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February House

Q: Does anyone ever pronounce the first “r” in February?

A: Dictionaries list two proper ways to say “February”: with either one “r” or both of them pronounced.

Most people, however, do not pronounce the first “r,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s points out that FEB-yuh-ware-ee is “the most widespread pronunciation of this word among educated speakers.”

This pronunciation is an example of what linguists call “dissimulation.”

M-W explains that dissimilation “may occur when a word contains two identical or closely related sounds, resulting in the change or loss of one of them. This happens regularly in February.”

“The y heard from many speakers is not an intrusion,” the dictionary adds, “but rather a common pronunciation of the vowel ‘u‘ after a consonant, as in January and annual.”

This reminds me of the house in Brooklyn where a bunch of creative types, including W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Gypsy Rose Lee, lived communally in the early 1940s.

Anaïs Nin called it “February House” because so many of the occupants were born in that month.

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Of maidens, quails, roes, or larks

Q: I’m a network news producer. I recently tried to use the phrase “a bevy of frenzied activities,” but it was deemed an inaccurate use of the word “bevy.” My dictionary says “bevy” can be used for a group of people or things. Isn’t an activity a thing? Can you please clarify?

A: The word “bevy” is a noun meaning, roughly, a group – and the group is usually one of people or animals.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the origins of “bevy” are uncertain. When it first appeared in the 15th century, it was “the proper term for a company of maidens or ladies, of roes, of quails, or of larks.”

The OED‘s first published citation is from a book on hawking that appeared in 1430 and referred to “a bevey of quayles.”

In the 1600s, people began using “bevy” to refer to “a company of any kind,” as when Ben Johnson referred in 1603 to “a bevy of Fairies.”

But, according to the OED, only “rarely” is the word “bevy” used to refer to “a collection of objects.”

As for a collection of activities, that would be a very unusual usage. “A frenzy of activity” might have been better.

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Author! Author!

Q: What bothers me is how the use of “author” has changed. I thought it was a “relational” noun, so Dickens should be referred to as the author of David Copperfield, not merely as an author. It also hurts my ears to hear someone referred to as simply a mother, rather than someone’s mother.

A: A “relational noun” is one that implies a relationship, and that relationship is often expressed in the possessive.

“Leg,” for example, can be described as relational because it usually belongs to someone or something, as in “John’s leg,” or “the leg of the chair.”

The same can be said of a word like “mother”; it often appears in phrases like “John’s mother,” or “the mother of three.”

But relational nouns can also be nonrelational – that is, independent – when used without reference to a possessor.

For example, in a sentence like “He hurt his leg,” the word “leg” is relational, but in “The leg has large major veins” it’s independent.

And in the sentence “She is John’s mother,” the word “mother” is relational, but in “She is a mother” it’s independent.

In the same way, a noun like “author” or “composer” can be relational (“author of a book,” or “composer of the symphony”), but it can be independent too (“She’s a popular author,” or “He’s an arranger and composer”).

Similarly, words that we would never think of as relational, like “flower” and “season,” become relational when used with “favorite”: “Her favorite flower is the rose” … “The favorite season of lovers is spring.”

The only relational noun I’m aware of that can’t be independent too is “sake.” This word is always used in a possessive phrase because it always belongs to someone or something.

We say “for heaven’s sake,” “for goodness’ sake,” “for the sake of my family,” “for the children’s sake,” and so on. “Sake” is never used without reference to a possessor.

In short, “author” can be a relational noun or an independent one. It’s grammatically correct to say either “She’s the author of Middlemarch” or “Eliot is a great author.”

Writers have been using “author” in a nonrelational way for centuries. As John Gay wrote in his Fables (1726): “No author ever spar’d a brother.”

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Foreign affairs

Q: Should “soignée” and “trompe l’oeil” be underlined? Where can I obtain a list of foreign words (especially French) to be underlined and those to be left alone?

A: The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) advises italicizing, not underlining, isolated foreign terms. But it recommends using italics only if the foreign terms “are likely to be unfamiliar to readers.” Otherwise, roman (that is, upright) type should be used.

How can you tell whether a foreign word or phrase is familiar or not? Consult a dictionary.

“Soigné” and “trompe l’oeil” are regular entries in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

This indicates that the two terms have been adopted into English. Thus, they shouldn’t be italicized when used in an English sentence.

American Heritage lists only those foreign terms that have been adopted into English. Merriam-Webster’s lists both adopted foreign terms and the less familiar ones.

M-W includes adopted foreign terms in the main A-Z section, alongside other English words. It lists less familiar foreign terms – those not fully adopted into English – in a separate section at the back called “Foreign Words & Phrases.”

For example, M-W lists “enfant terrible” in the main section, but the less familiar “enfant chéri” in the back. This indicates that the first would not be italicized, while the second should be.

M-W explains: “Foreign words and phrases that have not been fully adopted into English are italicized. In general, any word that appears in the main A-Z vocabulary of this dictionary does not need to be italicized.” (Page 1613)

The dictionary gives these examples: “At the club such behavior was distinctly mal vu. The prix fixe lunch was $25.”

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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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House cleaning

Q My boyfriend corrects me when I say something like “the house needs cleaned.” Do I have to say “the house needs to be cleaned” in order to be grammatically correct? Please help!

A: Your grammar may not be spotless here, but I wouldn’t call it outrageous either. In some parts of the country, in fact, it’s quite common.

There are two correct ways to say this: “The house needs to be cleaned” or “The house needs cleaning.”

Your variation, “The house needs cleaned,” is widely frowned upon in usage guides, but it’s an established regional idiom in Scotland, Ireland, and parts of the US. I touched on this two years ago in a blog posting.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), under its entry for the verb “need,” has this interesting Regional Note about the subject:

“When need is used as the main verb, it can be followed by a present participle, as in The car needs washing, or by to be plus a past participle, as in The car needs to be washed. However, in some areas of the United States, especially western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, many speakers omit to be and use just the past participle form, as in The car needs washed. This use of need with past participles is slightly more common in the British Isles, being particularly prevalent in Scotland.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that in Scottish, Irish, and some kinds of American English, the verb “need” is often used with a participial adjective (like “cleaned” or “walked”) as its complement.

These regional usages date from the middle of the 19th century. The OED gives examples including “the car needs washed” (that one seems to be pretty popular!) and “Does my hair need combed?”

