that? … Yes, I do see that. [Or, elliptically: Yes, I do.]

(4) Did you eat that? … Yes, I did eat that. [Or, elliptically: Yes, I did.]

On the other hand, a similar-sounding usage (“The point is, is …”) isn’t grammatically correct. I wrote a blog item last year that touched on this double “is” business. And I wrote another a couple of months ago about doubled words in general.

As for double “do”-ing, I’ll let Cole Porter have the last word: “Do do that voodoo that you do so well.”

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A crowning moment

Q: I phoned you on Iowa Public Radio, but I didn’t get a chance to ask my question … actually two. It annoys me when people talk about kings or queens being “coronated” instead of “crowned.” Also, I wonder about “out” vs. “out of” in a phrase like “out (or “out of”) the door.” What do you think?

A: Some modern dictionaries list “coronate” as a verb meaning to crown, but I agree with you. I don’t think “coronate” is what the Archbishop of Canterbury does when he places St. Edward’s Crown on a royal head.

At a coronation, an archbishop “crowns” a king or queen; he does not “coronate” one – at least not in the opinion of most English speakers.

The Oxford English Dictionary does indeed include “coronate” as a verb meaning to crown, but it labels the usage rare. More important, the citations listed in the OED have nothing to do with royal coronations.

Here the verb “coronate” and the past participle “coronated” mean something more like topped or furnished with a corona, as in this 1707 citation from a work about the flora and fauna of Jamaica: “A round purplish knob … coronated by a long membrane.”

An obsolete past participle, “coronate,” though, did mean crowned in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to the OED. A 1513 citation, for example, says “William conquerour …Was coronate at London.”

The word at the bottom (or top!) of all this etymology is “crown.” The OED says it was first recorded in Old English in 1085 as a noun, corona, borrowed from the Latin corona (a wreath, garland, or crown). Later the last syllable fell away, and the spelling gradually evolved into “crown.”

The verb followed a century or so later, spelled crunen in Middle English. The OED‘s first citation is from around 1175, when to “crown” meant “to place a crown, wreath, or garland upon the head of (a person), in token of victory or honour, or as a decoration, etc.; to adorn with the aureole of martyrdom, virginity, etc.”

The use of the verb “crown” in the sense of “to invest with the regal crown” came along circa 1290.

But back to “coronate.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) still lists it as a bona fide verb meaning to crown. However, I don’t think the people saying “coronate” today are using that old verb that the OED describes as rare.

If I had to guess, I’d say the verb “coronate” that you’re hearing is a back-formation from the noun “coronation.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.) In this case, people assume that at a coronation, somebody gets coronated.

You also asked about the use (or nonuse) of the preposition “of” in phrases like “out of the door.” These phrases are standard English whether they include “of” or not. The choice (“out of the door” or “out the door”) is up to you.

In certain contexts, the fuller phrase may sound better to your ear. In others, dropping “of” may sound more idiomatic: “I kicked him out the door!” Or, as Groucho Marx said: “Love flies out the door when money comes innuendo.”

If you want to read more, I’ve written a blog entry about a different “of” issue: the sometimes redundant phrase “off of.” And I’ve written another post that briefly touches on the issue.

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An allergic reaction

Q: Hi, there. I’m a receptionist at WNYC and I see you when you come to the studio each month for the Leonard Lopate Show. I was wondering if you could tell me about the history of “God bless you.”

A: With all the rain in the New York region lately, the vegetation is running amok and so are the allergens. As an allergy sufferer myself, I assume you’re asking (achoo!) why we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes.

The short answer is that nobody knows. There are a few interesting though inconclusive facts, but the most popular explanations for the origin of this usage are pure fiction.

For instance, one suggestion is that people in the Middle Ages believed that the soul left a sneezer’s body for a few seconds, so someone would say “God bless you” to keep the devil from snatching the soul before it returned.

Another suggestion is that medieval people believed a sneezer’s heart stopped beating, so a bystander would say “God bless you” to get the heart going again.

However, I have yet to see an authoritative account from the Middle Ages that connects “God bless you” with soul-snatching or heart-stopping.

