English language Uncategorized

Do you dis “disenfranchise”?

Q: I graduated from Bennington College in the late ’60s. My wonderful European history teacher insisted that “disenfranchise” was incorrect, and that “disfranchise” must be used instead. I’ve always done so, not that I often have occasion to. (He also wore a red shirt each year on Garibaldi’s birthday.)

A: “Disfranchise” and “disenfranchise” are synonymous, and both are legitimate verbs (no disrespect to your teacher is intended!).

Let’s start with the original, “franchise,” a verb that once meant to set free or liberate.

It entered English around 1393, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it existed in Anglo-Norman in the early 1100s and had its origins in the old franc (“free”).

The original sense of the verb is now rare. The most recent published usage cited in the OED is from “Renaissance,” a poem by Thomas Sturge Moore (1931):

“Do thou forget / All that, until this joy franchised thee, / Tainted thee, stained thee, or disguised thee.”

In its usual modern sense, the verb means to grant a commercial franchise. The usage, dating from 1940, originated in the United States, according to the OED.

As for the noun “franchise,” it originally meant “freedom, immunity, privilege.”

The noun entered English about 1300, and was also recorded in Anglo-Norman in the mid-1100s. Early senses of the word included “a special privilege or right to own property, earn income, trade, etc.,” the OED says.

The modern commercial sense, which originated in the US and dates from 1903, is an authorization to do business in a particular area for a stated period in return for a share of the profits. The term also applies to the business or the territory.

But back to verbs!

“Enfranchise” was first recorded in the early 1500s and meant either “to admit to freedom, set free (a slave or serf),” or “to admit to municipal or political privileges.”

The earliest use in writing, the OED says, is from an act of Henry VIII in 1514: “The crafte and misterye of Surgeons enfraunchesid in the Citie of London.”

Today, to “enfranchise” is to grant the privileges of citizenship, especially the right to vote.

And to “disenfranchise” – or to “disfranchise” – is to remove those privileges. Both are bona fide verbs, though the shorter version came first. The OED dates “disfranchise” from 1467 and “disenfranchise” from 1664.

Standard dictionaries leave the choice to us. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “disfranchise” by merely cross-referencing it to “disenfranchise,” which gets a full entry.

On the other hand, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “disenfranchise” as “to disfranchise,” and the latter entry gets the full treatment.

But the longer version may be more popular today. The words “disenfranchise,” “disenfranchised,” and “disenfranchisement” far outnumber the “en”-less versions in Google hits.

I think  the reason is obvious. Someone who has the right to vote is “enfranchised,” not “franchised.” So the opposite form “disenfranchised” seems more natural and symmetrical.

By the way, if you dis the verb “disrespect” or its short form “dis,” check out this blog item we wrote a few years ago.

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

English language Uncategorized

Lying in wait

Q: What part does “in wait” play in “lie in wait”? I’d say it’s an adverbial phrase, since it modifies the verb. But then I start to make myself nuts when I consider something like “lie in bed,” where “in bed” is just a preposition and a noun.

A: An adverbial phrase is simply two or more words functioning as an adverb – that is, modifying a verb. 

The phrase “lie in bed,” for example, consists of the verb “lie” plus the adverbial phrase “in bed.”

The adverbial phrase here consists of a preposition (“in”) plus a noun (“bed”). It’s a prepositional phrase in itself, but in this sentence it’s also adverbial in that it functions as an adverb would.

Similarly, the phrase “lie in wait” consists of the verb “lie” plus the adverbial phrase “in wait.” The adverbial phrase consists of a preposition (“in”) plus a noun (“wait”).

By the way, the noun “wait” once had more meanings that it does today. For example, it used to mean a watchman or guard.

Today we use it mostly to mean a period of waiting (as in “an hour’s wait”), but something of the old meaning survives in the expressions “lie in wait” (dating from around 1440) and “sit in wait” (before 1300).

In the sense of lying in ambush, English speakers once also used the phrases “lie at catch” and “lie upon the catch.”

A prepositional phrase can also function as an adjectival phrase, as in “They bought the house in the cul-de-sac.” Here, the prepositional phrase “in the cul-de-sac” functions as an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “house.”

Finally, the word “in” isn’t always a preposition. It’s an adverb, for example, in the verb phrase “lie in” (as in, “On Saturdays, I like to lie in,” or “Don’t call before 9, since I’ll be lying in”).

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

English language Uncategorized

What do you call a man-hater?

Q: I’ve been wondering if there’s a female version of “misogyny” that would indicate a woman’s hatred of men. Can you help me?

A: The parallel term for “misogyny” (hatred of women) is “misandry” (hatred of men). They’re pronounced mis-AHJ-uh-nee and mis-AN-dree.

The Greek roots of these words are misos (hatred), gyne (woman), and andros (man).

“Misogyny,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women,” was first recorded in English in 1656.

“Misogynist” came along in 1620 and “misogynistic” in 1821.

“Misandry,” defined as “the hatred of males; hatred of men as a sex,” was first recorded in 1898.

The OED says it was formed “after misogyny,” which we assume means it was developed specifically to be the feminine counterpart.

(We’ll resist the temptation to call these “companion words,” since they’d make such uncomfortable companions!)

“Misandrist” was a latecomer and didn’t appear in print until 1952; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) labels it as both noun and adjective.

We’d hate to conclude the subject of hating one sex or the other without mentioning “misanthrope,” the word for an equal-opportunity hater.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “misanthrope” as “one who hates or distrusts humankind.”

It first showed up in English in 1683, according to OED citations. We borrowed it from the French misanthrope, perhaps because of familiarity with the Molière comedy of manners Le Misanthrope (1666).

In Plutarch’s Lives, the term was used to describe Timon, an Athenian with a reputation for misanthropy, and an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.

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

English language Uncategorized

Toot suite

Q: My landlord says his daughter, a tutor of something or other, is looking for an office to “tut” in. He pronounces it TOOT, which has me wondering if “toot” is the root of “tutor”?

A: How we wish the answer were “yes”! But unfortunately, “toot” is not the root of “tutor.”

The noun “tutor,” first recorded in writing in 1377, originally meant “a guardian, custodian, keeper; a protector, defender,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 1380s, the OED says, it was also used in the sense of “one who has the custody of a ward; a guardian.”

The surviving meanings of the word – someone who teaches or supervises young people, whether in a university or in a private household – evolved in the 1390s and later.

The verb “tutor,” which first was recorded in 1592, has always had the modern meaning – to instruct or teach.

The OED says the noun was directly adopted into English either from the Old French or Anglo-French tutour, or from the Latin tutor (watcher or protector). The ultimate source was the Latin verb tueri (watch or guard).

The verb “toot” (to blow a horn) has Germanic roots, not Latin ones. It was first recorded in English in 1510, according to citations in the OED, but it existed earlier in other Germanic languages.

Why “toot”? It’s probably an imitative word, one whose sound echoes its meaning.

