Etymology Grammar Usage

Were the files shred or shredded?

Q: At a meeting with my staff, I used the word “shredded,” but was informed by one of my employees that the correct word is “shred.” Was I wrong in saying, “He shredded the patient files”?

A: You can use either “shredded” or “shred” in all good conscience—that is, as long as you’re shredding what you ought to be shredding.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives both forms as standard English, so if you prefer to use “shredded,” you have an authority you can cite.

This means you can give yourself permission to say “I shred” (present tense), “I shredded” (past), “I have shredded” (present perfect), and “I had shredded” (past perfect).

However, another source, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), gives only “shred.”

So your employee can justify a preference for “I shred” (both present and past tenses), “I have shred” (present perfect), and “I had shred” (past perfect).

The advantage of “shredded,” as you can see, is that there’s no ambiguity. Someone who says “I shred the documents” could be referring to either the present or the past.

It may be that your colleague prefers “shred” in the past tense because of its similarity to “shed,” which is the same in present and past (as in, “I shed my coat”).

The word “shred” is extremely old. It was screadian in Old English, when it was a horticultural term meaning to prune or lop off a branch or other growth. It was first recorded in about the year 1000.

Both “shredded” and “shred” have been used as participles for hundreds of years, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here are two examples: “begynne at the toppe of ye tree whan he shall be shred or cropped” (1523-34), and “Trees and hedges which hang over the kings high waies must be cut and shredded” (1620).

The two words have also been used for centuries as adjectives, though “shredded” is more common nowadays (“shredded wheat,” ”shredded paper,” and so on).

“Shred” has had many related meanings, all involving tearing things into strips or bits. The word has most often been used in reference to food and cooking (since the 1300s), textiles (1600s), and finally paper (early 1900s).

The first published reference to document shredding appeared in Arthur Conan-Doyle’s historical novel Sir Nigel (1906): “With his own hands he had shredded those august documents.”

Shredding became easier, of course, when machines were invented to do the job. Motor-driven shredders have been marketed since around World War II, mostly to government agencies at first.

Shredders have been used in businesses since the 1950s, and later became popular in home offices.

The OED cites this 1950 advertisement: “The ‘Watford’ Shredder and Duster … gives most excellent results in shredding and dusting waste papers.”

Finally, one more sense of “shred,” this one a figurative usage to mean “trounce” or “defeat,”  especially in sports.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1966 issue of the New York Times’s International Edition: “The Celtics shredded the Los Angeles Lakers … with a third-quarter explosion and scored a 120–106 victory.”

In this case, the past tense “shredded” (not “shred”) is the term of choice.

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Hansom is as hansom does?

Q: I was reading your posting on “handsome” and got to wondering about which of the word’s many meanings might have influenced the name of those handsome cabs that Holmes and Watson kept jumping in and out of (without paying the drivers, mind you).

A: The nimble little two-wheeled carriages that hauled Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to and from 221B Baker Street may have been good-looking.

But they were called “hansom cabs,” not “handsome cabs.” They were named for Joseph A. Hansom, the architect who patented the design in 1834.

The hansom was drawn by a single horse and seated two passengers—three in a pinch. It was modeled after the popular two-wheeled cabriolet, which had been introduced in the previous century.

The word “cabriolet” was shortened in 1830, and people started using “cab” to mean any cabriolet-type vehicle.

In the late 1890s taximeters were added for calculating fares, and the phrase “taximeter cab” was born.

This term gave us the words “taxicab” and “taxi,” both of which were first recorded in 1907, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (We’ve written about “taxi” before on our  blog.

Getting back to the hansom, you might be interested in a photo of a beauty that’s owned by the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.

It’s easy to see why the hansom was preferred by Holmes, who usually had no time to lose. It was light, fast, and could be hailed on the street.

The hansom was so popular in Victorian England that a slangy verbal phrase was born: to “hansom it.” The OED has a couple of citations.

Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in his novel Arminell (1890): “To think that I … a raging Democrat, should be hansoming it to and fro between my Ladies and Honourables.”

Another novelist, Rhoda Broughton, wrote in A Beginner (1894): “One slippery January morning as she hansoms it along.”

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887), hansoms are mentioned three times.

In one scene, Holmes tells Watson to grab his hat and come along. Then: “A minute later we were both in a hansom, driving furiously for the Brixton Road.”

Joseph Hansom died in 1882, too soon to read the Holmes stories that made such rich use of his invention.

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Etymology Usage

Porch swings

Q: We’re planning to hold a reception “on” the West Porch of our museum. Or do we say “in” that particular room? Does it matter whether the room is enclosed?

A: The noun “porch” can refer to either an exterior, covered structure at the entrance of a building or an interior vestibule or hallway, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it can also refer to an open or enclosed room attached to the outside of a building.

We haven’t found any authoritative answer to your question about the appropriate prepositions.

But we ourselves happen to prefer “on” for exterior, open structures and “in” for enclosed, interior areas.

For example, in referring to an exterior, unenclosed porch we would say, “In summer we put the potted palm outside on the porch.”

But if we called our entry hall or vestibule a “porch,” we would say, “Come inside and leave your wet things in the porch.”

We may not be in the majority, however. A cursory Google search of “in the porch” turned up eight times as many hits as a search for “on the porch.”

The word “porch” entered English around 1300, according to the OED. A brief examination of the OED citations shows an early preference for “in” rather than “on.”

For example, this comes from William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman (circa 1400): “I hym seigh as I satte in my porche.” (“I saw him as I sat in my porch.”)

The word came into English by way of Anglo-Norman and was originally spelled like the French porche. The word’s ultimate ancestor is the Latin porticus (a colonnade, arcade, or porch).

In fact, English borrowed “porticus” itself directly from Latin in the early 17th century, and it’s still sometimes used as an architectural term today.

The OED describes a “porticus” as “a formal entrance to a classical temple, church, or other building, consisting of columns at regular intervals supporting a roof often in the form of a pediment.”

But “porticus” can also mean “a covered colonnade in this style,” according to the OED.

Another word that means the same thing is “portico,” which is more common than “porticus” and was adopted at about the same time.

We got “portico” from Italy, where it’s the Italian version of the Latin porticus.

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Twat not

Q: I’d read parts of Browning’s poem Pippa Passes over the years, but I never got to the end until the other day. In the closing song, Pippa says: “Then owls and bats, / Cowls and twats, / Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods, / Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!” I hesitate to ask, but what does Browning mean by “twats”? The only definition in my dictionary is the unmentionable one.

A: Most of us are probably familiar with these famous lines from Browning’s poem about a little Italian girl named Pippa who passes through the lives of several characters, changing their destinies:

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in his heaven—
All’s right with the world!

You’ll find that excerpt from Browning’s long dramatic poem in any anthology of 19th-century English poetry. But you may not find the lines you quoted from later in the poem, comparing the owls and bats of evening to monks and nuns.

But “twats”? What’s going on here?

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary apparently wondered the same thing as they were gathering quotations four decades after the poem’s 1841 publication.

So they asked Browning— at least that’s what one supposes from a rather cryptic note in the OED’s entry on “twat”:

“Erroneously used (after quot. 1660) by Browning Pippa Passes IV. ii. 96 under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.”

We discuss this risqué business in Origins of the Specious, our book about book about language myths.

“It doesn’t take much imagination to fill out the story between the lines,” we write. “Browning apparently told the OED that a ‘twat’ was a nun’s headdress, comparable to a monk’s cowl.”

When the editors asked him why he thought so, we continue, “he told them he’d learned the word from an anonymous seventeenth-century poem, ‘Vanity of Vanities,’ about an ambitious clergyman.”

Here are the key lines from “Vanity of Vanities,” quoted in the OED entry: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat, / They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.”

As we write in Origins: “Browning had lived a sheltered life, so it’s not surprising that he thought the ‘twat’ in the naughty satirical poem was a nun’s hat, not (God forbid) a nun’s vulva. One wonders how he got hold of the poem in the first place.”

