English language Uncategorized

Screen tests

Q: Please explain the origin of the term “chyron” for the area at the bottom of a TV screen that gives information to viewers.

A: The “chyrons” at the bottom of our TV screens are named for the company that’s responsible for them.

The Chyron Corporation, founded in 1966, specializes in television graphics, and it’s had several names over the years. When it was called Systems Resources Corporation, in the 1970s, some of its early products were named “Chiron I,” “Chiron II,” and so on.

Why “chiron”? The company’s website doesn’t explain the origin of the word. But in Greek mythology, Chiron, the teacher of Achilles and other heroes, was a wise centaur (a being with the body of a horse and the upper torso of a human).

The Greek name has also been spelled Cheiron, Kheiron, and occasionally Chyron in English.

But back to business. When the company tried to adopt Chiron as its corporate name, that name had already been taken. So the company turned the “i” into a “y,” and called itself Chyron.

Chyron’s products let broadcasters add special effects, animation, and graphics to TV screens, superimposed over the video.

These displays include logos, sports scores, promotional stuff, or text with news and weather updates. This is either helpful information or incredibly annoying clutter, depending on your point of view.   

The displays are often called chyrons in the US whether they’re connected with the Chyron Corporation or not. In the UK they’re called “astons,” after a British company, Aston Broadcast Systems.

Other names for these displays include “bugs,” “captions,” and “lower thirds” (they usually appear in the lower third of the screen). Running strips of text are often called “crawls” or “crawlers.” 

Whatever the displays are called, they drive some viewers up the wall. A while back, for instance, fans of ABC’s popular series “Lost” went ballistic over an intrusive chyron that appeared throughout a segment of the show.

During the episode, the lower right-hand corner of the screen was filled with a big letter “V” and a countdown clock to promote the return of the series “V” in the following time slot. What’s more, the chyron ruined a crucial plot point by blocking a message that one character was writing.

In case you’re  wondering, yes – ABC is a client of the Chyron Corporation.

Fans raised so much flak that David Letterman and Steven Colbert spoofed ABC and the chyron on their shows. Here’s a video, courtesy of New York Magazine.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

She’s in a pickle

Q: Is there a term for a word like “pickle” that can be either a verb or a noun (we pickle a cucumber to make a pickle)? I’ve searched to no avail. I’m in a pickle!

A: For many verbs, there are corresponding, identical nouns. In fact, “many” may be an understatement here. We might as well say “countless.”

Examples: blanket, brush, coil, crowd, drape, dress, drip, dust, fish, flood, hammer, heap, hoist, house, load, list, lift, nail, plant, plaster, pocket, roll, run, saw, screw, shovel, shop, spray, spread, sprinkle, staff, tile, twist, weld, wrap, wrinkle … the list goes on and on.

And of course there’s “pickle,” along with many other food-related verbs: bread, butter, flavor, flour, garnish, grease, lard, oil, pepper, peel, pit, salt, season, sugar.

Sometimes the verb came first (as with “run”) and sometimes the noun (as with “pocket”). 

You might be interested in a blog entry we wrote a few months ago about words (like “peel” and “pit”) that are nouns for the thing removed as well as verbs for the removal of same.

The process by which new words are formed from identical ones is often called “syntactic conversion.”  And it works with adjectives, too.  

For many verbs, there are corresponding, identical adjectives. Such verbs include blunt, clear, clean, cool, dry, empty, firm, muddy, narrow, open, warm, waste, and many others. 

And for many nouns, there are corresponding, identical adjectives. Such nouns include comic, dear, drunk, female, human, local, male, private, regular, special, sweet, and others.

Words like these are sometimes called “zero-related” pairs.

A noun (like “run”) that’s derived from a verb is a “deverbal noun” or a “zero-related nominal.” A verb (like “pocket”) that’s derived from a noun is a “denominal verb” or a “zero-related verb.”

A verb (like “dirty”) that’s derived from an adjective is a “deadjectival verb.” And a noun (like “comic”) that’s derived from an adjective is a “deadjectival noun.”

By the way, the use of “pickle” to mean a disagreeable situation (as in “I’m in a pickle”) dates from the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The usage may be related to an old Dutch or German term for something that’s sharp or pungent.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Which hunting

Q: I’m aware of the current usage rules for “which” and “that,” but reading older literature suggests that this was not always the case. In fact, there doesn’t even seem to be a consensus now. Can you enlighten me?

A: We’ve written previous posts, most recently in 2008, about the modern American use of “that” and “which.” Our views largely reflect those in popular usage guides like The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and Pat’s Woe Is I.

You should be aware, however, that other language authorities have legitimate differences of opinion here. And we believe there are times when writers are justified in putting euphony ahead of  convention, as long as there’s no possibility of a misunderstanding.

We’ll get to the opposing arguments later, but first let’s discuss the established convention for the use of “that” and “which” in educated American speech and writing.

As we explain in our blog post, when you have a clause (a group of words with a subject and a verb) and you could start the clause with either “that” or “which,” here’s how to choose between the two:

If the information is essential and defines what came before it, use “that.” If the information is not essential and merely adds to what came before, use “which” and set the clause off with commas.

Information that’s defining is called “restrictive” and is introduced with “that.” Information that’s nondefining (it’s like a parenthetical aside) is “nonrestrictive” and is introduced with “which.”

We’ll use two examples from Woe Is I (note the underlined clauses):

Restrictive: “The dog that won best in show was Buster’s bulldog.”

Nonrestrictive: “Buster’s bulldog, which had one white ear, won best in show.”

Again, reasonable people have legitimate differences of opinion here. Scholarly works on grammar do not recognize any “rule” that would limit “which” to nonrestrictive clauses. Neither do standard dictionaries or Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

But we believe, as we said up above, that most educated Americans are with us in using “that” for restrictive clauses and “which” for nonrestrictive ones.

So much for the modern American use of “that” and “which.” The history of their usage as relative pronouns is a much longer story.

In the beginning, “that” was our only relative pronoun. It was used to introduce both kinds of clauses – restrictive (defining) as well as nonrestrictive (nondefining). Both uses were recorded in writing as far back as the 800s.

“Which” was around, but it was used for other purposes – largely in questions, as an adjective, or in the sense of “what” or “who.” It wasn’t used as a relative pronoun, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, until the 14th century. And “which,” like “that,”  was used to introduce both kinds of clauses.

Merriam-Webster’s explains that “by the early 17th century, which and that were being used pretty much interchangeably.”

But in the later 17th century, literary writers simply stopped using “that” as a relative pronoun and used “which” exclusively. Perhaps “that” was considered less scholarly or erudite.

At any rate, when “that” reappeared in the early 18th century it was used mainly in restrictive (defining) clauses, though “which” wasn’t limited to one or the other.

By the early 20th century, however, usage commentators had begun to look askance at the all-purpose “which.”

Their thinking, according to Merriam-Webster’s, was, “If that was being confined to introducing restrictive clauses, might it not be useful (as well as symmetrical) to confine which to nonrestrictive clauses?”

One of the most influential cheerleaders for this idea was Henry Fowler, the author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). He flatly stated, “which is appropriate to non-defining and that to defining clauses.”

