Etymology Usage

Is you is or is you ain’t?

Q: A few years ago, I was watching a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon with my kids, when one of the characters serenaded his girlfriend by singing, “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” My little girl, Marcia, responded, “Yes, I is.” Where does this expression come from? Is it idiomatic? Regional? Colloquial? Archaic?

A: The immortal question “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” can’t be labeled idiomatic or regional or colloquial or archaic.

It’s a song lyric that might be described as humorous dialect, specifically jazzy black slang exaggerated for comic effect.

The song “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” didn’t originate with that Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

It was written in 1944 by Billy Austin and Louis Jordan for the movie Follow the Boys.

In the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon you refer to, it’s sung by Tom (the cat) to one of his many love interests.

The cartoon, entitled “Solid Serenade,” was a “Tom and Jerry” short made for theatrical release in 1946. And it enjoyed a long life on television in later years.

Tom wasn’t the only vocalist to record the song. It’s a standard of classic jazz, and has been performed by dozens of artists, black and white, including B. B. King, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, Dinah Washington, and Diana Krall.

The  lyrics are slightly different depending on which version you listen to, but here’s one verse:

Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?
The way you’re actin’ lately makes me doubt.
Youse is still my baby-baby.
Seems my flame in your heart’s done gone out.

It should be noted that the question “Is you is or is you ain’t?” had been recorded in writing a generation or so before the song appeared.

It occurs more than once in the comic detective fiction of the Southern white writer Octavus Roy Cohen. His stories are populated by black characters—perhaps “caricatures” is a better word—including a private eye named Florian Slappey, from “Bumminham,” Alabama.

In “Chocolate Grudge,” a story published in the collection Assorted Chocolates (1922), an angry creditor says to Florian, “Well then, I asts you: Is you is or is you  ain’t?”

And in “Horns Aplenty,” published in Florian Slappey Goes Abroad (1928), one jazz musician says to another, “I asks you: Is you is or is you ain’t?”

We’ve given the dates the stories appeared in books. But both were originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, in 1921 and 1926, respectively.

Cohen’s stories, with their exaggerated black dialect and stereotypical characters, would undoubtedly be considered insensitive today.

Not surprisingly, during the 1940s he briefly wrote for the radio series Amos ’n’ Andy.

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Etymology Usage

Dishing the dirt

Q: I use “get one’s hands dirty” in reference to the grime from hard work, and “dirty one’s hands” in reference to dishonest activity. But some dictionaries say the two expressions can be used interchangeably. Your thoughts?

A: Both of the expressions you mention—“get one’s hands dirty” and “dirty one’s hands”—can be used literally or figuratively.

They can imply either that soap and water are called for or that something unsavory is going on. There’s good, honest dirt, but there’s also the metaphorical kind.

The verb “dirty” means to soil, and the adjective “dirty” means unclean. For centuries, both words have been used figuratively as well as literally.

Both are derived from the noun “dirt,” which showed up in English around 1300, probably adapted from the Old Norse drit (excrement), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The adjective “dirty” came into English in the early 1500s and the verb followed in the late 1500s. When the words were first used, they were meant literally.

But figurative usages soon followed, so that the adjective also meant morally unclean or dishonorable, and the verb also meant to make morally unclean or dishonorable.

The adjective later took on other figurative meanings: unsportsmanlike (as in “a dirty tackle”), unpleasant (“a dirty job”), regrettable (“a dirty shame”), hateful (“dirty politics”), and so on.

In short, you can “dirty your hands” or “get your hands dirty” either by happily working in the garden or by doing something less pleasant.

But if you prefer to use one expression figuratively and the other literally, that’s up to you.

The noun “dirt,” as you know, can also be used both literally and figuratively. A child can eat dirt literally and an adult apologizing for a lapse can eat it figuratively.

And, of course, anyone who loves gossip can “dish the dirt,” an expression that the OED cites from P. G. Wodehouse’s 1964 novel Frozen Assets: “He thinks you fall short in the way of dishing the dirt.”

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Etymology Linguistics

Junk mail and male junk

Q: I was listening to a discussion on talk radio about the use of the word “junk” in reference to the male genitalia. Some people were saying it goes back to the ’60s. Do you have a take on this? The subject was inspired, of course, by the TSA’s body scans and pat-downs.

A: As far as we can tell, the use of “junk” as a slang term for the male genitalia was first recorded in the the early 1980s, and heard in speech before that.
The earliest example we’ve seen is from “The Hustler,” a short story by Ethan Mordden in the April 1983 issue of Christopher Street, a gay-oriented magazine published in New York City.
In a passage describing rough sex, a character says, “That’s when the top man lays you face down on your junk, and after he starts to punk you he turns you on your side and locks his arms around you so you can’t pull away.”
The linguist Ben Zimmer says in The New York Times Magazine ( Dec. 30, 2010) that Mordden, author of the story, told him “he borrowed this meaning of junk from a slang-slinging friend.”

Speaking of “junk,” the noun entered English around 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word has meant a lot of things over the years, including inferior rope, narcotics, and rubbish.

And it’s given us such noun phrases as “junk art,” “junk bond,” “junk food,” and “junk mail.”

We’d guess that the genital usage will be going viral now, thanks to the Transportation Security Administration.

In the Nov. 13, 2010, incident at San Diego Airport, John Tyner, a software engineer, refused a full-body scan.

During the alternative pat down, he told the screener, “If you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested.” Tyner captured the incident on his phone and posted the video online.

[Note: This post was updated on April 2, 2024.]

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Here’s to words and us

Q: A writer recently inscribed a book to me this way: “Here’s to words & we who love them.” Shouldn’t it be “& us who love them”? (Yes, awkward, but wouldn’t “& those of us who love them” work too?)

A: Yes, that inscription should have read, “Here’s to words & us who love them.”

This sentence is made up of two clauses (a clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb).

The main clause is “Here’s to words & us” and the subordinate or dependent clause is “who love them.”

The case of the pronoun in question (whether it’s a subject, “we,” or an object, “us”) depends on its role in the main clause. In this sentence, it’s an object.

To make it easier to see what’s going on here, we’ll add a missing but implied word to the main clause: “Here’s to words and [to] us.”

One would never write “Here’s to words and [to] we,” but the addition of the subordinate clause apparently confused the writer.

In the subordinate clause (“who love them”), the pronoun “who” is the subject of the verb “love.”

You’re right about  “those of us.” When in doubt about whether the pronoun is a subject or an object, “those of us” is handy because it can fill either role.

The reason is that the principal term in the phrase, “those,” can be either a subject or an object.

So both of these are proper sentences:

“[We/Those of us] who are about to die salute you.” (Both “we” and “those of us” are subjects.)

“Your blessing honors [us/those of us] who are about to die.” (Both “us” and “those of us” are objects.)

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A tinker’s damn

Q: I get a kick out of something John Sterling, the Yankees radio announcer, says: “I don’t give a tinker’s darn.” Tinkers didn’t darn; they made clay dams on work tables to hold water to cool the knives they sharpened. I believe Sterling is confusing “dam” with “damn,” and thinks he’ll get in trouble with the FCC if he says that word over the air!