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

English language Uncategorized

Can there be two main points?

Q: Is it possible to have more than one MAIN point? Example: “The main points are #1 and #2.” Doesn’t the word “main” mean the most important and therefore all other points are less important? Or am I splitting hairs? 

A: Yes, we do think you’re splitting hairs.

It’s possible, for example, that some argument or case could have five significant points, two of them more important than the others.

An author might legitimately call points #1 and #2 the “main” points. Points #3, #4, and #5, while still significant, could then be described as “secondary.”

You might employ this usage, for instance, if your two top points are of equal (or nearly equal) significance, and only numbered 1 and 2 for convenience’ sake.

Although the adjective “main” may refer to the single most important thing, the word has had many looser meanings over the years.

In fact, “main” referred to “the great size or bulk” of something when it first showed up in writing in the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A few other senses of the word, now archaic or obsolete or regional, have been powerful, mighty, strong, large, potent, highly remarkable, and very great.

The adjective took on its meaning of chief or principal around 1400, according to OED citations, but the word has often been used since then to refer to more than one important thing.

Shakespeare, for example, referred in All’s Well That End’s Well (1601-05) to the “main consents” and “main parcels.”

We hope this eases your mind!

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


English language Uncategorized

A rule made of whole cloth?

Q: A colleague studying English was reprimanded by her teacher for saying a “piece” of clothing, rather than an “item” or “article.” A Google search, however, results in over five million hits for “a piece of clothing.” Is the teacher right or is that rule made of whole cloth?

A: There’s nothing wrong with calling an item of clothing a “piece.” Garments are often referred to this way. In fact, the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary repeatedly use “piece” in definitions to refer to items of clothing.

I can’t imagine what the teacher’s objection could be, unless he or she believes a “piece” can only be an incomplete, broken-off part of something else.

But “piece” has been used to mean a separate, individual item (as in a “piece of artillery”) for centuries.

Even if you regard a “piece” as incomplete, the phrase “a piece of clothing” makes sense. You could regard a “piece” of clothing as part of a person’s general apparel, which would include other such “pieces.”

The OED says that “piece” has been used to refer to a length of cloth since the 12th century or earlier. (Even today in the textile industry, a “piece” or bolt of cloth is 50 or 70 yards long.)

For several hundred years, the word has also been used to refer, among other things, to a coin (as in “pieces of eight”), a plot of land, a cask of wine, a roll of wallpaper, and a heavy firearm, as well as a literary, musical, or artistic composition.

So, yes, that English teacher’s rule against saying a “piece” of clothing is indeed made of whole cloth.

By the way, the expression “made of whole cloth” didn’t always mean false or without foundation.

When the phrase “whole cloth” entered English in the 15th century, it referred to an entire, manufactured swath of cloth before pieces were cut off for garments.

People began using the phrase figuratively in the 16th century in expressions like “cut out of the whole cloth.”

For a few hundred years, these expressions had various positive meanings. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that “made of whole cloth” took on its negative sense.

Finally, a few words about your Google search and those five million hits for “a piece of clothing.” We won’t say that millions of Google hits can’t be wrong, but in this case they’re right on the money.

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

English language Uncategorized

Firstly, secondly, and thirdly

Q: I’ve noticed a proliferation of “firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” even “lastly.” These words do appear in my dictionary, but aren’t they rather obsolete? I hear them on news interviews in particular.

A: The “ly” enumerations (“firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” “lastly”) have been around for a very long time. They may  be old, but they’re not exactly obsolete today. Far from it.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “firstly,” 22.4 million hits; “secondly,” 33.1 million; “thirdly,” 8.85 million, and “lastly,” 21.1 million.

Starting at the top, “firstly” was first recorded in writing about 1532, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The now obscure “firstmost” came earlier, with published references dating from 1400. 

The adverb “secondly” dates from around 1374, “thirdly” from 1509, and “lastly” from 1375.

Over the years, some (but not all) style and usage books have recommended “first,” “second,” and so on for making enumerations, instead of the “ly” versions.

Other guides have argued that “secondly” and “thirdly” are the preferred forms for numbers two and three.

Why? Because if the writer’s (or speaker’s) second and third points are very far from number one, the reader (or listener) may need an “ly” ending as a reminder that another point is about to be made.

Advocates of “secondly” and “thirdly” often recommend using “firstly” for the sake of conformity. But consistency may not be everything. As the OED explains, “many writers prefer first, even though closely followed by secondly, thirdly, etc.” 

We think it’s OK to use either the long or short adverbs to make your points. But if you’re going to use the “ly” endings, we’d recommend “finally” instead of the awkward “lastly.”

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

English language Uncategorized

Street smarts

Q: I’m confused when addressing letters. When do you use numerals and when do you spell the number out? If you use numerals, do you need the “st,” “nd,” “rd,” and “th” endings? Can “d” alone suffice for “nd” and “rd”? Do you need superscript or is regular type OK? Help!

A: If you want to be formal, The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) recommends that the name of a numbered street or thoroughfare should be spelled out if it’s one hundred or less (as in “First Avenue” or “Ninety-fifth Street”) and given in figures if it’s over one hundred (“122nd Street”).

However, if you’re not writing for publication and you’re simply addressing a letter, you can be more relaxed in using figures instead of spelled-out numbers.

You might, for example, follow New York Times style. The Times spells out numbered street names from “First” through “Ninth” and uses figures for “10th” and above.

The Times also uses “st,” “nd,” “th,” and “rd” with figures where appropriate: “21st Street,” “12th Avenue,” “52nd Road,” “73rd Street,” etc.

In ordinary news copy the newspaper spells out “Street,” “Avenue,” “Road,” and so forth. But in addressing a letter, according to the Chicago Manual, abbreviations are fine: “St.” and “Ave.” and “Rd.”

When we went to work at the Times in the early ’80s, the paper used “d” alone for the endings of ordinal numbers in addresses like “73d Street” and “52d Road”), but the latest Times stylebook recommends “nd” and “rd” endings.

This is a matter of style, not grammar, so the choice is yours. In legal writing, for example, “2d” and “3d” are  the standard abbreviations used in citing court cases, but that doesn’t mean lawyers necessarily  address their letters that way!

A Google search indicates that “2nd” is much more popular than “2d,” but another search finds that “3d” is far more popular than “3rd” (this is misleading, though, since many “3d” references are abbreviations of  “three dimensional”).

As for superscript, it’s not necessary in street addresses, but again the choice is up to you.

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

English language Uncategorized

Can function follow form?

Q: I can’t help but pause when I encounter contradictory prepositions, as in sentences like these: 1) “Leslie went out in the woods” and 2) “Morgan is off on an errand.” Is this usage legitimate?

A: The function a word performs depends on how it’s used in a sentence. What looks like a preposition may actually be an adverb. 

Words like “in,” “out,” “off,” “on,” “over,” “down,” “under,” and many more can be adverbs as well as prepositions. So what appears to be a contradictory set of prepositions may in fact be a quite sensible adverb-preposition combination.  

