Etymology Grammar Usage

Impact zone

Q: It’s probably technically correct to say “make an impact,” but it sounds more childish to me than saying “have an impact.”  Any thoughts?

A: A check of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that both “make an impact” and “have an impact” are used, but the “make” versions far outnumber the “haves.” To tell you the truth, we don’t see much difference between them.

Here are examples of each, from British newspapers and magazines:

1958, “it is the lighting which makes the great impact”;

1965, “you are not going to make a significant impact on growth, though you may make an impact in the charitable sense”;

1966, “What has had an impact on food distributors”;

1969, “He made such an impact on me that his memory will forever remain fresh in my mind.”

These citations appear under the OED’s entry for the noun “impact” in its usual modern meaning, a sense of the word that dates back to 1817:

“Now commonly the effective action of one thing or person upon another; the effect of such action; influence; impression. Esp. in phr. to make an impact (on).”

Many people complain about the verb “impact,” a usage that grew out of this 19th-century sense of the noun. In case you’re interested, we recently wrote a blog entry about the “verbing” of nouns like “impact.”

The original verb “impact,” the OED says, actually goes back more than 400 years. It was modeled after the past participle “impacted,” meaning packed in (as in “an impacted wisdom tooth”).

But two more recent senses of the verb came along only in the 20th century, and these verbs were modeled after uses of the noun that showed up in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1916, according to OED citations, writers first used the verb to mean “to come forcibly into contact with a (larger) body or surface,” as when an asteroid “impacts” on or against a planet.

And in 1935, the OED citations show, people began using the verb in the figurative sense of “to have a (pronounced) effect on.

We don’t care for this figurative usage, but we suspect that it’s here to stay.

Check out our books about the English language


Are armpits “axillae” or “axillas”?

Q: I’m a physician who frequently dictates reports with medical terms of Latin origin like “axilla” and “hernia.” Since none of us are Latin scholars these days, would it be acceptable to use Anglicized plurals: “axillas,” “hernias,” etc.?

A: Feel free to use the Anglicized plurals of the two words you mention.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says “axilla” has two plurals in English. You may correctly use either the Latinate “axillae” or the Anglicized “axillas.”

The variants are joined by “or,” which the dictionary says means that “the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants.”

“Both are standard,” M-W adds, “and either one may be used according to personal inclination.”

“Hernia” has two plurals as well: “hernias” and “herniae,” also joined by “or” in Merriam-Webster’s. But here, “hernias” has a slight edge.

As M-W explains: “If two variants joined by or are out of alphabetical order, they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second.”

As for other medical terms derived from Latin or Greek words, our advice is to check a recent dictionary.

In English, the plurals of these classical words tend to become Anglicized over time, which is a good reason for keeping your dictionary up to date.

Check out our books about the English language


Should you turn off your grammar checker?

Q: Pat has said on WNYC that she disables her grammar checker because it gives so much bad advice. I wonder if you could expand on this. I generally find my grammar checker to be more of a help than a hindrance.

A: In the new third edition of Pat’s grammar guide Woe Is I, she says her spell checker has been a helpful (though erratic) friend, but grammar check “ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.”

To make her point about the grammar software, she writes of testing it with this sentence: “After peeing on the rug, Paris scolded her Chihuahua.”

No, grammar check didn’t raise an eyebrow!

Puzzled? In the sentence as written, Paris, not the Chihuahua, is the guilty party. This is an example of a dangler, a common problem involving syntax, or word order.

After getting your question, we turned on the grammar-checking function in Microsoft Word and took it for another test drive. The news isn’t good.

Here’s a selection of some screwed-up sentences that got passing grades:

Those gorgeous Niagara Falls is beautiful. (It should be “that,” not “those.”)

That dress makes you look as an elephant. (It’s “like,” not “as.”)

John looked at me and runs away. (No, “ran away.”)

Effective marketing of brands are difficult. (It should be “is difficult.”)

Gates are at war with Jobs. (Make it “is at war.”)

This is the friend whom I said wanted to meet you. (It’s “who,” not “whom.”)

However you operate it, the things works. (No, “the thing works.”)

None of them is here. (It’s “are here.”)

They don’t admit that, they’re wrong. (No comma, please.)

Everybody has their own seat. (No, “their” isn’t ready for prime time yet.)

In a nutshell, it’s not very good at detecting problems with sequential tenses, subject-verb agreement, punctuation, and so on.

Need we say more?

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Next question, please!

Q: What is the proper use of the word “next”? It’s my understanding that “next item” and “next two items” are correct, but “next items” is wrong. Also, what are the best references I can get to answer usage questions like this one?

A: We can’t find any prohibitions against constructions like “The next days were nightmarish,” or “We skipped the next courses” or “The next chapters were hair-raising.”

The word “next” doesn’t always mean the single thing or person in immediate succession. It’s often used with a plural noun.

Normally, phrases with “next” plus a plural noun are further modified with words like “two” or “few” or “several.”

However, we don’t see anything wrong with omitting these extra modifiers if preciseness isn’t important and the meaning is clear in context.

For example: “The views were good in rows one and two, but rotten in the next rows.”

A check of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary seems to support this view. “Next” before an unmodified plural noun can often be found in old writings where, for example, “next” means “lying nearest in place or position.” 

Here’s a biblical quotation from 1384: “Go we in to the nexte townes and citees.” And John Bellenden’s 1533 translation of  Livy’s History of Rome has the phrase: “the nixt montanis” (“the next mountains”).

There are also many historical references in which “next” means simply nearby or close: “next men,”  “next inhabiters,”  “next enemies,” “next friends,” “next dwellers,” and so on.

So much for correctness and historical precedent.

In some cases, though, a phrase like “the next days” or “the next chapters” will make the reader or listener ask, “The next how many?” So an extra modifier might be a welcome addition.

As for your other question, you might try Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. It’s in paperback, and well worth having. The OED is also wonderful, but a yearly subscription to the online edition is pretty expensive.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Collective bargaining

Q: Please tell me which verb is correct in this sentence: “Ninety percent of the team is/are men.” The plural “are” sounds correct, but “team” is singular.

A: Our choice is “Ninety percent of the team are men.” Here’s why.

