Etymology Usage

The cat’s pajamas

Q: The origin of “the cat’s pajamas,” a subject that came up while Pat was on WNYC, is nicely told in Tad Tuleja’s The Cat’s Pajamas. Meow!

A: We assume you’re writing this with tongue in cheek, since Tuleja’s book is a humorous compilation of imagined origins—or “fakelore,” as he puts it—and not serious etymology.

As for “the cat’s pajamas” (or “pyjamas”), the expression was coined by the cartoonist T. A. (Tad) Dorgan (1877-1929), according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

Dorgan is also credited with coining “the cat’s meow,” though not “the cat’s whiskers.” All three expressions mean someone or something that’s outstanding.

(An early “whiskers” example is from a 1923 item in the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press that plugs the paper’s want ads as “the ‘cat’s whiskers,’ which, being translated for college presidents means they are o k—they get quick results.”)

These “caticisms” are examples of zoological whimsy from the flapper era that we discussed in a blog posting in 2009.

Similar feline phrases include “the cat’s cuffs,” “the cat’s lingerie,” “the cat’s mac,” and “the cat’s spats,” according to Green’s Dictionary.

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English language Usage

Fast tracks and quick studies

Q: Is there a difference between the words “fast” and “quick”? When is it appropriate to use one and not the other?

A: As adjectives meaning speedy, “fast” and “quick” are often interchangeable, but not always.

There are some idiomatic usages in which one is better than the other, and in many cases your dictionary can provide examples. 

Here are a few illustrations of each, starting with “fast.”

A watch that gets ahead of itself is said to be “fast.” In sports, a pitcher boasts of his “fastball” and a racetrack that’s hard and dry is called a “fast track.”

In photography, brief exposures are “fast,” as in “fast film,” “fast shutter,” “fast lens,” and so on. Viewers can skip commercials in recorded material by using “fast forward.”

Somebody who’s got a facile and perhaps deceptive tongue is a “fast talker.” A highway lane used for passing is called the “fast lane,” while somebody likely to get a promotion is on the “fast track.”

Then of course there’s “fast food,” which needs no explanation!

As for “quick,” bread or cake with a short baking time is called “quick bread,” and a hot oven is called a “quick oven.”

Someone who learns rapidly is “quick” or “quick-witted” or a “quick study” or “quick on the uptake.”

And those of us in the language biz are always getting queries described as “a quick question,” a phrase we’ve written about on our blog.

In sports terminology, “fast” and “quick” can have somewhat different meanings. Although the words overlap a lot, “fast” suggests fleet of foot, or in covering ground; “quick” suggests having rapid reflexes or economical movements.

We emailed a friend of ours who’s a student of baseball, and he sent this general comment:

“While ‘fast’ and ‘quick’ can be used interchangeably in certain baseball usages, in general ‘fast’ is used to describe gross speed, usually leg speed but also pitch speed and probably some usages that don’t come quickly to mind. ‘Quick’ is more often used to refer to reflexes or shorter portions of movement, as in ‘a quick release’ (by a pitcher or fielder throwing a ball), or ‘a quick start’ (by a player running to catch a ball or steal a base).”

He went on to describe the use of both words as applied to fielders, base runners, and pitchers. Here’s a sampling:

“When discussing pitchers, for instance, ‘fast’ is most often used when discussing the speed of his pitches from mound to plate.

“There two ways you would hear ‘quick’ applied to a pitcher:

“ ‘He’s got a quick move to first’ (e.g., throwing to attempt to pick off a base runner). In that sentence, ‘quick’ means he doesn’t waste arm motion before releasing the ball.

“Or: ‘He works quickly’ (meaning he doesn’t dawdle between pitches). But it wouldn’t be out of the question to hear someone convey the same meaning by saying, ‘He works fast.’ ”

We have only one thing to add about “fast” and “quick.” Contrary to popular belief, both are properly used as adverbs, too. So it’s perfectly all right to say things like “He runs fast” and “Come quick!”

We wrote a posting a few years ago about adverbs (like “fast” and “quick”) that don’t have an “-ly” ending.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

An arch etymology

Q: The other day I heard a woman on WNYC pronounce “archipelago” as ARCH-uh-puh-LAH-go—the ARCH sounded like the architectural structure. Is there something I don’t know or should she modify her pronunciation?

A: As traditionally pronounced, the first four letters of “archipelago” end in a “k” sound (as in “architect”), not in a sibilant sound (as in “archbishop”).

This generally accepted pronunciation (ar-kuh-PEL-uh-go) is the only one given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and almost every other standard dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary also gives a “k” pronunciation.

Usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) and Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.) agree, insisting on the “k” pronunciation.

So the “authorities” are practically unanimous.

But a mistaken pronunciation of this word has apparently begun to influence some lexicographers. This isn’t unusual; in fact, it’s one way in which usage changes.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now lists a variant pronunciation in which the “ch” sounds as it does in “church.” Merriam-Webster’s also included this variant in its previous edition, the 10th, published in 2001.

As far as we can tell, Merriam-Webster’s is the only standard dictionary that includes this pronunciation. And until it becomes more widely accepted, we can’t recommend using it.

How did the mispronunciation creep in? Probably because of confusion between the prefix “arch-” and the noun “arch,” or because of confusion among the different forms of the prefix.

In English, we have several forms of this prefix (“arch-” and “archi-” and “arche-”), all borrowed from Greek (arkh-, arkhi-, arkhe-) and meaning principal or leading or beginning.

In many cases, the prefix is pronounced with a hard “k” sound, as it would be in Greek: ARK, AR-kee, AR-kay, and so on.

The hard sound appears in words like “archeology” (beginning history), “archaic” (from the beginning), “architect” (chief builder), “archangel” (leading angel), “archetype” (beginning model), and “architrave” (the main beam that rests on a column).

In other cases, “arch-” has a soft “ch” sound, as in compounds like “archbishop,” “archduke,” and “archdiocese.”

This is the prefix that later became an adjective and now appears (sometimes hyphenated) in compounds like “archenemy,” “archconservative,” “archrival,” etc.

The only compound of this kind that doesn’t have a soft “ch” sound is “archangel.” Because of the following “a” in “angel,” the OED explains, “the prefix in this word remained hard (arc-, ark-) in all the Romance languages.”

The word “archipelago” belongs to the first category—words traditionally pronounced with a hard “k” sound. It has quite a history.

Today an “archipelago” is a group of islands or a body of water studded with islands. But when the Venetians coined the word arcipelago in the mid-13th century, it was a term for the Aegean Sea.

The Italians borrowed the Greek prefix arkhi to form the compound word, which literally means principal gulf or pool. To the Venetians, the Aegean was the queen of oceans.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins has an interesting historical note about the word:

“The term ‘chief sea’ identified the Aegean, as contrasted with all the smaller lagoons, lakes, and inlets to which the word pélagos was also applied. An ‘Englished’ form of the word, Arch-sea, was in use in the 17th century, and in sailors’ jargon it was often abbreviated to Arches.”

Ayto gives this citation from the diplomat Sir Thomas Roe’s Negotiations (1626): “An island called Augustos near Paros, in the Arches.”

He goes on to say that because the Aegean has many islands, the word “archipelago” gradually came to mean “large group of islands.”

In Italian, words with the Greek arkhi or arkhe prefix are spelled with arci or arce, and the “c” is pronounced with a sibilant “ch” sound. So the “c” in the Italian arcipelago would be pronounced like the “ch” in the English word “church” 

When the word came into English, it was spelled “archpelago” or “archipelago,” and pronounced in the Greek manner with a “k” sound.

But there are a couple of “arches” we haven’t explained yet.

The adjective “arch” that’s used as a separate word—meaning crafty or waggish or saucy—developed in the 17th century, the OED says.

It got its meaning through association with such phrases as “arch-rogue” and “arch-knave,” even though the “arch” part originally meant “preeminent.”

And finally we come to the noun “arch,” meaning a curved structure.

It comes from the Latin arcus, meaning a curve or bow. This is the Latin ancestor of “archer” and “archery” (so named for the curve of the bow), as well as “arrow” (so named not because of the curve of its flight, but because it’s shot from a bow).

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Lots of ifs, ands, & buts

Q: Your posting about beginning a sentence with a conjunction reminds me of a speech by Adlai Stevenson that started nearly each sentence with one. I’ve tried for years to track down that speech. I thought it was given by Stevenson in conceding defeat, but a scholar at the Princeton University Library said I was mistaken. Can you help?

