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Takeout menu

Q: When you were speaking at our library, I posed a question about the use of “take and put” on almost every cooking and craft program on TV. You sort of dismissed the question and certainly didn’t answer it. I watch a lot of these programs. I hope you can shed some light on this usage.

A: Sorry if I disappointed you at the library. The “take and put” construction – or, more broadly, “take and [verb]” – isn’t something I had researched at the time. But I’ve had a chance to look into it a bit, and I think I can shed some light on what’s going on grammatically.

In a sentence like “Now we take and put in the butter” or “Take and stir the mixture,” two verbs of the same form, linked by “and,” share a subject and refer to a single action, not two.

This happens not only with the combination “take and [verb],” but also with another common sequence, “go (or “go ahead”) and [verb],” as in “Go and simmer for five minutes.”

Obviously, the “take” and the “go” parts are superfluous. The Oxford English Dictionary describes these combinations as colloquial usages, and it’s true that today they’re generally found only in very casual speech.

Like you, I notice them in cases where a speaker is explaining or demonstrating something. This may account for their use in cooking and crafts shows on TV.

The OED describes “take” as “one of the elemental words of the language,” and says it “also enters into a great number of idiomatic phrases, which are often difficult to analyse.”

One of these is the phrase “take and,” which the OED says means the same thing as “go and.” Here are a couple of the citations given: “If you do so I will take and tell father” (1836), and “She took and died inside of three months” (1977).

The OED has many more citations for “go and,” dating back to around the year 1000.

In modern colloquial use, the OED explains, “go” is linked by “and” to a coordinated verb, with the result that “the force of go is very much weakened or disappears altogether.” In fact, the OED adds, “go is often nearly redundant.”

Among the dictionary’s citations are these:

1600, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “Would’st thou have me go & beg my food?”

1631, John Donne’s Poems: “Goe and catch a falling starre.”

1755, in Hugh Walpole’s Correspondence: “Don’t go and imagine that £1,200,000 was all Sunk in the gulph of Madame Pompadour.”

1815, in Houlston’s Juvenile Tracts: “He might go and hang himself for all they cared.”

1878, in Scribner’s Magazine: “The fool has gone and got married.”

If “take” and “go” are redundant in sequences like these, why use them?

Moshe Taube, a linguist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says the “take” usage is common to many languages throughout the world and it’s many centuries old.

He says “take” in this case functions something like a “quasi-auxiliary” verb, and indicates resolve or determination on the part of the subject.

Taube believes he has found the first recorded use of the “take and [verb]” construction in any language. This “turn,” as he calls it, occurs in Hebrew in the writing of a medieval scholar in Provence, Rabbi David Kimhi (1160-1235).

In a commentary on II Samuel 18.18, Kimhi wrote: “Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar which is in the King’s Valley, for he said, ‘I have no son to preserve my name.’ So he named the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.”

Taube comments: “This is the first characterization of the turn take and [verb] as indicating resolve. It is perhaps no accident that such an explanation should come from a speaker of Provençal, as this turn is common in most Romance languages.”

From other reading, I gather that the construction exists not only in English, Hebrew, and most Romance languages, but also in Albanian, Greek, Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Russian, as well as in Baltic, Slavic, African, and Caribbean languages.

In his paper, Taube gives many examples from the Yiddish writings of Shalom Aleichem, including these: “he takes and fills my hat to the brim” … “she takes and gives me a speech, a whole lecture” … “a father will take and wreak his anger on his child.”

As Taube writes, some of these sequences, usually “take and [verb]” or “go and [verb],” result in “constructions which, unlike regular coordination, denote not two separate events, but a single event, with the first verb functioning as a ‘quasi-auxiliary.’ “

If you’d like to read about a related usage, I had a blog entry earlier this year about the “try and [verb]” construction.

Thanks for your interesting question, and happy holidays!

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Ye olde knickknack shoppe

Q: In your post about “you all,” you mentioned several Old English forms of “you,” including “ye.” Is that “ye” related to the one seen in the names of knickknack shops across the world? Did speakers of Old English pronounce it YEE or would a time-traveler expect THEE instead?

A: Two entirely different words, a pronoun and an article, are now both spelled as “ye.” But in Old English, they were neither spelled alike nor pronounced alike, and they didn’t begin with “y.”

The pronoun “ye,” as we wrote, was one of four archaic forms of “you.” It was always pronounced YEE, even though it originally began with an early form of the letter “g,” an old Anglo-Saxon rune that looked like a number “3” with a flat top.

The original letter was replaced in the 12th century by a Middle English letter called the yogh, which looked something like a lowercase “z” written in script. The modern letter “y” replaced the yogh in the 13th century.

But the article “ye,” which exists today only in the pseudo-quaint names of businesses like Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, never really existed as such in Old English.

The article was an earlier form of “the” and was pronounced like “the.” It never had a “y” sound. The “ye” spelling is a mistaken interpretation of Old English writing.

The article originally was se in Old English, but the “s” began to be replaced in the 10th century with an old Anglo-Saxon rune, the thorn, which represented a “th” sound.

The thorn, which looked something like a “p” with both an upper and a lower stem, was replaced by “th” in the 13th century.

So how did the “y” sneak in?

Over the years, the thorn’s upper stem became less pronounced as it was copied by scribes, and the letter came to resemble a backward “y.”

Even after the thorn was replaced by “th,” the old letter was sometimes used in abbreviations. But it wasn’t available in printer’s fonts, so printers used “y” instead.

Thus “ye” got its undeserved reputation as a defunct Old English article.

The other “ye,” the pronoun, is also defunct but at least it’s historically accurate. It and the other old second-person pronouns were eventually all combined into one, “you.”

In case you’re interested, “you” can be traced back to an ancient West Germanic word reconstructed as iwwiz, which is also the ancestor of the German euch and the Dutch u, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

All these ancestors of “you” are ultimately derived from an Indo-European root, ju, which is also the source of Greek umme, Sanskrit yuyam, and Lithuanian jus.

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Is “off of” so awful?

Q: Listening to you on WNYC the other day, I was surprised to hear you use the term “illiterate” to describe the construction “off of” (as in “Keep off of the couch”). I’m a post-doctoral fellow in linguistics who uses this non-standard form. And judging by Google, it’s widely attested.

A: I’ve been bothered by that “illiterate” statement ever since it left my mouth. It was uncharacteristic of me. I’m not generally so judgmental. Even my husband let me have it when I got home from the radio studio!

My big Webster’s New International Dictionary (in a 1956 printing of the second edition) does indeed say “off of” (meaning “off”) is “now illiterate.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary labels it “in later use only colloq. (nonstandard) and regional.” In other words, this construction was once standard, but is no longer.

For centuries, nobody considered the “of” redundant. The OED says that “off of” may have been around since the mid-15th century. Here are some relevant citations, beginning with the earliest (where it appears as “of of”):

circa 1450, from a medical text: “Take a sponfull of the licour … of of the fyir and sette it in good place tyl that it be ny colde.”

1667, from Andrew Marvell: “The Lords and we cannot yet get off of the difficultyes risen betwixt us.”

1712, from Richard Steele, writing in the Spectator: “I could not keep my Eyes off of her.”

1884, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: “I’d borrow two or three dollars off of the judge for him.”

By the time Twain put those words in Huck’s mouth they were probably considered a regionalism. (As Twain wrote in an author’s note, “In this book a number of dialects are used.”)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the “off of” construction lost its respectability in the last quarter of the 19th century. Although it has “faded into the past” in Britain, M-W notes, it has become idiomatic in the US.

Today, the usage guide says, this “innocuous idiom” seems to be used primarily in speech in contexts ranging from “uneducated” to “general.”

“If it is part of your personal idiom and you are not writing on an especially elevated plane,” M-W adds, “you have no reason to avoid off of.”

I admit that I went too far in calling “off of” an illiterate usage. This isn’t 1956. But I still think it’s nonstandard and doesn’t belong in the best written English. Conversation and informal writing? Sure!

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says: “The compound preposition off of is generally regarded as informal and is best avoided in formal speech and writing: He stepped off (not off of) the platform.”

Another source, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), finds the construction “much inferior” to the form without the “of.”

The author, Bryan A. Garner, puts the usage at Stage 4 in his “Language-Change Index,” which means “Ubiquitous but ….” (In his system of gauging change in the language, Stage 5 means “Fully accepted.”)

