Etymology Pronunciation Usage

The SEE-ment pond next to Granny’s still

Q: I was interested (and enlightened) by your recent blog posting about the difference between “cement” and “concrete.” But why no comment on their pronunciations? Both are often mispronounced, with the accent on the wrong syllable.

A:  Your question brings to mind an old sit-com, The Beverly Hillbillies, in which the erstwhile backwoods Clampetts refer to their swimming pool as “the SEE-ment pond.”

It’s likely that most people pronounce the nouns “cement” and “concrete” as sih-MENT (second syllable stressed) and CON-kreet (first syllable stressed). But that’s not the end of the story.

The noun “cement” was originally pronounced SEE-ment back in the 14th century, and some people still say it that way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The old pronunciation has since been “almost superseded” by sih-MENT, the OED says, because that’s the way the verb is pronounced.

Today, the OED gives both pronunciations as standard, and so does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), though M-W indicates that SEE-ment is less common.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives only one pronunciation, sih-MENT.

The noun “concrete” (the building material) is a relatively recent term, dating only to the 19th century, but the adjective (real, material, etc.) is much older, showing up in the 15th century.

Although the adjective has long been pronounced either CON-kreet or con-KREET, the OED says, the most popular pronunciation today is with the accent on the first syllable.

As for the building material, the dictionary adds, it’s universally pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: CON-kreet. And that’s the only pronunciation given in the OED.

But Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage give both pronunciations (CON-kreet and con-KREET) for the noun, with no preference for one over the other.

We’re not done yet. American Heritage adds that the first syllable can also be pronounced like “kong.”

The lesson here? English pronunciation is not written in concrete.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Boogie smoogie all night long

Q: This showed up in an online forum: “The Bulldog hitch never actually matched the ‘A’ frame on the trailer, and a means of making it solid required a little smoogying.” Isn’t that a wonderful word? Never heard it before.

A: A wonderful word indeed! The writer apparently used “smoogying” to mean improvising or being inventive or making do or something of that sort.

The reference to “smoogying” in that online welders’ forum is the only one we can find with that meaning.

And we noticed that the welder who used the word inserted an animated icon of a laughing face right afterward, so he meant it humorously.

Our guess is that he used “smoogying” as a nonce-word, one he made up on the spot.

A nonce-word, says the Oxford  English Dictionary, is “a word apparently used only ‘for the nonce,’ i.e. on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer’s works.”

We can find only one authoritative reference with an entry for “smoogy,” but not as a verb.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “smoogy” is an Australian slang word invented about a hundred years ago as “a collective term for people who kiss and cuddle.”

This term, according to Cassell’s, may be related to another Australian slang word, spelled “smoodge” or “smooge,” meaning “to ingratiate oneself, to cuddle up.”

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.) traces the verb “smoodge” to Australia in the late 19th century.

Partridge says it originally meant “to flatter, wheedle, speak with deliberate amiability,” but in the 20th century the word came to mean “to make love, pay court” in Australian slang.

Interestingly, there may be a connection here (however, tenuous) with the verb “schmooze.” Cassell’s and Partridge say “schmooze” was sometimes written as “schmooge” or “smoodge.”

The OED calls “schmooze” an adaptation of the “Yiddish shmuesn, to talk, converse, chat.”

Oxford’s first citation is from the New York Times Weekly Magazine (1897): “He loves dearly to stop and chat (Schmoos, he calls it).”

But back to “smoogying.” We’ve come across a couple of “smoogie” references that may be using the verb as a euphemism for making love.

In 1975, Atlanta Rhythm Section recorded a bluesy song called “Boogie Smoogie” (containing the line “boogie smoogie all night long”). And in 2004 Stevie Kotey recorded one called “Smoogie Down Punk.”

Slang, as you can see, is just as intricate and complicated as standard English, and much harder to pin down!

This is entirely unrelated, but the OED has an entry for “smuggy,” a rare adjective meaning “grimy” or “smutty.”

The dictionary has only two citations for this adjective, one from about 1515 that refers to “smoggy colyers” (colliers, or coal miners), and one from 1630 that mentions a “smuggy Smith” (blacksmith).

That long-dead adjective is likely to be related to a long-dead noun: “smug,” a word for “blacksmith.”

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Usage

Passive aggression

Q: I teach English to businesspeople around Cologne, Germany. I was explaining the use of the present perfect passive when a student asked me if there was a continuous form of it. I know there is, but I find it awkward and wonder if it has any use in the real world. What are your thoughts?

A: The present perfect continuous passive tense is a monster. It’s theoretically correct, but only rarely is it good idiomatic English.

As an example, since this is the holiday season, let’s use the verb “give.”

(1) Present: “I give gifts.”

(2) Present perfect: “I have given gifts all my life.”

(3) Present perfect passive: “I have been given gifts all my life.”

Now if you toss in the continuous element, you come up with this monstrosity:

(4) Present perfect continuous passive: “I have been being given gifts all my life.”

Semantically, we can see no difference between #3 and #4. Furthermore, we can see no reason for using #4.

The purpose of the present perfect passive is usually to express a previous action that has continued to the present—in other words, continuous actions that started in the past.

That being the case, the present perfect passive already has an element of continuity built in. 

Only rarely does the continuous “being” need to be added to the  mix. We can think of one of those rare cases.

Say your car is being serviced and you’ve been waiting impatiently for three hours. Here’s how you might express your feelings.

Present perfect passive: “The car has been serviced for three hours!”

This doesn’t quite express your meaning, so let’s try … 

Present perfect continuous passive: “The car has been being serviced for three hours!”

This expresses your meaning, but the active voice would be more natural: “They’ve been servicing the car for three hours!”

The lesson here is that all sorts of tenses are possible in English, but not all of the possibilities are natural.

So when in doubt about an awkward passive construction, try switching to the active  voice.

Check out our books about the English language


Siren songs

Q: Why do sirens draw you towards danger in Homer’s Odyssey, but warn you away from danger in real life?

A: What an interesting question! We’re talking about two different kinds of sirens here, but they’re etymologically connected.

First come the fabled creatures known as “sirens.”

These are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “monsters, part woman, part bird, who were supposed to lure sailors to destruction by their enchanting singing.”

Homer invented these monsters, or at least he was the first to mention “sirens” in writing. In his Odyssey, he called them by the Greek plural seirens.

From Greek, the creature moved into Latin (siren, later sirena) and on into Old French (sereine), from which it was borrowed into English in the 14th century.

But the earliest writers to use the term didn’t always have the Homeric siren in mind. 

For example, Chaucer, in The Romaunt of the Rose (circa 1366), confused “siren” with “mermaid,” the legendary creature that’s part woman, part fish:

“Though we mermaydens clepe hem here … Men clepen hem sereyns in Fraunce” (“Though we call them mermaids here … Men call them sirens in France”).

And some early sources, like the 14th-century Wycliffe Bible, thought a “siren” was a flying snake.

In translating the Latin for “siren,” Wycliffe versions used the expressions “wengid edderes” (winged adders) and “fliynge serpentis” (flying serpents).

But the classical “siren”—part woman, part bird—was pretty scary too.

In 1387, John de Trevisa translated a Latin text into Middle English and described “Sirenes, that were half maydens, half foules, and hadde wynges and clawes.”

Some sirens, like Homer’s, used their beautiful voices to lure ships onto treacherous rocks. Others lulled sailors to sleep and then tore them to pieces. Not a pretty picture!

But in the 16th century, the OED says, the word “siren” acquired another, less horrifying meaning: one who “sings sweetly, charms, allures, or deceives, like the Sirens.”

Now on to the more ear-splitting kind of siren.

In the early 19th century, the French physicist Charles Cagniard de la Tour invented an instrument that could produce musical tones and measure their frequencies.