A: We’re not familiar with Sterling’s broadcasts. If he does use that expression, he’s taking liberties with a common English idiom, though not because of confusion about the wording.

The original expression was indeed “tinker’s damn,” not “tinker’s dam.” In the version you cite, the watered-down “darn” is being used in place of “damn” as a milder word for the curse.

By the way, the watered-down version isn’t all that uncommon. We googled “tinker’s darn” and got 2,680 hits, including one from Vice President Joseph Biden when he was a senator.

In commenting on CNN in 2003 about the fighting ability of the Iraqi security forces, Biden said: “None of them are worth a tinker’s darn.”

But why “tinker’s damn”? It’s an interesting story.

“Tinker,” a word that’s been in English since the 1200s or earlier, is of uncertain origin.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a craftsman (usually itinerant) who mends pots, kettles, and other metal household utensils.”

Tinkers were not exactly looked up to, and the word “tinker” (or “tinkler” in Scotland) was often used to mean “vagrant” or “Gypsy,” largely because tramps and Gypsies frequently worked as tinkers.

And as a class, tinkers were not known for their polite language.

As the OED says, “The low repute in which these, esp. the itinerant sort, were held in former times is shown by the expressions to swear like a tinker, a tinker’s curse or damn, as drunk or as quarrelsome as a tinker, etc.”

The “curse” and “damn” versions were variations on an earlier theme.

In the 18th century, expressions like “not give a curse/damn” or “not care a curse/damn” or “not worth a curse/damn” were common.

In 1763, for example, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter, “I do not conceive that any thing can happen … which you would give a curse to know.”

And in 1760, Oliver Goldsmith wrote in an essay: “Not that I care three damns what figure I may cut.”

When the 19th century rolled around, the OED says, such expressions became intensified as “not to care a tinker’s damn,” “not worth a tinker’s curse,” and so on.

The dictionary traces this usage to “the reputed addiction of tinkers to profane swearing.”

The first such citation in the OED  is from John Mactaggart’s The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia (1824): “A tinkler’s curse she did na care.”

And here are a couple of “damn” versions:

“ ’Tis true they are not worth a ‘tinker’s damn’ ”   (1839, from Henry David Thoreau’s journal);

“I care not a Tinker’s Damn for his ascension” (1894, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel St. Ives).

The mistaken origin you suggest was proposed by Edward H. Knight in The Practical Dictionary of Mechanics (1877). Knight defined “tinker’s dam” this way:

“A wall of dough raised around a place which a plumber desires to flood with a coat of solder. The material can be but once used; being consequently thrown away as worthless, it has passed into a proverb, usually involving the wrong spelling of the otherwise innocent word ‘dam.’ ”

The OED calls Knight’s suggestion “an ingenious but baseless conjecture.” Apparently, the OED editors think it’s not worth a tinker’s damn.

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Grammar Linguistics

Object lessons

Q: My fellow English teachers and I are stumped by how to diagram this sentence: “See Spot run.” The subject is the missing but understood “you,” the verb is “see,” and the direct object is “Spot.” But what part of speech is “run”?

A: In the sentence “See Spot run,” the implied subject is “you,” the verb is “see,” the indirect object is “Spot,” and the direct object is the infinitive “run.”

An infinitive or infinitive phrase (an infinitive preceded by “to”) can be the direct object of a verb. Here’s another example: “I want you to go.”

Subject, “I”; verb, “want”; indirect object, “you”; direct object, “to go” (infinitive phrase).

If those sentences did not include the infinitives (that is, if they consisted of “See Spot” and “I want you”), then “Spot” and “you” would be direct objects. When a verb has only one object, it’s a direct object.

Similarly, in the sentence “I intend to go,” the verb has only one object, a direct object (the infinitive phrase “to go”). 

Another so-called “verbal,” the gerund, can also be a direct object, as in “I intend going [direct object].”  

We’ve written several times on the blog about direct and indirect objects, including a post earlier this year entitled “Object oriented.”

By the way, when you have both kinds of objects following the verb, the indirect object nearly always comes first:

“Give them my love” … “Bake me a cake” … “Make it go” … “I helped him escape” … “You made me understand.”

In the last three examples, the direct objects are infinitives: “go,” “escape,” “understand.”

The only exception in which the direct object comes before the indirect object is a British usage involving two pronouns. Examples: “Give it me” … “Tell it her.”

Incidentally, a prepositional phrase like “to me” or “for her” can be used in place of an indirect object, but the phrase is not technically considered an indirect object.

The pronouns “me” and “her” here are objects of a preposition, not objects of a verb.

If you’d like to know more, we can direct to you Otto Jespersen’s Essentials of  English Grammar (1933). The book has been reissued in paperback.

Jespersen, a renowned grammarian, discusses the use of infinitives as objects on pages 271-272.

In addition, if you have access to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, see the section starting on page 244. This is a very technical book.

The authors, the linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, discuss clauses that have one object (“monotransitive”) and two (“ditransitive”).

Where only one object exists, they write, “that object is always a direct object, even if it corresponds semantically to the indirect object of a ditransitive clause.” (Page 251).

We’ll simplify the examples they use to illustrate this point:

(1) “She teaches students [indirect object] logic [direct object].”

(2) “She teaches students [direct object].”

(3) “She teaches logic [direct object].”

So the direct object in sentence #2 corresponds to the indirect object in sentence #1.

We hope this sheds some light.

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Etymology Usage

Is this wording off base?

Q: I’ve recently noticed the increasing use of “based in” to refer to a place where a person resides. This strikes me as an odd application. I’d say a business or an organization is “based in” such and such a city, but a person lives there.

A: We too find using “based in” an awkward way to describe where somebody lives.

The noun “base” is not commonly defined as a home.

None of the dictionaries we usually consult—the Oxford  English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.)—include “home” or “hometown” or “place of residence” among the definitions of “base.”

The closest we can come are definitions of a “base” as a headquarters, a center of organization, or an area of operations. And most of the examples seem to be military or corporate.

The OED, for example, has definitions for “base” as a place from which army, air, or naval operations are conducted, and as an administrative center or area of operations.

And it has a definition for the verb “base” as “to place or have a military base or an administrative or operational centre at (in, etc.) a place.” (Note the italics with “at” and “in.”)

All the OED’s citations for the phrase “home base” are either military or corporate in nature or baseball references.

And American Heritage defines “based” (a participial adjective formed from the verb “base”) as meaning stationed or assigned to a base, as in “troops based in the Middle East.”

Like you, we’ve noticed that people often use “based in” merely to describe where someone lives.

Certainly it’s true that someone’s home or hometown is also that person’s center of activity.

Perhaps because of the term’s military and business associations, “based in” seems suited to describe where somebody conducts business. And as we all know, many people conduct their business at home these days.

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Etymology Usage

A website whatchamacallit

Q: Newspapers have columns, but what do you call the same thing on a website? The word “blog” isn’t quite right. Or is it? Any ideas about this whatchamacallit?

A: We think the cyber word for a column is “column,” and some googling suggests we’re not alone. Slate, for example, calls its regular writers “columnists.”

