English language Uncategorized

A decadent argument

Q: I was about to call you at WNYC about the misuse of the term “decade,“ when I was serendipitously beaten to the punch by a gentleman who seemed to read my mind! I think you were quite dismissive, though, after he pointed out that it was wrong to refer to the present year as the start of a new decade. I’ve always believed a decade begins with a year ending in one, as in “this is year one.” Am I suffering from a case of digititis?

A: I’m sorry if I sounded dismissive, but this is an argument that I’ve been unwillingly drawn into time after time and it is, at bottom, a rather silly one.

A child is not born on his first birthday. He lives his first year from age 0 (birth) until his first birthday. He officially becomes 1 year old just as he is entering his second year.

Years later, we say he is in his 30th year when in fact he’s 29. When he celebrated his 29th birthday (meaning 29 years had elapsed since his birth), he entered his 30th year.

Similarly, this is why we describe the 1400s as “the 15th century.” Same principle: the clock starts at zero.

So the first year of each decade is completed on Dec. 31 of the zero year. In other words, the first year begins with 0 and ends with 1. The second year begins with 1 and ends with 2, and so on.

The tenth year of the decade begins with 9 and ends with 10 (at which point we’re back to a year ending in zero). On to the second decade, which begins with 10; the third begins with 20, etc.

The first year of the first millennium – for our purposes, we can call it “year 0” – ran from 1 BC to AD 1, because technically there is no recognized “year 0” in Western calendars (though there is in astronomical calendars).

In this case, the clock started at 1 BC, which becomes our “zero.”

Counting years is not like counting fingers. When counting years or decades, we call the first one “zero” and the 10th one “nine.”

Would you say the 1950s began with 1951 and continued through the end of 1960? Of course not. Common sense tells us that the ten years we call the 1950s began in 1950 and continued through the end of 1959.

Having said that, I must add that arguing endlessly about what we call a decade is rather silly. A “decade,” by definition, is ANY 10 years.

In fact, the word “decade” (from the Latin decas and ultimately the Greek dekas, “ten”) meant 10 of anything when it entered English in the 1400s, just as a dozen now means 12 of anything.

Enough said!

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Lawyerly talk

Q: Lawyers – and they aren’t the only ones – prefer words with more syllables than necessary, perhaps because they think it makes them sound more professional. I don’t know when it started, but they now refer to co-conspirators, though probably not to their co-colleagues, co-partners, and co-companions.

A: I’ve noticed this hyper-syllabic talk myself, though I’m not particularly bothered by the term “co-conspirator.”

Lawyers and other professionals do indeed like Latin words and affixes (prefixes, suffixes, and other attachments). In fact, I touched on the subject in a blog entry a while back.

However, people have been referring to co-conspirators for a lot longer than you seem to believe – for about a century and a half!

The first published reference to the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1863 book about Spanish America: “He has sought to become … in the palace of the French emperor a co-conspirator with him.”

As for other “co” words, the OED has dozens of citations since the early 1600s with the prefix attached to nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. In general, I wouldn’t describe these prefixes as unnecessary.

For example, in The Antipodes, a 1638 comedy by Richard Brome, one of the characters in a play within the play is asked “to speake to your co-actors in the Scene.”

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Words to the wise

Q: How wise of WNYC to have you on the air! Which introduces my subject – the epidemic use of “wise” as a suffix. Example: “He’s not handling this well mediawise.” I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon in which one owl is speaking to another about their baby: “How’s he shaping up wisewise?”

A: The word “wise” once had many more functions than it does now. For instance, it was a verb meaning to direct or guide or show the way (there may be an echo of this obscure usage in today’s expression “wise up”).

But more to the point, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was also a noun, meaning “manner, mode, fashion, style,” and specifically “habitual manner of action, habit, custom.”

It’s this noun use that survives in terms like “crosswise” and “likewise.” Although “wise” here is a noun at heart, the OED says, it “has the appearance of a suffix” and “has actually performed the function of a suffix.”

Since the days of Old English, according to the OED, “wise” has been used in adverbial expressions meaning “in such-and-such a manner, way, or respect.”

“Several of these expressions, with others formed on their pattern in later periods, have survived as simple words, e.g. anywise, crosswise, leastwise, likewise, nowise, otherwise, slantwise,” the dictionary says.

The OED has dozens of citations over the years for this usage, including “same wyse” (1300s), “mony vis” (“money wise,” 1375), “garden wyse” (1577), “Hind-foot-wise” (1725), “festoon-wise” (1743), “crutch-wise” (1851, from Melville’s Moby-Dick), “tailor-wise” (1885, from a description of priests sitting in a Buddha-like position); “serpent-wise” (1940), and so on.

Such compounds used in the same way but meaning “as regards” or “in respect of” are more recent, and this is where relatively new words like “mediawise” come in.

These terms are labeled “colloq. (orig. U.S.)” in the OED, and the first citation given is from 1942: “there are two types of hydrogen atoms positionwise.”

Other examples include “plotwise” (1948), “successwise” and “moneywise” (both 1958), “prize-wise” (1961), “job-wise” (1976), and “acting-wise” (1981).

Are these newer uses considered “colloquial” (that is, more fit for speech than for writing) by American lexicographers?

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says such words are associated with informal prose and should be avoided in formal writing. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) finds them unremarkable and doesn’t restrict them in any way.

By the way, the OED notes that “the synonymy of
-wise and -ways in such advs. as likeways, likewise, noways, nowise, led to their interchange and consequently the illogical use of -wise for -ways.”

Elsewhere, the editors write that most of the adverbs ending in “ways” are synonymous with actual or possible parallel words ending in “wise,” and that “the similarity of sound of the two suffixes has given rise to the notion that they are mere alternative forms of one and the same ending.”

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Repeat performance

Q: I was taught that “iterate” means repeat and “reiterate” means repeat again. But whenever I try to use the word “iterate” that way, everyone gives me a blank stare.

A: Some people insist that to “iterate” means to repeat, so to “reiterate” must mean to repeat more than once. But this is a case where it’s possible to be too literal.

“Iterate” and “reiterate” mean the same thing, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): to say or do again or repeatedly.

Obviously, as M-W’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, “reiterate” has “a kind of built-in redundancy.”

But the fact is that “iterate” is rarely used; the common word is “reiterate,” as I noted in a blog item I wrote about this a few years ago.

I’ll expand a little now on that entry. As it happens, “reiterate” is the older verb, in English at least, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word is thought to have entered English around the year 1425, both as a verb (meaning to repeat an action or do it repeatedly) and as an adjective (meaning repeated).

In the mid-1500s, “reiterate” was first used in the modern sense of to repeat something said or asked. The first citation in the OED is from a 1560 English translation of a Latin religious commentary: “The nobles reiterat their sute.”