In sentences like “Leslie went out in the woods” and “Morgan is off on an errand,” the words “out” and “off” are adverbs. The words “in” and “on” are prepositions.

Further examples: “Leslie looked in [adverb] on [preposition] the baby” … “Morgan looked on [adverb] over [preposition] my shoulder” … “She looks down [adverb] upon [preposition] the valley.”

There are many other combinations of adverbs and prepositions that look contradictory in isolation, but aren’t at all contradictory in actual use.

Examples: “While swimming, he went under [adverb], over [preposition] his mother’s objections” … “The child acted out [adverb] in [preposition] typical fashion” … “We went over [adverb] under [preposition] protest” … “The alarm went off [adverb] on [preposition] time.”

We hope this solves the mystery!

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

English language Uncategorized

Who is the Tom in tomboy?

Q: I wonder if you can answer my 14-year-old goddaughter’s question: “Who is the Tom in tomboy?”

A: The name “Tom,” short of course for “Thomas,” has often been used as “a generic name for any male representative of the common people,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A good illustration is the expression “every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” (We once wrote a blog item about this phrase.)

In fact, “Tom” has been used in this way, more or less as a quasi-name or nickname for an ordinary guy, since the 1300s.

To cite another example, in the 1600s, speakers of English used the expression “Tom of all trades” as well as “Jack of all trades.”

And in the 1700s, people began using “tom” as a lower-case noun for a male animal (as in “tom cat,” “tom turkey,” etc.).

When “tomboy” was first recorded in writing (as “Tom boy”) in 1553, it meant “a rude, boisterous, or forward boy,” the OED says.

How did it get this meaning? Here’s one possibility.

Since “Tom” was a name for the common or archetypal male, a particularly rowdy boy was perhaps called a “Tom boy” as another way of saying he was especially boyish – a boy’s boy, in other words.

“Tomboy” soon took on another meaning, according to the OED, that of “a bold or immodest woman.”

This sense was first recorded in 1579, the OED says, in a commentary on Calvin’s sermons.

Here’s the quotation: “Sainte Paule meaneth that women must not be impudent, they must not be tomboyes, to be shorte, they must not bee unchast.”

Why this meaning of “tomboy”? Here again, we can only guess. It would seem that naughty adult women were perceived as behaving like wayward boys.  

By 1592, the OED says, the term was being used to mean “a girl who behaves like a spirited or boisterous boy; a wild romping girl; a hoyden.”

Again, it would appear that rowdy behavior was thought to be more characteristic of boys than of girls.

The term was defined in a 17th-century glossary as meaning “a girle or wench that leaps up and down like a boy.”

In Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730-36), it’s defined as “a ramping, frolicsome, rude girl.”

And an 1802 journal describes “The violent exercise of the skipping-rope, which is … only fit for some Miss Tom-boy.”

The word “hoyden,” by the way, also began life as a masculine term (“a rude, ignorant, or awkward fellow”).

It was first recorded in the late 1500s, according to citations in the OED, and it took nearly a century for it to be used to mean an ill-bred, rude, boisterous, or noisy girl.

Speaking of boisterous behavior, it’s time for Pat to jump on her tractor and tame the overgrown trails through our meadows and woods.

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

English language Uncategorized

A “tri”-ing question

Q: In a book of mine about triathlon training for women, I used the short “tri” many times and I pluralized it as “tris.” But my daughter tells me that I should have used an apostrophe, making the plural “tri’s.” Is she right?

A: No, it’s incorrect to form the plural of a noun by adding an apostrophe plus “s.” So writing “tri’s” for the plural of “tri” would be like writing “apple’s” for the plural of “apple.”

You’d write the possessive as “tri’s” (as in “the “tri’s fourth year”), but the plural would be “tris.”

Ordinarily, “tri” is a prefix, not a word in itself. When you decide to use a prefix as a short  form for an entire noun, you pluralize it the same as you would any other noun – usually by adding “s” or “es.”

So “sub” (short for “submarine”) would be pluralized as “subs,” “ex” (for “ex-husband”) as “exes,” “semi” (“semi-trailer truck”) as “semis,” and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “tri” as short for “triathlon,” but it does have one for “tri” as a clipped word for “trimaran,” a boat with a central hull and a float on each side.

The OED describes a triathlon as “an athletic or sporting contest composed of three different events.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, dating from 1973, the three events are “clay pigeon shooting, fly fishing and riding a handy hunter-course over jumps.” The events are now usually swimming, cycling, and running.

With some prefixes (like “tri” for “triathlon” or “trimaran”), the plural may not be familiar to readers. But follow the rules you must! (This means you have to tri harder.)

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

English language Uncategorized

Food pathology

Q: I’m a medical student with a linguistic question. There are a lot of references to food in pathology: “nutmeg liver,” “berry aneurysm,” “orange peel ulcer,” “maple syrup urine,” etc. What part of speech are these food terms?

A: In a phrase like “berry aneurism,” the noun “aneurism” is being modified by an adjective: “berry.” In this case, the adjective is in fact a noun (“berry”) used adjectivally.

This is quite common. Take these examples: “bird brain,” “flower child,” “stone wall,” “car salesman,” “dog fight.” When a noun performs the function of an adjective, it’s sometimes called an attributive noun. 

Any adjective (whether or not it’s also a noun) performs a similar function – it casts its own attributes onto the word it modifies. 

So in the noun phrase “pink socks,” which is a more typical adjective-noun combination, the adjective lends its attributes (pinkness, mostly) to  the socks.

And in the noun phrase “berry aneurism,” the noun “berry,” functioning as an adjective, lends its attributes (the characteristic size, shape, consistency, etc., of a berry) to the aneurism.

To sum up, the food terms in the phrases you mention are all attributive nouns – that is, nouns functioning as adjectives.

In case you’re interested, we recently answered another question that involved an attributive noun: a doctor wondered whether he should be called a “retina surgeon” or a “retinal surgeon.”

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

English language Uncategorized

An alleged pronunciation

Q: I’ve noticed that people have recently begun to pronounce the adjective “alleged” with three syllables, not two. Have you a theory about how this happened, and when? Perhaps the three-syllable pronunciation has been influenced by the four syllables in “allegedly.”

A: The  adjective “alleged” can properly be pronounced with either two syllables or three, according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

So either a-LEJD or a-LEJ-id would be correct. However, this is a relatively recent development.

Our old copy of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), printed in 1956, doesn’t even list a separate adjective. It merely lists the two-syllable pronunciation for the past tense and past participle of the verb.

This leads us to believe that the old Webster’s would have regarded the adjectival “alleged” as a participial adjective and would not have given it an extra syllable. 

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) as well as M-W’s updated concise edition (2002) say both pronunciations are acceptable.

But the more conservative Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), published in 2009, still recommends two syllables, not three.

Nevertheless, once mainstream dictionaries like American Heritage and M-W’s Collegiate accept a new pronunciation, it has to be regarded as standard English.