“Percent” is used with both singular and plural verbs. It usually takes a plural verb when followed by “of” plus a plural noun, and takes a singular verb when followed by “of” plus a singular noun.

Example: “Sixty percent of the cookies were eaten, but only twenty percent of the milk was drunk.”

With your sentence, the question is whether the noun “team” should be treated as singular or plural. This isn’t a black-and-white question!

“Team” is a collective noun: a singular noun that stands for a number of people or things that form a group.

A collective noun takes either a singular or a plural verb, depending on whether you’re talking about the group as a unit (singular) or the individuals (plural).

In this case, the tip-off that we’re talking about individuals is the word “men,” a plural noun.

So we’re talking here about the players who make up the team, not the group as a single unit. This calls for a plural verb: “Ninety percent of the team are men.”

A similar case can be made for the noun “band.” Like “team,” it’s a singular collective noun. But we would say, “Fifty percent of the band are vocalists.”

The singular verb “is” would be dissonant here because the plural “vocalists” indicates that we’re talking about the members of the band, not the group as a whole.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about the group as a single unit, we use a singular verb: “The team [or band] is playing in Pittsburgh.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a good explanation of all this. It says in part that collective nouns “have had the characteristics of being used with both singular and plural verbs since Middle English.”

Most of the time, nouns and their verbs agree in number: singular nouns with singular verbs, and plurals with plurals. This is what grammarians mean when they talk about “agreement.” But with collective nouns, what’s at work is “notional agreement.”

As Merriam-Webster’s says, the principle of notional agreement “is simple: when the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written blog items on other collective words, including “couple,” “majority,” and “none.”

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


On the scent of a stinky etymology

Q: Is the term “P.U.” (meaning distasteful or smelly) an abbreviation for something?

A: No, “P.U.” isn’t an abbreviation for two words beginning with “p” and “u.” The initials are merely a phonetic rendering of the exclamation people make when they smell something bad.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the exclamation has been spelled many different ways since it first showed up in 1604: “pue,” “peuh,” “peugh,” “pyoo,” and “pew.”

The word is pronounced PYOO, but it’s often stretched into two syllables for emphasis: pee-YOO.

Although the OED doesn’t list “P.U.” as one of the spellings, it seems all but certain to us that the initials represent the two-syllable pronunciation.

The OED, which uses the “pew” spelling for its entry, defines the exclamation as an expression of “contempt, disgust, or derision.”

The dictionary doesn’t specifically mention disgust caused by a bad smell, though that’s how we usually hear the exclamation used today. In fact, the most recent OED citation uses the term this way.

The quotation is from Sue Miller’s novel Family Pictures (1990), and refers to the tobacco smell in the narrator’s hair after she visits her therapist:

“Sometimes when I saw my boyfriend right afterward, he’d pull his head back from my stinky hair and say, ‘Pew: therapy!’ ”

For some reason, the latest standard dictionaries ignore humble “pew.”

But our old copy of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), printed in 1956, has it, along with the alternative spelling “peugh.” It’s defined as an interjection for conveying “disgust, as at a stench.”

And by the way, “pew” in its various guises is not to be confused with another interjection, “phew,” which also dates back to 1604 and which the OED defines as “expressing impatience, disgust, weariness, discomfort, or (now often) relief.”

Nor should we confuse it with “pooh,” first recorded in 1600 as an expression of “impatience, contempt, disdain, etc.”

However, “pooh,” is sometimes used like “pew” to show “disgust at an unpleasant smell,” as in this 2004 citation from the Guardian: “Pooh, that smells a bit off!”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics

The one and only you

Q: This one’s been bugging me FOREVER! Why do we have subject and object versions of “he” and “she,” but not of lonely “you”?

A: English did in fact once have subject and object versions of the second-person pronoun that we now know as “you.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the subject pronouns were “thou” and “ye,” and the objects were “thee” and “you.” The singulars were “thou” and “thee,” and the plurals “ye” and “you.”

Over the centuries, these four pronouns were squished together into the all-purpose “you.”

By the end of the 16th century the all-purpose “you” was firmly established as standard English, though some “thee”-ing and “thou”-ing survived, notably among the Quakers and in rural dialects.

We’ve discussed the history of all this in Origins of the Specious, our book about English language myths. We also touched on it in a blog entry about “y’all.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Pronunciation

Bean counting

Q: For years, I’ve wondered about the origin of the American pronunciation of “been” as BIN.  Do you have any historical information on this unique pronunciation of the word that British speakers pronounce as BEAN?

A: Most Americans pronounce “been” as BIN or BEN. Most speakers of British English now say BEAN, but this was not always the case.

In the past, “been” was pronounced as BIN (and probably BEN) in Britain too.

We checked an old edition of John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, published in London in 1791, and found that the usual British pronunciation of “been” at that time was BIN.

In his entry for “been,” Walker writes: “It is scarcely ever heard otherwise than as the noun bin, a repository for corn or wine.”

In English Spelling and Spelling Reform (1909), Thomas R. Lounsbury, a professor of English at Yale, writes that British speakers in the 19th century began pronouncing “been” as BEAN primarily because of the word’s spelling.

“There is little question—there is, indeed, no question—that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and even much later, the digraph ee in this word had in cultivated speech the sound of short i,” Lounsbury says. (The term “digraph” refers to two successive letters with a single sound.)

He adds that  the pronunciation of “been” to rhyme with “seen” was sometimes heard, but “it was then so limited in use that orthoepists hardly thought it worth while to recognize its existence.” (Orthoepy is the study of pronunciation.)

Lounsbury goes on to say that the 18th century’s two leading authorities on orthoepy, John Walker and Thomas Sheridan, “admitted no pronunciation of been save that which made it ryme with sin.”

“Yet,” Lounsbury writes, “with no support from the most prominent lexical authorities, the pronunciation of been to ryme with seen instead of sin, steadily gained ground in England during the last [the 19th] century. There it seems to have become finally the prevalent one.”

The past participle “been” has been spelled many ways over the years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, including beon, ben, beyn, buen, bene, byn, been, and bin.

Historically, the spellings of English words often reflect the pronunciations of the day. From the various spellings of “been” in the OED, it appears that the pronunciations have fluctuated over the centuries, with long e sounds and short i or e sounds often trading places.