One also wonders, we add, “how he and his equally sheltered wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, managed to produce a son.”

Although Browning was ignorant of its true meaning, “twat” wasn’t unknown in Victorian England. It was a slang expression, first recorded in the mid-1600s, meaning just what you’d think— the female pudendum.

The word’s origins are obscure, but Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, suggests that “twat” may be related to “twachylle,” a word from the 1400s meaning a passage or lane.

“Twachylle,” according to the OED, comes from an even older word for a fork in a road. Other sources suggest a link to the Old Norse word thveit, a forest clearing.

But back to Browning. Did he ever use the word “twat” over tea with Elizabeth and their friends at Casa Guidi in Florence? If he did, the friends were too tactful to correct him.

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Etymology Usage

Two-part invention: mental and musical fugues

Q: I was at a concert last week and began wondering if there’s a correlation between the “fugue” that’s a musical construction and the “fugue” that’s a psychiatric state. Any ideas? Such are the thoughts that sometimes come into my mind while listening to a particularly interesting piece of music.

A: There is indeed a relationship between the “fugue” that’s a musical composition and the “fugue” that’s a mental state. Both have to do with fleeing and come from the same Latin source.

We’ve written about the two fugues before on our blog, but now we’ll go into a bit more detail. Call this a variation on a theme.

We’ll start with an obsolete English word spelled “fuge,” which was a noun for the act of fleeing and a verb meaning to flee.

It was adapted in the 15th century from the Latin fugere (to flee), which is also the source of the words “fugitive,” “refuge,”  “refugee,” “subterfuge,” and others.

The noun “fuge” first appeared, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 1436 poem: “Assaute was there none; No sege, but fuge.” (“Assault was there none; no siege, but fuge [i.e., retreat].”)

The verb “fuge” came along in 1566, in George Gascoigne’s translation of Supposes, a comedy by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto: “I to fuge and away hither as fast as I could.”

The old senses of “fuge” quickly disappeared. But soon a more lasting “fuge” entered English, this one meaning a polyphonic composition in which one or more musical themes are interwoven in different voices.

The OED’s first citation for the word is from the composer Thomas Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597):

“We call that a Fuge, when one part beginneth and the other singeth the same, for some number of notes (which the first did sing).”

For its first 70 years, this word was spelled “fuge.” It was borrowed directly from the Italian word fuga (flight), a descendant of the Latin fuga (the act of fleeing), a relative of fugere (to flee).

A new spelling, “fugue,” was introduced by the poet John Milton, who used the French version of the word in Paradise Lost (1667):

“His volant touch /  Instinct through all proportions low and high / Fled and pursu’d transverse the resonant fugue.”

(Notice Milton’s play on words in the last line. He uses both “fled” and “fugue,” the original sense of fugere as well as the musical sense derived from the Latin verb. And “volant,” or flying, comes from the Latin volare, to fly.)

We come now to the mental state known as a “fugue.” This sense of the word entered English in the early 20th century, according to OED citations, and is defined in the dictionary as “a flight from one’s own identity.”

The term first appeared in 1901 in Caroline Corson’s translation of Dr. Pierre Janet’s The Mental State Hystericals: “Those long flights (fugues)those strange excursions, accomplished automatically, of which the patient has not the least recollection.”

Mrs. Corson was translating a book published in French in 1894, and apparently felt the word’s first appearance needed an explanation. But later in the book, she refers to “these fugues” without translating the word.

French doctors, who were the first to describe the psychiatric condition, had been using fugue in the medical sense since the late 1880s. The French also used l’état de fugue before the equivalent term “fugue state” showed up in English.

It’s easy to see why “fugue,” a word having to do with fleeing or flight, seemed appropriate to both composers and doctors.

In a polyphonic “fugue,” melodic strands are introduced that flee or diverge from the original theme, like musical flights of fancy. A psychiatric “fugue” or “fugue state” represents a flight or a fleeing from reality.

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Punctuation Usage

Quotes of many colors

Q: I’m puzzled by the way you use quotation marks/inverted commas on your blog. I thought they were only used for speech and longer quotations, but you use them in other ways.

A: No, quotation marks are not used solely for speech and other quotations. And the quotations don’t have to be long.

They can also set off words referred to as words (“restaurateur,” for example).

The convention with words used as words is to enclose them in quotation marks or to use italics, and we’ve chosen the former, which is newspaper style.

We’ll quote The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), section 7.58: “When a word or term is not used functionally but is referred to as the word or term itself, it is either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks.”

Here’s an example given in this same section: Many people say “I” even when “me” would be more correct.

In addition, we use quotation marks when we make up examples that illustrate our points (“with Trixie and me,” not “with Trixie and I”).

This is a common practice and helps in readability. Otherwise, it can be unclear where an example ends and regular text begins.

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Etymology Usage

Is “sensual” sexier than “sensuous”?

Q: I don’t know if the distinction between “sensuous” and “sensual” is still alive, but I see it as a sort of thought control. It’s hard to even articulate without leaning on suspect concepts like baser vs. higher nature. I’d welcome your thoughts, and any other sources you might refer me to.

A: In a sense (if you’ll pardon the expression), you’re right about this. The word “sensuous” owes its existence to prudery.

The poet John Milton invented “sensuous” because he apparently felt that the existing word, “sensual,” was getting too sexy for his purposes.

“Sensuous” first appeared in writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, in Milton’s essay Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England (1641).

In the relevant passage, Milton contrasts the “Soule” with “her visible, and sensuous collegue the body.”

He used the word again in a 1644 essay on education. This quotation comes from a passage in which he discusses practical arts like logic and rhetoric:

“To which Poetry would be made subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being lesse suttle and fine, but more simple, sensuous, and passionate.”

It seems the author of Paradise Lost regarded “sensual” as inappropriate for exalted writing and needed something a bit drier.

But “sensual” didn’t always have a juicy reputation. 

It entered English around 1450, adapted from the late Latin adjective sensualis. The ultimate source is the noun sensus, which the OED defines as meaning “perception, feeling, faculty of perception, meaning.”

With that etymology, it’s not surprising that “sensual” originally meant “of or pertaining to the senses or physical sensation; sensory,” according to the OED.

But it soon took on other, sometimes pejorative meanings, like base or lewd or unchaste.

It began appearing in phrases like “sensuall appetite” (1477), “sensuall luste” (before 1513), “the foule yoke of sensuall bondage” (before 1541), “sensual excesses” (1742), and so on.

And as an adjective applied to people, says the OED, “sensual” came to mean voluptuous, sexually passionate, or otherwise “absorbed in the life of the senses,” even to excess.

So the word’s original meaning was almost swamped in these new—and, in the view of some, depraved—usages.

We can understand why Milton might feel the need for a new word to supply the lost innocence of the old one.

When “sensuous” was introduced, the OED says, its meaning was “of or pertaining to the senses; derived from, perceived by, or affecting the senses; concerned with sensation or sense-perception.”

Milton’s new word took a while to catch on, however. “Sensuous” wasn’t seen again until 1814, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge took it up.

Coleridge wrote in an essay: “Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used … by Milton.”

But an element of sensory enjoyment has crept into “sensuous,” too.

As the OED says, “sensuous” pleasure is pleasure “received through the senses,” a notion “implying a luxurious yielding up of oneself to passive enjoyment.”

As an example, the OED cites a line from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret (which Stewart happens to be reading at the moment).

Here’s the citation: “There is in the first taste of rustic life a kind of sensuous rapture scarcely to be described.”

So how are “sensual” and “sensuous” treated today? If properly used, they apply to different kinds of pleasures.

For the past 100 years or so, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, language commentators have maintained that “sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) puts it this way: “Sensuous usually applies to the senses involved in esthetic enjoyment, as of art or music. … Sensual more often applies to the physical senses or appetites, particularly those associated with sexual pleasure.”

The problem, of course, is that this can be a fine line.

As the editors of M-W point out, “The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear-cut as the commentators would like it to be.”