We got the word from the post-classical Latin reiterare, which the OED dates back to the sixth century.

Reiterare combined the prefix re and the classical Latin iterare (to do again, repeat, rehearse), which in turn came from the Latin iterum (again).

So if the word is redundant, we can blame post-classical Latin! This Latin redundancy, if you want to call it that, also survives in the French réitérer, the Spanish reiterar, and the Italian reiterare.

As for “iterate,” the OED says it was originally used in English as a participial adjective meaning “repeated.”

In this sense, according to OED citations, the word was first recorded in George Ripley’s The Compound of Alchymy (1471): “Hyt Multyplyeth by Iterat Fermentacion.” (“It multiplies by iterate fermentation.”)

The verb “iterate” entered English in 1533, when it was used to mean both (1) to do something over again, as in to repeat an experiment, and (2) to say something again or repeatedly. It came from the classical Latin iterare.

So yes, we do have one more word than we need in this case. But I see nothing wrong with using “reiterate” as in post-classical Latin and other languages – for both “repeat” and “repeat again.”

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English language Uncategorized

A homage or an affectation?

Q: I enjoyed your recent discussion on WNYC about the English “homage” vs. the French hommage. I detect a subtle difference between the two, which may account for differences in pronouncing the English word. I think “homage” is more direct, hommage more implied. If a film director gives a talk about Hitchcock’s contributions to cinema, the talk is an homage to Hitchcock; if he includes himself in the background of a shot in a film, the shot is an hommage to Hitchcock.

A: I understand your point but I’m not sure you’re right. Aside from funeral eulogies and such, the English “homage” is indeed used in the artistic sense to mean what you suggest the French hommage means: the use of stylistic elements to recall the work of an earlier master.

People commonly use “homage” in this way. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the word in this sense as “something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another.”

You imply that the French hommage gets this notion across more subtly and delicately than “homage.” But I wonder whether this isn’t just a Francophile bias.

As far as I can tell, it’s only in recent years that English speakers and writers began using hommage in place of “homage.”

I have a hunch that this began with film criticism, since that’s where I first noticed it. But I can’t see that there is any real difference, and I suspect that the French usage is an affectation. (Perhaps it was influenced by the practice of calling directors auteurs.)

The point I was trying to make on the air is roughly this. “Homage” has been part of the English language for around 800 years and should be given one of the two standard English pronunciations: HOM-idj or OM-idj.

It can be “a homage” or “an homage,” depending on whether the “h” is sounded. Either way, it’s stressed on the first syllable. There’s no reason to use the French pronunciation (oh-MAHZH), which is stressed on the second syllable.

On the other hand, if one really does intend to use the French word hommage, for whatever reason, then it should be given the French spelling and italicized: an hommage or un hommage or l’hommage.

I’ve written about “homage” before on the blog, in case you’re interested.

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The urinary tract

Q: An American friend in Rome says the expression “piss poor” comes from the use of urine in tanneries. He says people used to collect their urine and sell it to be used to tan animal skins. Is this etymology too good to be true?

A: As you suspect, this supposed phrase origin is apocryphal. The compound adjective “piss-poor” doesn’t have anything to do with tanneries, poverty or, for that matter, urine, except indirectly.

The word “piss” here is “an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The usage originated in the United States in the mid-20th century.

The first citation in the OED is from a 1946 contribution by A. L. Hench, who reported that an Air Corps sergeant had told him the term “was used by all the soldiers he came in contact with as descriptive of a thing in its lowest condition … E.g. This is a piss-poor outfit. My job is a piss-poor one.”

The OED cites a similar, earlier expression from Ezra Pound’s Cantos LII–LXXI (1940): “J. Lawrence, Bingham, Carrol of Carrolton / gone piss-rotten for Hamilton / Cabot, Fisher Ames, Thomas Willing.” (I’ve expanded the citation somewhat in what was probably a futile attempt at clarity.)

Here are some other OED examples of compound adjectives using “piss” as an intensifier: “piss-elegant” (1947), “piss-bad” (1970), “piss-wet” (1974), “piss-chic” (1977), and “piss-easy” (1998).

I recall that one day as I was walking my dog in Manhattan in the 1980s, an admiring bystander remarked that she looked “piss-elegant.”

I hadn’t heard this expression before, but the OED defines it as “affectedly refined, pretentious, precious; (also) cheaply showy or flashy in dress or appearance.” That sounds like my little princess.

The dictionary traces the phrase back to an Oct. 9, 1947, entry in Noel Coward’s Diary: “The cast is very good. Gertie is enchanting at moments but inclined to be piss-elegant.”

I’m not sure how Gertrude Lawrence would have felt about being described in the same terms as my spoiled basenji.

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English English language Style Usage

Plural usage

Q: I am an academic scientist, and I often need to add an “s” to pluralize an abbreviation. I think one should be able to put an apostrophe before the “s” so as not to add to the confusion inherent in the abbreviation. For example, one refers to runs of adenine and thymine bases in DNA as ATs, but AT’s seems clearer. Even more confusing is a mixed case example like RNAi (interference RNA): I would like to pluralize it as RNAi’s. Thank you for any input.

A: Many people are violently against the use of apostrophes in plurals – any plurals, even abbreviations, numbers, and individual letters. But here, I think, we have to bow to readability rather than blindly follow rules that are mere stylistic conventions anyway.

This is what I say in the relevant paragraphs from the new third edition of my grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“Over the years, authorities have disagreed on how we should form the plurals of abbreviations (GI, rpm, RBI), letters (x, y, z), and numbers (9, 10). Should we add s, or ’s? Where one style maven saw UFO’s, another saw UFOs. One was nostalgic for the 1950’s, the other for the 1950s.

“The problem with adding ’s is that we get plurals and possessives confused. Is UFO’s, for example, a plural (I see two UFO’s) or a possessive (That UFO’s lights are violet)?

“Here’s what I recommend, and what most publishers do these days. To form the plurals of abbreviations and numbers, add s alone, but to form the plural of a single letter, add ’s. CPAs, those folks who can add columns of 9s in their heads, have been advising MDs since the 1980s to dot their i’s, cross their t’s, and never accept IOUs. Things could be worse: there could be two IRSs.

“Why use the apostrophe with a single letter? Because without it, the plural is often impossible to read. Like this: The choreographer’s name is full of as, is, and us. (Translation: His name is full of a’s, i’s, and u’s.)”

Although the two examples you cite don’t involve single letters, I agree with you that readability should be a consideration. With that in mind, I think the lowercase “i” in RNAi should be followed by an apostrophe and “s” when pluralized. Ditto for other mixed-case abbreviations, even if the lower-case letters aren’t at the end.

But I’m of two minds about pluralizing AT and other all-cap scientific abbreviations. In general, I think “s” alone would suffice for the plural (ATs). But one might want to use apostrophes for consistency when citing both all-cap and mixed-case abbreviations in the same paper.

