Etymology Usage

A transcendental meditation

Q: I know that both of these sentences are correct: “Pi is transcendental” and “Pi is a transcendental number.” But which would you prefer?

A: The word “transcendental,” which English adopted from medieval Latin in the 17th century, has a lot of meanings, including transcendent, exalted, supernatural, and abstract.

In Aristotelian philosophy, it refers to extending beyond the bounds of any single category. In Kantian philosophy, it applies to something not derived from experience.

It can also refer to Transcendentalism, the 19th-century literary, philosophical, cultural, and religious movement in New England.

And in the mathematical sense, the one you’re asking about, “transcendental” is  defined in the Oxford English Dictionary this way:

“Not capable of being produced by (a finite number of) the ordinary algebraical operations of addition, multiplication, involution, or their inverse operations; expressible in terms of the variable only in the form of an infinite series.”

Considering all those meanings (mathematical, philosophical, cultural, etc.), we’d be sure to keep our audience in mind when using the word  “transcendental.”

In an obvious numerical context (a math text, for example), either of your examples (“Pi is transcendental” or “Pi is a transcendental number”) would be OK.

In any other context, however, we’d recommend going with the second example, plus adding a definition of “transcendental” in the mathematical sense.

And if your head is spinning from that OED definition, you could consider “transcendental meditation,” the method of relaxation and meditation based on the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

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Etymology Grammar Linguistics

Was Anne Boleyn deheaded?

Q: I’ve been puzzled by the word “beheaded” and why it’s not “deheaded,” since the letters “be” preceding a word typically add a feature (e.g., “bewitch,” bedeck,” “bedazzle”), and the letters “de” generally detract a feature (e.g., “defrock,” “demote,” “defrost”). Could you please explain this?

 A: The prefix “be-” has many senses in English. To mention only a couple, it can mean not only to give but also, more rarely, to take away. 

It comes from old Germanic sources, and ultimately from a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bhi.

In Old English, the prefix was a form of the preposition and adverb we now know as “by.” 

Words with this prefix that were not accented on the first syllable came to have “be-” rather than “by-” spellings. For example, the word “because” was once written as “by cause” or “bycause.”

The prefix “be-” has several functions in English that are explored in detail in the Oxford English Dictionary and other language references.

We’ll try to simplify the various meanings of this very versatile prefix.

Originally, “be-” was used in the sense of “about,” as seen in words like “bespatter,” “bestir,” “beset,” “become” (literally, to “come about”), and “bedeck” (to “deck about”).

This sense was later enlarged to include “at or near,” as reflected in “behind,” “beyond,” “below,” “beneath,” “beside,”  and “between,” which literally means “by two.”

The prefix is also used in the sense of “thoroughly” or “completely” to form intensive verbs, like “bewilder,” “bewitch,” “bedazzle,” “becalm,” and “bemuse” (to make utterly confused or muddled).

When used to form participial adjectives, the prefix means furnished with “in an overdone way,” the OED says, as in “beribboned,” “bewigged,” “bedeviled,” etc.

In addition, “be-” is used in the sense of “make” or “cover with” or “furnish with,” and is added to adjectives and nouns to form verbs: “befoul,” “besot,” “befool” (to make a fool of), “beknight” (to make a knight of), “bedew,” “bewhisker,” “beguile,” “bejewel,” “befriend,” and so on.

The prefix is also used to make verbs transitive by giving them a prepositional sense, as in “bespeak” (“speak about/for”) “bemoan” (“moan about/over”), and “bewail” (“wail about”).

Finally we come to the meaning you’re puzzled  about. The prefix “be-” was once used (and occasionally still is) in the sense of “off” or “away” to form verbs.

Most of these old verbs are no longer with us, but traces of the old usage remain in the verbs “bereave” (originally, to dispossess), and “behead.”

There’s another class of words that we’ve barely mentioned—the ones that kept the old “by-” or “bye-” prefix. Unlike the “be-” words, these are accented on the  first syllable.

Examples include some descended from Old English like “bylaw” and “byword,” as well as more modern words like “bygone,” “byroad,” and “bystander.” 

Incidentally, don’t confuse “be-” prefixed words with those, like “begone” and “beware,” in which the first syllable represents the verb “be.” These were once expressed in two words: “be ware,” “be gone.” 

The above information comes from the OED, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Something tells us you’d be interested in a blog item we wrote last year that touches on so-called “debone verbs.”

These are verbs (like “bone” and “debone”) that mean the same thing with or without the “de-” prefix.

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Etymology Grammar

Myth information

Q: When I was at school—Sept. ’49 to June ’62—I was taught that you never end a sentence with a preposition. Is that rule still being followed? I have no children (only Siamese cats), so I don’t know what is being taught in school today.

A: The old “rule” against ending a sentence with a preposition is a well-known grammatical myth, as we’ve mentioned several times on the blog.

But we still get so many questions about it that we’ll try once again to lay this superstition to rest.

Like the one about “splitting” an infinitive, this so-called rule did not invariably appear in school textbooks, but was handed down orally.

We have an extensive collection of old grammar books, and these rules are absent from almost all of them, especially those published during the last hundred years or so.

We devote an entire chapter in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, to such grammatical fictions, and we’ve written about them on the Grammar Myths page of our website.

In a blog item about our changing language, we also discuss this business of ending a sentence with a preposition. Here’s an excerpt:

“It was believed for a (very brief) time a couple of hundred years ago that an English sentence shouldn’t end with a preposition. Why? Because English had emerged gradually and informally and naturally, and concern about rules came later. When questions of grammar arose in the 18th century, Latin scholars sought to impose the rules of Latin on English. But before long people realized that English wasn’t a Romance (Latin-derived) language. It’s a Germanic language, and Germanic languages commonly end in prepositions. So that brief ‘rule’ was debunked, although many people still erroneously cling to it. A lot of former ‘rules’ of grammar are old myths invented by Latinists in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

So the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition was exposed as a fallacy long before you went to school. Unfortunately, your teachers never got the word.

In case you need another authority, you can check The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language or a much less technical source, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.).

Here’s what the Chicago Manual has to say: “The ‘rule’ prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition. Today many grammarians use the dismissive term pied-piping for this phenomenon.”  (Page 249.)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage goes further. Here are a couple of excerpts:

For the last century or so, commentators have been “unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety.” (Page 609.)

“The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.” (Page 611.)

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Etymology Usage

Ulterior purposes

Q: You mention on your blog that “ulterior” seems to appear only in connection with “motive.” I wonder if you can come up with other adjectives that modify only one noun. Is there a word for a term like this?

A: You’re mixing up the media and you’re a bit off on the message.

Pat did say once on the air that “ulterior” is seldom seen without “motive.” But this hasn’t been discussed on our blog, though we once wrote about the history and etymology of “ulterior.”

A Google search shows that “motive” (or its plural, “motives”) is the noun most frequently paired with “ulterior.” The distant runners-up are “ulterior purpose” and “ulterior design” (we counted both singular and plural versions).

These results are pretty much reflected in the pairings to be found in published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Confining ourselves to quotations in which “ulterior” means “lying beyond what is openly stated, avowed, or evident; intentionally kept in the background or concealed,” the OED has these mentions:

“Ulterior demands” (1735); “ulterior intentions” (1825); “ulterior designs” (1850, 1856); “ulterior aims” (1891); “ulterior purpose” (1866, 1877, 1912, 1963); and “ulterior ends” (1952).

The OED’s own editors, in various word definitions, use some of these phrases, as well as “ulterior significance.” 

But there are eight uses of “ulterior motive” (or “motives”), including quotations from 1861, 1942, 1975, and 1980, as well as uses by the OED’s editors.

So it would seem that “ulterior” and “motive” have decided they belong together and have made a go of it, especially in recent decades.

Are there other such words that seem to be wedded to one another? Well, we don’t often see “vim” without “vigor.” Or “flotsam” without “jetsam.” But those are nouns.

We can think of several predictable pairings of noun and adjective. A “dudgeon” is always “high” (so is a “roller”). An “end” is often “bitter,” and an “argument” is “heated.”

What’s more, a “fog” is generally “impenetrable,” a “bystander” is “innocent,” an “escape” is “narrow,” a “source” is “reliable,” a “slope” is “slippery,” and an “image” is “tarnished.”