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Etymology Usage

Have a good one, George!

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

Q: In your “Have a good one” posting, you never say where the expression comes from. I know. I coined it in 1979 or ’80 as a student at Michigan State University. When a cashier at a Quality Dairy in Lansing uttered the annoying “Have a nice day,” I blurted out, “Have a good one.” The phrase spread around town and migrated to other parts of the US. If you know how I can collect royalties, please let me know.

A: Well, the timing may be right, but don’t count on those royalties.

We did a Google Timeline search and found that the use of “have a good one” in the sense of goodbye apparently showed up about 30 years ago.

The earliest appearance is from the headline of an article about Washington’s Birthday in the Feb. 10, 1981, issue of the Spokane (Wash.) Daily Chronicle: “Whatever, George, / Have a good one!”

If you had in fact coined the usage, we would expect to see a few appearances of it in Michigan newspapers before the expression migrated out to Spokane.

But who knows? As more newspaper archives are digitized, maybe we’ll find a 1979 or ’80 example from Michigan, perhaps even from the Lansing State Journal.

Have a good one!

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Is “upstate” an adverb, an adjective, or a noun?

Q: I claim the “in” is redundant and unpleasant to the ear in this sentence: “Senator Gillibrand was campaigning in upstate NY.” I am quite sure we could do without it, and would be better off without it.

A: There’s nothing wrong with that sentence. Here “upstate” is an adjective modifying “New York.” It’s used much like “northern” would be.

The word “upstate,” according to dictionaries, can be used as an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. Here are examples of each:

Adverb: “They drove upstate last weekend.”

Adjective: “They drove to upstate New York last weekend.”

Noun: “They came back Sunday night from upstate.”

So the writer of that sentence could correctly use either “campaigning in upstate New York” or “campaigning upstate.”

And by the way, the state in “upstate” doesn’t have to be New York. In fact, “upstate” doesn’t necessarily have to be up.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adverb as meaning “in that part of a state which is (regarded as) higher than another, or is more remote from the chief centre. Freq. with reference to the State of New York.”

The adjective means “of, pertaining to, or characteristic of, an area upstate; situated upstate, rural; also, designating part of a State remote (esp. north) from a large city.”

And the noun means “an upstate region” or “a rural area,” the OED says.

When the term was first recorded in print (in 1901, according to OED citations), it was used as an adverb in an article about prostitution in New York City.

Here’s the OED’s citation, which comes from the North American Review: “American girls … imported from small towns up-State.”

But the OED has non-New York references as well.

Jonathan Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh (NC) News and Observer, used the adverb in A Southerner Discovers the South (1938), his book about a 10-state tour of the South: “I heard about it upstate.”

And the noun form appeared in a 1974 issue of a southern newspaper, the Easley (SC) Progress: “Many of us in the upstate do not appreciate the value of the Tidelands … to our environment.”

We should add that the use of “upstate” as a noun is much less common than its use as an adverb and an adjective. The noun use is limited and is governed by idiom.

While it’s idiomatic to say, “He is in upstate [adjective] New York,” it is not idiomatic to say “He is in upstate [noun]” or “He is going to upstate [noun].” We do, however, say, “He is from upstate [noun].”

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Usage

How classy is your speech?

Q: Did I hear Pat suggest on WNYC that there are no longer any class distinctions in American speech? I was born in Egypt and have an Ivy League education. People meeting me for the first time are shocked that I speak “white.” I have never met Pat, but I can tell from her voice that she is white and from a middle-class background in the Northwest.

A: We’re sorry if anything Pat said on the air gave the impression that speech differences don’t exist to some degree among races, nationalities, and social classes in the US.

They certainly do. And differences in regional speech are becoming, if anything, more pronounced.

We’ve had many, many items on the blog about regional, idiomatic, or colloquial English, including postings in 2010, 2009, and 2008.

But not every pronunciation identified with a region or racial group is limited to that group.

The AX pronunciation of “ask,” for example, isn’t limited to some African-Americans or Southern whites, as many people believe. Pat heard it when she was growing up in Iowa, from whites as well as blacks.

As we say in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, the AX pronunciation is heard across the country, across racial lines, and even across the Atlantic.

In fact, the verb “ask” was spelled “ax” or “axe” for hundreds of years. Chaucer, in the “Pardoner’s Tale” (1386), writes of a man who “cometh for to axe him of mercy.”

If you’d like to read more about this, check out our “You axed for it!”  posting.

One correction, however. You write that you could tell from Pat’s voice that she “is white and from a middle-class background in the Northwest.”

Pat is white, but she’s from a working-class background in Iowa (the Midwest). She was of the first generation in her family to go to college.

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Etymology Usage

Can an animal die tragically?

Q: I foolishly decided to pick a nit with a zealous animal lover over the euthanizing of a young dog. I maintained that the death an animal could be unexpected, untimely, sad, lamentable, etc., but not tragic (though I believe there’s a goat in the etymology of “tragedy”). My friend maintains that if the traumatized owners felt it was tragic, then it was so. Your thoughts?

A: There is indeed a goat element in the word “tragedy” (more on this later). However, we’re inclined to agree with you. While the death of an animal may be all of the adjectives you suggest, we wouldn’t call it tragic.

Of course, this is a value judgment on our part, not a matter of correctness or incorrectness. Certainly the loss of a treasured pet can be devastating.

The two of us are still grieving over the dog we lost last summer. When she died, we might have felt her death as tragic on a personal level, but we would not have used that word in speaking about it.

That’s because in recent years we’ve experienced real tragedy; several friends and relatives have died needlessly and much too soon. Such things give one a sense of proportion.

Remembering those losses, we could not in good conscience use the word “tragic” to describe our dog’s death, no matter how traumatized we felt.

Definitions of “tragedy,” the noun from which “tragic” derives, don’t specifically say the calamity has to befall a human being.

But this is clearly the way most people interpret “tragedy.” And this is how the word was used in classical times, when it got its start in Greek drama.

Although animals appear in Greek tragedy, the tragic heroes are human. (The classicist Chiara Thumiger has written about animal imagery in Greek tragedy.)

The word “tragedy” comes from the Greek tragoidia, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology defines as “a dramatic poem or play in formal or stately language and action having an unhappy resolution.”

The Greek word literally means “goat song,” from the roots tragos (goat) and oide (song or ode). The reason for the goat connection can only be guessed.

Chambers notes that several theories have been proposed. One is that the original actors or singers wore goatskins to represent satyrs. Another is that “a goat may have been the prize for the best performance.”

When “tragedy” came into English in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion.”

In English, “tragedy” was exclusively a dramatic term until the 16th century, when people started using it figuratively to describe real-life events.

The OED defines its new meaning as “an unhappy or fatal event or series of events in real life; a dreadful calamity or disaster.”

When the adjective “tragic” came along in the mid-16th century, it was used both in reference to “tragedy as a branch of the drama,” the OED says, and to events “characterized by or involving ‘tragedy’ in real life; calamitous, disastrous, terrible, fatal.”

People choose their own words to describe their own experiences. If they prefer to call the loss of a pet tragic, they’re free to do so, of course.

But you asked for our thoughts, and there they are.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

A likely story

Q: Most people use “like” instead of “as” these days. In a blog posting a few years ago, you presented the case for using “like” as a conjunction, but then recommended against doing it. Have you changed your mind since then?

A: The use of “like” as a conjunction introducing a clause (“If you knew Susie like I know Susie”) is extremely common in both written and spoken English.

But the prohibition against it is familiar to anyone old enough to have learned grammar in public school—that is, roughly anyone over 50. 

Is the usage still considered a crime? That depends on whom you ask. As we said in our 2007 blog post, opinions were then shifting and edicts against “like” were softening. Four years later, that’s still the case.

When re-examining a familiar old edict, it’s always worth asking why the edict was laid down in the first place.

