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Insect aside

Q: A relative of mine used the expression “meat bees” to describe the insects buzzing around the burgers when she was on a camping trip. I googled the term and discovered it referred to yellow jackets, but I couldn’t find its etymology. Do you have any idea where it comes from?

A: What an interesting (though creepy) question! Etymology meets entomology.

The creature you’re talking about is not a bee per se, but a kind of wasp, the Western yellow jacket (Vespula pensylvanica), a scavenging variety found in warmer parts of the western and northwestern US and Canada as well as Hawaii.

The Western yellow jacket is often called the “meat bee” because it’s attracted to meat (it has a gigantic appetite for protein).

It’s often seen around garbage cans, around campsites (where it competes with campers for their hamburgers and hot dogs), or around pet-food dishes kept outside.

Meat bees are a major headache in the summer months in California and year-round in Hawaii.

These wasps are extremely aggressive, both when they’re foraging for food and when their nests are disturbed.

They build their nests underground, often in abandoned rodent burrows, so an unwary walker can inadvertently set off a swarm of angry Vespula pensylvanica.

The meat bee is not to be confused with the non-scavenging aerial yellow jacket (Dolichovespula species), which makes its paper nests in the open air and which is considered beneficial because it feeds on insects.

The University of California, Davis, has an informative web page on Vespula pensylvanica and other yellow jackets. If you’d like to read more, check it out.

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The more things change

Q: I’m laughing my way through Origins of the Specious (I’m now on Chapter 2), but I take issue with your belief that common usage eventually legitimizes sloppy language. This is sorta like the ’60s mantra: If it feels good, do it.

A: I’m glad you’re enjoying the book. I’d like to comment on your statement that Stewart and I believe “common usage eventually legitimizes sloppy language.”

This is more or less true, of course, but it has been the case since the very earliest days of English. And we’re hardly the first to make this observation, as you’ll see as you get further into the book.

Words change over time in their meaning, their spelling, their pronunciation, their number (singular or plural), and even their function (nouns become verbs and vice versa, for instance).

What this means is that what’s considered sloppy in one century may be correct in the next, and vice versa.

Here are a few examples, many of which I’ve written about before in the blog.

In Chaucer’s time the word “girl” meant a child of either sex.

The word “cute,” back in the days when it was short for “acute,” meant shrewd or perceptive or calculating (though it has also meant bow-legged!). “Cute” in the sense in which we use it today was considered schoolboy slang in the 19th century.

“Awful” used to mean awe-inspiring. “Wonderful” meant wonder-producing (and was often negative). “Terrible” meant terror-producing.

So in 18th-century novels, you might find a magnificent cathedral described as “awful,” a sudden catastrophe described as “wonderful,” or a fierce animal described as “terrible.”

The word “nice,” at various times in the past, has meant foolish, overly fastidious, wanton, and profligate. In other words, not very nice.

“Incredible,” which once meant literally “not credible,” has come to mean very good in the mouths of some speakers. “Sophisticated” once meant corrupted, and “silly” meant happy.

You get the drift. When these words were in the process of changing and were being used in new ways, people wrung their hands and worried that English was going down the drain.

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Incidentally, Franny has the measles

Q: When did the word “incidentally” lose popularity? Was it ever really popular outside of J. D. Salinger’s books? For me, it’s another older word that I like but can’t use because it doesn’t seem to fit into conversation anymore.

A: Hmm. I don’t think “incidentally” has fallen out of favor, even among people who haven’t read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. In fact, I just googled the word and got 15 million hits.

“Incidentally” first appeared in print in the mid-17th century, meaning “in an incidental manner; as an incident, or a subordinate and casual circumstance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation for the word in its modern sense (“in point of fact,” “by the way”) is from Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy: “Incidentally by that time the sex lure or appeal had begun to manifest itself.”

And, of course, it appears several times in Raise High the Roof Beam (1955), as in this excerpt from Boo Boo’s letter to Buddy:

“Franny has the measles, for one thing. Incidentally, did you hear her last week? She went on at beautiful length about how she used to fly all around the apartment when she was four and no one was home.”

Incidentally, H. W. Fowler didn’t like the word. In his Modern English Usage (1926), he said it was “now very common as a writer’s apology for an irrelevance.”

Perhaps, but I’m with you. I like the word. And I use it myself. I see nothing wrong with a little wholesome irrelevance once in a while.

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Honey, I sunk the boat

[Note: A later post on this subject appeared on May 24, 2019. And an updated post about “shrink,” “shrank,” and “shrunk” was published on Jan. 2, 2020.]

Q: I’ve noticed that even the best-edited publications sometimes use “sunk” instead of “sank” for the past tense of “sink.” This leaves me with a sinking feeling. What can we do about the loss of a perfectly good four-letter word that can be spoken in any company?

A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are accepted for the past tense of “sink” in American English. The two are listed, in that order, as equal variants in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

So it’s correct to say either “the boat sank” or “the boat sunk.” The past participle is “sunk,” as in “the boat has sunk” or “the boat was sunk.”

In case you’re wondering, the same is true for “shrink.” The same three American dictionaries  allow either “shrank” or “shrunk” in the past tense.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, though the preference in written usage seems to be for “shrank.”

In 1995, William Safire drew catcalls from the “Gotcha!” gang for using “shrunk” in the past tense in the New York Times. Why did he do it? Here’s how he explained it:

“Because Walt Disney got to me, I guess: the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids did to ‘shrank’ what Winston cigarettes did to ‘as’: pushed usage in the direction of what people were casually saying rather than what they were carefully writing.”

But back to “sunk,” which has bounced back and forth in acceptability over the centuries. Arguments over it are nothing new. For instance, we found a spirited defense of “sunk” in the past tense in an 1895 issue of the journal The Writer.

In the history of English, the use of “sunk” in the past tense has been “extremely common,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the OED cites Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as giving the past tense as “I sunk, anciently sank.”

Johnson himself used “sunk” as the past tense, as in this citation from his treatise Taxation No Tyranny (1775): “The constitution sunk at once into a chaos.”

But Johnson was right: “anciently,” to use his word, the accepted past tense was indeed “sank.”

The verb was sincan in Old English, with the past tense sanc and the past participle suncon or suncen.

The old past tense seems to have been preserved into Middle English, the form of the language spoken between 1100 and 1500.

