Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Do contractions have true grit?

Q: I recently viewed the Coen brothers’ film True Grit and noticed that Mattie and the other main characters don’t use contractions. Was this the “educated” or acceptable practice of the period (the 1880s)?

A: Ethan and Joel Coen were asked this very question in a Dec. 14, 2010, interview with Newsweek magazine.

“We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period,”  Ethan said.

We saw True Grit a couple of days ago and noticed that contractions do pop up once in a while, though not to the degree we hear them now.

We haven’t read the 1968 Charles Portis novel that the film is based on, but a discussion on the Language Log indicates that contractions show up at times in the book too.

Were contractions considered a no-no in the late 19th century? The answer is yes and no.

As we’ve written in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, writers have been using contractions in English since Anglo-Saxon days.

Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).

Contractions were an accepted part of the language for hundreds of years. In Elizabethan times, for instance, Shakespeare used them in dialogue (“But he’s an arrant knave”—Hamlet), in titles (All’s Well That Ends Well), and in sonnets (“That’s for thyself to breed another thee”).

“In fact,” we write in Origins of the Specious, “there were many more contractions in olden days than there are now, including such quaint old dears as ha’n’t, sha’n’t, ’tis, ’twere, ’twill, ’twon’t, ’twouldn’t, and a’n’t, the father of ain’t.”

Throughout the 17th and much of the 18th centuries, contractions were normal in speech and respectable in writing, even scholarly prose. It wasn’t till the early 1700s that anybody thought to question them.

Addison, Swift, Pope, and others began raising questions about their suitability in print, even though educated people routinely used them in conversation.

By the late 18th century, contractions were in disgrace, tolerated in speech but considered by language authorities an embarrassment in writing.

Contractions remained in the doghouse until well into the 20th century, when opinion makers started coming to their senses.

In the 1920s, for example, Henry Fowler used contractions without comment in his famous usage guide, indicating he saw nothing wrong with them.

But what about the suitability of contractions in True Grit?

Both the movie and the novel open in 1928, when Mattie tells about her adventures as a 14-year-old in the early 1880s.

In 1928, as we’ve said, contractions were coming back into favor, though some usage gurus still frowned on them until late in the 20th century.

But in the 1880s, when Mattie hired Rooster Cogburn to avenge her slain father, contractions were considered a no-no by usage authorities.

It’s unlikely, though, that Mattie, Rooster, or any other character in the book would have paid much attention to usage guides, especially in speech.

Contractions may have been condemned by the language mavens of the 19th century, but they were alive and well among the people using the language.

In the Language Log posting, for example, the linguist Mark Liberman points out the prevalence of contractions in Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer, which was published in 1876, just a few years before Mattie hired Rooster.

Liberman writes that that there are 58 instances of “won’t” and just one of “will not” in the novel, as well as 223 instances of “don’t” and just one of “do not.”

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Etymology Linguistics

Harmonic progression

Q: What is the Indo-European root for “harmony”? Is it older than the root for “gnosis”?

A: The Indo-European root for “harmony” has been reconstructed as ar-, meaning to fit together.

This is the prehistoric origin of the Greek words harmos (joint, shoulder) and harmonia, which means a concord of sounds but also has a more general sense: concord, joining, or agreement.

The word traveled from Greek to Latin (harmonia) to French (harmonie) and finally to English in the late 14th century.

The earliest use of “harmony” in English is in its musical sense. In The Hous of Fame (circa 1384), Chaucer wrote of “Songes ful of Armonye.”

The word was first used in English in its more general sense (agreement, concord, etc.) in the 1500s.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense as “combination or adaptation of parts, elements, or related things, so as to form a consistent and orderly whole; agreement, accord, congruity.”

The prehistoric root that gave us “harmony” (ar-) is also in the genes of such words as arm, armada, armature, armoire, army, article, alarm, disarm, gendarme, art, artisan, and words starting with the arthro– prefix.

An entirely separate Indo-European root, gno-, is responsible for the Greek gnosis (knowledge). In English, “gnosis” refers to the esoteric knowledge sought by the ancient Gnostics.

The gno- root is also responsible (through proto-Germanic) for the Old English cnawan (know) as well as the modern words know, knowledge, ken, kith, kin, cunning, and others.

Some other descendants of gno– came into English through Latin and Greek: notice, notion, cognition, recognize, ignore, noble, gnostic, diagnosis, narrate, normal, and others too numerous to mention.

These two Indo-European roots, ar- and gno-, were independent of one another, so it makes no sense to ask which came first. Remember that this is prehistory we’re talking about, before there was writing.

We can recommend, if you’re interested, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, edited by Calvert Watkins. It’s in paperback.

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Etymology Linguistics Spelling Usage

‘Here’ to ‘herein’ to ‘hereinafter’

Q: I recently started a list of words that seem to be conglomerates of smaller words (e.g., albeit, heretofore, nonetheless, and whatsoever). I’m attaching the list. I’ve always liked this kind of word, albeit under the level of my consciousness. Can you tell me anything about them, as a group?

A: What a great list! These are compound words, made up of two or three smaller ones. Many of these got their start in Middle English, though some weren’t written as one word until a later period.

Compounds aren’t unusual in English. In fact, compounding is an important way that English forms new words, like “plainclothesman” and “counterclockwise” (both triple compounds).

Most of the ones on your list, like “aforementioned” and “heretofore,” are the kind we associate with the language of legislative acts, contracts, wills, and other legal documents. And not everybody likes them.

A recent New York Times article about the economist Alfred E. Kahn, who died in December, quoted him on this very subject. Kahn, a devotee of plain English, once wrote this in a memo to the lawyers and economists on his staff:

“Every time you’re tempted to use ‘herein’ or ‘hereinabout’ or ‘hereinunder’ or, similarly, ‘therein,’ ‘thereinabove’ or ‘thereinunder,’ and the corresponding variants, try ‘here’ or ‘there’ or ‘above’ or ‘below,’ and see if it doesn’t make just as much sense.”

Here (we won’t say “hereinunder”) is a look at some of the words in your collection, plus a few more. We’ll stick with the triple compounds.

“albeit” and the archaic “howbeit”: These were originally three-word phrases, “all be it” (circa 1385) and “how be it’ (1398). The first means something like “even though it be that” or “although.” The second means “however it may be” or “be that as it may.”

“inasmuch”: When it originated (before 1300), this was three separate words, “in as much.” But it’s been written as one word for most of its history. It’s generally followed by “as.” The phrase “inasmuch as” means “in view of the fact that” or “to the extent that” or “because.”

“insofar”: This was originally three words, “in so far” (1596), and it’s also followed by “as.” The meaning of “insofar as” is “to such an extent that” or “in such measure or degree as.”

“hereinafter”: This compound (1590) means “after this point in the document” or “hereafter.” The words “hereinbefore” (1687) and “hereinabove” (1768-74) are its cousins.

“heretofore”: This one (c. 1350) means “before this time” or “formerly.” It includes the obsolete compound “tofore” (before 900), which once meant “to the front of” or “before.”

“nevertheless”: This familiar combination dates from before 1382 and means “despite that” or “all the same” or “nonetheless” (see below).  And yes, it once had an opposite number, “neverthemore,” an obsolete word that meant “not at all” or “definitely not.”

“nonetheless”: This one dates from 1533 and means the same as “nevertheless.” It was preceded by earlier forms that combined “no” + “the” + “less” or “nought” + “the” + “less” and were written as “natheless,” “netheless,” “noutheless,” and so on.

“notwithstanding”: This isn’t really a triple compound, because the “with” of “withstand” is technically a verbal prefix instead of a word. But who cares? It dates back to before 1400 and means “in spite of” or “all the same.” The similar “noughtwithstanding” is even earlier, but it didn’t last.