The truth is that writers have been using “like” as a conjunction since the 14th century. Chaucer did it. Shakespeare, too. So did Keats, Emily Brontë, Thackeray, George Eliot, Dickens, Kipling, Shaw, and so on.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that objections to “like” as a conjunction were apparently “a 19th-century reaction to increased conjunctive use at that time.”

Furthermore, Merriam-Webster’s says, “the objectors were chiefly commentators on usage rather than grammarians or lexicographers.”

But after World War I, all three groups—usage commentators, grammarians, and lexicographers—were in agreement: “It was incorrect to use like for as or as if,” says M-W; “like was a preposition, not a conjunction.”

By 1959, the authors of The Elements of Style went so far as to call the usage  “illiterate.”

And now? After an extensive examination of the history of the usage, Merriam-Webster’s concludes that “Strunk & White’s relegation of conjunctive like to misuse by the illiterate is wrong.”

R. W. Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.), agrees.

After doing his own extensive examination of the usage, Burchfield concludes that “like as a conjunction is struggling towards acceptable standard or neutral ground” and that “the long-standing resistance to this omnipresent little word is beginning to crumble.”

After reviewing the subject for our book Origins of the Specious, we came down on the side of Burchfield and Merriam-Webster’s, with this caveat:

“But let’s face facts— or, rather, myths. Anyone who uses ‘like’ as a conjunction, especially in formal writing, risks being accused of illiteracy.” 

So until further notice, be aware that conservative usage guides (and grammar sticklers) still condemn the use of “like” as a conjunction. If you’re inclined to use it this way, consider your audience.

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Etymology Usage

Was a dick a dummy in Jane Austen’s day?

Q: You say in your posting about the word “dick” that it wasn’t used to mean a stupid or obnoxious person until the 20th century. I believe Jane Austen uses the word in just that way in Persuasion when she describes Richard Musgrove in Chapter 6.

A: Oh, my gosh! Both of us recently re-read Persuasion, but we didn’t make the connection when we researched the history of the pejorative “dick.”

We even recall being a bit startled by Austen’s scathingly witty characterization of “poor Richard,” the black sheep of the Musgrove family.

In writing about his death at sea, Austen says “the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.”

The passage that caught your attention is in the next paragraph. We’ll repeat it for other readers of the blog:

 “He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard,’ been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”

In writing here about the ne’er-do-well Dick Musgrove, was Austen slyly referring to the pejorative “dick”? That’s certainly one way to interpret the passage. We’re not sure, though.

Perhaps now that early newspapers, broadsheets, and pamphlets are being digitized, researchers will come up with more definitive uses of the pejorative “dick.” Something to look forward to!

Austen, who finished writing Persuasion in 1816, died the next year at the age of 41. What a loss!

Both of us have read and reread her novels many times. And with each reading, we discover things we hadn’t noticed before. (Now you’ve brought another one to our attention.)

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Don’t touch my junk food

Q: The recent NY Times obit for Jack LaLanne says he “craved junk food” when he was a 15-year-old in the Bay Area in 1929. Did “junk food” exist in 1929? If not, what was the stuff called back then?

A: Of course junk food existed in 1929. Cracker Jack, for example, has been around since the late 19th century. But as you suspect, the phrase “junk food” is a more recent concoction.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “food that appeals to popular (esp. juvenile) taste but has little nutritional value.”

Standard American dictionaries describe it as food that’s high in calories and low in nutrition.

The earliest published reference for “junk food” in the OED is from a 1973 article in the Washington Post: “How many children are going to fill up on junk foods and be too full to eat a nutritious lunch now?”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) dates the phrase to the 1960s. And the word sleuth Barry Popik has tracked down a definite 1952 appearance as well as a near sighting from as early as 1948.

Writing on his Big Apple website, Popik dismisses suggestions that it was coined in the 1970s by either the food critic Gael Greene or Michael Jacobsen, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Popik cites a headline in the July 28, 1952, issue of the Lima (Ohio) News: “Candy, Cake, ‘Junk Foods’ / Cause Serious Malnutrition.”

It appeared above a reprint of an article about nutrition that was originally published in the Nov. 22, 1948, issue of the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner with this headline: “Dr. Brady’s Health Column / More Junk Than Food.”

The author of the article, William Brady, MD, comments on a complaint from Mrs. R. D. H. that her daughter “eats more junk than food.”

“What Mrs. H. calls ‘junk’ I call cheat food,” Brady writes. “That is anything made principally of (1) white flour and or (2) refined white sugar or syrup. For example, white bread, crackers, cake, candy, ice cream soda, chocolate malted, sundaes, sweetened carbonated beverages.”

So there you have it: “cheat food”!

A Google Timeline search finds dozens of newspaper citations for “cheat food” from 1916 to 2009, though most of them appeared before the term “junk food” became popular in the ’70s.

If you haven’t had your fill of “junk,” we had a blog posting last year about the use of the term for the male genitalia.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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

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Hear Pat live tomorrow on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show this month on the third Tuesday instead of her usual appearance on the third Wednesday. Pat will be on the air 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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For Pete’s sake!

Q: Can you  tell me who Pete is and why do we do things for his sake? As a Pete, I’m curious for my own sake.

A: The phrases “for Pete’s sake” and “for the love of Pete” are mild oaths. They originated as substitutes for something stronger—“for  Christ’s sake,” “for God’s sake,” “for the love of God,” and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the name “Pete” in these exclamations is chiefly “a euphemistic replacement” for God.

The phrase “for Pete’s sake” was first recorded in 1903, according to  OED citations, followed by “for the love of Pete” in 1906, and “in the name of Pete” in 1942.

The intent, in case you didn’t already know, is to express “exasperation or annoyance,” the dictionary says.

Why “Pete” rather than “Phil” or “Fred” or “Percy”?

We don’t know, though the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins speculates (without offering any evidence) that whoever coined “for Pete’s sake” may have had St. Peter in mind.

These “Pete” expressions belong to a large class of euphemistic phrases that developed as substitutes for more irreverent oaths.

As we wrote in 2008 in Dec. 6 and Nov. 4 postings, phrases like “doggone it,” “gol dang it,” “gosh darn it,” and “dag nab it” are euphemistic variations on “God damn it.” And “gosh a’mighty” is a variation on “God almighty.”

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Etymology Spelling Usage

Why did the Emperor of Russia rusticate?

Q: In my dotage, I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Innocents Abroad. A few things jumped out at me. Spelling differences: “staid” for “stayed,” “ancles” for “ankles,” etc. And strange usages, especially a reference to the Emperor of Russia “rusticating” at a watering hole. I know rusticate as an architectural term, but what was the Emperor doing at that watering hole?

A: One of the pleasures of reading 19th-century writing—British as well as American—is watching language change from generation to generation.

The spellings you found in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s 1869 travel book, show just how fluid the conventions of English orthography can be.

Usage, too, changes over time. In 150 years, someone reading a 2011 newspaper will no doubt find a lot that looks odd, just as Twain’s use of “rusticating” looked odd to you.

In American English, we don’t use the verb “rusticate” much these days. But in the 18th and 19th centuries it had several meanings, some of which are still alive today in Britain, if seldom heard in the US.

For instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one meaning of  “rusticate” is to “stay or sojourn in  the country,” as the Emperor did.

Here’s an example from an 1886 letter by the English artist Charles Samuel Keene: “I went and smoked a pipe with Challoner the other evening, and heard from Mrs. C that you were going to rusticate on some riverside.”

And in British usage, to be “rusticated” can mean to be sent to the country, or to be dismissed or suspended from a university as punishment. This is the OED’s definition of “rusticate” in its academic sense: “to dismiss or send down (a student) from university on a temporary basis, as a punishment; to suspend.”

Here it is in Trollope’s 1858 novel Doctor Thorne: “This son had been first rusticated from Oxford and then expelled.” Later OED examples extend into the 21st century.

“Rusticated” can also mean “countrified” or “rendered rustic in manners.”

In Washington Irving’s 1822 novel Bracebridge Hall, for example, a squire was “rusticated a little by living almost entirely on his estate.”

