Is “schmegeggy” really Yiddish?

Q: I love the word “shmegeggy,” but I hate to use it because I’m sure that I’ll  never spell it right. I assume it’s Yiddish for a nincompoop.

A: It’s safe to say that “schmegeggy” (the spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary) originated among Yiddish speakers in the United States.

But its precise origin is “obscure,” according to the OED, and “unknown,” according to the Yiddish language maven Leo Rosten.

The OED says “schmegeggy” has two meanings in English: (1) “a contemptible person, an idiot,” and (2) “rubbish, nonsense.”

The dictionary’s first citation for sense No. 1 is from Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog (1964). Simkin, Herzog’s lawyer, uses the term (spelled “shmegeggy”) in speaking about an opposing lawyer:

“I’m waiting for that affidavit. Tell him plaintiff will kick his ass if he can’t produce it. He better get it this afternoon, that ludicrous shmegeggy!” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

The OED’s first citation for sense No. 2 is from The Joys of Yiddish (1968), by Rosten, who defines it as meaning “a lot of ‘hot air,’ ‘baloney,’ a cockamamy story. ‘Don’t give me that shmegegge!’ ”

You’ll notice that Rosten spells the word “shmegegge.” (Another spelling mentioned in the OED is “schmagagi.”)

In his bookRosten says the word originated as “Ameridish slang. Origin: unknown; probably, a dazzling onomatopoetic child of the Lower East Side.”

He defines sense No. 1 this way: “An unadmirable, petty person. 2. A maladroit, untalented type. 3. A sycophant, a shlepper, a whiner, a drip.”

Another commentator on the Yiddish language, Lillian M. Feinsilver, speculates in her book The Taste of Yiddish (1970) about the etymology of the term.

She says the “disdain” implied in sense No. 1 “prompts me to suggest that the term may be a combination of two other words for ‘fool’: the vulgar shmok … and yeke or its German antecedent Gecke.” 

Feinsilver also writes that “in American theatrical circles,” the word is “sometimes used in the sense of ‘malarkey’ or ‘bushwa.’ ”

So, is “schmegeggy” really Yiddish? Well, Rosten calls it “Yinglish,” which he describes as a “bright, brash, colorful amalgam of Yiddish and English” in his book The Joys of Yinglish (1972).

Whatever it is, don’t worry about spelling the word. No matter how you spell it, you won’t be a schmegeggy.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

In stir on the Jersey Shore

Q: Why have I never found anybody from outside New Jersey who knows what “in stir” means? We of NJ have a soft spot for those in the slammer or merely busted, like Snooki and Ronnie on “Jersey Shore.”

A: As we’re sure you realize, New Jersey doesn’t have a monopoly on “in stir” or “in the stir.”

In fact, it doesn’t even come from New Jersey. The phrase was first recorded in England, and has been used with or without the article “the” since the late 1800s. Here’s the story.

The word “stir” has been used as a noun for a prison since the mid-19th century, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. That much we can be sure about.

The word was sometimes spelled “stur” and originated in the Romany words sturiben (a prison) and staripen (to imprison), Cassell’s says.

A 19th-century source, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, first published in London in 1889, says “stir” comes from staripen, adding that “stardo in gypsy means ‘imprisoned.’ ”

This dictionary, edited by Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland, calls “stir” an abbreviation of a longer slang word for a prison, spelled  “sturbin” in the US and “sturiben” in Britain.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, seems to disagree, saying the origin of the slang term “stir” is unknown. The OED doesn’t say why it rejects the Romany origin.

But the modern verb “stir,” from the Old English verb styrian, has also had negative meanings over the years: to make a disturbance, to cause trouble, to revolt, to provoke, and so on.

Such activities could of course land a person in jail (or “in chokey,” as P. G. Wodehouse liked to say).

But those old meanings are now rare or obscure for the most part, except in the sense of “stir things up,” which isn’t always a bad thing to do.

In the journal Modern Language Notes in 1934, J. Louis Kuethe argued in favor of the Romany etymology.

Staripen, steripen, and stiraben have all been given as spellings of the Romani word for ’prison,’ ” he writes. “When these variations are taken into account, the Gypsy origin of stir is quite acceptable phonetically.”

Since the slang term originated in the mid-19th century, Kuethe says, “it seems much more plausible that the word should have originated from a contemporary  source such as the Romani, rather than from the Old English styr which disappeared centuries ago.”

Wherever it came from, everyone agrees that the word first showed up in print in 1851.

That’s the year of the OED’s first citation, which comes from a collection of articles and interviews by Henry Mayhew entitled London Labour and the London Poor.

The quotation: “I was in Brummagem, and was seven days in the new ‘stir’ (prison).” The term “Brummagem” was a local nickname for the English city of Birmingham.

Soon, however, the phrase “in stir” (without the article) was the usual slang term for “in prison.”

This OED citation is from A Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison’s 1896 novel about the slums of London: “A man has time to think things out, in stir.”

And as we all know, someone sitting in prison is likely to go “stir crazy,” a term the OED traces back to 1908.

[Updated May 5, 2017.]

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


The wazoo story

Q: Do you have any idea about the origin of “up the wazoo”? I’ve been telling people that “wazoo” is Ukrainian for “lazy river,” but I don’t think I’ll get away with that much longer.

A: No, “wazoo” does not mean “lazy river,” at least not in any language we know. As you probably suspect, it’s a slang term for the buttocks or the anus, according to no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is a subject we’ve written about before on the blog. But that was in March 2008, and the OED has since updated its entry for “wazoo.” We figure it’s our duty to update our entry as well! 

As we said earlier, the OED dates the term to 1961, when the California Pelican, a humor magazine at the University of California at Berkeley, declared on its back cover: “Run it up yer ol’ wazoo!”

All in good time, the term went mainstream.

A Wall Street Journal article in 1971 ventured to say, “Golf itself is quite safe, the greatest risk being the possibility of a long drive plunking some poor fellow in the wazoo.”

And in 1975 a San Francisco Chronicle writer euphemistically said: “Dating is a real pain in the wazoo.”

The following decade ushered in an important chapter in the life of “wazoo.” As the OED explains, the phrase “up (also out) the wazoo came to mean “in great quantities, in abundance, to excess.”

The OED’s first citation for the three-word expression is from the Syracuse (NY) Herald-Journal (1981): “There comes a time in performing when you just do it. You can have theory up the wazoo.”

As for the “out” version of the phrase, here’s a citation from Tom Dietz’s novel Soulsmith (1991): “I know for a fact that he’s well provided for and insured out the wazoo.”

The Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that “wazoo” as a euphemism might be a variation on “gazoo” and “kazoo,” which had been put to similar uses in the 1960s.

The OED also notes the similarities between the terms, and has citations for this slang usage of both “gazoo” (1965) and “kazoo” (1973).

Here’s an example of the latter, from the Lima (Ohio) News: “We get inflicted with GAO audits up the kazoo.”

The OED says etymologists have also suggested another possible connection: a link, via Louisiana Creole, with oiseau, the French word for bird.

And that gives us an excuse to end this item with the expression “flip the bird,” which  Cassell’s dates to the 1960s and defines as “to make an obscene gesture.”

Why is the one-finger salute referred to as flipping or giving the bird? Perhaps because “the bird” has been a slang term for the penis since the late 19th century.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Uncategorized

Birth of the cool

Q: My impression is that “cool” in modern usage (“cool it” or “she’s cool”) derives from black culture. Now, of course, it’s been appropriated by the general culture and everyone uses it. Am I right?