“whatsoever”: This combination (c. 1250) means the same as “whatever.” Then why the “so”? Because “whatsoever” incorporates an earlier, archaic compound, “whatso” (“what” + “so”), which also meant “whatever,” and which survived in poetic usage into the early 20th century. (Example: “Despatches, sermons,—whatso goes / Into their brain comes out as prose,” from a 19th-century poem by the  pseudonymous Sylvanus Urban.)

“wherewithal”: This one (1535) combines “where” with an archaic compound, “withal” (“with” + “all”), which once meant “in addition” or “along with the rest” or “moreover.” Today the triple compound “wherewithal” is a noun for “necessary means,” as in “He didn’t have the wherewithal to pay his rent.”

Having written the aforementioned, we will hereinafter sign off.

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Etymology Punctuation Usage

A tussle over tousle?

Q: I looked up the word “tousle” in my dictionary today and was surprised to find that it’s pronounced TAU-zul. I always thought it was TAU-sul. I asked a couple of other people, one American and the other British, and there was no tussle. We all pronounce it TAU-sul. What is your ruling on this?

A: We assume you’re referring to the verb “tousle,” which means to rumple or dishevel. The less common noun refers to a tangled or disheveled mass of something, such as hair.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) list two acceptable pronunciations of the verb: TAU-zul and TAU-sul. (The first syllable rhymes with “now.”)

However, Merriam-Webster’s gives only one pronunciation for the noun: TAU-zul. American Heritage has the same two for verb and noun.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists only the TAU-zul pronunciation for verb and noun, and it includes “touzle” as well as “tousle” as spellings.

The verb showed up in English in the 15th century, several hundred years before the noun.

In addition to the verb’s usual meaning of to rumple, the OED lists one that’s new to us: “to handle (esp. a woman) rudely or indelicately.”

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

Dicking around

Q: We’re wondering when the word “dick” (slang for the sexual organ) came to mean a stupid or obnoxious person, as in, “Don’t be such a dick.”

A: First things first. The term “dick” has been a euphemism for the penis since at least as far back as the 19th century.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang dates the “penis” sense of the word to the mid-19th century.

Two other sources, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, give citations from 1891 and 1888, respectively.

But sexual slang, with its euphemistic character and its tendency to show up in speech long before it appears in print, is hard to pin down.

Though there’s no solid evidence that “dick” meant “penis” before the 19th century, one scholar has suggested that the usage might have been around much further back, in the 14th century.

Gordon Williams, in A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, cites the Chaucer scholar Haldeen Braddy on a possible verbal source of the usage.

Braddy suspected, according to Williams, that the sexual use of “dick” may have originated in an old verb, dighte, which Chaucer used in The Canterbury Tales “in reference to copulation.”

In “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” the narrator says she goes out at night to “espye wenches that he dighte.” Later, she mentions wives who let their lovers “dighte hire [them] al the nyght.”

We don’t know why “dick” came to mean a penis, but the OED includes this “coarse” slang sense of the word within its entry for the nickname “Dick.”

The dictionary notes that the “familiar pet-form of the common Christian name Richard” has been used generically, much like “Jack,” to mean “fellow,” “lad,” “man,” and so on.

It’s no stretch to imagine a generic masculine name being used for the preeminent masculine body part!

But how long, you ask, has “dick” been used to mean a stupid or contemptible person? Only since the 1960s, according to Cassell’s and Random House.

The earliest Random House citation is from Norman Bogner’s 1966 novel Seventh Avenue: “He’s a dick. I don’t know from respect, except for my parents.”

But why “dick” instead of, say “ralph” or “herbert”? We don’t know for sure, but we suspect that this sense comes from the sexual meaning of the word.

The usage follows several negative verbal senses of “dick” that showed up in the mid-20th century, such as “dick around” (1948, waste time), “dick off” (1948, shirk one’s duties), and “dick up” (1951, spoil).

You may be wondering how “Dick” came to be a nickname for “Richard.” The fact is that nobody knows for sure.

But if you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog entry a while back on nicknames and another on the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

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Etymology Usage

Eurocentric English

Q: If I were to ask one of my Irish relatives how much is left over after spending half a euro, they would reply “50 cent” while I (an American) would say “50 cents.” I would appreciate any enlightenment you could provide.

A: This usage does indeed sound odd to an American. We would use the conventional English plural and say the euro has 100 cents, or two euros have 200 cents.

However, your Irish relatives can justify using “cent” and “euro” as plurals. They could also justify adding “s” and using “cents” and “euros.” Here’s the story.

It all depends on which official European Commission document you consult.

For example, the commission has standardized the way these monetary units are referred to in legislation from country to country.

This is explained in a document entitled “Spelling of the Words ‘Euro’ and ‘Cent’ in Official Community Languages as Used in Community Legislative Acts.”

The column devoted to English gives the singulars as “euro” and “cent” and the plurals as “euro” and “cent.”

A footnote for each plural says: “This spelling without an ‘s’ may be seen as departing from usual English practice for currencies.”

But another official manual, “English Style Guide: A Handbook for Authors and Translators in the European Commission,” says otherwise.

The handbook, published by the European Commission Directorate-General for Translation, has this to say:

“Like ‘pound,’ ‘dollar’ or any other currency name in English, the word ‘euro’ is written in lower case with no initial capital. Where appropriate, it takes the plural ‘s’ (as does ‘cent’): This book costs ten euros and fifty cents.”

Why have one standard for legislation and another for ordinary usage? Maybe you can figure it out; we can’t.

In fact, the legislative standard isn’t even consistent. Singulars and plurals change in some languages, including Spanish and French, while they stay the same in others, including German and Italian.

As of January, 17 countries have adopted the euro, including Ireland. The UK, which includes Northern Ireland, has “agreed an ‘opt-out’ clause in the Treaty” that exempts it from participation, the European Commission says.

The euro symbol looks like a capital “C” with  two horizontal strokes through it, and was inspired  by the Greek letter epsilon.

The European Commission says that “on many computers the euro symbol can be obtained with the <ctrl>+<alt>+e keystrokes.” (Doesn’t work in our email program, though.)

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Etymology Usage

Facts and damn facts

Q: With some regularity, I catch people rejecting something by making the ridiculous statement “I don’t accept the fact that….” If it ain’t a fact, don’t call it one.

A: We agree with you that it doesn’t make much sense to say, “I don’t accept the fact that…” in such cases. If you acknowledge something to be a fact, then you’ve accepted it as the truth.

But language isn’t mathematics, and words are sometimes used less than literally. They also change over time.

The phrase “the fact that” has been around since the early 19th century, and it’s often used to mean “the circumstance that,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact (if you’ll pardon the expression), the OED’s earliest published reference for “the fact that” uses the phrase in just the way you object to.

Here’s the citation, from a diary entry in Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh (1803): “I would not agree to the fact that ennui prevailed more in England than in France.”

Although the usage has a history (more on this later), we find it a bit sloppy, especially in writing. We’d say we didn’t agree that such-and-such WAS a fact.

But on to the word “fact,” which once had a meaning somewhat different from today’s.

It comes from the Latin factum (“thing done”), a past participle of the verb facere (“do”).

This explains why the word meant simply an action, a deed, or a “feat” (another word from the Latin factum) when it entered English in the mid-1500s.

“Fact” retained some of its original flavor for centuries. In the early 1800s, people were still using the phrase “caught in the fact” the way we now use “caught in the act.”

And when Jane Austen, in her novel Emma (1815), described the people of Enscombe as “gracious in fact if not in word,” she was contrasting words with deeds.

Like most words, “fact” has gone through some changes in its lifetime.

In modern English, a “fact,” according to the OED, is “something that has really occurred or is actually the case … hence, a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or fiction.”

This meaning was first recorded in 1632 in James Hayward’s translation of Eromena, a novel by Giovanni Francesco Biondi: “They resolved that the Admirall should goe disguised … to assure himselfe of the fact.”