Unlike the rules for making nouns possessive, the ones for making unusual nouns plural are not written in stone and not universally agreed upon. Details of punctuation may differ from publisher to publisher and from country to country (American and British practices differ, for example).

In the case of a scientist like you, who may use scores of abbreviations at a time, there’s a lot to be said for consistency. If you want to use apostrophes to pluralize scientific abbreviations, go for it.

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English language Uncategorized

Tooth and nail

Q: What is the origin of the expression “tooth and nail,” as in “They fought tooth and nail to get their way”?

A: The adverbial phrase “tooth and nail” (originally “with tooth and nail”) literally means “with the use of one’s teeth and nails as weapons; by biting and scratching,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But, as the OED notes, the expression has almost always been used figuratively to mean “in the way of vigorous attack, defence, or action generally; vigorously, fiercely, with one’s utmost efforts, with all one’s might.”

In fact, the OED‘s first published reference to the phrase is figurative.

In A Dialogue of Comfort and Tribulation, which Sir Thomas More wrote while awaiting execution in 1535, he created a fictional conversation between Anthony, a wise old man, and Vincent, a young man fearful that invading Turks might kill him if he didn’t betray his Christian faith.

Anthony argues that some men love the delights of the world so much that “they would faine kepe them as long as ever they might, even with tooth and naile,” but thereby lose the greater gifts of heaven.

We seem to have a thing about teeth and nails, which show up in other figurative expressions.

A few toothy ones are “show one’s teeth” (show hostility), “get one’s teeth into something” (begin serious work on it), and “lie through one’s teeth” (tell a deliberate whopper).

Some phrases featuring nails are “bite one’s nails” (be nervous), “drive the nail home” (clinch an argument), and “hit the nail on the head” (get to the heart of the matter).

I hoped I’ve nailed this answer to your satisfaction.

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Width, longth, and highth?

Q: Why is it that “width” and “length” end in an “h” but “height” doesn’t? Were the last two words ever spelled “longth” and “highth”?

A: The noun “width” has a ring of antiquity to it, but it’s a relatively recent concoction.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a “literary creation of the 17th century” that took the place of an older word, “wideness,” which (in various forms) dates back to Anglo-Saxon days.

It notes that the 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson didn’t care much for “width” and considered the newbie “a low word.”

The OED points out the similarity of “width” to “breadth,” a 16th-century creation that replaced the earlier “brede,” which had roots in Old English.

And it notes the similarity of “breadth” to another term you asked about, “length,” which is an old word that may have influenced the creation of “width.”

The first published reference for “length” in the OED is from the Old English Chronicles, a collection of writings from Anglo-Saxon times.

The word has been spelled all sorts of ways over the years (lengthe, lenkith, leynthe, etc.), but I don’t see any evidence that it was ever properly written as “longth.”

(I got more than 59,000 hits for “longth” on Google, but most references to length seem to have come from non-native speakers of English. A Chinese manufacturer of scaffolding, for example, says, “The longth can be adjustable.”)

As for “height,” it is also a very old word and it was indeed originally spelled with a “th,” or rather with the Old English version of a “th,” called a thorn, which looked something like a “p” with both an upper and a lower stem.

The earliest versions of the word (using modern letters) included hiehtho, hehthu, and heahthu.

In Middle English, the form of the language spoken between 1100 and 1500, the thorn was often preceded by another archaic letter, the yogh, an early version of our “g.”

The Middle English spellings of the word (again, in modern letters) included heghthe and heighthe.

(In case you’re interested, I’ve written about thorns and yoghs before on the blog.)

I’m simplifying this quite a bit, but eventually, “th” replaced the thorn in southern England and “t” replaced it in the north.

Since 1500, according to the OED, the “t” versions of the word “have increasingly prevailed in the literary language” and the “height” spelling “has been by far the most frequent written form.”

I could go into this in greater length (or width), but I think I’ve hit the high points.

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English language Uncategorized

Almond joy

[Note: This post was edited on Dec. 29, 2022, to reflect evidence in updated dictionaries.]

Q: I listen to Pat’s WNYC podcasts from the Arabian Gulf. My question is about the pronunciation of “almond.” I had a fifth-grade teacher in Ossining, NY, who told us that the “l” is silent, but I often hear people pronounce it. Is it or is it not pronounced?

A: The “l” in “almond” was silent until very recently. That’s the only pronunciation (AH-mund) given in our old 1956 printing of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.).

It’s also the only pronunciation given in former editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (an etymological dictionary), as well as older standard dictionaries like the 1992 third edition of American Heritage. 

But usage has changed. Today the latest versions of the OED (most recently updated in December 2022), plus current standard American and British dictionaries, give dual pronunciations of “almond,” both with and without the “l” sound.

The OED says both versions are used in both British and American English. Some standard British dictionaries, however, view the “l” pronunciation as more common in American than in British English. American dictionaries, for their part, disagree, viewing the “l” pronunciation as a less common variant.

A few of the dictionaries refer to the “l” version as a “spelling pronunciation” or “spelling-influenced pronunciation,” meaning that people have begun pronouncing the letter because it’s there in the spelling. (Another example of this phenomenon is the “t”  that’s sometimes heard in “often,” which we wrote about in 2012).

Interestingly, the “l” or its sound didn’t appear in the first syllable of amandola, the medieval Latin word from which “almond” was derived, or in the earlier Latin amygdala, or in the still earlier Greek ἀμυγδάλη (amygdale).

But when the word entered Middle English around 1300 it was spelled almande, like the Old French from which it was borrowed.

So where did the “al” spelling come from? As the OED says, “The forms with initial al- in French (and hence in English) perhaps ultimately reflect contamination from the final syllable of the Latin word.”

The “l” was soon dropped from French (amande), but it stayed in English even though it was silent for many centuries. The “l” also doesn’t appear in the first syllable of the Italian (mandola), Portuguese (amendoa), or German (mandel).

Some other English words (“should,” “walk,” etc.) have a silent “l” because those sounds were once pronounced but now are not. In case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2018 that touched on many other interesting spelling puzzles.

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Schadenfreudian analysis

Q: “Schadenfreude” is almost commonplace these days and, I suppose, Avenue Q has something to do with it. However, it seems to me that a parallel word should also exist, as that underlying feeling is equally common. Is there such a word (German or otherwise)?

A: This question has been tossed around now and then by language junkies: Is there a parallel word for “schadenfreude,” one that means sadness at another’s good fortune? And if not, can we make one up?

“Schadenfreude” means delight at another’s misfortune, and, as you suggest, many people were probably introduced to it by the song of the same name from the musical Avenue Q.

The German word is a compound of the nouns schaden (adversity, injury) and freude (joy, pleasure).