Here are the results of a few Google searches: “online column,” 110,000 hits; “blog column,” 31,000; “web column,” 26,800.

New technology has a way of adopting the terminology of the old, even if some of these words are anachronistic in their literal senses.

For example, we still speak of “dialing” a phone number, even though rotary phones with actual dials are now antiques. (We also still speak of “dial” tones and “speed dial.”)

And as we’ve written in our book Origins of the Specious, “dashboard” was a term from horse-and-buggy days that survived into the automobile era. (A dashboard was a board or apron that prevented the horses’ hooves from throwing mud onto passengers.)

We still speak of capturing a moment “on film” or going to see a “film,” even though photography has gone digital.

By the way, we adopted the word “column” in the 15th century from the Latin columna (a pillar or post), but it ultimately comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning hill.

At first, the word referred to either a vertical division on a page or an architectural column. So how did it come to mean an Op-Ed, gossip, society, or other column that regularly appears in a newspaper?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this usage to the sense of those vertical columns of text as “receptacles for the news, etc., which ‘fill the columns’ of these publications.”

“Hence,” the OED adds, “in extended use: a special feature, esp. one of a regular series of articles or reports.”

And now we see a new extended use. The text on a website is not measured in “column” inches as in a newspaper, but we call a regularly appearing article on the Internet a “column.”

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Etymology Linguistics

Anne Boleyn, part 2

Q: In your post about poor Anne Boleyn, you discuss whether she was beheaded or deheaded. I have another choice: was she beheaded or debodied? And after the execution, which piece WAS poor Anne? Just parsing the language.

A: After Anne was beheaded, she consisted of TWO parts. It was the whole that was beheaded (or debodied, if there were such a word).

Although the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “debody,” it does have one for “detrunk,” a verb meaning to cut off or lop off.

However you refer to the process, Anne was neither here nor there as a result of it, but in two places at once!

You might say, though, that her soul was disembodied.

By the way, the verb “disembody” and the past participle “disembodied” are relatively new, dating back to the 18th century.

Before that, a soul was said to “unbody” or be “unbodied,” as in this example from Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “The fate wold his soule sholde vnbodye.”

At any rate, all of Anne was buried together in a chapel near the Tower Green, and the body was identified as hers centuries later, when renovations were done to the chapel in Queen Victoria’s time.

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Etymology Usage

Actually, we’re guilty too!

Q: From listening to radio interviews, TV shows, and everyday conversations, it’s apparent that “actually” has left “absolutely” in the proverbial dust as the most overused—and unnecessarily used—word. Yikes!

A: Yes, we’ve noticed too. And actually (oops!), we’re guilty of this ourselves.

It’s become something of a verbal tic for us, one we hope to get rid of. Perhaps a look into the word’s history will make us more aware of it in our speech.

“Actually” (along with “absolutely,” which we’ve written about before on the blog) is, as you point out, an extremely overused adverb.

As used today, “actually” often has no particular meaning. But this wasn’t always the case.

The word came into English in the 15th century as an adverb based on the adjective “actual,” which had entered the language in the previous century.

In those days, “actual” had a literal meaning: pertaining to acts or deeds.

It was adopted from the French actuel, which in turn came from the late Latin actualis (“of or pertaining to action”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

At first, “actually” also had a literal meaning, one having to do with acts and action.

In its first recorded use, in Sir Thomas Malory’s translation of Le Morte d’Arthur (1470-85), it meant “actively” or “energetically.”

Here’s the quotation: “Then on foot they drew their swords, and did full actually.”  

In the 1500s, according to the OED, the word was used to mean “with deeds” or “in a way that is characterized by doing.”

Thomas Hobbes used the word in this sense in his Leviathan (1651): “Christ shall come … to judge the world, and actually to governe his owne people.”

Those literal meanings of “actual” and “actually” were eventually eclipsed and are now obsolete.

In the mid-16th century, people began using “actual” to mean “existing in act or fact,” or “real” (as opposed to “potential” or “ideal,” for example).

And in the 17th and 18th centuries, they began using “actually” in a similar way, to mean “as a present fact,” and consequently “in fact” or “in truth.”

Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, “actually” was first used in another sense: “added to vouch for statements which seem surprising, incredible, or exaggerated.”

For instance, Fanny Kemble writes in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (1863): “This woman actually imagines that there will be no slaves in heaven.”

Meanwhile, “actual” came to be used as an intensifier in the 19th century. It was, and still is, “placed before a noun to emphasize its exact or particular identity,” often in a weakened sense to mean something like “precise” or “exact.”

Mark Twain first used “actual” this way in The Innocents Abroad (1869): “I touch, with reverent finger, the actual spot where the infant Jesus lay, but I think—nothing.”

So “actual” and “actually” have come a long way from the Latin actualis and “action.”

The OED has no entries yet for the often meaningless “actually” that has become so ubiquitous (as in “Actually, I think I’ll have another cookie”). But stay tuned.

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How forthright is “forthcoming”?

Q: My issue is the use of “forthcoming” to mean forthright. I first heard this from Richard Nixon during his Watergate troubles, but it’s now common among public figures. Can “forthcoming” really refer to something other than in the future?

A: Yes, “forthcoming” does mean something other than merely in the future, and that’s been true since well before the Watergate scandal.

The word was first recorded in English in the early 16th century and was used to describe both people and things.

Its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “about to or likely to come forth; also simply, coming or approaching (in time).” 

The first recorded use is in a letter written sometime between 1521 and 1532 by Bishop John Longland, who was confessor to King Henry VIII.

Here’s the quotation: “That he be forth comyng to his answere when your Grace shall commaund.”

And here’s a later citation from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Memory layes up all the species which the senses have brought in and records them as a good register that they may be forth coming when they are called for.”

A later meaning of “forthcoming,” the OED says, emerged in the 19th century: “Ready to make or meet advances. Also, informative, responsive.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage comes from Thomas Moore’s Memoirs (1856): “Nothing could be more frank or forthcoming than his manner.”

So, for example, all of these could properly be described as “forthcoming”:

(1) a person who’s willing to come forth with something (as in that 16th-century letter);

(2) the something that’s about to be produced (as in Burton’s quotation);

(3) an approaching holiday or other event;

(4) a person who’s informative or responsive—in other words, forthright (as in Moore’s quotation).

The adjective “forthright,” by the way, did not always mean what it does today.

Beginning around 1000, the OED says, “forthright” meant “proceeding in a straight course, directly in front of one, straight forward.”

Only in the mid-19th century, the OED adds, did it acquire its figurative meaning: “going straight to the point, straightforward, unswerving, outspoken.”

By the way, did you notice the differing meanings of “straight forward” and “straightforward” in the previous two paragraphs?

Yes, we have here another example of how words evolve.

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Grammar Usage

Can “both” and “as well as” play together?

Q: A sentence that I’m writing has me stumped: “It is remarkable that both Jan Luyken as well as his father, Caspar Luyken, took it upon themselves to defend in writing two of the important ‘leaders’ from the 17th century.” Is this correct?