Here’s a later use, in Tobias Smollett’s 1749 translation of Alain René Le Sage’s novel Gil Blas: “Facts are stubborn things.”

We can’t argue with that.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t had your fill of facts, you might  be interested in a blog item we wrote last year about the word “factoid.”

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Believe it or not

Q: I was fascinated to learn from your posting on “amen” that this affirmation was originally a verb meaning to confirm. Similarly, I’ve heard that the noun “belief” was originally a verb meaning to know.

A: The word “belief” originally meant trust or faith or confidence in something, but it has evolved into a different meaning: the mental acceptance of something as true.

As far as we can tell, however, the noun “belief” has never meant knowledge, just as the verb “believe” has never meant to know.

Nevertheless, we believe that you may be interested in some unusual characteristics of the noun “belief.”

The prefix “be-,” for example, is not a natural part of English nouns. So how did it end up attached to “belief”?

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the prefix was added to the Old English noun leafa, influenced by the verb, where “be-” functions as an intensifier.

Another interesting point is that the noun and the verb had similar-sounding endings for a time.

The two parted ways in the 16th century, when the noun changed from “beleeve” to “beleefe,” probably influenced by pairs like “grieve”/“grief” and “prove”/“proof.”

“Belief” was first written as leafa (or geleafa) in Old English in the 10th century, and meant faith or trust.

It came into English from old Germanic languages, but it can be traced ultimately to prehistoric times and the ancient Indo-European root leubh.

This same Indo-European root also gave us the word “love.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

What’s the skinny?

Q: Are you aware of any references to “the skinny” prior to 1967? I was in the US Air Force then and provided an information sheet to briefers on data like runway length, aircraft, equipment, etc. The four-inch-wide sheet was known as “the skinny sheet,” and one of the briefers referred to its information as “the skinny.”

A: The earliest example we’ve found for “the skinny” used in this sense is from the 1932 Lucky Bag, the yearbook of the US Naval Academy:

“If you don’t get the skinny of things, Eddie can usually set you right” (from the entry for Harold Edward Baker, a cadet from Yakima, WA).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Rolling World, a 1938 autobiography by the adventurer and writer Richard Matthews Hallet:

“Had she really given me the skinny of an actual legend from the archives of her race, or was she wafting me the native poetry of her soul?”

The OED defines the expression this way: “slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). With the. Detailed and esp. confidential information about a person or topic, ‘the low-down’; (also more generally) news, gossip.”

The dictionary has one other pre-1967 citation for the usage, from The Big War, a 1957 novel by Anton Myrer: “I’ll cut you in on some hot skinnay.”

There’s no reliable explanation for the origin of this sense of “skinny,” as we wrote in a brief blog item on the subject in 2006.

But it’s been speculated that “to get down to the skinny” (that is, to get the essential information about something), was like getting down to the skin of an issue.

For what it’s worth, the Old Icelandic word skinna (a cousin of our “skin”) referred to a piece of parchment or vellum, perhaps influencing a couple of English usages related to information.

The old word may have given us “skin book,” a term that entered English in the 19th century with the meaning of a manuscript made of parchment or vellum.

And though it’s quite a stretch, an imaginative wordie might also see flakes of skinna in the 20th-century slang sense of “skin book” as a pornographic work.

The word “skinny,” by the way, didn’t refer to a scrawny person or animal when it entered English as an adjective around 1400.

The earliest citations in the OED use “skinny” to mean covered with skin, affecting the skin, looking like skin, and perhaps even having beautiful skin.

The colloquial sense of “skinny” as thin or lean didn’t show up until the early 1600s when Shakespeare used it in Macbeth: “Each at once her choppie finger laying Vpon her skinnie Lips.”

[Note: This post was updated on June 9, 2021.]

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Grammar Usage

David Crystal being right

Q: I was reading David Crystal’s blog the other day and I noticed his post “On me/my being right.” He said either “me” or “my” could be correct. “The non-possessive one highlights the verb phrase,” he wrote, “whereas the possessive one highlights the noun phrase.” Strunk and White would insist on “my” here. Who’s right, Crystal or S&W? Is this a US-vs.-UK thing? Please clarify.

A: No, this isn’t an American-vs.-British issue. We think Crystal (a linguist and a Brit) is right. As for Strunk and White, its strong suit is style, not grammar.

It’s true that a noun or pronoun modifying a gerund (an “–ing” word acting as a noun) should be in the possessive case: “Dick’s [or his] skiing has improved.” We’ve written about this subject before on our blog.

But as we write in that entry, not every “-ing” word is a gerund. It could be a participle (as in “I saw Dick skiing yesterday”).

The difference is one of emphasis: a gerund functions as a noun, while a participle functions as a verb. So if the “-ing” word could be replaced with a noun, then it’s a gerund.

We could say either “Dick’s athleticism [noun] has improved” or “Dick’s skiing [gerund] has improved.” In both cases, the modifier is in the possessive case.

Here’s another example. Say a singer and a record producer are talking. The producer might say either (1) “I’ve heard you singing” or (2) “I’ve heard your singing.” Both are correct, but the statements have different meanings.

In #1, “singing” is a participle; the speaker is emphasizing the verb (the act of singing).

In #2, “singing” is a gerund; the speaker is emphasizing the noun (the singing itself).

To use another example, the word “standing” can be either a participle or a gerund.

Participle: “I saw you standing on the cliff.”

Gerund: “I was alarmed by your standing on the cliff.”

We hope this makes things a bit clearer.

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Etymology Usage

Falling on one’s sword

Q: It seems to me that the phrase “fall on one’s sword” has been overused and watered down to the point of meaninglessness. At one time it meant to commit suicide, but it’s now used to describe a minor mea culpa. The public editor at the New York Times, for example, recently referred to the sports editor’s acknowledgement of a mistake as “falling on his sword.”

A: The practice of committing suicide by running oneself through with a sword is thousands of years old—probably as old as swords themselves. 

The English expression “to fall on one’s sword” is much younger, naturally, but it’s difficult to say just when it first showed up. We do know that it appeared in the first English translation of the Bible, in the late 14th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that in Bible translations, to “fall on” a sword means “to throw oneself upon” it.

The OED gives an example from the 1382 Wycliffe translation of the Bible: “So Saul caught his swerd and felle vpon it.” A 1611 version of the Bible has “Therfore Saul tooke a sword, and fell upon it.”

In Virgil’s Aeneid, written in Latin in the first century BC, the lovelorn Dido, queen of Carthage, does away with herself in this grisly manner, stabbing herself with Aeneas’ sword as her horrified attendants look on.

When Sir William Mure translated Dido and Aeneas (the early books of the Aeneid) into English in about 1614, he wrote: “Her Dams attending see their mistris fall / On piercing sword.”

Here’s another 17th-century citation, from Sir Robert Stapylton’s 1647 translation of Juvenal’s Sixteen Satyrs: “He converted his fury upon himself, and … fell upon his own sword.”

Similarly, Plutarch’s Lives has a passage describing how Brutus handed his sword to his friend Strato, then “he fell on the point, and died.” (From an 1832 translation by John and William Langhorne.)

For a later example, here’s Richard Le Gallienne, writing in From a Paris Garret (1936), a collection of columns written for the New York Sun:

“Vatel … committed suicide by falling on his sword … because the ‘roti’ at the twenty-fifth table was wanting.” (The reference is to a 17th-century chef who took his job too seriously.)

These days, “to fall on one’s sword” doesn’t necessarily mean to commit suicide. It can mean to sacrifice one’s career and livelihood in admitting an error, like an executive or other public figure who resigns in shame.

A more watered-down usage—meaning simply to accept the blame or responsibility for something—has recently emerged.

That’s how Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times’s public editor, used the expression in his Dec. 26, 2010, column.

It’s our opinion that with this new usage, the phrase loses a lot of its edge (no pun intended).