As you suggest, it seems likely that the new pronunciation of the adjective was influenced by the four-syllable adverb “allegedly.”

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

English language Uncategorized

Etymological teamwork

Q: A LinkedIn recommendation describes my husband as “the smartest person I have ever teamed with.” I’m pretty sure that should be “teamed up with,” not “teamed with.” Do you agree?

A: Sorry, but we don’t agree with you that the verb phrase “team with” is incorrect.

Yes, the usual phrase is “team up with.” (The Google scorecard: 24.9 million hits for “team up with” versus 9 million for “team with.”) But there’s nothing wrong with the “up”-less version.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The word “team” in its modern sense began as a noun. As far back as the year 825, it meant a set of draft animals; it’s derived from old Germanic sources having to do with drawing or pulling. 

Later, in the early 1500s, the noun was first used to refer to people, either working together or associated in some joint endeavor. (This sense of the noun has given us the sports uses, such as “team player,” from 1886.)  

The verb “team” also showed up in the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally meant to harness or yoke, as a farmer might “team” horses or oxen.

We still use the verb more or less this way, but with things instead of animals.

Today, a woman might “team” a tweed skirt and a silk blouse. A decorator might “team” a plaid sofa and striped curtains. Or a cook might “team” barbecued ribs with cornbread and a salad.

Usages like these were first recorded in the 1940s.

Finally we arrive at the usage that bothers you so much: “team with.”

The OED says this use of the verb, first recorded in the 1930s, appears “chiefly with up,” and means “to join together in or as in a team; to ally oneself or get together with someone.”

That “chiefly with up” notation says it all. Though most of the OED’s citations include “up,” we haven’t seen any usage guide that rejects the “up”-less version.

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

English language Uncategorized

Walking on eggs or eggshells?

Q: I was born in 1942 and grew up with the expression “walking on eggs.” During the last 30 years or so, I hear only “walking on eggshells.” Has this expression morphed from “eggs” to “eggshells”?

A: In its first incarnation, the expression involved the whole egg, not just the shell. The original, 18th-century version was to “tread on eggs,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to walk warily, as on delicate ground.”

The only two citations for the whole-egg version in the OED are from the same author, Roger North, and appear in biographical works he published around 1734. Here are the quotations:

“This gave him occasion … to find if any slip had been made (for he all along trod upon eggs).” And, “He had his jury to deal with, and if he did not tread upon eggs, they would conclude sinistrously.”

The eggshell version showed up more than a century later, and has more examples cited.

The OED defines the phrase “walk on eggshells” and its variants as meaning “to be extremely cautious in one’s actions or words, esp. so as to avoid offending or angering others.”

The earliest citation given is from Wilkie Collins’s suspense novel The Woman in White (1860): “With that woman for my enemy … I walk, in your English phrase, upon egg-shells!”

In another citation, Ernest Rhys wrote in his Lyric Poetry (1913): “To speak of these things is to walk on egg-shells.”

The phrase also made an appearance in the title of a 1962 novel by Herbert Simmons, Man Walking on Eggshells.

And here’s a more recent example, from the British edition of Cosmopolitan magazine (1999): “He suffers from mood swings – you tread on eggshells because there’s no knowing what will set him off.”

All four OED citations for the expression since the early 1960s involve eggshells, not eggs. And Google hits run six-to-one in favor of eggshells.

In answer to your question, the expression does seem to have morphed. The eggshell version (whether one treads or walks on them) is by far the more popular form today.

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

English language Uncategorized

Crumbs from the table

Q: My father and I got to talking the other day about whether there’s such a word as “crumby” to describe the state of something covered in crumbs. Of course “crummy” and “crumbly” don’t work. Is “crumby” an existing word?

A: Until recently, there was an adjective spelled “crumby” and meaning full of crumbs.  It’s in our 1956 copy of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.).

But the word has since disappeared from mainstream dictionaries, which now list it as a mere variant spelling of the identical-sounding slang word “crummy.”

How did this happen? Let’s start with the noun “crumb.”

The word for a small particle of bread (or the like) was first recorded about 975, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original Old English word was written as cruma and had no “b.” Like the modern German counterpart, krume, it was derived  from old Germanic sources that had no “b” either.

In fact, “crumb” had no “b” for almost a millennium. The prevalent English spelling until the end of the 18th century was “crum,” a spelling that was still recognized into 19th century.

How did the silent “b” creep in?

The OED says it “probably appeared first in the derivative crumble (where it has also invaded the pronunciation).” The new spelling was probably influenced as well by words like “dumb” and “thumb,” the OED suggests. 

The first adjective form of the word, which began appearing in the early 1500s, was spelled “cromely” or “crumly.”

It was used to describe something that was crumb-like or likely to crumble. (This word is now our modern “crumbly,” which today is both spelled and pronounced with a  “b.”)

The next adjective form was “crummy” (1567), originally meaning crumbly or crumb-like.

This was followed in the 1700s by the new spelling “crumby,” which first meant full of or strewn with crumbs (1731), and later meant breadcrumb-like (1767). 

But the old “crummy” spelling survived. It became a slang term in the mid-19th century (occasionally spelled “crumby”) to mean lice-ridden, filthy, or otherwise distasteful.

And this slang word – now meaning cheap, shabby, or generally lousy – became so popular that it practically wiped out any notion of breadcrumbs.

Never underestimate the power of slang.

Although the OED doesn’t label the old “crumby” as obsolete – at least not yet – and although it’s still used by bakers and others on the Internet, current dictionaries have abandoned it in the old breadcrumb sense.

So if there’s any chance of being misunderstood (as in “Your skirt is crumby”), we wouldn’t recommend using “crumby” to mean covered in crumbs. And no, pronouncing the “b,” as in CRUM-bee, isn’t the answer.

Maybe someday the meaning of “crumbly” will widen to mean covered in crumbs. Meanwhile, we’ll simply have to use more words than one to describe that messy condition.

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

English language Uncategorized

So much for that

Q: I have a question about the use of “so” in constructions like “I so appreciate your website” or “I so want to help.” Is this correct usage? It sounds awkward to my ears, and I would substitute the word “really” for “so” here.

A: Used with a verb, “so” can be an intensifier, as it is in the two sentences you mention. This usage is standard English, and the Oxford English Dictionary has citations for it dating back to 1375.

It can precede the verb, as in this line by the poet Edmund Spenser (1579): “What payne doth thee so appall?” Or it can follow, as in this quotation from a story by Charles Gibbon (1884): “I held back because I loved you so.”

The use of the adverb “so” in sentences like these can also be read as elliptical (that is, as a short form) for “so much.”

Using your examples and assuming “so” is being used ellipitically, the complete versions would read: “I so much appreciate your website” … and … “I so much want to help.”

These can be reversed: “I appreciate your website so much” … and … “I want so much to help.”