And, as you say, the term is still used in the architectural sense of giving masonry a rustic appearance by marking it with sunk joints or roughened surfaces.

John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice (1851), alludes to this technique when he asks whether “Nature rusticates her foundations,” and answers himself by saying “She does rusticate sometimes” by crumbling foundations and leaving ripple marks.

A variation on this sense of the word has made its way into the art world. Since the 1930s, potters have used it to describe pottery deliberately roughened to look rustic.

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Ups and downs of English

Q: I was speaking with Russian friends about “up” and “down.” As I understand it, Russians would never go down to New Orleans or up to Chicago.  They would go south or north. This led to “uptown” and “downtown.” From my small-town perspective, I use the words interchangeably. As I think back, though, I seem to have gone uptown more as a kid and downtown more in my mature years. I would be interested in your thoughts.

A: Idiomatic English is particularly rich in odd uses of prepositions. The use of “up” and “down” in geographical references is an interesting case.

Take, for example, the words “uptown” and “downtown.” In New York City, “uptown” is north and “downtown” is south, but that’s not necessarily the case in other towns.

The Oxford English Dictionary and other sources say “downtown,” which originated in American English in the 19th century, has at least four meanings.

It can mean a part of town that’s at a lower elevation, or that’s southerly, or that’s geographically central, or that’s devoted to business.

And “uptown” is sometimes used in different ways in British and American English.

In both countries, it can mean at a higher elevation. But in the US, it can also mean northerly, or more residential or more prosperous than “downtown.”

The prosperous usage probably reflects the tradition of wealthier neighborhoods being built on higher ground.

In the US, “up” and “down” are commonly used to mean higher or lower on a map—hence, north or south. But there are exceptions.

For example, it’s not unusual for residents of New Jersey to drive “up to Maine” or “down to Florida.” But, as one of our readers tells us, “In New Jersey dialect we almost never go to the beach or to the ocean. We always go ‘down the shore,’ whether we live in north, south, or central New Jersey.” We’ve written about this before on our blog

Oddly, the OED has no entries for “up” meaning north or “down” meaning south—that is, at the top or the bottom of a map.

In fact, the British uses of “up” and “down” can be downright bewildering to an American reader.

The two of us enjoy 19th-century British novels, and used to wonder why a young man who was kicked out of Oxford was always “sent down,” even if his home was to the north.

And Londoners going to points north always traveled “down” to get there.

As the OED explains, “down” in Britain can mean “from the capital to the distant parts of a country,” or it can mean “away from a university.”  

And the reverse is true with “up.” That’s why an incoming student goes “up” to Oxford, even if it means traveling south to get there. And a Londoner coming back from the north travels “up” to get home.

There’s a certain class consciousness at work here, with “up” and “down” used to mean superior or inferior—upper or lower—in importance.

In other words, someone would go “up” to sophisticated London and “down” to the provincial countryside.

In these more democratic times, though, such usages aren’t universal in Britain. But they live on in old fiction.

In Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1873), for example, Lizzie Eustace often travels between London and Scotland. The phrase “down to Scotland” appears 12 times in the novel  and “down in Scotland” 10 times, all from the perspective of points to the south, mostly London.

As we said, this isn’t the way all Britons speak nowadays. But they still use “up” and “down” in reference to the “upper” and “lower” houses of Parliament.

And both Britons and Americans use them in speaking of “upper” and “lower” courts.

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Yinz, you-uns, you-all, and company

Q: I was at a meeting of my southern New Jersey quilting club when the newsletter editor asked, “Do any of yins have an article to put in?” I was not the only one who stopped the meeting right then and there and asked if she’d really said “yins.” What’s the story here?

A: “Yinz” is Pittsburghese. Sometimes spelled “yins” or “yunz,” it’s a plural form of “you.”

This puts it in the same category as “you-uns,” “yous,” “y’all,” “you guys,” and other terms that have been described as attempts to reestablish a separate plural of “you.”

As we’ve written before on the blog, “you” once had four forms in English: the singulars “thou” (subject) and “thee” (object), and the plurals “ye” (subject) and  “you” (object).

From 1300 to 1600, these were gradually combined into one all-purpose “you.”

But for some people, one “you” just isn’t enough, and nonstandard plural forms have emerged over the last couple of hundred years.

A linguist would call them dialectal variants of the personal pronoun “you,” used with a plural inflection.

Does the persistence of these terms mean that people somehow feel the need to differentiate the plural “you” from the singular, and re-establish a separate plural form?

Some linguists have suggested as much.

For whatever reason, plural forms of “you” are familiar in many dialects of English, and not just in the US. They’re also heard in British, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, and Australian English.

Most of these colloquial forms were first recorded in the 19th century, but some are undoubtedly older.

Colloquialisms—that is, usages more common in speech than in writing—take a while to show up in published works. Many times, they first appear in the speech of fictional characters.

We’ll examine these plural “you” forms one at a time, concluding with “yinz.”

(1) “You-all” and “y’all” (we’ve written about them before on the blog): This usage is associated with the American South, but at least one linguist has suggested it could be an Irish import.

Alan Crozier, writing in the journal American Speech in 1984, pointed out that this use of “all” with pronouns is characteristic of Ulster.

He suggested it may have been brought to the Colonies by Ulster Scots—that is, Scots who settled in Ireland and later immigrated to the US in the 18th century.

(2) “Yez” (also spelled “yees,” “yeez,” and “yiz”) originated in Anglo-Irish, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a little poking around finds that it’s also used in Liverpudlian and other British dialects, as well as in Australia, the US, and Canada’s Maritime Provinces. We have a hunch this is a variation on “yous” (read on).

(3) “Yous” (also spelled “youse”) is familiar in dialects of American, Australian, and Irish English.

Crozier calls “yous” a “characteristic Hiberno-English plural form” and suggests that it was brought to this country by 19th-century Irish immigrants.

He says that while one researcher claims the American usage “is restricted to eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey,” it may be more widespread than that.

In explaining the possible Irish origins of “yous,” Crozier says the usage “seems to have arisen when speakers of Irish switched to English,” mostly in the 19th century, and “felt a need for a plural second person pronoun like Irish sibh.”

But “yous” has been used in a singular sense too, according to the OED.

For example, there are both plural and singular usages in Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893): “Youse kids makes me tired,” and “Ah, Jimmie, youse bin fightin’ agin.”

Among Irish examples of the usage, the OED cites this one from a drama, The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge: “Is it mad yous are?”

And here’s an Australian example, from My Brilliant Career (1901), by the novelist Miles Franklin: “Ye and Lizer can have a little fly round. It’ll do yous good.” (In the same novel, she writes, “have the table laid out for both of yez.”)

(4) “You-uns” (also seen as “youns,” “yuns,” and “yunz”) was first recorded in Ohio in 1810, the OED says. But it’s also heard in Pittsburgh and other parts of Pennsylvania, as well as in the Ozarks and the Appalachians.

Crozier and another linguist, Michael Montgomery, suggest “you-uns” was introduced into the Colonies by the Scotch-Irish. The plural “you ones,” the source of “you-uns,” is known to be of Scotch-Irish origin.

(5) We come at last to “yinz,” which some regard as another variant of “you-uns.” The linguist Barbara Johnstone has called it “a form of you ones.”

It should also be noted that “one” was (and sometimes still is) written as “yin” in dialects of Scotland, Ireland, and the north of England. The plural, of course, is “yins.”

Here’s a singular example from a Scottish poet, Robert Tannahill (1807): “A third yin owns an antique rare.”

And here’s a plural example from another Scot, the writer William McIlvanney (1975): “You young yins think ye inventit men an’ women.” (Quotations courtesy of the OED.)

But any Steelers fan will tell you that “yinz” is pure Pittsburghese.

Johnstone and another linguist, Dan Baumgardt, wrote in American Speech in 2004 that “the second person plural pronoun yinz (in any of its spellings: yunz, younz, yins, and so on) is the most salient and iconic lexical feature of ‘Pittsburghese.’ ”

The word  “appears in every dictionary-like list of local words,” the two linguists write, and it’s so strongly associated with Pittsburgh that “a local term for a local person is yinzer.”