A: We suspect that you’re thinking of the speech Stevenson made when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in July 1952.

He started many sentences (though far from all of them) with conjunctions. By our count he started six with “and,” five with “but,” two with “nor,” two with “if,” and one with “so.”

Here’s the last sentence: “And finally, my friends, in this staggering task you have assigned me, I shall always try ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God.’ ” (The quotation is from the Book of Micah.)

Stevenson was defeated in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Is it legit to begin a sentence with a conjunction? Yes. As we say in our blog item, it is not, and never has been, grammatically wrong to do so. This isn’t a subjective judgment on our part. It’s a fact.

We cite as authorities the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.), and Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.)

And that’s that!

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

Why don’t genies use contractions?

Q: Your True Grit posting reminded me of the old TV show “I Dream of Jeannie.” As a child, I wondered why Jeannie never used contractions. Were they considered a no-no in ancient Persia? I also wonder why some languages, like English, overflow with contractions while others, like French, have hardly any.

A: In the Sept. 18, 1965, pilot episode of the TV show, Jeannie (a genie trapped in a bottle for 2,000 years) supposedly spoke Persian when she was released.

We don’t know whether contractions were frowned on in Old Persian, an ancient language that evolved 2,500 years ago from the Indo-Iranian branch of Proto-Indo-European.

And we suspect that the scriptwriters who dreamed up “I Dream of Jeannie” knew even less than we do about the mechanics of the language revealed in the surviving Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions.

Our guess is that TV writers of the ’60s assumed that any archaic language must have been stiff and formal, hence lacking in contractions.

So Jeannie’s speech was made to sound like their idea of antiquated.

Although we can’t speak for Old Persian, we do know that Old English was full of contractions.

By the way, French actually has many contractions, which, unlike those in English, are required instead of optional.

Examples include contractions with articles (as in l’homme); pronouns (as in je t’aime, j’ai, il s’appelle); with the conjunctions puisque and lorsque (puisqu’on, lorsqu’il); with the prepositions à and de (du, d’, aux, etc.); with single-consonant words ending in vowels (qu’il, n’est pas, s’ils, c’est); and in miscellaneous constructions like aujourd’hui, quelqu’un, and jusqu’alors.

In German, prepositions and articles are contracted without apostrophes, as in ums for um das (“around the”). Then there’s the common German greeting Wie geht’s (“How goes it?”). This is a contracted way of saying “How goes it for you?”—Wie geht es dir? (informal) or Wie geht es Ihnen? (formal).

We aren’t scholars of languages, but we do know that some languages lend themselves to contracting more than others do. This sounds like a good idea for a master’s thesis in linguistics, no?

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Etymology Usage

Code words and politics

Q: Do you have any insight into the saying “invest is a code word for spend”? How has it been so rapidly placed in the brains of so many people? Is Frank Luntz lurking? Was it created as a kind of poison pill in advance of President Obama’s State of the Union speech?

A: We checked out various combinations of “spend” (or “spending”) + “code word” (or “codeword”) + “invest” (or “investing” or “investment”) and got millions of hits on Google.

Although many of the hits appeared just before or after the  president’s Jan. 25 State of the Union Address (in which he called for investing in the future), the saying originally showed up long before that 2011 speech.

A cursory Google search came up with a version of the expression in a July 11, 1988, Time magazine article that appeared the year Mr. Obama entered law school.

In commenting on Michael Dukakis’s presidential platform, Walter Shapiro and Michael Duffy wrote in Time: “Read invest as the new Democratic code word for spend.”

Did the political consultant, pollster, and self-described word doctor Frank Luntz have anything to do with it? Not as far as we can tell.

The use of the phrase “code word” in the sense of a secret word has been around since the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED doesn’t mention the newer sense we’re discussing, but both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include euphemism as a meaning of “code word.”

For an example of the usage, American Heritage cites the New Republic: “The Democrats’ ‘populism’ is a code word for bigger farm subsidies and protectionism.”

We don’t know exactly when this usage first showed up, but it appears to go back at least as far as the 1960s.

A June 27, 1969, column by C. L. Sulzberger in the New York Times, for example, says, “Vietnam has become a code word for everything that is wrong or vulnerable in American life.”

Update: After this entry was posted, we got this email from Walter Shapiro, the former Time magazine writer mentioned above:

“Just a brief note to say that I wrote the 1988 Time magazine story that called ‘invest’ the new Democratic code word for ‘spend.’ (My then-colleague Michael Duffy provided the reporting in that old-fashioned news-magazine division of responsibility).

“While my precise memory has, of course, faded with the years, I am pretty certain that this was my observation based on the prevalence of the word ‘invest’ in Democratic rhetoric coming out of the Reagan years. This linguistic sleight-of-hand by the Democrats was an obvious response to the way that Ronald Reagan had demonized government spending. And, as a long-time political reporter (and Jimmy Carter speechwriter), I can testify that political consultants in both parties were tinkering with rhetoric before Frank Luntz was born.”

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Etymology Usage

Man, woman, and child!

Q: You say in your March 7, 2011, posting that you don’t know a female equivalent of male interjections like “man oh man” and “boy oh boy.” Our legendary Nebraska broadcaster, the late Lyell Bremser, had a signature phrase to introduce key plays: “Man, woman and child!” It became probably THE most beloved phrase in the state during Lyell’s long reign on radio station KFAB—and it does seem to use “woman” in the “boy oh boy” sense.

A: You’re right. Bremser did use “woman” that way, though most people use the phrase “man, woman, and child” as an expression of universality or in its literal sense, not as an interjection.

For any Husker fans too young to remember Bremser, here’s an excerpt from his 1973 broadcast of a Nebraska-Minnesota football game:

“OOHHH, MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD WHAT A THROW THAT WAS BY DAVE ‘THE DEALER’ HUMM! He faked his hand-off into the middle, Frosty Anderson went down the left side on a fly pattern, Humm RIFLED that ball, he had to throw that 45 to 50 yards in the air!!!….here’s the try for the point, the kick is up, and Sanger’s kick is good!…But believe me, he threw that absolutely a TON!!! Frosty Anderson NEVER broke stride! He had his man beat! He was in behind Kevin Keller, #42, flying down the left sideline … he had him beat by a couple of steps. And that ball was laid right on his FINGER TIPS! He never broke stride, and you knew that was TOUCHDOWN ALL THE WAY!! … ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PASS PLAYS YOU’LL EVER WANT TO SEE!!!”

The transcript (including the creative punctuation and capitalization) comes from the website, which notes that Bremser nicknamed the quarterback David Humm “The Dealer” because Humm was from Las Vegas.

(Humm went from Nebraska to the Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Colts, and Los Angeles Raiders.)

By the way, we got nearly a million hits when we googled the phrase “man, woman, and child,” including more than 400 from Bremser, but most of the hits we looked at used the phrase in its universal sense.

President Obama, for example, said in his Jan. 20, 2009, Inaugural Address that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the phrase “man, woman, and child,” but it has six citations that include it, all of them in the universal or literal sense.

An 1806 citation in the entry for the verb “drag” is the earliest published reference in the OED: “Having dragged the whole neighbourhood for every man, woman and child.”

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Etymology Usage

An elitist attitude?

Q: I’ve always believed that “elite” is a collective noun, both singular and plural. I’m aware the word “elites” emerged during the George W. Bush years, generally in a pejorative sense. Is there in fact such a word as “elites”?

A: The use of “elites,” especially in a negative sense, may have increased during the Bush years, but it had been around for decades before then.

A May 27, 1982, article in the New York Times, for example, mentions “a trenchant critic of the power of unbridled elites in a pluralist society.”

And a June 13, 1982, piece in the Times discusses “confronting local power elites locked into quid pro quo relationships with the ruling party” in India.

OK, the usage has a history, but is the word “elites” legit?

The short answer is yes. However, the use of the noun “elite” in English often seems arbitrary. Here’s the story.

The  word, borrowed directly from the French élite, comes ultimately from the Latin verb eligere (to choose). It’s the same source that gave us “elect.”

In English, “elite” refers to the choice part of something—the most respected, skillful, or influential members of a society or class or body.

With the Latin verb eligere in mind, we might refer to the elite as the chosen.

Although the term is often used in a negative way, as you point out, that sense hasn’t made its way yet into standard dictionaries.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “elite” has two plurals, “elite” and “elites.”

But the two dictionaries aren’t as clear as we’d like about when to use “elite” as a singular and when to use each of the plurals.