In fact, I haven’t seen solid evidence that medieval people even held such beliefs, though that wouldn’t surprise me. A bit of googling indicates that quite a few people believe such nonsense today.

Perhaps the most popular “God bless you” story is that the custom originated during a plague that was devastating Rome in 590 when Gregory I became Pope.

Gregory, according to this story, urged the people of Rome to take part in mass processions and prayers, and say “God bless you” when anyone sneezed. (Many websites tell the same story, but say the pope was Gregory VII, who actually lived hundreds of years later.)

Well, Gregory did call for processions and prayers in Rome in response to the plague, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, but he did it before he was consecrated Pope.

More important, there’s no evidence that he ever used the expression “God bless you” (in Latin or English ) in response to sneezing or that he ever asked the people of Rome to do it.

The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s comprehensive entry on Gregory makes no mention of the practice.

As a matter of fact, the limited evidence available suggests that the medieval church tried to stop such practices and considered them relics of pagan times.

For example, St. Eligius (circa 588-660) threatened to “withhold the sacrament of baptism” from anyone who observed “incantations” or “auguries or violent sneezings” or other “sacrilegious pagan customs.”

Pagan customs? Yes, people were apparently blessing or otherwise welcoming sneezes hundreds of years before Gregory assumed the papacy.

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, asks, “Why is it that we salute a person when he sneezes, an observance which Tiberius Caesar, they say, the most unsociable of men, as we all know, used to exact, when riding in his chariot even?”

Pliny’s comment (from Book XXVIII, Chapter 5) is in a section on “prayers for good fortune, and, for luck’s sake.”

Pliny doesn’t mention exactly how the Romans saluted someone who sneezed, but some scholars have suggested that they used the word salve, which is usually translated as “welcome,” “good day,” or “goodbye.”

The Satyricon, reputedly written by the first-century Roman Petronius Arbiter, uses the verbal phrase salvere iubeo (to bid good day) in describing the reaction to a fit of sneezing. The poet and classical translator Sarah Ruden has used the phrase “bless you” in putting this scene into English.

But why did we begin saluting or blessing or whatever-ing when someone sneezed?

The classicist Arthur Stanley Pease, writing in the journal Classical Philology, suggests that it was because the ancients believed that a sneeze was a divine omen.

In “The Omen of Sneezing,” Pease cites numerous examples from Greek and Latin literature of sneezing considered an omen, sometimes a good one and sometimes a bad.

In the Odyssey, for example, Penelope’s son, Telemachus, sneezes when his mother expresses hopes that Odysseus will return home and wreak vengeance on her unwanted suitors. Penelope takes the sneeze as a good omen and says that “my son has sneezed a blessing on all my words.”

The classics scholar Elaine Fantham has said Penelope considers her son’s sneeze “a sign from the gods.” In a May 27, 2006, interview with NPR, she explained why the Greeks could consider sneezing a good omen:

“Because it was seen as something humans couldn’t engineer. It was spontaneous. It came over them. It was out of their control.”

Wilson D. Wallis, in “The Romance and the Tragedy of Sneezing,” says similar customs were common in many other ancient cultures. Wallis’s paper in Scientific Monthly cites sneezing traditions among Hindus, Chinese, Zoroastrians, and others.

In “The Rabbis and Pliny the Elder,” a treatise in Poetics Today, Giuseppe Veltri compares sneezing beliefs of Talmudic sages and ancient Romans.

In other words, we’ve been talking about sneezing for a long, long time. However, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure why people began saying “God bless you” or ancient versions of it.

I lean toward the idea that we once considered sneezing an omen, either of good or bad. Perhaps a good omen was a blessing and a bad one needed a blessing.

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Google eyed

Q: Is “google” a legitimate verb yet? I probably should google it, but I’ve decided to check with you first.

A: “Google” (the verb) has made it into the OED (with a capital “G”).

The definitions: (1) “To use the Google search engine to find information on the Internet.” (2) “To search for information about (a person or thing) using the Google search engine.”