With that, we’ll—or, rather, we-all will—stop.

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Does the mayor’s English have a ways to go?

Q: NYC Mayor Bloomberg habitually says things like this: “We’ll find a ways to do that.” Why?

A: You’re right. Mayor Bloomberg uses the word “ways” a lot, often in a surprising way. He’s especially fond of finding “a ways” to do things.

On his weekly radio show last summer, for example, he said New York State judges “should have found a ways to interpret the law … to accomplish what’s good for society.”

A Google search finds several dozen other examples.

Why, you wonder, is the Mayor using “a ways” here to mean a manner or method, when the singular “a way” would be appropriate?

He may be confused by a similar usage in which “a ways” is considered standard English: “The Mayor has a ways to go to balance the New York City budget.”

Here, “a ways” roughly means “a distance” or a “way.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “ways” has been used as a synonym for “way” in expressions like “a long ways off” since at least 1588.

“Such usage is standard American English,” the usage guide says. “In British English, on the other hand, it appears to have died out.”

Merriam-Webster’s notes that some commentators frown on the usage and label it colloquial or informal.

But the guide lists a half-dozen examples of the usage from American publications, including these two:

From a 1972 issue of Barron’s: “the downturn still has a ways to go.”

From Wilfrid Sheed’s 1973 novel People Will Always Be Kind: “Casey’s idea of fund-raising was quite a ways from mine.”

Not surprisingly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists this singular use of the plural “ways” as standard English without any qualification.

But the more conservative editors at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) add a caveat: “The usage is acceptable but is usually considered informal.”

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“That” tricks

Q: Pat’s discussion of “that that” on WNYC reminded me of a classic sentence—I forget who originated it—with five consecutive appearances of “that”: “I told him that that ‘that’ that that editor had deleted, was not that ‘that’ that I had marked.”

A: We think that that “that” sentence is pretty ingenious!

It reminds us of a punctuation puzzle popularized by Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keys’s 1966 science fiction novel, and Charly, a 1968 movie based on it:

that that is is that that is not is not is that it it is

Here’s one solution: That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.

We wrote a blog post a few years ago about the sometimes optional use of “that,” but you’ve inspired us to be expansive here and write about “that” in its many guises.

The word “that” is very old. It appears in Beowulf, which may be as old as the early or mid-700s.

(And incidentally, “that” is much older than “who,” and contrary to popular opinion it’s quite legitimate to use “that” to refer to a person, as we’ve written before on the blog.)

“That” has many functions in English. So let’s do a “that” roundup.

Demonstrative pronoun. Here, “that” can refer to a thing, a person, a fact or circumstance, and so on. Examples: “That was excellent” … “That’s a good boy!” … “That’s the question” … “After that, we went to bed” … “Take that!” … “Is that so?” … “That’s him all over.”

Demonstrative adjective. Here, “that” can modify a word for a person, a thing, a time, and so on. Examples: “That boy will be the death of me” … “I’ve never forgotten that one” … “Where’s that money you owe me?” … “By that time she was gone.”

Demonstrative adverb. Here, “that” means “to that extent or degree.” Examples: “It’s not that cold” … “I’ve known him since he was that high.”

Relative pronoun. Here, “that” refers to or adds to something already mentioned. It can introduce a clause or be the object of a preposition.  “Is this all that you have to say?” … “The dress that she wants is red” … “It’s a fact that you can’t deny” … “Pittsburgh is the town that he came from” … “Fool that I was!”

Conjunction. Here, “that” introduces a clause that’s dependent on the main clause. Examples: “I was certain that she’d gone” … “It was for this that I studied” … “We had hoped that you would stay” … “It was so cold that I had to come inside” … “I said that I was sorry.”

With those last two usages—relative pronoun and conjunction—it’s often hard to tell which is which. And in both of them, the use of “that” is sometimes optional.

A final note: Like any other word, “that” can be a noun if it refers to the word itself, as in “Is ‘that’ the right word here?”

Now let’s go back to your original sentence: “I told him that that ‘that’ that that editor had deleted was not that ‘that’ that I had marked.”

It has eight examples of “that,” which we’ll identify in order of appearance.

(1) Conjunction; (2) demonstrative adjective; (3) noun; (4) relative pronoun; (5) demonstrative adjective; (6) demonstrative adjective; (7) noun; 8) relative pronoun.

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Hello, handsome

Q: I hear the word “handsome” applied to men and women, but in somewhat different ways. A handsome man, according to Wiktionary, is attractive, dignified, and in good taste. A handsome woman, on the other hand, is striking, impressive, and elegant, though not typically beautiful. Why the difference?

A: Comeliness (now there’s a handsome old word!) is always an interesting subject.

The two standard dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—have unisex definitions of “handsome” in this sense: pleasing, dignified, beautiful.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t mention sex either, defining a “handsome” physical appearance as beautiful, dignified, stately, fine.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.) , edited by R. W. Burchfield, agrees that “handsome” can be “applied equally to men and women of striking appearance.”

But Burchfield adds that “now, when applied to women, tending to be used only of such as are middle-­aged or elderly.”

As an example, he cites Sherman McCoy’s thoughts about his wife in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. (We’ve gone to the original to expand the quotation, which includes the ellipses.)

Still a very good-looking woman, my wife … with her fine thin features, her big clear blue eyes, her rich brown hair … But she’s forty years old! … No getting around it … Today good-looking … Tomorrow they’ll be talking about what a handsome woman she is.”

We think that Burchfield (a male lexicographer) may have gone a bit far in emphasizing the age angle here, but we agree that the adjective does indeed seem to be applied somewhat differently to men and women in modern times.

To begin with, it seems to be used much more often to describe men than women. And though a handsome man and a handsome woman may both be hunks, the woman tends to be hunkier (in the sense of being especially imposing or impressive).

The adjective “handsome” has had many meanings since it entered English in the 15th century, but it’s not certain why some have tended to attach themselves to men and others to women.

When the word first showed up around 1440, according to the OED, it meant easy to handle or manipulate. The adjective was formed (with the addition of the suffix “-some”) from the noun “hand.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, an early Latin-English dictionary: “Handsum, or esy to hond werke.”

Over the years, it has meant, among other things, handy or convenient (1530); apt or clever (1547); moderately large (1577); considerable, as in a sum of money (1577); proper, decent, seemly (1583);  polite, gracious, generous (before 1625); and gallant or brave (1625).

The OED’s earliest citation for the word’s use in the sense you ask about (beautiful, dignified, stately, etc.) is from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590): “A handsom stripling.”

It’s been used for both men and women since then.

In Shakespeare’s Othello (1616), Emilia describes Ludovico as a “very handsome man,” while Lady Mary Wortley Montagu writes in a 1718 letter of a woman who “appear’d to me handsomer than before.”

As we said above, the adjective “handsome” is derived from the noun “hand,” a word that appears in various forms in Old English and other Germanic languages.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “hand” has “no relatives outside Germanic, and no one is too sure where it comes from.”

Ayto speculates that it might be related to early Germanic words for seizing, pursuing, and hunting, “and that its underlying meaning is ‘body part used for seizing.’ ”

By the way, the OED also has entries for “handsome” as an obsolete verb (meaning to make handsome) and as a rare old adverb (that is, in a handsome manner).

The dictionary says the adverbial usage survives in the proverb “handsome is as handsome does,” which uses “handsome” in two senses: you’re handsome (attractive) if you act handsomely (in a decent way).

The earliest known appearance of the proverb in writing, the OED says, is from a collection of fables, Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”

Since Ayres refers to it as “our English proverb,” the expression was obviously around long before he wrote his book of fables. [Update: We discuss “handsome is as handsome does” in 2021 and cite earlier examples.]

But perhaps an even earlier version of the proverb (minus the word “handsome”) may be seen in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century.