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A piece of cake

Q: Why does the expression “a piece of cake” refer to something easy, while baking a cake (at least for me) is anything but?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t comment on the difficulties of cake-making, but it agrees with you that the colloquial phrase “a piece of cake” refers to “something easy or pleasant.”

How did cake get this reputation?

As the OED explains, cake is associated figuratively, especially by children, “as a ‘good thing,’ the dainty, delicacy, or ‘sweets’ of a repast.”

Cake comes off as highly rated in other phrases as well.

The expression “you can’t have your cake [that is, keep your cake] and eat it too” dates back, in various forms, to the 1500s.

Here’s its earliest incarnation, from John Heywood’s Proverbs and Epigrams (1562): “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

The phrases “cakes and ale” (in England) and “cake and cheese” (in Scotland) have been used since the early 1600s as metaphors for the good things in life.

Similarly, the 19th-century American expression “to take the cake” means “to carry off the honours, rank first,” the OED says, adding that it’s “often used ironically or as an expression of surprise.”

And of course, any extra trimmings in the way of good luck will inevitably be described as “the icing on the cake” (1969).

But back to “a piece of cake.” The OED’s first citation comes from a collection of light verse by Ogden Nash, The Primrose Path (1935): “Her picture’s in the papers now, / And life’s a piece of cake.”

And here’s a later usage, from Terry McLean’s Kings of Rugby (1960): “They took the field against Canterbury as if the match were ‘a piece of cake.’ ”

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Etymology Usage

Frankly, my dear, we like “hopefully”

Q: In a recent blog post, you wrote: “Interestingly, there may be a connection here (however, tenuous) with the verb ‘schmooze.’ ” The word “interestingly” could be replaced by “happily,” “sadly,” “frankly,” etc., and no one would complain. But if it were replaced by “hopefully,” hackles would be raised. I’m interested in your thoughts.

A: The adverb “hopefully” has been hotly debated among usage authorities for the last 50 years or so. We devoted a section of our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious, to the subject.

There are two schools of thought here:

The first school believes that “hopefully” should modify only a specific verb, and that it should have the meaning “in a hopeful manner.” (Example: “He prayed hopefully for rain.”)

The second believes that “hopefully” can modify an entire sentence, and that it can have the meaning “it is to be hoped that.” (Example: “Hopefully it will rain.”)

We’re in the second camp. If you don’t mind our cribbing from our own book, here are a few passages from Origins of the Specious:

“It’s hopeless to resist the evolution of ‘hopefully.’

“Usage experts used to insist, and many traditionalists still do, that there’s only one correct way to use ‘hopefully’—as an adverb meaning ‘in a hopeful manner.’ (‘Did my horse win?’ Nathan asked hopefully.’) It’s a hanging offense, the sticklers say, to use it to mean ‘it is hoped’ or ‘let us hope.’ (‘Hopefully he won,’ Nathan said.) The word ‘hopefully,’ the argument goes, should modify a verb, not a whole sentence.

“Oh yeah? Writers have been using adverbs to modify entire sentences for hundreds of years. In fact, the first complete English translation of the Bible, the Wycliffe version of about 1382, uses ‘plainly’ (it was spelled ‘pleynly’ then) as a sentence adverb. Here’s the passage in modern English: ‘Plainly this is my infirmity, and I shall bear it.’

“Many other adverbs have been used in the same way by respected writers. Jane Austen in Mansfield Park (1814): ‘Luckily the strength of the piece did not depend upon him.’ Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution (1837): ‘Happily human brains have such a talent of taking up simply what they can carry, and ignoring all the rest.’ Charles Darwin in an 1847 letter: ‘Oddly, I was never at all staggered by this theory until now, having read Mr. Milne’s argument against it.’ Virginia Woolf in a 1939 diary entry: ‘Mercifully we have 50 miles of felt between ourselves and the den.’

“Words like ‘plainly,’ ‘luckily,’ ‘happily,’ ‘oddly,’ ‘curiously,’ ‘surely,’ ‘strictly,’ ‘seriously,’ ‘certainly,’ and more have been used as sentence adverbs for centuries without upsetting anybody. Yet, remarkably, people seem to have drawn the line at ‘hopefully.’ Why? Logically, there’s no good reason. But the answer may lie in the relative newness of its appearance as a sentence adverb.”

As we go on to say in Origins, the usage was apparently introduced in 1932 by the New York Times Book Review, and nobody seemed to mind at the time. “Hopefully” appeared from time to time as a sentence adverb over the next thirty years without exciting much notice.

Then in the early 1960s, we write, the usage suddenly took off and started appearing everywhere:

“There’s something about a new usage—especially a popular one—that makes sticklers cranky, and ‘hopefully’ really cranked them up. All hell broke loose in 1965, when the Saturday Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Times denounced this terrible new menace. (The Times had no doubt forgotten the word’s parentage.) Thus began what the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield has called ‘one of the most bitterly contested of all the linguistic battles fought out in the last decades of the 20th century.’

“On one side were the traditionalists who condemned the practice. On the other side were nearly all the people who actually used the language. Over the years, most usage manuals and style guides have come to believe that it’s illogical to condemn the use of ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb, but they still warn writers against the practice because of all the naysayers out there.”

We conclude that “ ‘hopefully’ has long since earned its right to be a sentence adverb. It’s so widely accepted because no other word does the job quite as well.”

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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.

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Etymology Usage

Biscotto, biscotti, and biscottis

Q: “Panini” and “biscotti” are plurals in Italian, but I often hear them as singulars in English. When words like these are relatively recent additions to English, what are the proper singulars and plurals?

A: As of this writing, “biscotto” and “panino” are the singular forms; “biscotti” and “panini” are the plurals.

So say both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

But stay tuned. We wouldn’t be surprised if “biscotto” and “panino” went the way of “graffito.”

Why? Because more and more people are treating the plural forms as singular and using them with singular verbs.

When Pat is in New York for her monthly WNYC broadcasts, she regularly has lunch at an Italian kiosk in Grand Central Station. The lunch counter serves both panini and biscotti. But customers generally ask for “a panini” or “a biscotti.” 

When a foreign word sneaks into English, it becomes an English word and acquires a life of its own. The word may keep some or all of its foreign flavor, at least for a while, but it may not.

Many foreign words adopted into English have lost the plural inflections they had in their parent languages.

Spaghetti, for instance, is a plural in Italian, but we don’t say, “These spaghetti are delicious.” Similarly, Italian plurals like zucchini and fettuccine are treated as singulars in English.

The word “graffiti,” too, comes from an Italian plural but it’s more commonly used as a singular in English. More people say “graffiti is” than “graffiti are.” We had a blog entry about graffiti a couple of years ago.

Furthermore, once new words are adopted they generally form their plurals in the usual English way.

For example, when you and a friend both want a cappuccino, you don’t tell the barista at Starbucks that you want “two cappuccini.” You ask for “two cappuccinos.”

That’s why we hear people speak of “biscottis” and “paninis”—hence re-pluralizing those originally plural words.

You ask about “proper” usage. The process of Anglicization doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

As we often say, English is a work in progress, and common usage is what influences lexicographers to update their dictionary entries generation after generation.

So until things sort themselves out, you can’t do better than to consult the most recent dictionaries. And, as we say, stay tuned.

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Grammar Usage

Does this couple need therapy?

Q: I got Origins of the Specious for Christmas from my older daughter, and I am enjoying it. I dog-eared page 35 so I wouldn’t lose the place where you write “a couple” instead of “a couple of.” This usage is getting more and more common, but I still don’t like it. Dang!

A: You’re right (good eye!)—on page 35, we write, “That’s been the rule for the last couple hundred years….”

We do this again on page 180: “…the word ‘decimate’ executed a couple more turns in the road.”

As we’ve written elsewhere on the blog, the informal use of “couple” before a plural, without the usual “of” afterward, is common in casual writing and in speech.

The deletion is especially common when “couple” is followed by a numerical term, like “hundred,” or a time element, like “weeks.”