Since it could emit sounds under water, Cagniard called it a “siren,” after the legendary beings.

The same name was adopted later in the 19th century for the noisier devices we associate with the word.

Today these noisemakers herald the coming of fire engines, ambulances, police cars, civil defense alerts, and so on.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Are some numbers more equal than others?

Q: My son is completing his college application. In describing his efforts to teach rudimentary math to children at a community center, he’s written “three hammers plus one hammer equal four hammers.” Is it “equal” or “equals”? I think he’s right, but I’m not certain.

A: Either one is OK, though the singular usage (“equals”) is far more popular nowadays.

A couple of Google searches produced these results: “three plus one equals four,” 12,500 hits; “three plus one equal four,” only 7.

The choice of a singular or plural verb in such equations depends on whether you consider the first part a single unit or a compound.

Here’s what Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has to say on the subject:

“It’s possible to treat one and one as a single mathematical idea, so the appropriate verb is is. Or it’s possible to treat the two ones separately—hence are.”

Garner’s goes on to say that the same is true for multiplication: “both four times four is sixteen and four times four are sixteen are correct. But the singular is much more common and natural in modern usage.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “plus” in this mathematical sense doesn’t get into the issue of singular versus plural verbs.

But the OED’s entry for the conjunction “and” says two numbers connected by it are “freq. treated as a unitary subject with singular verb.”

In fact, the earliest published reference in the OED for “and” used to connect two numbers (from a 1697 essay by Jeremy Collier) treats the subject as a singular: “The … notion … is as clear as that Two and Two makes four.”

However, the OED also has citations for the plural usage. Here’s one from Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs (1848): “When will you acknowledge that two and two make four, and call a pikestaff a pikestaff?”

In short, your son could use either “equal” or “equals” in his college application, but the singular is more popular now and would probably raise fewer eyebrows in the admissions office. We’d recommend going with it.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Punctuation Usage

Comma place

Q: What has happened to the comma that joins parts of a compound sentence?  Is it no longer used? I am seeing more and more compound sentences without it.

A: You don’t mention what kind of compound sentence you’re referring to, but we’ll do our best to answer your question.

There’s no absolute rule that one must use a comma to separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction. (A clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb.)

In a blog item last year, we noted that comma use is sometimes governed by taste and rhythm, not by any formal rule of punctuation.

One author may use a comma to separate parts of a compound sentence where another with somewhat different tastes in punctuation might leave the comma out.

In our Jan 23, 2009, blog item, we quoted a passage from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run as an example of  the tasteful use and nonuse of commas.

In the passage (which we’ll repeat here), the protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, shoots a basket on a playground as he’s watched by a group of schoolboys:

“As they stare hushed he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky, setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper.”

Updike uses (and doesn’t use) commas here because of a rhythmic effect he’s employing to build suspense. It would be a crime to interrupt and separate some of those breathless clauses.

Nonfiction is different, of course. But when no rules are being broken, writers have a lot of latitude in comma use.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

A stormy courtroom

Q: I’ve read of people being “hauled,” “haled,” and even “hailed” into court. How do you rule on these usages?

A: People who get themselves into a fix can be either “hauled” or “haled” into court.

They’re only “hailed” if their entrance is accompanied by a warm welcome or a chilly meteorological event.

In A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes that the “haul” and “hale” versions of the phrase are “equally common.”

Google agrees: “hauled into court,” 372,000 hits, versus “haled into court,” 344,000. (The “hailed” version, described by Garner as a “solecism,” gets 108,000.)

So why, you may wonder, do we have two similar words— “haul” and “hale”—for dragging someone into court?

The story begins with “hale,” a venerable old word that has undergone a few changes over the centuries.

It was first recorded in writing in about 1205, according to the Oxford English Dictionary

Back then, its meaning was “to draw or pull along, or from one place to another, esp. with force or violence; to drag, tug.”

So once upon a time, miscreants were “haled” into court or “haled” before a magistrate.

But why are they now also “hauled” into court?

Because several hundred years ago the old verb “hale” was mostly replaced by “haul,” which showed up in the 16th century as a new version of “hale”—same meaning, different spelling.

Apparently the difference in spelling came about because of a shift in pronunciation.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains that the “u” spelling represents a development in Middle English pronunciation in which vowel sounds shifted and spellings changed.

However, the verb “hale” can still be found in 19th-century literature in the old sense of pulling or dragging.

In 1879, for example, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of oxen “patiently haling at the plough.”

And, of course, the verb “hale” is still being used in the old legal sense.

A Feb. 18, 2003, article in the New York Times, for instance, refers to health insurance companies “haled into court.”

Here’s an aside. The verb “hale” shouldn’t be confused with the adjective “hale” (healthy, sound, uninjured).

English borrowed the verb “hale” from the Old French haler (to draw or pull), and the French got it from old Germanic sources.

But the adjective “hale,” as in the expression “hale and hearty,” is derived from the Old English hal (healthy), which is also the ancestor of “heal” and “whole.”

Another word to throw into the pot is “hail,” which is both an interjection (as in Shelley’s “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!”) and a verb meaning to salute, greet, or welcome.

This comes from an Old Norse word, heill (health, prosperity, good luck), which is the Norse counterpart of the Old English hal.

And no, the “hail” that’s frozen rain is no relation. It’s a very old term, dating from Anglo-Saxon times, and similar to words in other Germanic languages for those pellets of falling ice.

Check out our books about the English language


The first Noel

Q: I have a Christmas question. A French friend who’s a word hound maintains that the word “noel” is derived from “Emmanuel,” another name for Jesus Christ. Is this true?

A: Your French friend is on the wrong scent.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “noel” entered English in the 14th century as an interjection, “a word shouted or sung: expressing joy, originally to commemorate the birth of Christ.”

Here’s the first recorded use in writing, from Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale (1395): “And Nowel crieth euery lusty man.”

The Anglo-Norman spelling “nowel” and similar ones, by the way, survived in poetic usage into the 20th century.

The source of our English word was the Middle French nouel, later spelled noel or noël.

But the French got it from Latin, in which the adjective natalis means natal or pertaining to birth.

In post-classical Latin, according to the OEDnatalis referred to the “annual festival of the church.”

In the 1400s, “noel” was first used to mean the feast of Christmas. And in the 1700s, it was first used to mean a Christmas carol.

The name “Emmanuel,” also spelled “Immanuel” or “Imanu’el,” dates from long before Christ. The OED says it’s derived from Hebrew for “God is with us.”

In case you’re interested in more Christmas reading, we had a blog item a few years ago about who’s responsible for the “X” in “Xmas.”

You can learn why there’s nothing irreverent in our wishing you a merry Xmas.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Spelling Usage

The some of its parts

Q: Why do we use the word “some” when we approximate a number instead of, say, “about” or “nearly” or any of the other appropriate terms? Also, is this use of “some” related to “sum”?

A: English has a humongous number of words—hundreds of thousands, depending on how you count them—so it’s not surprising that we have a lot of ways to approximate a number.

The word “some” (originally spelled sum in Old English) has been used “with numbers to indicate an approximate amount or estimate” since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED adds that “some” here is acting like an adverb “with the sense of ‘about, nearly, approximately.’ ”

The earliest published reference in the dictionary for this usage is from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae.

The use of “about” in this sense also dates from Anglo-Saxon days, but “nearly” didn’t show up in English until the 16th century. And it took another century for it to mean approximately.

As for “approximately” itself, this is the real newbie and didn’t show up in English until the mid-19th century.

You also asked whether “some” is related to “sum.”

Although “some” was spelled sum in Old English, as we noted above, the modern words “some” and “sum” aren’t related.