Fowler argued for a “restoration of that to the place from which, in print, it tends to be ousted. … If writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, & which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease.”

Fowler also indicated that British writers were more likely to need this advice than Americans. And he said it was a “false inference” to regard “that” as a colloquial usage and “which” as a literary one.

The mistaken belief that “which” is more literary than “that” is also mentioned by Otto Jespersen in his Essentials of English Grammar.

Jespersen says that ever since “which, whom, and who came into use as relative pronouns,” they’ve been “gaining ground at the expense of that, chiefly in the last few centuries and in the more pretentious kinds of literature.”

“One of the reasons for this preference,” he says, “was probably that these pronouns reminded classical scholars of the corresponding Latin pronouns.”

Despite Fowler’s advice in his influential usage guide, it’s not clear whether much has changed in the last century.

In American usage, writers tend to use “that” in restrictive (or defining) clauses and “which” in nonrestrictive (or nondefining) clauses. But British writers often use “which” freely for both kinds of clauses, as they did when Fowler wrote his usage guide.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, “which” is used to introduce both (1) “a clause defining or restricting the antecedent and thus completing the sense,” and (2) “an additional statement about the antecedent, the sense of the principal clause being complete without the relative clause.”

If writers use “which” both ways, how can we tell what they mean? The OED says that in modern printing, the use of “which” in restrictive clauses is usually distinguished by the lack of a preceding comma, as it is in speech by the absence of a pause.

Fowler agreed that when writers use “which” for both kinds of clauses, “it is important to have another means of distinguishing. A comma preceding which shows that the which-clause is non-defining, & the absence of such a comma shows that it is defining.” But he added: “That right interpretation should depend on a mere comma is a pity.”

So as things stand, writers who persist in using “which” in all cases at least have a way to make their meaning clearer. We’ll invent a couple of examples, both of which seem clear enough:

Restrictive: “Sue threw away the clothes which were outdated.” (She dumped only the outdated clothes.)

Nonrestrictive: “Sue threw away the clothes, which were outdated.” (She dumped all the clothes.)

We also mentioned euphony above. If a sentence already contains a nearby “that,” adding one to introduce a restrictive clause can be clunky. A writer who cares how a sentence sounds would be justified in substituting “which,” as in “It’s clear that the shirt which is stained should be bleached.”

There are other kinds of euphony too. One of our readers sent us an example from G. K. Chesterton:

“We call wine ‘white wine’ which is as yellow as a Blue-coat boy’s legs. We call grapes ‘white grapes’ which are manifestly pale green.” In such a passage, “that” simply wouldn’t work. (Of course, a writer today would use a simpler and more natural style.)

On the whole, we believe that the conventional distinction between “that” and “which” can be an aid to clarity. If a “which” is ambiguous, why not use “that”? The presence or absence of a comma isn’t always enough.

But perhaps the best argument of all is “that” seems more natural and idiomatic in restrictive clauses, especially in speech.

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 27, 2022.]

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Evasive action

Q: I recently saw the word “tergiversate” in print, and it brought to mind an expression my father would use when he didn’t want us to dally: “don’t tergy-vergy.” Have you any thoughts about these terms or experiences with them?

A: As a matter of fact, we do have some experience of “tergiversate” – but not in English.

Years ago, when Pat was studying Italian, one of her favorite verbs was tergiversare, meaning to hesitate or evade or beat about the bush. This verb has stuck in her mind, while most of the other Italian has leaked away!

The English verb “tergiversate” has a stronger meaning: to change sides, desert one’s party, apostatize, equivocate, or evade.

It first appeared in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Edmund Gayton’s Pleasant Notes Upon Don Quixot (1654): “That tergiversating and back-sliding Lady.”

It was adopted into English from the Latin tergiversari (“to turn one’s back, shuffle, practise evasion”). The Latin roots are tergum (“back”) and vertere (“to turn”).

A noun, “tergiversation” (meaning forsaking, deserting, or turning one’s back), was first recorded in the 16th century. The OED describes it as an adaptation of the Latin noun tergiversionem.

We haven’t managed to find any information on the use of “tergy-vergy” as a loose slang version of “tergiversate.” Perhaps your father coined it.

We did, however, find a few vague references to a street language called “tergy wergy,” but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with apostasy or evasion.

And the online Urban Dictionary, whose users define slang terms, says a “tergy” is a blisterlike burn from a trampoline or object with a similar surface.

The dictionary, which is by no means authoritative, gives this example: “I scraped my toe on the trampoline and got a tergy.”

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

A nocturnal cat with claws

Q: How did the word “cougar” evolve to mean an older woman who likes younger men? Yes, cougars are nocturnal cats … with claws, but what man came up with this term? The tables should be turned and we women should come up with a name for a younger man who likes older women. How about something nocturnal as well, like roach?

A: The term “cougar,” meaning an older woman who pursues younger men, may have been a male invention, but we have three women to thank for making it a household word.

Of course, as a term for a large feline quadruped, “cougar” has been around since the 18th century. It’s derived from a word in a native South American language, Tupi, and the term is synonymous with “puma” and “mountain lion.”

But as a word for a predator of the human variety, “cougar” is a much later coinage and its origins are murky.

One popular story is that it first showed up in the locker room of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team in the late 1980s. These NHL players supposedly used the term to describe groupies of a mature vintage.

Although there’s no solid evidence to support this story, linguists have tracked the use of “cougar” to western Canada in the early 1990s, when the term meant pretty much what it does now.

However it originated, the usage was popularized in 2001, when two Canadian multimedia artists, Elizabeth Vander Zaag and  Elspeth Sage, launched a tongue-in-cheek website named

The two women say they got the idea for the name when a nephew of Sage referred to them as a couple of “cougars.” It was a term he had picked up from his high school hockey team, according to the women.

The website caught on, offering not only dating services but humorous advice on such things as coping with “menopaws.”

Later in 2001, Valerie Gibson, a former dating columnist for the Toronto Sun, produced a book called Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.

By “older,” Gibson says, she means late 30s plus. The advice in her book includes such niceties as how to “survive (or avoid) meeting his close-to-same-age mother.”

So that’s how the cat got out of the bag.

In the years since the original website and book, there have been many more books with “cougar” in their titles, as well as a reality show (“The Cougar”), a sitcom (“Cougar Town”), a movie (“Cougar Club”), cougar conventions, a cougar cruise (on the Carnival Cruise Line, no less), and dozens of online dating services dedicated to matching “cougs” with virile, adventurous “cubs.” 

Yup, “cubs.” And there’s your term for younger men in pursuit of older women!

(A brief version of this item appeared in Parade magazine, which interviewed Pat about cougars.)

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

From soup to nuts

Q: Can you shed some light on why the phrase “from soup to nuts” represents the concept “from A to Z”? After all “soup” doesn’t begin with “A,” nor “nuts” with “Z.”

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes the expression as “US colloq.” and defines it as “from beginning to end, completely; everything.”

All the published references in the OED are from the 20th century. The earliest is this one from Won in the Ninth, a 1910 book of sports stories by the pitching great Christy Mathewson: “He knew the game from ‘soup to nuts.’ ”

However, the word sleuth Barry Popik has discovered several much earlier appearances of the expression, including one that offers a clue to its origin.