Here’s an example from Arthur and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wawain on the helme him smot, / The ax sank depe, god it wot.”

But in modern English, both “sank” and “sunk” have appeared as past tenses, and “sunk” may even have been preferred in literary usage. Here’s Dickens, for example: “ ‘Cold punch,’ murmured Mr. Pickwick, as he sunk to sleep again” (The Pickwick Papers, 1836).

The usage can be found in the Bible (1611): “The stone sunke into his forehead.” And here it is in Sir William Jones’s poem Seven Fountains (1767): “The light bark, and all the airy crew, / Sunk like a mist beneath the briny dew.”

“Sunk” was used by Addison and Steele in the Spectator in the 18th century, and by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th.

In fact, Scott’s novels are full of “sunk,” as in this passage from The Heart of Midlothian (1818): “Jeanie sunk down on a chair, with clasped hands, and gasped in agony.”

Today, the British prefer to reserve “sunk” for the past participle and use “sank” for the past tense, so the preferred progression in contemporary British English is “sink/sank/sunk.”

The lexicographer Robert Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), sums up the state of things in British English. The past tense, he writes, “is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.” And today the preferred past participle is “sunk,” not the old “sunken.”

It seems that in American usage, too, most people prefer “sank” as the past tense, even though dictionaries allow “sunk.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

Some commentators have suggested that the return of the “sink/sank/sunk” progression (along with a distaste for “sunk” as a past tense) may have been influenced by the similar irregular verbs “drink/drank/drunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” “ring/rang/rung,” and others.

This common pattern, by the way, probably inspired “brang” and “flang” as illegitimate past tenses of “bring” and “fling.”

And it probably also brought about “snuck,” the much-reviled past tense of “sneak,” which dictionaries now accept as standard English and which we’ve written about before on the blog.

To recap, these days it’s no crime (at least in American English) to say “the boat sunk in a storm” or “my  jeans shrunk in the dryer.”

But the grammar police will still fine you for using a past participle when the simple past tense is appropriate, as in “The bell rung” or “I drunk the milk” or “She sung off key.”

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The cocktail party

Q: I wonder if you can help me find the etymology of the word “cocktail.” I’ve looked in a few places, but haven’t found a satisfactory answer.

A: We can see why you’re having trouble tracking down the use of “cocktail” for a mixed drink. There are lots of popular theories about the origin of this usage, but we don’t buy any of them.

“The etymology of cocktail has long engaged the learned, but without persuasive result,” H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Language (rev. 4th ed., 1936). And the term is global, not merely American.

“One buys cocktails and gin-fizzes to this day in America bars that stretch from Paris to Yokohama,” he added.

One popular theory is that Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans pharmacist and the creator of Peychaud’s bitters, popularized the use of “cocktail” for a mixed drink that he served to customers.

Well, Peychaud may have helped popularize the term, but it appeared in print well before he opened his pharmacy in the 1830s.

The first citation for “cocktail” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1803 issue of The Farmer’s Cabinet, an Amherst, N.H., weekly: “Drank a glass of cocktail – excellent for the head … Call’d at the Doct’s … drank another glass of cocktail.”

The word sleuth Michael Quinion, in an item about “cocktail” on his World Wide Words website, lists quite a few questionable (and entertaining) etymologies.

For example, an innkeeper named Betsy (or Betty) Flannigan supposedly used the tail feathers of a cock as swizzle sticks when serving drinks during the American Revolution.

And the Marquis de Lafayette, according to another story, carried an old French recipe for mixed wines, called coquetel, to America during the Revolution.

Although we don’t know—and may never know—who first used “cocktail” to refer to a mixed drink, we wonder whether the originator of this usage may have had the word’s equine history in mind.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to the OED, the term “cock-tailed” was used to refer to a coach horse or hunter with “the tail docked, so that the short stump left sticks up like a cock’s tail.”

Eventually the word “cocktail” came to be used for a “horse of racing stamp and qualities, but decidedly not thorough-bred, from a known stain in his parentage,” according to a 19th-century dictionary of rural sports.

Did the use of “cocktail” for a mixed-breed horse with spirit influence the use of the word for a spirited mixed drink? Or vice versa? It’s hard to tell from the few OED citations, but we wouldn’t bet against the horse.

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Deference mechanism

Q: Why do we begin sentences with “if” when we request something? For example: “If you could line up outside the building …” If what? I seldom hear the ending. Also, here’s a pet peeve of mine – the overuse of “amazing.” I’ve determined that nothing is actually amazing because everything is amazing.

A: My opinion is that when people use “if” instead of “please” to ask others to do something, it reflects shyness, timidity, or deference on their part.

Often this kind of timid request is accompanied by a rising, questioning inflection at the end: “If you could just move a bit to one side?”

The unspoken part of the sentence is probably something like “…. I’d really appreciate it.”

I think this kind of request indicates an unwillingness (or an inability) to come right out and ask.

As for “amazing,” you’re not the first to complain to me about the overuse of this word, which has grown to amazing proportions!

I think it’s replaced “awesome” as the adjective du jour, and it will probably be replaced by something else when it loses its du jour-ness.

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Above suspicion

Q: Can a package be suspicious or does it need a person to be suspicious of it?

A: The adjective “suspicious” can properly be applied to a person who entertains suspicions, or to a person or thing inspiring suspicion in others.

So, a package with a ticking noise inside may indeed be suspicious, though someone or something (a nosey cat, for instance) must suspect that something is up.

The Oxford English Dictionary has these definitions under its entry for “suspicious”:

(1) “Open to, deserving of, or exciting suspicion; that is or should be an object of suspicion; suspected, or to be suspected; of questionable character.”

(2) “Full of, inclined to, or feeling suspicion; disposed to suspect; suspecting; esp. disposed to suspect evil, mistrustful.”

Interestingly, the first definition (the one that would apply to that package of yours) is the oldest, dating back to the early 14th century.

In The Canterbury Tales, for example, written around 1386, Chaucer describes a sergeant’s reputation (diffame in Middle English) as suspicious: “Suspecious was the diffame of this man, / Suspect his face, suspect his word also.”

It wasn’t until around the beginning of the 15th century that people, as well as things, could be suspicious. Now, who would have suspected that?

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On home ground

Q: I was wondering if you have any idea how the word “homely” came to mean ugly in the US and homey in the UK? I have not been able to track down this etymology.