A: Black slang has enriched English in ways that most people (including many African Americans) don’t realize. And it goes way beyond “cool.”

Mention African-American slang to the man in the street and he might come up with a scant handful of recent coinages: “dis,” “chill,” “cred,” “phat,” “bling,” and “gangsta.”

But the story is much bigger than that. BE (linguist-speak for Black English) has been contributing to the general American vocabulary, both standard and slang, since the 19th century.

“Cool” is a good example.

The use of it as a noun meaning composure (as in “keeping one’s cool”) was first recorded in 1953 and originated in Black English, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

But the dictionary, edited by Jonathan Lighter, says “cool” had been used among African Americans as early as 1933 in another sense, as an adjective meaning exciting, enjoyable, or superlative (as in “the coolest drummer alive”).

Here’s a sampling of popular terms, both old and new, that were either invented or adapted to colorful new uses by speakers of Black English.

Words:  “hip,” “dig,” “soul,” “funky,” “gig,” “jam,” “jive,” “boogie,” “boogie-woogie,” “corny,” “heavy” (amazing or admirable), “bad” (that is, good), “jones” (an addiction or habit), “do” (hairdo), and “lame” (foolish).

Also, “righteous” (honorable), “attitude” (also ’tude), “girlfriend” (as a form of address between women), “homeboy,” “ ’hood,” “yo,” “ride” (a skateboard), “uptight,” “props” (respect), “man” (used in direct address), and “the man” (the police or white society).

Phrases: “get with it,” “bad-mouth,” “chill out,” “talk trash” (to lie), “strut your stuff,” “chump change” (small change), “kick back” (relax), “live large” (that is, extravagantly), “do your (own) thing,” “get-go” (the beginning), “go down” (to take place), “get down” (to work), “nitty gritty,” and “rip off” (to exploit).

Other expressions: “Right on!” … “Don’t go there” … “What’s up with that?” … “You go, girl!” … “You’re the man” (expressing admiration) … “Say what?” … “Tell it like it is” … “What goes around comes around.”

Gone are the days when commentators on English dissed the language of the streets. It has crossed over into mainstream use.

Margaret G. Lee made that point in a 1999 article in the journal American Speech called “Out of the Hood and into the News: Borrowed Black Verbal Expressions in a Mainstream Newspaper” (1999).

She notes that slang in general, not just African-American slang, “is no longer perceived as a low, vulgar, nonmeaning language of the vagrant or illiterate classes as it was in the 1800s and early 1900s.”

The use of slang by mainstream journalists and other educated professionals, she adds, “indicates its respect and status among some outgroup speakers.”

As two former journalists and “outgroup speakers” who appreciate slang, we couldn’t agree more.

Check out our books about the English language

English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics

Should English dance to a Latin beat?

Q: I’ve heard there was a deliberate effort to cram Latin grammar down the throat of English at one time. If this is true, I would be interested in reading a good book that deals with the topic.

A: English has been borrowing words from Latin since Anglo-Saxon times, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, overzealous Latin scholars tried their darndest to make English grammar play by the rules of their favorite language.

The linguist David Crystal, in The Fight for English, writes about how these Latinists and other so-called authorities “tried to shape the language in their own image but, generation after generation, failed.”

We also discuss the Latinists—and the illegitimate “rules” that still bedevil us because of them—in Origins of the Specious, our book about the myths and misconceptions of English.

As we’ve written on the blog, anyone who has gone through needless verbal gymnastics to avoid “splitting” an infinitive or ending a sense with a preposition can thank these misguided classicists.

Forcing English to follow the rules of Latin, we say in Origins of the Specious, “makes about as much sense as having the Chicago Cubs play by the same rules as the Green Bay Packers.”

English is a Germanic language like Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and German. It’s not a Romance language like French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, all derived from Latin.

“As you may imagine,” we note in Origins, “a Germanic language like English and a Romance language like Spanish are put together very differently.”

Two of the most obvious differences, the book says, “involve word order (American presidents live in the White House, while Argentine presidents live in the Casa Rosada) and verb patterns (both I and we ‘speak’ English, while yo ‘hablo’ and nosotros ‘hablamosespañol).”

If you’d like to read more, we have 20 pages on the subject in Origins of the Specious (look up “Latin, influence on English of” in the index).

We’ve also written extensively online about the influence of Latin on English, including the Grammar Myths page on our website and a blog post earlier this year about why English is considered a Germanic language.

Check out our books about the English language

English language Etymology Usage

Is the media the message?

Q: I’m an SAT tutor who’s puzzled about the word “media.” Do I tell my students it’s singular or plural? Please help!

A: It’s understandable that you’re puzzled. The use of “media” in the sense of mass communications has puzzled a lot of people since it entered English in the 1920s.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “media” in this sense lists nine published references, dating from 1923 to 1994. All of them appear to use “media” as a singular.

Here’s the earliest citation, from a book about advertising and selling: “Mass media represents the most economical way of getting the story over the new and wider market in the least time.”

Nevertheless, many language authorities have condemned the usage, apparently because media is plural in classical Latin.

For example, Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer (1965), insists that “the singular is still medium and the plural is media.”

So what is a careful writer to do today?

We say (and modern dictionaries agree) that “media” is singular when it refers to the world of mass communications as a whole, but plural when it refers to the people in this world or the different types of communications.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we give this example of the word used in the singular: “The media is obsessed with celebrity trials.”

And here are two examples from Origins of the word used in the plural: “The media are packed into the courtroom like sardines” … “The media at the trial include radio, TV, and the blogosphere.”

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognize that “media” can be treated as either singular or plural.

Unfortunately, not everyone realizes this.

“Who are the holdouts who insist that ‘media’ is strictly plural?” we write in Origins. “Ironically, many of them are members of the media who haven’t heard the news.”

Let’s hope that the people at the Educational Testing Service who score the SAT have gotten the word. You might check with them before passing on this information to you students.

We should add that many words derived from Latin plurals have become accepted over the years as singular nouns in English.

Among them are “ephemera,” “erotica,” “stamina,” “agenda,” “trivia,” “insignia,” “candelabra,” and more recently “data.”

Check out our books about the English language


Sabotaging a language myth

Q: I’ve read on the Web that the word “sabotage” originated in the practice of French workers tossing their wooden shoes (i.e., sabots) into machinery in labor protests. Is there any truth to this? Or is it just another word origin that’s too good to be true?

A: The word “sabotage” does have something to do with wooden shoes, and it did grow out of the labor movement in the late 19th century.

But it didn’t originate in the practice of workers tossing their sabots into machinery to botch up the works. In fact, there’s no evidence that any sabots were ever tossed into any machinery.

In his book Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism (1913), the socialist and labor reformer John Spargo says the French word sabotage was coined in the 1890s by the anarchist Émile Pouget.

It first appeared in writing, Spargo says, in a report that Pouget and his fellow anarchist, Paul Delassale, wrote to an 1897 congress of the Confédération Générale du Travail in Toulouse.

In their report, the two anarchists recommended that French labor unions adopt a policy of work slowdowns and inefficiencies that had been used successfully by British trade unionists.

This policy was popularly known in Britain as Ca’ Canny, a Scottish colloquialism that Spargo translates as “go slow” or “be careful not to do too much.”

In searching for a French equivalent for the expression, Pouget came up with the noun sabotage, Spargo writes.