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we aimed for an informal voice, so we feel this usage is justified here.

In fact, “couple,” with its air of inexactitude, is rather informal itself.

We did a search, and we find that except for those two passages, we stick to “couple of” throughout the book.

We write “couple of months (p. 25), “couple of seafaring myths” (p. 68), “couple of years” (pp. 99, 133, 188), “couple of decades” (pp. 150, 176), “couple of misconceptions” (p. 164), and “couple of lifetimes” (p. 193).

And for rhythmic reasons, we also even used “couple of hundred years” in a couple of spots (pp. 53, 165).

Yes, we added “of” here to the numerical phrase (“couple hundred years”) that caught your eye.

By the way, “couple” isn’t followed by “of” in terms of comparison, like “couple more” or “couple fewer.” 

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Hand signals

Q: I’ve always wondered why some people say “right-hand turn” or “left-hand turn” instead of the more succinct “left turn” or “right turn.” If they’re going to use a body part, why not “right-foot turn” or “left-nostril turn”?

A: Perhaps people sometimes use “hand” in these directional phrases because they so often use their hands in gesturing to show such directions.

In any case, it seems natural to associate right and left with our right and left hands.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for “right-hand” or “right hand”—meaning on or toward the right—dating back to 1576.

John Milton used the adjective in Paradise Lost (1667): “Som times He scours the right hand coast.”

So did William Bartam in his Travels in North and South Carolina (1791): “On the right hand side was the Orangery.”

Similarly, “left-hand” or “left hand” has been used for centuries, meaning on, toward, or placed on the left side, the OED says.

Here’s a quotation from the satirist Samuel Rowlands (1598): “A little from that place Vpon the left-hand side.”

Both “right-hand” and “left-hand” have metaphorical meanings as well, stemming from age-old associations of “right” with correctness and “left” with wrongness.

Since Old English, “right-hand” has meant valuable or superior, as in “he’s my right-hand man,” or “to give the right hand of fellowship.”

This meaning probably came about, the OED says, “on account of the perception that the right hand was the stronger and the more appropriate for most tasks.”

And for centuries, “left-hand” has meant illegitimate (as in “a child on the left-hand side”), ill-omened, inferior, or sinister.

In fact, the Latin word sinister means left or left-hand, while the Latin dextra, which gave us “dexterous,” means the right hand.

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Etymology Usage

Cooking from scratch

Q: Why does cooking something “from scratch” mean making it from the most basic ingredients?

A: To bake a cake “from scratch,” as you say, means to make it without using a prepared mixture of ingredients.

You’re probably puzzled by the usage because it originated not in cooking, but in the sporting world. Here’s the story.

The noun “scratch” has had several different meanings in sports terminology, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The oldest, dating back to the 18th century, was “a line or mark drawn as an indication of a boundary or starting-point.”

In boxing, for example, “scratch” was “the line drawn across the ring, to which boxers are brought for an encounter.”

That’s where we get phrases like “to come up to (the) scratch,” and “to toe the scratch.” A fighter who “comes up to scratch” is ready and able to box.

But another meaning of “scratch,” the OED says, is “the starting-point in a handicap of a competitor who receives no odds,” a usage first recorded in 1867.

And, of course, the word is often used in the phrase you ask about, “from scratch,” which the OED says means “from a position of no advantage, knowledge, influence, etc., from nothing.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation for the phrase, from Bicycle Journal in 1876: “Mr. Tom Sabin, of the Coventry Bicycle Club, has won, during last week, three races from scratch.”

And here’s a figurative usage, from The Economist  in 1936: “Nazi Germany, starting her rapid re-armament ‘from scratch’ in 1933, was fortunate enough to have a surplus capacity in all sections of her heavy industries.”

We didn’t see any citations in the OED for the phrase used in the culinary sense.

The earliest one we could find in the New York Times archive was from a Dec. 10, 1946, article about preparing economical meals.

In discussing processed foods, the author notes that in the city “the old-fashioned style of cooking—from scratch, as it were, without frozen or canned products—is on the wane.”

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

Shall we curate a garage sale?

Q: I’m sick of hearing the verb “curate” used loosely, as in “I’m going to curate my next garage sale … closet cleanout … laundry sorting.” AAUGH! (Forgive me, Charlie Brown.) Please do what you can to set these “curators” straight.

A: Let’s start with the noun “curate,” a word that entered English in the mid-14th century with the meaning of a clergyman.

Later, in the 16th century, the term came to mean an assistant to a parish priest in the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

The noun “curate” comes from the medieval Latin word curatus, an adjective meaning “of, belonging to, or having a cure or charge,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Here “cure,” from the Latin cura, or care, means “the spiritual charge or oversight of parishioners or lay people,”  the OED says.)

Shortly after “curate” entered English, so did another noun, “curator.” This word came from the Latin curator or curatorem (meaning overseer, guardian, or agent).

When “curator” first appeared in English, in 1362, it meant a curate. But by the early 1400s it was used in a more secular way, to mean a legal guardian.

In the 17th century, it acquired a few more meanings: a manager or steward, an officer of a university, or a person in charge of a museum, art gallery, library, or the like.

This last meaning gave rise to the verb “curate,” which the OED describes as a back-formation of “curator.”

We’ve written before about back-formations, which are new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones.

Other examples of back-formations include “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), and “surreal” (from “surrealism” and “surrealist”).

But back to the verb “curate,” which is defined in the OED this way: “to act as curator of (a museum, exhibits, etc.); to look after and preserve.”

The OED’s first printed citation is from the 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.), but no doubt earlier examples will come to light.

We say this because the gerund “curating” was known much earlier. Here’s a quotation by the naturalist W. E. Hoyle that appeared in 1906 in The Museums Journal:

“I think it will be generally admitted that the business (or may I say ‘profession’) of museum ‘curating’ is one which demands … a special technical training.”

“Curating” is defined in the OED as “the supervision of a museum, gallery, or the like by a curator; the work of storing and preserving exhibits.”

Lately, however, the verb “curate” has been bandied about pretty freely (not to mention pretentiously), and has come loose from its museum moorings.

As Alex Williams wrote in the New York Times in an Oct. 4, 2009, article,  stores now “curate” their merchandise, nightclubs “curate” an evening’s entertainment, and websites “curate” their content.

“Curate,” Williams wrote, “has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting.”

Back in more “print-centric” days, the reporter added, “the term of art was ‘edit’—as in a boutique edits its dress collections carefully.”

How long will this new use of “curate” last?  We suspect it will go away once it’s no longer on the cutting edge.

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Coupon clipping

Q: “John sat, clipping coupons, at his kitchen table. He did this one or two times in a typical month, and it was the central event in his financial life.” What is John’s financial condition? Is he rich or poor or somewhere in between?

A: You’re right. Without any context that would explain it, this passage is ambiguous.

Is John clipping coupons from the newspaper (“50% off when you buy two!”) because he’s pinching his pennies? Or is he clipping coupons from his bonds because he’s loaded?

The word “coupon” has an interesting history. It ultimately comes from the Latin colaphus (a blow with the fist).

The Latin word is also the source of the French coup (a blow) and our English word “coup,” which originally meant a blow but now means a successful move or a brilliant stroke.

“Coupon” was originally colpon or copon in Old French, where it meant a cutting or a piece cut off, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 14th century, that Old French word entered English as “culpon,” a now obsolete word that meant a slice or strip.

The original, meanwhile, evolved into the modern French coupon, which was then reintroduced into English in the 19th century with its new meaning. (By then, the old “culpon” had been forgotten.)

When it first appeared in English in 1822, the OED says, “coupon” meant, in part, “one of a set of certificates attached to a bond running for a term of years, to be detached and presented as successive payments of interest become due to the holder; a separable dividend-warrant.”