In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the old hag lectures the Knight on gentility: “To do the gentil dedes that he kan; taak hym for the grettest gentil man.” (In Middle English, gentil means noble, refined, or excellent.)

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Why does “anymore” have a negative attitude?

Q: Why is it that statements with “anymore” are usually negative? For example, we say “No one compromises anymore” when it’s just as logical to say “Everyone insists on his own way anymore.”

A: The use of “anymore” in a positive statement is something we’ve written about before on the blog, but it’s worth a closer look.

The adverb “anymore” is generally used in four ways:

(1) In negative statements: “We don’t date anymore.”

(2) In questions: “Do you go to the opera anymore?”

(3) In conditional statements: “If you shout anymore, I’ll scream.”

(4) In positive statements that suggest the negative: “He’s too partisan to trust anymore.”

No one raises an eyebrow over these uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

But Merriam-Webster’s notes that some usage writers respond with “consternation and perplexity” when “anymore” is used in a clearly positive context like the one you cite (“Everyone insists on his own way anymore”).

M-W says this positive use of “anymore” to mean now or nowadays is dialect that’s widely heard in all regions of the US except New England.

The usage guide says it seems to be “of Midlands origin—the states where it is most common appear to be Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, and Oklahoma.”

The guide adds that it “has spread considerably to such other states as New York, New Jersey, Iowa, Minnesota, California, and Oregon.” (Pat recalls hearing it when she was growing up in Iowa.)

Although M-W describes the positive usage as “predominately a spoken feature,” it gives nine examples that have appeared in print, some as “anymore” and some as “any more.” (The usual American spelling for the adverb is “anymore.”)

Here’s a comment by Harry S. Truman that’s quoted in Plain Speaking, Merle Miller’s 1973 oral biography of the 33rd president: “It sometimes seems to me that all I do anymore is go to funerals.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the positive usage as “Chiefly Irish English and N. Amer. colloq.

The earliest OED citation is a Northern Ireland reference from Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1898): “A servant being instructed how to act, will answer ‘I will do it any more.’ ”

The Dictionary of American Regional English has US examples of the usage dating to 1931, and mentions what may be a related usage dating to 1859.

The 1931 example is a comment from West Virginia cited in the journal American Speech: “People used to shop a lot in the morning, but any more the crowd comes in about three o’clock.”

So what is the status of the usage in the US today?

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say it’s widespread in regional usage, especially in speech.

And DARE says it’s “in use by speakers of all educ levels.”

But Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) rejects it as dialectal and cites a linguistic study that found the usage “well-established, though controversial” in Missouri.

“That means that the informants were all familiar with it, but many didn’t like it,” Garner’s says. “The findings would probably hold throughout most of the United States.”

As widespread as the usage is, we’d recommend against using it in formal writing. It’s OK in speech and informal writing, though, as long as your audience has a positive attitude about “anymore.”

One last point: Don’t confuse the adverb “anymore” (“We don’t eat out anymore”) with the phrase “any more” (“Do you want any more pizza?”).

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Etymology Grammar Usage

He’s, like, you know, a hunk!

Q: Any idea when teenagers starting using “like” and “you know” in place of “um”? I’m an author working on a story set in 1978 and I’m trying to get it right.

A: You’re safe putting “you know” into the mouths of 1970s characters. It’s been a common verbal tic for centuries. (We’ve written several items on the blog about the empty expressions  that litter our speech, including a posting last year.)

As for “like,” there are two colloquial usages of the word, and one of them may be too recent for your purposes.

(1) The first (and earlier) usage has been a part of American slang since the 1950s. Here, “like” is used as an interjection, either for emphasis or to hedge a statement. Examples: “He’s, like, a hunk!” … or … “This weighs, like, a ton” … or … “You’re, like, the best.”

(2) In the second usage, the verbal phrase “be like” introduces quotations (real or approximate), as in “She’s like, ‘Who’s that?’ ” … or … “I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding!’ ”

This “quotative like,” as it’s sometimes called, is the one that was popularized in the 1980s in Valley Girl speech.

So your characters might be expected to use “like” No. 1, but not “like” No. 2.

We’ve written about “like” in our book Origins of the Specious, and Pat has done an On Language column on the subject for the New York Times Magazine.

In case you’d like to know more, read on.

“Like” No. 1, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was first recorded in 1950. The quote, from Neurotica magazine: “Like how much can you lay on me?”

This use of “like,” according to Random House, was originally associated “with jazz musicians, later with beatniks, hippies, and teenagers.”

Interestingly, some usages very similar to “like” No. 1 (if not indistinguishable from it) have a history dating back nearly 500 years, according to entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In these cases, “like” is used parenthetically to qualify a preceding statement, or before an adjective. Its meaning is roughly “in a way,” “so to speak,” “as it were,” or “in the manner of one who is” (with adjective following), the OED says.

The dictionary cites scores of examples. We’ll give just a few here, along with their dates.

1513: “Yon man is lyke out of his mynd,” from a poem by William Dunbar. (We love this one!)

1596: “All looking on, and like astonisht staring,” from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

1778: “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offense,” from Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina.

1801: “Of a sudden like,” from the novel Mysterious Husband by Gabrielli (the pseudonym of Mary Meeke).

1815: “In honour of the twelve apostles like,” from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering.

1838: “If your Honour were more amongst us, there might be more discipline like,” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Alice.

1840: “Why like, it’s gaily nigh like to four mile like,” from an essay on style by Thomas De Quincey in which he ridicules the overuse of “like.”

1911: “He hasn’t passed his examinations like. … He has that Mr. Karkeek to cover him like,” from Arnold Bennett’s novel Hilda Lessways.

Perhaps the most common pairing of “like + adjective” is “like mad,” which has been going strong since the 17th century.

The earliest citation is from Henry More’s An Antidote Against Atheism (1655): “For she was then seen … in her fetters, running about like mad.”

Samuel Pepys, in his famous Diary, used the expression in 1663: “Thence by coach with a mad coachman that drove like mad.”

And Samuel Richardson used it in his novel Pamela (1741): “Several Harlequins, and other ludicrous Forms, that jump’d and ran about like mad.”

Here we’ll stop, lest we drive you, like, mad.

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Grammar Usage

How close is “close to” to “nearly”?

Q: Is it OK to use “close to” instead of “nearly”?

A: We all know that it’s fine to use “close to” in place of the preposition “near,” as in “They live close to Baltimore.” So what about using it in place of an adverb like “nearly” or “almost” (“We drive close to 50 miles to get there”)?

That’s OK too, and here’s why.

Modern grammarians describe “close to” as a complex preposition, meaning that it’s a preposition that consists of more than one word.

There are scores of complex prepositions in English. In the Oxford English Grammar, Sidney Greenbaum lists some of them, including these:

“close to,” “according to,” “as opposed to,” “away from,” “in connection with,” “outside of,” “next to,” “except for,” “instead of,” “contrary to,” “regardless of,” and “up to.”

Some of these are used in prepositional phrases that include numbers or quantities of some kind. “Close to” is often used this way in the sense of “nearly” or “almost.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, gives the numerical example “close to a hundred tickets” and a similar one, “up to twenty minutes.”

So we can correctly write or say things like “Every day, I drive close to 50 miles,” or “She sold close to a hundred tickets,” or “We waited close to 20 minutes.”

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Cat got your tongue?

Q: Why do we say “cat got your tongue” (or variations thereof) when someone is at a loss for words?

A: Many English idioms involve the word “tongue” and have to do with being too quiet, too talkative, speaking too soon, speaking too harshly, and so on.

When someone clams up, we say “the cat has got his tongue” or “cat got your tongue?”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several citations for the phrase, which is surprisingly recent, perhaps no older than the 20th century.

The earliest OED citation is from Henry Howard Harper’s novel Bob Hardwick (1911). The narrator is at a loss for words when a woman speaks to him during a meal at a boarding house.

“Presently she said, ‘Has the cat got your tongue?’

“ ‘No,’ I said; ‘I ain’t seen any cat’; whereupon they all tittered.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the OED’s quotation.)