The BEN pronunciation apparently first showed up in the 1300s, while BEAN and BIN appeared in the 1500s. However, BIN seems to have been the dominant pronunciation from the 1500s well into the 1800s.

In the case of “been,” Americans preserved two old British pronunciations that were in popular use before the Revolution.

Something similar happened with another word, “creek.”

John S. Kenyon, in his book American Pronunciation (10th ed., 1966), says “creek” has historically had multiple pronunciations in British English, with the ee pronounced as either a long e or a short i.

The British have retained only the long-e version, KREEK, while Americans have preserved both KREEK and KRIK.

Although many Americans frown on KRIK, US dictionaries list the two pronunciations as standard.

As Kenyon says, the prejudice against KRIK “is due to ignorance of actual historical usage and to reverence for the spelling.” 

Check out our books about the English language


Questionable punctuation?

Q: I recently read this in an online sports column: “The biggest question is just how valuable can he be.” I’m guessing that the author ended it with a period because the sentence as a whole is a statement, even though it contains a question. However, it seems awkward to me.

A: The writer probably intends the sentence to be an indirect question, not a direct one, and an indirect question doesn’t need a question mark.

But in that case we would have expected him to write “he can be” instead of “can he be.” The usual syntax for this kind of construction is “The biggest question is just how valuable he can be.” 

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says an indirect question “never takes a question mark” and “takes no comma” (pages 259 and 255).

The Chicago Manual gives some examples of indirect questions, including these: “How the two could be reconciled was the question on everyone’s mind.” And, “What to do next is the question.”

As for the sentence you’ve asked about, it can be written (as we noted above) in a way that would require a question mark: “The biggest question is, just how valuable can he be?”

Note the use of the comma. The Chicago Manual explains that “a direct question included within another sentence is usually preceded by a comma; it need not begin with a capital letter.”

The style manual gives this example: “Suddenly he asked himself, where am I headed?”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written before on the blog about punctuating questions within questions.

Check out our books about the English language


Does “functionality” have a function?

Q: I work as a technical writer at a software development company and I am plagued by the word “functionality,” as in “We are happy to expand the functionality of your program.” Why would I use “functionality” when I could use “function” or “features”?

A: In many cases, as you point out, the noun “functionality” is just a fancy way of saying “function” or “features.”

But for nearly a century and a half, “functionality” has had another meaning: the quality of being functional – that is, able to perform a function.

The Oxford English Dictionary has this citation from an 1871 book on philology: “The old native Latin, whose vitality and functionality was all but purely flectional.” (The word “flectional” refers to grammatical forms that reflect tense, case, number, and so on.)

In the computer age, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), “functionality” has also come to mean a useful function in a computer application or program.

So “functionality” can be a handy word if you’re emphasizing the usability or workability of something, but there are other handy words, including “usability” and “workability” and “handiness.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Pomp and circumstances

Q: Is it OK to say “under certain circumstances”? Or should it be “in certain circumstances”?

A: Both “under the circumstances” and “in the circumstances” are correct (it’s irrelevant whether you use “certain” instead of “the”). 

The use of “in” seems to be more common among speakers of  British English, but both “in” and “under” are used by Americans, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

M-W says objections to “under the circumstances” were first raised in 1824, based on etymological grounds.

Since circum means “round” or “around” in Latin, the critics said, “under” is inappropriate.

M-W calls this an “etymological fallacy,” noting that back in the 1920s Henry Fowler dismissed the critics’ reasoning as “puerile.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t get into that argument, but it has an opinion about when each preposition is appropriate: “Mere situation is expressed by ‘in the circumstances,’ action affected is performed ‘under the circumstances.’ ”

Here are a few of the OED’s citations:

1665, from a sermon of Robert South: “Every Hypocrite … under the same Circumstances would have infallibly treated Him with the same Barbarity.”

1856, from James A. Froude’s History of England: “Who found himself in circumstances to which he was unequal.”

1862, from an essay by John Ruskin: “The desire to obtain the money will, under certain circumstances, stimulate industry.”

Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer, agrees with the OED. Both usages are correct, he says, though there’s a difference.

In the circumstances refers merely to existing conditions, and implies a continuing state of affairs,” Bernstein writes.

But, he says, “under the circumstances refers to conditions that impel or inhibit action, and implies a transient situation.” 

The differentiation seems reasonable, but we strongly doubt whether most people observe it today or would even notice it. 

By the way, “in” and “under” are by no means the only prepositions that can properly be used with “circumstances.” Many others could be right, depending on the circumstances.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

As long as he needs me

Q: Am I right or wrong that “so long as” should actually be “as long as”? After all, Nancy sings “As long as he needs me” in the musical Oliver!

A: “So long as” and “as long as” are both correct.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry for “long” as an adverb, says “so (or as) long as” is “often nearly equivalent to ‘provided that,’ ‘if only.’ ”

In addition, the OED says the elliptical phrase “long as” is short for “so (or as) long as.

An example can be found in Wordsworth’s poem “To a Small Celandine” (1802): “Long as there’s a sun that sets / Primroses will have their glory.”

There’s a very interesting history behind “so” and “as,” if you’re game for a lengthy aside. Both come from Old English words that go back more than a thousand years.

“So” was originally swa (first recorded circa 700), and “as” was ealswa or allswa (recorded sometime before 950), which meant “all so,” “wholly so,” or “quite so.” You might say that “as” began as an intensified form of “so.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains the development of “as” over the years this way:

“Through weakening of force and accent allswa gradually became alsa, alse, als, ase, finally being reduced to as. Historically as is equivalent to so and has all the relational uses of so, the differences being largely idiomatic.”

Before the intensified form ealswa or allswa became common, the Old English phrase swa lange swa (literally “so long so”) was used.

It’s been recorded in many sources, including The Blickling Homilies, written in 971. Today, swa lange swa would be translated “so long as” or “as long as.”

To use a modern example in a comparative construction, today we might say that a child has hair “as bright as gold.” The Old English was swa beorht swa gold (literally, “so bright so gold”).

The OED, in its entry for the adverb “so,” has a section on the “so … as” construction, which it defines as meaning “to the same extent, in the same degree, as.” 

Citations in writing go back to before the year 1225 for “so … as” in negative comparisons. Quoted examples include “not so terrible as” … “never so useful as” … “nowhere so happy as.” 