One day “off of” will undoubtedly be accepted as standard American English, but not yet.

Interestingly, many other pairs of prepositions are routinely coupled in English: “next to,” “away from,” “out of,” and so on.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has an extensive discussion of prepositions followed by prepositional phrases. “Because,” “ahead,” “instead,” “upward,” “alongside,” “inside,” “outside,” “out,” and others are often followed by prepositional phrases beginning with “of.”

However, the Cambridge Grammar notes that the combination of “off” followed by an “of” phrase occurs only in American English.

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It’s a guys’ thing

Q: I frequently hear people use the expression “your guys,’ ” as in “I’ll be at your guys’ house later.” To me this is completely wrong, but I have been challenged by someone who is allegedly the author of a few books (not on grammar).

A: You’ve hit upon an unusual problem in English syntax, or word order. What is the plural possessive of the informal phrase “you guys”? There are three possibilities:

(1) “Guys” is the principal word and “you” modifies it. Example: “I’ll be at you guys’ house later.”

(2) “You” and “guys” are both principal words (technically, the two words are in apposition). Example: “I’ll be at your guys’ house later.”

(3) “You guys” is a compound pronoun (something like “you-all” or “y’all”) and just happens to end in “s.” Example: “I’ll be at you guys’s house later.”

I’m going to eliminate # 3 right off the bat because “guys’s” is a malformed plural possessive, plain and simple. Since “guys” is already plural, we make it possessive by adding an apostrophe alone, not an apostrophe plus “s.”

That leaves #1 and #2, and I’m coming down on the side of #1: “I’ll be at you guys’ house later.” The word “you” here modifies “guys”; it serves an adjectival function, telling us which guys are being discussed.

Syntactically “you guys” is no different from “the guys” or “local guys” or “French guys.” Or, for that matter, from “you girls” or “you folks.” We make any of them possessive by adding an apostrophe to the plural. No need to make the modifier possessive too.

Is “you guys” legit? Dictionaries describe it as a dialectal plural form of “you,” which makes it a valuable tool for people who don’t like using “you” as both singular and plural.

Granted, “you guys” is informal. But even informal usages deserve the dignity of a little consideration.

As for the possessive “your guys,’ ” it may not be strictly legit, but a lot of people use it.

In fact, the linguist Arnold Zwicky says on the Language Log website that he heard it for the first time at the 2005 meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, “where one commenter on a paper referred repeatedly to your guys’ analysis.”

“A little while later I heard Barry Bonds use this possessive (referring to the reporters at a press conference), then found piles of examples on the net, and collected some more examples from the speech of graduate students and colleagues,” Zwicky reports.

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Can two syllablemongers both agree?

Q: President Obama said at a press conference last month that he and the South Korean leader “both agree” on the need to break the pattern of on-again, off-again talks with North Korea. I think using “both” here is not only redundant but also hyperbolic. Do any two people both disagree?

A: It’s true that the word “both” could often be omitted without changing the meaning of a sentence. But does that make it wrong? Not necessarily. There’s a fine line between an emphatic use and a redundancy.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, “both adds emphasis to the sentence by suggesting a contrast with the statement as it would have been had one of the terms been omitted.”

The kind of sentence you mention illustrates a common use of “both.” It’s often used, according to the OED, in relation to two nouns or pronouns (or a noun and a pronoun) coupled by “and,” as in “both John and I came,” “both the king and the queen spoke,” “Mercury and Venus are both inferior planets,” and so on.

If you want to get technical about the relationship between “both” and the nouns or pronouns, the OED says “both” may be viewed here “as an adjective in attributive relation to the two substantives.”

Like you, many usage writers over the years have condemned the use of “both” with “agree,” since the verb has the idea of duality built in.

It’s true that “they both agree” or “the sisters both agree” or “Dad and I both agree” could do without “both,” since the verb implies “both.” But I would argue that there’s nothing grammatically wrong with constructions like these, and that the emphatic use of “both” is legitimate.

The phrase “both agree” is extremely common. The Internet has a couple of hundred thousand examples, and a quick search of the OED and other sources finds these citations:

1717, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: “Truths in which we both agree.”

Around 1720, Jonathan Swift: “They both met upon a Trial of Skill.”

1767, from Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England: “If they do not both agree within six months, the right of presentation shall lapse.”

1784, William Cowper: “As my two syllablemongers, Beattie and Blair, both agree that language was originally inspired ….”

1873, Matthew Arnold: “You and I both agree.”

1929, David O. Selznick: “I feel confident that you and Cooper will both agree that the re-editing has really been a tremendous game.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage asks “who has limited agree to an implication of duality that makes both redundant?”

“Not users of English, certainly,” M-W answers, adding, “In the end, after two centuries and more of comment, this molehill is still a molehill. It is a trivial matter and not worth worrying about.”

On the other hand, I would draw the line at “they both disagree.” Why? To be perfectly honest, “they both disagree” DOES seem out-and-out redundant (unless the two people are disagreeing with a third party). It simply does not sound like good idiomatic English.

But I know that it’s possible to both agree and disagree with my answer!

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It’s not an either-or situation

Q: Why do people use “either” when they mean both? For instance, I’ve heard traffic reporters say the GW Bridge is “clogged in either direction.” Doesn’t “either” imply an alternate – either I do this or that, not both?

A: The word “either” serves as several different parts of speech; it can be an adjective, an adverb, a pronoun, or a conjunction. Only when it’s used as a conjunction does it require “or.”

In the use you mention, “clogged in either direction,” it’s correctly used as an adjective. In this sense, its meaning is “each” or “one and/or the other.”

As an adverb, its meaning is “likewise” or “also” or “as well,” as in “She isn’t going and I’m not either.”

As a pronoun, its meaning is “the one or the other,” as in “Either will do.”

As a conjunction, it’s used before two or more items or clauses linked by “or,” as in, “Either this or that,” or “After dinner, either he reads or he returns phone calls.”

Notice that I said “two or more” above. When used as a conjunction, “either” implies one of two or more elements.

However, if it’s an adjective (meaning “one and/or the other”) or a pronoun (meaning “the one or the other”), then “either” implies one of two only.

Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) explains this:

“The traditional rule holds that either should be used only to refer to one of two items and that any is required when more than two items are involved: Any (not either) of the three opposition candidates still in the race would make a better president than the incumbent. But reputable writers have often violated this rule, and in any case it applies only to the use of either as a pronoun or an adjective. When either is used as a conjunction, no paraphrase with any is available, and so either is unexceptionable even when it applies to more than two clauses: Either the union will make a counteroffer or the original bid will be refused by the board or the deal will go ahead as scheduled.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agrees. When “either” is a conjunction, M-W says, it’s used “before two or more coordinate words, phrases, or clauses joined usu. by or to indicate that what immediately follows is the first of two or more alternatives.”

I hope this helps.

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English language Grammar Usage

Do we need a “pre” fix?

Q: Can we talk about “pre” words, most of which I find redundant? Why do we preheat the oven – aren’t we just heating it? A pre-recorded message is just recorded, a pre-addressed envelope is addressed, a pre-existing condition is existing, etc

A: Yes, many “pre” words are redundant. This is a recurrent complaint, and there’s not much more I can say except that indeed the “pre” is often unnecessary.

I just wrote to someone who wondered why his jeans were called “pre-washed.” Why not just “washed”?

In this case, the prefix might be justified if you argue that it means “washed prior to purchase.” Still, we sometimes can’t see the forest for the “pre”s! (Sorry, bad pun.)

[Note: We don’t consider “preexisting condition” redundant (and we don’t hyphenate it). We wrote a posting about this in 2012. ]

A good friend and former New York Times colleague, Merrill Perlman (another inveterate punner), has written about the subject for the Columbia Journalism Review’s Language Corner and has some interesting things to say.

“There’s no logical reason for some of these ‘pre’ uses,” she writes. “But then, few claim that English is logical.”

Check out Merrill’s column. I think she’s terrific (she inspired the title of this post), but perhaps I’m “pre-judiced.”

And if you’d “pre-fer” to read even more, I wrote a blog item recently about the origins of a “pre” word and a “pro” word.

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Pit stop

Q: I am reading a book about the history of hay fever, and I have noticed the use of the verb “weed” to mean remove weeds. Is there a term to describe verbs that mean getting rid of the nouns they’re built on, e.g., “peel,” “core,” “skin,” and so on?