A: There are a couple of problems with that sentence about the Dutch poet and engraver Jan Luyken (1649-1712) and his father, Caspar, a Mennonite writer.

First, you shouldn’t have used “both” and “as well as.” Pat discusses this on page 92 of the third edition paperback of her grammar book Woe Is I:

 “BOTH/AS WELL AS. Use one or the other, but not both. Carrie had both a facial and a massage. Or: Carrie had a facial as well as a massage.”

Next, the choice of either “both” or “as well as” determines whether the reflexive pronoun in that sentence is singular (“himself”) or plural (“themselves”).

The critical part of that sentence can be correctly written two ways:

(1) “both Jan Luyken and his father, Caspar Luyken, took it upon themselves”;

(2) “Jan Luyken as well as his father, Caspar Luyken, took it upon himself.”

With #1, which has a compound subject, you should use the plural pronoun “themselves.”

With #2, which has a singular subject, you should use “himself.”

The key here is that the information following the phrase “as well as” doesn’t make the subject plural. Pat has written about this on page 49 of Woe Is I:

“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.”

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Grammar Usage

Whom page

Q: My friend Joan (a teacher) and I were playing tennis when I said, “Who do you want to serve?” She immediately “corrected” me: “Whom!” A couple of days later, an NPR newscaster said voters decide “who” they want to be governor. When I told Joan, she replied, “He’s wrong too. It has to be ‘whom.’ ” Whaddya think?

A: Technically, your friend is right. But sometimes common usage (not to mention common sense) trumps being technically right.

To be absolutely correct, you should have said, “Whom do you want to serve?”

In that sentence, “you” is the subject, “do want” is the verb, and “whom” is the indirect object. (In case you’re a true  grammar junkie, the infinitive phrase “to serve” is the direct object.)

To make this clearer, let’s substitute “he/him” for “who/whom,” and turn the sentence around a bit: “Do you want he/him to serve?” The correct choice is “him,” of course.

But the choice between “who” and “whom” can involve more than grammar when the pronoun comes at the beginning of a sentence or clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb).

Many people find it stuffy and unnatural to begin a sentence or clause with “whom” in speech or informal writing.­  And many usage guides agree with them.

In Woe Is I, Pat says common usage allows for “who” instead of “whom” here when you’re speaking or writing informally. For instance, when you’re on a tennis court and discussing who should serve next.

Here’s how Pat puts this in the book (page 9 in the 3rd edition paperback, following an explanation of “who” and “whom” in formal usage):

“Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing, like personal letters and casual memos.

“Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on the most formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

“A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, ‘Who with?’ he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.”

There’s more about this less formal usage on page 215 of Woe Is I. We’ve also discussed it on The Grammarphobia Blog as well as on the Grammar Myths page of our website.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, the use of “whom” seems to be rare in ordinary speech. And the objective “who” (except when following a preposition) has been common and idiomatic since Shakespeare’s time.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), places “who as an object not following a preposition” at Stage 4 on his Language-Change Index. (Stage 5 represents “fully accepted.”)

Finally, if you’re stumped by the choice between “whoever” and “whomever,” check out our advice for the whom-sick.

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Is it hip to be square?

Q: I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but many people believe the term “hip” comes from “on the hip,” a reference to smoking opium while reclining on one’s side. (See Julie Christie in the great Altman film McCabe and Mrs. Miller.)

A: When Pat thinks of Julie Christie, she imagines her wreathed in smoke in that opium den, but Stewart sees her bundled in sables (as in Doctor Zhivago). But on to your question.

It’s not likely that the adjective “hip” comes from the phrase “on the hip” (engaged in smoking opium). That’s because “hip” arrived on the scene a couple of decades earlier.

The term “hip” (in the sense of “fully aware” or “in the know”) dates back to 1902 when it appeared in a cartoon by T. A. Dorgan, according to Jonathan Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

But the phrase “on the hip” was first recorded in reference to recumbent opium smokers in a 1921 article in Variety.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a slightly later date for the first appearance of “hip,”  a 1904 novel by George Vere Hobart called Jim Hickey, in which a character says, “are you hip?”

The OED has no citations for “on the hip” in the narcotics sense.

But it has several citations for this and similar phrases with very different meanings: “at a disadvantage” or “in a position in which one is likely to be overthrown or overcome.”

These senses date back to the 15th century and have their origin in wrestling, the OED says.

But getting back to the adjective “hip,” both Lighter and the OED say it’s American slang of unknown origin. So is the similar word “hep.”

The OED defines “hep” as meaning “well-informed, knowledgeable, ‘wise to,’ up-to-date; smart, stylish.”

The first citation in the OED is from the Saturday Evening Post of  December 1908: “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

But Lighter says that “both hip and hep appear in print at about the same time.” His first citation for the latter word (spelled “hept”) is from 1903.

With citations so close together, it’s hard to say definitively whether “hip” or “hep” came first.

But as Lighter says, “hip” is more common nationally and has been since about 1960. And he says it was the common form of the phrase “much earlier among blacks, esp. jazz musicians.”

Joey Lee Dillard, in his book Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States (1972), says it’s “a commonplace of the jazz language that hep is a white man’s distortion of the more characteristically Negro hip.”

We can’t vouch for the truth of that. Many claims have been made about “hip,” including the one by Huey Lewis and the News that it’s hip to be square.

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, writing in Slate, has explored the word’s etymology and debunked a theory that it came from a West African language.

When “hip” first appeared, Sheidlower points out, the word meant merely aware or in the know, and “it was not widely used by African-Americans.”

“It wasn’t until the late 1930s and early 1940s, during the jive era,” he writes, “that the modern senses—‘sophisticated; currently fashionable; fully up-to-date’—arose. (These senses did arise among African-Americans.)”

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English language Etymology Grammar Usage

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.

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Etymology Usage

English is English, regardless

Q: Did Ted Olson use “regardless” correctly when he wrote in a Proposition 8 brief that Imperial County’s interests were adequately represented “regardless whether the County agrees with the State’s decision not to appeal.”

A: We would have written “regardless of whether” if we were the authors of that brief filed with the US Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

In the brief, Olson was challenging the right of Imperial County to appeal a decision by the US District Court in San Francisco to overturn Proposition 8 (the California Marriage Protection Act).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has two entries that explain what went wrong here.

The entry for “regardless” used alone describes it as an adverb meaning “despite everything,” as in “went ahead with their plans regardless.”

The entry for “regardless of” describes this as a preposition meaning “without taking into account,” as in “accepts all regardless of age.”

Less commonly, M-W says, the preposition also means “in spite of,” as in “regardless of our mistakes.”

The word “regardless” entered English in the 16th century as an adjective meaning slighted or not worthy of regard, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete.

The adverbial use of “regardless,” either alone or with “of” in a prepositional phrase, didn’t show up until the 19th century.

The earliest OED citation for the “of” version, from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1848), is a reference to “rare and famous wines selected, regardless of cost.”

The earliest cite for the “of”-less version, which originated in the US, is from Mark Twain’s travel book Roughing It (1872): “We are going to get the thing [sc. a funeral] up regardless, you know.”  