You’ll notice that the examples we’ve given are notorious clichés. “Ulterior motive” hasn’t reached cliché status, at least not yet. 

This doesn’t precisely answer your question, because those adjectives don’t appear exclusively in those phrases. And we don’t know if there’s a word for such pairings. 

When Pat first became a newspaper editor (we won’t say how many decades ago), she noticed that the phrase “oil-rich Kuwait” was inevitable.

By some mysterious unwritten rule, Kuwait was always introduced as “oil-rich.”

Even today, “oil-rich Kuwait” gets almost 200,000 Google hits.

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English language Grammar Linguistics Usage

Are husband and wife antonyms?

Q: My son, a fourth grader, has a homework sheet that gives “brother/sister” and “husband/wife” as antonyms. Somehow this doesn’t seem right to me. What do you think?

A: The school worksheet misused the word “antonym.” It means “opposite.”

In its entry for “antonym,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as “a word having a meaning opposite to that of another word.”

The dictionary give this sentence as an example: “The word wet is an antonym of the word dry.”

Words like “brother,” “sister,” “husband,” and “wife” do not have opposites, or antonyms. The only possible opposites of “brother” and “husband” would be “not brother” and “not husband.” Such terms wouldn’t have any meaning.

You might say that “brother” has a feminine counterpart: “sister.” And “wife” has a masculine counterpart: “husband.” But they aren’t opposites.

Neither are, for example, the nouns “dog” and “cat.” The dog might be called a canine counterpart to the cat; the cat might be called a feline counterpart to the dog. But they aren’t opposites.

The adjectives “male” and “female” may be said to be opposites, however. Most antonyms tend to be adjectives and represent extremes of some condition or state: “black/white,” “wet/dry,” “dead/alive,” “light/dark,” and so on.

We’re not saying that opposite nouns don’t exist. “Good” and “evil” might be described as opposites, for instance.

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Etymology Linguistics

Widow thou goest

Q: I’ve always wondered why women are widows and men are widowers. Can you shed some light?

A: This is something we’ve wondered about ourselves, and now we have an excuse to ferret out the answer.

As you might imagine, “widow” is a very old word. It came into English in the 800s through old Germanic sources.

But its ancestry goes far back into prehistory, to an ancient Indo-European stem reconstructed as widh (to be empty or separated).

This same prehistoric root may be seen in the Latin verb dividere (to separate), as well as in the English “divide,” “individual,” and other words.

In Old English, there were two versions of “widow”: the masculine widewa and the feminine widewe. So there was one word for a bereaved husband and another for a bereaved wife.

The “er” ending for the masculine version developed in the late 14th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new word is from the poem Piers Plowman (1362), in the phrase “widewers and widewes.”

The two words were spelled various ways until the modern “widow” and “widower” emerged as the standard forms in the 18th century.

This may sound pretty straightforward, but the actual evolution of “widow” and “widower” was a bit messier.

The feminine version was used now and then to refer to men from around 1000 to the late 19th century, sometimes by itself and sometimes in the phrase “widow-man.”

The latest citation for this usage is from an 1894 novel by the Scottish writer Samuel R. Crockett: “I had been a widow three years when I began to gang aboot Parton Hoose to see her.”  

Meanwhile, the verb “widow” (to make a widow of) and the participial adjective “widowed” have continued to apply to both sexes.

A “widow” is defined in the OED as “a woman whose husband is dead (and who has not married again); a wife bereaved of her husband.”

And a “widower” is “a man whose wife is dead (and who has not married again); a husband bereaved of his wife.”

Here’s an etymological aside. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that the Indo-European root we mentioned above “produced a large number of words for ‘widow’ in the Indo-European languages.”

Those words include the Latin vidua (source of the French veuve, Italian vedova, and Spanish viuda), the Russian and Czech vdova, Welsh gweddr, German witwe, Dutch weduwe, and of course our English “widow.”

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Colon treatment, part 2

Q: Thank you for the explanation on when NOT to use a colon. Can you also share some examples on how to use one?

A: The correct usage of the colon is pretty straightforward.

As Pat writes in Woe Is I, the colon is used to present something: a statement, a series of things, a quotation, or instructions. (Note that we just used one in that sentence.)

Here are a couple of bulleted paragraphs from the book: 

• Use a colon instead of a comma, if you wish, to introduce a quotation. I said to him: “Harry, please pick up a bottle of wine on your way over. But don’t be obsessive about it.” Many people prefer to introduce a longer quotation with a colon instead of a comma.

• Use a colon to introduce a list, if what comes before the colon could be a small sentence in itself (it has both a subject and a verb). Harry brought three wines: a Bordeaux, a Beaujolais, and a Burgundy.

 As for capitalization after a colon, Pat adds this note in Woe Is I:

“If what comes after the colon is a complete sentence, you may start it with a capital or a lowercase letter. I use a capital when I want to be more emphatic: My advice was this: Bring only one next time. (This is a matter of taste, and opinions differ. Whatever your choice, be consistent.)”

A colon is sometimes used to present a piece of information in an emphatic way. If you prefer, a dash can do the same thing.

As Pat explains elsewhere in the book, “A single dash can be used in place of a colon to emphatically present some piece of information. It was what Tina dreaded most—fallen arches.”

Colons are also used in telling the time, as in “Meet me at 3:45.” And as we’ve written in our blog, colons are used in Biblical citations.

In case you’re  wondering about how to use a colon with quotation marks, we’ve written about that on our blog too.

As we note, in the American system, a colon goes outside the closing quotation marks. Here’s an example from Woe Is I:

There are two reasons she hates the nickname “Honey”: It’s sticky and it’s sweet.

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Blowin’ in the wind

Q: I don’t relate to “offshore.” I have to stop and think every time I read about an “offshore” wind. Is the wind blowing away from the shore or toward it?

A: We’ve often wondered about the use of “offshore” ourselves. We also have to ask ourselves if a wind is blowing toward the sea or toward the shore.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which ought to know, says the first is correct.

The OED defines the adverb (e.g., “it’s blowing offshore”) as meaning “in a direction away from the shore.”

And it defines the adjective (“an offshore wind”) as meaning “moving or directed away from the shore; (spec. of a wind) blowing towards the sea from the land.”

Both the adverb and the adjective came into English in the 18th century, a great seafaring era.   

Here are a couple of citations from the OED that vividly demonstrate the meaning of “offshore” winds.

The first is from a journal kept by Charles Darwin aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, in an entry dated December 1833: “An insect on the wing with an off-shore breeze, would be very apt to be blown out to sea.”

The second is from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel The Beasts of Tarzan (1916): “Caught by a heavy tide and a high wind from offshore they had been driven out of sight of land.”

Despite the explanations, we suspect that we’ll still have to stop and think the next time we encounter “offshore” in writing.

Perhaps it will help if we try to remember Darwin’s insect on the wing, being carried out to sea.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Are you the one?

Q: I’m bugged by the increasing use of “you” to mean “a person” or “one,” as in “You run into all types on the bus.” It’s even used for “I” to avoid accepting responsibility: “You don’t expect a car to pass you on the right.” In other words, anyone would have hit that car.

A: You’re right that “you” is often used as an indefinite personal pronoun meaning “a person” or “one.”

But we’re not sure that this usage is more common now than in the past. You may simply be noticing it more because it bugs you.

As it turns out, the usage has been around for hundreds of years and it’s perfectly acceptable grammatically. Here’s a little history.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations beginning in the 16th century for the use of “you” to denote “any hearer or reader; hence as an indef. pers. pron.: One, any one.”

The OED’s earliest citation comes from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Foure Bookes of Husbandry, a Latin treatise on farming: “You shall sometime have one branch more gallant than his fellowes.”

Here’s another citation, from Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift: “A child … began a squall that you might have heard from London Bridge to Chelsea.”

And here’s one from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies: Two Lectures (1865): “You can talk a mob into anything.”

The use of “one” for this purpose (that is, in reference to an unidentified someone, or a person in general) sounds rather formal to the average American.

The OED says “one” is used this way in two difference senses.

In the first sense, “one” is used to mean a person in general—that is, anyone.

This is how the British writer Nancy Mitford used it in her novel Highland Fling (1931): “One is not exactly encouraged to use one’s brain over here, you know.”