A: In fact, there is a term for such words. A book called English Verb Classes and Alternations, by Beth Levin, describes these as “pit verbs,” since “pit” is a good example. To pit a cherry is to remove the pit.

Levin gives many examples of such verbs, including “bone,” “core,” “gut,” “hull,” “husk,” “louse,” “milk,” “peel,” “pip,” “pit,” “pod,” “pulp,” “rind,” “scale,” “scalp,” “seed,” “shell,” “shuck,” “skin,” “stem,” “string,” “tail,” “tassel,” “top,” “weed,” “worm,” and “zest.”

She notes that for the most part, what’s being removed comes from a plant or animal. That’s why we run into them so often in cookbooks.

The formation of such verbs is a long tradition in English. “Louse” has been used in this way since the 1400s, “worm” since the 1500s, “gut” since the 1300s, “peel” since the 1400s, “skin” since the 1500s, and so on.

There’s another shoe to be dropped here: the class of words that Levin calls “debone verbs.” (Yes, “debone” is a bona fide word.) These verbs behave the same way as those above, except that they’re formed by adding the prefix “de” to the something that’s being removed.

Again, Levin gives many examples, of which I’ll mention a few: “debone,” “debug,” “declaw,” “defang,” “defeather,” “deflea,” “defog,” “deforest,” “defrost,” “degerm,” “deglaze,” “degrease,” “dehair,” “dehead,” “dehorn,” “dehull,” “dehusk,” “deice,” “delouse,” “desalt,” “destarch,” “detassel,” “detusk,” “devein,” “deworm.”

Note the overlapping verbs: “bone/debone,” “louse/delouse,” “tassel/detassel,” “worm/deworm,” and others. Each twosome means the same thing.

Levin doesn’t mention words like “unthaw” or “unpeel” or “unloosen,” which I wrote about on the blog a few weeks ago, Perhaps the less said about them the better.

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Wit craft

Q: I’m editing a book and am not sure how to punctuate a sentence used by one of the authors: “I was at my wit’s end.” Is it “wit’s end” or “wits’ end”? I figure you’d know!

A: Either one is OK (“I was at my wit’s end” or “I was at my wits’ end”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives only the singular “wit’s end,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives both singular and plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes both too. It says the expression means “utterly perplexed; at a loss what to think or what to do.” The OED adds that the phrase is often written in the genitive plural (wits’), even in reference to a single person.

Either way, you need the possessive apostrophe.

Interestingly, we have here both “wit” (intelligence, keenness of perception) and “wits” (mental faculties). That explains the idiom about being “scared out of my wits.”

However, it also implies that there might be a slight difference in meaning between “wit’s end” and “wits’ end.” Have you exhausted your ability to think, or have you gone nuts?

But perhaps this is nit-picking. In fact, forget I ever mentioned it!

If you’d like to read about a related subject, I wrote a blog entry earlier this year concerning the expression “to wit.”

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How did the guinea pig get its name?

Q: Where did the term “guinea pig” come from? I hope it wasn’t originally derogatory.

A: We don’t know exactly how the guinea pig got its name, but no ethnic slur was intended.

The guinea pig (or “cavy”), a small rodent of the genus Cavia, originated in South America but is now found in cages – and on laps – throughout the world.

So it isn’t from Guinea (which is the name of both a country and a region in western Africa), and it isn’t a pig.

The Oxford English Dictionary mentions three theories about the origin of this inappropriate name:

(1) The animal was perhaps “thought to resemble the young of the Guinea Hog (Potamochoerus),” which is a river pig found in Guinea.

(2) Back when the phrase “guinea pig” was first recorded, the word “Guinea” was often used to denote some unspecified or unknown faraway land.

(3) The “guinea” here may represent a confusion with Guiana, a region of northeastern South America. This explanation “seems unlikely,” the OED says.

And here’s another suggestion, from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:

(4) The little feller was named for the people who brought it to England, “the ‘Guinea-men’ who sailed on ships plying between England, Guinea, and South America, to which the animal is native.” (The ships themselves, usually slavers, were also called “Guinea-men” or “Guineamen.”)

There are other less likely explanations, which I won’t go into and which you can find online. Suffice it to say that the animal’s name is still a mystery.

The phrase “guinea pig” first appeared in print, according to the OED, in 1664, in Henry Power’s book Experimental Philosophy.

Here’s the rather icky quotation, in which Power describes the feeding habits of cheese mites: “You may see them … like so many Ginny-Pigs, munching and chewing the cud.”

In 1774, the novelist, poet, and playwright Oliver Goldsmith described the mouse as “the most timid of all quadrupeds, except the guinea-pig.” (The comment was in a book of juvenile nonfiction.)

Guinea pigs have also been used in scientific research over the centuries, and “guinea pig” is often used to mean one who participates in an experiment.

This sense of the term, which was first recorded in the early 20th century, is still around, though mice and rats have largely replaced guinea pigs in laboratories.

Here’s a typical citation, from H. G. Wells’s Men Like Gods (1923): “And may I ask … the nature of this treatment of yours, these experiments of which we are to be the – guinea pigs, so to speak?”

Since you mention it, the derogatory term “guinea” is American slang dating from the late 19th century. But the word wasn’t originally a slur.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes that as far back as 1748, the term “Guinea Negro” (later shortened to “guinea”) was used to describe a black person of West African origin.

This term survived well into the 19th century, as you can see from this 1887 quotation from the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal: “I am a Guinea negro and I belong to the old-time negroes of Africa. My father was a Guinea negro and my mother was a Guinea.”

In 1890, “guinea” was first used as a contemptuous epithet for an Italian (or occasionally someone of central or southern European origins), according to Random House.

In 1911 it was first used to mean a Hispanic person. It was also used, Random House says, for “a person of Creole or mixed black, white, and Indian ancestry.”

By the way, in case you’re wondering about the “guinea” in English money, I wrote a blog entry last year that explained how the guinea, pound, sovereign, and quid got their names.

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A not so nutso usage

Q: In the UK and Australia, people have a habit of shortening words and ending them with “o” – “aggro” (aggravation), “rego” (registration), “Jacko” (Michael Jackson). What’s up with this?

A: It turns out that a Swedish linguist, Mikael Parkvall, has done some interesting research into these colloquial and slang words ending in “o.”

He found them not only in British, Australian, and American English, but also in German, French
(“-aud,” “-eau,” etc.), Danish, Icelandic, Dutch, Swedish, and Finnish.

In a posting to the Linguist List, the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, Parkvall writes that these are generally two-syllable words. And with the exception of nicknames – like “Jacko” – they often have negative connotations.

Some of these words, Parkvall says, are clipped versions of longer words that already include the “o,” as in “psycho” (for “psychopath”), “typo,” (“typographical error”), and “klepto” (“kleptomaniac”).

Other clipped examples are “nympho” (“nymphomaniac”), “slo-mo” (“slow motion”), “schizo” (“schizophrenic”), “homo” (“homosexual”), “promo” (“promotion”), and “demo” (“demonstration”).

(Parkvall doesn’t include “auto,” “hippo,” and many other clipped words that are standard English by now.)

In another type of “o” word, the letter has been added to the first syllable of a noun or adjective to create an agent noun (meaning roughly “one who is” or “one who does”).

Examples include “cheapo,” “sleazo,” “sicko,” “weirdo,” “fatso,” “wacko,” “nutso,” “creepo,” “pervo,” “pinko,” “bizarro,” and “wino.”

In case you’re thinking of the Marx Brothers (and how can you not?), Parkvall mentions that their choice of stage names may have been influenced by popular vaudeville clowns who used the Italian masculine “o” ending.

He even includes possible derivations: Groucho, “he who is grouchy”; Harpo, “he who plays the harp”; Chico, “he who chases women (‘chicks’)”; and Gummo, “he who wears rubber-soled shoes.” As for Zeppo, the origin of the stage name isn’t certain, but his older brother Groucho said he was named after the zeppelin.

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Deflower child

Q: I’ve been thinking about the term “deflower” in the sense of what was done to the 35-year-old schoolteacher played by Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel. How did a word that literally means to strip a plant of flowers come to figuratively mean to take away a woman’s virginity?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but it seems that “deflower” was used in its sexual sense before it was used horticulturally.