The OED also says that “need,” used with a verbal noun (such as “cleaning” or “walking”) as its subject, has been common since about 1400. Here are a few of the OED‘s citations from major authors:

1681, John Dryden: “Young appetites are sharp, and seldom need twice bidding to such a banquet.”

1844, Charles Dickens: “That needs no accounting for.”

1847, Charlotte Brontë: “Her feelings are concentrated in one – pride; and that needs humbling.”

1915, Willa Cather: “If she wasn’t disturbed, she needed no watching.”

1916, George Bernard Shaw: “Her hair needs washing rather badly.”

1928, Eugene O’Neill: “The collegiate clothes are no longer natty, they need pressing and look too big for him.”

1940, William Faulkner: “It would need painting again this year; he must see to that.”

So “The house needs cleaning” is perfectly fine. As for “the house needs cleaned,” it isn’t the best English and shouldn’t be used for formal occasions.

But if you live in certain parts of the country, this usage is as ordinary as “standing on line” in New York or “y’all” in the South.

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Do you have issues with “issue”?

Q: In a hearing transcript I was reading the other day, an attorney complained that a proposed settlement would cause “issues” for his client. As a law professor, I’ve noticed that “issue” has come to replace “problem.” Do you have any idea how this linguistic evolution or devolution has occurred?

A: You aren’t the first to notice or take issue with this use of “issue.” Many of my readers and listeners have noticed it too.

The noun “issue” (as well as the verb) entered English in the 1300s and has had a variety of meanings over the centuries, all of them arising more or less out of its early meanings of egress, outflow, exit, discharge, or output.

The “issue,” in other words, is what comes out, whether from a drain pipe, the human body, a stressful situation, or a problematic legal settlement.

Thus “issue” has been used to describe progeny (that is, children); bodily fluids (as in blood from a wound); the outlets of streams and rivers; the proceeds from rental property, and an outcome, product, event, or consequence.

Also, it has meant a distribution or a giving out (as when a soldier is given an “issue” of rations or pay), an “issue” of a newspaper or magazine; and a point in question (a legal usage dating from 1308).

The legal usages, with their contentious overtones, might have influenced a relatively new meaning of the noun, as exemplified in the phrase “to make an issue of” (that is, to make a fuss about or make a subject of contention).

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this sense of the word from 1927, when a writer in the New Statesman remarked, “There seems to be an attempt to create a big issue of Communism versus anti-Communism.”

And we’ve been making issues of things ever since.

The use of “issue” to mean an emotional or psychological problem seems to have cropped up about 30 years go.

Here’s one of the entries under “issue” (noun) in the OED: “In pl. orig. and chiefly U.S. Emotional or psychological difficulties (freq. with modifying word); points of emotional conflict.”

And here’s the OED‘s first published citation, from the New York Times on Dec. 8, 1982: “Then it becomes how do you deal with the emotions and intimacy issues that were largely dealt with previously through alcohol?”

As we all know, by the time a term shows up in a major newspaper it’s probably been in use for a while. So this sense of the term might have been in the air before 1982.

As of this writing, the online version of the OED doesn’t deal with “issue” as a synonym for a plain old problem (as in “he has cholesterol issues”).

But both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include problem as a meaning of “issue.”

Clearly this sense of the word has grown out of the earlier psychological use of the term.

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Chain language

Q: I was delighted to meet you at the Port Washington Public Library on Long Island. I’m the knitting lady. I have a question about the old E. J. Korvette chain of discount department stores. I used to believe the name stood for the eight Jewish Korean War veterans who founded the chain. But I’ve read recently that this is a myth. What’s the story?

A: Hi, knitting lady, it was a real pleasure to see you, and the lovely sweater coat you knitted. And, yes, that business about E. J. Korvette and the Korean veterans is a myth.

The name actually combined the first initials of the two founders – Eugene Ferkauf and Joe Zwillenberg (or Swillenberg) – along with a respelling of “Corvette,” the naval term for a small, fast, lightly armed warship.

It’s an urban legend that the name stood for eight (or eleven) Jewish Korean War veterans. In fact, E. J. Korvette, which was in business from 1948 to 1980, was founded before the Korean conflict began.

Ferkauf, in his 1980 memoir Going Into Business: How to Do It by the Man Who Did It, explains the origin of the name this way:

“I had a name picked out for the store, E. J. Korvette. ‘E’ is for Eugene, my first name, and ‘J’ stands for Joe Swillenberg, my associate and my pal…. As for ‘Korvette,’ it was originally meant to be spelled with a ‘C’ after the Canadian marine sub-destroyer, simply because I thought the name had a euphonious ring. When it came time to register the name, we found it was illegal to use a naval class identity, so we had to change the spelling to ‘K’.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Phrase origin Word origin Writing

Among or between?

Q: When describing three people working together, is it a collaboration among, amongst, or between them?

A: There’s no difference between “among” and “amongst,” beyond their spellings. “Among” is preferred in American English and “amongst” is often preferred in British English. We wrote a blog post earlier this year about “among/amongst.”

You also ask about the use of “between” versus “among.” In general, “between” applies to two (“This is between him and me”), and “among” to three or more (“The six members agreed among themselves”).

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage gives this example: “Trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico has grown under Nafta.”

As the style guide explains, “Each country trades with each of the others, rather than with all simultaneously. When more than two things are related in a purely collective and vague way, use among.”

The word “betwixt,” by the way, is an old-fashioned version of “between,” though both words have been around in various forms since Anglo-Saxon times.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “betwixt” as somewhat archaic in literary English and chiefly poetical.

However, the expression “betwixt and between,” meaning neither one thing nor the other, is a relative newcomer.

The earliest citation in the OED is from Frederick Marryat’s maritime novel Newton Forster (1832), which refers to “the lease of a house in a betwixt and between fashionable street.”

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Time trial

Q: I heard a football play-by-play man use “times-out” as the plural of “timeout.” I think that’s incorrect, in contrast to a sportscaster who referred to “R’sBI” as the plural for “runs batted in.” That, I believe, is right. Or, is it overly fussy?

A: Could the play-by-play guy have said “time’s out,” the contracted form of “time is out”? Otherwise, the plural of “timeout” is “timeouts,” though a Google check suggests that not everyone has gotten the word.

In case you’re interested, the term “timeout” entered English more than a century ago as a football term.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1896 book about football: “Time out, time taken out by the referee when play is not actually in progress.”

Over the years, the term has been written as two separate words (“time out”), two words hyphenated (“time-out”), and a single word (“timeout”).