“Some” has cousins in many old Germanic languages, including Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old Norse. It may ultimately come from the Sanskrit sama (every, any).

“Sum,” on the other hand, entered English in the late 13th century. We got it from the Anglo-French summe or somme, but it ultimately comes from the Latin summa (total number or amount).

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Usage

Wha’ happen?

Q: I’ve noticed a proliferation of “What happen?” (instead of “Excuse me?” or “Come again?”) among younger friends in NYC (I’m 42). Also worth noting, it’s often collapsed into “Wha’ happen?” I suspect a Hispanic or Caribbean influence.

A: A teacher once emailed us to report that his students in the Bronx would say, “What happened?” or “Wha’ happen?” when they failed to hear something he’d said. Some of their parents would say it too.

A search of the Internet finds only a sprinkling of examples, probably because the expression is more common in speech than in writing.

We can’t say where or when this usage first happened, what influenced it, or whether it will have staying power.

But we can discuss expressions like these that a listener uses to ask a speaker to repeat or elaborate on something just said.

The linguist Dwight L. Bolinger coined a name for the usage: “reclamatory questions.”

In his 1989 book Intonation and Its Uses: Melody in Grammar and Discourse, Bolinger discusses the rising and falling tones in such questions.

We’ve written before on the blog about the practice of saying “What?” when you didn’t quite catch what somebody said.

This usage is occasionally criticized (mostly by our elders) as rude, though it has a long history.

We have lots of ways of saying “Huh?” Some of our 19th-century ancestors used “What say?” or “How?” when their ears didn’t catch some bit of conversation.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “What say?” and “How?” emerged in 19th-century America as synonyms for “What?” or “What did you say?”

“What say?” might be seen as a shorter version of “What did you say?” And it seems likely that “How?” is a shorter form of  “How’s that?” or “How’s that again?”

Now we apparently have a new variation on the theme, “What happened?” or “What happen?” or the even shorter “Wha’ happen?”

None of the slang reference sources we use include this usage.

But Cassell’s says three similar questions with another meaning (“What happen?” … “Wha’appen?” … “What happening?”) originated in the 1950s among Black speakers in the West Indies and the UK.

These questions, according to Cassell’s, are used as “a general form of greeting, hello, how are you?”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the use of “What’s happening?” as a greeting originated among Black Americans in the 1950s.

These slang dictionaries no doubt will catch up with the reclamatory usage.

Meanwhile, we can add “What happened?” and “What happen?” and “Wha’ happen” to “What?” and “What say?” and “How?” and “Huh?” and “Eh?” and “Mmm?” and “Yo?” and “Come again?” and “Whazzat?” and “Say what?” and all the rest!

Our hearing may occasionally be faulty, but fortunately there’s no shortage of reclamatory questions.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Tucking into something tasty

Q: On foodie blogs and in restaurant reviews, one sometimes sees “tuck into” used to mean to dine on a particular dish. Example: “I tucked into a grilled chicken Caesar salad.” Where does the term come from?

A: What a seasonal question! We’re still recovering from Thanksgiving, and bracing ourselves for the rest of our holiday meals. We hesitate to step on the bathroom scale.

The slang use of “tuck” to refer to gourmandizing goes back to the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This meaning is an extension of the use of “tuck” in the sense of putting something into a snug or hidden place (“The cottage was tucked into the woods”) or covering up something (“We tucked her into bed”).

Here, in chronological order, are some of the OED citations for “tuck” and “tucking” in reference to eating or drinking.

“We will dine together; tuck up a bottle or two of claret” (from the novel Barham Downs, 1784, by Robert Bage).

“Tom Sponge now began cramming unmercifully, exclaiming every three mouthfuls, ‘Rare tucking in, Sir William’ ” (from the anonymous novel Splendid Follies, 1810).  

“Now that I’ve cured you, you’ll be tucking all that into your own little breadbasket” (from Frederick Marryat’s novel Peter Simple, 1833).

“If you’ll just let little Wackford tuck into something fat” (from Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, 1838).

“The strawberries … Which our Grandmother’s Uncle tuck’d in like a pig” (from The Ingoldsby Legends, written sometime before 1845 by Richard H. Barham).

“There is Rasherwell ‘tucking’ away in the coffee-room” (from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Roundabout Papers, 1860).

“Let’s go over and see if we can’t tuck away some of that grub” (from Lessons in Life, lectures of Josiah G. Holland, 1861).

“They gave themselves unreservedly to ‘tucking
in’ ” (from The Golden Butterfly, an 1876 novel by Sir Walter Besant and James Rice).

“Always in at dinner-time and to be found at odd hours tucking in” (from Knight-Errant, an 1887 novel by “Edna Lyall,” the pseudonym of Ada Ellen Bayly). 

Well, it’s mealtime and this is making us hungry!

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

How full is full up?

Q: I recently saw somebody on television describe a movie theater as “full up.” Is that right? Is it a dialect thing? Wouldn’t “full” be more normal?

A: First, let’s fill in a bit of history.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the adjective “full” in this sense as meaning “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; replete.”

“Full” is a very old word (first recorded in Old English before the year 1000) and it likes company.

The OED says “full” is often accompanied by intensifiers, as in “full to the brim,” “full to overflowing,” and “full up” (which it describes as colloquial). 

And don’t think that “full up” is a new coinage. Here it is in an 1892 article about cemeteries in the London Daily News: “Because they are full up … this additional one is required.”

The phrase was used even earlier with a slightly different meaning. In 19th-century British colonial slang, to be “full up” of something was to be sated with or tired of it.

Here are a couple of examples from the OED:

1890, in The Miner’s Right, an Australian novel by “Rolf Boldrewood” (the pseudonym of T. A. Browne): “She was ‘full up’ of the Oxley … a rowdy, disagreeable goldfield.”

1891, in Homeward Bound After Thirty Years: A Colonist’s Impressions of New Zealand, Australia, Tangier and Spain, by Edward Reeves: “The men … get tired, or as the colonial slang goes, ‘full up,’ soonest.”

In short, “full up” has been around for quite a while, but the OED still considers it colloquial.

We think it’s OK in speech and casual writing, but we’d go with “full” on formal occasions.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Usage

Why do we have both “less” and “fewer”?

Q: I’m careful to observe the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” but I wonder why this distinction developed in the first place and why we still have it?

A: We observe the distinction too, but we may be in the minority.

We’ve written before on our blog about the decline of “fewer,” a word that seems to be occurring fewer and fewer times.

As we point out in that blog entry and others, the traditional distinction between “fewer” and “less” is that “fewer” means a smaller number of things (“fewer ice cubes”) while “less” means a smaller amount of something (“less ice”).

However, that explanation doesn’t do justice to “less,” which has many other usages besides. It’s used with percentages and fractions, and in expressions like “one less,” “no less than twenty,” and others.

But on to their development. Both “less” and “few” were derived from old Germanic languages, and they were first recorded in Old English writings in the 700s or 800s.

“Fewer,” the comparative form of “few,” came along later, and was first recorded in writing around 1340, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Less” originally was a comparative form of “little,” the OED says. Its meaning was “smaller” or “of not so great size, extent, degree,” and so on.

“Few,” meaning “not many,” is just as old as “less.” It was recorded in such sources as Beowulf (perhaps as early as the 700s), the Vespasian Psalter (circa 825), and the Venerable Bede (c 900).

Keep in mind that the line between “less” and “fewer” was not always as distinct as it is in modern usage guides.

In fact, the OED has examples from the year 888 to modern times of “less” used to mean “fewer”—that is, a smaller number of things.

This isn’t surprising, of course, since “fewer” wasn’t even available until the 14th century.

At any rate, people happily used “less” to mean “fewer” for some 900 years before anybody minded.