Could this be an example of a word used figuratively before it was used literally? Not so fast.

The earliest usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The lust of the gelding deflourede the yunge womman.”

In this citation, according to the OED, the word meant “to deprive (a woman) of her virginity; to violate, ravish.”

However the OED doesn’t label this first usage figurative. It says elsewhere that around 1300 the word “flower” meant, among other things, virginity.

So in the Middle Ages, “flower” meant more than just a blossom on a plant.

The sense of “deflower” that you cite as literal, “to deprive or strip of flowers,” isn’t recorded in the OED until 1630, in the poems of William Drummond of Hawthornden: “The freezing winds our gardens do defloure”

Nowadays, the verb “deflower” has two meaning: (1) to deprive a woman of her virginity, or (2) to destroy the innocence or beauty of something.

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Trivial pursuit

Q: My dictionary says the English word “trivia” is derived from the plural of the Latin trivium, a place where three roads meet. How did a word with such an etymology come to mean details of little importance?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines “trivia” as a plural noun meaning “trivialities, trifles, things of little consequence.”

The word was first recorded with that sense in 1902, according to the OED, as the title of the book Trivia, a collection of small essays by Logan Pearsall Smith.

Where did Smith get it? He offers a clue in his book by quoting these lines from a 1716 poem, John’s Gay’s Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London:

Thou, Trivia, Goddess, aid my song,
Throu’ spacious streets conduct thy bard along.

Gay didn’t use “trivia” here to mean unimportant things. He was using the modern Latin word trivia as the name of his muse and in the sense of a crossroads: tri for “three” and via for “ways.”

In modern Latin, trivia (three ways) is the plural of trivium (a place where three ways meet).

So what inspired Smith to adapt a word for “three ways” to mean trivialities?

He was probably influenced not only by John Gay but also by the familiarity of the adjective “trivial,” from the classical Latin trivialis (meaning appropriate to the streets, common, or vulgar).

In 1589, “trivial” was first used to mean commonplace, everyday, or familiar, the OED says. (This sense harks back to the old notion of the crossroads as an ordinary or common place.)

By the 1590s “trivial” was being used to mean “of small account, little esteemed, paltry, poor; trifling, inconsiderable, unimportant, slight.”

The OED‘s first citation for this meaning is from Shakespeare’s Henry VI (1593): “And yet we have but trivial argument.”

I’ll bet you still have an unanswered question. If “trivia” is a plural, did we ever use “trivium” as the English singular? The answer is yes, but not to mean something unimportant.

In the Middle Ages, according to the OED, the English word “trivium” meant “the lower division of the seven liberal arts, comprising grammar, rhetoric, and logic.”

The “quadrivium” (literally, a place where four ways meet) comprised arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

When “trivial” was first recorded, in the mid-1400s, it meant having to do with the “trivium” of medieval studies. It took more than a century for “trivial” to adopt its trifling but very durable meaning.

In short, “trivia” was a natural, waiting to be discovered, and Logan Pearsall Smith discovered the word as we know it.

Not only does it nicely echo “trivial,” but its Latin ending sounds appropriate for a collective English noun (analogous to “data,” “media,” “ephemera,” and so on).

Dwight L. Bolinger, in a 1940 article in the journal American Speech, says he asked Smith how he came up with the word. Here’s the answer:

“Mr. Smith writes to me that he adapted to his purpose the punning title of John Gay’s poem Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London. Gay used it because it suggested the city and a goddess worthy to be his muse. The word did not mean trifles for Gay.”

Your question was no trifle, either, and my answer was no trivial pursuit.

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Halloween tricks

[Note: A more complete answer to this question was posted in 2014.]

Q: When did people start pronouncing “Halloween” as HOL-o-ween rather than HAL-oween?

A: I can’t tell you exactly when it happened, but it would appear that the HOL pronunciation has gained in popularity over the last half-century.

Contemporary dictionaries accept both the HAL (as in “hallowed”) and HOL (as in “holiday”) pronunciations for the first syllable of “Halloween.”

This is true for both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

No labels or usage notes in the two dictionaries indicate that one pronunciation is preferred over the other, though HAL is listed as the more common pronunciation.

“Halloween,” formerly written “Hallowe’en,” is short for “All Hallowed Even,” which is the evening preceding All Hallows, or All Saints Day (Nov. 1).

So one would think that etymologically the HAL pronunciation ought to be more historically accurate.

But my unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.), dated 1956, notes that “an older pron. hol – cf. HOLIDAY – is still sometimes heard, but is generally considered now dialectal.”

This would suggest that the HOL pronunciation is an old one that has returned and become respectable in the last 50 years or so.

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See you in court

Q: I was taught that you can’t just say that someone is an attorney. A person is a lawyer by profession, but only an attorney for a particular case. Have you ever heard this one?

A: Is there a difference between an “attorney” and a “lawyer”?

This is a perfect question for Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, who is all of the above. Since 1995 he has also been the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary.

The new third edition of the Garner’s usage guide says the two terms “are not generally distinguished even by members of the legal profession – except perhaps that lawyer is often viewed as having negative connotations.”

“Thus one frequently hears about lawyer-bashing,” Garner’s adds, “but only the tone-deaf write attorney-bashing.”

It goes on to say: “Technically, lawyer is the more general term, referring to one who practices law. Attorney literally means ‘one who is designated to transact business for another.’ ” (This explains why we use the expression “power of attorney,” not “power of lawyer.” The power is subject to the limitations of the document.)

The usage guide remarks that Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer, has written that “a lawyer is an attorney only when he has a client.”

But Garner’s dismisses that interpretation: “This distinction between lawyer and attorney is rarely, if ever, observed in practice.”

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English language Etymology Usage

The light and dark of language

Q: I teach cultural anthropology at the City University of New York. Some of my students have asked when the negative association with the color black first arose, as in “black sheep” or “black day” or “Black Death.” In other words, why is “angel food cake” white and “devil’s food cake” black? HELP!

A: This is a tall order!

It’s easy enough to say when some of the phrases you mention came into English. But it’s harder to tackle the notion of blackness or darkness as negative. This idea predated English and probably predated written language.

The word “black” has been in English since the earliest days of the language. In Old English in the eighth century it was written as blaec or blec, a word that was often confused with blac (white or shining).

The two words were even pronounced similarly at times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Middle English (spoken roughly between 1100 and 1500), they were “often distinguishable only by the context, and sometimes not by that.”

The etymological history of “black” is difficult to trace, according to the OED, but it may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. We can only speculate here. A prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bhleg meant “burn.”

The oldest definition of “black” cited in the OED is the optical one: “the total absence of colour, due to the absence or total absorption of light, as its opposite white arises from the reflection of all the rays of light.” This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in Beowulf in the 700s.

In Old English, the adjective could mean “very evil or wicked; iniquitous; foul, hateful,” according to the dictionary. The earliest Oxford citation is from a scientific and theological treatise written by a Benedictine cleric in the late 10th century.

In the 1300s “black” was first used to mean soiled or stained with dirt, which the OED describes as a literal usage.

It wasn’t until the late 1580s that “black” was used figuratively to mean “having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister,” according to the OED.

The published usages include “black curse” (1583); “black name” and “black Prince” (1599, Shakespeare); “blacke edict” and “blacke victory” (1640); “black moment” (1713); “black enemy” (1758); and “black augury” (1821, Byron).

Around the same time, “black” took on other negative meanings, including horribly wicked or atrocious, as in “blacke soule” (1581); “blacke works” (1592); “blackest criminals” (1692); “blackest Calumnies” (1713); “black ingratitude” (1738, Macaulay); “the blackest dye” (1749, Fielding); and “black lie” (1839).

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, “black” also became identified with sorrow, melancholy, gloom, and dire predictions; a “black” outlook was pessimistic, whereas “bright” meant hopeful.

The word “blackguard” originally referred to dirtiness rather than to evildoing. It originated about 1535, and according to the OED it was first used first to refer to a scullery or kitchen worker, someone who had charge of pots and pans.

“Blackguard” was later used to describe a street urchin who worked as a shoe-black. In 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote of “The little black-guard / Who gets very hard / His halfpence for cleaning your shoes.”

And a 1785 slang dictionary described a “black guard” as “a shabby dirty fellow; a term said to be derived from a number of dirty tattered and roguish boys, who attended at the horse guards … to black the boots and shoes of the soldiers, or to do any other dirty offices.”