In sportswriting and parenting, it’s increasingly being spelled as one word, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage.

I wrote a blog item earlier this year about how compound terms begin life as separate parts and then get mushed together over time.

How do we pluralize these terms?

If a compound is one solid word, put a normal plural at the end of the word: “Doormen are good at getting taxicabs.”

If the compound is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the most important part: “Do rear admirals serve on men-of-war?”

(The two examples above are from the new third edition of my grammar book Woe Is I.)

As for runs batted in, forget you ever heard “R’sBI.” That would be like using “P’sOW” instead of POWs.” I wrote a blog entry recently on how to pluralize “RBI.”

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Subject matter

Q: I’m puzzling (or jousting) with another copy editor over which, if any, of these sentences should take a singular verb: (1) The bride, and the groom, look lovely. (2) The bride – and the groom – look lovely. (3) The bride (and the groom) look lovely. (4) The bride, as well as the groom, look lovely. (5) The bride, along with the groom, look lovely. Would you care to weigh in?

A: In general, two singular and separable nouns joined by “and” take a plural verb. (Sometimes, though, the two nouns refer to the same person and so are inseparable, as in “Our cook and housekeeper has resigned.”)

I find nothing indicating that the commas in sentence No. 1 would change this rule, though I find them awkward and unnecessary.

As for 2 and 3, parentheses and sets of dashes are functionally alike in that they isolate information that’s grammatically extraneous to a sentence. By this reasoning, the two sentences ought to take singular verbs, at least in theory.

But in fact, these sentences are constructed incorrectly, whether the verb is singular or plural. That’s because an extraneous element should not be included within the part of the subject that determines the form of a verb.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 1750) gives this as an example of such an “inadmissible” sentence: “Kim (and Pat) have still not been informed.” Sentences 2 and 3 fall into this category and should be recast.

As for numbers 4 and 5, phrases like “as well as,” “accompanied by,” “added to,” “in addition to,” “along with,” “coupled with,” or “together with,” when inserted between subject and verb, don’t change the number of the verb. So if mere adjunct phrases like these follow a singular noun, the verb remains singular.

To sum up, I’d use a plural verb (“look”) with numbers 1, 2, and 3, after eliminating the commas from 1, the dashes from 2, and the parentheses from 3. I’d use a singular verb (“looks”) with 4 and 5.

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Your cheatin’ heart

Q: A “mistress” is a kept woman supported in secret by a married man who’s cheating on his wife. What do we call the man? My husband says a “lucky dog,” but he’s joking … I hope. Seriously, is there a word for this?

A: I’ve racked my brain, but can’t come up with a word for the cheating man. Perhaps “sugar daddy”? Of course that word is slanted, since it defines him in terms of the mistress but not the wife (he’s not a sugar daddy to the Mrs.).

“Gigolo” can describe a kept man, the masculine equivalent of the mistress. And “cuckold” is the masculine version of the wife who’s being cheated upon.

But as for the man who keeps a mistress, that’s perhaps a gap in the language that needs to be filled.

By the way, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the expression “sugar daddy” (also know as “sugar,” “sugar papa,” “sugar pops,” and “sweet sugar”) originated in the US in the 1920s.

The earliest citation in the New York Times archive (from a 1926 drama review) refers to the vagaries of life in a traveling theater troupe, including the search for lodgings, the scarcity of hot water, and “the ‘sugar daddy’ of the show.”

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Changes in Pat’s WNYC schedule

In October and November, she’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show on the fourth Wednesday of the month instead of her usual appearance on the third Wednesday. If you miss a program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Auntie anxiety, part 2

Q: I’m a new reader of your blog. I enjoy it very much, but I’m a little confused by your blog entry on “aunt.” You give two pronunciations: ANT and AHNT. Although I most often hear ANT, I never hear AHNT. I do, however, occasionally hear AWNT. (I’m from Wisconsin.)

A: All of my standard American English dictionaries (and I have lots of them) list only two pronunciations in their “aunt” entries: ANT (rhyming with “can’t”) and AHNT (rhyming with “font”).

However, The Dictionary of American Regional English gives several variations that are heard in some parts of the United States. One is indeed AWNT (rhyming with “haunt”)..

DARE says the ANT pronunciation is the one usually heard throughout the country. The AHNT version is most often heard in New England and eastern Virginia, but speakers there sometimes turn it into AWNT.

(The dictionary cites an 1847 usage manual that complains about the AWNT pronunciation, so it’s been around for quite some time.)

The regional dictionary doesn’t mention anything about the presence of the AWNT pronunciation in the Midwest. It’s interesting that you’ve heard it in Wisconsin. I’m from Iowa and don’t recall hearing it there.

DARE lists several other less common pronunciations, including AINT, which it says is sometimes heard in the lower Midwest and parts of the South.

I hope this helps, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

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The people’s choice

Q: In teaching religion a few years ago, I encountered confusion on the part of my students when explaining the Trinity by using the term “persons.” How did the singular word “people” become the default plural for the singular word “person”?

A: “People” and “person” are entirely different, etymologically unrelated words.

The source of “people” is the Latin populus (the masses, the populace).

The source of “person” is the Latin persona, which originally meant a mask worn by a character in a play and later came to mean a human being or an individual. The Latin word may have been derived from the Etruscan phersu (mask).

My sources here are the Oxford English Dictionary and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

“People” entered English around the late 1200s. In modern usage, it’s usually a plural noun for “humans” and has no corresponding singular that would mean “one human.”

“People” is singular only when it refers to a body or group of humans who share the same culture. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives this example: “As a people the Pueblo were noteworthy for their peacefulness.”

The collective sense of “people” has a corresponding plural, “peoples,” which is now used to mean groups of humans that share a common religion, culture, language, etc.

A different animal entirely is “person,” which entered English in the early 1200s as a singular noun (plural: “persons”). It originally meant either a human being or a role or function assumed by a human.

“Person” has had many meanings over the centuries, and in 1325 it took on a special meaning in Christian theology, one familiar to every English major who has studied John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”

The OED defines this sense of “person” as meaning “each of the three modes of being of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) which together constitute the Trinity.”

Here’s a citation from John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833): “The word Person which we venture to use in speaking of those three distinct and real modes in which it has pleased Almighty God to reveal to us His being.”

Theologians today still use this sense of the word. But unless you’re talking about theology, there’s nothing wrong with using “people” to mean “persons.” In fact, that’s the people’s choice. I wrote a blog item about the subject last year.