In 1864, the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook introduced a new meaning: prepaid tickets, issued by excursion agencies, that a tourist could use for travel and hotel expenses.

In 1906 a less prosperous meaning emerged, and a “coupon” could also mean the thing you clip from an ad to get a freebie or discount. Unfortunately, that’s the “coupon” we’re most familiar with!

As for the pronunciation of  “coupon,” don’t jump to conclusions. According to standard dictionaries, it can be properly pronounced as either KOO-pon or KYOO-pon.

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Etymology Usage

How good is Captain Renault’s English?

Q: For the nth time, I watched Casablanca and for the nth time I was baffled by Claude Rains’s line, “Well! A precedent is being broken.” The line doesn’t make sense based on my understanding of the word “precedent.”

A: That line is delivered in a scene set in Rick’s Cafe Americain. Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman) has just introduced Rick (Humphrey Bogart ) to her companion, Laszlo (Paul Henreid).

Rick is famous for never drinking with customers. So when Laszlo invites Rick to join them for a drink, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) interrupts to say, “No, no, Rick never—”

But Rick says, “Thanks. I will.” He then sits down at their table.

Renault comments, “Well! A precedent is being broken.”

We hear the usage again later in the movie, when Rick intercepts Laszlo’s bill and refuses to let him pay. Renault says, “Another precedent gone.”

Is Renault using the word “precedent” incorrectly? We don’t think so.

Although this isn’t the way most of us use the word, we can’t find any evidence that it’s wrong.

The noun “precedent” entered English in the 1400s. It was adapted from the identical adjective meaning “earlier in time,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Leaving aside the judicial senses of the word, the OED defines the noun in part as meaning “a previous instance taken as an example or rule by which to be guided in similar cases or circumstance.”

Standard dictionaries have that definition, but they include another as well. “Precedent” can also be defined as a convention or custom established by long practice.

We consulted The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and others.

In other words, “precedent” can mean either (1) the initial instance that creates a custom or (2) the custom itself.

Normally, a precedent is “set” or “established,” and then “followed.” And when some event contradicts a policy or tradition, we say it “breaks with precedent,” or “goes against precedent.”

But if “precedent” can mean a pattern or model of conduct, we see no reason why it can’t simply be “broken.” This usage may be unusual or idiosyncratic, but that doesn’t make it incorrect.

Of course, the script of Casablanca is darned near perfect, with nary a note off-key. So one might wonder how a slightly odd usage slipped in. A couple of possibilities come to mind.

First, the Renault character is French, so we wouldn’t expect him to speak perfect idiomatic English.

Second, we know that the team of scriptwriters who worked on the movie wrote quickly, and that some parts of the script were even written after production had begun. So perhaps this can be chalked up to haste.

We will probably never know, and in the end it doesn’t really matter. Personally, we think the idiosyncrasy only adds to the charm of a great movie.

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Etymology Usage

Is “necessarily” necessary?

Q: I keep hearing the unnecessary use of the word “necessarily,” as in “It’s not necessarily true.” Am I linguistically blind or does “necessarily” add something to “It’s not true”? I’m a foreigner and English isn’t my first or even second language.

A: English speakers have found the adverb “necessarily” to be a handy word since it entered the language around the year 1400.

It’s been used to mean unavoidably, compulsorily, indispensably, predictably, intrinsically, inevitably, and so on.

But the negative version you’re asking about—“not necessarily”—isn’t quite the opposite of any of those senses.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this negative construction is “used as a non-committal response to a question or suggestion.”

This usage, the OED says, indicates that “what has been said or suggested is not true in all respects or without qualifications.”

So when English speakers say something is not necessarily true, they mean it’s not entirely true. That’s not the same as saying flatly that it’s not true.

The OED’s earliest published reference for this usage is from Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. In chapter 20, Lucetta asks Elizabeth-Jane to be her companion.

“I am no accomplished person,” Elizabeth-Jane says. “And a companion to you must be that.”

“O, not necessarily,” Lucetta responds.

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Etymology Usage

Another happening

Q: I had a thought while reading your “Wha’ happen?” post. Didn’t Fred Willard’s character use the expression as a catchphrase in A Mighty Wind? I doubt, though, that the film was of sufficient popularity to credit for a change in language.

A: You’re right—we overlooked the Fred Willard angle in our “Wha’ happen?” blog entry.

Willard delivered a comic riff on “Wha’ happened?” in a scene from A Mighty Wind (2003), a “mockumentary” by Christopher Guest, the director who gave us Best in Show and This Is Spinal Tap.

While the phrase didn’t originate with the film (we heard it long before 2003), we can’t resist recapping the scene.

The film’s plot revolves around a reunion of several veteran folk-singing acts, one of which is managed by Mike LaFontaine (played by Willard), owner and founder of Hi-Class Management.

Touted as “THE South Florida talent agency,” the company specializes in booking acts for cruise ships.

LaFontaine’s claim to fame is that he once starred in a 1970s sitcom called Wha’ Happened?

As LaFontaine says in the film, “Every time something’d go wrong, I’d look at the camera and say, ‘Hey! Wha’ happened?’ … But it only lasted a year, and that’s good because that’s how you establish a cult.”

At one point during LaFontaine’s interview, the camera cuts to a fake front page of Variety, which proclaims: “ ‘WHA’ HAPPENED’ DUMPED due to total lack of interest.”

Any readers of the blog who are interested can catch Willard’s performance on YouTube.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

Electoral and mayoral, orally

Q: When did “mayoral” and “electoral” shift their emphases to may-OR-al and e-lec-TOR-al? These pronunciations make me nuts! Can they be correct?

A: We’ll take these words in alphabetical order, and cite the accepted pronunciations given in the two standard dictionaries of American English that we use most.

“Electoral” is given two pronunciations in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.): four syllables, accented on either the second (ih-LEK-ter-ul) or the third (ee-lek-TOR-ul).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives those two as well as a three-syllable pronunciation accented on the second (ih-LEK-trul).

So you could justify using any of those three pronunciations in American English.

However, the audio pronouncers on the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster websites accent the second of four syllables (ih-LEK-ter-ul), which is the only pronunciation in the British English dictionaries we’ve checked.

Now on to “mayoral,” which can properly be accented on either the first or the second syllable in American English.

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s give three-syllable pronunciations that accent the first (MAY-er-ul) as well as the second (may-OR-ul).

In addition, Merriam-Webster’s gives a two-syllable pronunciation accented on the first (MER-ul), with the first vowel pronounced like the “e” in “bet.”

As you can see, it would be difficult to mispronounce this word in American English! However, MAY-er-ul is the only pronunciation in the British English dictionaries we’ve checked. And it’s the one in M-W’s online audio pronouncer. AH doesn’t have an audio pronouncer for “mayoral.”

And now, a brief aside for the histories of both.

“Electoral,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came into English in 1675 and originally referred specifically to the German system of government by Electors.

In the following century, the adjective acquired a more general meaning: “relating to or composed of electors.”

“Mayoral” entered English in the late 17th century with the meaning “relating to a mayor or mayoralty,” says the OED.

The first recorded use is from a letter written in 1699 by Jonathan Swift: “I was at his mayoral feast.”

But back to the recommended pronunciations and the two standard dictionaries we cite.

American Heritage is the more conservative of the two and is slower to accept new pronunciations as they come into use. The dictionary’s fourth edition, for example, had only one pronunciation for “electoral” (ih-LEK-ter-ul).

Merriam-Webster’s casts a wider net, and is likely to be the first to recognize newer pronunciations as standard once they’ve established themselves in common usage.

Keep in mind that English pronunciation is fluid and ever shifting. The pronunciations recognized as standard 50 years ago are not necessarily those of today.

In other words, common usage is what determines standards from generation to generation.

You asked when the pronunciations of “electoral” and “mayoral” shifted. We can’t tell you exactly, but the change in American Heritage from the fourth to the fifth editions suggests that the ee-lek-TOR-ul pronunciation is relatively recent.