For the inverse (if that’s the right term), some have suggested simply rearranging the parts and using “freudenschade” to mean pain caused by another’s joy. A good answer. Never mind that there’s no such word in German.

If there were, it might have humorous connotations. In German, a freudenhaus (literally, “joy house”) is a brothel, and a freudenmädchen (“joy girl”) is a prostitute. A compound that means “pleasure pain” might conjure up images of booted mädchens carrying whips.

Some inventive folks have come up with a second pseudo-German word, “glückshmerz” (literally “luck pain”), on the analogy of real German words like weltschmerz (“world pain,” or melancholy) and mittelschmerz (mid-cycle or ovulation pain).

Who knows whether any of these pseudo-Teutonic inventions will stick? One thing we can say is that no English words seem just right for either feeling joy at another’s pain or pain at another’s joy.

The Internet has many entertaining discussions of this. The Language Log, a blog maintained by the linguist Mark Liberman, had postings about it in 2009 and 2007.

Various wags have reported sightings of compounds like these:

“podenfreude,” reveling in the superior technology of one’s iPod;

“blondenfreude,” glee felt when a rich and powerful blonde gets her comeuppance;

“Frankenfreude,” joy at Al Franken’s early election setbacks (anyone who felt Frankenfreude early on must have felt Frankenschmerz when he finally won);

“Palinfreude,” liberal pleasure at Sarah Palin’s stumbles;

“googlefreude”/”googleschade”/”schadengoogle,” any of which might be the result of a pundit’s unfortunate words coming back to haunt him;

“Spitzenfreude” (joy at Eliot Spitzer’s misfortunes);

“shadensigmundfreude” (the glee that Freud’s critics take in falsifying his claims);

and finally “spoonenfreude” (taking joy in spoonerisms). But as one commentator pointed out, to be true to its spirit this one ought to be “froonenspeude.”

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You can look it up!

Q: I have a question about the phrase “looking to buy,” as in, “He’s looking to buy a house.” Isn’t he just looking for a house or just plain shopping for one?

A: The verb “look” here means expect, a sense of the word that has been around since the early 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So the sentence you’re asking about (“He’s looking to buy a house”) actually means “He’s expecting to buy a house.”

The first recorded use of “look” this way is from Sir Thomas More’s unfinished work The History of Kyng Richard the Third, which More wrote about 1513: “In these last wordes that ever I looke to speake with you.”

It’s a popular construction in English, and has been so for nearly five centuries. Today we commonly use “look to” (or “looking to”) for expressing anticipation or intent. The meaning is expect to, hope to, intend to, and so on.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, the expression today “is most commonly found with looking but other forms of the verb are used as well.”

Here are some examples.

From Shakespeare’s King Henry V (late 1590s): “Even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide.”

From Henry Brooke’s novel The Fool of Quality (1760-72): “I never look to have a mistress that I shall love half as well.”

From A. E. Housman’s poem cycle A Shropshire Lad (1896): “Two lovers looking to be wed.”

From People magazine (1984): “If you’re looking to strike up a conversation….”

And finally from Jesse Kornbluth, writing about Philip Roth on the Huffington Post in January 2010: “He’s not looking to create either charmers or complainers; he’s seeking reality.”

Despite its long history, some people criticize the “look + to + infinitive” construction on the grounds that it feels ungrammatical. Some even brand it a “pet peeve.”

My advice to them: look it up!

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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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Garden variety Latin

Q: I am from Italy where I studied Latin in school. I now live in the US and belong to an orchid society. My question is about the pronunciation of botanical names that end in ii, like B. lobbii and P. mannii. I was taught to pronounce the second i like the one in “machine,” but Americans pronounce it like the one in “fine.” Which is right?

A: I’m simplifying things here, but there are lots of different Latins – church Latin, botanical Latin, schoolhouse Latin, etc. – with lots of different pronunciations. The Latin taught in schools, for instance, has been pronounced in different ways in different countries.

Interestingly, the ancient pronunciation wasn’t accurately reconstructed until around 1900, according to a paper by Michael A. Covington, a linguist at the University of Georgia.

The scholars who did this relied, among other things, on the writings of Roman grammarians who provided abundant details on how the language sounded.

In ancient times, according to Covington, the vowel i could be pronounced two ways: as in “sit” or as in “machine.” (The Latin i could also act as a consonant, but I won’t get into that here.)

The letters ii were pronounced as two i‘s in succession, forming two syllables. In a word that ended with ii – that is, a word with either a possessive or a plural Latin ending – the first i would be pronounced as in “sit” and the second as in “machine.”

So how would an ancient Roman have pronounced B. lobbii and P. mannii if he had somehow tumbled through space and time to come across these orchids?

Bulbophyllum lobbii is also known as Lobb’s Bulbophyllum (it was discovered by Thomas Lobb in Java in 1846). And Phalaenopsis mannii is also known as Mann’s Phalaenopsis (it was discovered by Gustav Mann in Sikkim in 1868).

In pronouncing a possessive (technically, a genitive) word like lobbii or mannii, a Roman would have sounded the first i like the one in “sit” and the second i like the one in “machine.”

However, English-speaking plant people (gardeners, horticulturalists, botanists, etc.) generally pronounce the second i in a Latin name like lobbii or mannii as in “fine.”

That’s also the traditional way that British schoolchildren were taught to pronounce the last i in a Latin word ending in two i‘s, which I suspect may have had an influence on the botanical pronunciation in the US.

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Don’t know from etymology?

Q: I thought the faux-helpless “don’t know X from Y” phrase was supposed to be a comparison, as in “He don’t know his ass from his elbow.” But I now see it used where only one item is mentioned (“don’t know from X”). The Reader’s Digest website, for example, jokes that its employees were English majors and “don’t know from negatively charged dust particles.” Any comments?

A: This “don’t know X from Y” business is a lot older than you may think.

In fact, the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cursor Mundi, a Middle English poem written around 1375: “Mony … knawes nought the gode fra the ille” (or, as we’d put it, “Many don’t know the good from the bad”).

However, most of the OED‘s early citations for this usage are positive, not negative, like this one from Shakespeare’s 1598 play The Merry Wives of Windsor: “We’ll teach him to know Turtles from Jays.”

In the 20th century, the negative construction became more common and often took on a vulgar sense, as in expressions like “He don’t know his arse from his elbow.”

The OED describes this usage as “a coarse expression suggestive of complete ignorance or innocence.”

The first citation for this sense, which uses “ears” instead of “arse,” is from Medal Without Bar, Richard Blaker’s 1930 novel about World War I.

In the book, an enlisted man says none “of us knows ‘is ears from ‘is elbow when it comes to learning like you orficers have got up your sleeves.”

A few years later, two new versions of the expression evolved in the US – this time without the comparison: “know from nothing” and “don’t know from nothing.”