“Persons” often sounds stuffy or has the air of a police blotter (“three persons were taken into custody”). “People” seems more natural to most of us, and that probably accounts for the reason it has largely supplanted “persons.”

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Measuring life in coffee spoons

Q: In Origin of the Specious, you quote Henry Fielding’s comment about “learned pedants whose lives have been entirely consumed in colleges and among books.” The idea of a life consumed is new to me. I have always thought of a life as being spent or, sadly, wasted, like when Prufrock measured his life out in coffee spoons. Well, I won’t consume yours by nattering on.

A: Thanks for the playful nattering.

As for Fielding, he was using a well-established meaning of “consume” in that quotation from Tom Jones, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Since early in its history (the 14th and 15th centuries), the verb “consume” has been used in three primary senses: (1) to destroy, (2) to use up, and (3) to fully engage.

In the first sense, to “consume” a thing or a resource is to destroy it by causing it to disappear, disperse, burn up, wear away, corrode, waste away, decompose, and so on.

In the second sense, “consume” is to use up by ingesting, exhausting, purchasing, spending, wasting, squandering, etc.

In the third sense, to “consume” is to entirely engage a person’s attention or energy, to overwhelm (as when someone is “consumed” by guilt or passion), or to absorb voraciously (as when we avidly “consume” a book).

Fielding was using the word in the second sense.

Perhaps T. S. Eliot imagined Prufrock consuming as well as measuring his life in coffee spoons.

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Lex preferences

Q: I’m overdue replacing my dictionary (American Heritage, 3d edition), but I’m puzzled about which new one to get. I don’t want another American Heritage because I find it sometimes errs on the side of being descriptive rather than prescriptive. What would you recommend? It can be big and somewhat costly.

A: The three dictionaries I use the most are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Of the two American dictionaries, I find that Merriam-Webster’s is clearly more descriptive and accepts as standard English many usages frowned on by the more prescriptive American Heritage.

(A descriptive reference tends to describe the language as it is; a prescriptive one tends to prescribe what it should be.)

Since you want a somewhat prescriptive dictionary, I’d recommend going with the latest American Heritage. And dare I suggest the OED too?

The OED is a feast for language lovers. It includes just about everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – but it’s careful to let readers know when a word is considered dialect, colloquial, slang, rare, obsolete, archaic, etc.

Although you say your next dictionary can be big and somewhat costly, I assume the 20-volume second edition of the OED would be too big and too costly.

However, the second edition is also available online and on CD-ROM. I’ve used both, but I prefer the online version because it’s updated regularly with draft revisions.

If you’re interested, check out the online OED’s subscription page. (And, yes, I pay for my OED subscription.)

PS: A reader of the blog reminds me that many public libraries offer free access to the online OED. Unfortunately, the library in the small rural town where I live doesn’t.

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A Lucky Strike extra

Q: While dating my wife-to-be 14 years ago, I was introduced to a new phrase: “Lucky strike extra.” Her family used it for a bonus gift that’s given at Christmas along with the main gift. Can you tell me something about this phrase?

A: A “Lucky Strike extra,” something given as an unexpected bonus, got its name from Lucky Strike cigarettes, sponsor of “Your Hit Parade” on radio and television during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

The show regularly played the top 10 or 15 songs then current (the number varied over the years). But it also threw in other notable tunes, often old favorites, that the producers felt deserved air time.

These songs were called “Lucky Strike extras” in a nod to the show’s sponsor.

Later, the phrase became a synonym for any kind of bonus or extra goodie, particularly in advertising when a star improvises an additional comment or two in delivering a commercial.

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Being and nothingness

Q: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the use of “being that” in a sentence like this: “It’s not my responsibility being that I only started working here a week ago.”

A: “Being that” is generally not considered good English when used in place of “because” or “since.” I’d call it excessively informal or dialectal rather than incorrect, though.

It also sounds awkward and clunky, to my ear at least.

However, I should mention that the usage is widespread, has been around for several hundred years (even in literary writing), and probably won’t go away soon!

Here’s an example, from 1641, in a book on farming by Henry Best: “They went all for halfe gates, beinge that they coulde not bee discerned.”

And here’s a passage from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering (1815): “being that he was addicted unto profane and scurrilous jests.”

(The examples here are given in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Sometimes “being” is used without “that” (as in “Being I was going, I offered him a ride.”). And sometimes the variation “being as” is used instead.

The result is the same: a usage that’s not the best English.

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Conceptual arts, part 2

[Note: Later posts on this subject appeared in April 2019 and June 2019.]

Q: At almost every morning meeting in my new job, someone uses the word “concept” as a verb meaning to conceive. When a colleague begins a sentence by saying “I concepted a storyline,” it’s like nails on a chalkboard. Is this another example of the lazy “verbification” of nouns?

A: The verbing of nouns isn’t necessarily lazy; it’s a long and honored tradition in English. However, some instances are more welcome than others. The use of “concept” as a verb strikes us as one of the more awkward ones.

What’s wrong with “conceive” or “imagine” or “create” or “devise” or “fancy” or whatever? We have many, many perfectly acceptable ways of saying this without resorting to “concept.”

We wrote a blog item about this two years ago, but a little googling suggests that quite a few other people, especially in the advertising industry, disagree with us and like the concept.

In fact, an advertising copywriter, Ray del Savio, began a campaign a few years ago to get the verb “concept” into Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. He set up a blog and an online petition to press his case.

But the latest edition of Merriam-Webster’s, the eleventh, still lists “concept” as a noun or an adjective, not a verb. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has it only as a noun.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “concept” as a verb, but it means to conceive in the womb, not in the office. And there’s only one published citation for it in the OED, from 1643, suggesting the usage was never all that popular.

Another OED obscurity is the participial adjective “concepted,” meaning conceived or produced, but it too has only one citation, from 1665.

Finally, there’s also a lone citation, from 1594, for “concepted,” meaning “conceited,” but that’s a different animal.

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A quixotic appeal

Q: Sometimes we Americanize a foreign term and sometimes we pronounce it like the original. Shouldn’t we always pronounce a word like “quixotic” or “homage” the foreign way? And shouldn’t we pronounce a name like “Diaz” or “Du Bois” the old way, even if the person so named disagrees? Do people own their names? Finally, what’s your take on having a Language Academy to tell us if a usage is kosher?

A: We’re sorry, but in general we must disagree with you.