Here, “so much” is an adverbial phrase (similar to “very much”) that modifies the verbs “appreciate” and “want.”

There’s also a slangy use of “so” in which the word is used as an intensifier to form what the OED calls “non-standard grammatical constructions.” Example: “You’re so Brooks Brothers.”

Here, “so” is used  in unexpected ways to modify a noun or noun phrase, a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Its meaning is “extremely” or “decidedly.”

The earliest citation in Oxford is dated 1923, from Ronald Firbank’s novel The Flower Beneath the Foot: “What can you see in her…? She’s so housemaid.”

But this appears to be an isolated example, the OED says, and unrelated to the avalanche of late 20th-century usages. Here’s a sampling of those:

“You’re so the opposite!” – 1979, from the movie Annie Hall, written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman.

“Grow up, Heather. Bulimia’s so ’86.” – 1988, from the movie Heathers, written by Daniel Waters.

“We so don’t have time.” – 1996, from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, written by Joss Whedon.

“The kid gloves are so off.” – 2001, in the magazine Heat.

“I am so getting the milkshake.” – 2004, in the New York Times.

“You’ve seen the carousel and it’s so not cool to be seen here if you’re over nine years old.” – 2005, from Jan M. Czech’s novel Grace Happens.

In case you’re interested, we wrote a blog entry a while back about “so that.” And another about the increasingly common practice of indiscriminately starting sentences with “so.”

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

English language Uncategorized

Editing the auditors

Q: I teach accounting, a field in which people overuse – in my opinion, misuse – the word “determine.” I believe it should mean “cause,” but many use it to mean “measure.” I recently read a report that says, “PricewaterhouseCoopers determined the fair value of the portfolio.” I would say, “God and market conditions determined the fair value of the portfolio, which PwC measured.” I wonder if you have anything to say on this subject.

A: Accountants aren’t the only people who use “determine” to mean “cause” as well as “measure.”

We ordinary mortals use the word in both these senses too. Consequently, there’s room for ambiguity. Here’s a brief history of the word’s usage in common speech and writing.

The verb  “determine” has its roots in Latin, from the prefix de (“down to the bottom, completely; hence thoroughly … methodically, formally”) and terminare (“to set bounds to”). These definitions come from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Thus when it  first entered English in the 14th century, to “determine” meant to be terminated – that is, to die or cease to exist.

Here’s an early citation from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “That rather dye I wold, and determyne, / As thinkith me, stokkid in prisoun.” Rough translation: “That I would rather die and determine, I think, in prison stocks.”

(This sense of the verb was used as late as 1883 by William Gladstone in a speech in Parliament: “The privileges … do not determine with the life of M. de Lesseps.”)

Later in the 14th century, “determine” was recorded in other senses, all having to do with bringing some matter to an end.

These meanings include to settle or decide a matter of debate (c. 1380); to ordain beforehand (1382); to come to a judicial decision (c. 1384); to pronounce or declare (1393); to resolve to do something or decide about (1393); to set bounds to or limit (1398).

Other senses of the verb followed: to decide the course of or give direction to (1430); to put an end to or conclude (1483); to limit in scope (a term in logic, 1555); to ascertain (1650); to fix in the causal sense (as in “the buyer determines the Price,” from Hobbes’s Leviathan, 1651); to choose from among several things (1659).

In the sentence, “PricewaterhouseCoopers determined the fair value of the portfolio,” the verb could be read in two ways. To “determine” a price could be either to set it or to find out what it is.

This is an area where misunderstanding is possible, though we’re not sure a reader of the financial report you cited would be confused.

But if there’s any chance of confusion, especially in an audit report or other accounting statement where clarity should be the goal, we’d recommend using a more precise term.

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

English language Uncategorized

Stupid is as stupid does

Q: A teacher once told me not to use a “more” comparative (“more stupid”) when a one-word version (“stupider”) is available. Is this true? I trust your knowledge more than hers since she used to pronounce “height” as if it had a “th” at the end.

A: Your teacher was wrong about comparatives. There’s no rule against using “more stupid” if you wish, instead of “stupider,” as the comparative form of the adjective.

Use  whichever sounds best in context, rhythmically and otherwise: “lovelier” or “more  lovely”; “commoner” or “more  common”; “rarer” or “more rare”; “livelier” or “more lively,” and so on. 

Just because a one-word version of a comparative or superlative exists doesn’t mean you can’t use the two-word version (with “more” or “most”).

We’re a little surprised at your teacher’s insistence. Last year, we answered a question from a man whose teacher insisted just the opposite – that “stupidest” was incorrect, and that the appropriate superlative form of “stupid” was “most stupid.”

If you’d like to read more about comparatives and superlatives, we wrote a blog entry a year and a half ago about the common conventions for forming them.

Interestingly, speakers and writers of English once even used “liker” and “likest” as comparative and superlative terms (equivalent to “more similar” and “most similar”). We’ve written a posting about that too.

Finally, a few words about your teacher’s pronunciation of “height.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) does include a pronunciation with a “th” sound at the end, but it describes this as an unacceptable variant that may be heard in educated speech.

Although the variant pronunciation is rarely heard now, it reflects the word’s original pronunciation in Old English, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

And, yes, we’ve also had a posting that discusses the origins of “height,” which Anglo-Saxons spelled with the Old English version of “th” at the end.

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

English language

Why are “overlook” and “oversee” opposites?

Q: An American blogger living in Panama recently posed this question: “Why do ‘overlook’ and ‘oversee’ mean the opposite?” I have no idea, but I bet you will!

A: The story behind “overlook” and “oversee” is an interesting example of how words develop over the centuries in our changing language.

The verb “oversee” has historically meant to watch over. Originally it was used in a rather literal way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it first showed up in Old English in the early 900s (as ofersawon, in Beowulf), it meant “to look down upon; to look at from, or as if from, a higher position.”

The OED says the verb “overlook” had a similar meaning when it came along around 1400: “to look upon from above; to survey; to view openly.”

But by the mid-1400s, “overlook”  was being used to mean “pass over without noticing.” In the meantime, “oversee” had evolved to mean what it does today – to supervise.

And by the way, “supervise” (from the late 1500s) also had the original meaning “to look over.” It’s a combination of “super,” from the Latin for “above,” and “vise,” from the Latin videre (see). Later, it came to mean “to have the oversight of.”

We don’t want to conclude our discussion of the verb “oversee” by overlooking the noun “oversight,” a contronym that encompasses opposing meanings. It can mean either an unintentional omission or watchful care.

Other two-faced words include “cleave” (which can mean to cling together or to divide) and “sanction” (to approve or to forbid). We’ve written several blog items about this phenomenon, including one in 2008 and another in 2007.

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. (Pat usually appears on the third Wednesday of the month, but she’ll visit Leonard this month on the second Wednesday.)

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

English language Uncategorized

Can a tree blush green?

Q: It’s happening again. Every spring my wife notices the onset of buds on the trees and tells me they are “blushing green.” I tell her that “blushing” refers to red, not green. She tells me that if I can find a better way to convey the idea of “blushing green,” she will deign to use it. Can you help?