The OED’s first comparison-less citation is from a 1936 issue of Mademoiselle: “I find I belong to the wrong gender to take part in such confabulations, and know from nothing.”

Some language scholars have suggested that these two newer usages were derived from or influenced by similar constructions in Yiddish.

Julius G. Rothenberg cites the double negative version in “Some American Idioms from the Yiddish,” a 1943 article in the journal American speech.

The Jewish Language Research Website, a linguistic site devoted to languages spoken by Jews, says one of the Yiddish idiomatic constructions seen in colloquial English is the “pattern I don’t know from___ (ikh veys nit fun___).”

The Yiddish language maven Leo Rosten, in his book The Joys of Yinglish, says “the ungrammatical substitution of from for about or of” in an English sentence like “What do I know from investments?” is “Bronxian Yinglish” derived from the Yiddish Vos vays ikh fun.

I would describe the usage as idiomatic rather than ungrammatical, but who am I to argue with Rosten about Yinglish?

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A comprising position?

Q: I believe you botched your discussion of “comprise” last month on WNYC. After saying correctly that the whole comprises the parts, you indicated that it’s wrong to say “the union is comprised of 50 states.” As a copy editor, I was taught that the only objection to “comprised of” here is the minor one of wordiness.

A: I love hearing from copy editors! But I think there’s some confusion here.

It’s true that the whole comprises the parts. Roughly speaking, to “comprise” is to include or contain. I too was a copy editor, for more than 20 years, and as I think I said on the show, that definition was engraved on my brain.

However, “comprised of” is considered bad usage. I was right to describe “the union is comprised of 50 states” as a usage error. In the passive voice, the correct usage is “the union is composed of 50 states.”

Check The American Heritage Dictionary of English Usage (4th ed.) or Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) or The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

The New Fowler’s, for instance, describes “is comprised of” as a “disputed or erroneous” usage. It’s also an illogical one. It would be like saying “is included of.”

In addition to using “composed of” in the example above, another correct version (for those who favor a construction with “of”) would be “the union consists of 50 states.”

I should add, however, that “comprised of” is a very common usage now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dictionaries accept it as standard English one of these days.

R. W. Burchfield, the editor of The New Fowler’s, noted back in 1996 that opposition to the use of “comprised of” for “composed of” was getting weaker. In case you’d like to read more, I posted a blog item on the subject in 2008.

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Whence upon a time

Q: Until I saw this (and many others in Shakespeare), I was a from-is-redundant maven: “From whence thou cam’st, how tended on. But rest / Unquestion’d welcome and undoubted blest” – All’s Well That Ends Well. What say ye?

A: Well, the word “whence” does mean “from what place,” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, it’s “often preceded by redundant from.”

Indeed, “whence” has been in the language since about 1300, and it’s been dogged (or rather preceded) by “from” for almost as long.

For example, the OED has a couple of citations for plain old “whence” from the first English version of the Bible, the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.

But one citation – “to the mounteynes; whennus shal come helpe to me” – was altered in a 1388 printing to read “… fro whannus shal come helpe to me.”

The OED notes that “from” is used, “more or less pleonastically, before hence, thence, whence, henceforth, etc.” The word “pleonastically” means superfluously or redundantly.

So what’s right? I agree with Robert Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, that the “best policy” is not to use “from” with “hence,” “thence,” and “whence.”

I also agree with the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) that nobody was bothered by the redundancy of “from whence” until the 18th century.

But clearly “whence” has an air of antiquity about it. And if you’re using a deliberately antique usage, why not use it in the antique way?

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Mummy dearest

Q: I would like to know when “mummy,” as in “mother,” came into use in the US. I believe it originated in the UK. It does not seem to be used much anymore in the states and has been replaced by “mom” or “mommy.”

A: The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary to “mummy” as an informal term for “mother” is from The Fortunate Shepherdess, a 1768 “pastoral tale” by the Scottish poet Alexander Ross:

Had I but been sae wysse
As hae laid up auld mummy’s gueed advice,
Frae this mischance,
I meith hae kept me free.

The OED says “mummy” in this sense may be a variant of “mammy” or “mum,” two informal words for mother that date from the 16th century.

The first OED citation for “mommy,” which is described as another possible variant of “mammy,” is from an 1848 work by the English poet Horace Smith:

“Bees that a hawk? – What say ye, Tommy?”
“Naw that it baint, I’m certain, Mommy.”

The first example of “mommy” in an American publication is from an 1858 issue of the weekly Pennsylvania Dutchman:

All my soul is in delight
When mommy fixes crout just right.

The OED, in its entry for this sense of “mummy,” notes that “mommy” is “commoner in U.S. usage.” In the dictionary’s “mommy” entry, it describes the term as “chiefly N. Amer.

It’s hard to say for sure when “mummy” came into use in the United States as a colloquial term for mother.

The earliest reference in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from 1915: “Any kind Mummy likes; that’s the most [= usual] kind I gets.”

DARE says the usage has been chiefly seen in the US in New England and western Pennsylvania.

Infants use quite similar colloquial words for “mother” in many parts of the world. For example, “mama” (rendered in various spellings) can be heard from the mouths of babes in China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Spain, and many other places.

Three linguists – Ralph A. Papen, Nancy J. Frishberg, and Geoffrey Sampson – discuss this on the Linguist List, an online forum for the exchange of information on linguistics.

Papen notes that the first consonants babies produce in most languages are labials (those involving the lips) like “m,” “p,” and “b,” while the first vowels are posterior ones (produced with the tongue toward the back of the mouth) like “a.”

“Generally, babies tend to produce Consonant + vowel syllables,” Papen says on the website’s Ask a Linguist feature. “If you combine these sounds, what you get is ma-ma, pa-pa, ba-ba, etc. Bingo!”

Frishberg adds that “human babies develop at roughly the same timetable everywhere, and the sounds in the baby words (and sometimes also the adult term) for mother correspond to the sounds that are earliest controllable by baby articulators.”

Sampson says it’s plausible that babies make these early sounds “because of their inherent simplicity of production, and that proud parents have fastened on these as the babies’ attempts to address them.”

“So similar words show up as the informal terms for ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ all over the world – sometimes switched round, and not always identical, but with the striking similarities,” he adds.

I suspect that many of the variations (“mommy” vs. “mummy,” for example) have developed as adults in different parts of the world reinforced or edited those early baby sounds to fit their idea of what a mom should be called.

I’m sorry I can’t be more definite, but I hope this helps.

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Seating arrangements

Q: At my Chicago grandparents’ home we sat on the “couch”; at my Alton (south-central Illinois) grandparents’ home we sat on the “divan,” but I also heard the word “davenport.” I’ve lived in New Jersey since 1969, and I now use “sofa” or “couch” interchangeably. Can you shed some light on these words?