As for that Proposition 8 brief, it should have read (as noted above) “regardless of whether.” Unfortunately, legal English isn’t known to be good English.

Well, at least the brief didn’t use the clunker “irregardless,” which we’ve written about on the blog.

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Etymology Usage

How industrial is an industry?

Q: For me, “industry” means heavy manufacturing—autos, steel—big, noisy machines and lots of sparks. But the term is now used for any type of business: insurance, medicine, even nursing. I think this destroys a useful distinction. How say you?

A: We had a question over the summer from someone who was working on a public-health paper and wondered about the term “medical industry.”

Somehow our answer fell through the cracks and never made it onto the blog. This gives us a chance to make up for that omission.

Here’s how we answered the original question, more or less. We think this will answer your question as well. 

The term “industry” is often used in ways that are not … well … industrial.

In fact, when it entered English in the 15th century, the word meant skill, cleverness, or diligence in the performance of some craft or task.

In its entry for “industry,” the OED says the noun is sometimes preceded by “a personal name or the like” to refer to scholarly or diligent work on a particular subject, as well as the practice of a profitable occupation.

Examples given are “Pindar industry” (1965), “Shakespeare industry” (1966), “Joyce industry” (1969), and “abortion industry” (1969).

The specific phrase “medical industry” doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a search of the New York Times archive shows that the phrase first appeared in the newspaper in the 1920s.

As far as we can tell, however, it wasn’t used in a general way—to include medical practitioners—for another 40 years. And it certainly had no pejorative meaning in early usage, as it sometimes does now.

On April 17, 1923, which was during the Prohibition era, the Times quoted an official of the American Drug Manufacturers Association as saying alcohol is “absolutely essential in the manufacture of medicine.”

“The legitimate industry, including the medical industry, which uses alcohol and depends upon it, are very much alarmed at the attitude of the Federal Prohibition Commission,” the official added.

By “medical industry,” did he mean physicians and hospitals, or drug makers? Probably the latter

The next citation is from a May 17, 1945, article about conditions in Germany after the surrender: “It is hoped that enough medical supplies can be provided from Germany’s large medical industry to take care of the people’s needs, the general added.”

Here again, the reference was to supplies rather than medical treatment, and by “medical industry” the writer probably meant the drug industry.

The next three entries (from 1946, 1948, and 1950) refer to the Soviet Union, where the Ministry of the Medical Industry, which became a separate department in the 1960s, oversaw the production of medicines and instruments.

In 1964, the Times ran a story about a man whose work was “designing electronic equipment for the medical industry.” Again, this could be a reference to the equipment manufacturers rather than to physicians.

The first Times citation we can find that uses “medical industry” to include medical treatment appeared on April 4, 1965.

In a letter to the editor of the Book Review section, the author William Michelfelder wrote, “I spent nearly 10 years writing about the medical industry before writing ‘Cheaper to Die.’ ”

Later the phrase became more common—and more critical, perhaps helped along by books (like Michelfelder’s) criticizing the medical industry.

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Etymology Usage

Date lines

Q: I think it’s unnatural and pretentious when radio personalities say “on this date in history,” rather “on this day in history.” Would you please let me know the history if this construction and your feelings about it.

A: Common usage seems to be on your side. Both “this day in history” and “today in history” are far more popular than “this date in history,” judging from a few Google searches.

Unfortunately, we can’t provide an authoritative history of these three constructions, but we can speculate about them.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only one example, and it’s of the “date” version.

It comes from Anthony Burgess’s novel Time for a Tiger (1956): “One dribbling patient was able to state the precise day of the week for any given date in history.”

Our guess is that some people say “this date in history” rather than “this day in history” because it’s more precise. To them, “this date” implies a month and a number (say, Dec. 11).

“Date” clearly has a narrower meaning in the OED, where its use in reference to a point in time is defined as “the precise time at which anything takes place or is to take place.” 

But “day,” when used in a roughly similar way, has many more definitions in the OED.

It can mean, for example, “a fixed date,” or “a specified or appointed day.”

It can also mean “a specific period of twenty-four hours, the whole or part of which is assigned to some particular purpose, observance, or action, or which is the date or anniversary of some event.”

It can even be used vaguely, as in “Shakespeare’s day,” “this day and age,” “the present day,” “those were the days,” and so on.

We’ve mentioned only a few of the many usages given in the OED.

But clearly, “day” can sometimes be used in place of “date.” So if you prefer “this day in history,” be our guest.

But we happen to think that “this date in history,” though less popular, is more precise and just as good.

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Etymology Usage

A question of authority

Q: Why do so many people mistakenly insert “of” in the name of the NY agency that runs tunnels, bridges, and airports? And is there a term for using “of” where it has no right to be?

A: If there’s a term for sticking “of” where it doesn’t belong, we’re not aware of it.

But we too have noticed that many people say and write the “Port of Authority” instead of the “Port Authority.”

Our guess is that the people who incorrectly insert “of” here are influenced by such phrases as “the Port of New York” and “the Port of New Jersey.”

Another reason might be that the agency’s full name does indeed contain “of.” In full, it’s the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

By the way, the agency was called the Port of New York Authority when the two states created it in 1921. So “of” originally followed “Port,” not “Authority.”

A reader of the blog suggests that’s why “the authority’s name was sometimes (and mainly orally) shortened to ‘the Port of Authority’ by some New Yorkers in the past and to this day.”

It wasn’t until 1972 that New Jersey joined New York in the authority’s name, and the preposition moved to its present place: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Why “authority” rather than agency, office, department, or whatever?

“The name was borrowed from the British,” Julius Henry Cohen writes in They Builded Better Than They Knew (1946), a book about the people responsible for the building of New York.

Cohen, a lawyer who helped draft the compact establishing the Port Authority, says the name was influenced by that of the Port of London Authority in Britain.

In case you’re wondering, the word “authority” entered English in the late 1300s, borrowed from the French autorité, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It initially referred to the “power to enforce obedience,” and didn’t come to mean “the body of persons exercising power” until the early 1600s.

[Note: The post was updated on June 5, 2017.}

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Etymology Grammar Linguistics

To “be,” or not to “be”

Q: I want to use “Where be thy jewels?” in a poem set in Elizabethan times. I know “be” is now regarded as incorrect. Was it correct then? I don’t like throwing around the words “correct” and “incorrect,” but I do like being accurate.

A: We agree with you that people should be careful about using words like “correct” and “incorrect” where language is concerned, though sometimes we have to take a position one way or the other.

As we’ve noted many times on the blog, a usage that’s frowned upon today may have been perfectly acceptable a few hundred years ago.

In answer to your question, the unadorned verb “be” was used in place of  “am,” “is,” or “are” at various times in history.

One of those times, it turns out, was the Elizabethan age. So, yes, it would be historically accurate to use “Where be thy jewels?” in your poem.

Shakespeare (1564-1616), that most famous Elizabethan, used “be” for “are” quite a bit. These are only a few examples:

“Where be thy brothers?” (King Richard III); “Where  be your powers?” (King John); “Where be my horses?” (Merry Wives of Windsor); “Where be these bloody thieves?” (Othello).