Boys who picked up odd jobs in the streets were also called “blackguards,” and in 1736 the term was first used to mean a scoundrel.

“Blackmail,” first recorded in 1552, originally meant protection money.

The OED defines its first meaning as “tribute formerly exacted from farmers and small owners in the border counties of England and Scotland, and along the Highland border, by freebooting chiefs, in return for protection or immunity from plunder.”

In those days, “mail” meant rent or tribute (its ancestor, the Old English mal, meant payment extorted by threats). But we can’t find any explanation for the “black” in the term, aside from the term’s earlier sense of soiled or dirty.

The phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century; according to legend, there was one in every flock. [Update: We wrote a post on the subject in 2020.]

The term “blacklisted” was recorded as far back as 1437. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the name indicated “edged with black.” The OED says the “black” in the term is from the negative sense of the word and means disgrace or censure.

However, the OED notes elsewhere that such a list was “often accompanied by some symbol actually black,” as in this 1840 citation from Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge: “Write Curzon down, Denounced. … Put a black cross against the name of Curzon.”

Similarly, a “black mark” (meaning a mark of censure) was originally “a black cross or other mark made against the name of a person who has incurred censure, penalty, etc.,” the OED says. The first published use is from a novel by Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845): “Won’t there be a black mark against you?”

As for the great plague of the 1300s, it wasn’t called the “Black Death” at the time. In the 14th century it was called “the pestilence,” “the plague,” “the great pestilence,” “the great death,” etc.

In English, the “black” wasn’t added until the early half of the 1800s, though it appeared in Swedish and Danish in the 1500s and in German in the 1700s.

The OED says it’s not known why the plague was called “black,” but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it was because the disease caused dark splotches on the victims’ skin.

We can’t find anything in standard etymologies about “devil’s food,” but it may get its name either from its original color (red), or from its heaviness and density as opposed to “angel food,” which is weightless and feathery. A website called The Straight Dope has a good entry on the subject.

The metaphors in question aren’t Western notions, either. From what I’ve been able to find out, they’ve been around since the beginning of time, when people first became aware of the division of their world into day and night, light and dark.

From the point of view of primitive people, day brought with it light, sun, warmth, and of course visibility. Night was colder and darker; it was threatening and fearful, full of unseen dangers and hidden threats.

This ancient opposition between day and night, light and dark, became a common motif in mythology. It’s unfortunate that dark-skinned people, merely by the accident of skin color, have become victims of the mythology.

We’ve found an article that might have some ideas for you to share with your students. In it, the psychiatrist Eric Berne explores the folklore of our conceptions of light and dark, black and white, good and evil, clean and dirty, and so on.

The article is “The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore,” published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 72, No. 283 (Jan.-Mar., 1959), pp. 1-13. You can get it through JSTOR, assuming CUNY subscribes to its digital archive. Skip the first page and go to the history, which begins on page 2.

Berne notes that the ideas of light=goodness and dark=badness existed in ancient cultures (including Egyptian and Greek), and can be found in Asia and around the globe.

Joseph Campbell, writing in the journal Daedalus in 1959, says it was the Persian philosopher Zoroaster (circa 600 BC) who put the seal on the concept of darkness being evil.

Zoroaster, Campbell writes, saw a “radical separation of light and darkness, together with his assignment to each of an ethical value, the light being pure and good, the darkness foul and evil.”

The Old and New Testaments are full of such dichotomies. In later Christian writings, the bright angel Lucifer transgresses and is thrown out of heaven (which is, of course, flooded with light), to become the dark lord of night.

In Paradise Lost, Milton writes that the flames of hell produce “No light, but rather darkness visible.”

For what it’s worth, we don’t believe that metaphors identifying lightness as positive and darkness as negative are inherently racist. They certainly didn’t begin that way, though these negative connotations have certainly fed into and reinforced racism over the centuries.

Your students may also be interested in a recent item on The Grammarphobia Blog about the word “nigger” and its evolution (for some African-Americans) into a positive term through a process that has been called semantic bleaching.

The blog entry cites a paper by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at CUNY. We’ll bet he could direct you to other sources of information about the mythology of blackness.

We hope some of this is useful to you.

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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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Trolling and Trawling

Q: Is it “trolling” or “trawling” for votes?

A: Our vote goes for “trawl,” though it’s understandable that someone might also use “troll” in the sense of fishing for votes.

The verbs “trawl” and “troll” began as separate terms, but you might say that their lines got tangled a few hundred years ago.

The origins of “trawl” are uncertain, but it’s similar to a Middle Dutch word, traghelen (to drag). It originally meant to fish by dragging the edge of a net along the sea bottom.

The English verb is derived from the noun “trawl,” meaning a drag net, which perhaps comes from the Middle Dutch traghel and ultimately the Latin tragula, which have the same meaning as the English term.

The noun entered English in the late 1400s and the verb in the mid-1500s.

“Troll” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a word or series of words of uncertain origin, and of which all the senses do not go closely together.”

The OED says it’s generally from an Old French hunting term meaning “to quest, to go in quest of game, without purpose.”

The French usage may (or may not) be related to the German trollen (to roll), but the English word, which came along in the late 1300s, has senses that aren’t found in modern French or German.

“Troll” first meant to move or walk about, or to go to and fro, to saunter or ramble. It had many other meanings over the centuries, including to roll, whirl, or spin, and even to sing.

“Troll” got entangled with “trawl” in the early 17th century when people began to use it in the sense of to fish with a running line, using either (1) a spinning bait or (2) a dead bait played in a sink-and-draw motion.

Meanwhile, in the US and Scotland “troll” came to mean “to trail a baited line behind a boat,” a usage that the OED says may have come about “through association with trail or trawl.”

Both “trawl” and “troll” have undergone changes in figurative use, which is where your question about vote-getting comes in. And the preferred word here would seem to be “trawl,” because it implies casting a figurative net rather than luring with bait.

The OED says a figurative meaning of “trawl” (often used with “for”) is “to engage in an exhaustive or extensive (sometimes indiscriminate) search for something; spec. to search for a suitable candidate by sifting through a large number.”

The first published reference cited for this figurative usage is from 1980. Here are a couple of illustrative examples:

From P. D. James’s novel A Taste for Death (1986): “Haven’t you seen those dreadful old men, trawling for a committee, angling for a royal commission.”

From a 1990 issue of Good Housekeeping: “Clare Selerie-Grey, Editor of Woman’s Hour takes a good look at the day’s papers, trawling for hot items.”

“Troll,” meanwhile, has its own figurative meaning: to entice by means of a bait or lure, which dates back to 1565, several decades before the OED‘s first citation for the term’s use in its fishing sense.

In modern times it’s taken on negative connotations in computing slang, where the dictionary says it means “to post a deliberately erroneous or antagonistic message on a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response. Also transitive: to elicit such a response from (a person); to post messages of this type to (a newsgroup, etc.).”

The OED‘s first citation for this computer usage is from the early 1990s: “Maybe after I post it, we could go trolling some more and see what happens” (a post on the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban, Oct. 8, 1992).

And here’s a later OED citation for the verb: “Once, after a spammer trolled Nanae, accusing antis of having no life, Mad Pierre sarcastically responded that the spammer was correct” (Spam Kings, a 2005 nonfiction book by Brian McWilliams).

The noun “troll” in this sense appeared around the same time as the verb, defined in the OED as “a person who posts deliberately erroneous or antagonistic messages to a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response. Also: a message of this type.”

The dictionary’s earliest sighting is from the same Usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban: “If I didn’t know better I would swear that this post bears the mark of the inevitable Peter van der Linden in troll mode” (Dec. 14, 1992).

This later citation is from a Australian newspaper: “I have not included a feedback page or forum with this site, because those things just seem to attract trolls” (Courier Mail, Queensland, Jan. 28, 2005).

The dictionary says the noun was “probably” influenced by another, unrelated “troll,” the gremlin-like creature from Scandinavian mythology.

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Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Q: The yak is an interesting creature and (I believe) it’s one of the few animals that are referred to the same way in both the singular and the plural. This linguistic oddity has led to many an argument with my peers. What’s up here?

A: Many animal names are the same in the singular and in the plural. Examples include “moose,” “deer,” “sheep,” “fish,” “salmon,” “carp,” “trout,” “bison,” “swine,” and “elk.”