In 1770, the grammarian Robert Baker suggested that “fewer” would be “not only more elegant … but more strictly proper” than “less” in a phrase like “no less than a hundred.”

And that, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, is how the “rule” for using these words was born.

Today, the OED says, this use of “less” to mean “fewer” is “freq. found but generally regarded as incorrect.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Concrete evidence

Q: I’ve always believed cement is a binding agent that’s mixed with water, sand, and gravel to make concrete. But people now use the word “cement” where I’d use “concrete.” Have the two words become interchangeable? If so, is this a recent shift in the meaning of “cement”?

A: To someone in the construction business, cement and concrete are technically different: cement is used, as you point out, as a binding ingredient in what we now call concrete.

But the word “cement” is frequently used for “concrete” by people who aren’t in the building trades.

In fact, both The The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) give “concrete” as one of the standard English definitions of “cement.”

This should come as no surprise, since before the word “concrete” was invented, very similar stuff was called “cement” and nobody minded.

The word “cement” entered English sometime before 1300, more than 500 years before “concrete” showed up.

In its earliest usage, “cement” meant rubble mixed with lime and water to form mortar (a bonding agent used between brick, stone, etc.), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

We got the word “cement” from the Old French ciment, but it’s ultimately from the Latin caementum, a contraction of caedimentum (rough cut stone or rubble). These are derived from the Latin verb caedere (to cut).

The substance we think of as concrete was familiar to the Romans, who used it to build the Forum, the Coliseum, the baths, and many other  antiquities.

In this form of construction, which the Romans called opus caementicium, a concrete core was surrounded by brick walls.

If you’d like to read more about this, check out “Mechanical Characteristics of Roman Opus Caementicium,” a section in Fracture and Failure of Natural Building Stones, a 2006 book by Stavros K. Kourkoulis.

The word “concrete” entered English in the 15th century as an adjective meaning grown together, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete.

The Latin ancestor of our English word is concretus, from the verb concrescere (to grow together).

Over the next few hundred years, the English adjective took on several other meanings, most of them describing something solid, material, or real (as opposed to abstract).

The use of “concrete” as a noun for construction material first showed up in English in the early 19th century.

The first citation in the OED is from an 1834 issue of London’s Architecture Magazine: “Making an artificial foundation of concrete (which has lately been done in many places).”

The next citation, from an 1836 entry in the Transactions of the Institute of British Architects, suggests that the term concrete came into general use “probably not longer than 15 or 20 years ago.”

So what do the words “cement” and “concrete” mean today?

Well, a contractor would use “cement” for that powdery mixture of ground limestone and clay that one buys in bags at a building supply store.

And the contractor would use “concrete” for the construction material one gets by mixing cement with sand, gravel, pebbles, broken stone, and so on.

But Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “the use of cement to refer to various building materials now mostly known as concrete has been around for some 600 years.”

“Objections to its use, in other than technical contexts, in such combinations as ‘cement floors’ or ‘cement walks’ is pedantic,” M-W adds.

We generally stick with the technical distinction when referring to “cement” or “concrete,” but we don’t think it matters much.

Unless you’re trying to get a job at Home Depot or Lowe’s, use whichever word you want.

Like many language questions, this one doesn’t have a concrete answer!

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Usage

The cat and the hat

Q: I wonder if this sentence uses the word “who” correctly: “The cat who spat at me didn’t like my hat.”

 A: The question here is whether it’s all right to use “who” (instead of “that” or “which”) in reference to an animal.

We briefly touched on this subject a few years ago in answering a “who/that” question about people and things.

A person, as we explained, can be either a “that” or a “who.” A thing, on the other hand, is always a “that.”

But what about Benji and Morris?

Dogs and cats aren’t people, but they aren’t quite things, either. Is an animal a “that” or a “who”?

This is how Pat answers the question in the third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“If the animal is anonymous, it’s a that: There’s the dog that won the Frisbee competition.

“If the animal has a name, he or she can be either a who or a that: Morris is a cat who knows what he likes.”

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has similar advice: “Use who if the animal’s sex is known or if it has been personalized with a name. Otherwise, use that or which.”

As for the cat you mention, it seems pretty anonymous, so use “that.”

Check out our books about the English language

English English language Expression Grammar Usage

Live and let die

Q: Here’s a non-grammatical lyric that will amuse you. In the recording of “Live and Let Die,” Paul McCartney sings: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in.” Isn’t this a serious overdose of the “in” word?

A: This lyric comes in for a lot of criticism from people who like complaining about ungrammatical songs.

Some people even hear one more “in” there: “But IN this ever-changing world IN which we live IN”!

However, the phrase may be perfectly correct in the lyric as originally written, according to Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema (2005), edited by Steve Lannin and Matthew Caley.

The song was written by Paul and Linda McCartney for the James Bond movie Live and Let Die (1973). It was also recorded by McCartney’s band Wings and released as a single.

Here’s the entire stanza, as quoted in Pop Fiction:

When you were young and your heart was an open book,
You used to say “live and let live”
(You know you did, you know you did, you know you did)
But if this ever-changing world in which we’re living
Makes you give in and cry,
Say “Live and Let Die.”

The language commentator Stan Carey, writing on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, argues that the phrase is indeed “live in,” and he cites a defense of the usage by the linguist David Crystal.

“Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural,” Crystal says on his blog. “That kind of prepositional doubling is common enough in speech when people start to use one construction and switch into another, especially when the construction involved (as here) is a usage shibboleth.”

Carey also cites a July 30, 2009, Washington Post interview in which McCartney indicates that he’s unsure of the actual wording of the lyric:

“It’s kind of ambivalent, isn’t it?” he says as he waivers between whether the phrase is “we’re living” or “we live in.”

McCartney ultimately thinks the phrase is “we’re living” (the version given in Pop Fiction), though he regards “live in” as “wronger but cuter.”

We’d like to put in a plea here for caution when critiquing song lyrics. The words found on Internet song-lyric sites are generally supplied by fans who merely post what they think they’re hearing.

And what they hear isn’t necessarily what the lyricist wrote. That’s why we don’t trust what we can’t actually see in published books or sheet music.

In fact, we don’t generally get all hot and bothered about ungrammatical song lyrics. As we’ve written before on the blog, lyric writers are exempt from the rules of grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, pronunciation, and even logic!

(Note: This post was updated on May 27, 2015.)

Check out our books about the English language

Linguistics Usage

Opposing views

Q: Is there a distinction between words that are true opposites—equidistant in opposite directions from a neutral midpoint—and words that are characterized by more or less of something? Mathematically, “east” and “west” are true opposites (opposite directions from a central geographical point), while “white” and “black” aren’t (one has all colors, the other none).

A: We assume your question was inspired by our recent blog entry about antonyms. If not, have a look at it.

In answer to your question, we don’t know of any distinction in language between words that are notional opposites and those that are mathematically measurable opposites.

But don’t confuse the two categories. Language is not quantum physics or differential geometry.

“White” and “black” are clearly notional opposites, or antonyms, words that convey opposite ideas.

The fact that to a scientist one represents the presence of something (color) and the other its absence is irrelevant from the point of view of language.

In fact, the words “absence” and “presence” themselves are notional opposites.

“Hot” and “cold” are also notional opposites. They represent opposing concepts, regardless of what is being measured and whether there is any midpoint between them.

In fact, some words that meet your idea of “true opposites” may not be antonyms at all.

“Red” and “green,” for example, may be opposites on a color wheel, but this doesn’t make them antonyms. The only “colors” that are antonyms are “black” and “white.”

While abstract (or unmeasurable) terms may be regarded as “false” from the scientist’s or mathematician’s point of view, they are nevertheless legitimate linguistic concepts.