In the second sense, “one” is used to refer to the speaker alone (like “I”).

A good example is this conversation from Eileen H. Clements’s novel High Tension (1959): “ ‘Do you often have your fan-mail in person?’ … ‘Not often. One isn’t in the telephone book.’ ”

Another example comes from Frank Johnson’s Out of Order (1982), a collection of political sketches: “How to persuade the Telegraph that … one was a man of immense culture? (Saying ‘one’ when you mean ‘I’ would do for a start, I decided.)”

As the OED notes, this latter usage is “associated esp. with British upper-class speech, and now freq. regarded as affected.”

You’re right in suggesting that speakers sometimes use “you” (or “one”) in place of “I” to avoid taking responsibility.

Here are a couple of examples:

“How are you supposed to know when a gun is loaded?”

“One didn’t realize the safety was off, now did one?”

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A Caucasian wingnut?

Q: My family and I were visiting New York from Iowa City last week and went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where we spotted a tree labeled “Caucasian Wingnut.” It’s in the walnut family. I think it should be the tree for this election cycle.

A: Wow! We checked out the picture, and it’s a stunning tree. Here’s how Richard J. Berenson and Neil Demause describe it in The Complete Guidebook to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:

“This tree’s thick, gnarled trunk supports several heavy branches, including one that charges off to the east with seeming disregard for the laws of gravity, suspended in midair by only the most tenuous hold on its trunk.”

The Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia) originated in the Caucasus Mountains. The tree, which can grow to nearly 100 feet, got the second part of its common name from the long chains of winged nutlets that hang on the branches.

The tree that grows in Brooklyn is about 90 years old and requires “a bit of mechanical support” to keep that wayward branch from breaking, according to The Tree Care Primer, published by the botanic garden.

As for the term “wingnut,” when it first showed up in the early 20th century it  referred to a nut (the kind you find in a hardware store) with a pair of winglike projections.

The first citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1910 issue of Chambers’s Journal: “The wing-nut on its shaft is released, the detachable rim-wheel placed on the shaft, and the nut replaced.”

We still use the word “wingnut” that way, of course. The wings enable us to turn the nut on a bolt with just our fingers, without using tools.

In the 1980s, the term “wingnut” also came to mean “an eccentric, a fool,” according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

And in the 1990s, Cassell’s says, the term was used by young people in Britain to refer to “a person with large, protruding ears.”

Finally, we come to the use of “wingnut” in its disparaging political sense.

Although the word has been used for both right-wingers and left-wingers, it’s more often seen in reference to the right. For example, “left-wing wingnuts” recently got 13,200 hits on Google while “right-wing wingnuts” got 34,100.

In fact, the political use of the term “wingnut” may have originated as a shortened form of “right-wing nut.”

The earliest example we can find for the long version is from Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966): “You one of these right-wing nut outfits?”

It apparently took a couple of decades for the short version to show up, however.

The linguist Lance Nathan, writing on the Language Log, offers several early citations, including one from a Canadian newspaper and one from an American paper.

A June 1998 item in the Globe and Mail, Nathan says, discusses ridding a right-wing party in British Columbia of “the taint of wing nuts and the image of extremism.”

And an October 1998 item in the St. Petersburg Times, he writes, refers to former President George H. W. Bush as “bowing to instinct and pressure from party wing nuts.”

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Etymology Grammar

How ridiculous is “ridiculously”?

Q: I keep noticing the use of “ridiculously” as a substitute for “tremendously,” as in “She’s ridiculously chic.” This may be a passing fad, but I don’t like it. Do you think I should just get a life?

A: People use “ridiculously” in two distinct ways.

First, they use it more or less literally  to mean “in a ridiculous or silly way,” much as they might use “absurdly.” 

Second, they use it as a simple intensifier meaning very, extremely, extraordinarily, and (as you point out) tremendously.

And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

We happen to think both usages are legitimate, but you apparently object to the use of  “ridiculously” as a mere intensifier.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and other standard dictionaries we checked seem to support you in this.

They don’t define “ridiculously” per se, but they simply list it as the adverbial form of the adjective “ridiculous,” which is defined as absurd, silly, preposterous, laughable, and so on.

However, we think the lexicographers at these standard dictionaries are behind the times, and the Oxford English Dictionary agrees with us.

The OED’s primary definition of “ridiculously” is pretty much the same as the ones in standard dictionaries, but the OED has this additional meaning: “Later also simply as an intensifier.”

It’s hard to tell from the published references in the OED exactly when the adverb evolved from its ridiculous beginnings to become an intensifier.

The earliest citation, which uses the word in its absurd sense, is from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563): “So foolyshly and ridiculously seekyng holes and corners to hyde them selues in.”

The first citation that seems to use the word in its emphatic sense is from Mariana, a 1940 novel by Monica Enid Dickens (great-granddaughter of Charles):

“The gravel drive, where even a tired horse used to jog-trot because his stable was near, was ridiculously short.”

But even in that quotation, one might argue about the meaning. Does the author mean merely “very” short, or something closer to “absurdly” or even “preposterously” short? That’s what we mean when we say it’s sometimes hard to tell.  

Perhaps the conclusion is that one should be cautious when using “ridiculously” as a simple intensifier. It implies a value judgment on the part of the speaker, a nuance that’s lacking in more neutral intensifiers like “extremely.”

And by the way, the OED also has an entry for the adjective “ridiculous” as jazz slang meaning outstanding or excellent. Here’s a 1959 citation: “His technique is ridiculous!”

So should you get a life? Don’t be ridiculous. We think it’s good that you care about the English language.

But like you, English has a life. And like all living things, it’s a work in progress.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Hear Pat live today on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: Should people who love English get all hot and bothered when the language changes?

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Etymology Usage

Should “iconic” get religion?

Q: Will you do everyone a favor and make your best effort to put to sleep the horribly misused word “iconic”? I grind my teeth when I hear it, and at 63 I would like to keep my teeth as long as possible.

A: You’re not the first person to ask us to try to do something about “iconic.” But you overestimate our powers of influence!

All we can do is write about these things and give our opinions. We couldn’t stem the tides of English even if we wanted to.

Besides, in our estimation “iconic” is being overused rather than misused when seen or heard in its modern secular sense.

In the beginning, the noun “icon” and the adjective “iconic” referred merely to portraits, not to objects of worship. Since the words have evolved in tandem, we’ll review the histories of both.

The noun and the adjective have their source in the Greek eikon (likeness, image, portrait), from the verb eikenai (to seem, to be like, to resemble).

The noun “icon” entered English in the 1500s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

It originally meant simply “an image, figure, or representation; a portrait; a picture, ‘cut,’ or illustration in a book.”

Later in that same century, the word was also used to refer to a solid image, like a statuette.

The word first appeared in English in reference to a small cut or illustration in a book about birds, John Bossewell’s Workes of Armorie (1572): “The Icon, or forme of the same birde, I have caused thus to bee figured.”

As for the adjective, “iconic” got its start in English in the 1600s, when it meant “of or pertaining to an icon, image, figure, or representation; of the nature of a portrait.”

The OED’s first citation in writing for “iconic” is from Thomas Blount’s dictionary Glossographia (1656): “Iconic, belonging to an Image, also lively pictured.”

Not until the 19th century did the English words “icon” and “iconic” come to refer to sacred images used in worship.

The OED’s first citation for this sense of “icon” is from Robert Pinkerton’s book Russia (1833): “Behind them were carried … six censers, and six sacred ikons.”

In the 20th century the words again changed direction.

“Icon” and “iconic” came to be used to refer to people and things that were regarded as symbols, or as representative of a culture or a movement.

The OED’s first citation for this use of “icon” is from Charles S. Holmes, writing in the Pacific Spectator (1952):

“ ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,’ the work of a high-spirited young man turning a critical eye upon a national icon, satirically fabulizes the American Mr. Moneybags.”

And the OED’s first citation for “iconic” used in this way is from a 1976 article in Newsweek:

“His long-distance picture of Robert Smithson’s iconic ‘Spiral Jetty,’ with the artist seen as a speck walking along the top of an arch of his own work, is the finest example of its kind.”