A: Let’s begin with “davenport.” In mid-19th-century England, it was a small writing table or desk, and in late-19th-century America it was a large, upholstered sofa or couch.

Why a “davenport”? Both pieces of furniture are thought to have been named for their manufacturer, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Divan,” a much older word, was borrowed into English from the Turkish divan, which came from the Persian devan.

When it entered English in the 16th century, “divan” meant a council of state presided over by the sultan or grand vizier.

Later it came to mean the hall where such a “divan” was held, and still later, in the 18th century, the backless sofa or couch on which Turks received visitors.

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word is from a 1702 translation of Cornelis de Bruyn’s travel book A Voyage to the Levant: “Their greatest Magnificence consists in their Divans or Sofas.”

The heap of words we have for that long piece of furniture is a great illustration of the richness of English.

We can call it a “couch,” a “sofa,” a “davenport,” a “settee,” a “divan,” a “lounge,” or a “chesterfield” (a favorite term among Canadians and some Californians).

The word you use may depend not only on the region you’re from, but also on how old you are.

It appears that “davenport,” once a common term in the upper Midwest, has largely been consigned to the antique shop. Today’s living room is more likely to have a “couch” or a “sofa.”

In the early 1950s, a survey asked more than 200 people in the upper Midwest what they called “the long piece of furniture to sit or stretch out on.” (They were allowed to choose more than one word.)

The results, published in 1973-76 in the Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest, showed that 75 percent of the respondents said “davenport.” The also-rans were “sofa” (41%), “couch” (40%), “lounge” (35%), and “settee” (25%).

A generation later, however, things had changed. The author of the atlas, Harold B. Allen, wrote in 1989 that “today, not quite four decades later, sofa is the fashionable designation and davenport is retained only by the oldest group.”

But wait, there’s more. Writing in the Journal of English Linguistics in 1995, J. K. Chambers reported the results of another survey, this one taken in the early ’90s among English speakers in the US and Canada in the vicinity of Lake Ontario.

Of the Americans who were asked what they call that you-know-what, 81.2 percent said “couch,” another 12.5 percent said “sofa,” and 2.5 percent said “davenport.” (“Divan” wasn’t mentioned, though one respondent did say “love seat.”)

And we’re not through yet. The linguist Charles Boberg wrote in 2004: “In a survey conducted at McGill University from 1999 to 2004, 66% of 321 American respondents used couch, with 14% using sofa and none using chesterfield.”

So there you have it, if you can sort all this out. “Couch” and “sofa” are on top, though many older people in the upper Midwest still like “davenport.”

And incidentally, the favorites, “couch” and “sofa,” also happen to be older than the others.

We’ve already talked about “davenport” and “divan.” Here, very briefly, are the sources of the other terms, along with the dates they first appeared in English, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

1340: “couch,” from the French coucher (to put to bed); it was originally for lying down.

1625: “sofa,” ultimately from the Arabic soffah; it originally meant a raised area, covered with carpet and cushions, used for seating.

1716: “settee,” perhaps a variation of “settle,” a ninth-century word for something to sit upon.

1830: “lounge,” from the verb (which is of uncertain origin); originally it was a kind of sofa for lying at full length.

1900: “chesterfield,” an overstuffed couch or sofa named for a 19th-century Earl of Chesterfield; the term is also used for a kind of overcoat.

We’ll stop here. The living room is getting a bit crowded.

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Tales out of school

Q: I just saw the expression “to tell tales out of work” on a website, which inspired me to look up the original. To my surprise, I had been using “to tell tales out of school” incorrectly all my life. I thought it meant to tell a tall tale, but I now see that it means to reveal confidential information. My question is: where does this expression come from and why “out of school”?

A: The expression “to tell tales out of school” is an old one, dating back to at least the 16th century, and probably earlier.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1546 book of proverbs and epigrams collected by the English writer John Heywood: “To tell tales out of schoole, that is hir great lust.”

The OED defines it as meaning “to betray damaging secrets,” but it doesn’t explain the origin of the expression.

However, the Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms explains that “in this context ‘out of school’ means after class, when the tale-bearer has the opportunity to speak to the teacher alone.”

A 1579 citation, from a book of literary criticism by Stephen Gosson, seems to support the schoolhouse origin of the expression:

“I shoulde tel tales out of the Schoole, and bee Ferruled for my faulte, or hyssed at for a blab, yf I layde al the orders open before your eyes.”

The Penguin idiom dictionary defines the expression as “to talk maliciously about a person’s private affairs behind his back,” but I generally hear it used now in the sense of revealing damaging business or professional secrets – that is, to tell tales out of work.

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And whilst we’re at it …

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you say “while” and “whilst” mean the same thing, but the Brits and Aussies on a Facebook grammar group feel otherwise. For instance, an Aussie with a British education says “whilst” should be used to mean “although” and “while” for things happening simultaneously. Your thoughts?

A: I can’t find any evidence to back up the suggestion that “while” and “whilst” have different functions in British English.

From my reading of British sources, it appears that both “while” and “whilst” have two functions:

1. to show duration (meaning “during the time that” or “at the same time as”);

2. to show contrast (meaning “although” or “whereas”).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, published in the UK, has this to say: “The primary meaning of while and whilst is durational, but they have a secondary sense equivalent to whereas.”

The example given for this second meaning is “While/Whilst the first act was excellent, the second seemed rather dull.” The authors note that “the meaning expressed here is contrast, not co-duration.” (Page 737.)

Elsewhere the book has examples of while used for both functions, duration as well as contrast: “They insisted on talking while I was trying to get on with my work” … and … “While I don’t agree with what she says, I accept her right to say it.” (Page 1078.)

The Oxford English Grammar has no discussion of “whilst,” but the original 1926 edition of Henry Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage makes no differentiation between the words.

Fowler’s section on the subject is headed “while (or whilst),” and the examples for duration as well as contrast use “while”: “While she spoke, the tears were running down” … and … “While this is true of some, it is not true of all.”

The latest edition, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), edited by R. W. Burchfield, makes no such differentiation either, except to note that “whilst” is not used in American English.

The updated examples show “while” used both ways: “He enjoyed drawing while he was being read to” and “While domestic happiness is an admirable ideal, it is not easy to come by.”

The only “whilst” examples in the New Fowler’s show the word used in the temporal sense: “… whilst on fishing expeditions on the other side of the Irish Sea.”

Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary has historical evidence for both words used both ways, with no notations indicating that one usage is better than the other for some purposes.

It may be true that some British and Australian speakers feel that there’s a difference between “while” and “whilst” – that “while” is better in the temporal sense and “whilst” in the sense of “although.”

But I haven’t been able to verify such a preference among British grammarians, lexicographers, or usage experts.