Such uses of “be” were common in Old English and date back into the 800s, according to examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although this kind of “be” was rare during most of the Middle English period (1100-1500), it came to life again in the late 1300s. Chaucer, for example, used “we be” around 1385.

In fact, the OED has citations from Chaucer’s time until well into the 19th century for the use of “be” in place of “am,” “is,” or “are.” Here are some 19th-century examples of “be” in action:

1820, in Byron’s Marino Faliero: “And who be they?”

1861, in Thackeray’s The Four Georges: “Where be your painted houris?”

1864, in Tennyson’s Northern Farmer: “I beänt a fool.”

And on the other side of the Atlantic, the American lexicographer Noah Webster writes in his Dissertations on the English Language (1789): “The verb be … is still used after the ancient manner, I be, you be, we be, they be.”

As for today, the OED says, this usage is obsolete. But while it’s now considered nonstandard, it lives on and can still be heard in dialects spoken in both England and the United States.

In England, the OED says, this use of “be” (or the variants “beest,” “be’st,” and “beth”) occurs widely in some dialects, mostly in the southern and midland regions.

“The negative I ben’t, beant, baint is even more widely used dialectally,” the OED says.

In our own country, the Dictionary of American Regional English has collected scores of 20th-century examples of the nonstandard use of “be.”

They were recorded among both blacks and whites, mostly in the South, the southern Midwest, and the Northeast.

How did this now obsolete use of “be” come about?

First, it’s important to know that the verb “be” started out as three different verbs of Germanic origin: “be,” “am,” and “was.”

These eventually were combined under the umbrella of the infinitive “be,” but the various tenses and conjugations took centuries to sort themselves out.

For example, “are” originated in the north of England and didn’t make its way south, and thus into standard English, until the early 1500s.

However, the OED says, “be continued in concurrent use till the end of the century (see Shakespeare, and Bible of 1611).”

In England today, the OED notes, “the regular modern Eng. plural is are, which now tends to oust be even from the subjunctive. Southern and eastern dialect speech retains be both in singular and plural, as ‘I be a going,’ ‘we be ready.’ ”

By the way, don’t confuse the obsolete use of “be” we’re discussing here with the “be” that’s used in the subjunctive mood, as in “I asked that I be excused.”

We’ve written on the blog about the subjunctive, which is losing ground in British English (as the OED notes) but is holding its own (for now) in standard American English.

In short, “be” (along with similar forms like “beest,” “be’st,” “beth,” and so forth) was once “correct” for singular as well as plural in the first, second, and third person present indicative.

And “be” (along with its cousins) is still being used that way dialectally in the US and England.

Finally, the obsolete use of “be” for “are” lives on not only in dialect but also in the familiar expression “the powers that be.”

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Why is “m” a symbol for slope?

Q: This drives math teachers crazy, perhaps because it’s more of a language question: Why do we use the letter “m” for the slope of a line? If you don’t know, you’re in good company. Even people on the Math Forum aren’t sure.

A: We’re in good company, it seems, though we can clear up some of the nonsense found online about the use of “m” as a symbol for slope. Let’s begin with a bit of history.

The CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics (2nd ed.) by Eric W. Weisstein says the letter “m” was first used in print as a symbol for slope in the mid-19th century.

Weisstein traces the usage to an 1844 treatise on geometry by the British mathematician Matthew O’Brien.

That may be the earliest use of the symbol in an English work, but Sandro Caparrini, a scholar at the University of Torino in Italy, has traced the usage all the way back to a 1757 work by the Italian mathematician Vincenzo Riccati.

Why, you ask, did the letter “m” become the symbol for the slope of a line instead of, say, “s” or some other letter?

First, we ought to point out that the symbol is different in some other languages.

In Swedish, for example, it’s “k.” The mathematician Erland Gadde has speculated that the “k” stands for “koefficient,” which is part of a longer technical word for slope in Swedish.

But getting back to your question about the symbol “m,” one theory is that it comes from monter, which means to climb in French. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence to support this.

And the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes never used the symbol “m,” as many supporters of the monter theory have claimed.

Other unsubstantiated speculation is that the “m” refers to either mons, Latin for mountain, or montagne, French for mountain.

One common theory is that the “m” stands for the first word in “modulus of slope.”

Although the word “modulus” can refer to a number or function or parameter, we find no evidence that it was once commonly used with “slope.”

We have, however, found one explanation for—or rather comment about—this “m” business that makes sense to use.

In Mathematical Circles Revisited (2003), the math historian Howard W. Eves suggests that it doesn’t matter why “m” has come to represent slope.

“When lecturing before an analytic geometry class during the early part of the course,” he writes, “one may say: ‘We designate the slope of a line by m, because the word slope starts with the letter m; I know of no better reason.’ ”

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Etymology Pronunciation

High satiety

Q: I’m proofreading a book that has a pronouncer for the word “satiety.” My Web 10 gives two possibilities: (1) suh-TIE-uh-tee; (2) SAY-shuh-tee. How do you (personally) pronounce it?

A: Our newer MerriamWebster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives three possibilities: (1) suh-TIE-uh-tee;  (2) SAY-shuh-tee; (3) SAY-shee-tee.

We’ve never uttered the word, but we’d go for #1 if we were to use it.

That resembles the sole pronunciation in the Oxford English Dictionary and the only one in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

The OED and AH pronunciations are roughly suh-TIE-ih-tee (the next-to-last vowel is like the “i” in “pit”).

A similar pronunciation, suh-TIE-eh-tee (the penultimate vowel is like the “e” in “silent”), is the only one given in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

This would seem to indicate that the variants with the “sh” sounds have come along in the last 60 years.

In the current M-W Collegiate, number 2 (SAY-shuh-tee) and number 3 (SAY-shee-tee) are given as “also” variants, meaning they’re “appreciably less common” but standard nonetheless. (The quote comes from the explanation at the front of the dictionary.)

Why have these two also-rans popped up? Perhaps because they resemble the “sh” sounds in “satiate” and “satiated.”

The presence of #3 (SAY-shee-tee) seems a bit odd, however, since it’s hard to pronounce (two long “e” sounds in a row).

The word “satiety,” in case you’re interested, was adapted in the 16th century from the French satiété.

The French was an adaptation of the Latin satietatem (abundance, satiety), from satis (enough).

And with that, we’ll say, “Enough!”

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Etymology Usage

Reshelf life

Q: Do you “reshelf” or “reshelve” a book in the library?

A: You “reshelve” a book, though you won’t find the word in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) or Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

That’s because dictionary editors have to pick and choose to keep the number of words at a manageable level, and not every word with a “re-” prefix makes the cut.

We did, however, find “reshelve” in the king-size Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

And all the standard dictionaries we checked have entries for “shelve” as a verb and “shelf” as a noun.

So you’d better shelve “reshelf” and use “reshelve” when you’re talking about returning a book to its proper place in the library.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary has entries for both “shelve” and “shelf” as verbs meaning to put on a shelf.

But “shelve” is by far the older verb, dating from 1655, and “shelf” has been used only figuratively in the sense of putting something aside or forcing someone into retirement.