In fact, the AH and M-W entries give the impression that it would be hard to go wrong in using these terms.

As for us, we’d use “elite” as a singular noun if we were emphasizing the group as a whole: “The Washington elite has lost touch with Middle America.”

We’d use “elite” as a plural if we were thinking of members of the group: “The Wall Street elite are reeling from the banking scandal.”

And we’d use “elites” as a plural if we were speaking of two different groups: “The political and literary elites are at odds over support for public broadcasting.” 

We think “elites” is overused today and unnecessary if “elite” could just as easily be used. But that’s only our opinion. And maybe it’s an elitist attitude.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Why can’t the Brits and Yanks agree?

Q: Commentators on the BBC World Service say people “agree” things. Example: “The delegates finally agreed the rules for seating.” This sounds unusual to an American. Is it a British thing?

A: In British English, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), “agree” is coming to be used transitively (“agree the rules”) where in US English it’s used intransitively (“agree on the rules”).

A verb is transitive when it acts on an object (“Gertrude grew dahlias”) and intransitive when it doesn’t (“Her dahlias grew” or  “Her dahlias grew by the wall”).

The transitive use of “agree,” notes Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3d ed.), “has become common but somewhat controversial in Britain” though it “remains rare or non-existent in America.”

Fowler’s lists several examples of the British usage, including this one from a 1963 issue of the Listener, a former BBC magazine: “the difficulty of agreeing a definition of mysticism.”

As you point out, this usage sounds jolting to the American ear. We’d find it difficult to get used to if it caught on in the US.

Interestingly, this relatively new British use of “agree” as a transitive verb is actually a revival of an old usage that dates back to Chaucer’s day.

The earliest published example in the Oxford English Dictionary of a transitive “agree” is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374):

“If harme agre me, ye, wherto than I pleyne?” (If harm agrees me, why complain then?)

The verb “agree” in this early sense meant to please, much as we would say a good meal or a pleasant day agrees with us.

However, the OED has citations dating back to the 1500s for the transitive use of “agree” in the sense you ask about: to settle differences or come to an understanding.

Here’s a citation from The Fair Example, a 1706 comedy written by the actor Richard Estcourt: “Do but agree the matter between you.”

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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

Is a Band-Aid a securement device?

Q: A poster at my local hospital in Idaho uses the term “securement devices” for bandages, Band-Aids, and Velcro-like wraps that the techs put around my arm (along with gauze or a cotton ball) when I get blood drawn. This is a new one on me.

A: This use of “securement” is new to us too. But then “securement” is a noun that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “rare” even in its recognized meanings.

The noun generally means “the action or an act of securing,” according to the OED, but that broad definition includes two more precise meanings.

One of them, now obsolete, is “making safe from or against”; the other is “ensuring or making sure.”

There are only a handful of OED citations for this second sense (“ensuring or making sure”), all from the 17th to the 19th century.

The first is from William Foster’s The English Factories in India 1622-23, a calendar of historic events. In this entry from 1622,  the OED provides the missing language in brackets:

“[Willoughby has also been furnished with money, and left to take his choice of means] for his best securmentt.”

The most recent OED citation is from an 1883 issue of the Century Magazine: “Liberty, however, is so highly prized that society condemns the securement in all cases of perpetual protection by means of perpetual imprisonment.”

However, a Google Timeline search finds examples dating up to the present. Most of these seem to use “securement” in its established senses, but there are also extended meanings in the mechanical sense—to fasten or make secure.

We found a lot of references relating to the security of freight being transported (“cargo securement systems,” for example).

But we also found medical usages. Recent phrases from medical literature include “securement straps” for wheelchairs, “intravenous catheter securement techniques,” and “sutureless securement devices.”

Our guess is that “securement” will remain in specialized technical language, but that it won’t cross over into everyday usage.

Why should it, when in most cases we could just as easily use “security” or “securing”?

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Etymology Usage

Can a bank “bank” (or “unbank”) you?

Q: I saw an ad for a bank—I can’t remember which one—that said: “XYZ banks me and my business.” If Mr. Murray were still putting together the OED, I’d add a slip to his pigeonhole for the word “bank.”

A: The verb “bank” in the money sense has a couple of well-established meanings.

It’s commonly used as an intransitive verb—that is, one without an object—meaning to have a bank account, as in “Where do you bank? I bank with First National.”

“Bank” is also used as a transitive verb—one with an object—in the sense of “deposit,” as in “I banked my paycheck,” or “He banks the receipts every week.”

But the usage you mention is a less familiar one. Here, “bank” is a transitive verb meaning “provide banking services to.” Examples: “Who banks you? First National banks me.”

It was noted recently by a subscriber on the American Dialect Society’s online mailing list that the word “bank” (or, rather, “unbank”) was used this way in a Jan. 5 article in the Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper said banks were looking for new fees to charge customers, replacing  old charges that had been disallowed by government regulators.

It quoted a spokeswoman for J.P. Morgan Chase as saying, “We don’t want to raise fees on our customers, but unfortunately, regulation is forcing us to do it, and as a result, some customers may end up unbanked.”

By “unbanked” she meant “unprovided with banking services.”

In using this inverted form of expression, you’ll notice, she was able to avoid saying WHO was pulling the plug. “You may end up unbanked” is another way of saying, “We may unbank you.”

A second ADS list subscriber pointed out that the usage dates back to the 1980s.

A third subscriber pointed out a different use of “unbank.” Credit unions use the term to differentiate themselves from banks. An ad for the credit union Connex, for example, says: “Unbank with us.”

We’ve found many similar usages ourselves. A financial services center in Minnesota, for instance, calls itself “The Unbank Company.” It even offers “unloans,” but presumably discourages “unpaying.”

So far, odd transitive uses of “bank” seem confined to corporate and advertising language. We haven’t found any examples of real people using “bank” this way in the real world.

The word “bank” entered English around 1200 as a noun meaning a ridge or mound or other raised area of the ground, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are similar words in Old Norse and Old Icelandic.

The verb “bank” showed up in the late 1500s in the transitive sense of to form a border and the intransitive sense of to border upon something.

The verb was first used in a financial sense in the 18th century. Initially, it was an intransitive verb meaning to run a bank or act as a banker, but that usage isn’t seen much now.

The OED’s first financial citation is from Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (2nd ed., 1738): “Banker, a person who banks, that is, negotiates, and trafficks in money.”

In the 19th century, the verb “bank” took on another intransitive sense: “to deposit money or keep an account with a banker.”

The earliest OED cite for this sense is from Harriet Martineau’s novel Berkeley the Banker (1833): “A man who brings a splendid capital, and will, no doubt, bank with us at D——.”

As a transitive verb meaning to deposit, “bank” appeared slightly later. The first OED citation is from an 1838 issue of a stage journal, Actors by Daylight, in which a writer refers to theater managers “having ‘banked’ their cash.”

The word that the Chase spokeswoman used (“some customers may end up unbanked”) hasn’t made it into James Murray’s OED or any other published dictionaries.

Frankly, we think it smacks of corporate gobbledygook and wouldn’t bank on it.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Are we misguided?

Q: Your effort to debunk the “myth” about not starting sentences with “and” or “but” is misguided. They are conjunctions, designed to joined two groups of words. Your subjective claim that it’s OK to do it is both inaccurate and vague.

A: We assume you’re referring to the brief comment about this on our Grammar Myths page. We’ve written more extensively about the subject in our books and on the blog, including a posting a couple of years ago.

As the Oxford English Dictionary and other authorities say, “and” and “but” can properly be used to join words, phrases, clauses, and sentences.

It is not, and never has been, grammatically incorrect to begin a sentence with “and” or “but.” This isn’t a subjective judgment on our part. It’s a fact.

In an attempt to determine where this belief came from, the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traced it to a 19th-century writer, George Washington Moon, most of whose works were attacks on other language commentators.

Moon wrote: “It is not scholarly to begin a sentence with the conjunction and.” (From The Bad English of Lindley Murray and Other Writers on the English Language, 1868.)

This single sentence is the only example of the prohibition that Merriam-Webster’s has been able to locate in print!

“Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with and, and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some time past that the practice was wrong,” M-W says. “Most of us think the prohibition goes back to our early school days.”

The usage guide, citing the author Edward P. Bailey Jr., suggests that “the prohibition is probably meant to correct the tendency of children to string together independent clauses or simple declarative sentences with ands:  ‘We got in the car and we went to the movie and I bought some popcorn and….’ ”

“As children grow older and master the more sophisticated technique of subordinating clauses, the prohibition of and becomes unnecessary,” M-W says. “But apparently our teachers fail to tell us when we may forget about the prohibition. Consequently, many of us go through life thinking it wrong to begin a sentence with and.”