“Yak,” from the Tibetan word gyag, has two plural forms, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). So you can correctly say either “three yaks” or “three yak.”

Of course, as I’ve written before on the blog, we often use singular nouns in a generic way to refer to all members of a class. So “the yak” can be used generically to mean something like “all yaks.” For example, “The yak is a four-footed animal.”

If you’d like to read more on this subject, I’ve written a couple of blog entries about plural oddities, one in 2008 and the other in 2007.

By the way, the verb “yack,” which is sometimes spelled “yak,” isn’t related to the shaggy-haired ox from Central Asia.

The verb, which means to engage in trivial or unduly persistent conversation, comes from an attempt to imitate the sound of such chattering, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

The earliest citation for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Follower, a 1950 detective story by the pseudonymous Patrick Quentin:

“Yakked a lot. Know how she is. Talk your ear off…. She yakked on about you being in South America.”

I can’t very well end a discussion about yacking without a few lines from “Yakety Yak,” the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song for The Coasters:

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

“Disc” vs. “disk”

Q: My dictionary says “disk” and “disc” are simply variant spellings of the same word. But I’ve run across a technical article from Apple that asserts “disc” refers to optical media while “disk” refers to magnetic media. Have you ever heard of this distinction?

A: It’s true that “disc” is a variant spelling of “disk,” but Apple is technically right. Each spelling has marked out its own territory in the technological wilderness, though many non-techies seem to be unaware of the distinction.

As Apple’s support site says, discs are “optical media, such as an audio CD, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, DVD-RAM, or DVD-Video disc,” while disks are “magnetic media, such as a floppy disk, the disk in your computer’s hard drive, an external hard drive.”

If you’re like us, you may find the optical-vs.-magnetic distinction hard to remember. When in doubt, we go to a dictionary or usage guide. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has a helpful entry:

“Use disc in references to phonograph records (disc jockey, discography), optical and laser-based devices (compact disc, laser disc, videodisc), farm implements (disc harrow), and brakes (disc brakes). Use disk in references to the magnetic storage devices used with computers (floppy disk, hard disk) and to the fiber and cartilage between the vertebrae (slipped disk).”

In ordinary usage, as we mentioned, many people don’t follow the distinctions found in dictionaries, style manuals, and technical articles.

Experts do prefer “disc jockey” to “disk jockey,” and a comparison with Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “disc jockey” is considerably more popular than “disk jockey” in published books.

The word was spelled “disk” when it entered English in 1665 and referred to either the discus that athletes throw or the flat, circular form of a celestial object like the sun or moon. It’s ultimately derived from the Latin discus and the Greek δίσκος (diskos).

Standard dictionaries, like American Heritage and Merriam-Webster, generally say “disc” is a variant spelling of “disk.” The  Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, gives “disk” as a variant of “disc.”

The OED, under its entry for “disc, disk,” adds that “disc is now the more usual form in British English,” except in the computing sense, “where disk is commoner as a result of US influence.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this as one definition of “disk”: “a round flat plate coated with a magnetic substance on which data for a computer is stored.” But it says that an “optical disk” (like a “videodisc” or a “CD”) is usually spelled “disc.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), under its entry for “compact disk,” has an extensive usage note that we’ll quote in its entirety (we’ll add paragraphing to make it easier to read):

“When new words come into the language, they often have different forms for a period until one form wins out over the others. There are occasions when competing forms remain in use for a long time. The word disk and its descendant compound compact disk represent good examples of this phenomenon.

Disk came into English in the mid-17th century and was originally spelled with a k on the model of older words such as whisk. The c-spelling arose a half century later as a learned spelling derived from the word’s Latin source discus. Both disc and disk were used interchangeably into the 20th century, with people in Britain tending to use disc more often, and Americans preferring disk.

“The spellings also began to be sorted out by function. Late in the 19th century, for reasons that are not clear, people used disc to refer to the new method of making phonograph recordings on a flat plate (as opposed to Edison’s cylindrical drum). In any case, the c-spelling became conventional for this sense, which is why we listen to disc jockeys and not disk jockeys.

“In the 1940s, however, when American computer scientists needed a term to refer to their flat storage devices, they chose the spelling disk, and this became conventionalized in such compounds as hard disk and floppy disk. When the new storage technology of the compact disk arose in the 1970s, both c– and k-spellings competed for an initial period. Computer specialists preferred the familiar k-spelling, while people in the music industry, who saw the shiny circular plates as another form of phonograph record, referred to them as compact discs.

“These tendencies soon became established practice in the different industries. This is why we buy compact disks in computer stores but get the same storage devices with different data as compact discs in music stores. Similarly, the computer industry created the optical disk, the format that the entertainment industry used to create the videodisc.”

[Note: This post was updated on March 9, 2022.]

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Thunk piece

Q: I’m curious about the history of “thunk,” the past tense of “think.” I use it for fun in conversation, but my girlfriend swears it’s gibberish. Help me out, please.

A: The word “thunk” is a humorous past tense or past-participle for the verb “think.” The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a jocular or dialectal usage. The standard past tense or past-participle is “thought.”

The first published use cited in the OED is from C. Clough Robinson’s A Glossary of Words Pertaining to the Dialect of Mid-Yorkshire (1876). Robinson spelled it “thuongk” and noted that in the past tense “it is of constant occurrence.”

Although the Yorkshire citation is a dialectal usage, the more common use of “thunk” these days is as a jocular past participle, the form of a verb used with “have” or “had.”

The “have” or “had” in these “thunk” expressions is often reduced to “uh” or “a,” as in “Who’d uh thunk it?” instead of “Who’d have thunk it?”

In fact, the OED has a remarkably modern-sounding 1887 citation for the “a” version from a New Orleans newspaper called the Lantern: “Who’d a thunk it?”

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Strong medicine

Q: The suffix “pre” usually means before and “pro” usually means for. So what has happened etymologically to “prescribe” and “proscribe,” which essentially mean for and against.

A: We adopted “prescribe” in the 15th century from the Latin praescribere (meaning, among other things, to inscribe on the front, write beforehand, or lay down rules).

The term meant to lay down rules or make a ruling when it first showed up in English in 1445 in the records of St. Bartholomew’s Priory, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that “prescribe” took on its medical sense. The Dutch humanist Erasmus used it in 1533 when he prescribed that a man in danger of dying should read a medical tome by Jacobus de Partibus (a k a the Parisian scholar Jacques Despars).

The term was soon being used to prescribe medicine as well as medical reading, as in this excerpt from a 1581 translation of an Italian treatise on etiquette: “I prescribe for his health this medicine.”

As for “proscribe,” we adopted it from the Latin proscribere (meaning, among other things, to announce publicly or record in writing).

In ancient Rome, according to the OED, “proscription consisted in the publication of the names of citizens who were declared outlaws and their goods confiscated.”

When the term first showed up in English in 1445, it meant to publish or announce publicly the name of someone condemned to death, imprisonment, exile, banishment, or some other punishment. Now, that’s strong medicine.

The first OED citation is from John Lydgate’s poem “Queen Margaret’s Entry into London,” which refers to exiles “of wrecched tirannye” who “were proscribed.”

In the 17th century, “proscribe” took on its modern sense of prohibiting, excluding, or declaring unacceptable.

In fact, the first citation in the OED for this usage, from a 1622 English translation of a Spanish novel, uses both the terms you’ve asked about: “Lord, that prescribes, and proscribes / Lawes at his pleasure.”

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What the Sam Hill!

Q: Please comment on the saying “What the Sam Hill!”

A: The Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the exclamation “Sam Hill!” originated in early 19th-century America as a euphemism for “Hell!”

As you point out, it’s often found in the longer expression “What the Sam Hill!” I’ve also heard it as “What in Sam Hill!”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the expression is not known. The first published reference to it in the OED is from the Aug. 21, 1839, issue of the Havana (NY) Republican: “What in sam hill is that feller ballin’ about?”

Did a guy named Sam Hill have anything to do with the origin of this exclamation. The fact that the “s” and “h” of “sam hill” are lower-case in the newspaper suggests that the expression didn’t originally refer to a real person.

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins says the exclamation “was very popular with frontiersmen, especially when they needed to clean up their language in the presence of ladies.”

In English, of course, there’s a long history of euphemistic substitutions for strong language (“golly” and “gosh” originated as less blasphemous substitutes for “God”).