So while we agree that “iconic” is very tired and deserves a rest, we don’t think it’s being used incorrectly. Rather, this nonreligious usage recalls an older, secular meaning of the word. 

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s opening topic: gloriously ungrammatical song lyrics. If you miss a program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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There’s a whole lotta grammar goin’ on

Q: Pet Peeve: the hideous and now seemingly universal practice of using the singular “there’s”  (instead of “there’re”) with plural references. Do I have any sympathy? Lost cause, I know.

A: Of course we sympathize! In fact, we’ve written on the blog about this use of “there’s.” But we don’t buy the legitimacy of “there’re” as a contraction.

“There’re” is fine in speech, but what passes in speech doesn’t always make the grade in written English. 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has entries for all contractions that are considered standard English. There’s no “there’re” there. And M-W is about as descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) a dictionary as you’ll find.

In our opinion, what we HEAR as “there’re” is actually a phonetically elided “there are.” This is why novelists, for instance, use it in rendering informal speech.

But on to the larger issue, the misuse of “there’s” or “there is” in reference to a plural.

When a statement begins with “there,” the verb can be either singular or plural, as in these examples from Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I:

There is [or there’s] a fly in my soup!” said Mr. LaFong. “And there are lumps in the gravy.”

The choice can be tricky, though, because “there” is only a phantom subject. In the first example, the real subject is “fly”; in the second it’s “lumps.”

Why do so many people resort to “there’s” for both singular and plural?

One reason, according to the grammarian Otto Jespersen, is that people often begin a statement with “there is” or “there’s” before they know how they’re going to finish it.

Although this singular use of “there is” and “there’s” is very common now, it’s not new; it’s been around for a long time.

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has published references dating back to the late 1500s.

The earliest M-W citation is from the Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1595): “Honey, and milk, and sugar: there is three.”

And here’s an example from a 1797 letter by Charles Lamb: “… there is in nature, I fear, too many tendencies to envy and jealousy.”

Another citation is from Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722): “A lottery where there is a hundred thousand blanks to one prize.”

M-W even cites the lexicographer Stuart Berg Flexner in the journal Righting Words (1987): “…if there’s several ways you can use something before or after the verb.”

The usage guide also says people tend to use “there is” or “there’s” with a plural compound subject when the first part of the compound is singular. For example, “There’s a car and two bikes in the garage.”

We have one more possible explanation why the singular “there’s” is seen and heard so much these days.

People who are contraction oriented may find “there’re” too much of a mouthful (whether in writing or in speech), and turn to “there’s” as the default usage.

The difficulty with “there’re” is no excuse, though. In standard English today, the singular is “there’s” or “there is,” and the plural is “there are.”

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The long and the short of it

Q: Your post on “I mean” and other empty expressions made me wonder why people do things “on a daily basis” or “on a regular basis”?  Can’t they simply do them daily or regularly? Ever been bugged by this?

A: Yes, we’re sometimes annoyed by this kind of thing too. But usually we simply  don’t hear (or see) the extra words because they whiz right by. Words with no content tend to do that.

The adverbial phrases “on a daily basis” and “on a regular basis” can easily be replaced, as you suggest, by “daily” and “regularly.”

The chief attraction of these phrases is that they’re longer. To some people, longer is better.

A couple of extra words may sometimes improve the rhythm of a sentence, but they often just clutter writing with verbal litter.

This reminds us of a comment by Mark Twain that we used in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. Here’s how we began our section on the roots of the word “cop”:

“Like many writers of his day, Mark Twain was often paid by the word. At seven cents a pop, he’d get forty-nine cents for this sentence: ‘I met a policeman in the metropolis.’ Except that he wouldn’t have written it like that, or so he once joked.

“ ‘I never write “metropolis” for seven cents, because I can get the same money for “city.” I never write “policeman,” because I can get the same price for “cop.” ’ ”

We like short words too. They’re punchy, direct, and down-to-earth. But many people feel the need to pump up their writing with longer words and phrases.

As for “cop,” if you’d like to read more and don’t want to pop for Origins of the Specious, we had a brief blog item in 2006 on the word’s history.

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The myth-busters get busted

Q: As a Texan, I’m dismayed to read in Origins of the Specious the old canard that Sam Houston State University was once called the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching. I’m surprised you put it in your book without checking first!

A: To our dismay, you’re right and our book is wrong.

The school now known as Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, was never the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching. Its name was changed several times over the years, but not to avoid any embarrassing acronyms.

This is particularly annoying to us, since Origins of the Specious is all about language myths. We should have exposed this one, instead of helping to spread it! Here’s how we happened to fall for it.

In researching naughty acronyms, we came across Dan Rather’s biography The Camera Never Blinks: Adventures of a TV Journalist, written with Mickey Herskowitz and published by William Morrow & Company in 1977. 

Rather, who attended the school in East Texas in the 1950s, opens his first chapter this way:

“The dream begins, most of the time, with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth.”

The teacher who believed in him, he writes, “was named Hugh Cunningham and he taught journalism in 1950 at Sam Houston State Teachers College.”

Rather then goes on to say (with no indication that he’s joking) the following:

“For whatever interest it may hold for historians, until the 1920s the official name of the college was the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching. When freshmen started wearing sweatshirts with the school’s initials the state legislature hastily passed an act and renamed it.”

This passage, which is cited in a footnote in our book, is the source of the Sam Houston Institute of Teaching anecdote that we unwittingly repeated.

Rather’s biography is a serious book and he’s a serious journalist. We think that he believed this story when he wrote his book. And we believed it when we came across it while writing ours. 

This doesn’t excuse our mistake, of course, since we could have dug deeper to verify this information. But at the time we had no reason to disbelieve Rather’s book. 

Now, for the record, here’s the true story, according to Sam Houston State University’s website.

A page added to the site in April 2010 by the school’s communications office gives a brief history of the university and this chronology of its names:

1879, founded as Sam Houston Normal Institute;

1923, renamed Sam Houston State Teachers College;

1965, renamed Sam Houston State College;

1969, renamed Sam Houston State University.

We’ve sent a corrected version of the anecdote to our publisher, Random House, and it should appear in future reprints, as well as in the ebook.

By the way, Sam Houston State University’s journalism program is now housed in the Dan Rather Communications Building. 

Like Rather, we’re former journalists, and we take the truth very seriously.

Thanks for calling this mistake to our attention, and for poking us with  that “sharp stick called truth.” 

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Do you want it bad … or badly?

Q: Which is correct: “He wanted this bad” or “He wanted this badly”? My teacher and I disagree. Can you help me win this argument?

A: You don’t say which side of the argument you’re on, but this may be a case where there’s no definite winner.

What your question boils down to is this: Does “want” qualify as a linking verb (one that describes a state or condition, rather than an action)?

If it does, then it’s fine to say “He wanted this bad.” If not, then good English requires “He wanted this badly.”

The short answer is that there’s no short answer, because usage authorities disagree.

Many usage guides say that “want bad” is quite common in speech and informal writing, but it doesn’t belong in formal written English.

At least one guide, however, regards “want bad” as standard English.

Our advice, particularly since you’re a student being graded on grammar, is to use “want badly” in formal written English. You can use “want bad,” if you like, in other contexts. 

Here’s the story. A linking verb (like “be” or “feel” or “seem”) is modified by an adjective (like “bad”) rather than an adverb (like “badly”).

So, for example, it’s perfectly correct  to say “I’m good” or “I feel good” or “I’m not bad” when someone asks you how you are or how you’re feeling. 

We’ve written several blog items about this subject, including one in 2009.

There are 11 verbs generally considered linking verbs: “be,” “appear,” “become,” “feel,” “grow,” “look,” “remain,” “seem,” “smell,” “sound,” and “taste.”

Since “want” isn’t one of these, it should generally be modified by an adverb (as in “he wants it greatly”) rather than an adjective (“he wants it great”). 

However, “bad” is a special case and sometimes acts as an adverb, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

For instance, the dictionary says, “bad” is interchangeable with “badly” after the verbs “want” and “need.”

So, in M-W’s opinion, expressions like “he needed it bad” and “he wanted it bad” are standard English. 

This makes some sense to us, since wanting and needing are closer to emotional states or conditions than they are to actions.

M-W notes, however, that while it considers these usages standard English, most of its evidence comes from speech rather than writing.