The first citation given for No. 1 is from 1999, in a Usenet newsgroup called “Has anyone Googled?”

The first citation for No. 2 is from 2000 in another newsgroup, alt.sysadmin.recovery: “I’ve googled some keywords, and it came up with some other .edu text.”

However, Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, may have been the first person to use the company’s name verbally. Here’s how he signed off the July 9, 1998, Google Friends Newsletter: “Have fun and keep googling!”

Interestingly, Google itself has discouraged the use of its name as a verb. Why? It’s concerned about the possible loss of its trademark if “google” becomes a generic term.

In 2006, for example, a Google trademark lawyer sent a letter to the Washington Post describing “appropriate” and “inappropriate” ways to use its name.

It’s “appropriate,” according to the lawyer, to write: “I ran a Google search to check out that guy from the party.” It’s “inappropriate” to write: “I googled that hottie.” Sorry, Google, but I fear it’s too late. The genie is out of the bottle.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already lists the verb “google” with a lowercase “g,” but notes that it’s often capitalized. M-W says it means “to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web.” In other words, to google a hottie.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) doesn’t have an entry yet between “goofy” and “googol” (the number 10 raised to the power 100), but I’d be shocked if “google” isn’t there in the fifth edition.

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Hoboes, bootleggers, and hijackers

Q: You were discussing the origin of the word “hijack” recently on WNYC. Could it be derived from the verb “jack,” meaning to steal or rob?

A: If only it were that simple. The verb “hijack” apparently came before “jack,” but we’ll have to do some digging to get to the bottom of this.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “hijack” originated as a slang term in the United States in the early 20th century, then passed into general use. Apart from that, the OED says, the ancestry of “hijack” is unknown.

The dictionary has no published references for the word, or for its derivative terms, published any earlier than the 1920s.

The first such citation is from a July 1923 article in the Nation: “There was, of course, the rush of adventurers, oil promoters, highjackers (an oil-region term for murderous robbers).”

Back then, the term “hijacker” (spelled “highjacker”) must have been unfamiliar to most people, since the writer or editor of the article felt it necessary to toss in a definition.

The OED also cites two references that appeared only a month later, in the Literary Digest issue of August 1923: ” ‘I would have had $50,000,’ said Jimmy, ‘if I hadn’t been hijacked.’ ” And, “So much for hijacking on the high seas.”

Here’s another OED citation for “hijacker” that includes a definition for the benefit of British readers; it was published in the Times of London in October 1925: “A shooting affray between bootleggers and ‘hijackers’ (men who prey on bootleggers) took place … in a lodging-house on the west side of New York.”

By the way, the OED‘s definition of “hijack” is “to steal (contraband or stolen goods) in transit, to rob (a bootlegger or smuggler) of his illicit goods; to hold up and commandeer (a vehicle and its load) in transit; to seize (an aeroplane) in flight and force the pilot to fly to a new destination.”

The verb “jack” originated as a shortened form of “hijack” with much the same meaning, according to the OED. It was first recorded in the American Mercury in 1930: “Two loads jacked. That’s the blow off. You’re through.”

As used today, however, this slang use of “jack” is closer in meaning to “rob” or “burgle.”

But back to “hijack.” Words don’t just suddenly appear out of the blue in national publications. “Hijack” must have been part of slang speech well before 1923. So where did it come from?

The etymologist Gerald L. Cohen has asked himself the same question, and he was kind enough to send me copies of some of his findings. In Studies in Slang II (1989), he presents evidence suggesting that “hijack” originated in the late 19th century as a mining term in Missouri, where zinc ore was referred to as “jack.”

“The miners in the booming Webb City area of Missouri (SW) would often slip some ‘high jack’ (high grade zinc) into their boots or pockets before leaving work,” he writes. “They were referred to as ‘high jackers.’ “

The word “hijack,” he adds, “later turned up in the hobo jungles with the meaning ‘rob a fellow hobo while he is asleep’ – a major offense among the hoboes; and by 1923 it came into widespread use as ‘steal bootlegged liquor.’ Now, of course, it refers to commandeering a plane, bus, etc.”