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Etymology Usage

Social studies

Q: Is “societal” a word? I much prefer “social.”

A: Yes, “societal” is a legitimate adjective. It’s been in use since 1843, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the first recorded use in print, from Hints and Reflections for Rail Travellers and Others, by an author calling himself (no doubt pseudonymously) Minor Hugo:

“Our monetary system, like that of trade, or any other societal occupation, is unfair from first to last.” (More about this book later.)

The OED defines “societal” as meaning “of or relating to society.” The word combines the noun “society” and the adjectival suffix “al.”

But why did Minor Hugo bother to coin the word “societal”? How was it an improvement on “social”?

After all, the adjective “social” had had the same meaning (“of or relating to society”) since 1579, the OED says.

We’re guessing that “societal” appealed to that 19th-century writer because “social” had so many other meanings besides.

“Social” entered English in the late 1300s from Middle French, where social meant “allied militarily,” according to the OED.

The English adjective started out as “designating a war fought between allies,” the OED says. (In this respect it resembled the word “civil” as used in the phrase “civil war.”)

But early on, “social” had friendlier overtones. This was only natural, since it came from the Latin noun socius, meaning an ally, companion, comrade, etc.

(In the 1400s, English acquired an identical noun, “socius,” with the same meaning: companion, associate, or colleague. It’s still used today, and the plural is “socii.”)

By the 1400s, according to the OED, “social” meant “devoted to home life; domestic.”

And from the 1500s onward, its senses blossomed in many directions.

It could mean “of or relating to society,” or specifically “high society.”

But it also had the sense of “sociable”—that is, agreeable, companionable, living or associating with others, characterized by friendly interaction.

It also took on more neutral meanings having to do with groups or communities, whether of humans or animals or even plants found together.

Perhaps those who first used “societal” felt they needed a more purely human, neutral term. 

Which brings us back to Minor Hugo’s book, Hints and Reflections for Rail Travellers and Others. In the mid-19th century, when it was published, reviewers were a vicious lot.

Here’s how an anonymous reviewer in a London journal, The Monthly Review of December 1843, summed up poor Mr. Hugo’s effort:

“Trash! vile, irredeemable trash! nonsense so staringly idiotic, so inconceivably absurd, that the reader, wherever he may open the book, will be prompted to exclaim, (‘more in sorrow than in anger’) Alas! has this poor unfortunate no friends who can feel for his miserable situation, and who possess sufficient means to place him in some comparative retirement, where, under a competent degree of discipline and sanatory treatment, his mind might, perhaps, be so far relieved from its present disordered condition, as to afford him a sufficing glimpse of the ‘chaotic obscure’—the dark, waste, and inculturable region presented by his narrow and infirm intellect—and thereby dissuade him from any future attempt to advertise the public of his melancholy state of imbecility.”

That’s just the beginning. It goes on for page after page. Now there’s a tough reviewer! We might even call him antisocial.

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Punctuation Usage

Hyphen notions

Q: I often see a hyphen used in sentences like this: “Different animals live in fresh- and saltwater.” Is the hyphen really necessary? I think it’s ugly.

A: The short answer is that a hyphen isn’t necessary in that sentence. We’ll explain why later, but let’s first discuss what’s going on here.

To keep things simple, we’ll use another example: “He has a stomachache and a headache.”

The two nouns in that sentence are compound words, the first made up of “stomach” and “ache,” the second of “head” and “ache.” Compounds can also be hyphenated (“mayor-elect” and “governor-elect,” for example).

To get rid of an “ache” in the sentence above, the usual style is to replace it with a hyphen: “He has a stomach- and a headache.”

As The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) explains it, when the second part of a  compound is omitted, a hyphen is used, followed by a space. It gives this example: “both over- and underfed cats.”

Note, however, that the second part of the compound, “fed,” is the same in both words. This hyphen business doesn’t work when the second part is different.

As the Chicago Manual points out, you would write “overfed and overworked mules,” but not “overfed and -worked mules.”

We’ve simplified this a lot. If you’d like to read more about dropping parts of compounds, check out page 374 in the Chicago Manual.

Getting back to your question, why isn’t a hyphen necessary in the sentence you ask about?

Because four of the five dictionaries we checked consider the noun versions to be two words, “fresh water” and “salt water”—noun phrases, in other words.

They appear as two words, for example, in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is the lone dissenter, but we’ll let the majority rule here.

Since these two noun phrases aren’t compounds, no hyphen is needed when a word is removed: “Different animals live in fresh and salt water.”

However, the adjectives “freshwater” and “saltwater” are solid compound words in four of the five dictionaries we looked at.

So a hyphen is needed if the adjectives are used in a similar sentence and part of the first one is dropped: “The aquarium has both fresh- and saltwater fish.”

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Grammar Usage

We’d better toe the line

Q: Sorry to be a pest, but I’m wondering about the usage in two of your posts. On Dec. 16, 2007, you wrote, “I better not overlook it,” and on Aug. 29, 2009, you wrote, “I better stop now.” Shouldn’t that be “I’d better” rather than “I better”?

A: Many language authorities consider “I better” acceptable in informal usage.

For example, R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says, “In a wide range of informal circumstances (but never in formal contexts) the had or ’d can be dispensed with.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says published examples “suggest that while it is an acceptable idiom, it is not found in very formal surroundings.”

Although we try to maintain an informal tone in these surroundings, we’ve decided to change those two instances of “I better” to “I’d better.”

This is a language blog after all, so we figured that we’d better toe the line!

And thanks for keeping us on our toes. 

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Etymology Usage


Q: What’s up with the all-purpose term “monger”? A fishmonger sells fish, a warmonger stirs up war, a gossipmonger indulges in gossip, a whoremonger patronizes prostitutes. If one were simply to “mong,” what would one be doing?

A: The word “monger” is a favorite of ours, so we’re glad to have an excuse for writing about it.

In modern times, it can refer to a dealer in some commodity (an “ironmonger,” for example), a person who engages in something undesirable (a “scandalmonger”), or one who stirs up something disreputable (a “warmonger”).

The word is ancient, dating back to early Old English. It has roots in the Latin mongo (a dealer or trader), and has cousins in Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, and other Germanic sources.

Its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “merchant, trader, dealer, or trafficker (freq. of a specified commodity).”

So, for example, a fish seller might have been called “a monger of fish.”

From about the 16th century, the OED says, “monger” also acquired a derogatory meaning: “a person engaged in a petty or disreputable trade or traffic.”

In fact, in the 17th and 18th centuries “monger” was frequently short for “whoremonger,” one who buys the services of whores. So the “monger” wasn’t always the one doing the selling!

But a “monger” is usually peddling something, and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says a “whoremonger” is one who either buys or sells the services of a prostitute.

The OED says the term by itself is “sometimes short for an established compound such as cheesemonger … where the context makes this clear.” 

Citations for the use of “monger” alone extend well into the 20th century.

In a couple of examples from British journalism, the OED cites references to “fruit one knew from the monger’s stall” (1925), and to “bulletin boards as mongers of pornography and pirate software” (1995).

We see “monger” more frequently, however, as part of a compound, like “ironmonger,” which has been around since the 14th century.