And as we said earlier, many other commentators, including the editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, consider phrases like “want bad” and “need bad” to be informal rather than standard. 

That’s why we advise you to pick your words according to context: conversation, casual writing, or formal written English.

In any case, you can’t go wrong with “want badly.” 

Interestingly, at one time “want badly” was considered grammatically incorrect!

It was criticized by commentators in the early 1900s, apparently because they didn’t like the use of “badly” as an intensifier meaning “very much.”  

This is no longer the case. Here’s what The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has to say on the subject:

“The use of badly with want was once considered incorrect but is now entirely acceptable: We wanted badly to go to the beach.”

There are two lessons here. One is that nobody will criticize you for saying “want badly.” The other is that English is a changing language. Stay tuned.

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Is the stock market predictable?

Q: I’ve googled and googled “predictive” and “predictable,” but it’s still not clear when I can use one and not the other. If stock prices can be predicted, is the market “predictable” or “predictive”? I can’t quite put my finger on the difference between these two words. Are they interchangeable?

A: The verb “predict” comes from Latin roots and literally means “pre-say.” A parallel word with Anglo-Saxon roots is “foretell.”  

If something is “predictive,” it helps to predict or foretell something else—some situation or event. And that situation or event is what’s “predictable”: it can be predicted or foretold.

So “predictive” and “predictable” events are not interchangeable. One does the predicting (it foretells). The other is what’s predicted (it’s foretold).

Another point to make here is that logically what’s “predictive” precedes what’s “predictable.” 

Here are some examples:

“A fall in housing prices is predictive of a recession,” said the analyst. “In other words, the recession was predictable after housing prices fell.”

And here’s another, more whimsical set of examples:

“This love line in your palm is predictive of a happy marriage,” said the fortune teller. “Furthermore, your happy marriage was predictable because of that love line.”

As for the stock market, it’s “predictable” if stock prices can be predicted. And it’s “predictive” if a rise or fall in the market predicts good times or bad.

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Do you hear mermaids singing each to each?

Q: “Each” takes a singular verb, but what if there are two of them? Example: “As we shall see, each major research method (e.g., laboratory experiments, surveys, computer simulations) and each type of outcome measure (e.g., self-reports, peer-ratings, behavioral ratings) have strengths and limitations.” Logically, the verb should be plural, but it sounds strange to me.

A: It may sound strange to you, but a plural verb is indeed appropriate in that sentence from The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (2005) by David M. Buss.

If we remove the grammatically extraneous stuff, the sentence has a plural compound subject: “each method and each type.” And a plural subject gets a plural verb: “have” in this case.

Excuse the digression, but this “each” business reminds us of T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”

Sometimes people ask us about a different kind of “each” sentence, one like this:

“As we shall see, each major research method (e.g., laboratory experiments, surveys, computer simulations) has strengths and limitations.”

They’re tempted to use a plural verb (“have” instead of “has”) because of all those parenthetical extras thrown in between the subject and the verb.

But the subject is singular (“each major research method”) despite the extra information inserted between the subject and the verb.

The extra information that tempts people to use a plural verb sometimes appears in parentheses, as above, but it’s sometimes inserted in other ways.

Here’s how Pat explains this in her grammar book Woe Is I (pages 49-50 in the third edition paperback):

● Extra information inserted between subject and verb doesn’t alter the verb.

           Spring’s glory was lost on Ollie.

           Spring’s glory, with its birds and its flowers and its trees, was lost on Ollie.

The subject, glory, is still singular, no matter how much information you add to it.

● Phrases such as accompanied by, added to, along with, as well as, coupled with, in addition to, and together with, inserted between subject and verb, don’t alter the verb.

           Spring was a tonic for Stan.

           Spring, along with a few occasional flirtations, was a tonic for Stan.

The subject is still spring, and is singular.

● Descriptions (adjectives) added to the subject don’t alter the verb.

           A substance was stuck to Stan’s shoe.

            A green, slimy, and foul-smelling substance was stuck to Stan’s shoe.

The subject is substance, and it stays singular no matter how many disgusting adjectives you pile on.

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Etymology Usage

With a jaded eye

Q: I was surprised to see “jaded” used to describe exhausted soldiers. I’m familiar with the satiated meaning of “jaded,” but not this exhausted sense. Have I led a sheltered life or is the usage almost obsolete?

 A: “Jaded,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has two general meanings: (1) “worn out or exhausted; fatigued; fagged out” and (2) “dull or sated by continual use or indulgence.”

Both senses date from the 1600s and are still in use. But standard dictionaries give the word an added dimension: cynical.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this as its second definition: “made dull, apathetic, or cynical by experience or surfeit.” M-W gives as examples “jaded network viewers” and “jaded voters.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) goes even further, giving “jaded” a separate, third definition: “cynically or pretentiously callous.”

We’re sure the OED will catch up with this newer usage when it updates its entries for “jaded,” none of which have any citations more recent than the 1890s.

The word “jaded” here is a participial adjective derived from the verb “jade,” which means to exhaust or wear out, or to become exhausted or worn out.

The words “jade” and “jape” don’t seem to be connected etymologically and the OED says their origins are uncertain. But the two words have oddly similar backgrounds. Here are a couple of examples.

A now obscure meaning of the verb “jade” is to make a fool of someone. And one meaning of the verb “jape,” dating from the 1300s, is “to trick, beguile, befool, deceive,” the OED says.

(“Jape” is still used both as a verb and noun to mean joke or quip.)

The noun “jade,” when use for a person, is described by the OED as “a term of reprobation applied to a woman. Also used playfully, like hussy or minx.”

And at one time, the verb “jape” meant to seduce or have sex with.

As for the gemstone called “jade,” it’s an entirely different animal—or rather, mineral.

The name is actually used for two separate minerals that look very similar, nephrite and jadeite.

The name comes from the French l’ejade, which was misinterpreted as le jade and entered English as “jade.”

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Have a good day

[An updated post about “have a good day,” “have a nice day,” and “have a good one” appeared on Oct. 19, 2018.]

Q: I get my back up (just a little) when someone says “Have a good one.” OK, it’s pretty clear it means “Have a good day,” but when did this foolish usage come into use? And why? It’s not as if “one” has fewer syllables than “day.”

A: People who say “Have a good one” may annoy you, but their hearts are in the right place. At least we hope so.

You’re probably right that the expression is a variant of “Have a good day.” Our guess is that “Have a good one” is starting to replace another variant, the still ubiquitous “Have a nice day.”

We also find some of these formulaic phrases annoying, but we try not to get too irritated, since “Have a good day,” the granddaddy of them all, has been around in one form or another since the early 1200s.

The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet commented on “Have a good one” but it has taken notice of “Have a nice day.”

The OED describes it as a colloquial phrase (one more characteristic of speech than of writing) that originated in the US nearly 40 years ago.

It’s used, the OED says, “as a conventional formula on parting,” like “goodbye.”

The dictionary’s first published reference for the phrase is from Dorothy Halliday’s 1971 book Dolly and the Doctor Bird: “The admonitions of the freeway from the airport are wholly American: Keep off the Median … Have a Nice Day.”

Here are a couple of other citations.

1980, from a piece in Redbook magazine: “He picks up the phone, calls his old friend. What are old friends for? Have a nice day.”

1985, from Eating Out in London: “What characterises a good restaurant in America is brisk service (which can, but doesn’t necessarily entail the ‘have a nice day’ syndrome).”

But back to “Have a good day.”

The earliest OED citation for the expression in its modern form is from Paul Theroux’s novel Picture Palace (1978): “ ‘Have a good day,’ he said. ‘You too.’ ”

However, an earlier version (minus the indefinite article “a”) first showed up around the year 1205 in the Brut, a history of England in verse by the Middle English poet Layamon.

In the medieval poem, King Vortiger tells his knights: Habbe alle godne dæie (in Modern English, “Have now all good day”).

The OED describes the now-obsolete Middle English version of the expression, “have good day,” as “a phrase used as a salutation at meeting or parting.”

The latest OED citation for an article-free version of the expression is from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lord of the Isles (1814): “Thanks for your proffer—have good-day.”

The expression has also appeared in various other guises, including the verbal phrases “bid (someone) good day” or “give (a  person) good day.”