A: As far as I can tell, the word “homely” means the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic, and it has for hundreds of years. Although “homely” can mean plain or unattractive, I think “ugly” is too strong a word to use here.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define it as not attractive, lacking elegance, simple, unpretentious, or homelike. No mention of ugly!

When the adjective “homely” first showed up in English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “of or belonging to the home or household,” but this meaning is now obscure.

At around the same time “homely” came to mean simple, plain, or ordinary, which is understandable, since what’s most familiar to us can seem commonplace or humdrum.

The earliest citation in the OED for this sense, which has lasted into our time, is from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “Thanne hadde I with yow hoomly suffisaunce.”

This sense of the word is defined in the OED as “unsophisticated, simple; plain, unadorned, not fine; everyday, commonplace; unpolished, rough, rude” as well as that which “belongs to home or is produced or practised at home (esp. a humble home).”

The dictionary adds that this meaning of the word is “sometimes approbative, as connoting the absence of artificial embellishment; but often apologetic, depreciative, or even as a euphemism for wanting refinement, polish, or grace.”

”Homely” has been used in this sense to refer not only to things but also (since the 16th century) to people.

In reference to people, the OED says, the principal meaning that has survived is “of commonplace appearance or features; not beautiful, ‘plain,’ uncomely. “

As far as we know, Shakespeare was the first to use the word to mean lacking in personal beauty. Here’s the citation, from The Comedy of Errors (1590): “Hath homelie age th’alluring beauty tooke / From my poore cheeke?”

Probably because “homely” lost its cozy and homelike connotations, another word sprang up to replace it: “homey,” which was born in the mid-19th century.

The OED defines “homey” as “resembling or suggestive of home; home-like; having the feeling of home; homish.” The first citation is from the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley’s Letters and Memories of His Life (1856): “I like to … feel ‘homey’ wherever I be.”

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Subjunctive matter

Q: I try not to pay much attention to grammar in songs, knowing it gets sacrificed for rhythm and such. But hymns in church are almost always in proper English, which is why I did a double take to see: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, / And ransom captive Israel, / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear.” Is it just me, or should the last word be “appears”?

A: The use of “appear” in the hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” (John Mason Neal’s 19th-century translation of the Latin text Veni, veni, Emmanuel) is an archaic use of the subjunctive mood.

The meaning of the last line you cited is “Until the Son of God [should, or happens to] appear.”

We no longer use the subjunctive in a sentence like this. We would use the indicative mood (“appears”). However, an echo of that old usage survives in the expression “until death do us part.”

The subjunctive mood is used to express something hypothetical: something wished, imagined, demanded, and so on.

It was once used much more often than it is today. These days, English speakers use the subjunctive mood (instead of the normal indicative mood) for only three purposes:

(1) To express a wish: “I wish I were thinner.” [Not: “I wish I was thinner.”]

(2) To express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If I were a rich man …” [Not: “If I was a rich man …”]

(3) To express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “I suggest he find a job.” [Not: “I suggest he finds a job.”]

However, some older vestiges of the subjunctive survive in expressions like “God forbid” [not “God forbids”]; “Long live the Queen” [not “Long lives the Queen”]; “so be it” [not “so is it”]; and “come what may” [not “comes what may”].

We also use it in sentences like “I hurried, lest I be late,” and “He loves art, whether it be painting, sculpture, or music,” and “Come February, the mortgage will be paid off.”

If you’d like to read more, I wrote a post last year about the modern use of the subjunctive in English.

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Vicious etymology

Q: Which is correct, “vicious cycle” or “vicious circle”? I think the former, but I often hear about the latter and wonder if it’s now acceptable.

A: Every once in a while someone asks me about these phrases and wonders which is right. The short answer is that both are correct, especially in American English, though they may have somewhat different meanings.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have entries for only “vicious circle,” but they list “vicious cycle” as a legitimate variant for one of the meanings.

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s define “vicious circle” as (1) a circular argument or (2) a situation in which the apparent solution to one problem creates a second one that makes it harder to solve the original problem.

The two US dictionaries include “vicious cycle” as an acceptable alternate for the second meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t list “vicious cycle” as a variant, though it includes the phrase in a couple of 20th-century citations.

The original expression was “vicious circle,” used in the sense of a circular argument.

Logicians in the early 17th century used the term “vicious” (from the Latin vitiosus, meaning faulty or defective) to refer to a flawed syllogism.

Here’s an OED citation from 1697: “If from true premisses follows what is false, it is a sign that the form of the syllogism is vitious.”

By extension, the phrase “vicious circle” was used in the 1700s for an argument that circles back on itself because its premise is flawed (usually the premise is used to justify the conclusion, which in turn is used to justify the premise).

By the way, there are now variations on both phrases that substitute “virtuous” for “vicious.” The expression “virtuous circle” was first recorded, as far as we know, in the 1950s, and was modeled after the phrase “vicious circle.”

The OED defines a “virtuous circle” as “a recurring cycle of events, the result of each one being to increase the beneficial effect of the next.”

Here’s a citation from The Past Masters, a 1953 novel by Edith Simon: “It will be a virtuous circle of publicity attracting helpers and, I trust, supplementary donations, and these begetting more publicity.”

The OED has no citations for “virtuous cycle,” but I suspect that it piggybacked its way into the language by way of “virtuous circle” and means much the same thing.

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Healthy, wealthy, and wise

Q: I am an English language teacher in rural New Brunswick, Canada. I listen to you on WNYC every month and stream your segment several times. My question concerns this quote from Ben Franklin: “Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Why is the verb singular?

A: Before I get to your question, let me clear up a common misconception. Benjamin Franklin was not the author of that popular proverb.

The first person to use it in print was John Clarke in Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, a 1639 book of English and Latin proverbs.

Franklin included the proverb in Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he published between 1732 and 1758. As Franklin scholars know, he relied primarily on proverb collections for the proverbs in his Almanack.

This particular proverb was printed as advice for the month of October in his Poor Richard’s Almanack for the Year 1735. Here is how it appeared: “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.”

Here is how it appeared in Clarke’s 1639 collection, which I was able to read on the database Early English Books Online: “Earely to bed and earely to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

Collections of proverbs are just that – not original works but compendiums of old sayings. So the proverb that appeared in Clarke’s book naturally preceded him as well. As Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, notes: “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs gives similar expressions back to 1496.”