Here’s how The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor (1852) describes the pace of an American dinner:

“The rapidity with which dinner and dessert are eaten by our go-a-head friends is illustrated by the boast of a veteran in the art of speedy mastication, who ‘could get from soup to nuts in ten minutes.’ ”

Why, you ask, “soup” and “nuts,” rather than, say, “apples” and “zucchini”? Because an old-fashioned dinner often began with soup and ended with nuts.

As avid readers of 19th-century novels, we’ve come across many a scene in which a meal ends as a bowl of walnuts and a nutcracker are passed around with the port.

And as Popik reports on his Big Apple website, the idea of using the first and last courses of a dinner to mean the whole shebang didn’t begin with Americans.

The Roman poet Horace used the phrase ab ovo usque ad mala (“from the egg to the apple”) to mean from start to finish. Or as we’d put it, from soup to nuts.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&


English language Uncategorized

Seed catalog

Q: Why is the term “seed” used when a player is put into particular bracket in a sporting contest? Is it because the organizers try to “plant” the best players around so they don’t meet until the playoffs?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the sporting sense of the verb “seed” suggests that the usage evolved in the late 19th century as a tennis term.

The OED defines it as “to assign (to several of the better competitors) a position in an ordered list, so that those most highly ranked do not meet until the later stages of an elimination competition; to arrange (a draw or event) to this end.”

The verb first appeared in print in 1898, the OED says, in this passage from the magazine American Lawn Tennis:

“Several years ago, it was decided to ‘seed’ the best players through the championship draw, and this was done for two or three years.”

So the verb may have been around for several years before it was recorded in print. It obviously had staying power.

Here’s another citation, from Spalding’s Lawn Tennis Annual (1900): “It is generally advisable to ‘seed’ the draw in handicap tournaments so that the players in each class shall be separated as far as possible one from another.”

The past participle and adjective “seeded” was used for events (“Longwood is never seeded,” from 1911), as well as people (“three of the women who had been ‘seeded’ for the draw,” 1929).

The noun “seed,” meaning a seeded player, was slower to catch on. According to the OED, it was first used in print in 1933 in The Aldin Book of Outdoor Games, in a reference to “the Thibetan ‘seed.’ ”

But why “seed”? The OED doesn’t explain the connection, but we can speculate. The best players are deliberately spread around – “planted,” as you suggest – so they aren’t too close together in the early rounds.

The fact that seeding is an appropriate image explains why the term has found a place in the language of sports.

Now, of course, the term “seeded” is often used in a more general way to refer to a high-ranked team or player: “Kelly Robinson’s cover was that of a top-seeded tennis pro.”

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

In and of itself

Q: I wonder if you would comment on the expression “in and of itself.” The “and of” part seems not just redundant, but rather pretentious and legalistic.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary discusses “of itself” and “in itself,” but it has no comment on “in and of itself,” which appears to be an emphatic combination of the two. We don’t consider this a redundancy, and we’ll explain why later.

The “of” plus reflexive pronoun construction is very old; it was recorded in Old English in the West Saxon Gospels of the late 900s.

This “of oneself” construction, according to the OED, has meant “by one’s own impetus or motion; without the instigation or aid of another; essentially.”

The dictionary’s citations include Old English usages like of me sylfum (“of myself”), off hemm sellfenn (“of himself”), and so on. But the usual phrases now are “of themselves” and “of itself,” the OED says.

Examples include this passage in Nicolas Udall’s translation of the Apophthegmes of Erasmus (1542): “Whatsoever thyng wer not of it self eivill.”

And here’s a later one, from Oliver Goldsmith’s A Survey of Experimental Philosophy (1774): “Matter is of itself entirely passive.”

The phrase “in itself” has a similar history.

The OED says that “in” has been used with reflexive pronouns like “himself” and “itself” to mean “in his or its own person, essence, or nature; apart from any connexion with or relation to others; absolutely.”

Citations include these: “Suppose Artificial beautifying of the face be not in it self absolutely unlawful” (1656); “The story may be true in itself” (1870); and “It will be a sport in itself, sufficient of itself to thrill and allure” (1919).

The combination of the two phrases in one – “in and of itself” – is extremely common. A Google search came up with 32.9 million hits.

Although the combination phrase has no separate entry in the OED, a search of citations in the dictionary turns up some examples, including these:

“All of this over-tracking would … be in and of itself a work of art, obtrusively filtering through the music” (1966, from a letter of Glenn Gould).

“It is interesting that 58 percent of American men think that burning a draft card is violence, in and of itself” (1972, Science magazine).

“Being a thing in and of itself, her kiss … was not necessarily a mere prelude to other activity” (2000, from Tom Robbins’s novel Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates).

Is the phrase redundant? We don’t think so. As we’ve said before on the blog,  “There’s a fine line between an emphatic use and a redundancy.” We’ve frequently addressed this subject, including a posting a year and a half ago.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, we’ve even used “in and of itself” ourselves (“The ‘ism’ suffix is pretty much neutral in and of itself”).

But the phrase does tend to be a bit lofty sounding, so we use it sparingly and we think others should, too.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Why is “Filipino” spelled with an “f”?

Q: I’m curious about  the Philippines. Why is the name of the country spelled with a “ph,” while the name for someone who lives there is spelled with an “f”?

A: The word “Filipino” is spelled with an “f” because it’s derived from the Spanish name for the Philippine Islands: las Islas Filipinas.

Originally, after Magellan’s expedition in 1521, the Spanish called the islands San Lázaro, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in 1543 the Spanish renamed them las Islas Filipinas, after King Philip II. (“Philip” is Felipe in Spanish.)  

In English, however, the name was translated from the Spanish as “the Philippine islands” or “the Philippines.”

The earliest published reference in the OED is from Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage (1613): “Those Islands, which more properly beare the Philippine title.”

And here’s another early citation, from Nathaniel Crouch’s The English Empire in America (1685): “A great Ship called the St. Anna expected from the Philippine Islands.”

The country is now known as the Republic of the Philippines, but the Spanish spelling was retained for “Filipino.”

The word is an adjective as well as a noun. The noun is used for an inhabitant of the Philippines (the feminine is “Filipina”) and for the country’s official language, which is based on Tagalog. 

The OED’s first citation for “Filipino” in English is from an 1898 issue of a London newspaper, the Daily News, which spelled it with a double “p”:

“Though there may be no guarantee of American citizenship for the Filippinos, the islands will become a part of the Union.”

The newspaper was referring to the US takeover of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Japan occupied the islands for much of Word War II, but they have been independent since 1946.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

A tale of two rivers

Q: I’m from New London, CT, where we pronounce the “h” in our nearby river, the Thames, and rhyme it with “games.” We think the “h”-less British pronunciation, which rhymes with “gems,” is a corruption arising from the German accents of Hanoverian kings. Any truth in this?

A: No, there’s no truth to that claim. The “h” wasn’t even part of the original name of the river in southern England.