A: We think your wife’s description of tender young buds as “blushing green” is delightful, and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. The original meaning of “blush,” in the 14th century, had nothing to do with redness.

The word “blush” first showed up as a verb, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and initially meant to “cast a glance” or “give a look.” The OED’s earliest written citation is from 1325.

The noun “blush” was first recorded in writing in about 1340, when it meant “a gleam, a blink.” By this time, the verb was being used to mean “shine forth.”

A slightly later sense of the noun – “a glance, glimpse, blink, look” – was recorded about 1375 in the expression “aftur the furste blusch.” We still use the word this way, in the phrase “at first blush” (the equivalent of “at first glance”).

The current sense of the verb “blush,” meaning “to become red in the face, (usually) from shame or modesty,” came along in the mid-15th century, the OED says.

The first written citation is from about 1450, in the phrase “blushed red.” Later, the “red” became unnecessary and “blushing” by itself meant turning red.

The use of the noun “blush” to mean “the reddening of the face caused by shame, modesty, or other emotion” was first recorded in Shakespeare, the OED says.

The earliest citation is from Henry VI (1593): “And not bewray thy Treason with a Blush.” And here’s another, from Henry V (1599): “Put off your Maiden Blushes.” (In Shakespeare’s day, “bewray” meant to unintentionally reveal a secret.)

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


English language Uncategorized

Misery lights

Q: I’m reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and I’ve come across the expression “misery lights.”  Do you know what this means? (I’m sure you do!)

A: Readers of contemporary fiction may be familiar with the term, which has appeared in several novels. Here’s how it’s used in McCann’s 2009 novel:  

“Some cops on the West Side Highway switched on their misery lights, swerved fast off the exit ramps, making the morning all the more magnetic.”

In Richard Price’s novel Lush Life (2008), the phrase “misery lights” appears three times, as when a police car sits with its “misery lights revolving.”

And in Clockers (1992), another work by Price, a police cruiser is described as “hitting its misery lights.”

The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell, defines the noun phrase “misery lights” as “the colored lights on the top of  a police car.”

The dictionary, citing the Clockers quotation, dates the usage from 1992.

Routledge doesn’t speculate about why they’re called “misery lights.” But we imagine that anyone who’s ever been pulled over by the police will have a pretty good idea.

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

English language Uncategorized

To we or not to we

Q: Is it okay to say, “The Smiths and we go to the park”? I know there are better ways to say the same thing, but I’m wondering if this is grammatically correct.

A: As a compound subject, “The Smiths and we” is indeed grammatically correct. But it’s not syntactically common (syntax deals with word order).

The common word order, as you’re aware, would be “We and the Smiths go to the park.”

Why does that sound more natural? We did a bit of digging without success, but we suspect a scholarly paper or two is lurking out there with the answer.

The subject in a sentence like the one you cite should never be “The Smiths and us” or “Us and the Smiths.”

Those constructions would be used only as objects: “Come to the park with the Smiths and us.” Or, “Come to the park with us and the Smiths.”

As part of a compound subject, a pronoun is always a subject pronoun (I, we, they, he, she).

As part of a compound object, a pronoun is always an object  pronoun (me, us, them, him, her).

Sorry we couldn’t be more helpful about why “We and the Smiths” sounds better than “The Smiths and we” as a compound subject.

However, we’ve had a couple of posts on the blog  – one in 2009 and the other in 2008 – about whether you should put yourself last when you’re part of a compound subject or object.

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

English language Uncategorized

And don’t call me Shirley

Q: I’ve noticed a trend to give girls traditionally male names. As a result, some of these names are no longer thought of as male. Do you know of any traditionally female names that have transitioned the other way? Can you offer any insight?

A: We don’t know how much insight we can offer, but it certainly does seem to be the case that a lot of parents are giving traditional male names to female children.

Although we may be seeing more of this now, it isn’t a new phenomenon.

Pat’s mother, born in 1929, was named Beverly, and one of her aunts was named Sydney. Both had traditionally been boys’ names.

Other traditionally male names that were adopted as feminine during the early to mid-20th century include Shirley, Evelyn, Meredith, Leslie, Ashley, Lindsay, and Kim.

(Remember Leslie Nielsen’s line in the movie Airplane? “I am serious … and don’t call me Shirley.”)

In the last few decades we’ve either met or read about women – real women, not fictional characters – named Christopher, Sean, Elliot, Drew, Michael, Glenn, Jordan, Morgan, Lionel, Madison, and Howard (Anne Rice’s original name).

We’re not counting feminized versions of male names, like Michaela, Morgana, Raye, and Jamie. Nor are we counting boyish-sounding names that are actually short for feminine ones, like Sam (short for Samantha), Alex (for Alexandra), Fred (for Fredericka), or Stevie (for Stephanie).

It’s pretty obvious why this doesn’t work the other way around, with little boys being given girls’ names. As a culture, we generally discourage “girlishness” in little boys, but  think tomboyishness is cute in little girls. 

And these days, with people going out of their way to find unusual names for babies, it seems inevitable that parents of girls would give them boys’ names in an attempt to be trendy. Well, trends come and go. 

In Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, the tomboyish character Jo March is really Josephine but hates her name.

And the boy next door is Theodore Laurence, but he doesn’t like Theodore because “the fellows called me Dora.”

So instead, he calls himself “Laurie,” which was a common 19th-century boys’ nickname for Laurence. He would never have chosen that name today.

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

English language Uncategorized

Eponymous, redux

Q: I’ve always thought eponymous referred to someone for whom something is named. But I recently noticed that writers from first-rate sources, including the NY Times, use it as well to refer to something named for someone. The Times, for example, has referred to Mayor Bloomberg’s “eponymous financial information company.” So, am I wrong?

A: Your original instinct was right – or at least it originally was.

Traditionally, the adjective “eponymous” has referred to the person something is named for. So, for example, Hamlet is the eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

The corresponding noun, “eponym,” has traditionally meant someone who gives his or her name to something. So Hamlet (the character, not the play) is an eponym.

But in modern English, these words have dual meanings. An “eponym” can be either the name giver (William Penn, for instance) or the name given (Pennsylvania). Similarly, “eponymous” can modify either one.

As Merriam-Webster online explains, “we can speak of ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan Show’ as well as ‘the eponymous Ed Sullivan.’ ” British usage has also shifted. Here’s Cambridge Dictionaries online: “An eponymous character in a play, book, etc. has the same name as the title.”

Both “eponym” and “eponymous” were adopted into English in the mid-19th century. The earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary come from the same book, George Grote’s A History of Greece (1846).

Here are the passages cited: “The eponymous personage from whom the community derive their name” and “Pelops is the eponym or name-giver of the Peloponnesus.”

The words have their source in the Greek eponymos, from epi (“upon”) and onoma (“name”).