I wrote a couple of blog entries on this subject last year, one concerning “doggone it” and the other about “gosh darn it” as well as some related phrases.

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Blank check

Q: I’ve drawn a blank in my efforts to discover the origin of the expression “draw a blank.” Can you help please?

A: The expression is an allusion to drawing a blank, or losing, ticket in a lottery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The use of “blank” to mean “a lottery ticket which does not gain a prize” first appeared in print in 1567, the OED says. The quotation: “A verie rich Lotterie … without any blancks.”

Here are a couple more OED citations for “blank” used in this literal (that is, lottery) sense:

From John Moore’s A View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland and Germany (1779): “All the tickets he had in the lottery had proved blanks.”

And from Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller (1824): “It is like being congratulated on the high prize when one has drawn a blank.”

Figuratively, the OED says, to “draw a blank” is “to be unsuccessful, to fail (in a search); to be in vain. (With allusion to drawing a blank in a lottery.)”

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from an 1825 issue of Sporting Magazine: “One hundred sovereigns is a very pretty ‘find’ in any man’s pocket, and particularly so in one which is sometimes drawn a blank.”

These days, it often means failure to remember something or come up with an answer.

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Goat couture

Q: What is the origin of the expression “get one’s goat”?

A: What a disappointment. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that “despite several attempted explanations, the inspiration behind this phrase remains unknown.”

A hunch: perhaps it has to do with the goat’s fabled reputation as an irritable and cantankerous creature. This is only a wild guess, with no authority whatsoever to back it up. In fact, forget I even mentioned it!

All we can say about the expression is that it originated as American slang meaning to anger or annoy, and that the first known published usage (as of this writing) is from 1904.

The Random House slang dictionary gives a citation from a book called Life in Sing Sing in which “goat” is defined as prison lingo for anger.

Aside: A review of the book in Publishers Weekly on Dec. 3, 1904, described the author, identified only as “Number 1500,” as a man who spent six and a half years as a prisoner at Sing Sing. The review said he founded and edited the prison’s biweekly newspaper.

The next Random House citation is from a 1908 newspaper story in the New York American that says, in part: “The supreme contempt … evidently got the ‘goat’ of Mr. Frederick Clarke.”

The citation is quoted in The Unforgettable Season (1981), Gordon H. Fleming’s book about the 1908 National League pennant race, told from newspaper accounts at the time.

A Google search of that book (which is fascinating, by the way) turns up another quotation from 1908, one with a different meaning.

A reporter from the New York Evening Journal described a wife’s reaction after her husband hit a game-winning home run for the Giants: “It was the little woman with tears of joy trickling down her cheeks and so wildly clapping her gloved hands … that got my goat.”

Here, the reporter means he was moved, not annoyed. So, as of 1908 at least, the expression was still a work in progress.

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Speech therapy

Q: Why is “speak” spelled with “ea” and “speech” with “ee”?

A: In Old English, the noun “speech” was originally spraec, which was in use before 800. The verb “speak” was originally sprecan, which was first recorded in 725 (and which has echoes in the modern German sprechen).

Both can be traced to the days before we had writing, “speak” to a Proto-Germanic root reconstructed as sprekanan and “speech” to another Proto-Germanic root, spreakjo.

The “spr-” spellings for both the noun and the verb didn’t survive past the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But to get to your question: Why is the identical vowel sound now spelled “ee” in the noun and “ea” in the verb?

In fact, the vowel sound in “speech” has at times in the past been spelled with an “a” in the mix.

Since the 13th century, the OED says, its spellings have included “spaec,” “spec,” “spece,” “spaeche,” “spache,” “spiche,” “speche,” “spieche,” “spech,” “speach,” “speache,” and finally “speech.”

The spelling that won out, “speech,” was first used in the 16th century. But for many years it competed with “speach” and “speache.”

The vowel sound in “speak,” meanwhile, also had a long and winding journey. Since the 13th century, its spellings have included “speke,” “spek,” “spec,” “speck,” “speike,” “speik,” “speake,” “spake,” and finally “speak.”

One would think that both words eventually would have ended up with “ea.” But it didn’t happen.

Over the years, advocates of spelling reform have pointed to “speak” and “speech” as examples of the “viciousness” (as one 19th-century zealot called it) of English spellings.

In general, I’m not in their camp and I’m not a supporter of spelling reform. But I have to admit that there seems to be no explanation why the two aren’t spelled alike – why “speak” isn’t “speek” or (more likely) why “speech” isn’t “speach.”

The fact is that this is how the words have come down to us and we’re stuck with them. The good news is that most of us are used to them by now.

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Is your dress really katish?

Q: I’m writing from Daytona Beach. My mother always used the word “katish” (emphasis on the second syllable) to describe someone who was well dressed or nicely turned out. I don’t know how this word is spelled because I only heard her say it. Does such a word exist? And if so, how is it spelled?

A: This is a recognized regionalism that means pretty much what your mother used it for. And something tells me she wasn’t born in Daytona Beach.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has an entry for a word spelled variously as “catish” or “katish” or “kitash.”

It has been heard, chiefly in the north-central United States, since 1890, and it means stylish, elegant, or beautiful (it’s often preceded by “very,” according to DARE).

The regional dictionary has citations collected from Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Here’s one quotation recorded by a DARE researcher:

“A word that has been knocking around in our family for several generations … is … kitash (with a short i sound and ah sound for the a, emphasis on the last syllable). We use it in our family to denote something rather elegant, e.g., ‘We went to a very kitash party last night, everyone came formal, butlers all over the place.’ “

Here’s how another interview subject explained the word: “Pleasantly elegant, very nice, stylish. ‘Your dress is really katish!’ “

I’ve done some etymological digging, but the upshot is that I can’t give you a definite answer about the origins of “katish.”

The journal American Speech published an article in 1983 by Frederic G. Cassidy about a prefix (“ker,” also spelled “ka,” “ca,” “cur,” etc.) used as an intensifier to form adjectives.

Some familiar examples include “kablam” (or “kerblam”), “kerplop,” “kerplunk,” “kersplash,” and so on. Cassidy notes that such words are invariably stressed on the second syllable.

He suspects the tradition of forming words (sometimes whimsical or humorous ones) with this prefix may have come from Gaelic sources, particularly Old Scottish.

There is lots of evidence that it didn’t originate in the US, since the British have used formations like “curflummox” and “curfuffle,” and Scots Gaelic is particularly rich in such words.

This leads Cassidy to propose that the prefix might have originated as one spelled in Scots as “car,” “cur” (most frequently), or “ker.” Its meanings, roughly, are (1) wrongly, confusedly, crookedly; (2) very, exceedingly; (3) closely, intimately.

Cassidy’s theory is that when large numbers of Ulster Scots (also known as Scotch-Irish) came to the US in the 18th century, they brought the prefix with them. “The earliest recorded American examples are from just before and after 1830,” he says.

Most of the old words formed with this prefix are unrecognizable now. In discussing one of them, “catish” or “kitash,” Cassidy’s article says: “The base word, tash or tish, has not been found but the first syllable certainly appears to be ker.

However, I did find a word of Scottish origin, now obscure, that might be a clue to the origin of the “tish” or “tash” part.

The word, “tosh,” an adjective and adverb meaning “clean, neat, tidy, trim,” first appeared in print in 1776, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It’s not inconceivable that a speaker of Scots Gaelic might have described someone especially nicely turned out as “curtosh.”

A response from the questioner: “You’re right. My mother was so NOT from Daytona Beach. She was from upstate New York – around Albany. Her family was of Irish, Dutch, and German background, arriving in the early to mid-1800’s.”

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A crotchety question

Q: I know that “go commando” means go without underwear, but how did this expression come about? I heard it for the first time several years ago when the paparazzi were taking crotch shots of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

A: The verbal phrase “go commando,” which means go without one’s skivvies, dates from the 1970s, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

A suggested explanation, which Cassell’s accompanies with a question mark, is that “tough commandos need no such ‘soft’ apparel.”

Daniel Engber, writing in Slate in 2005, asked the question “Do our commandos really go commando?” Then he answered it:

“Many commandos do forgo underpants when they suit up in the field, but the practice is by no means limited to the special forces. With limited rucksack space and infrequent opportunities to wash up or change clothes, American troops sometimes decide that clean underwear is more trouble than it’s worth.”