It was based on the French verb saboter, which originally meant to make loud clattering noises with wooden shoes.

“In France, especially in the rural districts,” Spargo says in explaining the appropriateness of the term, “it has long been the custom to liken the slow and clumsy worker to one wearing wooden shoes, called ‘sabots.’ ”

He adds that the “phrase, Travailler a coups de sabots, to work as one wearing wooden shoes, has long  been used with reference to the slow and clumsy worker.”

“The idea is obvious: the peasant with heavy wooden shoes walks clumsily and slowly in company with those who wear shoes of leather,” he writes. “So the word ‘sabotage’—literally ‘wooden shoeage’—was coined … as a good translation of the British term Ca’ Canny.”

Archie Green, in a 1960 article in American Folklore, the journal of the American Folklore Society, also says Pouget coined the term for use in the 1897 report.

The noun “sabotage” was first used in English in 1910, the verb in 1918, and the noun “saboteur” in 1921, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED also gives the origin as the French verb saboter, which it says originally meant “to make a noise with sabots.”

In English today, the OED says, the noun “sabotage” means “the malicious damaging or destruction of an employer’s property by workmen during a strike or the like; hence gen. any disabling damage deliberately inflicted, esp. that carried out clandestinely in order to disrupt the economic or military resources of an enemy.”

The noun’s earliest English citation in the OED, from a 1910 issue of the Church Times, referred to a strike by French rail workers that year: “We have lately been busy in deploring the sabotage of the French railway strikers.”

Because the word was often used in connection with that turbulent 1910 strike, some sources mistakenly report that “sabotage” was coined in response to it.

Supposedly the word came from the striking workers’ destruction of railway property, perhaps brake shoes or fasteners for railroad ties.

Whoops! The French word “sabotage” preceded the 1910 strike by 13 years.

Another popular myth we can lay to rest.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics

Sufficeth this explanation?

Q: You may be wrong about the origin of “suffice it to say.” I believe it’s a mishearing of the more biblical sounding “it sufficeth to say.”

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but there’s no mishearing involved. Here’s the story.

The “eth” in “sufficeth” is, as you suggest, an archaic verb ending.

In the Old English and Middle English periods (which ended at around 1500), it was used as a suffix to form the third-person singular present indicative form of a verb.

For example, one would say that he or she or it “goeth,” “cometh,” “sendeth,” “walketh,” “sufficeth,” and so on. 

Grammatically, the old “eth” form is parallel to the modern verb ending “s,” as in “goes,” “comes,” “sends,” “walks,” “suffices,” etc.

As we wrote in the blog entry you question, the expression “suffice it to say” is in the subjunctive mood. It did not arise from any confusion with the archaic verb ending “eth.”

So “it sufficeth to say” and “it suffices to say” are grammatically parallel (both in the indicative mood); one is archaic, that’s all.

Similarly, “sufficeth it to say” and “suffice it to say” are grammatically parallel (both in the subjunctive mood).

We hope this explanation sufficeth.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Usage

The road less traveled

Q: I’m puzzled by phrases like these: “the door not open,” “the boy not young,” and “the days not hot.” Is this an archaic way of writing? Or is it just incorrect? Your knowledge is greatly appreciated.

A: The words “open,” “young,” and “hot” in the examples you give are adjectives. These particular adjectives generally appear before the nouns they modify: “the open door,” “the young boy,” and “the hot days.”

But in archaic or poetic language, we sometimes see negative adjectival forms (like “not open,” “not young,” “not hot”) following the nouns they modify.

Today writers don’t use such negative constructions as much as they once did, but we still occasionally see them.

A few examples are “a man not generous with his money,” “a patient not sensitive to pain,” “a fabric not impervious to water,” and “a woman no longer young.”

A similar pattern is routinely seen with “not” (or some other term of negation) plus a past participle. This isn’t archaic at all (though perhaps a bit poetic).

Here are a few examples: “the money not paid,” “the letter not written,” “a course uncharted,” and the M. Scott Peck bestseller The Road Less Traveled.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Punctuation Uncategorized

Why is the apostrophe possessive?

Q: A question that has been on my mind for a long time deals with the use of the apostrophe in a possessive like “John’s house.” How and when did this usage come into use?

A: When the apostrophe mark was introduced into English in the 1500s, it was originally used to show where a letter or syllable had been omitted. 

We still use it this way in contractions, but in fact it’s also how the apostrophe came to be a mark of possession.   

In Old English, long before the apostrophe came into use, the possessive ending for most nouns was es.

A house belonging to John, for example, would have been called something like “Johnes house.” (Another way to show possession was by using the word “of,” as in “the house of John.”) 

After the apostrophe came along, a possessive word like “Johnes” was written as “John’s” to show that a letter had been dropped—the e in es.

But the story is not as simple as that.

In Middle English (around 1100-1500) and later, the possessive ending es was often misheard as the possessive pronoun “his.”

This accounts for such erroneous old constructions as “John his house” (meaning “Johnes house”).

Historians have suggested that printers used the apostrophe (“John’s”) as a shortened form of either possessive, the legitimate “Johnes” or the illegitimate “John his.”

In “Axing the Apostrophe,” a 1989 article in English Today, the language writer Adrian Room has called the word for this punctuation mark “a cumbersome name for an awkward object.”

Where does this clunky name come from?

The short answer, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins tells us, is that we got it via Latin and French from the classical Greek phrase prosoidia apostrophos, literally “accent of turning away.”

But there’s usually a long answer when tracking down the origin of an English word.

In this case, “apostrophe” entered English in the 1500s with two meanings, one in punctuation and the other in rhetoric.

In rhetoric, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “apostrophe” is a “figure of speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent.”

The earliest published use of this sense in the OED comes from Sir Thomas More’s Apology (1533): “With a fygure of apostrophe and turning his tale to God criyng out: O good Lorde.”

The first citation for the word used to mean the punctuation mark is from the Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1588): “You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.”

(The word is spelled “apostraphas” or “apostrophus” in various editions of the play. The latter spelling persisted into the 18th century,  echoing the late Latin apostrophus.)

And that’s the story of how John’s house got its apostrophe.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Do you mean what you say?

Q: Why does everyone say “I mean” when the words don’t have any purpose? The phrase seems to pop up every other sentence, much like the repetitive use of “you know.” Do you have an explanation?

A: You’re not the first person to ask us about the prevalence of “I mean,” “you know,” and other empty expressions that litter our speech. In fact, we wrote about them on the blog four years ago.

But so many people still complain to us about “I mean” and company (often called “fillers” or “verbal tics”) that it’s time for an update.

Let’s go first to the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes this parenthetical use of “I mean” in conversation (or writing imitating conversation) as “a filler, with little or no explanatory force.”

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from Children of the Ghetto, an 1892 novel by the British humorist Israel Zangwill: “Gawd! I mean, can I see him?”

Here are some other OED citations:

1938, from Ngaio Marsh’s mystery Artists in Crime: “I mean, it was only once ages ago, after a party, and I mean I think men and women ought to be free to follow their sex-impulses anyway.”

1951, from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “I knew her like a book. I really did. I mean, besides checkers, she was quite fond of all athletic sports.”

1972, from an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Well I mean a lot of these things that are happening, well they just don’t quite ring true.”

As for the parenthetical use of “you know,” which the OED describes as “now freq. as a mere conversational filler,” the usage has been around since the mid-1300s in one form or another. And it’s known in other languages as well.