It’s in the nature of a language to adopt words from other languages and make them its own. Spanish, for example, has adopted words from English that are often pronounced as Spanish speakers would naturally say them. That’s how it should be.

We’re not annoyed when we hear the phrase “Nueva York.” A Tijuana resident should not be offended when English speakers say MEX-i-co instead of MAY-hee-co. And a Parisian should not be miffed when we say PAR-is instead of pa-REE.

We English speakers adopted the word “toilet” from the French toilette, but we don’t pronounce it twa-LET because for centuries it’s been a bona fide English word. Common English usage has determined its pronunciation in English.

Same with a much older word: “homage.” It entered English in the 1200s, and the pronunciation has naturally become Anglicized. In English, it’s HOM-idj or OM-idj. Anyone who says oh-MAHZH is speaking French, not English.

On the other hand, we DO pronounce some words derived from other languages pretty much the way they’re pronounced in the originals (“rendezvous,” “piñata,” “zeitgeist”).

In the case of “quixotic,” it wasn’t even an adjective in Spanish when the word first showed up in English. It was coined by the British and popularized by an American president, John Adams.

The word “quixotic” first appeared in print in 1718, a shortened version of an earlier English adjective, “quixotical,” first published in 1657.

The definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “characteristic of or appropriate to Don Quixote; demonstrating or motivated by exaggerated notions of chivalry and romanticism; naively idealistic; unrealistic, impracticable; (also) unpredictable, capricious, whimsical.”

The pronunciations in English are kwik-SAH-tik and kwik-SAH-ti-kul.

Very soon after the Cervantes novel was published, English speakers had absorbed the hero’s name into English. In fact, the noun “quixote” has been used in English since 1644, and still is, to mean someone who acts like a Don Quixote.

The English pronunciation is KWIK-set or kee-HO-tee, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

And by the way, the name Quixote was an allusion by Cervantes to the Spanish word quijote (or the obsolete quixote) meaning a cuisse, the thigh-piece of a suit of armor.

Yes, people DO own their names, and they can pronounce them any way they like. If an English speaker named Diaz (in Spanish, it’s Díaz) wants to pronounce the name DIE-us, that’s his business.

We once got a question from a reader asking why people pronounce the NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s name as though the “r” comes before the “v.”

We answered that names don’t operate like normal words. We can pronounce our names any way we want to, no matter how they’re spelled.

And Brett Favre pronounces his last name to rhyme with “carve.” Who are we to argue with a quarterback?

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress, maintains a Web page to help those who record Talking Books for the Blind. The guide, called “Say How? A Pronunciation Guide to Names of Public Figures,” explains that Brett Favre’s last name is pronounced FARV.

In verifying pronunciations of names, the library service says, “the major source, whenever available, must be the person him/herself.” It goes on to say:

“For instance, the surname Moreno is commonly said as either mor-EEN-o or mor-AIN-o, but Rita Moreno pronounces her name mor-ENN-o. And despite the spelling, Brett Favre says his name is pronounced FARV. So FARV it is, and mor-ENN-o it is, and that’s that.”

We’ve also written a blog item about a variation on this question: whether names ending in “stein” should be pronounced STINE or STEEN.

One final note. We’re against the idea of an “Academy” that would attempt to control the development of English. At any rate, it wouldn’t work.

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Escalator clause

Q: I have an item for your consideration – a really egregious business neologism. I emailed Home Depot about a problem with a pet door and got this reply: “We have carefully reviewed your concern and found it necessary to escalate it to our Resolution Team.” So now we’re escalating customer service, not just war.

A: This use of “escalate” is entirely new to me. (Not to mention rather bizarre!) But a bit of googling finds that it’s common among customer-service types.

In the lingo of customer service (no, I won’t say “customer care”), the word “escalate” is routinely used in the sense of referring a complaint to a higher authority or moving it along to the next step.

Well, this customer doesn’t buy it.

The verb “escalate” originated in the early 20th century as a back-formation from the noun “escalator.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

The noun “escalator” started out as a trade name for the moving stairs introduced by the Otis Elevator Company in 1900.

The verb showed up in 1922 and originally referred to climbing or traveling on an escalator, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the mid-20th century, the verb took on the figurative meaning of “to increase or develop by successive stages.”

The first published reference in the OED for the figurative usage is from a 1959 item in the Manchester Guardian that discusses the “possibility of local wars ‘escalating into all-out atomic wars.’ ”

Most of the OED citations use the verb in a negative sense. Thus, things like wars, threats, accidents, drug abuse, and even pompous language are said to “escalate.”

Because of these negative associations, it seems jarring to me to have a customer-service representative use the verb to refer to the handling of a customer complaint.

If this usage bugs you enough, perhaps you should escalate your complaint to the “corporate communicators” at Home Depot’s Public Relations Department.

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Blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy

Q: Recently, I heard an NPR reporter use “sanguine” to mean pessimistic, not hopeful, as my Webster’s unabridged defines it. I’ve heard “sanguine” used this way many, many times, and each time my blood pressure rises. Is there something I’m missing about the meaning of this word?

A: No, “sanguine” means optimistic, hopeful, or confident, not pessimistic, but it’s a colorful word with an interesting history. Your question gives me a chance to write about it.

The adjective “sanguine” is related to the Latin sanguis (“blood”), and originally meant “blood-red” when it showed up in English in the 14th century. In fact, it can still mean reddish or ruddy today.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites this early example of the reddish usage from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale (circa 1386): “His colour was sangwyn.”

The association of the word with a ruddy complexion, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, led to the use of “sanguine” to mean cheerful, hopeful, or confident.

Why? Because a “sanguine” complexion was once believed to indicate “the predominance of blood over the other humors.”

In medieval physiology, the four humors (or fluids) of the body were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile).

These supposedly determined a person’s temperament as well as his physical and mental health. Imbalances among the humors were blamed for pain and disease.

A temperament governed by blood was buoyant, by phlegm was sluggish, by choler was quick-tempered, and by melancholy was dejected, according to this system.

The OED says “sanguine” has meant what it does today –”disposed to hopefulness or confidence of success” – since 1509.

But “sanguine” has another meaning as well: bloodthirsty. It’s had this sense since the early 18th century, though the usage is now considered poetic or rhetorical, according to the OED.

Never, as far as I can tell, has “sanguine” meant its opposite: lacking in hope or confidence. Although you’re right about this, I hope you watch your blood pressure when you hear the word misused.

A sanguine complexion isn’t necessarily considered a good sign these days.