Of course many words are opposites to both literary and scientific blokes.

As Rudyard Kipling puts it in his Barrack-Room Ballads (1892): “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics 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.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation

Asses and big asses

Q: I know this might sound slightly vulgar, but I’m really curious. I’ve been wondering how to classify the word “ass” in a phrase like, “That’s a big-ass house.” What part of speech is this?

A: “Big ass” alone isn’t hard to classify, as in “My big ass makes it difficult to zip my jeans.” Here, “big ass” is a noun phrase consisting of the adjective “big” plus the noun it modifies: “ass.”

But “big ass” can play the role of an adjective as well as a noun. In the sentence “That’s a big-ass house,” it’s an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “house.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several citations for “big-assed” with a literal meaning (that is, having large buttocks).

The first is from a 1944 entry in H. L. Mencken’s diary: “The marines’ chosen name for their female aides is bams, from big-assed marines.”

An extended use of this literal meaning—applied to airplanes with big rear ends—was recorded in the military beginning in 1945.

Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang have citations from that time, when a plane with a large tail section (especially the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress) was referred to as a “big-ass bird” or “big-assed bird.”

But in addition to these more or less literal meanings, both dictionaries have citations for “big-assed” and “big-ass” to mean simply big or impressive.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1945 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology:

“A big white bastard stood up in front of the door, cop of course, hit me in my head with that big ass nightstick, which really rocked my brains.”

Here are a few more quotations from the OED and Random House:

“We ain’t enough, in case of a big-ass attack” (1955, from Thomas Anderson’s Your Own Beloved Sons, a novel of the Korean War).

“Abraham opened the door of his big-ass Cadillac” (1961-64, from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn).

“He’ll sit there in this big-ass office downtown in Manila” (1977, from John Langone’s Life at the Bottom: The People of Antarctica).

“Somehow it seems daring for a big-assed conglomerate to put an artist in charge of a label’s direction” (1999, from Down Beat magazine).

In short, “big-ass” can be used adjectivally to mean simply big.

In similar adjectival usages, “smelly-ass” just means smelly; “jive-ass” means jive;  “sad-ass” means sad; “skinny-ass” means skinny, and so on. So in a sense, “ass” is a slang intensifier.

Your question gives us an excuse to explain a bit about the etymology of “ass”—or, rather, the etymologies.

Contrary to popular opinion, the two versions of “ass”—one for the posterior and one for the donkey—aren’t the same word. They’re unrelated etymologically and weren’t always identical.

The four-footed “ass” comes from an Old English word, assa, which was recorded sometime before 830 and may have been a diminutive form of an earlier word, esol.

The Old English was similar to words in Celtic, Teutonic, and Slavonic languages. But whatever its direct source, the Old English probably has its roots in the Latin asinus (donkey), which also gave us the word “asinine.”

The Latin asinus, like its Greek counterpart onos, is thought to have Semitic origins (in Hebrew, “she-ass” is athon).

But on to the anatomical “ass,” which is no relation to the donkey.

This “ass” was originally spelled “arse” (it still is in Britain).

“Arse” has its source in the far reaches of antiquity, a prehistoric Indo-European word that’s been reconstructed as orsos.

As you would expect, “arse” has counterparts from Ireland to Armenia, or “practically from end to end of the geographical range of the Indo-European language family,” as John Ayto puts it in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED has citations for “arse” (spelled aers or ars in Old English) dating back to around 1000. The “ass” spelling and pronunciation originated in the 1930s in the US, where it’s chiefly used today.

Here are a couple of early citations:

“My ass to habeas corpus” (1930, from the John Dos Passos novel 42nd Parallel).

“You give me a pain in the ass” (1934, from John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra).

With that, we will demurely butt out.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics

You no good rat!

Q: I’m wondering how the use of “you” originated when calling someone a name, as in “You no good rat!”

A: Here the pronoun “you” is being used as a vocative, a word that identifies the one being called out to or addressed.

The word “vocative” comes from the Latin verb vocare (to call), which is also the ancestor of words like “vocal,” “vocalize,” “vocation” (a calling), “evoke” (call forth), and “invoke” (call upon).

When “you” is used as a vocative, it often appears side by side with the noun or noun phrase it refers to, as in your example, “You no good rat!”

In grammatical terms, the vocative “you” is being used in apposition to (roughly, as the equivalent of) the noun phrase “no good rat.”

We’ve written several blog items, including one in 2008, that deal with apposition, a grammatical construction in which one word or phrase is the explanatory equivalent of another.

The word “you” here can be either singular or plural. Both constructions have been around since the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here are some examples from the OED of the plural usage:

“Farwell you Ladies of the Court” (Thomas Preston, 1569);

“Heare me, you wrangling Pyrates” (Shakespeare, 1594);

“You Lords of Florence, wise Machavil, and You Lord Barbarino” (Sir Aston Cokaine, 1658);

“And you, my daughters” (Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1799);

“You sirs, I said, what are you conspiring about?” (Benjamin Jowett, 1875).

As a singular, “you” is used either once (before the noun) or twice (before and after). The before-and-after version, the OED says, is often meant “in reproach  or contempt.”

Here are citations for the singular usages, some contemptuous and some not:

“My lord and you my lady” (from the French legend Melusine, circa 1500);

“Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you” (Shakespeare, 1590);

“You asse you” (George Chapman, 1606);

“You old Sot you” (John Dryden and William Cavendish, 1667);

“You little hussy, you!” (Oliver Goldsmith, 1768);

“You young hangdog, you!” (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1840);

“You scamp not to write before” (Edward Burne-Jones, 1852);

“I love you for trying, you dear” (Bernard Capes, 1919).

By the way, the old singular pronoun “thou” was also used in a vocative way, a usage that dates back to King Alfred in the late 800s.

The Old English citations won’t be understandable, but here’s one from the 15th century: “thow olde dotyng foole” (John Lydgate, c1425).

And here’s a later one: “Thou lyest, thou iesting [jesting] Monkey thou” (Shakespeare, 1610). 

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Is this a superlative idea?

Q: Recently a friend referred to one of his two daughters as “eldest.” His wife corrected him with “elder.” All six of us present then argued over whether to use “er” or “est” here. We choose you as the final arbiter.

A: Your friend’s wife is an adherent of a very common belief: the idea that you shouldn’t use a superlative adjective like “eldest” when speaking of only two things.

Is she right? As with many of the questions we answer on the blog, this one deserves both a “no” and a “yes.”

Everyone agrees on the general idea. A comparative adjective (one ending in “er,” like “elder”), allows us to compare two things, while a superlative (ending in “est”) lets us compare several.

In its definitions of the grammatical terms, the Oxford English Dictionary says a “comparative” is used “in comparing two objects,” while a “superlative” is used “in comparing a number of things.” 

Clearly, when speaking of three or more things, one would have to use a superlative.

But the question is, can “two” go either way? Do two objects qualify as “a number of things”? If so, then it would be legitimate to use either a comparative or a superlative when speaking of two.

As we wrote in a blog entry a couple of years ago, “er” and “est” suffixes (or versions of them) have been used to compare things since the earliest days of Old English.

The practice was handed down from older Germanic languages and ultimately from ancient Indo-European.

However, the belief that a superlative shouldn’t be used for comparing two things originated much later, in the late 18th century.

And at least one language authority questioned the new rule as early as the mid-19th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

M-W quotes the grammarian Goold Brown as saying in 1851 that this rule “is not only unsupported by any reason in the nature of things, but is contradicted in practice by almost every man who affirms it.”