Here’s an example from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1798): “Do you know, I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine.”

The usage has been bugging people since at least the late 19th century, as we can see in this ironic observation from Mark Twain’s Tramps Abroad (1880):

“Nothing gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a German or an English conversation as to scatter it full of ‘Also’s’ or ‘You-knows.’ ”

To be fair, we’re guilty of this sin too.

Pat has struggled not to say “you know” on the air since 1996, when her first book, Woe Is I, came out and she started making radio appearances.

Her advice: Concentrate hard on NOT saying it.

Why do we use these unnecessary words and phrases. Perhaps it’s to give us time to come up with necessary words and phrases.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Usage

Foreign correspondence

Q: I have a question about the words “abroad” and “overseas.” Are they only adjectives and adverbs? Or can they act as nouns too? Example: “The tourists prefer abroad/overseas,” or “The players are from abroad/overseas.”

A: They’re usually seen as either adverbs (“He lives abroad/overseas”) or adjectives (“He’s popular with readers abroad/overseas”).

Can they be nouns too? We’ll get to that later.

Interestingly, these two words are interchangeable as adverbs, but not always as adjectives.

In modern American English, “abroad” is seldom used as an adjective BEFORE a noun.

For example, an American would say, “He’s had overseas experience,” but not “abroad experience.”

We should mention, however, that this pre-noun adjectival use of “abroad” is sometimes heard in British English.

Now, let’s look at the question of whether “abroad” and “overseas” are nouns. We’ll take them one at a time.

Standard dictionaries in the US and the UK disagree about whether “abroad” is a noun.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says yes, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has no entry for the usage.

The two standard British dictionaries we’ve checked, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the British version of the Macmillan Dictionary, don’t have entries for the noun usage either. 

In our experience, however, we’ve noticed that some British speakers (though few Americans) do use “abroad” as a noun.

And the Oxford English Dictionary does have a noun entry for “abroad,” with several citations, all of them apparently from British writers.

Here’s one via the bigoted Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love (1945):

“ ‘Frogs,’ he would say, ‘are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’ ”

In fact, American Heritage’s example of the noun usage (“Do you like abroad or hate it?”) comes from another British author, John le Carré. 

Now on to “overseas,” which none of the standard dictionaries we’ve named, whether American or British, consider a noun.

The OED, however, does consider it a noun, though all but two of the citations include the word as part of the phrase “from overseas.” Here are the exceptions:

1926, from Arnold Bennett’s novel Lord Raingo: “Britons whose secret conceit, compared to the ingenuous self-complacency of overseas, was as Mount Everest to Snowdon.”

1984, from the Sunday Times of Johannesburg: “Both revolve around how terrible it is to live in South Africa when ‘overseas’ appears to offer a brighter future.”

Although a case can be made for using “abroad” and “overseas” as nouns in the classic sense (“We prefer abroad/overseas to the states”), we find this usage jarring.

As for the phrase “from abroad,” it’s our opinion (and the opinion of the OED) that the word “abroad” is functioning as an adverb in a sentence like “She flew from abroad.”

We also think “overseas” is functioning as an adverb in the phrase “from overseas,” but the OED disagrees with us and considers it a noun in a sentence like “His aunt is visiting from overseas.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Being as it’s a George Clooney film?

Q: Please explain how “being as” came into being in this online comment about George Clooney in The American: “He vows his next hit will be his last, but being as this is a feature length movie that was not very likely to  happen.”

A: We’ve written before on the blog about using “being as” and related phrases in the sense of “because” or “since,” and we’ve noted that it’s generally not considered good English.

But perhaps we were a bit too dismissive of a usage that dates back to Shakespeare and earlier.

Although it’s not considered standard English now, the usage is common in US dialects, especially in the South, the lower Midwest, and New England, says the Dictionary of American Regional English.

And as we’ve mentioned, this use of “being” has a long history, either standing alone or in phrases like “being as,” “being that,” and “being as how.”

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “being as” in this sense is from George Hellowes’s 1574 translation of Antonio Guevara’s Familiar Epistles, a collection of letters in Spanish:

“Being as we are fallen into the most grievous sinnes, we do live, and go so contented, as though we had received of God a safeconduit to be saved.”

A more familiar example is this comment by Leonato from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1599): “Being that I flow in grief, / The smallest twine may lead me.”

And Jane Austen, in an 1813 letter, has this comment about Robert Southey’s The Life of Nelson:

“I am tired of Lives of Nelson, being that I never read any. I will read this, however, if Frank is mentioned in it.” (Jane’s brother Frank was an admiral.)

DARE, the regional dictionary, has many published references for the usage in modern times, including this one from a 1955 letter by Flannery O’Connor:

“While I was in NC I heard somebody recite a barroom ballad, I don’t remember anything but the end but beinst you all are poets I will give it to you.”

Is the usage legit? Well, we wouldn’t use it, unless we were trying to be folksy (as in the O’Connor letter), but here’s another opinion:

­“It is clear that the conjunction being survives dialectally in current English,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says. “If it—or its compounds—is part of your dialect, there is no reason you should avoid it.”

Merriam-Webster’s adds this warning: “You should be aware, however, that when you use it in writing it is likely to be noticed by those who do not have it in their dialects.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

When “as such” isn’t such a good idea

Q: I generally see “as such” used to mean “therefore,” but I think it should refer to something just mentioned. It’s hard, however, to explain this to other people. Can you assist?

A: You’re right in thinking that the use of “as such” to mean “therefore” is frowned on.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls this usage “colloquial” (that is, more suited for speech than writing) or “vulgar” (commonplace or lacking refinement). 

The word “such” in the idiomatic expression “as such” is a pronoun, and as a pronoun it’s supposed to refer to or stand for something already mentioned—an antecedent.

A sentence shouldn’t include the phrase “as such” unless there’s an antecedent that answers the question “as what?”

First, we’ll take a look at the expression’s accepted meanings and their histories.

The phrase first showed up writing in the mid-17th century, according to the OED.

Its original form was a bit longer—“as it is such” or “as they are such”—and its meaning was “in itself.”

John Milton used the phrase that way in The History of England (1670):

“True fortitude glories not in the feats of War, as they are such, but as they serve to end War soonest by a victorious Peace.”

In that example, “such” refers to the previously mentioned “feats of war.”

A slightly later example, using the phrase in its shorter form, comes from Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1668):

“If Matter as such, had Life, Perception, and Understanding belonging to it.”

In the example above, “such” refers to the previously mentioned “matter.”

The OED says that in the following century “as such” acquired another meaning: “as being what the name or description implies,” or “in that capacity.”

The dictionary’s first example in print for this sense is from Richard Steele, writing in The Spectator (1711):

“When she observed Will. irrevocably her Slave, she began to use him as such.”

Note that here again, the pronoun “such” refers to something already mentioned—in this case, “her slave.”

This more recent example comes from a British legislative act (1911): “The trade or business carried on in the house or place by the licence holder as such.”

In that sentence fragment, “such” refers to the already mentioned “licence holder” (the act uses the British spelling of “license”). 

Now for the frowned-on usage, the “vulgar” or “colloquial” one in which “as such” has no real antecedent and means “accordingly,” “consequently,” “thereupon,” or “therefore.”

This usage was first recorded in the 18th century but has never gained acceptance, probably because it’s ambiguous.

These two examples from letters written in the early 1800s are good examples of the ambiguity of “as such” when it’s used in this vague sense:

“I very much longed to hear from you … and as such I did not the least esteem it for its having been delayed for the reasons assigned.”