Franklin was known to tinker with proverbs whose phrasing he thought he could improve, but note that he used the same words (though not the same punctuation and spelling) that Clarke did.

They both used the singular verb “makes,” even though the sentence has a compound subject that would appear to be plural. The subject is two noun phrases (“early to bed” … “early to rise”) combined by “and.”

Normally, a subject consisting of two nouns or noun phrases linked by “and” requires a plural verb. The exception occurs when the two are considered a single entity, as in “Two and two makes four,” or “The Stars and Stripes was proudly displayed,” or “Meatloaf and mashed potatoes is my favorite meal.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes this kind of construction as an “override” of the normal rules of subject-verb agreement.

“Such examples can be regarded as involving a singular override,” it says, explaining that “the subject is conceptualised as a single unit and this determines the singular verb.”

The Cambridge Grammar gives an example that could go either way: “Your laziness and your ineptitude amaze/amazes me.”

As the authors explain, “both singular and plural verbs are possible, the singular conveying that the laziness and ineptitude form a single cause of amazement, the plural conveying that each of them is a cause of amazement.”

Getting back to our proverb, it seems to me that the singular verb (“makes”) tells us that both retiring and rising early are required.

It’s the combination, rather than two separate practices, that forms the subject of the sentence (and makes us healthy, wealthy, and wise).

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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

Opposition research

Q: You wrote in 2008 and 2007 about words that have totally opposing – or at least wildly differing – meanings. For example, “sanction “and “cleave.” By what etymological process do these words develop? Perhaps the language deities have a sense of humor.

A: These two-faced words are usually called “contronyms,” though they are sometimes referred to as “auto-antonyms,” “self-antonyms,” or “Janus words” (after the god with two faces).

In addition to “sanction” (to approve or penalize) and “cleave” (to cling or part), some others are “screen” (to view or hide from view), “bolt” (to flee or fix in place), and “weather” (to stand up to stress or be eroded by stress).

Each of these words (and there are many more) developed its opposing meanings for different reasons.

In the case of “cleave,” it comes from two distinct verbs with different roots in Old English. The one (cleofian or clifian) meant “cling” or “stick,” and the other (cleofan) meant “split” or “divide.”

The two eventually merged in spelling and pronunciation, and the differing meanings were preserved.

In the case of “sanction,” the verb originally meant to ratify or confirm by enactment. A little later this came to mean to permit; still later it grew to mean to enforce by imposing penalties.

The verb followed the much earlier noun, which first meant a law or decree and later meant a penalty.

Etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may be an adaptation of the Latin sanctionem (“action of ordaining as inviolable under a penalty, also a decree or ordinance”).

In the 17th century, the noun “sanction” was “extended to include the provision of rewards for obedience, along with punishments for disobedience, to a law,” the OED says.

So in looser senses it grew to mean encouragement or support on the one hand, and coercive measures on the other.

Such are the ways of language!

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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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Service with a smile

Q: I’ve noticed that people now use the verb “service” in place of “serve,” as in “How may I service you?” Doesn’t “service” refer to fixing an appliance or performing a sexual act?

A: I haven’t noticed this usage myself, but another reader emailed me about it a year or so ago.

In fact, the original meaning of the verb “service” was the one you’re hearing now: to serve, to provide with a service, to be of service.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1893 and appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Catriona: “If I am to service ye the way that you propose, I’ll lose my lifelihood.”

The word gained another meaning in 1926: to perform routine maintenance or repair work on a car or other equipment (as in, “It’s time to service the lawnmower”).

In 1942, the verb took on another meaning: to pay interest on a debt (as in “the company can no longer service its debts”). It later came to mean to process a debt (“the bank transferred the mortgage and doesn’t service it anymore”).

And in 1961 the verb “service” was first recorded as meaning to provide sexual services (as in “the stallion serviced the mare”).

This usage, according to the OED, comes from an earlier meaning of the verb “serve,” which was used in reference to male animals, especially stallions and bulls, and meant “to cover (the female).”

The OED‘s first citation for this use of “serve” is from a book on husbandry published in 1577: “At halfe a yeere old they [boars] are able to serve a sowe.”

In the Stevenson quotation from 1893, a person is the object being serviced; in the other OED citations for that sense (to be of service, etc.), the object being serviced is not a person but a thing (a town, a trade route, a region, and so on).

These days, most of us don’t speak of “servicing” other people, probably because of the word’s sexual connotations.

Though the sexual meaning of the verb “service” was first used in reference to animals, it later was (and still is) used, especially in ribald jokes, about people.

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Lyric victory

Q: I recently heard a very old song called “The Same Old South.” Two lines of lyrics are: “Let the Northerners keep Niagra / We’ll stick to our Southern polygra.” I’ve tried googling “polygra” with no success. Do you know what it is?

A: The lyric, from the song “It’s the Same Old South,” actually goes like this: “Let the Northerners keep Niagra, / We’ll stick to our Southern pellagra.”

Pellagra is a disease caused by a dietary deficiency (the lack of niacin), and it was common in the South at the turn of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Black field workers were particularly hard-hit by pellagra.

The blues singer Jimmy Rushing recorded the song, a sarcastic commentary on the Jim Crow South, with Count Basie and his orchestra in 1940.

The song, with lyrics by Ed Eliscu and music by Jay Gorney, was originally part of a satirical labor revue called Meet the People, which opened in Los Angeles in 1939. Here are the final lines of the song:

“Oh, honey, shut my mouth / Where the bloodhounds that once chased Liza / Chase a poor old CIO organizer / It’s the same old South.”

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A mollusk proposition

Q: Where does the phrase “warm the cockles of my heart” come from and what does it really mean?

A: You’ve heard of cockleshells? Well, cockles, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are bivalve mollusks “common on sandy coasts, and much used for food.” This creature has been known as a “cockle” since the late 1390s.

Some etymologists think the 17th-century phrase “cockles of one’s heart” may come from the heart’s resemblance to a cockleshell.

Others think it may have something to do with the Greek-derived zoological name for the cockle, Cardium (“of the heart”).

And still others, as the OED says, have sought its origin in the Latin corculum, a diminutive of cor, or “heart.”

Whatever the origin, hearts have had cockles ever since. Here are some of the OED citations:

1671, in the writings of John Eachard: “This contrivance of his did inwardly rejoice the cockles of his heart.”