Cohen notes that the only point not clear is how the hoboes applied a mining term for “pilferer of zinc ore” to “robber of a fellow hobo while asleep.”

“In any case,” he says, “once this semantic development occurred, the revulsion by the hoboes toward such stealing led to the term’s coming to refer to an outright hold-up. And it was in this latter sense that the 1920s bootleggers adopted the word.”

Cohen writes that another common explanation, that robbers would shout “High, Jack” when commanding victims to raise their hands, “is almost certainly a folk etymology.”

Is the ultimate source of “hijack” now present and accounted for? Perhaps, but only time will tell.

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It’s a woman thing

Q: I heard you recently on Iowa Public Radio, but I wasn’t able to call about the frequent mispronunciation of “women” as “woman.” Do others complain about this? Or are my ears playing tricks on me?

A: This is a mispronunciation that’s new on me. I haven’t heard it, at least not that I’m aware of.

Roughly since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “woman” and “women” have been the regular spellings for the singular and plural forms of the word.

And from at least the 16th century, the only difference in pronunciation between the two has been the sound of the first vowel.

Here’s how the OED puts it: “The pronunciation (wu-) was ultimately appropriated to the sing. and (wi-) to the pl., probably through the associative influence of pairs like foot and feet.”

By the way, it was mentioned during my radio appearance that the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated.

Here’s how my husband, Stewart Kellerman, and I explain it in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language:

“In Anglo-Saxon times, when words were bubbling away in the stewpot of Old English, there were several ways to refer to men and women. For a few hundred years, manna and other early versions of our modern word ‘man’ referred merely to a person regardless of sex – that is, a human being. So how did the Anglo-Saxons tell one sex from the other? A single or married man was a wer or a waepman (literally a ‘weapon-person’). A single or married woman was a wif or a wifman.

“By the year 900 or so, wifman began to lose its f. Over the next five hundred years, it went through many spellings until it settled down as our modern word ‘woman.’ Meanwhile, wif, which had its own share of spellings before becoming ‘wife’ in the 1400s, led a double life. It could mean a married woman, as it does today, but also a woman, married or single, in a humble trade – an archaic usage that survives in the quaint terms ‘fishwife’ and ‘alewife.’

“Speaking of quaint terms, whatever happened to the weapon-people? Around the year 1000, the various versions of manna began to mean an adult male as well as a human being. By the 1400s, manna had become our modern word ‘man,’ while the old macho terms wer and waepman had fallen out of use. … That left the guys without a unique word for an adult male. They had to share ‘man’ with humanity in general. If you ask me, it was the men who got screwed, etymologically speaking. We women ended up with a word all our own.”

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Curly Bill gets it in the neck

Q: I was wondering about the origin of the phrase “to get it in the neck.” More important, how old is it?

A: The expression, which was first recorded in the early 1880s, means “to be thoroughly bested or victimized, as by overwhelming force, swindling, death, etc.,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a three-line headline in the May 26, 1881, issue of the Arizona Weekly Star: “Curly Bill / This noted desperado ‘Gets it in the Neck’ / at Gayleyville.” (I’ve gone to the original source and expanded the citation.)

Another desperado, Jim Wallace, shot Curly Bill as he was leaving a saloon, according to the Arizona weekly, “the ball entering penetrating the left side of Curly Bill’s neck and passing through, came out the right cheek, not breaking the jawbone.”

So, the OED’s earliest citation for the phrase refers to the literal shooting of somebody in the neck. Could this shooting have inspired the expression we have now for being defeated, victimized, and so on?

Well, Curly Bill (actually William Brocius), was indeed a noted desperado. But I suspect that the headline writer thought it would be entertaining to use in a literal way a figurative expression that was already in the air, if not in print.

In fact, six months after that headline appeared in Kansas, an item in a New York City tabloid suggested that the expression had been in common use for a while.

Here’s the OED citation from the Nov. 25, 1882, issue of the National Police Gazette: “An ‘Artless’ Young Girl Gives it to Her ‘in the Neck,’ as the Sports Say.”