As we mentioned, historically both “eponym” and “eponymous” have referred to the source (Mayor Bloomberg, for example), not to what’s named after it (Bloomberg L.P.). And this was true until relatively recently.

Our 1956 printing of the unabridged second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (sometimes called Web II) has the traditional definitions.

But six decades later, “eponym” and ”eponymous” work both ways; they can refer not only to the namer but also to the named.

When we wrote about “eponymous” on our blog a couple of years ago, we took the traditional view and noted that it was becoming overused (it still is!).

When words are overused, they’re often used more loosely. And when that happens, their meanings become wider and lexicographers change the definitions we see in dictionaries.

Given the popularity of “eponymous,” its evolution was probably inevitable.

As a result, we can no longer fault Times reporters who write things like “Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of an eponymous financial information company,” or “Max Protetch, who has run an eponymous gallery in Manhattan for nearly 40 years.”

A generation ago, copy editors would have corrected those passages to make the founders eponymous, not the businesses. But no more.

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

English language Uncategorized

Bells, bats, and belfries

Q: I enjoyed Origins of the Specious, but my enjoyment was tempered by the omission of “belfry.” Is it derived from the word “bell” or is that just one more etymology that’s too good to be true?

A: We omitted quite a few language myths from Origins of the Specious. We had to draw the line somewhere, and unfortunately, “belfry” ended up on the cutting-room floor.

But we’re glad you’ve asked us about it. The belief that “belfry” has something to do with bells is one of Pat’s favorite myths. And we now find that it didn’t get into the blog either. So here it is! 

What comes to mind when you hear the word “belfry”? Bats and bells, probably. That’s where bats hang out, and that’s where bells ring.

It’s reasonable to conclude that the origin of “belfry” had something to do with bells. But you shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Linguists believe the word ultimately comes from the prehistoric Germanic bergfrid, meaning a place of shelter. But the word entered English in the 12th century via the Old French berfrei, a siege tower. No bells here.

For the first few hundred years, the word was spelled all sorts of ways in English (“berefrei,” “berfrey”, “barfray,” etc.), and it meant a siege tower, a movable structure used to protect attackers besieging a fortification.

The word wasn’t used for a bell tower until 1440, about the same time the first “r” in the spellings became an “l” (“belfray,” “belfroy,” “belfrie,” and finally “belfry”).

The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary say the “bel” spelling was undoubtedly popularized by the use of the term for a bell tower.

But let’s not leave the bats hanging. For all we know, bats have taken up residence in belfries for hundreds of years. The expression “bats in the belfry,” though, comes from another meaning of “belfry.”

In the early 1900s, “belfry” was a slang expression for someone’s head. To have “bats in the belfry” was to be nuts – in other words, batty.

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

English language Uncategorized

How much is a few?

Q: I grew up believing that a “few” was three and a “couple” was two. But I just looked them up and found no mention of three in the definitions of “few,” and “more than two” as a meaning of “couple.” Can you give these words a firm meaning? I don’t like it that a word can mean different things to different people.

A: When someone asks you to lend him “a few dollars,” he could mean almost any amount. And when he says he’ll repay you in “a couple of days,” don’t mark a date on your calendar. 

Your question can’t be answered definitively, because “few” is ambiguous as far as its specific number, and “couple” can also be inexact.

Let’s begin with “few.” It was first seen in written English back as the 800s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. From the beginning, it has meant “not many” or “amounting to a small number.”

When “few” appears without a preceding word like “a” or “some,” the OED says, it implies the opposite of “many.”

But in phrases like “a few” or “some few,” according to the dictionary, it implies the opposite of “none at all.”

As examples of the two usages, the OED cites these constructions: “few, or perhaps none,” and “a few, or perhaps many.”

There are several idiomatic variations on this theme. “A good few” means “a fair number,” and “quite a few” and “not a few” both mean “a considerable number.”

But to make a long story short, “few” has never been restricted to meaning three.

Now on to “couple,” which is not nearly as flexible as “few.” The OED indicates that “couple” was first recorded as a verb around 1225, when it meant “to conjoin in thought or speech.”

The noun “couple” originally meant “a pair” or “a union of two.” It was derived from the Latin copula, meaning a tie or a connection, and was first recorded in writing about 1300 in reference to a man and woman united in marriage.

But lest this seem too romantic, we should mention that at the same time, the verb “couple” meant to “yoke,” as in to connect a horse to a cart.

And the noun was used shortly thereafter to mean two animals of the opposite sex (c. 1325) and a brace holding two hounds together (c. 1340).

By the late 14th century, “couple” (generally followed by “of”) was being used to mean two of anything. The OED has no entries that would define “couple” as meaning other than two. But many standard dictionaries and usage guides do.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says that while “couple” has traditionally meant a pair, “in some uses, the precise number is vague. Essentially, it’s equivalent to a few or several. In informal contexts this usage is quite common and unexceptionable.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines this sense of the word as “an indefinite small number” or “few.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes  the definition “a few; several” as “informal,” but goes on to say this:

“Modern critics have sometimes maintained that a couple of is too inexact to be appropriate in formal writing. But the inexactitude of a couple of may serve a useful purpose, suggesting that the writer is indifferent to the precise number of items involved. Thus the sentence She lives only a couple of miles away implies not only that the distance is short but that its exact measure is unimportant. This usage should be considered unobjectionable on all levels of style.”

We mentioned above that “couple” is generally followed by “of.” If you’d like to read more about this, we had a blog item a while back about whether the “of” is really necessary.

The posting cites this comment from American Heritage: “The of in the phrase a couple of is often dropped in speech, but this omission is usually considered a mistake, especially in formal contexts.”

Although three-fourths of the American Heritage Usage Panel found “a couple books” unacceptable, a fifth of the panel said it was OK in informal speech and writing.

In case you’re interested, we once wrote about another inexact term, “several.” Like “few” and “couple,” you can’t pin “several” down. In other words, it all depends.

We’re sorry if the inexactness of this answer disappoints you. But thanks for raising an interesting subject.

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

English language Uncategorized

Via and via not

Q: Pat says in Woe Is I that “via” means “by way of,” not “by means of,” but I often see it used in the latter sense. Is this an example of the language changing?

A: We had a blog item about “via” a few years ago, but English does indeed change and it’s probably time for an update.

In fact, Pat will be revising the entry on “via” in the third edition of Woe Is I when the paperback comes out this summer.

The traditional meaning of the preposition “via” is “by way of,” but dictionaries now accept “by means of” in the sense of “through the medium of” or “by the agency of.”

That’s why we can correctly say something was sent “via fax” or “via FedEx” – that is, through the medium of fax transmission or by the agency of Federal Express.

At the root of these meanings is the Latin word via, which means “road.” (In English, the first syllable can rhyme with either “why” or “we.”)

When “via” entered English in the late 18th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, it meant “by way of; by a route passing through.”