1739, in Roger Bull’s translation of Dedekindus’ Grobianus: “O! how you’d please the Cockles of my Heart.”

1792, in a letter of Sir Walter Scott: “An expedition … which would have delighted the very cockles of your heart.”

1858, from a letter of Charles Darwin: “I have just had the innermost cockles of my heart rejoiced by a letter from Lyell.”

The modern expression, as the OED points out, is “to warm the cockles of one’s heart.” It means to raise one’s spirits or give one pleasure.

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When the love-light is fading

Q: I’m curious about these lines from the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: Christmas Eve will find me / Where the love-light gleams. I’ve searched pretty deeply on the Internet, but I can’t pin down a good explanation of what “love-light” means. Can you help?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary never lets us down. (Or hardly ever.) It defines the poetic term “love-light” as a noun meaning “radiance (of the eyes) expressing love; an instance of this.”

The first published citation given is from this coy passage in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine in 1813: “With eyelids drooping to conceal the love-light that slept beneath them.”

The OED doesn’t mention the Christmas song by Buck Ram, Kim Gannon, and Walter Kent, but it gives these other citations:

1852, from Philip J. Bailey’s long poem Festus: “Her bright heart / With lovelight glowed.”

1907, from the Westminster Gazette: “In your dew-bright eyes … Love-light shone beaming.”

1950, from Noel Coward’s song “Sail Away”: “When the love-light is fading in your sweetheart’s eye, / Sail away, sail away.”

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English language Etymology Punctuation Usage

Compounding interest

Q: I am curious as to why the Rules of Court in New Jersey would hyphenate the word “cross-claim,” but consider “counterclaim” one word. Is it proper to hyphenate either or both words?

A: Hyphenation conventions are rich and varied, and the results for individual compounds can differ from stylebook to stylebook, dictionary to dictionary. It may be that the editors of the Rules of Court favor one dictionary or style manual over another.

In general, most compounds formed with “counter” are written as one word (as in “counterpoint”), while those formed with “cross” are sometimes one word (“crosswalk”), sometimes hyphenated (“cross-country”), and sometimes two words (“cross section”).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has “counterclaim” and “cross-claim.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only “counterclaim,” which leads me to believe it would prefer that the second term be two words, “cross claim.”

In short, it’s perfectly reasonable that the Rules of Court would show one term as hyphenated and the other not. This may reflect the different ways in which we treat “counter” and “cross” in combination with other words.

The “counter” in “counterclaim,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a prefix from the Latin contra (“against” or “in return”).

It’s defined as meaning “done, directed, or acting against, in opposition to, as a rejoinder or reply to another thing of the same kind already made or in existence.”

But the “cross” in “cross-claim” is a combination word rather than a prefix, according to the OED, and “here cross becomes practically the equivalent of an adjective.”

In some of the compounds with “cross,” the dictionary adds, “the combination is very loose” with “the use of the hyphen being almost optional.”

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Q: I often hear President Obama pronounce the a’s in “Afghanistan” like the one in “cat,” but he pronounces the a’s in “Pakistan” like the one in “father.” Many commentators follow suit. Shouldn’t the a’s in both countries sound the same?

A: In American English, there are two standard pronunciations for “Pakistan.” Either both a‘s are sounded as in “cat,” or both are sounded like the one in “father.” The same is true of “Pakistani,” the adjective and the noun.

Whichever a you choose, the vowel sounds should match. And in all cases, the second vowel is like the i in “bit.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agree so far, but they differ somewhat over the pronunciation of “Afghanistan.”

American Heritage gives only one pronunciation for “Afghanistan,” with all three a‘s pronounced as in “cat.” The i sounds like the vowel in “bit.” (My 1956 copy of the big Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2d ed., also has only one pronunciation, the all-“cat” version.)

However, Merriam-Webster’s gives two pronunciations for “Afghanistan”: the first a is always pronounced as in “cat,” but the remaining a‘s can both be sounded as in “cat” or as in “father.” The i sounds like the vowel in “but.”

The two modern dictionaries agree on the pronunciations of the noun and adjective “Afghan” as well as the noun and adjective “Afghani.” (“Afghani” traditionally refers to the currency, but some dictionaries now say it can also refer to the people.)

Both words begin with a as in “cat.” The second a in “Afghan” can be rhymed with either “cat” or “cut.” The second a in “Afghani” can be sounded as in “cat” or “father.”

But here again, the old Web. 2 takes the easy route: the a‘s in “Afghan” and “Afghani” are all pronounced as in “cat.”

And here’s a happy ending: Everyone agrees that the final i in “Afghani,” like the final i in “Pakistani,” sounds like a long e, as in “beet.”

If you want my opinion, the “cat” pronunciation is the simplest (and probably the commonest) one for Americans to use for the a‘s in all these words.

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An unknown quantity

Q: Over the last couple of weeks. I’ve noticed several instances of “unknow” used as an adjective. When I first saw it in print I thought it was a typo, but now I’m beginning to wonder if we’re witnessing the birth of a know-tion.

A: “Unknow” as an adjective is unknown in today’s English. I would bet the bank that any contemporary examples you’ve found are typos.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for a word spelled “unknowe,” a participial adjective described as an obscure variant of “unknown.” Chaucer used it in his poem Troilus and Criseyde (1374): “Unknowe unkyst and lost that is un-sought.”

The OED describes the adjective as obscure, and doesn’t have any citations later than the 1500s.

No matter how you spell it, I don’t see any mention of “unknow” as an adjective in modern standard dictionaries. The most recent, as far as I can tell, is in a 1913 edition of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, which defines the adjective “unknow” as meaning “unknown.”

My big unabridged Webster’s Second, published in 1956, has no listing for the adjective. It does, however, have entries for the verb “unknow,” used both transitively and intransitively. It’s defined as (1) “to be ignorant (of)” and (2) “to cease to know; forget.”

I don’t see the verb in more recent standard dictionaries, but the OED lists it with similar meanings.

The first citations for the verb in Oxford are from the writings of the medieval theologian John Wycliffe (circa 1380) and from Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible (1382).

The last published reference for the verb in the OED is from the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who used it in his poem “Hertha” (1871): “Love or unlove me / Unknow me or know / I am that which unloves me and loves; I am stricken, and I am the blow.”

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A pig in a poke

Q: On successive days, I heard these terms used at my senior complex: “a pig and a poke” and “a pig in a poke.” Which is correct?