And citations go back to 1390 for “so … as” (with a meaning identical to “as … as”) in affirmative comparisons. Quoted examples include “so mighty as” … “so good as” … “so frivolous as” … “so often as.”

We hope that we haven’t been so verbose as to turn you off! But here’s another aside, a brief one this time.

Because the phrase “so … as” is common in negative constructions, many people think it’s wrong to use “as … as” in the negative. This is a popular myth that we’ve written about on the blog.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Are you a Luddite if you’re not on Twitter?

Q: David Vladeck, head of the US Bureau of Consumer Protection, has described himself as “essentially a Luddite” who isn’t on Facebook or Twitter. I thought a Luddite was someone opposed to technological change, but now it’s apparently someone who isn’t technologically with it. What do you think?

A: The term “Luddite” has taken on new life in the computer age. Interestingly, the word was born in another period of technological upheaval – the Industrial Revolution.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it originally meant “a member of an organized band of English mechanics and their friends, who (1811-16) set themselves to destroy manufacturing machinery in the midlands and north of England.”

The word is capitalized because it’s said to be based on a proper name, Ned Lud or Ludd. Who was he? The history is unclear, but the OED cites a story in George Pellew’s Life of Lord Sidmouth (1847).

Ned Lud, a “person of weak intellect who lived in a Leicestershire village about 1779,” supposedly rushed into a hosiery-maker’s house “in a fit of insane rage” and destroyed two frames used to knit stockings.

As a result, so the story goes, “the saying ‘Lud must have been here’ came to be used throughout the hosiery districts when a stocking-frame had undergone extraordinary damage.”

The OED’s verdict? “The story lacks confirmation.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the use of the word in print is from The Annual Register (1811), a yearly British publication that recorded and commented on great events in history:

“The rioters assumed the name of Luddites and acted under the authority of an imaginary Captain Ludd.”

The noun Luddism (defined as “the practice of the Luddites”) first appeared in The Annual Register the following year: “Several persons have been apprehended [at Huddersfield] on various charges of Luddism.”

Today, a “Luddite” is more generally defined as “one who opposes the introduction of new technology, esp. into a place of work,” the OED says. And “Luddism” is “intense dislike of or opposition to technological innovation.”

But those definitions are from the OED’s second edition (1989) and have no citations more recent than 1986.

That’s practically the Dark Ages from a technological point of view, long before iPhones, Facebook, ebooks, iPads, Twitter, and all the rest.  

It’s been our observation that “Luddite” and “Luddism” don’t have such bitter connotations anymore.

Many people who call themselves “Luddites” these days do so humorously, and merely mean they aren’t on the cutting edge of technology or, as you say, with it. 

And here’s an aside. At more than 250 years old, The Annual Register is still in business and is now available online. Nothing Luddite about it.

Check out our books about the English language

Spelling Usage

It’s definitely not “definately”

Q: A recent comment on the Web said journalists should “definately” be more careful about their English. This misspelling is ubiquitous, yet every time I see it I am thrown into mental gymnastics to assure myself it is not supposed to be “defiantly.”

A: Yes, “definately” is a very common error. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), lists 104 of what he sees as the most commonly misspelled words in English, and “definitely” is one of them.

You’re not alone in puzzling over whether “definately” may sometimes be a misspelling of “defiantly,” rather than “definitely.”

It seems that some older spell-checkers have suggested “defiantly” as the proper spelling of “definately.” As a result, you can find many inappropriate appearances of “defiantly” in writing.

In fact, there’s even a term, the Cupertino effect, for this penchant of spell-checkers to recommend inappropriate words to replace those that are misspelled or unrecognized.

The term refers to the inclination of some ancient spell-checkers to change “cooperation” (which used to be hyphenated) to “Cupertino” (the home of Apple).

As for “definately,” lots of people have noticed this error. Here’s a passage from a recent article by Lori Fradkin, a former copy editor at New York magazine, in which she describes her inability to stop spotting errors.

“I know it’s all a little once-a-copy-editor-always-a-copy-editor, but I can’t help it if I think unnecessary quotes are funny, as if signs are trying to be ironic. Or if I’m turned off by guys who spell it ‘definately.’ I don’t sit around and diagram sentences for fun or keep a dog-eared copy of Strunk & White on my nightstand. But I continue to empathize with other copy editors when I spot typos in their publications because I’ve definitely been there.”

So have we! (We were once copy editors.)

PS: The article that we cited is on the AWL, a New York-based website whose motto (“intended with some humor”) is “Be Less Stupid.” (The website is named after that little thingy one uses to punch holes.)

Check out our books about the English language

English language

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.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

A “talking points” memo

Q: I was a bit surprised to come across “talking points” in Sinclair Lewis’s 1917 novel The Job. I assumed the phrase was much more recent. It’s used in the sense of “talking points” for making a real-estate sale. Interested?

A: Yes, the phrase “talking points” has been around for quite a while. In fact, it appears twice in The Job. Earlier in the novel, a salesman refers to the “talking points for selling my trade.”

And Lewis also used it in his 1922 novel Babbitt in commenting on “the virtue of employing a broker who had Vision and who understood Talking Points.”

However, people were presenting their “talking points” in business and politics long before Lewis used the expression.

William Safire, in an On Language column in the New York Times in 2005, traced the phrase back to the Civil War era when it referred to items in a sales pitch.

In an 1862 issue of the Indiana Democrat, the Finkle and Lyon Sewing Machine Company plugged the quality of its products by saying: “We prefer such a reputation to one based on mere ‘talking points,’ as they are technically called in the trade.”

The same newspaper was cited by Safire for what appears to be the earliest published use of the phrase in a political sense.

In a 1901 issue, the Indiana Democrat quoted President Theodore Roosevelt as advising Republican leaders that “while reciprocity is excellent as ‘a talking point’ it will not ‘go’ with the Senate.”

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Usage

Title characters

Q: I’m confused about when to capitalize the definite article in titles. I see it all sorts of ways in all sorts of publications. Help!

A: No matter where “the” appears in a sentence, it should be capitalized at the beginning of the title of a work (book, play, movie, opera, and so on) if it’s part of the title.

Examples: “I lent him my copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” … “His favorite painting is The Last Supper” … “She consulted The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.”