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Same difference

Q I know there’s a word for this, but I just can’t find it. I’m thinking of a category for words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings. For example, a “bow” as in a fancy ribbon rosette vs. a “bow” as in a reverential bending from the waist. Do you know what words like these are called?

A: Words that have the same spellings, but different meanings and sometimes different pronunciations, are homographs. Example: to “sow” (plant seeds) and a “sow” (female pig). The Greek roots of “homograph” mean same writing.

Words that have the same pronunciations and often the same spellings, but different meanings, are homonyms. Examples: a “bank” (embankment) and a “bank” (depository). “Homonym” means same name.

Words that have the same pronunciations, but different meanings and often different spellings, are homophones. Examples: “night” and “knight.” “Homophone” means same sound.

As you can see, the definitions (those above are from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.), leave some latitude as far as interpretation, so there may be a little overlapping.

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A mecca for music

Q: My question pertains to the letters “d” and “m.” Has there ever been a time when they were interchangeable between English and Arabic? For example, the English prefix “deca” and the holy city of Mecca.

A: There’s no correspondence between the letter “d” in English and the Arabic equivalent of “m,” but that’s only the beginning of the story..

The Saudi Arabian holy city of Mecca, whose name (with a lower-case “m”) has become a secular synonym in English for an ideal destination, is Makka or Makkah in Arabic.

The name’s origin is uncertain but it might be related to the Arabic mahrab or “sanctuary,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. There are other theories as well.

“Deca” and “dec,” the English prefixes meaning ten, come from the Greek deka. No connection with Arabic here.

However, there does seem to be an etymological connection between the holy city of Mecca and the record label Decca. It goes back to Decca’s founding in Britain.

The trademark “Decca” was created in 1914 by an Englishman named Wilfred S. Samuel of Barnett Samuel & Sons, a British manufacturer of musical instruments.

Samuel patented a portable record player he named the Decca Dulcephone, which became popular with British troops sent overseas during World War I. His son Edgar later wrote about the origin of the name:

“He told me that he wanted a word for exports, which could be easily recognised by illiterates and which would have the same pronunciation in all languages. It seems to have been a merger of Mecca with the initial D of their logo ‘Dulcet,’ or their trademark ‘Dulcephone.'”

Decca Records was established in 1929 when Barnett Samuel & Sons, renamed Decca Gramophone, was sold to Edward Lewis.

Decca went on to become one of the largest record labels in the world. Wilfred Samuel, meanwhile, became a scholar of Jewish history (as did his son Edgar) and a founder of the Jewish Museum in London.

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Why does English have so many synonyms?

Q: I’d like to know why there are so many synonyms in English. Take, for instance, the many words that mean very good: “stupendous,” “wonderful,” “marvelous,” “incredible,” “unbelievable,” etc. Each of these must have had a separate meaning at one time. Now, they all mean pretty much the same thing.

A: This isn’t an easy question to answer in a single blog posting. There are quite a few reasons why English has so many synonyms. I’ll touch on two of them.

(1) The first has to do with the sources of English words. English is a Germanic language, and much of its vocabulary comes from older (and in some cases defunct) Teutonic languages.

But because the Anglo-Saxons were invaded in 1066 and thereafter ruled by Anglo-Norman speakers for a few hundred years, English acquired a vast number of words from French and Latin as well.

This grossly oversimplifies the story, but the short version is that English has two principal strains from which it has acquired the bulk of its words – Germanic languages and Romance languages. As a result, it has gotten a double dose of vocabulary words.

In addition, English has adopted words from many other languages – Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Yiddish, Algonquian, etc. – as Britain colonized, traded with, and absorbed people from other parts of the world.

What this means in practice is that quite often English has retained synonyms (or near synonyms) acquired from different sources. Examples: “increase” (Old French), “augment” (Latin), and “grow” (Old Teutonic).

At the same time, some words that seem identical (the “ear” that you hear with vs. an “ear” of corn, for example) have different meanings because one came from Latin (the one for hearing) and one is Germanic (the one that means a spike of grain). That accounts for some identical words that have dual meanings.

And some very different words that sound alike (“right” and “write,” for example), come from different sources (“right” is from Latin and “write” is Germanic).

(2) Once words are absorbed into English, their meanings tend to shift with common usage. That’s why “cute,” which once meant sharp or shrewd, has now come to mean daintily attractive.

That is also how negative words become positive and vice-versa: “awful” used to mean awe-inspiring, and “wonderful” used to mean wonder-producing (and was often negative). And “incredible,” which once meant literally “not credible,” has come to mean very good in the mouths of some speakers.

If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog entry recently about how the meanings of words shift.

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Meet Pat today on Long Island

She’ll be speaking at 2 PM in the Port Washington Public Library, One Library Drive, Port Washington, NY. Admission is free.

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. Or as the Gershwins wrote, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

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.

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Specious thinking

Q: I’m reading Origins of the Specious, your book about language myths, and I wonder if the words “specious” and “species” are related. Perhaps there’s a myth involved here.

A: Not exactly a myth, but an interesting etymological twist or two.

Believe it or not, “specious” began life in English around 1400 as an adjective meaning beautiful or pleasing to the eye, an adaptation of the Latin speciosus (fair, beautiful).

Although the Oxford English Dictionary has published references for this usage from around 1400 until the early 1800s, it’s now considered obsolete.

Not until the 1600s, according to the OED, did “specious” come to mean deceptively attractive or plausible.

Digging deeper into the word’s history, its ultimate source is – yes – the Latin species (appearance, form, kind), which of course gave us the English word “species.”

The English noun originally referred to appearance or outward form, the OED tells us, but in the 1600s “species” came to mean a class, as of plants or animals.

That’s about when “specious” began acting deceptively.

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A few kernels of truth

Q: Where does the expression “ear of corn” come from? Why an “ear” rather than a “nose” or a “chin”?

A: The “ear” of corn that we eat in summer and the “ear” that we hear with are unrelated. Yes, these are two separate and distinct words, both of which have been with us since Anglo-Saxon days and have different prehistoric roots.

In Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, the word “ear” has been used to mean a spike or head of grain. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the part of a cereal plant which contains its flowers or seeds.”

Here’s a typical citation from the OED: “The ripen’d Grain, whose bending Ears Invite the Reaper’s Hand” (from a 1740 poem by William Somerville).

This spiky agricultural “ear” is descended from an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as ak (“sharp”). It became the Proto-Germanic akhuz, which eventually gave us the Old English word ear around the year 800.