Merriam-Webster’s adds: “Few commentators have actually put the prohibition in print. The only one we have found is George Washington Moon.”

In case you’d like more evidence, here it is.

(1) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum: “Such coordinators as and, or and but can occur in sentence-initial position. For example, speaker A might say, She thoroughly enjoyed it, and B then add, And so did her mother. It is clear that and here forms a unit with so did her mother.” (Page 1277.)

(2) Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed., edited by R. W. Burchfield): “There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards.”

(3) The OED defines and as a coordinating conjunction that’s used for “introducing a word, phrase, clause, or sentence, which is to be taken side by side with, along with, or in addition to, that which precedes it.” OED citations using “and” to introduce a sentence go back to Old English in the 9th century and continue steadily up to the present.

Under its entries for “but” as a conjunction, the OED says it’s used “in a compound sentence, connecting the two co-ordinate members; or introducing an independent sentence connected in sense, though not in form, with the preceding.” Citations go back at least as far back as Middle English.

(4) Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.): “It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction [and] cannot properly  begin a sentence. … Schoolteachers may have laid down a prohibition against the initial and to counteract elementary-school students’ tendency to begin every sentence with and. … The same superstition has plagued but.”

In short, starting a sentence with “and” or “but” may sometimes be bad style—especially if done to excess—but it’s not bad grammar.

Even Moon, the guy who may or may not have started all this, didn’t say the practice was grammatically incorrect. He said it wasn’t “scholarly.”

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Why is anathema such a nasty character?

Q: Dictionaries list “anathema” as a noun, yet they often give sample sentences in which it’s used as an adjective! So is my enemy anathema to me? Or is he an anathema to me? Or can he be both?

A: Your enemy can be both. Either way, he’s bad business.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “anathema” as a noun and a “quasi-adj.” that English adopted in the 16th century from ecclesiastical Latin and Greek.

As a noun, it originally meant “anything accursed, or consigned to damnation.” As a noun acting adjectivally, it meant “accursed, consigned to perdition.”

In fact, the OED‘s first published reference for the word, from the Tyndale Bible of 1526, appears to use it adjectivally: “Yf eny man love not the lorde Jesus Christ, the same be anathema maranatha.”

(The term “maranatha” here comes from an Aramaic phrase that contemporary scholars interpret as “Come, O Lord!” or “Our Lord has come,” according to the OED.)

In Greek, anathema originally meant “a thing devoted,” but came to mean “a thing devoted to evil, an accursed thing.”

In church Latin, it referred to an excommunicated person or the curse of excommunication.

Over the years, the noun “anathema” has referred to a formal act of damnation, a cutting off of someone from communion, a denunciation of heresy, and a curse, either ecclesiastical or secular.

By the mid-17th century, according to the OED, the noun was being used predicatively—that is, as a predicate adjective—to mean “loathsome, repugnant, or extremely objectionable” to someone.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from Hesperides, Robert Herrick’s 1648 collection of poems:

Who read’st this book that I have writ,
And can’st not mend but carp at it;
By all the Muses! thou shalt be
Anathema to it and me.

In other words, an enemy, literary or otherwise, can be anathema to you!

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Etymology Usage

Do you want to rant and rave?

Q: A friend of mine used the expression “rant and rave” the other day. That got me thinking. To “rave” about something is positive, but the word turns negative when it’s linked with “rant.” Just wondered if you have any comments!

A: Yes, to “rant and rave” (to shout angrily and wildly) might be described as negative. But to “rave” isn’t quite as positive as you seem to believe.

The verb “rave” can be negative as well as positive. You can rave in anger about something or rave in praise of it.

The verb “rave” has undergone a few changes over the centuries. Let’s follow its history, with a few interruptions along the way.

When “rave” came into English in the 1300s, it didn’t involve shouting or other forms of self-expression.

It meant “to be mad, to show signs of madness or delirium,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word’s origins are uncertain, but there’s a connection with “reverie,” which originally meant wild and uncontrolled behavior.

“Reverie” came into English in the 1300s from Middle French, where it implied madness, delirium, wandering of the mind, and so on.

Going back to “rave,” the OED says it developed new senses in the 1500s and 1600s, when it came to mean “to rage furiously or intensely” and “to speak or declaim wildly, irrationally, or incoherently.”

These are the senses of the word used in the expression “rant and rave,” which was first recorded in the 1600s.

Here we have to interrupt again to discuss the verb “rant,” a word dating from 1602. It came from the Dutch randen (to talk foolishly or rave).

To “rant,” according to the OED, originally meant “to talk or declaim in an extravagant or hyperbolical manner; to use bombastic language; (esp. of an actor) to orate or speak in a melodramatic or grandiose style.”

Later, in the mid-1600s, ranting became angrier. “Rant” came to mean “to speak furiously; to storm or rage violently.”

So to “rant and rave” means, in the words of the OED, “to talk or declaim hyperbolically, wildly, or furiously, now esp. as if mad or delirious.”

But how about a review that’s described as a “rave”? This comes from a quite different meaning of the verb “rave.”

In 1621, “rave” was first used to mean “to speak or write about someone or something with great enthusiasm or admiration,” the OED says.

The verb “rave” in this sense is generally used with “about” or “over” as in the following citation from the Independent (2002): “Several friends rave about this bra. It’s the sort to wear if you want something simple yet sexy.”

The noun form of “rave,” meaning a wildly favorable review, first showed up in print in 1926, according to OED citations.

An article in the American Mercury magazine gives credit to Variety, the show-biz weekly:

“One of the paper’s coinages should be officially embraced by the dictionary and bred into the language. It refers to a flattering, enthusiastic review by a sycophantic critic as a rave.” 

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Etymology Usage

Is an iTunes download a record?

Q: We of a certain age consider “records” synonymous with the vinyl discs we grew up with, and are reluctant to use the term for MP3 or iTunes downloads. But I wonder if the wax cylinders that preceded vinyl were also called “records”?

A: You’re right. Those early wax cylinders developed by Thomas A. Edison in the 1870s and ’80s were indeed called “records,” as of course were the vinyl discs that succeeded them.

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “record” in the musical sense broadly as “a piece or collection of music issued on record, cassette, CD, etc.”

We imagine that “etc.” would include an iTunes download from Apple and an MP3 download from Amazon, as well as whatever recording technology succeeds them.

The OED‘s earliest published references for “record” in the sense of a recording of speech or music date from  the late 1870s.

The first one, from the Jan. 19, 1878, issue of the journal Design and Work, is a bit technical, but here’s the next, from the June 1878 issue of Cassell’s Family Magazine:

“Mr. Edison is now engaged in devising a finished instrument capable of storing up speeches and music of all kinds, and of allowing the records to be sent by post.”

When the noun “record” showed up in English in the early 1300s (via Anglo-Norman and Middle French), it referred to “the documentation or recording of facts, events, etc.”

So even in the beginning, according to that OED definition, the term “record” was used broadly. And when it comes to recordings, we’re pretty broadminded too.

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Etymology Usage

Was Monica enamored with you-know-who?

Q: I’ve always heard “enamored of,” but lately I’m hearing “enamored with,” and it sounds wrong to me. Which is correct? And what might it be about the word “enamored” that makes one choice more correct than the other?

A: The usual phrase is “enamored of,” but lots of people use “enamored with,” and both are accepted by standard American dictionaries.

We googled “enamored” and each preposition. The results: “enamored of,” 2 million hits; “enamored with,” 825,000.

Here are a couple of examples from among those hits:

“I really love Rudy. He is totally enamored of me.” (Ginny, the Blanch Baker character, in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles.)

“I was enamored with him. And I was excited. And I was enjoying it.” (Monica Lewinsky on Bill Clinton, from a March 3, 1999, interview with Barbara Walters.)

“Enamored” (the British spelling is “enamoured”) was borrowed into English in the early 1300s from the Old French verb enamourer, which came from the noun amour (love).

The verb “enamor,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “to inspire or inflame with love.”

The adjective “enamored,” the OED says, means “full of the passion of love” or simply “in love.” In a weaker sense, “enamored” can mean charmed or fascinated.

“To be enamored,” the dictionary adds, is “to be in love.” And in this sense, “enamored” isn’t the adjective but a passive form of the verb.