When the name was first written in Old English, in the late 800s, it was spelled Temes or Temese, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the name was around for many centuries before King Alfred used it in his c. 893 translation of the early Christian historian Paulus Orosius, and it probably has extremely old Celtic origins.

In Roman-occupied Britain, the name of the river was Tamesis or Tamesa, according to the writings of Roman historians.

In fact, in ancient Britain there were at least six rivers that were called Tamesa, according to a 1931 article by R. L. Dunabin in The Classical Review.

The spelling “Thames” didn’t appear until the mid-17th century, though the OED does have a couple of citations for earlier “h” versions of the word.

The “h,” which was never pronounced in Britain, was added erroneously, in the mistaken belief that the name was of Greek origin, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

“Such errors were common, and many words that had nothing to do with Greek were respelled to make them look Greek,” American Heritage says in a Word History note.

As an example, the dictionary cites the name “Anthony,” which was derived from the Roman Antonius. The “h” was added later in the erroneous belief that the name was originally Greek and spelled with a theta.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

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.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Never let me go

Q: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the firing of a whistle-blower in 2008 reported that Lehman Brothers had said “it let go Mr. Lee … as part of a broader downsizing.” I prefer “let Mr. Lee go.” Care to comment?

A: The verbal phrase “let go” is very old, dating back to around the year 1300. It was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to mean “to allow to escape; to set at liberty; to lose one’s hold of; to relax (one’s hold); to drop (an anchor).”

In early usages, the two words were sometimes separated by an object, as in “leit paule … ga” (“let Paul … go,” c. 1375),  “lat the reynes gon” (“let the reins go,” c. 1384), and “we lete hym ga” (“we let him go,” 1440).

But just as often the two words were kept together, as in “Let go your capestan” (1530), “let goe everye Feasaunt and Partridge” (1581), and “let go the anchor” (1727).

And this trend has continued into modern times: “let go” is sometimes kept intact and sometimes divided. 

The phrase was first used in the sense of releasing or dismissing someone from a job in 1871, the OED says. And in the OED citations, as you can see, the words are sometimes separated and sometimes not. 

1871: “If he decides to let you go….”

1924: “yard workers are let go.”

1985: “We cut costs and let go of employees.”

1991: “Clive tells me he’s had to let you go.”

2005: ”Howard had let go of Monique, the cleaner, describing her as an expense they could no longer afford.”

Notice, however, that when the object follows the verbal phrase, the preposition “of” is normally used (“let go of employees” … “let go of Monique”).

Perhaps the construction seems simply too abrupt and unnatural without the preposition (“let go employees” … “let go Monique”).

There’s very little on this particular verb phrase in the grammatical sources we’ve consulted. But our feeling is that the usage isn’t idiomatic in the Wall Street Journal’s article about the dismissal of Matthew Lee, a senior vice president.

As far as we can tell, the typical idiomatic constructions are “Let Mr. Lee go” or “let go of Mr. Lee” or “Mr. Lee was let go,” not as the Journal writer said, “let go Mr. Lee.” (Elsewhere in the article, the writer uses the more idiomatic “was let go” version.)

In another use of “let go,” meaning “to neglect one’s appearance, personal habits, etc.,” the two words are nearly always divided by a reflexive pronoun, as in these citations from the OED.

1960, from Woman magazine: “The first step towards ‘letting yourself go.’ ”

1970, from Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch: “She tries not ‘to let herself go,’ keeps young-looking.”

1971, from Ruth Rendell’s novel One Across, Two Down: “I wouldn’t want Ethel to think I’d let myself go.”

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Behalf time

Q: Here’s a sentence in a note from a friend and his siblings about the death of their mother: “For those of you who knew her, on all of our behalves, we thank you for loving our mother.” Is “behalves” correct here? I’d have used “behalf,” but maybe I’m out of it.

A: In modern usage, “behalf” is an invariable noun and has no plural form. The old plural “behalves” is considered obsolete and has been for some time.

It’s labeled “obsolete,” for example, in my 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

If your friend and his siblings wanted to use such an expression, they should have written “on our behalf” instead of “on all of our behalves.” But in fact, no such phrase was necessary.

We don’t usually thank people “on our behalf”; we simply thank them. It’s implied that a thank-you note from several people is giving thanks on behalf of all the writers.

Now, if the writers had been thanking people on somebody else’s behalf, then a “behalf” expression might have been appropriate.

For example, a son and daughter may be writing thank-you notes for their newly widowed mother, who’s too ill to write them herself.

They might write: “We’d like to thank you on our mother’s behalf for the lovely flowers you sent to Dad’s funeral.”

But back to “behalves.” Right or wrong, the obsolete plural is still alive and kicking in legal terminology.

We found this passage in a petition filed in a privacy lawsuit against AT&T in the state of Illinois:

“Plaintiffs Terkel, Currie, Geraghty, Gerson, Montgomery, and Young bring this action on their own behalves and on behalf of a statewide class of all individuals who ….”

And here’s another example, from a legal website:

“The women asked that the court issue the injunction not just on their own behalves, but on behalf of all women in Massachusetts.”

And yet another, in reference to a suit in Texas:

“Plaintiffs have filed suit on their own behalves and on behalf of all similarly situated employees.”

It’s understandable that in a legal document, it might be necessary to make clear that the petitioners have separate interests (or “behalves”).

But legal language is one thing and real English is another. It ill behooves us non-lawyers to use “behalves.”

On a related subject, people sometimes ask us whether the proper usage is “in behalf of” or “on behalf of.” Both are correct, but traditionally they’ve been used in different ways – at least by sticklers.

We wrote a blog item about this nearly four years ago. As we explained then, the traditional meaning of “in behalf of” is “for the benefit of” or “in the interest of,” while “on behalf of” is supposed to mean “in place of” or “as the agent of.”

Here’s an example: “The Red Cross was given a donation, on behalf my family, to be used in behalf of Haitian relief.”

But that old distinction is going by the wayside (if it isn’t gone already).

In Britain, the sole, all-purpose version is “on behalf of.” Both the “on” and the “in” versions are still used in the US, but most Americans now use them interchangeably, ignoring the traditional difference.

This is according to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

A questionable bias

Q: I have a question about these two question sentences: 1. “Will you close the door?” 2. “Won’t you close the door?” Both elicit the same response (“Yes”) while they (seem to) have opposite meanings. How did these “opposite” sentences get identical meanings?

A: Sometimes a question that’s cast in the negative in fact implies a positive, as in “Isn’t she pretty?” … “Won’t you join us?” … “Aren’t they the clever ones?” … “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” … “Didn’t I tell you this would happen?”

It’s a long-established form of expression in English. In this case, a negative interrogative sentence only poses as a question. In fact, the speaker is biased in favor of a “yes” answer, so it’s more of a suggestion than a real question.  

We wrote a blog item a while back that touches on this phenomenon.

Some kinds of “Why not?” questions act the same way, as in “Why not go to the movies this afternoon?” or “Why not tell the truth?”

But not all negative interrogative sentences are biased in favor of a “yes” answer. Some of them imply that the answer is “no.”

Examples would be “Can’t you do anything right?” and “Didn’t you save your allowance?”

As the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “Questions with negative interrogative form are always strongly biased.”