I think the most probable origin of the expression is the earlier use of “to get it” in the sense of to be shot or killed or punished.

The first citation in the Random House slang dictionary for “to get it,” meaning to be shot or killed, is from this 1844 description of a panther hunt: “I’ll git him! Bang! Oh, dam you! you’ve got it! I know you is! you aint shakin’ that tail for nothin’ ! Yes, thar’s blood on the snow!”

The earliest citation in Random House for “to get it,” meaning to be punished, is from an 1861 book about the working poor in London: “I was flogged as a convict, and he as a soldier; and when we were both at the same hospital after the flogging, and saw each other’s backs, the other convicts said to me ‘D— it, you’ve got it this time.’ ”

As for the “neck” business, I imagine it’s an allusion to a vulnerable part of the anatomy, as in a human who’s hanged by the neck or a chicken whose neck is wrung or axed.

Both Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English mention the chicken connection, but we don’t know for sure which, if any, specific neck inspired this expression.

In conclusion, here’s an excerpt from The Inimitable Jeeves, a 1923 story collection by one of my favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse:

“It seemed to me that everything was absolutely for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But have you ever noticed a rummy thing about life? I mean the way something always comes along to give it you in the neck at the very moment when you’re feeling most braced about things in general. No sooner had I dried the old limbs and shoved on the suiting and toddled into the sitting-room than the blow fell.”

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Problem child

Q: I hope you can do something about a recent trend in American language: the use of “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome” or “yes.” If I’m in a restaurant and ask for an extra napkin, the server says “no problem.” Why do I need to be told I’m not a problem? Am I the only person who finds “no problem” a problem?

A: No, you’re not the only person who has a problem with “no problem.” But it’s no use hoping we can “do something about” it. We can only explain, maybe illuminate. We can’t stem the tides.

Although many people seem to think this usage originated recently among the younger generation, it’s actually been around since the mid-1950s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED describes “no problem” as a colloquial phrase that can mean either of two things: (1) that whatever is being referred to is “simple” or “acceptable” or “not problematic”; (2) that one is agreeing, acquiescing, or acknowledging a “thank you.”

Here are the dictionary’s first two citations:

1955, in a letter written by Ralph Ellison to Albert Murray: “No problem on haircuts here. Moroccans come in all textures. No problem there either.”

1973, from Martin Amis’s novel The Rachel Papers: “Finally, every time I emptied my glass, he took it, put more whisky in it, and gave it back to me, saying ‘No problem’ again through his nose.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists “no problem” as an idiom used “to express confirmation of or compliance with a request.”

The American Heritage’s usage panel apparently has no problem with it. We don’t either. It may be used a bit too much, but so are many common idioms, such as the American expression “You’re welcome.”

By the way, “You’re welcome” (generally not used in British English) isn’t much older than “no problem,” in the grand scheme of things. The first published use of “You’re welcome” in response to thanks was recorded in 1907, according to the OED.

Other cultures have many idiosyncratic ways of acknowledging thanks. Examples: “no worries” in Australia; “no hay de qué” or “de nada” or “no hay problema” by various Spanish speakers; “prego” in Italian; “bitte” in German; and “de rien” in French.

In Britain, the standard response is quite often no response at all. And if you’ve seen the Disney animated film The Lion King, you’ll remember “Hakuna Matata,” a lively song with music by Elton John and words by Tim Rice. The title means “no worries” in Swahil (in other words, “no problem”).

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All’s well that ends well

Q: Lately, a lot of newscasters, politicians, and people in general are using the phrase “as well” instead of the normal “also” or “too,” especially at the end of a sentence. What is this all about? Is it correct? I now find myself using it as well!

A: This use of “as well” is nothing new. In fact, the phrase has been used to mean “also,” “in addition,” “besides” or “in the same way” for more than 700 years.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this use of “as well” comes from Robert Manning of Brunne’s 1303 work Handlyng Synne: “Ryght as she dede, he dede as weyl.”

Or, as we would put it, “Right as she did, he did as well.” Brunne was translating a long poem from Anglo-Norman French into Middle English.