This passive form, the OED says, has historically been used with the prepositions “of,” “on,” “upon,” and “with.”

But constructions using “on” and “upon” are now obsolete. Today, the OED says, we use either “enamored of” or, less commonly, “enamored with.”

The dictionary’s first recorded usage is an example of “enamored on,” from 1303.

Both “on” and “upon” were commonly used for centuries, as in this line that John Palsgrave wrote in 1530: “She hath as many craftes to enamour a foole upon her as any queene in this towne.”

But today, the verb is generally used in the passive voice—as in “I am enamored” rather than “I enamor.”

And the preposition of choice is “of,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

In fact, the OED says “with” is obsolete in the weaker sense, in which “enamor” means “to charm, delight, fascinate.”

Dickens used “enamored of” in this way in a letter written in 1866: “I am not so much enamoured of the first and third subjects.”

Why is “enamored of” now on top and “enamored with” No. 2?

We can’t explain it. Perhaps for many to be “enamored” is to be consumed by the love OF someone.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

The two of you

Q: Recently I’ve noticed that waiters in restaurants often use the phrase “the two of you” in questions like “Have the two of you decided what you’re having?” This sounds sloppy and grammatically incorrect to me. Your comments?

A: We were editors at the New York Times, and one of the occupational hazards of editing is that perfectly acceptable English begins to look odd after a few hours at the computer.

So we can understand why an expression like “the two of you” may sound weird to you after hearing waiters use it over and over again.

But the usage has been around for quite some time, since well before those waiters picked it up, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

The expression may be a bit informal, but none of the usage guides in our library have a problem with it.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the expression, but it appears in seven of the dictionary’s citations since 1919.

And a Google Timeline search finds numerous appearances of “the two of you” in print since the late 19th century.

The earliest citation in the OED is in a slangy quotation from a story by Harold Charles Witwer in the American Magazine: “If you guys don’t lay off of me I’ll bounce the two of you.”

The latest OED example is from Mike Gayle’s novel Turning Thirty (2000): “Zoë seemed to think that there was definite electricity between the two of you.”

An 1893 example in Google Timeline is from a New Zealand newspaper, the Poverty Bay Herald. A witness in a stabbing trial is quoted as saying, “It was the smallest of the two of you.”

One of the strengths of English is its flexibility. We have many different ways of saying the same thing, or virtually the same thing: each version may have a slightly different nuance.

Take the word “We” at the start of our answer. That was the simplest and most direct way to begin. But we could have started with “We two” or “The two of us” or “Both of us”—all perfectly fine English.

In case you’re interested, we posted a blog item a couple of years ago when a reader complained about Pat’s use of “the both of us” during an appearance on WNYC.

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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: The language of spring.

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Etymology Usage

Is preheating the same as heating?

Q: If I heat my oven to 350 degrees, am I doing the same thing as people who preheat their ovens to 350 degrees?

A: We just bought a double oven and asked ourselves the same question while reading the section in the owner’s manual on preheating.

The answer? Yes and no. Although something that’s preheated is also heated, the verb “preheat” does have a more precise meaning than the verb “heat.”

Here’s how “preheat” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary: “To heat before use or further treatment; to heat beforehand.”

So one “preheats” an oven to a certain temperature before putting in the food.

And here’s the OED’s definition of “heat” in the sense you’re asking about: “To communicate heat to; to make hot, to warm; to raise the temperature of.”

Although “heat” is a very old verb, dating back to around the year 1000, “preheat” isn’t exactly a newbie. It’s been with us since the mid-19th century.

The earliest published reference for “preheat” in the OED, from an 1862 article in Scientific American, describes a pipe that “traverses the furnace for pre-heating the crude sap.”

The dictionary also has citations for preheating tools, an oven, an auto engine, blankets, a sandwich press, and the air.

The two of us say “heat,” not “preheat,” when we talk about stoking up one of our new ovens for a cassoulet. But we don’t get heated up when we hear other people talk about preheating their ovens.

If you’re still bothered by that prefix, you might take a look at a blog item we wrote a couple of years ago about whether “pre-” words need a fix.

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Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

She’s like, “No way!”

Q: My 12-year-old daughter is reporting to a friend about a conversation she heard, and once again she begins “He’s like” instead of “He said.” I find this form of talk very colorful and filled with unintentional humor. Is it the result of all the texting kids do rather than actually speaking to each other?

A: This is a something we’ve frequently written about—we had a blog item on it only last month—but it’s a subject that language mavens love to discuss.

This use of “like” (sometimes called the “quotative like”) was popularized in the 1980s in Valley Girl speech, long before teenagers began texting one another. And it’s not the only nontraditional way youngsters quote people.

In informal conversation, many people (especially the younger ones) often don’t quote someone by using the verb “say.” Instead of “She said, ‘No way!’” a teenager may choose one of three methods for quoting people:

(1) “She’s like, ‘No way!’ ”

(2) “She’s all, ‘No way!’ ”

(3) “She goes, ‘No way!’ ”

So instead of using the verb “say,” the speaker substitutes “be + like,” “be + all,” or “go.”

Pat wrote an On Language  column for the New York Times Magazine a while back that discusses this “be + like” business. And the two of us wrote about it in our book Origins of the Specious.

As we say in the book, “like” is used informally to introduce quotes (real or approximate) as well as thoughts, attitudes, and even gestures.

It has a lot in common, we write, with the other quoting words commonly used in speech: the old standby “say,” along with newcomers “go” (“He goes, ‘Give me your wallet,’ ”) and “all” (“I’m all, ‘Sure, dude, it’s yours’ ”).

But “like” does even more than these, and in just a generation or so it has spread throughout much of the English- speaking world.

Standard dictionaries have taken note of these usages too.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says in a usage note: “Along with be all and go, the construction combining be and like has become a common way of introducing quotations in informal conversation, especially among younger people: So I’m like, ‘Let’s get out of here!’

“As with go,” American Heritage adds, “this use of like can also announce a brief imitation of another person’s behavior, often elaborated with facial expressions and gestures.”

The dictionary says it “can also summarize a past attitude or reaction (instead of presenting direct speech). If a woman says I’m like, ‘Get lost buddy!’ she may or may not have used those actual words to tell the offending man off.”

“In fact,” AH says, “she may not have said anything to him but instead may be summarizing her attitude at the time by stating what she might have said, had she chosen to speak.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this within its “like” entries:

“Used interjectionally in informal speech often with the verb be to introduce a quotation, paraphrase, or thought expressed by or imputed to the subject of the verb, or with it’s to report a generally held opinion (So I’m like, ‘Give me a break’ … It’s like, ‘Who cares what he thinks?’ )”

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Etymology Usage

Was the Babe a real trouper?

Q: In my family, a child who pushes himself or herself to keep up—on a hike, for instance—is referred to as “a real trooper.” I was just told that, correctly, the child is a “real trouper.” In other words, a good performer in a troupe, not a brave soldier in a troop. That makes sense—or does it?

A: Yes, it does indeed make sense, sort of. Here’s the story.

A “trouper” is a member of a performing company (theatrical, singing, or dancing); the company itself is a “troupe.”

The earliest citation for “trouper” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Turnover Club, William T. Hall’s 1890 collection theatrical anecdotes: “As the ‘troupers’ come into the station where I sat, they were a sorry-looking lot.”

The word “troupe,” which was borrowed from French, entered English earlier in the 1800s. The OED’s first citation is from an 1825 issue of the New York Evening Post: “The whole troupe were equally excellent.”

But getting back to your question, another meaning of “trouper” evolved in the 20th century: it can also refer to someone who’s a hard worker, a good sport, a reliable person, a mensch.

The earliest citation in the OED for this sense of the word is from the actor Peter Bull’s 1959 memoir I Know the Face, But ….

“The phrase ‘she’s a trouper’ now has an old-fashioned and faintly derogatory air and is usually bandied about when someone continues to play with a high temperature or a shattering bereavement.”

That quotation suggests, however, that the phrase was around for quite some time before Bull used it in his memoir.

And a Google search finds a lot of earlier citations. The first clear example is this comment about Babe Ruth in a 1933 issue of the Pittsburgh Press:

“This looks like a good spot for trifling encomium for Mr. Ruth, who in his mental travail has conducted himself like a real trouper.”

As you can see, the expression originated as “real trouper” and most language mavens would describe that as the proper usage.

But a recent Google search suggests that “real trooper” has virtually supplanted the “proper” usage among the people who speak English.

Here’s the scorecard: “real trooper,” 397,000 hits, versus “real trouper,” 60,400.  