The bias “can be towards either the negative or the positive answer.” 

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Far be it from me …

Q: I’m hoping you can clear up something for me. I was reading a video game review in the New York Times, and the author used the phrase “far be it for me.” I’ve always thought it was “far be it from me.” Please let me know which is the proper usage.

A: The correct expression is, as you say, “far be it from me.” The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase is “a form of deprecation” equal to “God forbid that (I, etc.).”

The usage is very old, and in fact appears in the first English translation of the Bible, the Wycliffe Bible of 1382. Here’s the quotation, from Genesis 44:17: “Josephe answerde, Fer be it fro me, that Y thus do.”

This is rendered in the King James version as “And he said, God forbid that I should do so.”

The author of the Times review you mention may be spending far too much time playing video games, but we can’t blame the overuse of joysticks for his boo-boo.

A search of the Times archive finds 15 other examples since 1986 – in the national, arts, opinion, style, and sports sections.

To be fair, though, scores of other Times writers (or their editors) got it right during that time.  

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Out of pocket, revisited

Q: I was going to ask you about the origins of the phrase “out of pocket,” but instead searched for it on your site first. I found that you posted back in 2007, but had no real evidence on how the “unavailable” meaning evolved. I wonder if you’ve been able to find anything out since then? I’ve had two people use the phrase in the past week, and it has made me curious.

A: Since we wrote that blog entry, the Oxford English Dictionary has come up with an antedating – that is, an earlier appearance in print – of the phrase “out of pocket” in the sense of “out of reach, absent, unavailable.”

We previously reported that this sense of the phrase dates from 1946. But now the OED has found the expression in an O. Henry story, “Buried Treasure,” published in Ainslee’s magazine in July 1908.

Here’s the quotation: “Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.”

So there’s an earlier date for the phrase, but we have nothing new to offer as far as the derivation.

We can only repeat that the expression “to have someone in your pocket,” which dates from the early 1600s, means to have him under your control.

And maybe that’s why someone who’s no longer under your control or scrutiny is said to be “out of pocket.” Just speculation on our part.

At any rate, we all seem to have cell phones in our  pockets these days, so it’s rarer to actually be out of pocket.

[Update, April 24, 2014. A reader writes: I can back you up on the reporter’s use of ‘out of pocket’ for being away from a phone. I was the Tulsa UPI bureau chief in the late ’70s and whenever we were out of the office and away from a phone (this was way before cell phones and just barely after radio telephones), we would message the Dallas Com Center on the teletype: ‘outta pocket.’ Another phrase I remember is ‘outstepping lunch.’ No clue as to the origin of ‘out of pocket,’ but I got the feeling it was an expression common among the old time Unipressers.”]

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Dutch treats, part 2

Q: I caught only part of Pat’s discussion of “Dutch uncle” on WNYC, so I don’t know if she mentioned this. I grew up in rural Indiana in a German-American community where “Dutch uncle” referred to someone who told you something you needed to hear, but didn’t want to hear.

A: We had a blog entry a few years ago about the many “Dutch” expressions in English, but we left out a lot of them, including “Dutch uncle.” Thanks for giving us a chance to update the post.

Your explanation of “Dutch uncle” is pretty much the same as the definition in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang: “one who talks severely and critically, who lays down the law; usu. in the phr. talk like a Dutch uncle.”

Cassell’s dates the expression from the mid-19th century.

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English concurs. It says that to talk to someone like a “Dutch uncle” (circa 1830) means “to lecture in a way didactic and heavy-handed, yet kindly meant for the person’s own good.”

Partridge says the phrase is a reference to “the Dutch reputation for extremely rigorous discipline.”

As we say in our earlier blog item, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the many derisive “Dutch” expressions in English to the rivalry and enmity between the English and the Dutch in the 17th century.

With apologies to the Dutch, here are a few more expressions, all from Cassell’s, Partridge, or the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang:

“Dutch auction (or sale)”: one in which the price reductions are imaginary, or in which the starting price is outrageous.

“Dutch bargain”: a one-sided transaction or one arrived at while drinking.

“Dutch bath”: a cursory washing.  

“Dutch cap”: contraceptive device.

“do a Dutch”: go AWOL or desert.

“Dutch concert”: one in which everybody plays a different tune.

“Dutch courage”: it comes from a bottle.

“Dutch feast”: one in which the host is the first to get drunk.

“in Dutch”: in trouble.

“Dutch leave”: time off taken without permission.

“Dutch nightingale”: a frog.

“Dutch palate”: a coarse or crude sense of taste.

“Dutch reckoning”: a bill that gets higher the more one complains.

“Dutch widow”: a prostitute.

Again, our apologies to the Dutch, who we’re sure are exemplary people and a credit to their nation!

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Ups and downs

Q: If you fall down and get up by yourself, which expression is grammatically appropriate: “When I fall down, I rise myself” or “When I fall down, I raise myself”?

A: This sentence is correct: “When I fall down, I raise myself.”

The verb “raise” here requires an object, the thing (or, in this case, the person) being raised.

However, the verb “rise” does not need an object. So this sentence would also be correct:  “When I fall down, I rise.”

If you want to emphasize that you get up without any help when you fall down, you could say: “When I fall down, I rise by myself.”

The construction “rise myself” is ungrammatical.

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed “raise” vs. “rise” before on the blog, as well as another confusing pair of verbs: “set” and “sit.”

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Bye, baby bunting

Q: I’m curious about the term “baby bunting” in this nursery rhyme: “Bye, baby bunting,  / Father’s gone a-hunting,  / Mother’s gone a-milking, / Sister’s gone a-silking, / Brother’s gone to buy a skin  / To wrap the baby bunting in.” Any idea of the origin?

A: “Bunting” has been a term of endearment since at least as far back as the 1660s. The origins of the word are unknown but it’s had a long association with plumpness, with bottoms, and with “butt” (both the noun and the verb).

In Scottish, according to the OED, the term buntin means short and thick, or plump. A similar term in Welsh, bontin, means the rump.

And in Scottish as well as in dialectal English, both “bunt” and “bun” have been used to refer to the tail of a rabbit or hare.

The verb “bunt” was used in the 1800s to mean the same as “butt” – to strike, knock, or push. (Yes, this is where the baseball term “bunt” comes from, circa 1889.)

And in a 19th-century Sussex dialect, to “bunt” was to rock a cradle with one’s foot (by pushing or “butting” it).

The adjective “bunting” has been used to mean plump, swelling, or filled out since the 1500s.

John Jamieson, in An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808-25), defined buntin as “short and thick; as a buntin brat, a plump child.”

In the phrase “baby bunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the meaning (if there be any at all) may possibly be” as in Jamieson’s definition.

At bottom, if you’ll pardon the expression, the phrase in the nursery rhyme seems to be an affectionate reference to an infant’s plumpness or to its rosy rump.

The earliest version of the nursery rhyme dates from the 1780s, and the longer version you quote has been traced to 1805.

Surprisingly, the OED has no reference to the garment known as a “bunting” – an infant’s cuddly, cocoon-like, hooded outerwear. This sense of the word dates from 1922, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The name of the garment, according to our old Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary  (the unabridged second edition), is a reference to the “baby bunting” in the nursery rhyme.