A: The correct term now is “a pig in a poke,” though quite a few other versions of the expression have made it into print over the years.

A “poke” is an old word for a pouch or bag or sack; this word has been in English since around 1300. The Oxford English Dictionary says pokes “seem to have been used particularly for the conveyance of raw wool.”

The expression “to buy a pig in a poke” means to accept something you haven’t seen or examined. Variants of the phrase have been around since the Middle Ages.

The expression “a pig in a pouch,” for example, was recorded in the Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of writings from the 1200s

Here’s a 1555 version from John Heywood’s Epigrammes: “I wyll never bye the pyg in the poke.”

And here’s another example, dated 1583, from Robert Greene’s Mamillia: “He is a foole, they say, that will buy ye pig in the poke: or wed a wife without trial.”

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Comma names

Q: I notice that you put a comma between “Hi” and “Laura” in a personal reply to a grammar question from my wife. Is this a typo (in which case my apologies for pointing it out) or is this a correct usage (in which case I’m interested to learn why)?

A:  We use commas before (or after or around) names used in direct address (that is, when you’re addressing somebody), as in “Hello, Laura,” or “Rodney, welcome,” or “Honey, I’m home!”

If the name is at the beginning of a sentence, you put a comma after it. If it’s at the end, you put the comma in front. And if the name is in the middle of a sentence, commas go in front and back.

This is a traditional rule of punctuation. Here are excerpts from a few style manuals:

Words Into Type (3d ed.): “Set off proper names and substantives used in direct address.” (P. 203)

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.): “A comma follows names or words used in direct address and informal correspondence.” (P. 247)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “[The comma] sets off words in direct address and mild interjec­tions.” (P. 1605)

This is a longstanding convention, but many people don’t use a comma after “Hi,” probably because it’s so informal. We’re not bothered when people omit the comma, but we’ll continue to use it ourselves because old style habits die hard.

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog entry two years ago about the use of commas in direct address.

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A gentleman and a scoundrel

Q: The word “gentleman” is so loosely used these days that it’s now meaningless. For example, a witness will refer to the perpetrator of a crime as “the gentleman wielding the gun.” Is this correct usage?

A: I may be old-fashioned, but I’m a lady who thinks of a gentleman as, well, a gentleman.

Nevertheless, the word “gentleman” has had many meanings since it first showed up in English (as “gentile man”) in the 13th century. Many of these senses have had nothing to do with a man who is well-born or well-mannered.

When the word originally appeared, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to a man of gentle (that is, noble) birth.

Over the years, it came to mean a man distinguished by social position, good manners, independent wealth, and so on. However, the word also took on many not-so-gentlemanly meanings.

For example, “visiting the gentlemen’s” has meant going to the men’s room. A superior racing horse has been referred to as “quite the gentleman.” And “the old gentleman in black” has meant the Devil.

Since the 16th century, according to OED citations, the term “gentleman” has been used to refer politely to men of all classes. And since the 17th century, it’s been used humorously to refer to men of less than exalted social standing.

However, I wouldn’t use the word “gentleman” in the sense you mention (to refer to the perpetrator of a crime), except perhaps in jest.

I don’t find this sense of the word in the OED or in the two US dictionaries I consult the most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The usage sounds to me like the kind of jargon one might encounter on a police blotter.

Aside: One of my favorite gentlemen in English literature is Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But another old favorite is actually a gentleman’s gentleman – the valet Jeeves in P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster novels.

And as Jeeves might have said, I hope this reply has given satisfaction, sir.

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Invitation only?

Q: I’ve always assumed that the use of “invite” is incorrect when referring to an “invitation.” Is that a correct assumption?

A: The word “invite,” accented on the first syllable, has been used as a noun meaning an invitation for several hundred years.

Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary calls it a “colloquial” usage – that is, characteristic of informal conversation. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agrees, labeling it “informal.”

The OED‘s first citation for the published use of “invite” as a noun is from Hamon L’Estrange’s The Alliance of Divine Offices (a 1659 commentary on The Book of Common Prayer): “Bishop Cranmer … gives him an earnest invite to England.”

The novelist Fanny Burney wrote in her diary in 1778: “Everybody bowed and accepted the invite but me … for I have no intention of snapping at invites from the eminent.”

And Sydney, Lady Morgan, wrote in Passages From My Autobiography in 1811: “We have refused two invites for to-day. … For Monday we have had three dinner invites.”

You would think that after all this time, dictionaries would accept the noun “invite” as standard English. And at least one dictionary does. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without reservation.

As for me, I think “invite” is OK for informal occasions, but I’ll expect an “invitation” if the Queen asks me to Buckingham Palace.

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Naff lines

Q: My lovely British girlfriend and I were discussing the origin of the slang term “naff.” Her mother says it’s an acronym for “Not Available for Fucking.” This sounds dubious to me. Can you shed any light on the subject?

A: The origin of “naff” is uncertain, but the odds are that it’s not an acronym.

This British colloquialism (which means tasteless, vulgar, inferior, and the like) can be traced to the mid-1960s.

But, as the Oxford English Dictionary comments, the theory that it’s the acronym you mention “seems to be a later rationalization.”

Another theory, cited by William Safire in the New York Times in 1996, is that it’s short for “Naffi,” the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, which have operated canteens for members of the British armed forces since 1921.

“If an item was naff, it was not fashionable,” Safire wrote. This too seems unlikely, since there seem to be no published references to back it up.

The OED‘s earliest citation is from a 1966 episode of the BBC radio comedy series Round the Horne, written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman.

One gay character says to another: “I couldn’t be doing with a garden like this. … I mean all them horrible little naff gnomes.”

Here’s another typical usage, from the Sunday Telegraph (1983): “It is naff to call your house The Gables, Mon Repos, or Dunroamin’.”

Though we can’t trace the etymology of “naff” precisely, there are many similarly spelled terms that might hold a clue.

In 19th-century Scottish and Irish English, a “nyaff” was a small object or a trifle. The word also meant, and is still used to mean, “a diminutive, insignificant, or contemptible person,” the OED says.

In the north of England, “naffhead,” “naffin,” and “naffy” were once regional terms for a simpleton or idiot.

And in the English spoken in Scotland, Ireland, and northern England, the OED says, a “niff-naff” is “a small person or thing; a trifle, a knick-knack” and a mass noun meaning “junk, clutter; petty concerns or detail.”