But if “the” is not part of the title, it’s lowercase: “We get much of our  information from the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Names of newspapers and periodicals often have “the” as part of their titles, but capitalization styles vary. 

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) recommends lowercasing “the” before the name of a newspaper or magazine, even if that publication has “The” as an official part of its name.

Example: “I read both the New York Times and the New Yorker.”  (The Chicago Manual also uses italics for the names of newspapers and periodicals, though we don’t on our blog.)

Some book publishers do uppercase “the” if the periodical itself does so. Example: “He reads neither The New York Times nor The New Yorker.”

We wouldn’t capitalize “the” in mid-sentence when it’s part of the name of a school or department at a university, even though academics like to do so (as in, “He’s chairman of The English Department”).

The capital “t” is unnecessary in the example above and, if you ask us, it’s sheer puffery. We’d also like to see “department” lowercased, but that’s probably too much to ask!

We’ve written before about the tendency of academics and bureaucrats to overuse capital letters (as in “the Company” or even “The Company”).

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Does this expression make you throw up?

Q: Every time I hear someone say “I threw up my hands in exasperation,” I picture him vomiting up his own limbs! This expression makes me throw up. Is there any justification for using it?

A: People have been throwing up a lot of things over the years, including their noses, their eyes, their hands, and of course their stomach contents.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the expression used in the sense of vomiting is from a 1732 book about dieting: “It is easy to judge of the Cause by the Substances which the Patient throws up.”  

But pretty soon people were throwing up their noses to a savory aroma (1746), their eyes to heaven (1880), and their hands to surrender (1887).

The first published reference in the OED to hand-throwing is from A Lady’s Ranche Life in Montana, a collection of letters by Isabel F. Randall, an Englishwoman who lived in the American West during the 1880s:

“He was suddenly aware of a horse galloping rapidly up behind him, and heard a shout: ‘Throw up your hands!’ ”

It’s understandable that an expression for surrendering to a posse would evolve into the one you’ve asked about: an expression of exasperation or hopelessness, as in “He threw up his hands and dropped the argument.” 

In fact, the verbal phrase “throw up” has meant to abandon, quit, or give up since the 17th century, well before it had anything to do with stomach-turning incidents, according to OED citations.

It’s been used in the sense of quitting, for example, in such expressions as “throw up one’s game” or “throw up one’s cards” or “throw up the sponge.”

Why a sponge? The OED says the usage comes from the practice of throwing up the sponge used to clean a boxer’s face as a signal that a prize fight is over.

But back to your question. We see nothing wrong with the expression. Sorry to disappoint you – just throw up your hands in exasperation!

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Usage

A deceptively tricky word

Q: I have a question about this sentence: “The pool of water is deceptively shallow.” Is the pool shallow or deep? It seems to me as if it could be either.

A: The word “deceptively” means “in a deceptive manner, so as to deceive,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And as it turns out, it’s a very deceptive adverb when used to modify an adjective.

Some people feel, for instance, that a man described as “deceptively tall” is actually shorter than he seems. Others think just the opposite – that he’s taller than he seems.

This makes “deceptively” an unreliable word. Is the man tall in appearance but actually short, or short in appearance but actually tall?

The OED says the adverb was first used in print by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his book Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character  (1825):

“If he use the words, Right and Obligation, he does it deceptively, and means only Compulsion, and Power.” (We’ve expanded the quotation somewhat by going to the original.)

Coleridge’s meaning is clear enough. But here’s the only other OED citation for “deceptively,” from Henry W. Bates’s The Naturalist on the River Amazons: A Record of Adventures (1863):

“Two smaller kinds, which are deceptively like the little Nemeobius Lucina.” 

Bates was talking about two Amazon butterflies that were “deceptively like” an English species. But what did he mean?

If two butterflies are “deceptively like” a third, does that mean they’re more or less like it than they seem? Bates probably meant they were so alike as to deceive an onlooker.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting usage note about “deceptively”:

“When deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear. Does the sentence The pool is deceptively shallow mean that the pool is shallower or deeper than it appears?”

When American Heritage’s Usage Panel was asked to decide, “50 percent thought the pool shallower than it appears, 32 percent thought it deeper than it appears, and 18 percent said it was impossible to judge.”

“Thus a warning notice worded in such a way would be misinterpreted by many of the people who read it, and others would be uncertain as to which sense was intended,” the dictionary adds.

So what should a writer do when faced with this deceptive adverb?

“Where the context does not make the meaning of deceptively clear,” the AH usage note says, “the sentence should be rewritten, as in The pool is shallower than it looks or The pool is shallow, despite its appearance.”

Our advice? Unless you intend to be deceptive, it’s best to avoid “deceptively” before an adjective.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Usage

A work in progress

Q: Does a language student “work with” or “work on” causative form? I prefer “on,” but some colleagues insist on “with.” It seems to me that one works “with” a person and “on” a subject of study.

A: We think “work on” or “work with” would be OK here, but surprisingly we can’t find either usage in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The two dictionaries do mention “work on” in their entries for “work,” but not in the sense you’re asking about. The only meaning given is to try to influence or persuade somebody, as in “She worked on my sympathies.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the verb “work” lists the verbal phrase “work on” in the sense you’re interested in: to make something a subject of study, occupation, literary treatment, and so on.

But (again surprisingly) we can’t find any mention in the OED’s “work” entry for “work with” used in this sense. We see examples for working with one’s head or with another person, but not with a subject.

Nevertheless, this meaning of “work with” is quite common now. We googled “work with English,” for example, and got more than 2.2 million hits. We got more than 1.2 million for the “work on” version.

This suggests that both of these usages will probably show up before long in the OED as well as in standard dictionaries like American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics

Verbal reasoning

Q: My pet peeve is the verbalization of nouns, but I’m always driving when Pat is on the Leonard Lopate Show so I haven’t had a chance to call in about it.

A: Many people get annoyed when nouns are newly “verbed.” We do a lot of groaning ourselves. We don’t like the use of “impact” as a verb, for example, and we tend to avoid it. 

But speakers of English have been legitimately turning nouns into verbs for centuries. This is how English got many of its most familiar verbs.

Would you believe that “cook” began life as a noun? We formed the verb from the noun.