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As of this writing …

Q: Fredricka Whitfield and Heidi Collins of CNN, among others, use the expression “as of yet.” To me, it reeks of confusion between “as yet” and “as of now.” Comment?

A: The phrase “as of yet” may indeed be a relatively recent conflation of “as yet” and “as of now,” but this “as” business has its roots in Middle English, the language spoken from about 1100 to 1500.

Since the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “as” has been used just before a time element in phrases like “as then,” “as now,” “as to-day,” “as tomorrow,” and so on.

But of these phrases, the OED says, “literary English retains only as yet,” meaning “up to this time, hitherto.”

The expression “as of” plus a time element is more recent – about 600 years more recent.

The first citation in the OED is from a letter Mark Twain wrote in 1900, in which he used the phrase “as of yesterday.”

Other citations include phrases like “as of 1955,” “as of the end of 1973,” “as of last term,” and, most frequently, “as of now.”

The OED has no mention of “as of yet.”

But Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) calls it a “vulgarism,” and doesn’t like “as yet” either, calling them “both invariably inferior to yet alone, still, thus far, or some other equivalent.”

I wouldn’t go that far. I see nothing wrong with “as yet,” and if “as of yet” is a crime against English, it’s certainly a small one. Still, why use “as of yet” if “as yet” will do? It’s simple enough to drop the “of.”

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Can two adjectives play in a combo?

Q: Is it OK for an adjective to modify another adjective? And if so¸ what is such a combination called?

A: An adjective modified by another word (whether hyphenated or not) is often called a compound adjective.

Usually a compound adjective consists of an adjective plus an adverb (as in “seemingly impossible task” or “apparently perfect crime”).

But it can also consist of an adjective plus another adjective. Examples: “near-fascist organization” … “bright red dress” … “icy-cold hands” … “golden-brown skin” … “bitter-sweet flavor” … “red-hot pincers.”

Many compound adjectives involving numbers, like “two-hour delay” or “eight-pound baby,” are examples of adjectives modifying adjectives. (The nouns “hour” and “pound” here are functioning as adjectives.)

In his Essentials of English Grammar, Otto Jespersen refers to adjectives that modify other adjectives as tertiary adjectives (pages 88-89).

If this hasn’t satisfied your interest in compounds, see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pages 470, 1657-58.

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Factoid checking

Q: What is your view of the word “factoid”? My dictionary defines it as “someone or something contrived to appear plausible or factual.” However, I hear it used more and more to mean a small fact. In fact, I recently heard it being used that way on NPR. Interesting?

A: When “factoid” first showed up in English in the 1970s, it referred to a dubious assumption presented as fact by the news media.

The first published reference to the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Norman Mailer’s 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe.

In the book, Mailer describes factoids as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”

The OED defines this early usage a bit more broadly as “something that becomes accepted as a fact, although it is not (or may not be) true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often that it is popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact.”

Oxford doesn’t cite the more recent sense of the word you mention (a small fact), but the two American dictionaries I use the most do include the newer usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists as standard English both the original meaning (“an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print”) and the newer one (“a briefly stated and usu. trivial fact”).

Although The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) includes both meanings, it labels the newer one a usage problem. A-H says only 43 percent of its Usage Panel accepts the more recent sense of the word.

I suspect, however, that it’s only a matter of time before the Usage Panel comes around. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next edition of American Heritage joins Merriam-Webster’s in accepting both meanings without qualification.

[Note: We wrote a later post about “factoid” in 2018.]

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Imperfect pitch

Q: My friend from Brooklyn says things like “I’ve been eating pizza since I’m 5.” I’ve also heard this “since I’m” usage on “Sex and the City” and “Howard Stern.” Now I seem to hear it from anyone raised in New York City. What’s up with this?

A: Your friend’s statement (“I’ve been eating pizza since I’m 5”) isn’t standard English. The sequence of tenses is out of whack.

What’s called for in the second part of the sentence is a past or perfect tense (“since I was five” or “since I’ve been 5”), not the present (“since I’m five”).

This usage is off-kilter, but it’s not an unusual mistake. The first clause (“I’ve been eating pizza”) involves a perfect tense, and perfect tenses are often difficult when we combine them with other tenses.

The perfect tenses – those that use some form of “have” as a helping or auxiliary verb – describe actions that begin in the past and continue forward.

The present perfect extends from the past into the present (“I have eaten”), and the past perfect extends from the past into a more recent past (“I had eaten”). There are also progressive forms of each tense: “I have (or had) been eating.”

When we combine a clause like this with one starting with “since” (or “ever since”) plus a time element, that time element has to include time that has passed.

That’s why, according to the grammatical conventions of modern English, the “since” clause should be in a past or perfect tense, NOT in the simple present tense.

Why do so many people use the present tense with such “since” clauses? Some language scholars have suggested that a German influence may sometimes be at work here.

In a 1935 article in the journal American Speech, George G. Struble reported a similar regional usage among the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, who often use “since I’m” in place of “since I’ve been.”

The Pennsylvania Dutch, by the way, aren’t actually of Dutch origin; they’re descendants of Germans who immigrated in Colonial times.

Such speakers, Struble found, commonly use sentences like “This is the first time it’s happened since I’m here.”

Another scholar, R. Whitney Tucker, wrote in 1934 in the journal Language that the “Pennsylvania Dutch are quite unable to grasp the tense-system of the English verb.”

“Action begun in the past but continuing in the present requires in German the present tense, in English the perfect or perfect ‘progressive,’ ” he added. “The Dutch often follow the German usage: the first time since I’m here, instead of since I’ve been here.”

Whether German-influenced or not, the use of “since I’m” instead of “since I’ve been” (or “since I was”) isn’t unusual in the eastern US. However, Pat doesn’t recall hearing it in the Midwest, where she grew up.

We hope this sheds some light on an imperfect usage.

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Taking care of business

Q: After reading your post on “irregardless” I am left curious about “irrespective.” You seem to give it legitimacy, but its usage is rare and sounds awkward. Can you clarify its standing?

A: The word “irrespective” has been legitimate English for hundreds of years. And while I agree with you that it sounds a bit stiff these days, “irrespective” is hardly rare. In fact, I just googled it and got more than 17 million hits.

When it first showed up in the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “irrespective” meant disrespectful, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete. (The word “respective” meant, among other things, respectful in the 1600s.)

“Irrespective” is now primarily used in the preposition “irrespective of,” meaning “regardless of” or “without consideration of.” The word has been used in this sense since the late 1600s.

The words “irrespective” and “irregardless” may have the negative prefix “ir-” in common, but the prefix serves a purpose in only one of them.

The prefix in “irregardless” is unnecessary, since this nonstandard word means the exact same as the older, standard adverb “regardless” (“in spite of everything”).