The OED’s citations include this one from Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Italian (1797): “The old lady again bade him good-day.”

Here’s another, from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Wyllard’s Weird (1885): “They gave him good-day if they met him in the street.”

The plain and simple “good day,” the OED says, is comparable to the French bon jour, the German guten tag, and equivalent phrases in all the Teutonic and Romance languages.

It adds, though, that “good day” is less common in English than in French or German.

In English, the phrases “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good evening” are more common at meetings and partings. (“Good night” is used only in parting.)

The OED’s earliest citation in writing for the simple “good day” is from a set of religious dramas known as The Towneley Mysteries (1460): “A good day, thou, and thou.”

Jane Austen used it in 1798 in her novel Northanger Abbey: “And to marry for money, I think the wickedest thing in existence. Good day.”

We all know, of course, how common “g’day” now is in Australia, where it’s become a national byword.

And with that, we’ll bid you and our other readers a good day.

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All well and good, again

Q: You’ve written about “well” and “good,” but here are some examples that still aren’t clear to me: (1) “Is everything well/good with you?” (2) “I hope all is well/good there.” (3) “I’m well/good” with it. (4) “He feels well/good after surgery.” (5) “The wound has healed and he’s well/good.”

A: In most of your “well/good” examples, the verb is a form of “be,” which is a linking verb.

And linking verbs—“be,” “feel,” “seem,” “look,” and others—are generally modified by an adjective (like “good”), with one major exception.

If you’re speaking specifically about a person’s health—in the sense of being “well” as opposed to “sick”—then choose “well.”

That’s generally the situation today, according to most usage authorities, but the history of “well” and “good” is much more complicated.

We won’t get into the etymology now, except to say that “well” was used as an adjective back in Anglo-Saxon times in some of the ways we’d use “good” today. And it’s still used as an adjective in many common constructions.

Getting back to your question, most people would use “good” in examples 1, 2, and 3 (though 2 could also be used with “well,” as we’ll explain below). For examples 4 and 5, choose “well.”

If you’re still having trouble, try substituting “bad/badly” or “pretty/prettily” for “good/well,” and that might make things clearer.

As you mention, we’ve written several blog items about this business of “well” and “good,” including posts in 2009 and 2008.

The thing to remember is this: if your verb is a form of “be” (“is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “were,” etc.) or another linking verb (like “feel” or “seem”), generally use “good” unless you’re talking about health.

But keep in mind that we use “well” adjectivally in many common idioms: “All is well at our house,” “All’s well that ends well,” “That’s all well and good,” “Blue looks well with that,”  “Is all well with you?” and so on.

The OED has many examples of “well” used as an adjective (rather than an adverb) in constructions like “all is well,” “it is well that we should walk humbly,” “it is well to remember,” “it is well that his errors have done no harm,” “it’s just as well to let it go,” “that’s all very well, but …,” etc.

On that note, we’ll end with a line (later echoed by T. S. Eliot) from Juliana of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

To “of” and “of” not

Q: Is the word “of” necessary in these two examples: “She closed all of  the blinds” and “The bull runs with all of his might”?

A: The preposition “of” is optional in both examples. The sentences would be good English with or without it.

It seems to us, though, that your first example (“She closed all of the blinds”) may be a bit more emphatic with “of.”

And your second (“The bull runs with all of his might”) may be a bit more idiomatic without it, but there’s nothing wrong with using “of” here.

In fact, some googling suggests that both versions of the second example (“all his might” and “all of his might”) are quite common, though the one without the preposition is more popular.

The scorecard as of this writing: “all his might,” 3.95 million results; “all of his might,” 1.8 million.

Although the use of the preposition is optional in your examples, it’s sometimes a no-no.

Pat writes about optional as well as undesirable uses in the new third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

The following passage from Woe Is I buries the old misconception that “of” should always be deleted from the phrases “all of” and “both of”:  

“Some members of the Redundancy Police think of is undesirable in the phrases all of and both of, except in front of a pronoun (all of me, both of them, etc.). They frown on sentences like Both of the thieves spent all of the money, and would prefer Both the thieves spent all the money.

“Either way is correct. There’s no law against keeping of, but by all means drop it if you want to. You can’t please all of the people all the time.” (Page 220 in the paperback.)

Another passage from the book deals with the undesirable use of the preposition in these examples: “Paulie says his new TV fell off of a truck. The missing warranty is not that big of a problem.”

Pat’s advice to readers: “Whack the of: Paulie says his new TV fell off a truck. The missing warranty is not that big a problem.” (Page 127.)

We’ve also written a blog item about the unnecessary “of” in expressions like “not that big of a deal.”

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Grammar Usage

A very acclaimed critical review?

Q: Is it correct to refer to “very critically acclaimed reviews,” as I heard on NPR of all places, or should it be “very acclaimed critical reviews?” Your reply will be very critical in resolving a dispute between my wife and me.

A: Sorry, but the two of you had better kiss and make up. As so often happens in marital spats, both parties are wrong. And so was whoever misspoke on NPR.

If you took the NPR speaker literally, you’d assume the reviews were “critically acclaimed,” not the book or play or movie or whatever was being reviewed.

And if you were really literal minded, you might think “very” modified “critically,” thus the reviews were very critical, rather than very acclaimed.

To be fair, most people would have figured out what the NPR speaker presumably intended—that the work being reviewed was acclaimed. But that doesn’t excuse sloppy English.

The second expression (“very acclaimed critical reviews”) is also a mess if the work reviewed (a play, let’s say) was a critical success.

Taken literally, the expression would refer to brilliantly scathing and much-quoted negative reviews of the play. We can think of one such review, offhand.

In 1934, Dorothy Parker commented on Katharine Hepburn’s performance in a play called The Lake: “Miss Hepburn runs the whole gamut of emotion from A to B.”

The play is long forgotten, but not that very acclaimed critical review!

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Etymology Linguistics

A sigh is just a sigh

Q: Is there an approved pronunciation for the word “scythe” that sounds like “sigh”?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary give only one pronunciation, with the “th” sounded at the end.

The OED’s pronunciation key renders the vowel sound like that in “buy” and the final consonant sound as a hard “th,” like the one in “bathe.” 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists that pronunciation too, but it also lists a variant that sounds like “sigh.”

M-W gives both pronunciations equal weight, meaning both are equally acceptable.

The dictionary’s acceptance of “sigh” as a pronunciation may be a relatively recent development, however.

Our 1956 copy of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition) doesn’t list it.

As you might expect of such a venerable old tool, “scythe” is a word of great antiquity. The OED’s first citation for its appearance in writing is from about 725.

In Old English, it was spelled something like sithe or sigthi, and its older cousins from other Germanic languages also show evidence of a pronounced “th” or “g” sound at or near the end of the word.

The Latin-influenced spelling with “sc” was a later development, and didn’t become widespread until the 17th century.

The OED notes that the 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson preferred the “etymologically correct spelling sithe.”

But it adds that “his authority has not prevailed against the currency of the spelling with sc, due to erroneous association with L. scindere to cut.”

Getting back to the end of the word, the “th” in “scythe” was indeed pronounced in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to several editions of John Walker’s pronouncing dictionaries (the entries are labeled “SITHE, or SCYTHE”).

In checking a 1791 edition of Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, though, we found a surprise.

The word “sigh” apparently was sometimes pronounced much like “scythe”!

In a note attached to his entry for “SIGH,” Walker notes that a “very extraordinary pronunciation of this word prevails in London, and, what is more extraordinary, on the Stage.”

He describes this pronunciation as “so different from every other word of the same form as to make it a perfect oddity in the language.”

“This pronunciation approaches to the word scythe,” he adds, “and the only difference is that scythe has the flat aspiration as in this; and sigh the sharp one, as in thin.”  

Walker goes on to condemn this pronunciation as a “palpable contempt of orthography.”

He may have been unaware that in an old British dialect, a verb spelled and pronounced like “sithe” was a variant of “sigh.”

The OED has citations for this use of “sithe” at various periods ranging from about 1275 to 1875.

One example of its use in print comes from William Holloway’s A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1838): “I knew a clergyman who always read ‘Sithing,’ for ‘sighing of a contrite heart.’ ”

The OED describes this usage as a remnant of a long dead verb, siche, which dated back to the ninth century and also meant “sigh.”

