Etymology Punctuation Spelling

Vowel language

Q: The vowels are reversed in “fuel” and “feud,” but they’re pronounced the same. Is it because “fuel” comes from French and “feud” from Scottish? Is it that simple?

A: Your instinct is right, but it’s not that simple.

“Fuel” and “feud,” which have similar sounds that are spelled differently, do come from different branches of the family tree.

Ultimately, “fuel” comes from Latin and “feud” from old Germanic sources. But their ancestries apparently don’t account for the difference in their spellings.

Of the two words, “fuel” has the more straightforward history.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the precursor to “fuel” was the Anglo-Norman word fuaille, derived from the medieval Latin focalia. The ultimate source is the classical Latin focus (hearth, fire).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, in the mediaeval Latin of France and England, focalia occurs frequently “in charters with reference to the obligation to furnish or the right to demand supplies of fuel.”

When the noun “fuel” came into English sometime before 1200, the Middle English spelling was fewaile, and the word was probably pronounced something like that.

Subsequent spellings, the OED says, included “fewall,” “fewel,” “fewell,” “fowayle,” “fowaly,” “fowel,” “fowell,” “fwaill,” “fuell,” “fuelle,” “feuel,” and finally “fuel.”

Why did the vowels end up as “ue” and their pronunciation as YOO?

Your guess is as good as ours, but you can see from the spellings above that the two vowels (or their sounds) seesawed a bit over the years.

By comparison, “feud” has a much more convoluted history.

Its probable ancestor is a prehistoric Germanic word reconstructed as faikhitho, which roughly means a state of “foe”-hood. The root of this same ancestor, faikh (hostility or enmity), gave us “foe.”

The word showed up in the early 14th century in Scottish English, where it was spelled “fede, feide, or something phonetically equivalent,” says the OED.

But the Scots didn’t get “feud” from Germanic sources, at least not directly. They borrowed it from the Old French fede or feide, which had been borrowed in turn from a word in Old High German, fehida.

In the 16th century, the word was adopted in England “with an unexplained change of form,” says the OED. The changes of spelling included “food,” “foode,” “feood,” “fuid,” “fewd,” and finally “feud.”

But don’t lose sight of the old “foe” connection. In the 17th century “the word was occasionally altered into foehood,” the OED says.

Now here’s the convoluted part.

That Old High German word that was borrowed by the French, fehida, had a cousin in Old English—fæthu (enmity), which apparently died out in Anglo-Saxon days.

Thus during the Middle English period the Scots had to re-borrow the word by the back door, as it were, by way of French.

As for the eventual spelling, Ayto comments, “It is not clear how the original Middle English form fede turned into modern English feud.”

It’s also not clear how the YOO pronunciation of the vowels in “feud” became the  dominant one.

So in the end we can’t account for the different spellings of the similar sounds of “fuel” and “feud.”

As we’ve said before (more or less), language isn’t Euclidean geometry.

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English language

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 weddings and marriage.

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Scandalous to the bitter end!

Q: I enjoyed your posting about “taken aback,” but I’m surprised that you didn’t mention two other usages with nautical origins: “scandalize” and “bitter end.”

A: We’re glad you enjoyed that posting, but we must disagree with you about “scandalize” and “bitter end.” There’s no evidence that their ordinary senses have seafaring origins.

It’s true that there’s a verb spelled “scandalize” that means (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary) “to reduce the area of (a sail) by lowering the peak and tricing up the tack.”

We’ll take Oxford’s word for it, since that explanation is Greek to us! The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia defines it as “to trice up the tack of the spanker,” which sounds pretty scandalous to us.

Anyway, the nautical term, which isn’t in any of the modern standard dictionaries we checked, is no relation to the “scandalize” that means to shock someone.

In fact, the nautical word “scandalize” originated as a misspelling, an alteration of an earlier verb, “scantelize,” meaning to shorten or curtail.

In the 1500s, “scantle” (or “scantlet”) was a noun meaning a piece or portion of something. And the verb “scantle” meant to stint on, cut down, or diminish.

The etymology of “scantle” is a question mark (there’s no evidence that it’s related to the adjective “scant,” which comes from Old Norse).

But going back to the seafaring use of “scandalize,” it was first recorded in the 19th century. The OED has only two citations.

Here’s the first, from an 1862 book on yachting: “Keep your peak standing, or scandalise the mainsail.”

In the second, a contributor to the journal Notes & Queries in 1867 said that “scandalising a sail” was a phrase “in common use among Cornish sailors fully forty years ago.”

The original “scandalize,” on the other hand, dates back to 1490, when the OED says it meant “to bruit abroad, make a public scandal of (a discreditable secret).”

The modern meaning, “to horrify or shock by some supposed violation of morality or propriety,” was first recorded in 1676, according to citations in the OED.

So both meanings were recorded long before those 19th-century writers spelled the nautical “scantelize” as “scandalize.”

And now (you asked for it!), on to the “bitter end.”