Some other examples in the OED include “fishmonger,” a 15th-century coinage, and “costermonger,” a 16th-century word for a fruit seller (from “costard,” an old word for an apple).

Modern usages (often hyphenated) are contemptuous for the most part: “rumor-monger,” “scandal-monger,” “fashion-monger,” “scare-monger,” “fad-monger,” and so on.

These mongers are peddlers or distributors or promoters of something, though they may not always do it for money.

You asked what one would be doing if one were simply to mong. Well, there is such a verb, and we’ve had it since Anglo-Saxon days.

The verb “mong,” according to the OED, means to barter or trade in something, chiefly to trade or spread gossip, rumors, and so on.

We don’t see it much these days, and when we do, it’s often used in a comical way, as in this 1949 example from Ogden Nash: “These editorial scandalmongers have to mong scandal.”

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Etymology Punctuation

Grocery business

Q: When I lived in Ohio in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I noticed that people pronounced “grocery” as GRO-shree instead of GRO-sir-ee. I live in New Jersey now and hear both pronunciations. Is GRO-shree an example of a shift in pronunciation, or is it a mistake?

A: Pat added a  chapter on pronunciation to the third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. Her advice on “grocery” is clear cut: “There’s no ‘sh’ in grocery. Say GRO-sir-ee.”

This pronunciation—three syllables and no “sh”—is also the only one given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).  

Another source, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), says either the two-syllable GRO-sree or the three-syllable GRO-sir-ee is acceptable.

Garner’s, which lists “grocery” among the most frequently mispronounced words in American English, calls GRO-shree a mispronunciation. 

But people who say GRO-shree do have one authority on their side. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it among three acceptable variants (along with GRO-sree and GRO-sir-ee).

The “sh” pronunciation doesn’t appear, though, in our 1956 copy of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

This suggests that the Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers have recognized a shift in pronunciation. Will other dictionaries follow suit? We’ll see.

Both “grocer” and “grocery,” by the way, are very old words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Grocer” first appeared in writing in 1321 and originally meant “one who buys and sells in the gross.”

It acquired a “y” suffix in 1436 and gave us “grocery” (originally “the goods sold by a grocer”), according to the OED.

The word “grocery” didn’t mean a grocer’s shop until the early 1800s.

But back to pronunciation. Our advice is to leave the “sh” out of “grocery,” but not to fret too much about people who leave it in.

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Inciting incidents

Q: My English teacher gave me a paper stating that in literature (more specifically, drama), “the inciting incident is the incident that unites the plot.” This sounds weird to me. Did the author mean to write “ignites” instead of  “unites”?

A: This sounds a bit weird to us too, but then it’s been our experience that many academics enjoy writing murky prose.

That said, a case can be made for using either “ignites” or “unites,” though we agree with you that “ignites” seems to make more sense.

The key here, of course, is the term “inciting incident.” 

You won’t find it in standard dictionaries or even among the quarter-million or so entries and subentries in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

But you’re almost certain to encounter the term in a college class on screenwriting or playwriting, though it’s not always used in the same way.

One common definition is that the “inciting incident” (also known as the “hook” or “catalyst”) is the point in a script where the protagonist realizes something’s up and the story gets going.

In Act I of Hamlet, for example, the ghost of the late King reveals that he was murdered by his brother and asks his son Hamlet to avenge him.

“If thou didst ever thy dear father love,” the ghost says, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”

That scene does indeed ignite Shakespeare’s plot, but one could argue that it also unites the elements of the plot.

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Is “syllabus” related to “syllable”?

Q: Here’s a silly question: Is “syllabus” related to “syllable”? I’ve been wondering about this since getting into an argument with a classmate over the plural of “syllabus.” I think it should always be “syllabi.”

A: Surprisingly, “syllabus” and “syllable” are complete strangers.

“Syllable” (part of a word pronounced as a unit) came into English in the 14th century from Anglo-French, and was ultimately an adaptation of the Latin syllaba, from the Greek syllabe.

As the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and the Oxford English Dictionary explain it, the Greek word was composed of parts meaning “a putting or taking together.”

So to the ancients, Chambers says, a syllable was “several sounds or letters taken or joined together” as a unit.

But “syllabus,” which came into English in the 17th century, originated as a mistake, according to both Chambers and the OED.

Our word for an outline of a treatise, a course of study, and so on is a borrowing from Late Latin, the Latin used from the third to the sixth or seventh century.  

However, the Late Latin word for list (syllabus) originated in error, from a misreading of the Greek word sittybas (a title slip or parchment label) as syllabos.

How should you refer in English to more than one “syllabus”? The word has two acceptable plurals: “syllabi” and “syllabuses.”

The first has the original Latin plural ending, and the second the Anglicized one. Both are listed in standard dictionaries, and in our opinion the Anglicized version sounds more natural.

We’ve written several blog items about the tendency of Latin plural endings to become Anglicized over time, including a posting in 2007.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Why is it “moral,” not “morale,” support?

Q: I’m puzzled by the phrase “moral support.” Why do we use the word “moral” here when “morale” is being supported? Was it once “morale support”?

A: No, it’s been “moral support” ever since the expression first showed up in English in the mid-19th century.

This may be because there was a brief period during the 19th century when the adjective “moral” could refer to morale.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that sense of “moral” is now obsolete or rare, though it wasn’t in 1852, the date of the OED’s first citation for “moral support.”

The dictionary’s entry for “moral support” doesn’t specifically mention morale boosting, however. It defines the phrase as simply “support or help which is psychological rather than physical.”

Now for a brief history of these upstanding words. Both have their roots in Old French and ultimately in the Latin moralis (having to do with morals, manners, or customs).

The word “moral,” which is accented on the first syllable, came into English in the 1300s. It’s both an adjective and a noun. 

As an adjective, it generally means something like “ethical” (as in “He is studying moral philosophy”).

As a noun it means a lesson or a maxim (as in “Does this book have a moral?”). The plural “morals” means ethics or principles (“Sharks have no morals”).

“Morale,” which is accented on the second syllable, is exclusively a noun and came into English much later, in the 1700s.

As the OED explains, it first meant moral principles or practice, but it acquired its modern sense in the early 1800s.

As used today, the OED says, “morale” means “the mental or emotional state (with regard to confidence, hope, enthusiasm, etc.) of a person or group engaged in some activity; degree of contentment with one’s lot or situation.”

This is an example: “When a team loses a game, its morale suffers.”

Now here’s a sentence using both words: “The moral of the story is that living a moral life can bolster one’s morale.”

It’s been said, according to the OED, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and other sources, that the Roman orator Cicero coined moralis as the Latin counterpart of the Greek ethikos (“ethical”).

Cicero, by the way, was a champion word-minter.

He’s credited with coining the Latin versions of many English words and phrases, including “alter ego,” “beatitude,” “evolution,” “favor,” “intelligence,” “irony,” “logic,” “magnum opus,” “non sequitur,” “notion,” “quality,” “religion,” and “republic.”

Inventions like those inspired the Italians to coin a word—one we borrowed—for a learned guide or mentor: “cicerone.”

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