By the same process, we also acquired the verbs “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” “farm,” and many more. All these verbs were adaptations of the earlier nouns. 

In English, parts of speech change their functions very readily and have since the days of Old English. This process is called “conversion,” and it accounts for much of our present-day vocabulary.

Not only do nouns get verbed, but verbs get nouned, as in these examples: “a winning run,” “a long walk,” “a constant worry,” “take a call,” “a vicious attack.” Those nouns were adapted from the earlier verbs. 

Conversion works every which way. Adverbs like “out” and “through” get converted into nouns (“he pitched three outs”), into verbs (“a gay celebrity was outed”), and into adjectives (“a through street”).  

Adjectives get converted too. You might say, for instance, that sun causes paper “to yellow” or that a process is beginning “to slow.” Both of those verbs were converted from adjectives. 

For every irritating formation (like the verbs “impact,” ”dialogue,” and “interface”) there are hundreds more that we depend on and use freely every day.

So don’t knock conversion itself. Even when the words are ugly, the process is legitimate. If you don’t like a new usage, simply avoid it. Words that aren’t used tend to disappear.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Pronunciation

Franglais speaking

Q: I am a physician who frequently attends professional meetings where the first syllable of “centimeter” is often pronounced SAWN as opposed to SEN. The former strikes me as the old syndrome of Frenchifying a word that’s English despite its Gallic origin. Am I correct?

A: Yes, you’re correct.

The word “centimeter” entered English two hundred years ago as a borrowing from the French centimètre. It means one-hundredth of a meter, and the roots of the French word are centi (a prefix for “hundred”) and mètre (“meter”).

However, “centimeter” is now an English word. There’s no reason to pronounce it as if it were foreign. We don’t pronounce “toilet” as twa-LAY.

Besides, the words “cent” and “meter” entered English many centuries before “centimeter” was adopted from French in 1801, so they were already long familiar to English speakers.

The word “cent,” ultimately from the Latin centum, was used in English to mean “hundred” before the year 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the derivative “percent” entered the language in the 1500s.

“Meter” has been an English word since at least as far back as the ninth century, according to the OED.

It comes partly from the Latin metrum (meaning poetic meter or an object used for measuring), and partly from the Greek metron (poetic meter, measure, rule, length, size).

Obviously, there was never any reason for “centimeter” to retain a French pronunciation. 

We’ve written before about the tendency of some English speakers to impose French (and even faux-French) pronunciations on what are now firmly established English words.

Take “niche,” for instance. We wrote a blog item last year about the relatively recent appearance of the Frenchified NEESH pronunciation in English.

Our book Origins of the Specious has a whole chapter on fractured French, with many examples of the peculiar lexical relations between English and French.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Punctuation Usage

Sui genitive!

Q: I have a grammar question that’s been bothering me. If we say “the Six-Day War” and “the seven-year itch,” why do we also say “the Hundred Years’ War” and “five years’ experience”? Is there a difference I’m unaware of?

A: Normally, nouns used with numbers to form adjectival phrases are singular, as in “two-inch rain,” “three-year-old boy,” “two-dollar word,” “eight-volume biography,” and “four-star restaurant.”

However, where a plural noun is used by tradition to form such a phrase, it’s generally followed by an apostrophe, as in “the Thirty Years’ War” and “the Hundred Years’ War.”

The plural followed by an apostrophe is also used in phrases like “ten dollars’ worth” or “five years’ experience” or “two days’ time.”  

Apostrophe constructions like these aren’t “possessive” in the sense of ownership; strictly speaking, they’re genitive. 

As we’ve written before on the blog, genitives involve relationships much wider than simple possession or ownership. One such relationship is measurement, as in “two weeks’ pay” or “six hours’ time” or “five years’ experience.”

Other common examples of genitives include “a summer’s day,” “for old times’ sake,” “in harm’s way,” and “at wits’ end.” (We’ve discussed “at wits’ end” on our blog as well, in case you’re interested.) None of these apostrophes indicate possession, strictly speaking. 

Where measurements are concerned, we often have a choice of modifying phrases. Let’s say we’re waiting on the tarmac for our plane to take off.

We can use either a plural noun in the genitive case (“a three hours’ wait”), or a singular noun as part of an ordinary compound adjective (“a three-hour wait”).

Either way, it’s a long wait!

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

The gold diggers of Broadway

Q: I’ve heard that the term “gold digger” originated in mining. A miner who worked in a dangerous part of the mine was paid twice the going rate but had a short life expectancy. The woman who chose to marry him was a gold digger. Is this true?

A: The term “gold digger” was originally used in a literal way to mean someone who digs for gold.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the term first cropped up in a Georgia newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, which wrote in 1830: “There are tippling shops on every hill where these gold diggers are collected.”

But the sort of “gold digger” you mean, the mercenary female kind, has only a figurative relationship with real gold mining.

And she (or rather this term for her) didn’t emerge until the early 1900s, long after the gold rushes of the 19th century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines this kind of “gold digger” (the term is sometimes hyphenated) as “a woman who associates with or marries a man solely for his wealth.”

The metaphor here is obvious. A woman who works at catching a rich man is like a miner digging for gold.

The word sleuth Barry Popik seems to have found the earliest known published use of the term in its figurative sense.

On his website The Big Apple, Popik reports finding a reference in Rex Beach’s novel The Ne’er-Do-Well, copyrighted in 1910 and published in 1911: “These people are money mad, aren’t they? Worst bunch of gold-diggers I ever saw.”

The Random House slang dictionary reports another early sighting, from a short-story collection, Beef, Iron and Wine, by Jack Lait (1915-16): “Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no gold digger.”

And the OED has another, from a play by Avery Hopwood called The Gold Diggers (1919):

“ ‘Jerry’ Lamar is one of a band of pretty little salamanders known to Broadway as ‘gold diggers,’ because they ‘dig’ for the gold of their gentlemen friends and spend it being good to their mothers and their pet dogs.”

It was probably this play (as well as the 1929 movie based on it, Gold Diggers of Broadway) that popularized the term.

As Popik points out, however, “gold digger” had been around several years before it made it to Broadway.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Was Elena Kagan a general?