In fact, siche may have been the ancestor of “sigh,” which actually came along later, sometime before 1300.

When siche became obsolete in the 1400s, the OED says, its past tense forms became associated with the newer “sigh” and remained in use.

So what sounded to Walker like a mispronunciation of “sigh” as “sithe” was actually the dying gasp of a much older verb—and one more example of how language changes as time goes by.

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Etymology Usage

An appraising eye

Q: I just finished Origins of the Specious. My appraisal: Bravo!  I loved the way you ended each section with tongue in chic. Now, here’s my pet peeve: folks who use “appraised” when they mean “apprised,” as in, “Keep me appraised of the situation.”

A: Thanks for the kind words about Origins, our book about language myths. We’re glad you liked it. Pat has written about “appraise” versus “apprise” in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. Here’s the passage:

APPRAISE/APPRISE. Appraise means ‘evaluate’ or ‘size up’; apprise means ‘inform.’ Sotheby’s apprised Mr. Big of the fact that his ‘Rembrandt’ was appraised as worthless.”

This you already know, of course. What you may not know is that while the two verbs are now very different, they were once intimately connected. 

“Appraise” developed in the 1300s, during the Middle English period. And it has had only one meaning: to evaluate or size up.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the source of “appraise” was the verb “praise,” which like “prize” is derived from early French verbs meaning to attach value—or a valuation—to something.

In Middle English, both “praise” and “prize” meant not only to esteem or value highly but also to put a price on.   

“Apprise,” unlike “appraise,” has had two meanings in English.

The first, now archaic, also dates from Middle English and was related to the verb “prize.”

In those early days, “apprise” (like “prize” and “praise”) meant to value something—either to esteem it or establish its price. 

The second meaning of “apprise” (to inform), the sense that has survived to modern times, came into English in the 1600s from a very different French source.

This sense of the word is derived from apprendre (to learn, teach, or inform).

In the same way, English acquired “comprise” from comprendre (to comprehend) and “surprise” from  surprendre (to overtake).

The upshot is that today neither “prize” nor “apprise” (nor, for that matter, “praise”) has its old meaning of establishing a price.

For this purpose we have not only “appraise” but also—you guessed it—the verb “price,” which originated in the late 1400s as a variant of  the old “prize.”

As for the noun “price,” it originated in the 1200s with meanings similar to “honor,” “excellence,” “glory,” and the modern sense of “praise.” 

Small world, no?

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Etymology Linguistics

Why do “label” and “table” rhyme?

Q: I’m baffled that “el” and “le” are often pronounced the same at the end of a word (e.g., “label” and “table”), but always sound different at the beginning (“elbow” and “legal”). Is there a reason or is it just a weirdness of English?

A: When “le” comes at the front, the “e” must be pronounced in some way or other because it supplies the first syllable’s vowel sound. But an “e” at the end of a word is frequently silent. 

This isn’t unusual. It’s true no matter what consonant you pair with “e.”

For example, take “e” plus “m”: the “e” is pronounced at the front of the word (as in “mesa”), but it’s silent at the end (“same”).

Or take “e” and “z”: the “e” is pronounced in “zebra” but it’s silent in “amaze.”

A silent “e” at the end of a word is not itself pronounced, but it can influence the pronunciation of the preceding vowel.

For example, “sit” has a short “i” but “site” has a long one. “Dam” has a short “a,” but “dame” has a long one.

Now back to “l.” Generally, English words ending in “el,” “al,” and “le” all have a final syllable that sounds like “ul.” Example: “vowel,” “final,” “little.” 

But when these same letter combinations are found at the beginnings of words, the vowel sounds vary widely: “elegant/eleven,” “alderman/altitude/ale,” “lenient/leg,” and so on.

Our point is that vowels can sound very different depending on their position. And when “e” comes last, it’s often silent.

There’s another question hidden in all this: Why do some English words have the suffix “le” and some the suffix “el”?

This is a complicated question, because there are two kinds of “el” endings and three kinds of “le” endings! So if you’re still interested, read on.

Words ending in “el” generally are nouns and come from either Old English or Old French.

(1) A few Old English words that once ended in el, ela, or ele are still spelled with “el” in Modern English, though most have since changed to “le.” The words that have retained the earlier spellings include “hovel,” “brothel,” and “kernel.” 

(2) Most modern-day nouns that end in “el” came into English from Old French, including “tunnel,” “bowel,” “chapel,” “novel,” “pimpernel,” “apparel,” “jewel,” “vowel,” “satchel,” and “kennel.” In French these words had the endings el (masculine), elle (feminine), eil, and il.

And now for the three types of “le” endings, which are found on the following kinds of words.

(1)  Nouns. Some are derived from Old English and earlier Germanic languages and are names of tools or implements: “handle,” “thimble,” “bridle,” “kettle,” “girdle,” and others. Some are derived from Old French: “castle,” “bottle,” “battle,” “mantle,” “cattle.” The French endings were el, aille, or eille.

(2) Adjectives. These are from Old English and often have the sense of aptness to do something, as in “brittle,” “fickle,”  and “nimble.”

(3) Verbs. These are from Old English or earlier Germanic sources, and they tend to express repeated action or movement, diminutive senses, or echo-like sounds. Examples include “nestle,” “twinkle,” “wrestle,” “crackle,” “crumple,” “dazzle,” “hobble,” “niggle,” “paddle,” “sparkle,” “topple,” “wriggle,” “babble,” “cackle,” “gabble,” “giggle,” and “mumble.”

More than you wanted to know? Blame the Oxford English Dictionary and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, which are the sources for much of this information. 

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Etymology Usage

“On line” skating

Q: I’ve heard that the phrase “on line” (as opposed to “in line”) originated on Ellis Island. Lines in various colors were painted on the floor, and immigrants were told to “stand on line.” Sounds logical. What do you think?

A: As everybody knows by now, New Yorkers do not think of themselves as being “in line” when they’re part of a queue. They say they’re  standing or waiting “on line.”

We’ve written a blog entry about this common New Yorkism, though we didn’t offer any theories as to its origin. The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for “on line” as used in this sense.

We do know that the usage isn’t exclusive to New York, since dialect scholars have found it in other pockets of the East.

Exactly how “on line” came to be used for “in line” is a mystery to us. But the practice didn’t originate as you suggest, with lines painted on the floor at Ellis Island.

We emailed an expert, Marian Smith, chief of the historical research branch at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“This is one I’ve never heard before!” she replied. “I’m very suspicious since it sounds like so many other stories of events or things that supposedly come from a mythical ‘Ellis Island experience.’ ”

She added that she had never “come across any reference to lines painted on the floor at Ellis Island.”

“At one time there were bars to channel traffic like those at an amusement park today,” she wrote. “At other times they lined the benches up and people scooted along as the line moved. But I’ve never heard or read any mention of lines painted on the floor.”

Ms. Smith noted that one “possible (but unlikely) explanation is that said lines were on the floor at some emigration station, where they were told to stand on a line while boarding the ship to depart.”

“We find many events that supposedly happened at arrival on Ellis actually happened prior to departure, at some point at or between the home and the port of departure,” she said.

Ms. Smith offered one possible explanation of her own about the origin of this usage.

“My own guess would be that if one translates the English ‘wait in line’ into other languages, you’ll find one or more of them translate to ‘wait ON line,’ which likely makes perfect sense in that other language,” she said.

She suggested that the language (or languages) might be “the mother tongue of a very large immigrant group in New York, who’ve imprinted their own translation on the English spoken in one city.”

“Just my guess,” she added. “I know nothing of such things.”

Ms. Smith’s guess sounds reasonable, but we can’t verify it.

For example, in Yiddish, the vernacular language of many Jewish immigrants to New York, “in line” is in rey.

In Italian, there are the phrases mettersi fila (literally, “put oneself in line”) and far fila (“make a line”).

In German, there’s Schlange stehen (literally “stand in a snake”), and in French there’s faire (“to make”) la queue.

Some of our  readers have suggested over the years that “wait on line” is grammatically incorrect. Not so. This is a regional usage that’s as idiomatic to New Yorkers as asking for “regular” coffee when they mean coffee with milk.