The dictionary agrees that the rule against using a superlative for two “has never reflected actual usage,” adding:

“Among the writers who found the superlative appropriate for two are Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Addison, Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, Chesterfield, Austen, Bryon, Scott, Irving, Hawthorne, Thackeray, Disraeli, Ruskin, Emerson, Stevenson, Thoreau, and James Russell Lowell.”

By the turn of the 20th century, M-W says, more grammarians began to come around to Goold Brown’s point of view.

Today, the M-W editors say, grammarians no longer subscribe to the old rule, though “hard-line commentators” do.

For example, the generally conservative Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) calls the superlative for two a “blunder.”

Where does that leave us? With the “no” and the “yes” we mentioned above.

Here’s M-W’s conclusion:

“The rule requiring the comparative has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice, and it serves no useful communicative purpose. Because it does have a fair number of devoted adherents, however, you may well want to follow it in your most dignified or elevated writing.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage


Q: The Watergate scandal wasn’t about a gate (or, for that matter, water), so why has the press (and the public) decided that “-gate” is a negative suffix? For example, “Troopergate” “Filegate,” etc.

A: The Watergate scandal has had a lot of fallout, some of it linguistic.

As you probably know, the story broke when people connected with the Nixon administration were caught breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters on June 17, 1972.

The affair soon became known simply as “Watergate” because that’s the name of the building in Washington where the burglary took place.

A 1972 article in Time magazine, for example, says the Democrats “hope they can make Watergate a devastating—and durable—campaign issue.”

Since 1973, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Watergate” has also been used to describe any large-scale scandal.

For instance, Doctor Frigo, a 1974 thriller by Eric Ambler, refers to a “Central American Watergate.”

And a 1974 theater review in the Times of London refers to the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus the King as a “Theban Watergate drama.”

The OED entry on “Watergate” also cites examples of the verb to “Watergate,” the verbal noun “Watergating,” and the noun “Watergater.”

And the dictionary has a separate entry on the suffix “-gate” used as “a terminal element denoting an actual or alleged scandal (and usually an attempted cover-up), in some way comparable with the Watergate scandal of 1972.”

The first citation for the suffix used this way is from a 1973 issue of the National Lampoon that refers to a Russian scandal as “Volgagate.”

Other OED citations for the suffix attached to a place associated with a scandal include “Dallasgate” (1975), “Koreagate” (1976), “Hollywoodgate” (1978), and “Irangate” (1986).

The dictionary also includes many citations for the suffix attached to the names of people, organizations, commodities, activities, etc., implicated in a scandal.

Here are some examples: “Motorgate” (1975), “Cattlegate” (1976), “Oilgate” (1978),  “Billygate” (1980), “Hearingsgate” (1983), and “Stalkergate” (1986).

We might add that this usage has become a cliché and ought to be retired.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Usage

Is “chalant” the opposite of “nonchalant”?

Q: I hear “nonchalant” used all the time to mean unconcerned, but I never hear “chalant” used to mean concerned. Is there such a word in English?

A: No, there’s no “chalant,” just “nonchalant.” Only the negative form of the word has found a home in English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “nonchalant” was borrowed from French sometime before 1734.

It’s defined as meaning “calm and casual; (deliberately) lacking in enthusiasm or interest; indifferent, unconcerned.”

In French, nonchalant is the present participle of the verb nonchaloir (the earlier form was nonchaler), meaning to neglect or despise.

Its roots are the negative prefix non and the verb chaloir (earlier chaler), meaning to interest or to be important.

Those French verbs came from the classical Latin verb calere, which the OED defines as “to be warm, to be roused with zeal or anger, to be active.”

But though we don’t have “chalant,” we once had an adjective derived from that Latin verb: “calent.”

It’s no longer used, but back in the 1600s and 1700s it meant  warm or hot.

We’ve written before on the blog about words like “disgruntled” and “inscrutable” that seem to have only negative forms.

The third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I includes a section about words like these. We’ll quote the passage:

“Some words are sourpusses. They’re negative through and through, and have no positive counterparts. I’m thinking of words like unkempt, inept, disgruntled, and uncouth. We might joke about looking ‘kempt’ or being ‘couth,’ but in fact the negatives have no opposite forms—they’re either obsolete rarities or whimsical inventions.

“Other negatives with nonexistent or obscure opposite numbers include debunk, disappointing, disconcerting, disconsolate, disheveled, dismayed, immaculate, impeccable, inadvertent, incapacitated, inclement, incognito, incommunicado, incorrigible, indefatigable, inevitable, indomitable, insipid, misnomer, mistake, nonchalant, noncommittal, nondescript, nonpareil, nonplussed, unassuming, unbeknownst, ungainly, and unwieldy.

“Some similar words without opposite versions may look like negatives, but they aren’t. Their negative-looking prefixes (im and in) emphasize or intensify instead. Actually, intensify and instead are among these words, and so are insure, impromptu, inscribe, and inflammable.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics Usage

War of the words: Buckley vs. Wills

Q: I heard Garry Wills say on the radio that “oxymoron” got its present meaning (a pair of contradictory words) because William F. Buckley misunderstood its actual meaning (sharply foolish) and used it incorrectly in the National Review. Can you clear this up for me?

A: We didn’t hear Wills on the radio, but he did write in The Atlantic last year that Buckley liked to use “big words for their own sake, even when he was not secure in their meaning.”

“One of his most famous usages,” Wills wrote, “poisoned the general currency, especially among young conservatives trying to imitate him.”

These conservatives began using “oxymoron” in the sense Buckley gave it, he said, “though that was the opposite of its true meaning.”

Here’s how Wills explained Buckley’s thinking about “oxymoron”:

“He thought it was a fancier word for ‘contradiction,’ so young imitators would say that ‘an intelligent liberal’ was an oxymoron. But the Greek word means ‘something that is surprisingly true, a paradox,’ as in a shrewd dumbness.”

What do we think? We’re with Buckley on this and we’d say Wills’s etymology here is an example of dumb shrewdness.

To begin with, the word apparently didn’t exist in Greek, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though English writers coined an ersatz Greek version of it (using Greek letters) in the 17th century.  

The Romans coined oxymorum in the 5th century from the Greek roots oxus (sharp, keen, or pointed) and moros (foolish).

But the word never meant “sharply foolish” (or “shrewd dumbness”) either in Latin or in English.

To claim that as the word’s original meaning would be overly literal. A closer interpretation would be “pointedly incongruous.”

In modern English “oxymoron” has two meanings. The first is the one it’s had since it entered English in 1640, quite a few years before Buckley used it in the National Review.

Here’s how the OED defines this traditional sense of the word: “A figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis.” (This is also the definition in Latin.)

Here’s an example from the Quarterly Review of 1890: “Voltaire … we might call, by an oxymoron which has plenty of truth in it, an ‘Epicurean pessimist.’ ”

And that’s pretty much how Buckley uses the word in Miles Gone By: A Literary Biography (2004), when he refers to “martial Quakerism” as an oxymoron.

A newer, more general meaning is “a contradiction in terms,” which the OED says originated in 1902.

A couple of quotations from food writing are good illustrations of this looser usage:

“ ‘Healthful’ and ‘Mexican food’ need not be an oxymoron” (Texas Monthly, 1989);

“This opened up an oxymoron too dreadful to contemplate: affordable caviar” (The Guardian, 1993).

You can see the difference. In the newer usage, the contradictory terms aren’t deliberately juxtaposed for emphasis; they’re merely contradictory. And sometimes the contrariness is humorous, as in “jumbo shrimp.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Contingency planning

Q: I recently wrote a report that recommended rehiring a university colleague “contingent on available funding and staffing needs.” My department chair said this use of “contingent” was incorrect, and suggested using “if funding and staffing needs permit.” Was I wrong?

A: We think you used the word correctly but awkwardly. We like your department head’s version better.