The word for the organ of hearing is another story. It is descended from an Indo-European root reconstructed as ous or aus (“ear”). This root became the Proto-Germanic auzon, which made its way into Old English (spelled eare) around the year 1000.

As for the non-Germanic languages, Latin inherited this Indo-European root as auris and Greek as ous (both meaning “ear”).

The words for “ear” in the Romance languages, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, came from the Latin diminutive auricula, and include the French oreille, Spanish oreja, Italian orecchio, Portuguese orelha, and Romanian ureche.

But back to agriculture. The phrase “ear of corn” did not always mean what it does to Americans today. Originally, sometime before 700, a “corn” in Old English was a small hard particle or seed, like an appleseed.

By the 800s it meant “the fruit of the cereals,” the OED says, so “corn” was simply grain in general: wheat, rye, barley, oats, and so on (hence the terms “barley-corn” and “pepper-corn”).

Not until the 1600s did “corn” refer to the maize or Indian corn grown in the Americas, and even afterward, the word as used in Britain meant grain in general. For instance, the 19th-century Corn Laws in Britain were about grain crops.

The OED explains that the word “when not otherwise qualified, is often understood to denote that kind of cereal which is the leading crop of the district.”

Thus, the dictionary says, in most of England “corn” means wheat, but in northern Britain and Ireland it means oats, and in the United States it refers to maize.

“Wheat, rye, barley, oats, etc. are in U.S. called collectively grain,” the OED adds. “Corn- in combinations, in American usage, must therefore be understood to mean maize, whereas in English usage it may mean any cereal; e.g. a cornfield in England is a field of any cereal that is grown in the country, in U.S. one of maize.”

(The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that in parts of Germany korn means rye.)

So to an American, “ear of corn” means corn-on-the-cob, but to a farmer in Yorkshire, it might mean the head of an oat stalk.

You’re probably fed up with corn by now, but in case you’re wondering, the horny growth you get on a sore toe is another “corn” altogether.

Again, two different Indo-European roots are at the bottom of the two “corns” – one meaning grain and one meaning horn.

The word for the sore on your toe entered English in the 15th century from the Old French corn, which was inherited from the Latin cornus (“horn”).

Before the 15th century, Englishmen referred to such a sore as an “agnail,” a now obscure word literally meaning a tight, painful nail.

But the “nail” here meant an iron nail, not a fingernail or toenail, so an “agnail” referred to “a hard round-headed excrescence fixed in the flesh,” as the OED vividly puts it.

Through a long process of “pseudo-etymology,” the OED says, the “nail” in “agnail” became associated with toenails and fingernails, and the term “hangnail” eventually came about.

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When it’s good to feel bad

Q: I always use “bad,” not “badly,” when I feel bad about someone or something. But I hear other people (my son, for instance) use “badly.” I think you said recently on WNYC that one could feel “bad” or “badly,” depending on the meaning. Please explain.

A: “Feel” (meaning to sense rather than to touch) is a linking verb, along with “be,” “appear,” “become,” “grow,” “look,” “remain,” “seem,” “smell,” “sound,” and “taste.” Linking verbs are modified by adjectives (like “bad”) rather than adverbs (“badly”).

I usually explain the use of linking verbs when the “good/well” or “bad/badly” debate comes up on the air, but for some reason I didn’t get into it this time.

A linking verb differs from other verbs in that it conveys a state or condition, rather than an activity.

It’s called a linking verb (or copula) because it merely links (or couples) the subject with the complement, as in “He seems tired.”

In other words, the complement is an adjective rather than an adverb; in effect, it modifies the subject rather than the verb.

If you use “feel” to mean touch, however, then it’s NOT a linking verb, and it would take an adverb (“His fingertips are numb from the cold, so he feels badly”).

Many listeners emailed me their long-ago memorized lists of the 11 linking verbs. Never underestimate the power of rote learning! I’m a big believer in it.

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In search of the wild kudo

[NOTE: This post was updated on Aug. 25, 2020.]

Q: What is the source of the word “kudos”? Is there such a thing as a “kudo” in the wild?

A: The word “kudo” arose as a mistake, and the majority opinion is that it’s still a mistake.

The correct word, “kudos,” is a singular noun and takes a singular verb, say most usage guides, including the new fourth edition of Pat’s book Woe Is I. “Show me one kudo and I’ll eat it,” she says.

That’s the short answer, the one to follow when your English should be at its best. But English is a living language, and the singular “kudo” and the plural “kudos” are out there kicking up their heels, never mind the word mavens.

Where did “kudo” come from? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a back formation resulting from the erroneous belief that “kudos” is plural. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Pronunciation may have played a part here. Originally “kudos”—like its singular Greek cousins “chaos,” “pathos,” and “bathos”—was pronounced as if the second syllable were “-oss” (rhymes with “loss”). A later pronunciation, “-oze” (rhymes with “doze”), probably influenced the perception that the word was a plural.

Now for some etymology. “Kudos” comes from the ancient Greek word κῦδος (kydos), a singular noun meaning praise or renown. And it was a relative latecomer to English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the Greek term “was dragged into English as British university slang in the 19th century.” The first published reference for “kudos” in the OED dates from 1831, when it meant glory or fame.

Although “kudos” was officially singular, it was often used in a general way without a direct or indirect article, which may have blurred its sense of singularity.

In a typical early citation in the OED, for instance, Charles Darwin writes in an 1859 letter that the geologist Charles Lyell read about half the manuscript of On the Origin of Species “and gives me very great kudos.”

In its earliest uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “kudos” referred to the prestige or glory of having done something noteworthy. But by the 1920s, it had developed a second sense, praise for an accomplishment.

And it was during the ’20s, the usage guide says, that “the ‘praise’ sense of kudos came to be understood as a plural count noun, much like awards or honors. Time magazine, according to M-W, may have helped popularize the usage.

Here’s a 1927 example from Time that suggests plurality: “They were the recipients of honorary degrees—kudos conferred because of their wealth, position, or service to humanity.”

And the usage guide also cites a 1941 citation from the magazine that’s clearly plural: “There is no other weekly newspaper which in one short year has achieved so many kudos.”

Once “kudos” was seen in Time and other publications as a plural, M-W’s usage guide says, “it was inevitable that somebody would prune the s from the end and create a singular.”

The OED’s earliest sighting of “kudo” shorn of its “s” dates from a book of slang: “Kudo, good standing with the management” (Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo, 1941).