We’ll stick with “real trouper” for now, but in English the majority ultimately rules.

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog item a few years ago that discussed, among other things, “trooper” vs. “trouper.”

As the posting says, “trooper” is commonly used to refer to a state police officer or to a soldier in a horse, armored, air cavalry, or other troop.

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Etymology Linguistics Punctuation Spelling Usage

Worl-dwide English?

Q: A few days ago I saw “worldwide” hyphenated as “worl-dwide” in a book. Is this an artifact of a computer spell-check program?

A: We’ve written before on our blog about some of the oddities of hyphenation, including postings last year on Jan. 15 and July 25.

As we note, hyphenations change, and different publishers may treat the same compound differently.

You’ll find “world-wide” in some places and “worldwide” in others. Generally, as compounds become more familiar over time, they tend to lose  their hyphens. So “world wide” becomes “world-wide” and eventually “worldwide.”

Now, a case like “worl-dwide” is a simple typographical error.

We’d guess that a word the publisher treated as a solid compound (“worldwide”) broke at the end of a line, and the typesetting program wasn’t properly programmed to hyphenate it correctly (“world-wide”).

In most cases, line-break errors in manuscripts are caught by proofreaders before publication. But strays can and do slip through the cracks.

If “worl-dwide” appeared in the middle of a line of text in a book, the error would be more unusual. We can’t begin to guess how that would happen!

A book is one thing, the Internet something else. We googled “worl-dwide” the other day and got 23,000 hits, most of them written as two words. Yikes!

A few examples: “Dhl Worl Dwide Express (Dubai)” … “RATED AS A TOP 10 DJ WORL DWIDE” … “Worl dWide PR.”

We won’t bother with links, since this posting may prod the miscreants to mend the errors of their ways.

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Etymology Grammar Linguistics Pronunciation Usage

Heard acrost the US

Q: I have two friends from Texas who say “acrost” instead of “across.” For example, “I saw her acrost the street.” Is it a regional pronunciation? Is it Christian discomfort with using the word “cross” in this context?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “acrost” as “U.S. dial. and colloq.” (A dialectal usage is peculiar to a region, social class, etc.; a colloquial usage appears more often in speech than in writing.)

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the use of “acrost” as a preposition or an adverb appears “throughout US esp among speakers with less than coll educ.”

DARE‘s earliest citation for “acrost” as a preposition is from a 1759 document in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in Salem, Mass.: “Ye enemy fird at our men a Crost ye River.”

The first citation for the adverbial usage is from a 1779 entry in the journal of William McKendry in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society: “The Lake … is … about 8 miles acrost.”

The regional dictionary describes “acrost” as a combination of “across” and the “excrescent t.” (The OED uses the term “inorganic” to describe the “t” in “acrost.”)

DARE says an “excrescent” sound is one with “no historical basis” that “occurs frequently” in “regional and social patterns.”

Neither DARE nor the OED mention anything about Christianity and crosses in their items on “acrost,” and we see no evidence to support that theory of yours.

We’re not phonologists, but one possibility is that people may sometimes confuse “across” with “crossed.”

Another is that the phrase “across the” may get elided into something sounding like “across tuh,” so that what’s being garbled is “the,” not “across.”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Translating the Koran

Q: I was reading an English translation of the Koran and came across a passage that didn’t sound grammatically correct: “There is no god but I.” I looked at another translation and it used the pronoun “Me.” So which is correct?

A: The passage you’re referring to is Sura 21 (The Prophets), Aya 25. (A sura is a chapter and an aya is a verse.)

There have been many English translations of the Koran, by Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

The Scottish writer Alexander Ross is credited with the first, but his 1634 translation was actually an English version of a French translation of the Arabic.

In fact, the next English translation, a 1734 work by George Sale, was based in large part on an earlier Latin translation.

Here’s the complete version of the verse you’re asking about, from a copy of the Koran in our library, N. J. Dawood’s 1956 translation:

“We inspired all the apostles whom We sent before you, saying: ‘There is no god but Me. Therefore serve Me.’ ”

We looked at several of the more popular English translations and found that most, though not all, use the pronoun “Me.”

Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s 1934 translation, for example, uses “I,” but Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall’s 1930 version and M. H. Shakir’s 1983 interpretation use “Me.” (Pickthall translates the key phrase as “save Me.”)

Which pronoun is correct in English?

The word “but” can be a conjunction or a preposition.

As a conjunction, it expresses opposition or contradiction, and would be followed by a subject pronoun like “he” or “they” or “I.”

However, as a preposition it means, among other things, “except,” and would be followed by an object pronoun like “him” or “them” or “me.”

Though some traditionalists may disagree, the Oxford English Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agree with us that “but” is a preposition when it means “except.”

So we’d recommend using “Me” in English translations of that verse from the Koran.

If you’d like to read more, we had a blog item a couple of years ago about the two faces of “but.”

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

Junk in the trunk

Q: So if “junk” can mean male genitalia, how did “junk in the trunk” come to mean rear end, particularly a female rear end? In other words, what is the difference between junk male and junk female?

A: Enough already! We’ve written blog items about the use of “junk” in reference to genitaliafood, and other things. Now, female rear ends? OK, OK, we’ll do one more.

The new three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang describes this use of “junk in the trunk” as black American English for large buttocks.

The dictionary, by Jonathon Green, says the word “trunk” here is a reference to the rear or “boot” of a car.

The slang dictionary lists two Internet citations, including this 2000 example from the Ebonics Primer: “Hey you see dat big booty sista right there? She got junk in the trunk!”

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, which is edited by Green, also describes it as US black English, and says the usage originated in the 1990s.

However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, doesn’t indicate a racial origin of the expression.

The earliest citation for the usage in Random House is from a 1995 broadcast of the The Jerry Springer Show: “I’ve got too much junk in my trunk [woman shakes her very large buttocks].”

The next two citations are from the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless, including this one from a 1997 broadcast: “That girl’s got some junk in the trunk.”

Hmm. Maybe it’s time for us to go on a diet. 

Update: A couple of hours after we posted this entry, the linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer sent us this comment:

“I know you don’t want to hear any more ‘junk’ talk, but I thought you’d like to know that the callipygian sense goes back to the 1993 hiphop song ‘Dazzey Duks’ by Duice. You can find some discussion on Arnold Zwicky’s blog, in a post following up on my On Language column about the other kind of ‘junk.’

“(By the way, I got dozens of emails from that column asking me why I didn’t talk about ‘junk in the trunk’!)”

Thank you, Ben. And we’d like to say here that we were sorry to see the New York Times Magazine drop the On Language column. We’ll miss it—and you. 

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Etymology Usage

Man oh man!

[Note: A Jan. 2, 2023, post discusses the use of “man” to address someone as well as its use in colloquial interjections like “Oh, man.”]

Q: I’m curious about the use of male nouns in expressions like “man oh man” and “oh brother.” Did these expressions begin life as euphemisms? Where are they heard most? Are there female equivalents? Oh boy! I can hardly wait for your response.

A: You may be surprised to hear this, but “man” has been used in similar expressions since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

You’d have a hard time making out the Old English examples, but here’s one from 1530 by John Palsgrave: “Plucke up thy herte, man, for Goddes sake.”

In this old sense, the OED says, “man” is used to address a person or introduce a remark “emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc.”

You’re asking about a much more recent usage, however.

The OED describes this “man” as a colloquial interjection “used to express surprise, delight, disbelief, amazement, etc. (freq. in oh man!), or to give force to the statement which it introduces. man alive!

From the published references in the OED, the usage appears to have originated in the early 19th century. At first, according to the dictionary, it was “chiefly” heard among African-Americans and South Africans.

There’s no indication that these expressions began life as euphemisms. From the examples in the OED and other sources, the usage appears to be most common in North America.

The first OED citation is from the New England writer John Neal’s 1823 novel Errata: “Man!—Man!—I had a heart like a well—into it, every living creature might have dipped.”

The earliest OED citation for an “oh, man” version is from Police Officer, Claude L. Vincent’s 1990 study of policing in Canada: “Man, oh man, nobody is going to turn me into a social worker!”

However, a Google Timeline search turns up this May 31, 1926, headline from a Canadian newspaper, the Calgary Daily Herald: “Oh! Man, OH! MAN, WHAT A SALE!”

The OED describes the use of the interjection “brother” as “a mild exclamation of annoyance, surprise, etc.”