Most people use “contingent” in one of two ways. (We won’t go into the legal and accounting senses of the word.)

(1) As an adjective used alone, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “contingent” means “liable to happen or not; of uncertain occurrence or incidence.”

This was the word’s original meaning when it entered English sometime before 1400.

Here’s an 1860 example from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All salaries are reckoned on contingent as well as on actual services.”  

(2) In the adjectival phrases “contingent on” and “contingent upon,” the OED says, the word means dependent on or upon something else—“some prior occurrence or condition.”

This usage dates from the early 1600s.

Here’s an example from Hamon L’Estrange’s The Reign of King Charles (1654): “In things contingent upon free and voluntary agents, all the Devils in hell can but blunder.”

So by itself, “contingent” means something like “possible.” But combined with “on” or “upon,” it resembles “conditional” or “subject to.”

By using the phrase “contingent on available funding and staffing needs,” you spoke of an occurrence (a hiring) as dependent on two prior conditions: available funding and staffing needs. 

Although your use of “contingent on” is correct here, it strikes us that your department head’s version (“if funding and staffing needs permit”) is more direct and a word shorter to boot.

Check out our books about the English language

English language 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: holiday words.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation Spelling Usage

Lurve affair

Q: One of the participants at the Daily Beast’s recent “Reboot America!” conference was reported as saying the US needed “innovation and luurve.” I’ve never seen “luurve” and can’t find it in my dictionary. Is this a typo?

A: You won’t find this word in standard dictionaries, but it’s not a typo. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a chiefly British colloquial term for “love.”

The OED’s entry for this noun spells it “lurve,” but it gives “lerv,” “lurv,” “lurrve,” and “luurve” as other spellings.

The dictionary defines the word this way: “Romantic infatuation; sex; love. Freq. when regarded as being treated (esp. in films, pop music, fiction, etc.) in a hackneyed or clichéd manner.”

The OED says the term represents “an emphatic, humorous, or arch pronunciation” of the word “love.”

It adds that the pronunciation sometimes parodies “the slow, smooth, crooning” of “love” in popular songs, and may reflect “British perceptions of the U.S. pronunciation” of the word.

The earliest citation for the noun is from a 1936 issue of the Daily Mirror that describes a situation in which “(a) you’re in Lurve, but (b) you’re not sure he’s in Lurve with you.”

However, the OED has an entry for an older verb, with even more spellings, including some with the “u” or “r” occurring four or more times.

The first citation for the verb is from The War in the Air, a 1908 novel by H. G. Wells: “I am pleading the cause of a woman, a woman I lurve.”

Here’s an example of a three-“u” version from a 1989 issue of the British magazine Q: “I luuurve that jacket, Bobby!”

And here’s a three-“r” version from Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary: “I kept saying the words, ‘Self-respect’ and ‘Hug’ over and over till I was dizzy, trying to barrage out, ‘But I lurrrve him.’ ”

Although the word in its various guises is mainly seen in Britain, it’s not unknown in the US as you’ve noticed.

And the usage may survive—in whole or in part—when a British book crosses the Atlantic.

For example, Luuurve Is a Many Trousered Thing, a book for teens by the British writer Louise Rennison, arrived in the US with the title Love Is a Many Trousered Thing.

But Rennison’s labor of “luuurve” wasn’t entirely lost. The word appears throughout the text of the American edition.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

One and the same

Q: As I catch up on missed reading, I see that Anna Fifield, writing in the Financial Times, referred to the “opposing” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies in Washington on Oct. 30 as essentially “one in the same.” I would have written “one and the same.”

A: You’re right. Anna Fifield should have written “one and the same,” not “one in the same.” The two expressions are not one and the same.

But the Financial Times writer is not alone here. “One in the same” is an extremely common misunderstanding of an expression handed down from ancient times.   

The phrase “one and the same,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “used as a more emphatic form of ‘the same.’ ”

Published examples of its use in English date back to 1531, but it ultimately comes from classical Latin (unus et idem) and an earlier version in Greek.

This example from Newsweek in 2001 is a good illustration of the usage: “The two groups are not one and the same … but their issues often overlap.”

Our guess is that the “and” in the phrase gets contracted in speech. People hear it spoken as “one ’n’ the same,” so they think it ought to be written as “one in the same.”

This reminds us of an ad we clipped from a newspaper years ago. A store was advertising a sale on “Chip ’n’ Dale” furniture.

(The store’s ad manager confused “Chippendale” with Chip and Dale, the Disney cartoon chipmunks.)

Check out our books about the English language


Licking one’s wounds

Q: I’m curious about the expression “lick one’s wounds.” Does it come from animals’ licking their wounds? Or did people once lick their wounds for medical reasons?

A: People have believed in the healing powers of human saliva—and the benefits of licking their wounds—since ancient times.

In “Notes on the Healing Properties of Saliva,” a 1975 study in the journal Folklore, G. Chowdharay-Best writes that this belief was well-known among ancient Greeks and Romans.

“Pliny, for example, in his Natural History, collected together a number of examples of its use,” the author writes.

The article also cites examples from the Roman physician Galen, the Greek philosopher Celsus, the Byzantine physician Paul of Aegina, and other ancient writers.

In fact, human saliva does indeed contain chemicals that aid in healing.

A Dutch study published in 2008, for example, reports that histatins, proteins in human saliva, stimulate the healing of wounds.

You can read a summary of the study at the website of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

But back to your question. Does the phrase “lick one’s wounds” come from animal behavior, or from the ancient belief that human saliva was good for wounds?

We can’t answer this definitively, but our  hunch is that it comes from the old medical belief about human saliva.

We don’t know when the verbal phrase “lick one’s wounds” was first used. The Oxford English Dictionary has no explanation for the phrase and has no citations for it earlier than the 19th century.

We do know, though, that it’s at least as old as the 17th century, since it appears in John Dryden’s play All for Love (1677).

In Dryden’s usage, the animal imagery is obvious:

“We have dislodged their troops; / They look on us at distance, and, like curs / ’Scaped from the lion’s paws, they bay far off, / And lick their wounds, and faintly threaten war.”

However, the OED has earlier citations that refer to the licking of human wounds without using that exact phrase.

For example, the OED includes this quotation from God’s Three Arrows: Plague, Famine, Sword (1631), three Puritan treatises by William Gouge:

“By the daily licking of his rankling wounds with the tongue of lady Elenor his wife, he is said to be cured.”

In Gouge’s example, the licking was clearly intended as a healing remedy. (And how’s that for wifely devotion?)

The OED also notes that an obsolete phrase, “to lick whole,” once meant “to heal of wounds or sores by licking.”

An early meaning of “whole,” the OED says, was “uninjured, unwounded, unhurt” or “recovered from injury or a wound.”

In other words, to make a wound “whole” was to heal it.

Here are several passages in which “lick whole” appears (most of the time it’s used in a figurative way): 

circa 1550, from the Discourse of the Common Weal of This Realm of England: “If anie men haue licked theim selues whole youe be the same.”

1581, from James Bell’s translation of Walter Haddon Against Osorius: “Wee shoulde lycke our selues hoale againe in short space.”

1596, from a German sermon translated by Bishop William Barlow: “Who vnder a shew of licking them whole, suck out euen their hart blood.”

1607, from Samuel Heiron’s Works: “It is not a limme of Satan which is wounded; he might then licke himselfe whole.”

1712, from John Arbuthnot’s John Bull pamphlets: “He would quickly lick him-self whole again, by his vails.” (“Vails” were profits or perks.)

As you can see, none of those “lick whole” examples seem to have any connection to the habits of wounded animals.

They call up images of someone cleaning or nursing a sore by sucking on it. This is something people (as well as animals) do instinctively in an attempt to comfort a hurt. 