And: “H. R. H. Princess Augusta … motioned for me to come to her Highness. As such she addressed me in the most pleasant manner possible.”

See what we mean? Neither sentence answers the question “as what?”

Once again, “such” is a pronoun here, and “as such,” it requires an antecedent.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

“His” and “hers” pronouns

Q: We say “her apple” and “the apple is hers,” but “his apple” and “the apple is his.” Why does “her” become “hers” while “his” doesn’t change?

A: Your question takes us back many centuries into the history of English pronouns.

As you know, “her” can be an object pronoun, as in “Give the apple to her.”

But “her” can also be used in a possessive sense, either with or without s at the end.

The possessive pronouns “her” and “hers” are used as different parts of speech.

The possessive “her” (as in “her apple”) is an adjective. But “hers” (as in “the apple is hers”) is what’s called an absolute pronoun.

Unlike “her,” the absolute pronoun “hers” doesn’t modify anything. Instead, “hers” stands for something: the thing or things belonging to her.

Is it unusual that the feminine forms of these words (“her”/“hers”) are different? Not really.

What’s odd here, as you’ll see, is that the masculine forms (“his”/“his”) are identical.

In Old English, which was spoken until about 1100, the possessive adjective “her” was written as hyre or hire.

The absolute form (“hers”), which the OED says is “used when no noun follows,” evolved later, in the 1300s. 

During the Middle English period (1100-1500), “hers” was spelled hirs, hires, hyres, and even her’s, with an apostrophe to indicate possession.

The modern spelling “hers” showed up in the 1500s.

Why the final s?

Because “hers,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “in form, a double possessive.” (A double possessive is a phrase that uses both “of” and an apostrophe plus s to show possession.)

The pronoun “hers” apparently came about, the OED says, “by association with the possessive case in such phrases as ‘a friend of John’s.’ ” 

But “hers” isn’t unusual in having a final s that makes it resemble a double possessive.

Several other absolute pronouns evolved in similar fashion and at times have also been spelled with apostrophes (“their’s,” “our’s,” “your’s”).

Since the possessive adjective “his” already ended in s, attempts over the centuries to add another s didn’t stick.

This is why, the OED says, “the absolute his … remains identical in form with the simple or adjective possessive.” 

The same thing happened with the possessive pronoun “its,” which also ends in s.

“The more recent its, also ending in s, has followed the example of his,” says the OED.

Thus we depend on the context of a sentence to determine whether the “his” or “its” we’re reading is an adjective or an absolute pronoun.

That’s generally not much of a problem.

A “his” or an “its” that modifies a noun (as in “his apple” or “its apple”), is a possessive adjective.

Otherwise (as in “the apple is his” or “the apple is its”), you have an absolute pronoun.

If you’d like to read more, we touched on this subject a couple of months ago in a blog posting about the double possessive.

Check out our books about the English language


Colon treatment

Q: My boss wants to use the following sentence in an article for a trade journal: “A successful company must focus on its ability to: plan, improvise, and create.” The use of the colon here is awkward, and I suspect incorrect. This would be an easy edit, but what is the specific grammatical crime I can cite?

A: You’re right. That colon is inappropriate here.

Many people routinely stick a colon in front of every series or list. But that’s not always kosher, especially if the list is introduced by a verb or a preposition.

The trouble is that it’s generally incorrect to use a colon to separate a preposition or a verb from its object. So a series that’s introduced by a preposition or a verb shouldn’t ­­have a colon in between.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has several warnings about misused colons, including “Don’t put one between a verb and its complement or object” and  “Don’t put a colon between a preposition and its object.”

In the sentence you cite, the boss uses a colon to divide “to” from the series that follows. In the phrase “to plan, improvise, and create,” the word “to” is a preposition with three objects: the infinitives “plan,” “improvise,” and “create.”

No, the word “to” in a phrase like “to plan” isn’t part of the infinitive. It’s a prepositional marker that tells you an infinitive is coming. We’ve written about this before in explaining the “split infinitive” myth.

Some language types disagree with the terminology above, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines “to” as a preposition when it’s used in front of an infinitive. And standard dictionaries do, too.

Getting back to your question, the boss’s sentence would also have been incorrect if written like these:

­(1) “A successful company must focus on: planning, improvising, and creating.” (This is another example of a preposition separated from its objects.)

(2) “A successful company must: plan, improvise, and create.” (This illustrates a verb separated from its complements.)

Neither of those sentences needs a colon.

The new 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style also warns about such misuses of colons:

“Many writers assume—wrongly—that a colon is always needed before a series or a list. In fact, if a colon intervenes in what would otherwise constitute a grammatical sentence—even if the introduction appears on a separate line, as in a list—it is probably being used inappropriately.

“A colon, for example, should not be used before a series that serves as the object of a verb. When in doubt, apply this test: to merit a colon, the words that introduce a series or list must themselves constitute a grammatically complete sentence.”

The Chicago Manual uses these examples.

Correct: “The menagerie included cats, pigeons, newts, and deer ticks.”

Incorrect: “The menagerie included: cats, pigeons, newts, and deer ticks.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 1744) also notes that a colon is generally not used to separate a verb from its complement or object.

Finally, Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I offers this advice on the use (or rather the nonuse) of the colon:

“Don’t use a colon to separate a verb from the rest of the sentence, as this example does. In Harry’s shopping bag were: a Bordeaux, a Beaujolais, and a Burgundy. If you don’t need a colon, why use one? In Harry’s shopping bag were a Bordeaux, a Beaujolais, and a Burgundy.”

Some of these examples don’t apply to the specific sentence you’ve asked about, but they’re worth noting. Every bit of support helps when you have to correct your boss.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar 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.

Check out our books about the English language


Listen up, jarheads!

Q: I was reading your post about the use of “no sweat” in the Army in the 1950s. I was in the Marines in the ’70s and I remember another term, “listen up,” as in “Listen up, jarheads!” Did it originate with the military?

A: Yes, the expression “listen up” does indeed come from the military.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels it “slang” and says the usage originated in the US armed forces.

“Listen up” means “listen carefully, pay attention,” the OED says, adding that the expression is usually in the imperative (as in “Listen up!”).

The OED’s first citation is from The Killing Zone, William Crawford Woods’s 1970 novel about the Vietnam War: “Now you men knock off the goddam chatter in there and listen up.”

Another quotation comes from If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973), Tim O’Brien’s memoir of his service in Vietnam in the late 1960s: “I got me two purple hearts, so listen up good.”

But the use of “listen up” soon spread beyond the military. In a 1980 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, William Safire wrote:

“The expression ‘listen up’ is sweeping the pro-football coaching staffs, and is certain to embed itself in mucho macho lingo this year.”

By the way, the word “jarhead,” slang for a marine, originally referred to the mules used by the US Army as draft animals, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s ­earliest published citation for the word is from a 1916 issue of the Washington Post:

“Everyone has heard of the army ‘jarhead’ and his wiles, and the army man who attempts to teach the mule his job of hauling the guns, has a genuine proposition of life and near death facing him.”

So how did “jarhead,” a term for an Army mule, come to be slang for a marine? The etymology is unclear.

We’re not convinced by any of the theories: the shape of an old Marine hat, a marine’s buzz cut, the mule mascot at Army football games, etc.

The first citation in the OED for the use of “jarhead” to refer to a marine is from a 1944 issue of Reader’s Digest: “A ‘jar-head’ is a Marine.”