Q: I’m writing about a faux pas during the hearings for Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The senators repeatedly addressed her as “general,” apparently unaware that “solicitor,” not “general,” was the important part of her title.

A: We find this usage clunky, but the solicitor general and the attorney general are routinely addressed as “general” inside the Beltway because that’s how the justices of the Supreme Court often address them.

In a May 4, 2009, interview with the National Law Journal, Kagan was asked how she felt about being addressed as “general.”

“A few more weeks, and I’ll be expecting everyone to salute me,” she said. “But seriously, I’ll tell you a story. Just after my confirmation, a member of the administrative office of the court called to ask me whether I wanted the justices to call me ‘general’ during oral argument.”

It was a “very considerate thing to give me the choice,” she said, adding that former Attorney General Janet Reno disliked being called “general.”

“But my thought basically was: the justices have been calling men SGs ‘general’ for years and years and years; the first woman SG should be called the same thing,” she concluded.

As you point out, the most important part of “solicitor general” is “solicitor.” That’s why it’s pluralized as “solicitors general.” Likewise, the plural of “attorney general” is “attorneys general.”

Interestingly, the word “general” was once the less important part of the military title, according to the language sleuth Dave Wilton.

The first general officer, he writes on his website,, was a “capteyn generall, an officer who had authority over the other captains, or commanders, in an army; in other words, the commander-in-chief.”

“This term dates to 1514 and is a lift from the French, who used the rank captain général,” Wilton says. “By 1576, the captain was being dropped from the title and superior officers were simply being addressed as general.”

One last point: the linguist Mark Liberman suggests that addressing an attorney general as “general” may have been “common practice at the state level, in some parts of the U.S., for a long time.”

Writing on the Language Log, Liberman notes that the judge in the Scopes trial in 1925 addressed the Tennessee attorney general as “general” – and out of courtesy addressed the other lawyers as “colonel.”

Check out our books about the English language


­­The fingerprints of history­

­Q: At what point did the definition of the word “fingerprint” expand from its Scotland Yard sense to include any distinctive set of characteristics that can identify something?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but the term “fingerprint” was used in a wider, figurative way BEFORE Scotland Yard began using fingerprints to identify criminals.

The first published reference for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary (from an 1859 issue of the North American Review) uses it in the literal sense of an impression made by a finger.

The citation refers to the Swiss Chapel of St. Verena, “where the finger-prints of the young maiden still remain in the rock, showing how desperately she resisted the Devil, who sought to carry her off.”

However, the next reference in the OED uses the term in a broader figurative sense.

In an 1884 article in the journal Christian World, Dr. Joseph Parker writes: “There is something about the word ‘dogma’ which seems to bear the finger-prints of the pedant or the priest.”

(We’ve gone to the originals to expand on the two OED citations above.)

The first citation in the dictionary for the use of the term in reference to a system of identification is an 1891 comment by Sir Francis Galton about his “collection of analysed finger-prints.”

A year later, Galton published the book Finger Prints, which laid out a technique for classifying fingerprints.

In 1897, Sir Edward Henry modified Galton’s system, and it was adopted by Scotland Yard in 1901.

Although the use of fingerprints for identification has been around since ancient times, fingerprinting as we think of it today didn’t develop until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first OED citation that refers to “the finger-print system of identification” is from a 1903 issue of the British newspaper the Daily Chronicle.

Check out our books about the English language


Back dating

Q: For several years, I’ve noticed the pervasive use of “back” before dates, as in “back in 1999” or “back in June” (when said in September, say, of the same year). This seems to me redundant at best and ungrammatical at worst. Your thoughts?

A: The use of the adverb “back” in the sense of “in, to, or toward a past time” is standard English, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Is this usage redundant in phrases like the ones you mention? Perhaps sometimes, but people have been backing into times past for hundreds of years.

In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-72), for example, Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, says: “I have always been in favor of a little theory: we must have Thought; else we shall be landed back in the dark ages.”

And the English poet Robert Southey used “back” in the sense of “ago” in a 1796 letter describing the skeleton of an unidentified, elephant-sized animal at a museum in Spain:

“The bones are of an extraordinary thickness, even disproportionate to its size; it was dug up a few years back at Buenos Ayres.”

So why do people like the fictional Mr. Brooke add “back” while referring to a time in the past when the word isn’t absolutely necessary?

Perhaps they feel the usage adds informality to an otherwise dry statement. Or maybe they believe it improves the rhythm of the statement.

Like any usage, though, it can be overused. Our advice to anyone who’s bugged by it: don’t use it!

Check out our books about the English language



Error checking

Q: Please help me out with this. I know one usually says a person “commits” an error. But if that error becomes the subject of legal action, might one say the person “incurs” an error?

A: One may “incur” liability for an error, but one “commits” (or, more commonly, “makes”) the error, according to standard English dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “incur” in this sense as “to become liable or subject to as a result of one’s actions.”

American Heritage says the verb “incur” can also mean to sustain something undesirable (for example, “incur heavy losses in the stock market”).

As far as we can tell, “incur” has pretty much the same meanings in or out of a courtroom. One “incurs” a penalty for committing or making an error.

The only exception we’ve come across is in techie talk (“the configuration process has incurred an error”), but this usage hasn’t made it into standard dictionaries.

Check out our books about the English language


Why are short people called shrimps?

Q: With all the news about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we’ve been hearing the word “shrimp” more than usual these days. For no particular reason (except maybe that I’m a short person), I began to wonder how “shrimp” became a metaphor for all items small. After all, while some shrimp are tiny, others are, well, jumbo – and many critters are much smaller.

A: When the word “shrimp” showed up in English in the early 1300s, it referred to Crago vulgaris (the common shrimp found along the British coast) as well as similar crustaceans, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published reference in the OED (dated 1327) is a mention in the household accounts of Edward II of three pence for “Shrimpis.”

But by the late 1300s, according to the OED, the word “shrimp” was being used to refer to “a diminutive or puny person (rarely thing). Chiefly contemptuous.”

The earliest citation for this sense of the word is from the “The Monk’s Prologue” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “We borel men been shrympes” (“borel men” are laymen).

Why, you ask, is a short person called a shrimp, rather than, say, an amoeba?

Well, one reason may be the origin of the word “shrimp” itself. The OED says it’s probably related to the Middle High German word schrimpen (to shrink up).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology traces the word back even further to ancient Indo-European roots for wrinkled up or withered.