Again, our hunch is that the expression “lick one’s wounds” ultimately comes from the ancient belief in the healing properties of human saliva.

But sometimes the answer to a language question is elusive, and we can only offer our  best guess.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Usage

Is “inciteful” a word?

Q: I can’t remember the last time I saw the word “insightful” spelled that way. My correspondents seem to favor “inciteful.” Have you noticed this? Does it drive you crazy? It does me.

A: Yes, we’ve noticed this misspelling, but we don’t see it much among our correspondents. Definitely not enough to drive us crazy.

And “inciteful” isn’t always a misspelling. Although you won’t find the word in standard dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry that defines it this way: “Liable to rouse to passion; provocative.”

The earliest OED citation is from a 1971 case in the Federal Supplement, a collection of US court opinions:

“The public mutilation of the flag is an act which is likely to elicit a violent response from many who observe such acts. The Supreme Court has clearly recognized the inciteful impact of flag desecration.”

In a more entertaining citation, a 1984 issue of The Listener, a now defunct BBC magazine, refers to the provocative Diana Rigg as “terribly sexy and coolly inciteful.”

By the way, “insightful” isn’t all that much older than “inciteful.”

The first citation in the OED is from The Country House, a 1907 novel by John Galsworthy: “As if she had been guilty of thoughts too insightful, Mrs Pendyce blushed.”

One final comment on this “inciteful/insightful” business. Some googling suggests that many of the people who use “inciteful” are using it correctly. Perhaps these two words will sort themselves out over time.

Check out our books about the English language


Is Franco still dead?

Q: On your post about frequently paired words, you say Kuwait is almost always introduced by “oil-rich.” I can think of two more examples from the not-so-recent past: Manuel Noriega’s name was preceded by “Panamanian strongman,” and Steve Jobs’s big-time flopperoo was “Apple’s ill-fated Lisa.”

A: How could we have neglected to mention “Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega”? Surely a classic in the genre!

Even now, that combination gets 93,000 hits on Google, most of them preceded by “ex-” or “former” or “one-time,” or “deposed” or (in a couple of cases) “aged and paunchy.”

Well, he is now a guest of the French penal system instead of ours.

A lesser light whose name was generally preceded by a formulaic phrase was “notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.”

We’d completely forgotten “ill-fated Lisa,” but you’re right. The phrase was ubiquitous. It would be fun to collect these classics of journalese.

This phenomenon reminds us of another that will really reveal our ages. You may not remember that back in the early 1970s, Francisco Franco was described for months and months (at least so it seemed) as “the ailing dictator.”

When he finally died, Saturday Night Live began reporting news flashes that he was “still dead.” This kept up for more than a year!

If you remember this, you’ll get a smile out of a Wikipedia article entitled “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” (In Spanish, it’s actually “Generalísimo.”)

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Linguistics

Why did we start “she”-ing ships?

Q: I was wondering if the old custom of referring to a ship as a female derives from the use of gender in other languages for inanimate things. I haven’t found any support for this idea, but it does fit nicely.

A: As we’ve written on our blog, the personification of nonliving nouns (e.g., ships or nations) as “she” has fallen out of common usage. It’s now generally considered quaint or poetic.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), as well as the style books of the Associated Press and the New York Times, recommend using “it” or “its” to refer to ships.

In 2002, Lloyd’s List, the 276-year-old London-based shipping newspaper, officially dropped the gender personification and now refers to ships with the pronouns “it” and “its” instead of “she” and “her.”

We can’t say for certain why ships were traditionally referred to with feminine pronouns, but we’ll pass on some theories that we’ve come across.

Under its entry for “she,” the Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage this way: “Used (instead of it) of things to which female sex is conventionally attributed,” such as “a ship or boat.”

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a medieval work, John Barbour’s The Bruce (1375), a history of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots.

In the quotation, which uses Middle English spellings, a “schip” (ship) is referred to as “scho” (she).

And since that time, some other things besides ships have been, as the OED says, “personified as feminine.” 

These include “natural objects considered as feminine,” including “the moon, or the planets that are named after goddesses.”

Also included are “the soul, a city, the church, a country,” and even (though the usage is now obsolete) an army.

In addition, the pronoun “she” has been used—and still is in colloquial usage or dialect—to refer to “a carriage, a cannon or gun, a tool or utensil of any kind; occas. of other things.”

Why was “she” used in these cases?

The fact that nouns had grammatical gender in Old English probably doesn’t account for it. But other languages may have had some influence.

In two early OED citations, which come from English translations of French works, “she” is used in reference to a door (c. 1380) and to a room or chamber (c. 1475).

The words for “door” (porte) and “room” (chambre) are feminine in French, and the OED says “the grammatical gender of the Fr. words rendered may have influenced the translators.”

A couple of 15th- and 16th-century citations in which “she” is used in reference to the sun “may possibly be due to misprint,” the OED says.

Any survival of the Old English grammatical gender for the word “can hardly be supposed,” Oxford adds, but the 15th-century citation “may have been influenced by the fact that the sun is fem. in Flemish.”

This seems likely, since that 15th-century work was printed by William Caxton, whose assistant, Colard Mansion, was a Flemish printer and scribe. 

But we’re still left scratching out heads and wondering why some people to this day use “she” for things that have no gender.

Perhaps the grammarian Otto Jespersen came closest to an explanation in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933).

Jespersen wrote that some inanimate things may be personified “to show a certain kind of sympathy with or affection for the thing, which is thereby, as it were, raised above the inanimate sphere.”

“In such cases,” he adds, “the speaker does not really attribute sex to the thing in question, and the choice of a sexual pronoun is occasioned only by the fact that there is no non-sexual pronoun available except  the inert it.”

So sometimes we may feel that “it” is simply too lifeless and inadequate—or, as Jespersen says, “inert.”

That seems as good a reason as any for why people have wanted to give ships a feminine touch.

Check out our books about the English language


Delusions of grandeur

Q: “Deluded” or “delusional”? Do you prefer one over the other? “Deluded” is a syllable and several letters shorter (that’s a plus), but it doesn’t always mean the same thing as “delusional.” Or does it?

A: No, “deluded” and “delusional” don’t mean the same thing, though they share the same Latin root.

The participial adjective “deluded” means tricked or deceived.

The adjective “delusional” means believing things in spite of indisputable evidence to the contrary.

Although “delusional” is often used loosely, it can also mean suffering from delusions, a symptom of mental illness.

“Deluded” and “delusional,” as well as the verb “delude” and the noun “delusion,” are derived from the Latin deludere (to play false, mock, deceive), the Oxford English Dictionary says.

Both “delude” (to mislead) and “delusion” (a false belief) entered English in the 15th century, according to published references in the OED.

The earliest appearances of “deluded” (in the 15th century) were as the past tense and past participle of the verb “delude.”

The participial adjective “deluded” didn’t appear until the 17th century. The first OED citation for the adjective is from a poem (circa 1628) by Sir John Beaumont:

“To taste of heauenly lights your thoughts inclines / And able to wean deluded mindes.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the citation.) 

The adjective “delusional” is the newcomer here. It didn’t show up until the late 19th century.

The earliest OED citation (a reference to “delusional insanity”) comes from A System of Medicine (1880) by John Russell Reynolds.

By the way, the expression “delusions of grandeur,” which entered English in the early 20th century, refers to a false belief that you’re a bigger shot than you really are.

However, you don’t have to think you’re Napoleon—or even be a human being—to have delusions of grandeur.

In Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Conversation at Midnight, a 1937 play in blank verse, a refrigerator has “Delusions of grandeur, that’s what it’s got, all right; / Thinks it’s the Queen Mary.”

Check out our books about the English language