This issue is reminiscent of another one we’ve dealt with on the blog, “wait on” versus “wait for.” Here’s what we had to say:

“In the sense of ‘await,’ both ‘wait on’ and ‘wait for’ have long histories of usage in English, both in Britain and in the United States. In general, ‘wait for’ is more common, but ‘wait on’ is part of mainstream usage in both countries.”

We’ve also written in a posting that “the choice of preposition (as in ‘wait on line’ versus ‘wait in line,’ or ‘wait on the weather’ versus ‘wait for the weather’) is often idiomatic and does not involve a change in grammatical function.”

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Etymology Usage

Is “jerry-built” a cousin of “gerrymander”?

Q: I was listening to NPR when a caller suggested that both “jerry-built” and “gerrymander” originated with Elbridge Gerry. I believe the caller erred. If I’m not mistaken, the term “jerry-built” predates the Massachusetts governor’s shenanigans.
A: We’ve written before on the blog about “jury-rigged,” “jerry-built,” and the mash-up “jerry-rigged,” which has now made its way into dictionaries.

As we say in our 2008 posting, the earliest published reference for “jerry-built” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1869.

That’s about half a century after “gerrymander” first appeared in print. (Jury-rigged,” the oldest of these terms, showed up in the late 1700s and has roots going back to the early 1600s.)

You’re a bit off about the dates, but you’re right about the etymology. The only thing “jerry-built” and “gerrymander” have in common is the pronunciation of their first two syllables. And even that hasn’t always been the case.

The earliest incarnation of “gerrymander” was as a noun for a voting district created to give an unfair advantage to a political party.

The first citation in the OED for the usage is from the May 23, 1812, issue of the Columbian Centinel, a Boston newspaper: “The sensibility of the good people of Massachusetts is … awakened to this ‘Gerrymander.’ ”

The verb showed up in two citations later that year, including this one from the Dec. 28, 1812, issue of the New York Post: “They attempted also to Gerrymander  the State for the choice of Representatives to Congress.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the term combines the governor’s last name, “Gerry,” with the word “salamander,” the rough shape of a district his party created to give it a political advantage.

Although Gerry pronounced his name with a hard g (as in “go”), Chambers notes, “gerrymander” has been pronounced with a soft g (as in “gem”) since the word lost its association with the governor.

One OED citation for “gerrymander” (from The Memorial History of Boston, 1881) says the painter Gilbert Stuart coined the term on seeing a map of the contorted district created by Gerry’s party.

Although several reference books mention the Stuart story, we haven’t been able to find an authoritative source that confirms it.

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Etymology Usage

Do the suits want to dominate us?

Q: Business people are obsessed with the word “predominantly,” even when speaking of things that can’t be measured. E.g., “Our marketing focuses predominantly on Europe.” Wouldn’t “mainly” be more correct, and more elegant in its brevity? Is this another example of the suits wanting to assert their “dominance”?

A: We suspect that these business people, like stuffed shirts in government, academia, and elsewhere, feel that puffed-up words make them seem more important.

Given a choice, they’ll pick a word derived from Latin (like “predominantly”) over one with a good old Anglo-Saxon lineage (like “mainly”). And the more syllables the better.

However, we don’t think dominance—lexical, mercantile, or otherwise—comes into play here.

Interestingly, both “mainly” and “predominantly” entered English with a lot of force and, one might say, domination.

The word “mainly” is derived from the noun “main,” which meant “physical strength, force, or power” when it first appeared in print in the 700s in Beowulf, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the adverb “mainly” showed up around 1300, it meant “mightily, vigorously, violently,” though the OED says that sense of the word is now obsolete.

In the mid-1400s, “mainly” came to mean “greatly, considerably, very much, a great deal.”

And in the mid-1600s, it took on its main modern sense: “for the most part; in the main; as the chief thing, chiefly, principally.”

We got the adverb “predominantly” from Medieval Latin via French.

It first showed up in the early 1600s, according to the OED, and meant “in a predominant manner; to a predominant degree.”

Not very helpful. What does “predominant” mean here?

When “predominant” entered English in the late 1500s, it meant “having ascendancy, supremacy, or prevailing influence over others.” In other words, dominant.

But by the time “predominantly” showed up, “predominant” also referred to “the main, most abundant, or strongest element.”

So one of the earliest senses of “predominantly” was indeed “mainly.”

To make a long story short, either “mainly” or “predominantly” can be used in the sentence you mention. And it doesn’t matter whether the adverb refers to something that can be measured or not.

We agree with you, though, that “mainly” is more elegant in its brevity. It sounds less pompous too.

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Etymology Usage

Is an analog dweeb a troglodyte?

Q: Your blog posting on “Luddite” made me think of an analog friend of mine. He’s pro-choice on technologies, but he refuses to choose the digital world himself. Is he a troglodyte?

A: We think you’d be stretching things a bit to call your friend a “troglodyte.”

When the word entered English in the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to a member of “various races or tribes of men (chiefly ancient or prehistoric) inhabiting caves or dens (natural or artificial).”

In other words, a caveman—the genuine article, not Fred Flintstone or B.C.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says English borrowed “troglodyte” from French, but it’s ultimately derived from the Greek troglodytes (“literally, one who creeps into holes”).

In the mid-19th century, according to the OED, English speakers began using the word figuratively for a hermit, a slum dweller, a degraded person, or someone unfamiliar with the affairs of the world.

In an 1854 essay, for example, Henry Rogers accused the philosopher John Locke of being “such a very Troglodyte in metaphysics that he was not properly acquainted even with such writers as Descartes or Hobbes.”

Standard dictionaries now define a “troglodyte” as someone who’s reclusive, reactionary, brutish, or out of date.

Yes, your friend could be described as out of date, but the word “troglodyte” has a lot of dark overtones.

We’d prefer to describe someone who lives an analog life in the digital age as a “Luddite.”

In case you’re interested, this sense of “analog” first showed up in the early 1990s, according to citations in the OED.

It describes someone who’s “unaware of or unaffected by computer technology or digital communications; outdated, old-fashioned.”

The earliest OED cite is from an ad in a 1993 issue of Wired magazine for an electronic measuring tool:

“Trying to size up a room with a tape measure is not just a two-person operation; it’s also for analog dweebs.”

“Dweeb”? The OED defines it as a “person held in contempt, esp. one ridiculed as studious, puny, or unfashionable.”

The earliest citation is from a 1982 article by Alexander Theroux in the New York Times. We’ve gone to the Times archive to expand on this passage about vacationing families on Cape Cod:

“Mom and Dad stick to the quieter beaches, West Dennis, Harwich, East Sandwich. They try to keep the kids from cut knees, from drowning, from insulting any hoseheads and dweebs on motorcycles.”

We’ll stop now and save “hoseheads” for another occasion.

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Etymology Usage

Hate speech

Q: I notice that the noun “hatred” seems to be falling into disuse, replaced by “hate,” which I think of as a verb.

A: “Hate” is a noun as well as a verb, and both have been steadily in use for well over a thousand years. 

“Hatred,” which came along later, is exclusively a noun. Finally, “hate” is also used as an attributive noun (that is, adjectivally), a relatively recent development.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the noun “hate” (spelled hete in Old English) comes from Beowulf. The date of the epic poem isn’t precisely known, but it may have been written as far back as the 700s or even earlier.

The noun is defined by the OED as “an emotion of extreme dislike or aversion; detestation, abhorrence, hatred.”

The verb “hate” was first recorded about 897 in the writings of King Alfred. Its OED meaning: “to hold in very strong dislike; to detest; to bear malice to. The opposite of to love.”

The noun “hatred” first appeared sometime before 1175, when it was recorded in a collection of homilies.

It’s defined in the OED as “the condition or state of relations in which one person hates another; the emotion or feeling of hate; active dislike, detestation; enmity, ill-will, malevolence.” 

The newcomer here, the use of “hate” to modify another noun, first appeared in print in 1916, according to citations in the dictionary.

In this case, the OED says, the noun “hate” is being used attributively as a quasi-adjective meaning “designed to stir up hate.” (We’ve written before about attributive nouns.)

You can see the adjectival use of “hate” in phrases like “hate literature,” “hate campaign,” “hate mail,” and more recently “hate crime” and “hate speech,” acts resulting from racial, religious, or otherwise anti-social intolerance.

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