However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has this earlier citation from the 1943 movie “Gung Ho!” about the Marine raid on Makin Island in the Pacific during World War II:

“You silly jarhead. When are you gonna learn to fix a pack?”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Pronunciation Usage

A controversial pronunciation?

Q: Do we (that is, we Americans, who should be the authorities on proper English) prefer con-truh-VUR-shul or con-truh-VUR-see-yul?

A: We won’t get into the issue of American versus British English here.

We’ve discussed this in several posts on the blog, including one in 2008 that was prompted by a reader who thought US English had gone astray.

We’ve also written extensively about US and UK English in the first chapter of our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious.

As for the adjective “controversial,” you can’t go wrong here. It has two pronunciations in American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list both the four-syllable pronunciation ending in shul as well as the five-syllable one ending in see-yul.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word lists only one pronunciation:  con-truh-VUR-shul.

However, the OED says it’s an adaptation of the Latin controversialis (a word with all the vowels pronounced).

This suggests to us that “controversial” may have had the longer pronunciation when it entered English in the 16th century.

And in case you’re interested, the OED’s entry for “controversy” also has only one pronunciation, CON-truh-vur-see (not the pompous kun-TRUV-ur-see).

Check out our books about the English language


Martha, Oprah, and the serial comma

Q: In a phrase like “Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and others,” is a comma required before the “and”? In classic literature I rarely see the comma but in modern literature a comma is often included.

A: When listing items in a series, a final comma before “and” is not required. But many people (we’re among them) like to use it anyway.

Pat discusses this in the new third edition of her grammar book Woe Is I. Here’s a two-paragraph excerpt:

“Use commas to separate a series of things or actions. She packed a toothbrush, a hair dryer, her swimsuit, and her teddy bear. She finished packing, paid some bills, ate a few Oreos, and watered the plants.

“NOTE: The final comma in those last two sentences, the one just before and, can be left out. It’s a matter of taste. But since its absence can sometimes change your meaning, and since there’s no harm in leaving it in, my advice is to stick with using the final comma in a series (sometimes called the ‘serial comma’).”

Of course the absence of a final comma doesn’t always make a difference. But let’s invent a sentence (using you know who) in which the lack of a final comma can leave the meaning fuzzy:

“The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.”

Sounds like the writer’s sisters are Martha and Oprah! Now see how a serial comma ends the ambiguity:

“The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey.”

Our apologies to Martha and Oprah. We hope using them in those two examples isn’t a serial crime!

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

We weren’t far from wrong

Q: In one of your responses last month, you told an inquirer that “your musings aren’t far from wrong.” If someone isn’t far from wrong, he must be close to wrong, which is the opposite of what you intended. Am I missing something?

A: Heavens to Betsy! We misspoke—or miswrote? At any rate, thank you for calling this to our attention.

What we meant to write was “your musings aren’t far wrong.” Instead, we conflated “not far wrong” and “far from wrong,” expressions that mean “almost correct” or “probably correct.”

And in the interest of full disclosure, we have to admit that we made the same mistake in an older entry, back in 2007. We’ve now corrected both of them.

The phrase “far from” has been used figuratively since the 16th century to indicate the unlikeness of something.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from a 1534 English translate of a work by the Roman orator Cicero, uses the the phrase “ferre distaunt from” (“far distant from”).

The OED doesn’t have entries for the phrase “not far wrong” and the more recent “far from wrong.”

The earliest example that we could find for the older phrase is from A History of Irish Affairs (1782), by Francis Dobbs:

“Supposing this a fair calculation, and I apprehend it is not far wrong, the people by possibility can only send one hundred and twenty-eight members to Parliament.”

Although the OED has no entry for “not far wrong,” it crops up in several citations over the last century and a half:

1867, from Chambers’ Encyclopaedia: “Perhaps we shall not be far wrong if we regard Troglodytism as the primitive state of all … mankind.”

1895, from Harper’s Magazine: “We shall not go far wrong in crediting France with 60,000 men … whose principal object is to discourage the North African Arabs from a war of independence.”

1900, from the British Medical Journal: “Cullen is not far wrong in declaring that the chemiatrics of his day had become frivolous and hypothetical.”

1912, from the Dundee Courier: “In choosing a ‘Mills & Boon’ novel readers of fiction can never go very far wrong when in quest of genuine entertainment.”

1990, from Tom Cunliffe’s book Easy on the Helm: “If you approach at a similar angle to craft like your own, you won’t go far wrong.”

The earliest example  we’ve found for “far from wrong” is in a late-19th-century translation by Edward Oxenford of the lyrics of the Neapolitan song “Funiculì, Funiculà.”

Here’s an excerpt from Oxenford’s 1888 English version of the 1880 song, composed by Luigi Denza to the lyrics of Peppino Turco:

Some joyous song, some joyous song,
To set the air with music bravely ringing
Is far from wrong! Is far from wrong!

The erroneous “not far from wrong,” used in the same sense as “not far wrong” or “far from wrong,” first showed up in writing in the mid-19th century, as far as we can tell.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from an 1860 issue of the Working Farmer magazine:

“I think we are not far from wrong in saying, that we may fairly expect three-fourths of the nitrogenous matters of the oilcake back again in the manure.”

Here’s a recent example from the Oct. 29, 2015, issue of USA Today: “If it seems like every young person you see has a smartphone in their hand, you’re not far from wrong.”

Thanks for writing us about our error. With readers like you, we won’t go far wrong.

[Note: This item was updated on Sept. 19, 2016.]

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

Etymology Grammar

Is “Red Sox” plural?

Q: I write to inquire if “Red Sox” is singular or plural. It SOUNDS plural but it doesn’t LOOK plural. I guess this confusion is another reason not to like them so much.

A: “Red Sox” is indeed plural.

The noun “sox” is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “commercial and informal spelling of socks, pl. of sock.”

More to the point, the OED notes that the word is “also used as the final element in the names of some sports teams, esp. in U.S. Baseball.”

However, the first citation for the word in the dictionary is credited not to a sportswriter but to H. G. Wells, who used it in his novel Kipps (1905):

“He abbreviated every word he could; he would have considered himself the laughing-stock of Wood Street if he had chanced to spell socks in any way but ‘sox.’ ”

Another novelist, Zora Neale Hurston, used the word in a short story published in the American Mercury (1942):  “Dat broad couldn’t make the down payment on a pair of sox.”

Paul Dickson, in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.), traces the name “Red Sox” to the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first professional team. The Red Stockings were formed in 1869 and named for their colorful hosiery.

“When the Red Stockings broke up following the 1870 season,” Dickson writes, “many team members headed to Boston to form a new National Association team in 1871, and they carried with them both the name and the red stockings for which they were famous.”

During the late 19th century, several Boston teams wore red stockings.

“When the rival Boston Beaneaters of the National League abandoned its red stockings following the 1906 season,” Dickson says, “the American League team named itself ‘Red Sox’ in 1907 and donned red stockings in 1908.”

The franchise had entered the American League in 1901 and used several other names before adopting “Red Sox.”

However, Boston wasn’t the first town to cheer for a team named “Sox.”

In Chicago, various teams calling themselves the White Stockings (sometimes National Association, sometimes National League, and sometimes American League) played from around 1870 into the early 20th century.

It was because of a dispute over the use of the name “White Stockings,” according to Dickson, that the American League franchise in Chicago adopted the name “White Sox” in 1904.