Since the Middle Ages, this usage has been pretty routine. Here’s a more recent citation, from On the Lesson in Proverbs (1853), by Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench: “We have a right to assume this to be a voice of God as well.”

If these guys could use the phrase, you have the right to use it as well.

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Fine tuning

Q: What is the meaning of the phrase “not to put too fine a point on it”? I’ve heard it several times on NPR and can’t pick up what the speaker means by it. I hope you can educate me about this one.

A: We may have Dickens to thank for giving us this expression. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the usage is from his 1853 novel Bleak House.

In fact, one of the characters, Mr. Snagsby, uses the phrase – or one nearly identical – 11 times in the book. Here’s an example: “It is relating,” says Mr Snagsby, “it is relating – not to put too fine a point upon it – to the foreigner, sir.”

The OED says “to put too fine a point on” something means to mince words or to be unnecessarily delicate. But the dictionary says the expression is used only in the negative – that is, in the sense of not mincing words.

The OED describes the usage as figurative, but doesn’t say exactly what the figure is. Go figure.

I imagine, however, that the expression is derived from an early sense of “point” to mean a small or separate item, detail, or part of something. That’s what the word meant when we borrowed it from the French in the 13th century.

A now-obsolete phrase “to point” used to mean “to the smallest detail.” Shakespeare uses it here in The Tempest (1610-11): Hast thou, Spirit, / Performed to point, the Tempest that I bad thee?

The later phrases “to a point” and “to a fine point” have meant precisely or completely since the 19th century.

But how did we get from a phrase about being precise to one about being overly precise or, in the negative, not mincing words? I’ll let Dickens have the last word.

In Chapter XI of Bleak House, he describes “not to put too fine a point upon it” as “a favourite apology for plain-speaking” that Mr. Snagsby “always offers with a sort of argumentative frankness.”

I hope I’ve been clear enough, and haven’t put too fine a point on my answer.

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Is there a husband in husbandry?

Q: Can you tell me where the word “husbandry” comes from? I assume it once had something to do with husbands and marriage.

A: The word “husbandry” has nothing to do with marriage, at least not in this day and age. And it had nothing to do with marriage when it entered English in the late 13th century.

In fact, the word “husband” itself didn’t mean a married man when it first showed up around the year 1000.

The noun “husband” originally meant a “male head of a household,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The guy could have been married, widowed, or single.

A word-history note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) suggests that the wedded sense of “husband” was derived from the fact that male heads of household were usually married.

The origins of “husband” are Scandinavian. A similar word from Old Norse and Old Icelandic, husbondi, roughly meant a householder. (A bondi in Old Norse was a peasant who owned his house and land.)

It took nearly 300 years for “husband” to evolve into its modern sense of a married man. This meaning was first recorded in about 1290.

That same year, according to the OED, the word “husbandry” entered the language as a noun for the management of a household and its resources.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598): “Lorenzo, I commit into your hands / The husbandry and manage of my house.” (Portia is speaking here.)

In the 1300s another word, “husbandman,” came to mean a farmer or a tiller of the soil, and the word “husbandry” widened to mean farming and agriculture in general, including the raising of livestock, poultry, and such.

This latest sense of “husbandry” survives today. We still speak of “animal husbandry” as a branch of farm management. However, I don’t know of a term for husband management!

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Hone truths

Q: Has “hone in” become an accepted phrase? Or is “home in” still correct?

A: Things haven’t changed, at least in the opinion of usage writers. The phrase is “home in.” Here’s how Pat explains these look-alikes in the new, third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (due out this month):

“HOME/HONE. As verbs, these are often confused. To home in on something is to zero in or concentrate on it. But to hone (not ‘hone in’) is to sharpen. Uncle Bertram honed his knife, then homed in on the problem: how to carve a roast suckling pig.

Now, replacing our usage hat with our etymological hat, we should mention that “hone in” is homing in on acceptance among lexicographers, the people who put together our dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has an entry that defines “to hone in” this way: “To head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu. with on.”