Chambers says Chaucer’s use of the word to mean small or puny “probably came directly from the etymological sense of a shrunken creature.”

But the dictionary suggests that the modern use of “shrimp” for a small person is related more to the smallness of shrimp than to the ancient etymology of shrimpiness.

And that’s the long and short of it!

Check out our books about the English language


Me too? I too?

Q: I know someone who thinks he knows everything about English. This person says the most widely tolerated grammatical error is “Me too.” He insists it should always be “I too.” Is this true?

A: “Me” is a much misunderstood pronoun. Perhaps the most common grammatical error in English is using “I” where “me” would be correct.

For example, in a sentence like “He told John and I a story,” the pronoun should be “me,” not “I.”

In standard English, “me” is an object pronoun. “Me” is technically incorrect only when it’s being used as a nominative (or subject) pronoun – that is, when it’s the subject or implied subject of a sentence.

So “me” is impeccably correct in cases where it’s the implied object of an elliptical (or incomplete) sentence like “Me too.”

For example, if we say, “She invited us to the party,” and you respond, “Me too,” you’re using “me” correctly. “Me too” is an elliptical way of saying “[She invited] me too.” Here, “I too” would be incorrect. You’d never say “She invited I too.”

Or if we say to someone else, “Here’s a gift from us,” and you respond, “Me too,” then you’re using “me” correctly. “Me too” is an elliptical way of saying “[It’s from] me too.” Here, “I too” would be incorrect. You’d never say “It’s from I too.”

On the other hand, if we say, “We’re hungry,” and you respond, “I too,” you’re technically correct though unnaturally formal (more on that later). In this case, “I too” is an elliptical way of saying “I [am hungry] too.”

There are other kinds of constructions in which the choice of “me” and “I” in short elliptical phrases may depend on whether a subject or an object is implied. We wrote a blog item about this last year.

So much for what’s technically correct and incorrect. The truth is that few people say “I too,” and for good reason. Even when it’s correct (and often it isn’t), it’s stiff and formal sounding. 

As we’ve written before on the blog, the use of “Me too” for “I too” is an extremely common idiom and a natural development in English.

The reason is that English speakers generally choose “me” over “I” when a pronoun is the subject of an elliptical, verbless sentence, never mind what’s technically correct.

In a short reply without a verb, “I” seems unnaturally stiff to most people, including us. If it seems stiff to you too, use “Me too.”

Check out our books about the English language


Is a pamphlet a little pamph?

Q: I was lying awake the other night and wondering about the origins of “pamphlet.” I usually think of a term that ends in “let” as a smaller version of the root word: for example, “piglet.” But I’ve never heard of a pamph. Where does “pamphlet” come from?

A: We wish we could report that etymologically a pamphlet is a little pamph, just as a piglet is a little pig or a booklet is a little book. Alas, that’s not precisely the case. However, your musings aren’t far wrong. 

The word “pamphlet,” meaning a small treatise or other work consisting of pages without covers, entered English in the late 1300s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It came from the Middle French word Pamphilet, which the Oxford English Dictionary explains was the French title of an anonymous 12th-century comic love poem written in Latin: Pamphilus, seu de Amore (Pamphilus: or, On Love).

The French word is a combination of the Latin Pamphilus and the suffix et, which is used to make diminutive forms of nouns.

So the French title Pamphilet translates roughly as “little Pamphilus.” (The hero gets his name from Pamphilos, meaning “beloved of all” in Greek.)

In the Middle Ages, the poem was very popular and was widely copied and passed around in the form of a thin leaflet.

The work “was also well known in England and is mentioned or alluded to in Chaucer” and other sources, according to the OED. Hence the English word “pamphlet” became a generic term for an unbound text shorter than a book. 

The English word, the OED explains, was then “reborrowed by French … and subsequently passed into many other European languages,” including German, Italian, Swedish, and Dutch.

Check out our books about the English language


Onliest the loneliest

Q: The emcee at the old Birdland used to introduce the one and only Thelonious Monk as “the onliest Monk.” Can you tell me something about this usage? Did it originate at Birdland?

A: You won’t find “onliest” in standard English dictionaries these days, but it has a history, a very long one.

It first showed up in English hundreds of years before Pee Wee Marquette used the term to introduce Monk at the original incarnation of Birdland, which was open from 1949 to 1965 on Broadway near West 52nd Street in Manhattan.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “onliest” as the superlative form of “only,” used “with emphatic force.” Published references in the OED suggest that it wasn’t considered unusual at one time.

It first showed up in writing, as far as we know, in 1581 in Richard Mulcaster’s Positions, a book on childhood education: “It was either the onely, or the onelyest principle in learning, to learne to read Latin.”

Here are the OED’s other citations for the word:

1691, from Anthony Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses: “He was … accounted … the onliest person to be consulted about the affairs.”

before 1777, from Samuel Foote’s Trip to Calais: “It is the onliest method to keep her to one’s self.”

1890, from A Colonial Reformer, by the pseudonymous Rolf Boldrewood (T. A. Browne): “The kindest, wisest, ‘onliest’ thing, under the circumstances.”

1907, from Yesterday’s Shopping: “Comic and humorous songs … Ma Onliest One.”

1956, from Nelson Algren’s novel A Walk on Wild Side: “ ‘You were my onliest,’ he admitted at last, ‘but we only got to B.’ ”

1992, from Jane and Michael Stern’s Encyclopedia of Pop Culture: “Still the liveliest, as well as the onliest venue for rhythm-and-blues performances not packaged as music videos.”

Nowadays, the OED says, “onliest” is “chiefly” colloquial and regional.

It’s easy to see why “onliest” is not taken seriously these days. Its root, “only,” which has been around since Old English, doesn’t seem to need a superlative.

The OED defines “only” as meaning “alone of its, his, her, etc., kind; of a kind of which there exist no more; sole, lone.”

But the fact that a word needs no superlative doesn’t mean that it can’t be modified at all. “One of the only,” for example, is an extremely common idiom.

Say there are two copies of a rare manuscript. We say there are “only two copies.” And a particular copy can be described as “one of the only copies” or “one of only two copies” in existence.

Check out our books about the English language