Check out our books about the English language


No sweat, sarge

Q: When I was in the US Army in Germany from 1955 to 1957, the expression “no sweat”  became institutionalized in many units as an informal response to a request. So we might respond to an order by saying “No sweat, sarge,” or even “No, sweat, sir” to an officer. I’ve wondered if this was a precursor to the widespread use of “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.”

A: Did “no problem” develop from “no sweat”?

Well, the “no problem” usage we’re talking about showed up in print in 1955, a few years after “no sweat” appeared, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So the timing is right. But we haven’t found any research that would show a relationship. And the existence of foreign phrases similar to “no problem” seems to make that origin unlikely.

The OED describes “no sweat” as a colloquial expression (one better suited to speech than to writing) that means “(it is) no trouble, (there is) no difficulty.”

The dictionary doesn’t say the phrase originated in the military, but the first citation is from E. J. Kahn’s The Peculiar War: Impressions of a Reporter in Korea (1951): “There’s no sweat. We’ve got plenty of time and territory.”

By the way, phrases that combine “no” with a noun (like “no sweat” and “no problem”) are thick on the ground.

The OED also has citations for “no bother,” “no comment,” “no deal,” “no dice,” “no fear,” “no luck,” “no mistake” (as in “make no mistake”), “no probs,” “no shit,” “no strings,” “no way,” and “no worries,” among others.

Many people have written us to complain about the use of “no problem” as a response to “thank you.” In fact, we’ve written two blog items about this, in 2008 and 2009.

If the usage bugs you, our advice is to hope it will eventually go away. In the meantime, don’t sweat it.

Check out our books about the English language



­­Number, please!

Q: I’m writing a press release and I’m stumped by this sentence: “Smart-phone users can now get television program schedules and information literally in the palm of their hands.” Because the subject is plural, I think “hands” is correct, but it sounds awkward. Please help!

A: As you suspect, this sentence has a number-agreement problem. The number at the front (the plural subject, “users”) doesn’t agree with the one at the back (the singular object “palm”).

To be strictly correct, one would need to pluralize “palm” as well as “hand,” and write “in the palms of their hands.”

But this expression commonly appears in the singular: “in the palm of the hand” (or “his hand” or “her hand” or “your hand”). You’re painting yourself in a corner when you start out with a plural subject.

Here’s how the numbers can be made to agree:

(1) If you stick with the plural “users,” the end of the sentence should read either “in the palms of their hands,” or (avoiding the possessive pronoun) “in the palm of the hand.”

(2) If you switch to a singular subject (“A smart-phone user …”), the end of the sentence should read “in the palm of the hand.” We’d avoid the gender issue (“his hand,” “her hand,” “his or her hand”). What about “their hand”? We had an On Language column in the New York Times last year about the lack of a universal third-person pronoun in English.

(3) If you want to simplify things, use “you” instead: “If you’re a smart-phone user, you can now get television program schedules and information literally in the palm of your hand.”

Our preference is for No. 3. This seems to avoid a lot of awkward problems, but it’s your call.

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Scot, Scotch, or Scottish?

Q: In your remarks about the verdict “not proven” in Scotland, you refer to “Scottish law.” I hate to contradict you, but the proper expression is “Scots Law.” And as an aside, I wonder if you realize that in Scotland’s courts, the word “proven” has a long-O sound, as in “woven.” My father was a judge in Scotland, and I had to listen to the long O since I was … oh, 36 months old! Even today, after 40 years in Canada, I still can’t get used to the PROO-ven pronunciation.

A: Thanks for your interesting comment. We could plead “not proven,” and argue that we were simply referring in a general way to the laws in Scotland. But why quibble? We’ve updated the blog item to add a reference to Scots Law.

This also gives us a chance to write about the three adjectives “Scot,” “Scotch,” and “Scottish.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the adjective was Scyttisc or Scottisc. In Middle English, about 1100 to 1500, it was written all sorts of ways (Scottysc, Scottisc, Scottissh, etc.), often depending on where you lived.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, it was pronounced like “Scottish” (with various spellings) in the south of England, and “Scottis” in the north as well as in Scotland.

Writers in England began contracting “Scottish” to “Scotch” in the late 16th century, while writers in Scotland began shortening “Scottis” to “Scots” in the early 18th century.

But language is a messy business, and some Scottish writers, notably Robert Burns (1759-96) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), regularly used “Scotch” as an adjective.

By the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was “uncertainty among the educated classes in Scotland concerning the relative ‘correctness’ of the three competing terms”—“Scots,” “Scottish,” and “Scotch.”

And by the mid-19th century, there was “a growing tendency among educated speakers to favour the more formal Scottish or (less frequently) the more traditional Scots over what was perceived as the more vulgar Scotch,” the OED says.

In England, “Scotch” was the “the prevailing form” from the late 17th century until the 19th century, according the OED, though “Scottish” was used in more formal writing.

“By the beginning of the 20th cent.,” Oxford notes, “disapproval of Scotch by educated Scots was so great that its use had become something of a shibboleth (much to the bafflement of speakers outside Scotland for whom this was the usual word).”

And “during the 20th cent. educated usage in England gradually began to adapt in deference to the perceived Scottish preferences.”

Nevertheless, the adjective “Scotch” survives in a few phrases like “Scotch whisky,” “Scotch broth,” and “Scotch barley.” Although “Scotch pine” has survived in the US, the tree is “Scots pine” in the UK, where it’s the national tree of Scotland.

So which adjective should a writer use today? A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) suggests that “forms involving Scotch are best avoided in reference to people; designations formed with Scots are most common (Scot, Scotsman, or Scotswoman), but those involving the full form Scottish are sometimes found in more formal contexts.”

The dictionary notes that “Scotch-Irish is the most commonly used term for the descendants of Scots who migrated to North America, but lately Scots-Irish has begun to gain currency among those who know that Scotch is considered offensive in Scotland.”

“There is, however, no sure rule for referring to things,” the AH usage note concludes, “since the history of variation in the use of these words has left many expressions in which the choice is fixed, such as Scotch broth, Scotch whisky, Scottish rite, and Scots Guards.

So if in doubt, look it up in the dictionary!

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 3, 2021, and May 19, 2022.]

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


Lining up the rank and file

Q: When Pat was asked on WNYC about “rank and file,” she said you had already answered it on your blog. I’ve searched, but can’t find it. I imagine it originated in the military as a term to differentiate officers from other troops.

A: Oops! Pat thought we’d answered a question about this, but she was mistaken. Sorry! We’ll take care of that now.

You’re right that the term “rank and file” originated in the military, though its modern military sense is a bit fuzzy.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the expression refers to all enlisted troops (those other than officers and warrant officers).

But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it refers to enlisted troops other than noncommissioned officers (enlisted members with leadership authority, like corporals, petty officers, sergeants, etc.).

Why “rank” and why “file”?

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says “rank” refers to troops in line side by side, while “file” refers to troops standing one behind another.

The expression originated in the late 16th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED explains that the phrase originally referred to “the formation of rows and columns into which soldiers are drawn up for drill or service.”

The earliest citation is from a book about warfare by Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres (1598): “To learne to keepe his ranke and file orderly.”

The OED’s second citation is from Philip Massinger’s play The Maid of Honour (1632): “See the Souldiers set / In ranke, and file.”

The dictionary agrees with Brewer’s that the phrase combines two terms: “rank,” a single line of soldiers abreast, and “file,” the depth from front to rear of a formation in line.