Here’s a 1969 example from the Victoria (British Columbia) Islander: “Then when you think you’ve got used to mountain roads you hit one like the Seton-Darcy road. Oh Brother!”

“Boy,” “oh boy,” “oboy,” and “boy oh boy” are described as interjections “expressing shock, surprise, excitement, appreciation, etc. Freq. used to give emphasis to the following statement.”

The earliest example in the OED (a one-“boy” version) is from George Ade’s Chicago Stories (1890), a collection of his newspaper articles: “S-s-t! Boy! Same as last time.”

Here’s a three-“boy” example from a 1932 issue of the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette: “But, boy, oh boy, oh boy, wouldn’t a line like that knock an editor out of his chair?”

We can’t think offhand of a female version of the kind of “man,” “brother,” or “boy” interjection that’s aroused your curiosity.

In an expression like “way to go, woman” or “what’s happening, sister?” or “you go, girl,” the interjection is used to address someone (as in that early “man” usage we mentioned at the beginning).

By the way, the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated. We discussed this in a blog item a couple of years ago.

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 2, 2023.]

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Etymology Usage

Are congratulations in order?

Q: Was Pat really just a clue in the New York Times crossword? I saw it in the International Herald Tribune. I was in Sardinia over the weekend, and took the rare opportunity to work the crossword. Does this mean congratulations are in order? Or perhaps I should ask, where does that expression come from?

A: Yes, Pat was indeed a clue in a recent Times crossword (Patricia who wrote “Woe Is I”). It was 2 down in the Feb. 11 puzzle. The answer was her last name, minus the apostrophe (OCONNER).

In fact she’s been a clue—or, rather, part of one—in several other crosswords in the Times and elsewhere.

The answer is usually “ISI,” the second and third words of her book Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Little did we realize back in the mid-’90s when the book was named that the letter combination “ISI” would fill a much-needed gap (as the saying goes) for crossword puzzle writers!

As for “congratulations are in order,” the expression seems to have originated in the United States in the 19th century.

The earliest appearance in the New York Times archive is from a Sept. 20, 1886, profile of Capt. R. B. Forbes shortly after his 82nd birthday. Forbes introduced double topsail yards, a rig that made it easier to handle a sailing ship.

The article in the Times refers to “the anniversary of his birth, when congratulations are in order.”

A Google Timeline search produced several other examples of the expression from earlier in 1886. The first one is from the April 2,1886, issue of the Adrian (Mich.) Weekly Press:

“Rev. Wilson, of the Christian church, returned from Ohio last week, bringing with him his new wife. Congratulations are in order. They expect to be keeping house in about two weeks.”

The noun “congratulation” entered English in the late 16th century, adopted from similar words in French or Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from Sir John Harrington’s 1591 translation of the Italian poem Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto: “Only Gradassos faint congratulation, / Makes men surmise, he thinks not as he saith.”

The use of the plural “congratulations” for expressing compliments first showed up in the early 17th century. We especially like this early citation from Samuel Johnson’s 1749 tragedy Irene: “That fawning Villain’s forc’d Congratulations.”

But why, you may ask, do we say congratulations are “in order” when we mean they’re appropriate or proper or fitting?

When the word “order” entered English in the early 13th century (via the Anglo-Norman and Old French ordre), it referred to a rank in a hierarchy, especially any of the nine grades of angels in medieval Christianity, according to the OED.

Early in the next century, the word came to mean a grade or rank in the Christian ministry or ecclesiastical hierarchy.

But by the 14th century the word had broken away from its church origins and was being used in a more general way to refer to any rank or row or series.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, though, that the phrase “in order” came to mean “appropriate to or befitting the occasion; suitable; called for; correct.”

The OED says this usage is of US origin and its first citation is from a report on an 1850-51 constitutional convention in Ohio: “I have prepared a resolution … and whenever it may be in order I shall offer it.”

The dictionary doesn’t have any published references for “congratulations are in order,” but it does have an apologetic version of the expression from around 1861.

Here’s the citation, from Theodore Winthrop’s novel John Brent (circa 1861): “If the gent has made a remark what teches you, apologies is in order.”

Winthrop was one of the first Union officers killed in the Civil War. His novel was published posthumously.

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Etymology Usage

Sexual identity, reflexively speaking

Q: I heard this on the radio: “The candidate now identifies as a transsexual male.” In an age when people can change their sexual identity, it seems the verb “identify” has lost its sexuality by dropping the reflexive pronouns “himself” and “herself.” This may be politically correct, but is it grammatical?

A: Only recently have people begun using “identify as” to mean “think of oneself as.” A cursory search suggests the usage has been around for only a decade or two.

If a sentence like “John identifies as male” sounds odd to some ears, perhaps that’s because it seems to combine other usages that are more familiar: “John identifies (or identifies himself) with males” and “John identifies himself as male.”

When we find “as” with the verb “identify,” we expect to find a reflexive pronoun in between: “John identifies himself as ….”

It’s true, as you note, that “John identifies as … ” is a handy construction for journalists who write about transsexuals. The writer can omit a sex-related pronoun (“himself” or “herself”).

But the phrase “identify as” has become extremely common lately in other kinds of writing about how people perceive themselves—religiously, politically, racially, and so on.

Here are a few examples that cropped up in the news in the last couple of months.

“More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race” (a headline in the New York Times).

“In 2010, 31% of Americans identified as Democrats,” while at the same time “the percentage identifying as independents increased to 38%” (from a Gallup news release).

“More than half of Hispanics identify as conservative, poll finds” (a headline in the Dallas Morning News).

“Just 250 of the school’s 5,000 students identify as Jewish” (from an article in the Jewish Chronicle).

Writers (or perhaps copy editors) who dislike “identify as” without a reflexive pronoun as an object often use “self-identify as” instead.

Here’s a recent example from the Times: “His current research reveals that the fastest-growing group along the sexuality continuum are men who self-identify as ‘mostly straight’ as opposed to labels like ‘straight,’ ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual.’ ”

This longer usage (“self-identify as”) is much more common in Google than the shorter one, by a rate of about five to one. So in the media at least, people mulling over their identities are more likely to “self-identify as” than to “identify as.”

You ask whether “identify as” is grammatical. Perhaps a more useful question would be whether this is a natural and logical extension of ways in which “identify” has been used up until now.

The verb “identify,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered English in the early 1600s, when it meant “to regard or treat as identical.” It was originally used with an object—that is, transitively.

“Identify” is still used in its original sense. Here’s an OED citation from William James’s Pragmatism (1907): “One misunderstanding of pragmatism is to identify it with positivistic tough-mindedness.”

In the 1700s, the OED says, the verb came to be used in a newer sense: “to model oneself on, now esp. unconsciously; to feel oneself to be, or to become, closely associated with or part of.” And again, the verb was transitive.

Here’s a recent citation: “Cleopatra deliberately identified herself with Isis, and called herself the New Isis” (from Michael and Veronica Haag’s The Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code, 2004).

But in the last half-century, the verb in this sense has also been used without an object—that is, intransitively. In this case, says the OED, the object is “unspecified or implied by the context.” Here are a few citations.

1959: “An engaging series of attempts and failures to ‘identify,’ as cricket-master at a prep school, or as a journalist on a go-getting daily” (from The Listener, a former BBC publication).

1968: “Finally Tina came on and tore the joint up. She signified, the women identified and the men just drooled” (from a review in Blues Unlimited, a British music magazine).

2008: “Up to your ears in debt? Broke? Here I can really identify. I grew up broke” (from Howard J. Ruff’s How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years).

Notice how the use of the verb has expanded over the years.

It’s important to know that only recently has the intransitive “identify with” (as in “He identifies with Italians”) become acceptable to lexicographers. What’s left out is the object (“himself”). 

For many years, critics of that usage were bothered by the fact that “identify” was used without an object in the form of a reflexive pronoun.

But today, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), “this use of identify with without the reflexive has become standard.”

The dictionary says 82 percent of its Usage Panel accepts the sentence “I find it hard to identify with any of his characters.”

In our opinion it’s a very short grammatical jump from sentences like “He identifies with Italians” and “When he’s with Italians, he can identify” to one like “He identifies as Italian.”

Language changes, and we can identify with that.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

ETA: Has “arriving” arrived?

Q: Can you say, “His arriving was unexpected”?

 A:  Yes, you can, though it would be more common (and in most cases more idiomatic) to say, “His arrival was unexpected.”

Here’s the Google scorecard: “his arrival was,” nearly 2.8 million hits, vs. “his arriving was,” only 49.