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, “via” was used in this limited travel sense. Merriam-Webster’s gives the following example: “We traveled from Boston to Philadelphia via New York City.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, according to the usage guide, the preposition “began to take on extended meanings” and refer to “the means of travel rather than the route taken.”

For example, “We traveled from St. Louis to Chicago via rail” or “The trip would have taken half the time via air.”

Around the same time, “via” began being used to mean “through the medium of” or “by the agency of” in contexts that had nothing to do with travel.

Examples: “She spoke to her mother via telephone” and “The message was sent via telegraph.”

These new usages caught on quickly, according to Merriam-Webster’s, despite criticism from language authorities who were aware of the word’s Latin roots.

“If you use via in any but the original sense,” M-W says, “you still run the risk of ruffling a few feathers, but you will be in good company.”

The usage guide goes on to cite published examples of the looser usage from the works of  E. B. White, John Updike, and Norman Mailer.

We’re comfortable using “via” in all the senses mentioned above. For now, though, we wouldn’t extend its use beyond those. But English is a living language, and other senses of the word may one day become acceptable.

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

English language Uncategorized

Hyphenated English

Q: I rather prefer “hyphened” to “hyphenated.” Any thoughts?

A: Either one is fine, so use whichever you prefer. The more common adjective is “hyphenated,” but “hyphened” is also used.

Similarly, the usual verb is  “hyphenate,” although “hyphen” is also used as a verb.

The noun “hyphen” was first recorded in English around 1620. It was adopted from the late Latin hyphen, which in turn comes from the Greek hyphen. (The Greek letters are sometimes seen in English as huphen.)

In Greek, the word (formed of hypo plus hen) means “under one.”

Greek grammarians used their hyphen, a bowl-shaped mark resembling a tie in music notation, underneath a compound to show that it wasn’t two separate words.

The verbs came into English in the 19th century: first “hyphen” (1814), then “hyphenize” (1869), and finally “hyphenate” (1892).

The adjective forms are the seldom-seen “hyphenic” (1851), along with the more common  “hyphenated” (1852) and “hyphened,” which are participial adjectives formed from two of the verbs. 

The OED doesn’t have any citations for “hyphened” as an adjective, but Henry and Francis Fowler used it that way in their book The King’s English (1906).

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

English language Uncategorized

Dwindle, peak, and pine

Q: In a screenplay I’m working on, an older, Southern man tells another he looks peaked. Apart from having to think hard about whether the second syllable should be pronounced – script readers need help – I wonder about the origin of the word. Is it a regional term or just something an older person might say?

A: When the adjective “peaked” means sickly, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), it’s pronounced as two syllables, accented on the first: PEE-kid.

However, American Heritage says the adjective can be pronounced as either one syllable (PEEKT) or two (PEE-kid) when it means ending in a peak or pointed.

Oddly, the Oxford English Dictionary says the word in its sickly sense, which it dates from 1809, is pronounced as one syllable in both the US and the UK.

But it’s clear from spellings in some of the citations in the OED that the writers intended a two-syllable pronunciation. Here are a few examples:

1836, from Thomas C. Haliburton’s novel The Clockmaker: “I am dreadful sorry, says I, to see you … lookin so peecked.”

1860, from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s The Professor at the Breakfast-table: “He looks peakeder than ever.”

1914, from R. B. Cunninghame-Graham’s Scottish Stories: “It seemed as if my aunt might have gone on for ever, getting a little dryer and her face more peakit, as the years went by.”

A much earlier adjective with the same meaning, “peaking,” was first recorded in the early 1600s. And two more came at around the same time as “peaked”:  “peaky,” from 1821, and “peakish,” from 1836. 

The OED says “peaked” (which isn’t labeled as a regionalism, by the way) is apparently derived from an old verb “peak,” meaning “to flag or fail in health and spirits; to languish, waste away; to become sickly or emaciated.” 

This old verb, which dates from around 1580, seems to be unrelated to our more familiar verb “peak,” meaning to reach a peak of performance or to be formed into a peak.

The “sickly” verb, whose origin is unknown, is rarely heard today, except in this Shakespearean phrase intoned by one of the witches in Macbeth: “Wearie Sev’nights, nine times nine, / Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.”

Shakespeare’s phrase has been much quoted and paraphrased over the years, as in this 1995 excerpt from Opera News: “The drama component … quickly dwindled, peaked and pined.”

It appears in a poem by Coleridge (“Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!”), and it even shows up in a verse of the song “Clementine”:

“Then the miner, forty-niner, / Soon began to peak and pine. / Thought he oughter join his daughter, / Now he’s with his Clementine.”

If you’d like to read more about words with pronounced “ed” endings, we had a recent blog entry about the subject. The adjective “peaked” is one of the words we discussed.

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

English language Uncategorized

Lady Catherine’s condescension

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you describe the French attitude toward Americans by using the word “condescension” in its modern English sense, a superior attitude toward inferiors. As I’m sure you know, the word did not always refer to patronizing behavior.

A: You’re right – “condescension” is a wonderful example of the changes in our changeable language. 

As every Jane Austen fan knows, the meaning of “condescension” has evolved quite a bit over the years.

In Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mr. Collins describes Lady Catherine de Bourgh this way: “I need not say you will be delighted with her. She is all affability and condescension.”

These days, we don’t like condescending people, but condescension was a virtue in Mr. Collins’s eyes. He meant that Lady Catherine was capable of laying aside the privileges of rank and being nice to her social inferiors. 

This sense of the verb “condescend,” as well as the noun “condescension,” was first used in the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And in Mr. Collins’s day, people generally weren’t offended when respected superiors condescended to them.  

But the verb did not originally have this feudal, “noblesse oblige” flavor. At first, to “condescend”  (literally, to step down with) was to make concessions in one way or another. Today, we might say something like to “meet halfway.”

The word comes from the Latin con (“with”) and descendere (“go down”).

In medieval Latin, the word meant “to be complaisant or compliant, to accede to any one’s opinion,” the OED says.

The word was adopted into English from the French condescendre, meaning “to come down from one’s rights or claims, to yield consent, acquiesce.”  

The verb was first recorded in English in 1340, when to “condescend” was to yield, to give way deferentially, or to be accommodating.

From the 14th until well into the 18th centuries, the word was used in the sense of to consent, comply, or agree. These original meanings are now labeled obscure by the OED.

Mr. Collins’s uses of the verb “condescend” and the noun “condescension” are still alive and well. But they have negative connotations in our more democratic times.

By its very nature, condescension now implies that the recipient is inferior and is being patronized.

This negative sense was beginning to make itself felt even around Austen’s time, according to citations in the OED.

Samuel Johnson wrote in an essay in The Rambler (1752): “My old friend receiving me with all the insolence of condescension.”

And Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in English Traits (1856): “With the most provoking air of condescension.” 

Jane Austen may have felt this as well. Her character Mr. Collins is a slavish boot-polisher. And Lady Catherine is not a nice woman. She’s pompous and rude, far from courteous or gracious in her “condescension.”

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