In the 18th century, the term was first used as a collective noun referring to the soldiers themselves, not just formations of them.

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a 1756 citation from George Washington’s writings: “You are to have a Subaltern, two Sergeants, and twenty-five rank and file, at Edward’s Fort unless the inhabitants desire to come down here.”

Washington is apparently using “rank and file” here to include corporals. In fact, a 1796 citation in the OED says “rank and file means … the corporals and private soldiers.”

In the 19th century, according to the OED, the usage was extended to include “the ordinary members of an organization (esp. a political party or trade union), as opposed to its leaders; the ordinary people, the masses.”

The first published reference for this new sense of the phrase is from an 1828 issue of the Delaware Weekly Advertiser and Farmer’s Journal, in Wilmington: “The ‘rank and file’ seem very willing to further any scheme of their leaders.”

Check out our books about the English language


For “better” or for “worse”

Q: I made the mistake of telling my wife she looks worse with makeup than without. She claims this means she looks bad without it, the opposite of what I intended. Who’s right? You may throw caution to the wind: we’ve been married for 48 years and our marriage won’t fail no matter what you reply. 

A: Your wife is right. And Pat is surprised she didn’t throw you out!

“Worse” is a comparative form of “bad.” (The forms are “bad” … “worse” … “worst.”) So you were saying she looks “more bad” with makeup than without.

“Better” is a comparative form of “good.” (The forms are “good” … “better” … “best.”) You should have said she looks “better” without makeup than with it. Or, to be safe, “even better”!

Pat’s advice: Memorize this! If your starting point is “good” (and in describing your wife, it had better be), then use comparative or superlative forms of “good.” 

All the best to you AND to your lovely wife.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Great and not-so-great expectations

Q: Any preferences? (1) “I suspect/expect you’ll find his work satisfactory.” (2) “I suspect/expect you’ll be pleased with the progress of her studies.” I suspect you’ll have a definitive opinion, and I expect you won’t be shy about expressing it.

A: Well, we won’t be shy about expressing our opinion, but we suspect that it won’t be as definitive as you expect.

Either verb (“suspect” or “expect”) may be used in either of those sentences, depending on how certain you are about the quality of the work (No. 1) and the progress made (No. 2).

In the sense you’re using these verbs, “suspect” is somewhat weaker than “expect,” though the two meanings overlap a bit.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says “suspect” here means “to imagine to exist or be true, likely, or probable.”

M-W’s definition of “expect” in this sense is a bit stronger: “to consider probable or certain.”

These differences in meaning may reflect the Latin roots of the two words, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The more hesitant “suspect” ultimately comes from the Latin suspectare (to mistrust) while the more optimistic “expect” is derived from the Latin expectare (to await or hope).

Check out our books about the English language


Is “bloatation” a word?

Q: Is there a noun to express what I suffer when I feel bloated? For instance, “bloatation” (along the lines of “flotation,” from the verb “float”). Does such a word exist?

A: The noun “bloatation” doesn’t exist—that is, it’s not in standard dictionaries or the Oxford English Dictionary.

The online Urban Dictionary, whose users define slang terms, does include an entry for it with a couple of less-than-serious definitions. And we got more than 9,000 hits when we googled it.

But “bloatation” isn’t ready for prime time. If enough people start using it, though, it may eventually make its way into mainstream dictionaries.

However, why bother coining a new word when there’s already a pretty good noun for the condition you describe: “bloatedness”?

Although you won’t find “bloatedness” in most standard dictionaries, the OED has an entry for it with citations going back to 1660. It means a “bloated quality or state.”

And, of course, there’s the verbal noun “bloating,” which has been around for quite a while too.

A 1753 citation in the OED from a dictionary of arts and sciences defines “bloating” as a “puffing up or inflation of the exterior habit of the body, lodged chiefly in the adipose cells.”

All the words having to do with bloatedness and bloating began with an adjective, “blowt,” meaning puffed up, which was first recorded in 1603, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

This adjective in turn developed from an Old English verb, blawen, which is the source of the modern verb “blow.”

The past participle “bloated” was first recorded in 1664 in the sense of “swollen, puffed up, turgid; esp. as describing the effect of gluttony and self-indulgence,” the OED says.

You also mention “float,” which we touched on in a blog entry earlier this year. And we’ve written about “bloviate,” a word that the OED says is probably derived from the verb “blow.”

We’ll stop here, lest we be accused of bloviating!

Check out our books about the English language


Does the plural “octopi” have legs?

 Q: I find your book Origins of the Specious intriguing, but I disagree that “octopi” is an example of a common misconception in English. “Octopi” is generally seen as objectionable. The plural “octopuses” is preferred in both the US and the UK.

A: We also prefer “octopuses” as the plural of “octopus,” but dictionaries on both sides of the Atlantic now list “octopi” as an acceptable plural.

Check out The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a British reference.

Although “octopuses” is indeed more popular, “octopi” is alive and well among speakers of English as well as lexicographers.

Here’s a recent Google scorecard: “octopuses,” 400,000 hits, versus “octopi,” 262,000.

As we said in Origins of the Specious, our book about English myths and misconceptions, many people believe “octopi” is classier than “octopuses.” This misconception dates back to the 19th century. (You might say it’s got legs.)

The singular “octopus” comes from Greek and means eight-footed. The original plural, “octopodes,” was Anglicized over the years to “octopuses.”

But in the mid-1800s some misguided Latinists tried to substitute the Latin plural ending pi for the Greek podes. It was an illegitimate idea that appealed to would-be pedants with weak classical educations.

The traditional English plural is actually “octopuses,” but the misbegotten “octopi” has been used by so many people for so long that it’s now considered an acceptable alternative.

If you want to be pedantic—and classically correct—opt for “octopodes.” As for us, we’re suckers for good old “octopuses.”

As Pat wrote in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, “In the oceans, wriggling by, / Are octopuses, not octopi.”

Check out our books about the English language


Ups and downs in titles

Q: Are prepositions ever capitalized in titles when they are other than the first word? Thank you for your attention.

A: There are two styles for capitalizing words in the titles of books, stories, articles, poems, and other works.

The more common is headline style; the less common is sentence style (used in reference lists and on the copyright pages of books with the Library of Congress cataloging data).

We use sentence style for the titles of our blog posts. (We find it informal and conversational.) In a sentence-style title, only the first word and any proper names are capitalized.

Most people, however, deal only with headline-style capitalization when writing titles.

We won’t get into all the ups and downs of headline style, since you asked only about prepositions, but in general all major words are capitalized.

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) recommends that in headline style, a preposition is lowercased no matter what its length, unless … 

(1) the preposition is the first or last word (as in From Here to Eternity or Everywhere but Up);

(2) the preposition is stressed (A River Runs Through It);

(3) the preposition is used adverbially or adjectivally (Look Up in Wonder or Use the Down Escalator); or

(4) the preposition is used as a conjunction (as in Look Before You Leap).

Some of those examples are ours and some are the Chicago Manual’s.

We should mention that actual newspaper headlines don’t necessarily follow the headline-style capitalization recommended by the Chicago Manual. Capitalization of headlines in newspapers varies from paper to paper.

In cap-and-lowercase headlines in the New York Times, for example, all words of four letters or more are capitalized. So are the words “No,” “Nor,” “Not,” “Off,” “Out,” “So,” and “Up,” as well as any small prepositions used as modifiers.

Check out our books about the English language