But my money is on yet another possibility, that “naff” may be traced to a 16th-century Italian word, gnaffa (a despicable person).

In Britain, the theory goes, this word was adapted into a patois called Polari (probably from the Italian parlare, “to talk”), in which it became “naff omi” (a dreary man), and eventually “naff.”

Polari, the OED explains, was “a form of slang incorporating Italianate words, rhyming slang, cant terms, and other elements of vocabulary.”

It originated in England in the 18th and 19th centuries “as a kind of secret language within various groups, including sailors, vagrants, circus people, entertainers, etc.”

“In the mid 20th cent.,” the OED adds, “a form of the language was taken up by some homosexuals, esp. in London.”

Since the gay characters in Round the Horne use “naff” as a term of derision, you can draw your own conclusions.

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Up and Adam?

Q: I saw the expression “up and Adam” in the New York Times last month and the writer wasn’t making a pun or quoting someone else’s error. I thought it was “up and at ’em.” Please clarify.

A: The short answer is that you’re right and the Times was wrong, but there’s almost always a longer answer to questions about language. Let’s begin with the basics.

Although this informal expression is sometimes mangled as “up and Adam” or “up and atom,” the usual version is “up and at ’em!” The Oxford English Dictionary has several published citations, including these:

1909, from Their Oxford Year, a novel by Oona Howard Ball: “It was always the up-and-at-’em aspect of things that appealed to him.”

1933, from a letter of Dylan Thomas: “You like the … ‘up-&-at ’em’ … shoutings of Mr. Kipling.”

1955, from the novel Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis: “There was a kind of up-and-at-’em spirit of a speak-easy Girl Scout to my aunt.”

You’re not the only person to notice the Times goof. John E. McIntyre cited it on his blog You Don’t Say as an example of what happens when news organizations cut back on editing.

And there were several comments about it on the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.” The linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman coined the term.

So, is “up and Adam” an eggcorn? I won’t spoil the suspense. For an answer, check out the linguist Arnold Zwicky’s blog, where he discussed whether it’s an eggcorn, a demi-eggcorn (don’t ask), or some other linguistic thingie.

Zwicky noted that some people who used “up and Adam” (I got 11,300 hits for it on Google) were making intentional puns, but many of them weren’t. He quotes one netizen as explaining the usage as a reference to the biblical Adam:

“There was imagery for me. I didn’t know much about Adam and Eve but I’d seen the Michelangelo painting segment where God’s finger is sort of commanding Adam to ‘get up.’ I wasn’t sure about Adam and didn’t think ‘up and Adam’ meant it was an exhortation to DO anything, but just to sort of ‘spring forth’ into the world. So that made some sense in terms of my Mom wanting me to get out of bed.”

You don’t say (as John McIntyre would put it).

My advice? Unless you’re making a pun (a very obvious one), forget about “up and Adam.”

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Word surgery

Q: I am an ophthalmologist who specializes in diseases and surgery of the retina. I refer to myself as a RETINA surgeon. It galls me when a colleague refers to himself as a RETINAL surgeon. To my thinking, this would describe a retina that does surgery. Please help me clear this up. I would like to announce your analysis to all of my colleagues.

A: I’m sorry to disappoint you. Yes, the word “retina” (like “heart,” “colon,” and so on) can be used as an attributive noun to modify another noun, like “surgeon.” But an adjective like “retinal” (or “cardiac,” “rectal,” etc.) can serve the same purpose.

The adjective in the phrase “retinal surgeon” does not identify the surgeon as a retina; it means the surgeon is concerned with or deals with the retina.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the adjective “retinal” as meaning “pertaining or relating to the retina.” The first recorded reference was published in 1838.

In short, it’s grammatically legitimate to modify a noun like “surgeon” either with another noun in an attributive relation (“retina surgeon”) or with the corresponding adjective (“retinal surgeon”). Either one is proper English.

Grammatical legitimacy aside, however, there may be conventions within the medical community that make one form of expression more common or acceptable than another (“neurosurgeon” may be preferred over “brain surgeon,” for example).

And some combinations of words sound more graceful than others. I agree with you that “retina surgeon” sounds far better than “retinal surgeon.”

But for other specialties, plain adjectives may be more felicitous (“dental surgeon” or “oral surgeon” rather than “mouth surgeon,” for example; “thoracic surgeon” rather than “thorax surgeon”).

I have a feeling that this answer will leave you unsatisfied.

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The whole kit and caboodle

Q: Where does “kit and caboodle” come from? Is it from World War I? What is a “caboodle”?

A: The expression, usually appearing as “the whole kit and caboodle,” originated in 19th-century America – well before World War I, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

Cassell’s defines the phrase as “the lot, everything there is.” It says “caboodle” is also from the 19th century and means “a large mixed-up collection of objects or people.”

The slang dictionary suggests that “caboodle” may be a combination of the prefix “ker” (which I’ve written about before on the blog) plus the older “boodle,” which meant “a crowd or collection of people or things.”

Two early “kit”-less versions of the expression were “the whole boodle” and “the whole caboodle.” Here are the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citations for these older versions:

From The Down-Easters, an 1833 novel by John Neal: “I know a feller ‘twould whip the whool boodle of ’em.”

And from the Ohio State Journal (1848): “The whole caboodle will act upon the recommendation of the Ohio Sun.”

The word “kit,” the OED says, has been used since the late 18th century to mean “a number of things or persons viewed as a whole; a set, lot, collection; esp. in phr. the whole kit.”

From 1785 into the late 1800s, “kit” appeared in such slang phrases as “the whole kit,” “the whole kit and boiling,” “the whole kit and cargo,” “the whole kit and boodle,” and finally the expression that has survived, “the whole kit and caboodle.”

The OED‘s first citation for the final version is from the Boston Globe in 1888: “If any ‘railroad lobbyist’ cast reflections on his character he would wipe out the whole kit and caboodle of them.”

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From the git­-go

Q: What is the origin of “from the git-go,” which I believe is a military expression that means from the very beginning?

A: “From the git-go” is a variation on “from the get-go,” which is a colloquial version of “from the word go,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Another source, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, suggests “get go” is related to “get going.”

Whatever the phrase’s derivation, it means, as you mention, from the beginning. I don’t see any indication, however, that the expression in any of its forms is limited to the military.