Here are the pronunciations that are given as standard in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition):


“mayoral”—MAY-er-ul or MER-ul

Compare those to the pronunciations above in the latest M-W Collegiate. Thus does language change.

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2016.]

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Etymology Usage

Black with a capital B

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 9, 2021.]

Q: I think it’s an insult to lowercase the “b” in “black” when referring to race. Why not, for instance, use the capital letter in writing about Black members of Congress? I always do, and I’m Caucasian.

A: After giving this a lot of thought, we agree with you that the uppercase “B” is appropriate when using Black as a racial designation.

We’ve written before on our blog about capitalization rules, and how publishers’ “house styles” come and go. In the last year or so, in a dramatic instance of language change, a concensus about the capitalization of “Black” has emerged.

This may have been a response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the spotlight it has trained on the killings by police of unarmed African Americans—like George Floyd in 202o.

Today, nine out of the ten standard American and British dictionaries that we usually consult recognize both “Black”and “black” as standard English for the racial term.

But the tenth dictionary, Collins, goes further. For the racial designation, it accepts only the capitalized “Black.”

Many news organizations, too, have changed their capitalization rules, mostly since mid-2020. Those that now use the capitalized “Black” include The New York Times, Associated Press, USA Today, NBC News, The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, the McClatchy newspaper chain, The Seattle Times, The Boston Globe, Fox News Media, and The Washington Post.

In its announcement, the Post said it had decided to “uppercase the B in Black to identify the many groups that make up the African diaspora in America and elsewhere” (July 29, 2020).

We’ve decided that our posts on The Grammarphobia Blog will also use the uppercase “Black.”

You might also be interested in a blog entry we wrote about the evolution of the word “black,” and another posting about “black American” versus “African American.”

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Son of a gun

Q: Pat was skeptical on WNYC when a caller suggested that “son of a gun” originated in seafaring days and referred to an illegitimate child conceived on the gun deck of a naval ship. The caller may be correct. I’ve seen the same explanation in Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories.

A: O’Brian (or one of his fictional characters) may have said something about “son of a gun” in one of the Stephen Maturin novels. We haven’t examined them all, so we can’t say. And we can’t find the expression in our copy of A Sea of Words, Dean King’s lexicon and companion to O’Brian’s seafaring tales.

There is a bit of evidence to support the naval explanation of the phrase, but this evidence is pretty slim and we’re doubtful about it.

The expression first showed up in print, as far as we know, in a 1708 issue of The British Apollo, a short-lived periodical that answered questions from readers.

One of the questions, written in verse, begins this way: “You Apollo’s Son, / You’r a Son of a Gun.” (The writer asks about the number of feet on the lice that inhabit human scalps.)

There’s no indication from the question that the phrase “son of a gun” has anything to do with illegitimate children or sailing ships.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as simply “a somewhat depreciatory term for ‘man, fellow.’ ”

Most of the OED’s early examples use the expression to mean a coarse or rough man.

Here’s an 1840 citation from The Ingoldsby Legends, a collection of supernatural stories by the poet and novelist Richard Harris Barham:

“We heard the rough voice of a son of a gun / Of a watchman, ‘one o’clock!’ bawling.”

The only OED citation to suggest a naval origin of the expression is from The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867), William Henry Smyth’s dictionary of nautical terms:

Son of a gun, an epithet conveying contempt in a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea; one admiral declared he literally was thus cradled, under the breast of a gun-carriage.”

Although Smyth was an admiral and should have known about naval language, his lexicon didn’t appear until nearly 160 years after the expression first showed up in print.

Women did sometimes travel on British warships during the seafaring age.

In Jane Austen’s 1817 novel Persuasion, for example, we learn that Admiral Croft was regularly accompanied by his wife. (Austen knew about naval life since two of her brothers were admirals.)

So, yes, there’s a little evidence to support the naval origin of the expression, but we think “son of a gun” is simply a rhyming euphemism for “son of a bitch.”

We’ve written before on our blog about the common practice of using mild, euphemistic versions of stronger oaths (like “gosh darn it” for “God damn it,” or “goshamighty” for “God almighty”).

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Amen to that

Q: Can you tell me the etymology and original meaning of “amen”?

A: The interjection “amen” comes from the Hebrew amen, meaning truly, surely, or verily, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Hebrew word was originally a noun meaning certainty or truth, which in turn came from the verb aman (to strengthen or confirm), the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The OED describes the Hebrew interjection amen “as an expression of affirmation, consent, or ratification of what has been said by another.”

The Modern Hebrew-English Dictionary, by Avraham Zilkha, defines it as “So be it!”

The word amen appears in Hebrew biblical texts, including Deuteronomy and First Kings.

When these texts were translated into Greek and Latin, the translators simply adopted the word amen verbatim.

Early Christians used the Greek and Latin amen “as a solemn expression of belief, affirmation, consent, concurrence, or ratification, of any formal utterance made by a representative,” says the OED.

Thus, according to Oxford, it was used “with prayers, imprecations, confessions of faith.”

The word later entered English around the 10th century. But it was used with less solemnity at times, even in the Bible.

In some cases, the OED says, it was added as “a concluding formula,” much like “finis,” to books of the New Testament.

The word “amen” has entirely secular uses in English as well.

“In non-religious contexts,” the OED says, the word is used to express “approval, concurrence, or relief, usually as a concluding response to the statement of another: ‘quite right’; ‘I couldn’t agree more’; ‘I very much hope so.’ ”

This sense of the word is often heard in the phrase “amen to that,” which has been used in English speech since Shakespeare’s time.

Here’s how the expression was used by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers (1837):

“ ‘Ah, I wish they had the reward that every kind and generous heart would be inclined to bestow upon them!’ said the gratified Mrs. Bardell. ‘Amen to that’’ replied Sam, ‘and a fat and happy livin’ they’d get out of it!’ ”

And here it is in an Agatha Christie whodunit, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920):

“ ‘We do hope, if there has been foul play, to bring the murderer to justice.’ ‘Amen to that,’ said Dorcas fiercely.”

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All corned up

Q: A caller asked Pat on WNYC about the origin of “all corned up,” a phrase her grandmother used to mean angry. Having grown up with horses in England and Scotland, I think this is an equine reference.  We would feed grain (“corn” in Britain) to to give horses more nutrition than hay. The more corn you fed, the more lively a horse would be! And sometimes headstrong and difficult to control.

A: Although the expression “all corned up” has sometimes been used to describe a headstrong horse, it has more often been applied to a liquored-up human being.

And the origin of the phrase appears to be human, not equine.

The use of the verb “corn” in the sense of feeding grain to a horse originated in the mid-18th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, none of the OED citations use “corned,” “corned up,” or “all corned up” in reference to a frisky or unruly horse. But we found several such examples elsewhere.

The earliest example we found of the equine “all corned up” is from The Well of Loneliness, a 1928 novel by Radclyffe Hall in which a horse is described as “all corned up until ’e’s fair dancin’!”

On the other hand, the OED has published references dating from the late 1700s of the adjective “corned” used to describe an intoxicated person.

For example, here’s a brief entry in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) by Francis Grose: “Corned, drunk.”

And John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825) gives this example: “Thae lads are weel corned.”

This sense of “corned” may have been influenced by the much earlier use of the adjective “corny” to mean “tasting strong of the corn or malt,” as in these two 1386 examples from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales:

From the Pardoner’s Preamble: “A draughte of moyste and corny ale.”

From the Pardoner’s Tale: “Now haue I dronke a draughte of corny ale.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “all corned up” used to describe a soused human being is from a 1923 article in the Montgomery  Advertiser.

The article, cited by another Alabama newspaper, apparently refers to an incident in the comic strip “Bringing Up Father” in which Maggie and Jiggs fall on hard times:

“Those Americans who for a dozen years or more have secretly cherished the wish that Jiggs would come home all corned up some night and whip Maggie are having their revenge on the old girl even though she has not yet been paddled.”