Some reference books say the phrase may go back to the 19th century, but they don’t cite the sources.

Why a cat? Nobody knows.

Theories have been suggested from time to time, but none have been substantiated. For example, there’s no evidence that liars in ancient times had their tongues cut off and fed to cats.

The OED doesn’t offer any explanation. Of course, cats tend to steal any tidbit that takes their fancy, irrespective of property rights, so why not a tongue? If your tongue’s been stolen, you can’t speak.

Interestingly, there’s a similar idiom in French, je jette (or donne) ma langue au chat (literally, “I throw (or give) my tongue to the cat”).

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, edited by Paul Beale, says the French idiom is the equivalent of “I give up; I can’t guess (the riddle or conundrum); I have nothing to say.”

Here are a few more idiomatic phrases having to do with the tongue, along with their meanings and the earliest dates given in the OED.

To “hold (or keep) one’s tongue,” meaning to shut up, dates back to Old English (circa 897).

A man who “hath two tongues” (1484) can’t be trusted.

If “thy tounge runth before thy wit” (1562), then you should think before you speak.

An eloquent person has the right phrase “ever on his tongues end” (1607).

If you lived in the 19th century, anger might have caused you to give someone “a lick with the rough side of my tongue” (1820).

When you’re at a loss for words, you’ve “lost your tongue” (1870).

Sly or contemptuous humor is often described as “tongue in cheek” (1748).

The expression was apparently first recorded in Tobias Smollett’s novel Roderick Random (1748): “I signified my contempt of him, by thrusting my tongue in my cheek.”

With that, we’ll hold our tongues.

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Etymology Linguistics Punctuation

Stop signs

Q: I was watching “Law & Order: UK” the other day when the Crown Prosecutor (or perhaps a barrister) ended a sentence by saying “full stop.” This reminded me that the British use “full stop” where Americans say “period.” I’d be interested in the history of these punctuation terms.

A: The terms “full stop” and “period” date back to Shakespearean times. Although both were once used in Britain for the punctuation mark, the Oxford English Dictionary describes “period” as now chiefly North American.

The OED’s earliest citation for “period” in this sense is from Arte Brachygraphie, a 1597 book about shorthand, by the English calligrapher Peter Bales: “The first is a full pricke or period.” (Here, “pricke” means a dot or spot.)

We haven’t seen the text of the Bales book, but the OED says the word “period” here refers to “the single point used to mark the end of a sentence.”

The dictionary has an even earlier citation that uses “period” for the full pause at the end of a sentence, rather than for the punctuation mark itself.

Here’s the citation, from Penelope’s Web, a 1587 collection of tales by the English writer Robert Greene: “She fell into consideration with her selfe that the longest Sommer hath his Autumne, the largest sentence his Period.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “full stop” to mean the punctuation mark is from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600). In urging Salanio to get to the end of a story, Salarino says, “Come, the full stop.”

And here’s an example using both “period” and “full stop,” from Micrographia, a 1665 book by the English polymath Robert Hook about his observations with a microscope: “A point commonly so call’d, that is, the mark of a full stop, or period.”

The use of “period” for the punctuation mark is derived from the Medieval Latin periodus (spelled peri[o]dos in Aelfric’s Grammar, a text in Latin and Old English from the early 11th century).

And with that, we’ll come to a full stop.

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Etymology Grammar Linguistics


Q: I found this sentence in a book I’m reading: “Stop, lest someone hears you.” Shouldn’t this read “Stop, lest someone hear you,” which I believe is the subjunctive? Or would it be more correct to write “Stop, lest someone were to hear you”? However, this seems stilted for dialog,

A: The word “lest” is normally used with a verb that’s in the subjunctive mood or that’s accompanied by “should.”

As we’ve written before on our blog, the subjunctive is used for only three purposes in modern English:

(1) To express a wish: “I wish I were there.”

(2) To express an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If I were a carpenter, I’d fix it myself.”

(3) To express that something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “I demand that I be released.”

But, as we pointed out, the subjunctive was once much more common than it is today.

Some archaic usages have survived in the case of certain words and phrases, like “God forbid,” “come what may,” “suffice it to say,” and others.

One of these survivors is the continued use of “lest” with the subjunctive.

A few examples: “He was quiet, lest he wake the baby” … “I hurried, lest I be late” … “She’s always on time, lest she lose her job.”

Any of those could be written instead with “should,” as in “lest he should wake the baby.”

“Lest” is an interesting word etymologically, a living antique. Its meaning is “for fear that” or, roughly, “in order not that” such-and-such happen.

It developed from an Old English phrase first recorded around the year 1000: thy laes the (“whereby less that”).

During the Middle English period (about 1100-1500), the first part of the phrase was dropped, and it was written as les the (“less that”), then les te, then leste, and finally “lest,” though other spellings continued into later times.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “lest,” which is a conjunction, is used in two senses.

First, it’s “a negative particle of intention or purpose, introducing a clause expressive of something to be prevented or guarded against.”

Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1797, used the word in that sense: “Nobody scarcely will venture to buy or draw bills, lest they should be paid there in depreciated currency.”

And here’s an example of that sense of “lest” used with the subjunctive (without “should”), from Cornwall magazine (1855): “Look to the Purser well, lest he look to himself too well.”

Second, the OED says, the word is “used after verbs of fearing, or phrases indicating apprehension or danger, to introduce a clause expressing the event that is feared.”

The mountaineer Frederick Clissold used the word in that sense in The Ascent of Mont Blanc (1823): “I felt a strong inclination to sleep, and feared lest I should drop down.”

And here’s an example of that sense of “lest” used with the subjunctive (without “should”), from Ralph Austen’s Treatise of Fruit Trees (1653): “All the danger is least we take too much liberty herein.” (Here, “least” is a variant spelling of “lest.”)

As you can see, the sentence “Stop, lest someone hear you” could also be written as “Stop, lest someone should hear you.”

The other version you mention ( “Stop, lest someone were to hear you”) uses the subjunctive correctly but it’s needlessly wordy.

We’ll stop now, lest we be needlessly wordy too.

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Drag strip

Q: I’ve been trying to find a reliable etymology for “drag” in reference to men who wear women’s clothes. The ones I’ve read seem fanciful only.

A: This sense of “drag” originated in the 19th century as a theatrical term, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The slang dictionary, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says the term originally referred to women’s clothing worn on the stage by a male actor.

Random House doesn’t explain why “drag” was first used in this context, but Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the original theatrical use “stressed the drag of a long dress along the floor, as opposed to tight-fitting trousers.”

Although the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t directly support Cassell’s here, its citations for this sense of “drag” are in a section referring to “something that drags, or hangs heavily.”

The OED defines “drag” in this sense as “feminine attire worn by a man; also, a party or dance attended by men wearing feminine attire; hence gen., clothes, clothing. slang.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) use the term more broadly to include men’s clothing worn by women.

Interestingly, the earliest citation for the usage in the OED refers to men dressing in women’s clothes for a party, not for a play, raising questions about the theatrical origin of the term.

We’ve expanded on the citation, which comes from the May 29, 1870, issue of Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper: “We shall come in drag, which means men wearing women’s costumes.”

Although most of the OED citations refer to men dressing in women’s clothing, some use “drag” in reference to wearing odd or unusual clothing.

For example, a 1966 citation from The Listener, a defunct BBC magazine, describes Laurence Olivier as “doing his Othello voice and attired painstakingly in Arab drag.”

By the way, Cassell’s says “drag” wasn’t used “in a homosexual context” until the 20th century, and published references in the OED support this.

The first OED citation that suggests a gay link is from the Feb. 13, 1927, issue of the Sunday Express: “A drag is a rowdy party attended by abnormal men dressed in scanty feminine garments, singing jazz songs in high falsetto voices.”

(The etymologist Michael Quinion has tracked down some evidence of an earlier gay sighting, but we’ll stick with the OED for now. If you’d like to decide for yourself, check out his research.)

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