The first citation in Random House comes from Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Hammer Man” (1966): “I knew Dick and Jane was full of crap from the get-go.”

And here’s a citation using the spelling “git-go,” from Richard Woodley’s novel Dealer (1971): “It was his bust from the git-go.”

Both Cassell’s and Random House say the expression originated in Black English.

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A bunk in the night

Q: Thanks for the “sliding pond” post. I grew up in Queens where we called it a “sliding pon.” So, here’s another. I heard Bobby Flay, a chef who grew up in New York, say “I bunked into her.” This struck a chord, although I haven’t heard it since elementary school. Is this a native NY usage?

A: Yes, the use of the verb “bunk” to mean bump into or meet accidentally is a common regionalism in New York, particularly in Brooklyn. The usage is well documented in the Dictionary of American Regional English.

DARE has a half-dozen or so citations for it recorded between the 1940s and the 1980s. Here’s a 1942 quotation from The New Yorker: “What do you think of that? Bunking into you on a subway train.”

The dictionary says the usage is probably an alteration of the verb “bump.” It notes that “bunk” is also a regionalism in central Maine, where it means “to throw oneself down on a sled.”

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the verb “bunk” used in its more common sense (to sleep in a bunk) is from Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, an 1840 book about seafaring: “We turned in to bunk and mess with the crew forward.”

The verb comes from the noun “bunk,” meaning a box or recess used for a bed in a ship’s cabin, a railroad car, a lodging house, etc.

The OED’s first published reference for the noun is from a 1758 military journal: ‘We made up 2 straw bunks for 4 of us to lay in.”

In such tight quarters, they probably bunked into one other!

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is she a master or a mistress?

Q: Isn’t “mistress of ceremonies” misleading or just plain wrong? If a woman is hosting an event, isn’t she still a “master of ceremonies”?

A: No, “mistress of ceremonies” is not misleading or wrong. But it’s not strictly necessary, since there’s no rule that says a “master of ceremonies” has to be a guy.

The three dictionaries I consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary—all define “master of ceremonies” as a person who hosts an event. That’s “a person,” not necessarily a man.

The OED says the word “master” was “originally applied almost exclusively to men,” but “its meaning has been extended to include women (either potentially or in fact) in many of the senses illustrated.”

American Heritage, in a usage note with its entry for “master,” cites many compounds that use the word in a gender-neutral way: “masterpiece,” “mastermind,” “master plan,” and so on.

Although the term “mistress of ceremonies” isn’t uncommon (I got about 350,000 hits for it on Google), only one of the three dictionaries mentioned above has an entry for it.

Merriam-Webster’s defines “mistress of ceremonies” as a woman who presides at a public ceremony or entertainment, and it  dates the phrase to 1952.

However, the expression is much older—it was alive and well in the early 1800s. For instance, Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel Rob Roy (1817): “ ‘In that case, sir,’ she rejoined, ‘as my kinsman’s politeness seems to be still slumbering, you will permit me (though I suppose it is highly improper) to stand mistress of ceremonies.’ ”

A search of digital databases turns up slightly later examples from the 1820s. On May 20, 1823, the Rev. Charles S. Stewart, an American missionary to the Sandwich Islands, used the phrase in a diary entry  describing a “great feast” conducted annually to commemorate the death of King Tameamea:

Kamehamaru appeared to remarkable advantage, as mistress of ceremonies; and, personally, saw that no one of the large company was, in any degree, neglected.” (Extracts from Stewart’s private diaries were printed in the May 1825 issue of the Christian Advocate,  a journal of the Presbyterian church.)

And both “mistress of ceremonies” and “mistresses of ceremonies” appear several times in  Henry Dana Ward’s book Free Masonry (1828). Here’s one example, from a  passage describing a ceremony in a Masonic temple: “The mistress of ceremonies allowed to enter only the number necessary to fill the empty places.”

So the expression has a venerable history. Its older brother, “master of ceremonies” (originally “master of the ceremonies”), first showed up in print in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

Initially it referred to “an officer of the British royal household who superintended state ceremonies and was responsible for the enforcement of court etiquette,” Oxford says.

An early citation for the expression used in its modern sense comes from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (written around 1798-99): “The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 1, 2015.]

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Why is English a Germanic language?

Q: I’ve read that a majority of the words in English are derived from Latin or French? So why is English considered a Germanic language, not a Romance language?

A: Let’s begin with where linguists place English among the world’s languages.

English, Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Frisian, Flemish, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, and Yiddish are the living languages that are part of the Germanic family.

This family is divided into North Germanic (Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish) and West Germanic (English, Frisian, Flemish, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Yiddish). The now defunct East Germanic branch consisted of Gothic, which is extinct.

The other principal European language family is the Italic (popularly called Romance). This consists of the modern languages derived from Latin: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Provençal, French, Italian, Rhaeto-Romance, and Romanian.

These two families are branches of a single prehistoric language called Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European.

The language group descended from Indo-European includes the Balto-Slavic, Albanian, Celtic, Italic, Greek, and Germanic families of languages.

It’s estimated that about half the earth’s population speaks a language from the Indo-European group, which is only one of several language groups that have been identified worldwide.

But back to English. Why do we call it a Germanic language?

As Calvert Watkins writes in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, one of the dialects of Indo-European “became prehistoric Common Germanic, which subdivided into dialects of which one was West Germanic.”

This in turn, Watkins says, “broke up into further dialects, one of which emerged into documentary attestation as Old English. From Old English we can follow the development of the language directly, in texts, down to the present day.”

But while English is Germanic, it has acquired much of its vocabulary from other sources, notably Latin and French.

As Watkins explains: “Although English is a member of the Germanic branch of Indo-European and retains much of the basic structure of its origin, it has an exceptionally mixed lexicon. During the 1400 years of its documented history, it has borrowed extensively and systematically from its Germanic and Romance neighbors and from Latin and Greek, as well as more sporadically from other languages.”

Where exactly does our modern vocabulary come from? A computer analysis published a few decades ago offered this breakdown of sources:

Latin, 28.34 percent; French, 28.3 percent; Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch, 25 percent; Greek 5.32 percent; no etymology given, 4.03 percent; derived from proper names, 3.28 percent; all other languages, less than 1 percent.

(From Ordered Profusion: Studies in Dictionaries and the English Lexicon, 1973, by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff.)

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