The OED describes the usage as an apparent alteration of “to home in.” It traces the alteration to confusion caused by the somewhat similar meanings of the verbs “home” (to be guided to an objective) and “hone” (to refine a skill).

The dictionary has published references for “to hone in” going back more than four decades, including citations from the New York Times and the New York Review of Books.

The first OED citation is from George Plimpton’s 1966 book Paper Lion: “Then he’d fly on past or off at an angle, his hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing in to intercept his line of flight.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have entries for “hone in” that also describe the verbal phrase as an alteration of “home in.” [2013 update: The new fifth edition of American Heritage agrees here.]

Merriam-Webster’s says “hone in” seems to have established itself in American English and made inroads in British English.

But the dictionary adds that using it, especially in writing, “is likely to be called a mistake.” We think so too. “Hone in on” is bad usage.

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The flatulent society

Q: What is the origin of the word “pumpernickel”? My local newspaper guy and I (both former Iowans living in New York) disagree on the origin of the noun describing a coarse dark bread.

A: “Pumpernickel,” the name of the dark, slightly sweet bread, has humble origins, to say the least, in the Westphalia region of Germany.

The word is German and was first used for the bread in the 17th century. But it had an earlier meaning, roughly equivalent to a rascal or lout, in the 16th century.

To get a better sense of its early literal meaning, you have to take the word apart: in German, pumper means “fart” and Nickel is a pet-form of the name Nikolaus. The nickname has been used in German to mean “goblin,” “devil,” or “rascal,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the earliest meaning of the word “pumpernickel” is “not entirely certain,” but the etymology indicates that “it is clearly depreciative.”

“As applied to bread it was apparently also originally depreciative and was perhaps originally applied to Westphalian bread by outsiders,” the OED adds. “This type of bread was probably so called either on account of its being difficult to digest and causing flatulence or in a more general allusion to its hardness and poor quality.”

You didn’t say what your disagreement with the newspaper guy was about, but I think I can guess: a popular folk etymology that “pumpernickel” is from a French phrase, usually bon pour Nicol, or “good for Nicol.”

The “Nicol” here is a horse, sometimes even Napoleon’s horse. This false etymology has been around almost as long as the original; in fact, it was recorded before Napoleon’s time.

By the way, there are two kinds of pumpernickel: German-style, which uses a chemical reaction to darken the bread, and American-style, which uses molasses or some other darkening agent.

I’ve never tried German pumpernickel, but I’ve heard that the American version is easier to digest – and less gassy. Enjoy!

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An adjective with integrity

Q: I wish “integrious” were a word meaning full of integrity. There is no simple way to say someone has integrity.

A: Would you believe that this came up during a WNYC discussion back in 2004? Some of the proposals for an adjective to use in place of the missing word were “honest,” “upright,” “trustworthy,” and “sincere.”

In fact, we once had both adjectival and adverbial forms of “integrity,” although only for brief times in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the adjective “integrous” (meaning “marked by integrity”), recorded in a work by William Morice in 1657: “That an action be good, the cause ought to be integrous.”

The OED also has an entry for the words “integrious” (adjective) and “integriously” (adverb). The only citation in the OED is from the diary of Sir Henry Slingsby (1658):

“Such was their integrious candor and intimacy to me in my greatest extremes. … Being so integriously grounded, as it admitted no alloy or mixture with By-respects or self-interests.”

Another adjective was recorded more than a century later in the poet Robert Burns’s first Commonplace Book (1784): “To maintain an integritive conduct towards our fellow-creatures.”

The noun “integrity” first appeared in 1450, according to the OED, and originally meant the quality of being unspoiled or in an original, perfect state. It’s related to “integer,” “integral,” and other words having to do with wholeness.

The moral meaning of “integrity” came along in the next century and meant “soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.”

This sense of the word was first recorded in Edward Hall’s Chronicle, Hen. VI (1548): “So much estemed … for his liberalitie, clemencie, integritie, and corage.”

Alas, all the old adjectives are now described as obscure and rare. But words have been known to come back from the dead, so who knows?

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