In case you’re wondering, the noun “bunting” has been used for another kind of cloth – the open-weave kind used to make flags – as well as for a family of birds (possibly because of their plumpness.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

English language Uncategorized

House cleaning

Q: Is it correct to say, “I need to clean house” when what you really mean is “I need to clean THE house”?

A: The phrasal verb “clean house” is pretty well established in English. Like many verb phrases, it’s idiomatic, which means it may not look exactly right when parsed literally, though in fact it’s perfectly acceptable.

A couple of other “the”-less examples from housekeeping are “do laundry” and “cook dinner.” No article is needed.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) notes that the phrasal verb “clean house” also has a meaning in slang: “To eliminate or discard what is undesirable. The scandal forced the company to clean house.”

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Chalk scratching on a blackboard

Q: I’m bothered by a new (and dare I say sloppy) way of expressing oneself that I hear on radio and TV: “first off” as opposed to “first of all.” This is a pet peeve of mine and it’s like chalk scratching on a blackboard. I wonder what your take is.

A: The adverbial phrase “first off” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “colloquial,” meaning that it’s more commonly used in speech than in writing.

It originated in the United States, the OED says, and means “at the first blush, in the first place, to begin with.”

Mark Twain was apparently the first to use the expression in print, in his novel A Tramp Abroad (1880): “First-off, I thought it would certainly give me the botts.” (By “botts” he meant worms or a similar bowel complaint.)

“First off” soon established itself as a familiar idiomatic expression. The OED has these other citations:

1897, from William Dean Howells’s novel The Landlord at Lion’s Head: “First off, you know, I thought I’d sell to the other feller.”

1910, from a novel of the Old West, William Macleod Raine’s Bucky O’Connor: “Four’s right. First off Neil, then the fellow I took to be the Wolf.”

1915, from the Nation: “Men of science … no longer admit first off what simple good sense shows to us.”

A similar adverbial phrase, “first of all,” the one you prefer, is much older.

It was first recorded in print in 1553, according to the OED, in Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique: “[He] must fasten his mynde firste of all, upon these five especiall pointes.”

In our opinion, both expressions are dull. We wouldn’t recommend beginning a speech with either one (or with  “first and foremost”).

But as for your pet peeve, “first off” is thoroughly entrenched in the language and it’s here to stay. You don’t have to use it yourself, but you’ll have to live with the sound of chalk scratching on a blackboard.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

On comma ground

Q: Is it correct to use a comma before “and” in these sentences? (1) “The wide-eyed, baby-faced Beaubois continues to work hard in practice, and has begun to make his mark in a crowded and deep rookie class”; (2) “The Bobcats have spent much of the season with the NBA’s best defense, and are likely to make the playoffs”; (3) “Despite the setback, however, Milwaukee remains in solid position to nab a surprise playoff berth, and could find itself seeded as high as fifth.” If I’m not mistaken, a comma may only be used before “and” to separate two independent clauses.

A: It’s sometimes legitimate to use a comma in a sentence in which two verbs share a single subject. We might do this, for example, if the sentence is long and complicated, or if a comma would avoid confusion.

So, yes, it may be proper to use a comma before “and” to separate parts of a sentence that aren’t independent clauses. A clause, as you know, is a group of words with its own subject and verb.

Here’s how The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) describes this use of the comma:

“A comma is not normally used between the parts of a compound predicate – that is, two or more verbs having the same subject, as distinct from two independent clauses – though it may occasionally be needed to avoid misreading or to indicate a pause.”

This is the example given in the style guide: “She recognized the man who entered the room, and gasped.”

If we were editing those sentences you quote, would we have kept the final commas? Yes and no. We could make a case for the commas in sentences 1 and 3, which seem to need pauses, but not in #2.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Body building

Q: While editing a friend’s blog, I happened upon two words that I feel do not belong in professional writing: “nobody” and “anybody.” I consider them colloquial, and believe “no one” and “anyone” should be used instead. Is this pet peeve of mine justified?

A: The “body” pronouns (“nobody,” “anybody,” “somebody,” “everybody”) are not colloquial. They’re standard English, and they’re every bit as legitimate as the “one” versions (“no one,” “anyone,” “someone,” “everyone”).

Centuries ago, the word “body” was often used to mean “person.” Think of the Robert Burns poem: “Gin a body meet a body / Comin thro’ the rye, / Gin a body kiss a body, / Need a body cry?”

When the “body” pronouns entered English, most of them around the 14th century, they were written as two words, and over time became single words.

In the case of “nobody,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was “frequently written as two words from the 14th to the 18th centuries, and with hyphen in the 17th and 18th.”

Is one set of pronouns better for formal writing than the other?

Among the many usage guides we checked, only Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) sees any difference: “No one is somewhat more formal and literary than nobody.” But Garner’s doesn’t say why, or explain how that judgment was arrived at.

As for the other sets of words (“somebody” vs. “someone” and so on), Garners’  finds them interchangeable and equally acceptable. The usage guide says euphony – the agreeableness of sound  – should govern the choice.

We checked several other references about this “one/body” business, but they mention only one pair of these pronouns: “someone/somebody.”

The Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage says there’s no difference between them: “Someone is not necessarily a more polished choice than somebody; use whichever word makes the most effective, rhythmically satisfying sentence.”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in its entry for “somebody” and “someone,” says both “have been in constant parallel use since the beginning of the 14c.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the two are “equally standard; use whichever one you think sounds better in a given context.”

Our conclusion is that all the “body” pronouns, including “nobody” and “anybody,” are good  for all occasions. But if you think “no one” and “anyone” sound smoother on occasion, then let your ear be your guide.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&


English language Uncategorized

Snappy endings

Q: I’ve been collecting words where the “ed” ending is pronounced ID. Here’s my list, but I know I’m missing a few: “crooked,” “dogged,” “jagged,” “legged,” “peaked,” “ragged,” “rugged,” “supposed,” and “wicked.” Can you come up with any more?

A: Several adjectives have an “ed” ending that’s pronounced as a separate and distinct syllable. These include the ones you mention, as well as the following:

“aged,” “beloved,” “blessed,” “learned,” “naked,” “ragged,” “rugged,” “sacred,” “supposed,” “wretched,” sometimes “striped,” and the old poetical usages “cursed,” “accursed” and “winged.”

Yet when some of these show up as verb forms, they merely end in a “d” or “t” sound that’s not a separate syllable:

“he aged fast” … “she blessed the child” … “he crooked his finger” … “we cursed our fate” … “they dogged his footsteps” … “we learned a lot” … “I supposed as much” … “the bird winged its way home.”

The Oxford Guide to English Usage has a section devoted to these words (pages 44-45). And Pat discusses “aged” in the pronunciation chapter of the new third edition of her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I. Here’s the paragraph:

AGED. This has one syllable, except when it’s an adjective meaning “elderly.” Here, only the first aged has two syllables: My aged grandmother, who aged gracefully, took a liking to aged cheese when she was a child aged ten.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Contract law

Q: Lately, I have noticed a trend to use “is” in contractions that I think are inappropriate. For example, “Jodi’s going to the party.” Is this becoming acceptable? Am I the only one annoyed by it? 