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation

How do you say “Van Gogh”?

Q: I’m a pre-kindergarten teacher in New York and my British assistant is constantly correcting my pronunciation. If I pronounce “emu” as EE-moo, she says it’s EE-myoo.  Now, we are at odds about the pronunciation of “Van Gogh.” I say van-GOH and she tells me it’s van-GOFF. Which one of us needs to go back to school?

A: Your assistant needs a couple of lessons in the history of English.

As we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, British English (including pronunciation) is not more (or less) “correct” than American English.

This was such an important subject to us that we devoted our first chapter to it.

We’ve also written about this subject on our blog, including posts in 2010, 2009, and 2008.

The truth is that most of the characteristics that distinguish modern British pronunciation from our own developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after the American Revolution.

Having said that, we’ll move on to the pronunciations you mention.

The word “emu,” the name of a large flightless bird, has two proper pronunciations in American English.

We can say either EE-myoo or EE-moo, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Both are standard American pronunciations, and both are given equal weight by Merriam-Webster’s.

But there’s only one standard pronunciation in British English: EE-myoo.

The name “Van Gogh” has three proper pronunciations in American English, according to most standard dictionaries: van-GOH (the most common), van-GOKH, and van-KHOKH (which comes closest to the Dutch).

The “-kh” in the second and third pronunciations are not the hard “k” of “kick,” but the guttural one we hear in the German pronoun ich and the Scottish word “loch.”

In Britain, the Dutch artist’s name can be heard as van-GOKH, van-GOFF, or van-GOH, according to the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit.

But the BBC recommends only the first, van-GOKH, with the  “-kh” sounded as in “loch.”  [Update, 2014: This opinion has been confirmed by a correspondent of ours from Oxford, who insists that the other two pronunciations are “nonsense” in British usage.]

This recommendation, the BBC says, “is codified in numerous British English pronunciation dictionaries” and “represents a compromise” between the English and Dutch pronunciations.

One source, the Collins English Dictionary, makes things easy. It gives only one pronunciation for American usage (van-GOH) and only one for British usage (van-GOKH). You can listen to them here: American and British.

And in case you’re interested, we wrote a blog entry last year about names with nobiliary particles (like the “van” in “van Gogh”).

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Etymology Usage

Party time

Q: Why do people on the East Coast “make” a party whereas those in the Midwest “give” or “throw” or “have” a party? I’m from the Midwest, like Pat, but I now live in NYC.

A: Yes, Pat is a former Iowa girl who used to detassel corn in the summer to help with her college expenses. The two of us now live on the East Coast—in rural New England.

As for your question, the Easterners we know also give, throw, and have parties. We don’t recall any making of parties in our neck of the woods. Maybe we should get out more.

The verb “make,” by the way, is very old, dating to the early days of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. There are similar words in Old Swedish, Old Icelandic, Old Saxon, and other early Germanic languages.

And, of course, we’ve been making all sorts of things—houses, ships, coffee, movies, fires, money, war, peace, and silk purses.

We’ve even been making parties since as far back as the 14th century. But those early “parties” referred to matches or tournaments or games, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the early 18th century, the expression “make a party” was another way of saying “make up a party,” as in “Let’s make a party at cards.”

We don’t find the exact usage you’ve asked about in the OED. But it’s alive and well on Google (what isn’t?), and not limited to East Coast party givers.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics 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: new words from the old year.

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Etymology Usage

Private parts

Q: Although “public” and “private” are opposites, “publicize” and “privatize” aren’t. Is there any particular reason the forms developed such different meanings? And what would be the opposite of “privatize” in the business sense?

A: You’re right that the adjectives “public” and “private” have generally described opposite things since they showed up in English in the late 14th century.

Here, for example, is the first definition of “public” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “In general, and in most of the senses, the opposite of private adj.”

And this is the earliest definition of “private” in the OED: “Restricted to one person or a few persons as opposed to the wider community; largely in opposition to public.”

The word “public” comes from the Latin publicus (pertaining to the people), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It’s usually seen in the sense of affecting, open to, maintained by, or devoted to all the people or the community as a whole.

The word “private,” Chambers says, is derived from the Latin privatus (apart from public life, deprived of office, belonging to an individual).

The verbs you’ve ask about—“publicize” and “privatize”—are relative newcomers. The first didn’t show up until the 19th century and the second until the 20th century.

The word “publicize,” in its earliest sense, meant “to bring to public notice or attention; to make generally known,” according to the OED.

But it later took on another meaning that we’re all familiar with: “to give out information about (a product, person, etc.) for advertising or promotional purposes.”

Both of those meanings reflect the use of the adjective “public” in the sense of affecting or open to the general public.

The verb “privatize” also reflected its older adjective when it entered English.

In the earliest citations for “privatize” in the OED, the verb meant “to make personal or private; to regard or treat in terms of the individual, rather than the wider community.”

Here’s a 1940 example from the American Sociological Review: “We cultivate a lack of confidence towards those who are our partners and our leaders, and we privatize our existence.”

But in the 1950s, according to OED citations, the verb took on a new meaning, the one that has caught your attention: “to transfer (a business, industry, or service) from public to private ownership and control.”

The OED doesn’t offer a reason for the evolution of “privatize,” but it directs readers to its entries for the somewhat earlier verbal noun “privatizing” (1932) and verb “reprivatize” (1937).

The word “privatizing” needs no explanation, but “reprivatize” is defined this way: “to return (a previously nationalized business, industry, or service) to private ownership and control.”

In that definition, you can find an answer to your question about the opposite of “privatize.”

Yes, one possibility is “nationalize,” a word that entered English in the late 18th century, when it meant to give something a national character.

In the mid-19th century, though, “nationalize” took on its sense of “to bring (land, property, an industry, etc.) under state control or ownership.”

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Booby traps

Q: Does the word “boob” (meaning breast) have anything to do with the “bubo” in “bubonic plague”?

A: Well, if you answer language questions day after day for year after year, sooner or later you hear it all!

No, “boob” isn’t etymologically related to “bubo,” a glandular abscess or swelling, usually in the groin or armpits, that’s a symptom of bubonic plague.

The English term “bubo,” dating back to around 1398, comes from the Late Latin bubo, which in turn comes from bubon, the Greek word for groin.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “boob” that’s a slang word for “breast” is probably a shortening of the earlier term “booby,” which was originally “bubby,” a 16th-century word for a woman’s breast.

(There may or may not be a connection with bubbi, German for teat.)

Here are the OED’s earliest citations for these various mammary forms of “boob”:

“bubby,” 1686: “The Ladies here may without Scandal shew / Face or white Bubbies, to each ogling Beau,” from a poem by Thomas D’Urfey.

“booby,” 1934: “She was lying on the divan with her boobies in her hands,” from Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer.

“boob,” 1949: “I felt her sloshy boobs joggling me but I was too intent on pursuing the ramifications of Coleridge’s amazing mind to let her vegetable appendages disturb me,” from Miller’s novel Sexus.

We don’t want to give Henry all the credit for popularizing the one-syllable form, “boob,” though we’re sure he did his part.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an even earlier citation for “boob” in this sense, from the novel Young Lonigan (1931), by James T. Farrell:

“Studs didn’t usually pay attention to how girls looked, except … to notice their boobs, if they were big enough to bounce.”

And there’s another meaning for “booby” and “boob” that you’ve probably heard before.

Since the late 16th or early 17th century, “booby” has been a word for a stupid, awkward person (or, in children’s slang, a cry-baby). This was shortened to “boob” in the early 20th century.

Here are a couple of early examples of “boob” in its klutzy usage:

“I had to tell her the boob had gone for the day” (1909, Saturday Evening Post);

“Of course war is wrong—any boob knows that” (1920, Chambers’s Journal).

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