And, of course, the nonstandard preposition “irregardless of” means the same as the legitimate preposition “regardless of” (“in spite of”).

As I say in my post on “irregardless,” lexicographers think it probably developed as an inadvertent mushing together of two very similar words: “irrespective” and “regardless.”

All this talk about “irrespective” reminds me of Aretha Franklin’s version of the Otis Redding song “Respect”:

Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB.

Aretha added “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and “TCB.” She was taking care of business!

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Progressive education

Q: Sarah Palin made a statement a year or so ago about “progressing this nation.” It grated on my nerves but I figured it was her ignorance and not mine. Then the other night I read in a respectable publication a very similar statement. Is this usage correct?

A: People generally use the verb “progress” in the sense of to proceed, go forward, grow, develop, etc. In this sense, it’s an intransitive verb, one that doesn’t need an object. For example, “The work progressed rapidly.”

English speakers have been using “progress” in this way since the 16th and 17th centuries, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s King John (circa 1616): “Let me wipe off this honourable dewe, / That silverly doth progresse on thy cheekes.”

The two US dictionaries we use the most – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) – list the verb “progress” only one way: as an intransitive verb.

But Sara Palin used “progress” as a transitive verb, one that requires an object, when she said in November 2008: “Let’s talk about progressing this nation.”

She used the word here as a gerund, a verb that acts as a noun but retains the same features as the verb. In other words, if the verb is transitive or intransitive, its gerund is too.

So was Palin’s English legit?

Well, American dictionaries don’t consider it standard English to use “progress” transitively, as she used it, but the OED begs to disagree. It has published references from the 18th to the 21st centuries for “progress” as a transitive verb.

Oxford describes this usage as originally American, but it has many published references from English sources, including (surprisingly) one from the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Sir Ernest Gowers, who revised and edited H. W. Fowler’s classic 1926 usage guide in 1965, says the transitive verb is “now much used in the manufacturing and building industries in the sense of pushing a job forward by regular stages.”

R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), includes the transitive usage and cites a 1978 article in the Observer that refers to welders who “progress their own work to completion.”

Like you, we find the usage irritating and klutzy, but Palin has the OED and the latest two editions of Fowler’s in her corner, linguistically anyway.

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A class act

Q: My friend and I were having an argument about the word “class.” She says it’s superficial and exclusionary, referring merely to good etiquette. I say “class” is much deeper. It also refers to our morals and dignity, especially in the context of how we treat others. What do you say?

A: The word “class” comes from the Latin classis, a division of the Roman people. The first census, according to Roman tradition, divided the people into six “classes” based on property assessments.

In English, “class” has had many meanings over the years, but I won’t go into the academic, military, legal, and scientific ones.

Some meanings in the social sense would indeed qualify as elitist in your friend’s view. But “class” has other meanings that refer to a person’s merit rather than to his pedigree or bank balance.

In the 17th century, when it entered the language, the noun “class” meant “a division or order of society according to status; a rank or grade of society,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The term, according to the OED, is “now common in the phrases higher (upper), middle, lower classes, working classes; which appear to be of modern introduction. Higher and lower orders were formerly used.”

The use of “class” in these phrases, the OED adds, is largely derived from another 17th-century meaning of the word: “a number of individuals (persons or things) possessing common attributes, and grouped together under a general or ‘class’ name; a kind, sort, division.”

In the 1800s, “class” was often used to mean high rank, and “the classes” meant “the classes of the community raised above or separated from ‘the masses’ or great body of the people,” the OED says.

Here are a couple of citations by British prime ministers for “class” used in the sense of high rank:

From Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil (1845): “Walled out from sympathy by prejudices and convictions more impassable than all the mere consequences of class.”

And from William Gladstone in the Pall Mall Gazette (1886): “Station, title, wealth, social influence … in a word, the spirit and power of class.”

But since the 19th century, “class” has also taken on a more democratic meaning, having to do with merit. The OED labels this sense (“distinction, high quality”) as slang or colloquial.

In print, this usage dates from 1874, when it appeared in John C. Hotten’s A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words with this definition:

Class, the highest quality or combination of highest qualities among athletes. ‘He’s not class enough’, i.e., not good enough. ‘There’s a deal of class about him’, i.e., a deal of quality.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), in its definitions of “class,” includes this “informal” usage: “Elegance of style, taste, and manner: an actor with class.”

American Heritage defines a “class act” as “one of distinctive and superior quality.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes among its definitions “high quality,” as in “a hotel with class,” and “the best of its kind,” as in “the class of the league.”

M-W says a “class act” (which it dates from 1976) is “an example of outstanding quality or prestige.”

I think there’s another meaning, too, that has to do with a person’s behavior and bearing.

Someone who behaves nobly – say, defending an unpopular principle, sacrificing something for a greater good, turning the other cheek to keep the peace when he’d rather kick butt – shows class.

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No ifs, ands, or buts

Q: After devouring Origins of the Specious in two sittings, I have a question: On page 162, you use the expression “no ifs, ands, or buts.” Are you OK with this? Has it replaced “no ifs, ans, or buts” in the segment of the grammarphile community that doesn’t have a stick up its you-know-what?

A: The common expression is indeed “No ifs, ands, or buts.” However, you may wonder what “and” is doing there. As it happens, “and” is there for a reason.

The original expression was “ifs and ands” (sometimes “ifs or ands”) when it showed up in print in the early 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

At the time, the word “and” was often used in a conditional sense, and its meaning, the OED says, was “if; suppose that, provided that, on condition that.”

This use of the conditional “and” dates back to about 1225 in recorded English. So, a phrase like “and it please your grace” would mean “if it please your grace.”

When the expression “ifs and ands” came along in the 1500s, it essentially meant “ifs and ifs.”

The first recorded use is from Sir Thomas More’s unfinished work The History of Kyng Richard the Third, which More wrote about 1513.

In a particularly dramatic passage, the mad King Richard pulls up a sleeve to display his withered arm (a birth defect) and claims the deformity is recent – the result of sorcery and treason.

The Lord Chamberlain answers, “Certainly my lorde if they have so heinously done, thei be worthy heinous punishment.”

To which Richard flies into a rage: “Thou servest me, I wene, with iffes and with andes.” (“Wene” is an archaic word meaning something like “believe” or “suspect.”)

Here’s another, somewhat cooler, example of “ifs and ands” a century and a half later, from the English philosopher Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678): “Absolutely and without any Ifs and Ands.”

Around this same time, “buts” were added to the mix. This is from the works of the Puritan theologian Thomas Goodwin (about 1680): “The Grants of Grace run without Ifs, and Ands, and Buts.”

The phrase has generally been “ifs, ands, or buts” for the last 300 years. In contemporary English, the OED notes, the “and” is no longer the old conditional “and,” but is “now prob. mostly understood as the ordinary sense of the word.”

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