A: There’s no reason to be annoyed.

The verb “be” can properly be contracted with its subject (a pronoun, a common noun, or a name) as well as with the word “not.”

This has long been standard usage. In fact, contractions were used in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. The Old English nis, for example, is a contraction of ne is (“is not”).

So it’s grammatically correct to contract “is” with a pronoun (as in “she’s not going”), a common noun (“the building’s on fire”), a name (“Jodi’s not going”), or “not” (“Jodi isn’t going”).

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Woes by any other name

Q: In your Jan. 7, 2009, posting, you cite the tongue-in-cheek title of Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I as an example of hypercorrection, and say “woe is me” has been good English for generations. How did “woe is me” come to be accepted? Did it evolve from “woe is to me”?

A: Linguists say “woe,” that unhappy word, has been used as an exclamation of lament since before writing was invented.

It’s believed to come from prehistoric Indo-European, and it has been used in English, spelled in a variety of ways (wa, wae, way, etc.), since at least as far back as the 700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Similarly, “woe is me” has long been a common lament in English usage and a frequent refrain in literature. But why “me” instead of “I”?

We know that subject pronouns like “I” and “he” have traditionally followed linking verbs like “be.” (The title of Pat’s book Woe Is I was intended as a humorous riff on taking this old grammatical rule too far.)

So why is the familiar expression “woe is me” instead of “woe is I”? Here’s how the OED explains it:

Pronouns in the old dative case (objects like “me,” “him,” “us,” “them,” and so on) were once used with the word “woe,” either “with or without a verb of being or happening, in sentences expressing the incidence of distress, affliction, or grief.”

The first citation in the OED is in Old English and it comes from Beowulf, written in the early 8th century: Wa biedh thaem (“woe be them”). Here are a few similar expressions and the dates they were recorded:

Wo ys him (“Woe is him” 1300); wo thee be (1390); wa is yow (“woe is you,” 1400-50, also around 1560); “Woe were us” (1583); “Woes us” (“Woe is us,” 1680); and ”Woe is him” (1636).

Note: We’ve used italics for the Old English and Middle English citations; thee and yow are objects in the examples above.

Of course the woeful expression most frequently seen, and the one that’s survived, is “woe is me.” And yes, “woe is me” is the common form, though it has occasionally been rendered as “woe is to me” or “woe is unto me.”

It means, says the OED, “I am distressed, afflicted, unfortunate, grieved.”

The earliest citations, all spelled wa is me or wais me, are from around 1205, 1240, 1375, and 1400-1450. Wo is me was recorded around 1400 and 1480, as well as in 1729; “wayis me” in 1513; “wae is me” in 1579, and “Waes me” in 1785 (Robert Burns).

We finally encounter “woe is me” itself in 1570, 1587, 1596 (in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene),  around 1599 (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet), 1780 (Robert Burns again), 1798 (Wordsworth), 1837 (in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution), 1842 (Tennyson), and so on into present-day English.

Biblical citations for the expression can also be found. We’ll excerpt a few here, from the King James Version:

Psalms 120:5 (“Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!”); Isaiah 6:5 (“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone”); Jeremiah 4:31 (“Woe is me now! for my soul is wearied because of murderers”).

Also, Jeremiah 10:19 (“Woe is me for my hurt! my wound is grievous”); Jeremiah 15:10 (“Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife”);  Jeremiah 45:3 (“Thou didst say, Woe is me now!  for the LORD hath added grief to my sorrow”); and Micah 7:1 (“Woe is me!”).

Many people have suggested that “me” is used instead of “I” in the expression because there’s a missing but understood preposition. They assume that “woe is me” is short for ”woe is unto me” or “woe is to me” or “woe is upon me.”

In effect, they’re inventing an apology for “woe is me” because they see it as ungrammatical.  We don’t see it that way.

No apology in the form of imaginary prepositions is necessary.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Vision things

Q: A friend invites me over to “look” at his new TV and “watch” a movie on it. Am I right in concluding that we “watch” something that has a duration, but “look” at something that’s momentary?

A: That’s pretty much the way we understand “watch” and “look” too. Generally, people watch something that’s happening, but look at something that’s stationary.

The verb “look” entered English more than a thousand years ago. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, it was locian, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Its earliest meanings, in the 9th and 10th centuries, were to “direct one’s sight,”  to “direct one’s attention to,” and to “take care, make sure” (in the sense of seeing that something is done).

We get many meanings by adding prepositions and other words to “look,” resulting in such expressions as “look into,” “look over,” “look after,” “look sharp,” “look out,” and “look forward to.”

Others examples include “look askance,” “look down upon,” “look back on,” “look around”  (explore), “look daggers” (frown), “look in on” (visit), “look up” (find), and “look up to” (admire).

The verb “watch” ultimately comes from waeccan, an Old English word closely related to wacian (to wake or become awake).

When “watch”  first appeared in English in the 10th century, according to the OED, it meant to stay awake for devotional purposes – that is, to keep a vigil.

(You can see a parallel with the noun “wake,” which was the subject of a blog item of ours a few years ago.)

Later, in the 13th century, “watch” took on another meaning, “To be on the alert, to be vigilant; to be on one’s guard against danger or surprise,” the OED says.

A bit later it was used to mean to be on the lookout, or to keep something or someone in sight. That led to another meaning: to guard or keep under surveillance

It wasn’t until the 16th century that our modern sense of “watch” was recorded: “to keep (a person or thing) in view in order to observe any actions, movements, or changes that may occur.”

The first citation in the OED for this sense of the verb is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590), where Oberon says,  “Having once this juice, I’ll watch Titania, when she is asleepe, And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.”

People have been using “watch” this way ever since, meaning to keep one’s eyes (whether figuratively or literally) on something that moves or could change.

And people have been using “look” to mean simply to direct one’s gaze at something; there’s much less scrutiny involved.

That’s why “We’re being watched” sounds so much more ominous than “We’re being looked at.”

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Pimping the doc

Q: My daughter is in medical school, where she has encountered an odd terminology. When a senior doctor asks questions of an intern or a medical student, the “asking” is referred to as “pimping.” No one (from med student to professor to practicing doctor) seems to know the origin of this rather strange usage for an educational exercise. Can you shed any light? 

A: Most of us (those who haven’t gone to medical school) probably think of the word “pimping” in its usual sense – procuring a sexual partner for another – or in one of its recent slang incarnations, such as taking advantage of someone or customizing something in a flashy way.

Nobody, though, seems to be sure about the origin of “pimp” itself, the source of all this pimping.

Some have suggested that the noun and verb “pimp,” both dating from the early 1600s, may have been influenced by the French pimper (to dress elegantly). The present participle pimpant means alluring or seductive in dress.

But the Oxford English Dictionary says any similarities to French are coincidental, and the origin of “pimp” is unknown.

A somewhat unusual adjectival meaning of the word “pimping” is insignificant, paltry, petty, or sickly. (There are similar words with similar senses in German and Dutch.)

One can see how this meaning of “pimping” might apply in the case of a young medical student, aggressively questioned by a superior and made to feel intellectually puny.