Oxford also cites a 1950 letter from Fred Allen to Groucho Marx, in which Allen hyperbolically describes approval for a TV show expressed by customers at the Stage Delicatessen in New York: “A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes quite a few examples of the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos.” Here are a couple from mainstream publications:

Saturday Review (1971): “All these kudos spread around the country.”

Women’s Wear Daily (1978): “She added a kudo for HUD’s Patricia Harris.”

OK, the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are the result of mistakes. But a lot of legitimate words began life in error. Are “kudo” and “kudos” becoming legit as they spread like kudzu?

Merriam-Webster’s thinks so—sort of. The usage guides says the two usages “are by now well established,” though “they have not yet penetrated the highest range of scholarly writing or literature.”

Other usage commentators aren’t so open minded. In its entry for “kudos,” Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that “in standard usage it has no plural nor is it used with the indefinite article a.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s, says “the final -s is sometimes misinterpreted as marking a plural.” But “kudo as a singular,” he writes, is not “desirable or elegant.”

“No other word of Greek origin,” Butterfield adds, “has suffered such an undignified fate.”

Lexicographers are also skeptical for the most part. Of the ten standard dictionaries we usually consul, only three (two of them published by the same company) accept the singular “kudo.”

Reflecting the majority opinion is Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries online), which says this in its entry for “kudos”:

“Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that the use of kudos as a plural … is incorrect.” Lexico provides an incorrect example (“he received many kudos”) and a corrected one (“he received much kudos”).

The three that accept the singular word “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabrided, and (which is based on the former Random House Unabridged)., for instance, accepts word in two senses: (1) meaning “honor; glory; acclaim,” as in “No greater kudo could have been bestowed”; and (2) meaning “a statement of praise or approval; accolade; compliment,” as in “one kudo after another.”

For now, we still don’t recommend the usage.

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You’ve got a friend

Q: Just when I’ve begun to tolerate “heart,” either word or symbol, as a verb, another verb has popped up. In a poster showing lovingly clasped hands, the caption is “Friend me forever.”

A: This use of “friend” may sound jarring to modern ears (at least those not used to its online social meaning), but once upon a tyme it was routine.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s entry for “friend” as a verb has published citations going back to 1225! Its original meaning was “to gain friends for.”

In the 1300s, its meaning widened to include “to make (persons) friends or friendly; to join in friendship.”

It was commonly used in the sense “to be friended,” as in this example from Thomas Usk’s medieval allegory The Testament of Love (1387-88): “Charitie is love, and love is charity. God graunt us al therin to be frended!”

In the mid-1500s, the verb “friend” acquired the meaning it has regained in the Facebook age: “to act as a friend to, befriend (a person, cause, etc.); to assist, help.” Here are a couple of examples:

1600, from Philemon Holland’s translation of Livy’s history of Rome: “They had undertaken the warre upon king Philip, because he had friended and aided the Carthaginians.”

1676, from William Row’s supplement to the autobiography of his father-in-law, Robert Blair: “Reports came that the King would friend Lauderdale.”

The most recent citations in the OED for the use of “friend” as a verb are from the 19th century. As you point out, though, it’s having a rebirth in the 21st.

Maybe our old friend will stick around this time, like the one in the Carole King song: “Winter, spring, summer or fall / All you have to do is call / And I’ll be there / You’ve got a friend.”

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Relatively speaking

(An updated and expanded post about “cousin,” “niece,” and “nephew” appeared on Nov. 9, 2018.)

Q: When I became an uncle for the third time, I had a nephew in addition to two nieces. It was then that I realized I had no way of saying “I have three …” There is also no word for both aunts and uncles. Any reason for this? Does it reflect a special relationship or a neglected one? Do other languages also have this gap?

A: H-m-m. We wish we had an answer.

We can’t say why, but English seems to be missing the words that would denote certain forms of kinship: one word that would mean both niece and nephew, and another that would mean both aunt and uncle.

If any other language has a singular word that refers to both a niece and a nephew, we’re unfamiliar with it. However, other languages do use the masculine plural for a group of both nieces and nephews.

In Spanish, for example, the singulars are sobrino (nephew) and sobrina (niece), but sobrinos can be used for a group of nieces and nephews.

Today, English speakers use “nephews” and “nieces” to mean the sons and daughters of our siblings. But in olden times, these words were also used to designate grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were supposed to be chaste).

Both “nephew” and “niece” originated in Middle English in the early 1300s, derived from the Latin words nepos (grandson, descendant, or prodigal) and neptis (granddaughter or female descendant).

These words and their counterparts in many other languages are traceable ultimately to an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as nepto, meaning grandson or nephew (the feminine form was nepti). This root is also the ancestor of our word “nepotism.”

Three now obscure English nouns, “neve,” “nepos,” and “nepote,” were also once used to mean nephew or grandson. Maybe we could revive one of them to mean both nephew and niece. Well, it’s only a suggestion.

As for “aunt,” meaning the sister of a parent or the wife of an uncle, the word entered English in the 1200s by way of the Old French ante, which came from the Latin amita (father’s sister).

“Uncle,” meaning the brother of a parent or the husband of an aunt, came into English at around the same time from the Old French uncle and oncle, and ultimately from the Latin avunculus (mother’s brother).

By the way, people often ask why we have an adjective meaning uncle-like (“avuncular”) but none for aunt-like. We posted an item about this auntless issue on the blog a while back. And we posted an entry last month about the history and pronunciation of “aunt.”

(Updated, Sept. 29, 2017.)

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Slouching towards Bethlehem

Q: I have always been confused about “toward” and “towards.” Is there a difference between them? A different usage? A different history?

A: The short answer is that both “toward” and “towards” are fine.

The preposition “toward” is more common in American English and “towards” in British English. So an American is likely to say “toward me” and a Briton “towards me.” The meanings are identical, and both versions have been around for more than a thousand years.

I’m also asked a lot about “forward/backward” versus “forwards/backwards.”

In American English, the words in each set are interchangeable and the ones without the “s” are more common.

In British English, there’s a slight difference between “forward/backward” and “forwards/backwards.”

The words in the first set (those without the “s”) are used as adjectives (“forward motion,” “backward glance”), while the others (with the “s”) are used for the most part as adverbs (“move forwards,” “run backwards”).

There are signs, though, that “forward” is gaining in popularity as an adverb in the British Isles. But the last time I looked, Yeats’s rough beast was still slouching “towards” Bethlehem to be born.

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