There may be a slight difference in meaning here between the noun “arrival” and the gerund “arriving.” (A gerund is a word that’s made of a verb plus “-ing” and that acts as a noun.)

“His arriving was unexpected” suggests to us that he wasn’t expected at all. “His arrival was unexpected” could also mean that he arrived early, late, or by some unexpected means.   

When the verb “arrive” entered English in the 13th century (borrowed from the Old French ariver), it referred to a ship, its crew, or its passengers reaching shore.

But by the late 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “arrive” was being used in a more general way for ending any kind of trip or simply reaching a destination.

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several items on the blog about gerunds and other “-ing” words, including postings in 2011 and 2007.

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Etymology Usage

It’s not quite “quite” anymore

Q: When I was growing up in the 1960s, I was expected to restrict the use of “quite” to its original meaning: completely, totally, entirely, wholly. Now nearly everyone uses it to mean something slightly north of generally or usually. I cannot get over the deeply ingrained feeling that this usage is wrong, and that the reason for it is laziness.

A: You’re right in thinking that “quite” originally meant, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “completely, fully, entirely; to the utmost extent or degree.” But times have changed.

“Quite” entered English as an intensifying adverb around 1300 or a little before.

It’s thought to have come partly from an identical  Anglo-Norman word meaning without opposition, and partly from the rare old adjective “quit” (circa 1230), which meant free, clear, exempt or released from an obligation.

An aside: Apparently “quit,” like “quite,” once was pronounced with a long “i.” And like “quite,” it was used to underscore an idea.

Old phrases like “quit and free” and “quit and clear” meant completely free—today we might say quite free—of encumbrances.

For centuries, according to entries in the OED, the word “quite” was used in a variety of ways, but it was always unequivocal.

It was used either in the original, intensifying sense (completely, fully), or in a newer way that cropped up in the early 1600s—as an emphatic adverb meaning  actually, really, truly, positively; definitely; very much, considerably.

The weakness, as you see it, crept in at the beginning of the 19th century.

That’s when people began using “quite” as a “moderating adverb,” says the OED. Its meaning: “to a certain or significant extent or degree; moderately, somewhat, rather; relatively, reasonably.”

So “quite” went from an intensifying adverb (1300s) to an emphatic one (1600s) and finally to a moderating one (1800s).

Those earlier senses, however, are still alive, and this can lead to ambiguity. “Quite” might mean “certainly” in one sentence, “considerably” in another, and “rather” in yet another.

Here are modern examples of each, from citations in the OED:

Intensifying: “The self-praise and gross exaggeration … which we have come to expect from him had quite disappeared.” (From the Times of London, 2001.)

Emphasizing: “We could continue discussing templates for quite some time.” (From Programming Multiplayer FPS in DirectX, by V. Young, 2005.)

Moderating: “Five middle-class people and two elderly labradors. In a garage. I mean, quite a roomy garage—but really.” (From the Daily Telegraph, 2003.)

Finally, there’s a different animal entirely—the adjective “quite,” a British usage defined by the OED as “short for ‘quite a gentleman (lady, etc.)’; socially acceptable.”

Here’s an example from Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out (1915): “Mr. Perrott … knew that he was not ‘quite,’ as Susan stated … not quite a gentleman she meant.”

Also rarely heard here, except on PBS, is the British interjection “quite,” which means “just so” or “absolutely.”

Among the OED’s citations is this bit of conversation from Kyril Bonfiglioli’s comic mystery Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1976):

“Quite. By the way, I’m sorry to say ‘quite’ all the time but … my work lies amongst Americans and they expect Englishmen to say it.”

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Grammar Usage

Going, going, gone

Q: I’m confused by this sentence: “We will have been gone for five days by the end of our trip.” Is “gone” the main verb or a predicate adjective?

A: Which of those two ways of looking at the sentence is right? These are the choices:

(1) The principal verb is “go” and the tense is the future perfect passive (“will have been gone”).

(2) The principal verb is “be” and the tense is the future perfect (“will have been”), plus the adjective “gone.”

Our answer: No. 2. Here’s why.

It’s tempting to choose #1, because “will have been” is a typical passive verbal construction.

You get the passive voice by combining a form of the verb “be” with a past participle, like “baked” (as in “the cookies were baked”).

And combining “will have been” with a past participle gives you the future perfect passive (“the cookies will have been baked”).

But “will have been gone” is not a passive form of the verb “go.” In fact, “go” has no passive form, because it’s an intransitive verb—it has no object.

Only verbs that can have an object—like “bake”—can be used in the passive voice. We can say “cookies were baked” only because someone baked them. You can “go,” but some outside force can’t “go” you.

So when we speak of a person as being “gone,” we’re using an adjective. We’re talking about a condition (the state of being absent), not an action (the act of going).

We’ve discussed the passive before on our blog, as well as transitive and intransitive verbs.

In explaining all this, we’ll use another verb that’s exclusively intransitive—“die”—as an illustration. Like “go,” “come,” and some other verbs, “die” has no object.

As with “go,” we can use “die” in the future perfect tense, but only in the active voice: “We will have died.” When we say, “We will have been dead,” we’re not using a passive form of “die.” The word “dead” is an adjective.

Similarly, we can use “go” in the future perfect tense, but only in the active voice: “We will have gone.” Here, “gone” is a past participle of the verb “go.” When we say, “We will have been gone,” we’re using “gone” as an adjective.

What this boils down to is that there’s a difference between having gone and being gone, between having died and being dead.

The grammarian Otto Jespersen discussed the difference in his Essentials of English Grammar: “While he has gone calls up the idea of movement, he is gone emphasizes the idea of a state (condition) and is the equivalent of ‘he is absent.’ ”

This is especially evident, he writes, when the length of the absence is indicated, as in “I shall be gone before you wake in the morning” … “He was gone but a little time” … “Don’t be gone too long!”

Our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2nd ed., unabridged), under its entry for the adjective “gone,” says in a note that “be” is often used with “gone” in perfect tenses.

When “gone” is used with “be,” the dictionary adds, it’s given “an adjectival force, as expressive of a condition, rather than the verbal force, emphasizing the action, which is normal with have.”

Clearly, “gone” looks like a form of the verb “go.” But when it’s used with “be,” it’s an adjective.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says the adjective “gone” means “being away from a place; absent or having departed.”

In its entry for the adjective “gone,” the online Macmillan Dictionary says, “Someone who is gone is no longer present in a place,” and gives the example “I’ll be gone for about half an hour.”

Macmillan also says, “Something that is gone no longer exists or has all been used,” and gives the example “Sadly, those days are gone now.”  gives a similar example of “gone” used as an adjective: “She’s been gone for more than an hour.”

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

What do you call a %&*&##@?

Q: Is there a term for those strings of symbols, like %&*&##@, used in comic books to represent obscenities?

A: Not only is there a term for those thingies, there are two terms: “grawlix,” coined 47 years ago by the cartoonist Mort Walker, and “obscenicon,” introduced in 2006 by the linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer.

We prefer “grawlix.” It’s far more popular (6,480 vs. 96 hits on Google when we checked), though “obscenicon” is arguably more precise.

In “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes,” a 1964 article for the National Cartoonists Society,  Walker writes that cartoonists have a variety of acceptable curse words, “but the real meat of the epithet must always contain plenty of jarns, quimps, nittles, and grawlixes.”

In The Lexicon of Comicana, Walker’s humorous 1980 book about the conventions used in cartooning, he shows “jarns” as spirals, “quimps” as astronomical characters, “nittles” as stars, and “grawlixes” as scribbles.

(Walker’s comic strips include Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois.)

Despite its scribbled origins, “grawlix” generally seems to be used now for those strings of symbols in comic books, at least that’s the impression we have from checking out a few dozen Google results.

As for “obscenicon,” Zimmer introduced the term in a Language Log posting in which he describes a New Yorker cartoon as “meta-commentary on cursing characters (let’s call ’em obscenicons).”

The linguists Arnold Zwicky and Gwillim Law, among others, later commented on the Language Log about the merits of the two terms.

Zwicky, citing the squiggly origins of “grawlix,” leaned toward “obscenicon” as more precise (it’s a blend of “obscene” and “icon”). Law,  a “grawlix” supporter, noted its early origins and popularity.

If you’d like to read more, Law has written an interesting article, “Grawlixes Past and Present,” with illustrations of various typographical obscenities in comics over the years (from a 1909 Katzenjammer Kids to a 2010 Jump Start strip).

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