As it happens, Frederick L. Brancati, MD, wrote an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1989 on the pimping of medical students by attending physicians. We’ll excerpt a few paragraphs:

“Pimping occurs whenever an attending poses a series of very difficult questions to an intern or student. The earliest reference to pimping is attributed to Harvey in London in 1628. He laments his students’ lack of enthusiasm for learning the circulation of the blood: ‘They know nothing of Natural Philosophy, these pin-heads. Drunkards, sloths, their bellies filled with Mead and Ale. O that I might see them pimped!’

“In 1889, Koch recorded a series of ‘Puempfrage’ or ‘pimp questions’ he would later use on his rounds in Heidelberg. Unpublished notes made by Abraham Flexner on his visit to Johns Hopkins in 1916 yield the first American reference: ‘Rounded with Osler today. Riddles house officers with questions. Like a Gatling gun. Welch says students call it “pimping.” Delightful.’

“On the surface, the aim of pimping appears to be Socratic instruction. The deeper motivation, however, is political. Proper pimping inculcates the intern with a profound and abiding respect for his attending physician while ridding the intern of needless self-esteem. Furthermore, after being pimped, he is drained of the desire to ask new questions – questions that his attending may be unable to answer.”

The slang use of “pimping” in the sense of customizing was of course popularized in the US by the TV program “Pimp My Ride,” which was first broadcast in 2004. But the term was around before the arrival of the show about restoring and customizing dilapidated cars.

The first published reference in the OED is from a March 13, 2000, posting to an Internet newsgroup: “They have to pimp their ride up.”

The next citation is from a Nov. 14, 2002, issue of Rolling Stone: “I pimped out the Bentley with white-and-blue-striped interior.”

Pat recalls another sense of the term that dates from her college days (she won’t say how long ago this was, but Stewart notes that our country was at war in Southeast Asia).

If you were deliberately irritating or prodding or teasing someone or putting him on, according to Pat, you were said to be “pimping” him. The victim might reply, “Oh, you’re just pimping me,” or “Stop pimping me.”

Finally, an  actor once wrote us that in improvisational theater, “pimping” means asking another actor an unexpected question on stage. This is extremely rude, he said, because springing a question on someone during an improvised performance unfairly puts the other actor on the spot.

Not unlike putting an unsuspecting medical student off balance.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Why isn’t it light after dark?

Q: Why do we say “after dark” when what we really mean is “after light” – that is, the darkness that follows the light?

A: The full meaning of “after dark” is “after dark comes” or “after darkness falls.” It doesn’t mean “after dark is over with.”

The Oxford English Dictionary includes “nightfall” among its definitions of the noun “dark.”

So “after dark” could be interpreted as meaning “after nightfall.” At least that’s clearly what people mean by it. 

The phrase “after dark” appears in dozens of references in the OED. Here are a couple from the 18th century as well as a more recent one:

“Not till after dark” (1718); “One evening after dark” (1771), and “whip-poor-wills calling shortly after dark” (2002).

Here are two 19th-century citations from the novels of Charles Dickens:

“I seldom go out until after dark” (The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840), and “After dark there come some visitors, with shoes of felt” (Dombey and Son, 1848).

We’re especially fond of this one, from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe (circa 1882): “I heard the minx remark, / She’d meet him after dark, / Inside St. James’s Park, / And give him one!”

Many of the references are spooky, as you might imagine: “It was long after dark” (1832); “never stirring abroad till after dark” (1854); “they call on their victims after dark” (1966); “After dark nothing would induce them to pass the mangrove-swamps” (1885).

Also, “afraid to go out after dark” (1979); “packs of wolves were reinforced after dark by solitary werewolves” (1988); “Don’t go out there after dark” (1991).

And to conclude on a lighter note, there’s this one from a British newspaper: “from before daybreak until after dark, people use the park for doggies to do whoopsies in” (1986).

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Does his grammar or hearing need fine-tuning?

Q: Everything tells me that this sentence is correct: “They fulfilled the request more quickly than they forecasted.” Yet, the use of “forecasted” here sounds a little discordant. Does my grammar or my hearing need fine-tuning?

A: The usual past tense and past participle of the verb “forecast” is “forecast.” Example: “He forecast an inch of snow yesterday, and he has forecast three more inches for tomorrow.”  

However, “forecasted” is listed as an acceptable variant (though not the preferred one) in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

This acceptance isn’t unanimous, however.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says, “Forecasted is poor usage.” Garner’s also prefers the past tense and past participle “broadcast” over “broadcasted,” another usage that the dictionaries recognize.  

We also prefer “forecast” and “broadcast” because of the parallel with the verb “cast.” Its past tense (as well as its past participle) is simply “cast,” as in “He cast [or “has cast”] a wide net in his search for a law clerk.”

Although your grammar can be defended here, we think you should follow your ears and fine-tune that sentence.

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English language Uncategorized

Spellbinding letters

Q: I have some theories about words beginning with “wr,” “kn,” or “qu.” My impression is that “wr” words are generally related to twisting, specifically at the wrist, while “kn” words have to do with fingers (we knock with our knuckles). I’ve read that “qu” words were once spelled “cuu.” Perhaps ancient scribes got tired of writing three letters and turned them into two. I’d love any insights you have about our bizarre spelling.

A: Many words starting with “wr” have to do with twisting, though not all. And many  starting with “kn” are cousins to “knuckle.” Let’s begin with the “wr” words.

A prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as wer (meaning to turn or bend) is the ancestor of our words “wreath,” “writhe,” “wring,” “wrangle,” “wrench,” “wrinkle,” “wrist,” “wrest,” “wrestle,” “wrap,” and scores of others. 

(There are seven other Indo-European roots reconstructed as wer, with seven other meanings.)

Another Indo-European root, g(e)n, meaning to compress into a ball, is the ancestor of many Germanic words that start with “kn” and have to do with knobby projections or sharp blows.

This has given us “knuckle,” “knob,” “knock,” “knot,” “knoll,” “knife,” “knead,” and even a food name like “knackwurst.”

The words “knee,” “kneel,” and others come from another root, genu, meaning angle. And “knack” is of uncertain origin, but could be related to the German knacken, meaning to solve a puzzle. 

This information comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2d ed.), edited by Calvert Watkins.

If you’re interested in etymologies, the American Heritage book is worth having and it’s cheap enough ($13.60 in paperback from Very enjoyable browsing!

But back to spellings. We’ve written blog entries in the past about why, for instance, a word like “knife” has a “k,” and why “gh” has different pronunciations in different words. The latest posting was last December.

And we’ve written about words beginning with the letters “sn” ( like “sneeze”), which often have something to do with the nose. 

As for words beginning with the “kw” sound that’s now spelled “qu,” the usual spelling in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, was cw, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As the OED explains, early Old English writings sometimes represented the “kw” sound as qu, an adoption of Latin spelling. However, the normal Old English spelling for this sound was cw. (It was also sometimes spelled cu and occasionally cuu.)

After the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, French and Latin qu spellings gradually worked their way into English. By the end of the 13th century, “qu” was the usual English spelling.   

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&