Engber, who writes mainly about science for Slate, added:

“In addition, going without can increase ventilation and reduce moisture in a soldier’s battle dress uniform, which in turn can minimize his chances of getting a rash or crotch rot, a fungal infection of the groin. (Whether or not they wear underpants, many soldiers use Gold Bond Medicated Powder to prevent these ailments.)”

The phrase was popularized by a 1996 episode of the sitcom Friends. The character Joey, demanding that Chandler give him back his shorts, says, “It’s a rented tux, OK? I’m not gonna go commando in another man’s fatigues.”

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Captious reasoning

Q: I was recently browsing through a photographic memoir by Gore Vidal when I was stopped in my tracks by a caption that read (something like) “Howard and I at [some place] in [some year].” Have the rules changed so drastically since my education that one is now allowed to say (in effect) “This is a picture of Howard and I”? I will be gobsmacked if that rule has been tossed. Yours in a swivet.

A: Remain calm. The caption as written is a sentence fragment (as captions often are), and we have no way of knowing how the sentence would read if it were completed.

The phrase “Howard and I” could be either subject (correct) or object (incorrect) of a longer sentence. The caption could be an elliptical version of …

(1) “This is a picture of Howard and I at Cannes in 1954.” (Loud raspberry heard offstage.)


(2) “Howard and I are shown here at Cannes in 1954.” (Sigh of relief.)

We give the caption writer the benefit of the doubt. Ya gotta have a little faith in people!

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English English language Etymology Expression Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

The daughter of time

Q: On a recent Leonard Lopate show, you indicated that the silent “gh” in “daughter” derives from Anglo-Saxon. That got me to wondering: Is this English “gh” related to the German “ch” in tochter? The “ch” is pronounced in German, and makes a rough, throaty sound.

A: Yes, “daughter” came into English from Germanic sources (English being a Germanic language, after all). And, as I must have mentioned on WNYC, the silent “gh” in “daughter” was at one time sounded too.

“Daughter,” which was dohtor in Old English in the eighth century, has Germanic cognates (think of them as cousins) in Old Saxon (dohtar), Old Frisian (dochter), Old and Middle High German (tohter), Old Icelandic (dottir), Gothic (dauhtar), and of course modern German (tochter).

Cognates from outside the Germanic languages are found in Greek (thygater), Sanskrit (duhita), Persian (duxtar), Lithuanian (dukte), and Old Slavic (dusti). All have their origins in an ancient Indo-European root.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter”) and DAW-ter, the one we have today.

The word history above comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog entry earlier this year about the “gh” combination and how it has developed since Middle English.

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In a manor of speaking

Q: Last weekend I was with a group of friends (intelligent readers one and all) who disagreed on which is the correct phrase: “to the manor born” or “to the manner born.” I know I’ve heard you discuss this on WNYC. Who’s right?

A: Purists insist that “to the manner born” is the correct expression, but most people seem to prefer “to the manor born.” Who’s right? The simple answer is that there’s no simple answer.

I’ll have to go back to Shakespeare, who started it all, to answer your question.

When the first actor to play Hamlet first spoke the phrase around the end of the 16th century, it was “to the manner born” and meant accustomed to a behavior from birth.

And that’s the only way the expression was used for the next two and a half centuries.

In the mid-19th century, though, writers began playfully replacing “manner” with “manor” for humorous effect, either as puns or as malapropisms in the mouths of fictional characters. The two words have nothing in common but their sound – and their ready availability for punning.

In 1847, a punster at the Princeton Review wrote: “He intended … to return to Scotland and reside on his estate there as ‘though a native – and to the manor born.’ ”

The author obviously knew his Shakespeare and was taking liberties for comic effect. Nothing wrong with that. Writers have been making puns with sound-alike words such as “manner” and “manor” since the earliest days of English.

It didn’t take long for writers to turn the pun into a malapropism and put it into the mouths of their word-mangling characters.

The British playwright James R. Planché, for example, has a tribal leader in The Prince of Happy Land, an 1851 comedy, saying: “My name is Tan-ti-vee, / A native chief, and to the manor born, / I trace my line from Nimrod, through French Horn!”

Again, nothing wrong here (aside from the political incorrectness).

But the joke soon got out of hand. People began using “to the manor born” instead of “to the manner born,” and giving the updated expression a new meaning: born to wealth and privilege – that is, with a silver spoon in one’s mouth.

Usage writers have been rapping knuckles ever since. The crime – if we can call it that – was aided and abetted by the British sitcom To the Manor Born, whose title was intended as a pun.

The “incorrect” version is now the more popular of the two, and language guides are beginning to recognize both as legitimate with slightly different meanings.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, includes both – one under its entry for “manner” and the other under “manor” – without a frown.

And The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says both forms are acceptable. The older expression still means familiar with something since birth. The upstart means privileged since birth.

Sticklers may grumble, but Shakespeare wouldn’t have minded. He knew that language changes. He changed a lot of it himself.

I hope this explanation helps. I’ve taken much of it from Origins of the Specious, a book about language myths and misconceptions that I wrote with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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The genuine article

Q: My ESL students are plaguing me for a hard-and-fast rule about using definite or indefinite articles with generalizations. For example, “A computer is a necessary part of modern life” or “The computer is a necessary part of modern life.” Their first language is Russian, which has no articles.

A: This sounds like a simple question but it’s actually quite a tall order. Much about the use of articles in English is idiomatic and defies hard-and-fast rules. (Articles are like prepositions in this sense.) But I’ll give it a try.

Very broadly, “a” (or “an”) is an indefinite article. It’s general. “A boy” means some boy or other, no boy in particular.

“The” is a definite article. It’s specific. “The boy” means a particular boy, or one already referred to.

This is why a first reference to a noun often uses “a” while the second reference to the same noun uses “the,” as in this example: “A boy stood in the doorway. The boy [meaning the one just mentioned] slowly walked over to us.”

But there’s another dimension to “the.” We often use “the” when we use a singular noun in a generic way to refer to all members of a class.

So “the boy” can be used generically to mean something like “all boys.” For example, “As a child psychologist, Dr. Brown has devoted his career to the study of the boy.”

Here it might be easier to switch to animals!

We can correctly say either “A goat is a four-footed animal” or “The goat is a four-footed animal.” But the tendency is to use “the” when referring to a typical example of its class.

And this tendency is stronger the more specific we are about it: “The goat is remarkably nimble and sure-footed.” We don’t mean a particular goat; we mean all goats.

In fact, sometimes you can mentally insert the word “typical” to illustrate this use of “the,” as in “The [typical] goat is remarkably nimble and sure-footed.”

Thus a sentence like “The goat is amazing” is likely to be interpreted not as referring to a particular goat but to the typical one.

It would not be incorrect to say “The goat is amazing” in reference to a particular goat. But a person would be more likely to say “That goat (his goat, this goat, etc.) is amazing.”

You could also use “book” as an example: “A book was on the table. The book [meaning the one just mentioned] lay open.”

When using “book” to represent a class, you could correctly say either “A book is a valuable tool” or “The book is a valuable tool.”

But the more we use the noun as representative of a class, and the more specific we are about it, the more we need “the”: “The book was man’s greatest invention.”

Your computer example is harder to explain. Either of these is grammatically correct and sounds fine to me: “A computer is a necessary part of modern life” or “The computer is a necessary part of modern life.”

But there’s a nuance of difference. “A computer” implies some computer or other, not any one in particular. So an individual is more likely to say (of himself), “A computer is a necessary part of modern life.” In other words, the speaker requires “a computer,” meaning some computer or other.

On the other hand, “the computer” in a sentence like this implies a much broader statement whose subject is a stand-in for computers as a class: “The computer is a necessary part of modern life.”

And the more specific we are about it, the more appropriate “the” seems: “The computer has simplified our lives in many ways and complicated them in others.” Here you don’t mean some laptop or PC or whatever. You use “the computer” to mean “all computers.”

So, using “X” to represent our noun, you could tell your students to use “a” to refer to some X or other, not any X in particular. Use “the” to designate a particular X, or, more abstractly, a generic X that represents all X’s.

I wrote a blog entry last year about other idiomatic uses of “the.” And I wrote one a couple of months later that touches on the different handling of articles in British and American English.

I hope you (and the students) find this helpful.

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