In our opinion there’s no connection between the nautical meaning of the phrase and its more ordinary meaning in everyday usage. The similarity appears to be coincidental.

Let’s look at the expression first from the sailor’s point of view.

The posts that a ship’s cables are wrapped around, both on board ship and at the pier, are called “bitts,” a word first recorded in the early 1600s. Bitts generally come in pairs so the line can be wrapped around them in a figure-eight.

A “bitter” is a single turn of the line around the bitts. And the “bitter end” is the end of the line that’s attached to the ship.

The OED has this quotation from A Sea Grammar by Capt. John Smith (1627): “A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and … the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord.”

And here’s a quotation from The Sailor’s Word-book, by William Henry Smyth (1867): “A ship is ‘brought up to a bitter’ when the cable is allowed to run out to that stop. … When a chain or rope is paid out to the bitter-end, no more remains to be let go.”

In its everyday sense, the phrase “to the bitter end” has a very different meaning: “to the last and direst extremity” or “to death itself,” in the words of the OED. And, it adds, the expression’s “history is doubtful.”

The OED’s two earliest citations for the phrase in this sense are from the mid-19th century. But in both cases, the writers enclosed the phrase in quotation marks as if they were quoting an earlier source.

Here are the two quotations, both from the Congressional Globe (precursor to the Congressional Record):

“I am unfortunately among those who voted for the gentleman from Indiana, even ‘to the bitter end’ ” (1849);

“Our defence is a just one, and will be maintained by us to the ‘bitter end’ ” (1850).

Why the quotation marks? It’s possible the reference was biblical. Here’s Proverbs 5:3-4 (King James Version, 1611):

“For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.”

The British wordsmith Michael Quinion has found several examples of “bitter end” in works from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, all predating those OED examples.

And he notes on his website, World Wide Words, that many come from sermons and religious tracts, which suggests they were biblical allusions.

So our guess is that any connection between the two “bitter ends” is at best doubtful, and probably accidental.

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Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage

Puce abuse

Q: The word “puce” came up recently and everyone (with varying degrees of certainty) thought it was a shade of purple. But there was a lingering doubt in at least one mind that it might be a shade of green. A Google search turned up enough “puce green” references to suggest this is a common error. What’s the story?

A: “Puce” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a dark purple brown or brownish purple colour.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), has a similar, not very attractive-sounding definition: “a deep red to dark grayish purple.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) calls it “a dark red.”

Where do we stand on puce? We say it’s the color of an eggplant.

But you’re right that a bit of googling turns up lots of references to “puce green,” including many photos of objects in various shades of green (like a VW bus that’s lime green).

Where does this green business come from? Beats us.

A few people have speculated online about the supposed similarity of the words “puce,” “puke,” and “pus.” But we can’t find any reliable source that has commented on this heady issue.

By the way, the etymology of “puce” isn’t very enticing. Literally it means flea-colored.

In French, puce means “flea,” and the French expression couleur puce means “the colour resembling that of a flea,” the OED says.

We’ve never gotten close enough to a flea to determine its color. But apparently the French have, so we’ll take their word for it.

In the OED’s earliest citation for the word in English, it’s used as a noun.

Here’s the quotation, from Thomas Holcroft’s 1781 translation of the Comtesse de Genlis’s Theatre Education : “I love none but gay colours, I cannot endure the prune de Monsieur, and the puce.”

Oxford’s first recorded use of the adjective is from a 1787 account in the Daily Universal Register, as the Times of London was then known: “A broad embroidered border on puce sattin.”

The OED’s most recent citation for the word, used in a compound phrase, is from a 2005 issue of the British Cosmopolitan:

“Vibrators have been known to actually fly across the departure-lounge floor … only to be picked up by staff and returned to the puce-coloured proprietor.”

Aren’t you glad you asked?

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Etymology Grammar Usage

A gender-bending world view

[Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: I’ve been told that it’s now acceptable to use “their” when referring to a single person (to avoid the awkwardness of “his/her” and the like). Example: “What beliefs does a student have embedded in their own world view?” Please tell me if this is correct.

A: In our world view, it’s best avoided. We’re not alone in this. Using the plural pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to singular antecedents is considered a misusage by sticklers.

However, this is a convention that is widely ignored, even by competent, educated writers. Why? Obviously, there’s a gap in English, and people feel the need for a pronoun that’s not only gender-free but number neutral as well.

With that in mind, it’s important to know that historically “they” & company were in fact used for centuries as all-purpose pronouns, and nobody made a fuss about it until the mid-18th century.

We had a posting on the blog a few years ago about this very subject.

More recently, we wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that went much deeper into the history of all this.

The problem is usually easy enough to avoid. In a sentence like the one you give, for example, just write, “What beliefs do students have embedded in their own world views?”

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Pronunciation Spelling Usage

Why do dictionaries accessorize the alphabet?

Q: Why aren’t the 26 unadorned letters of our alphabet enough for the people who write dictionaries? What bothers me is looking up a word and finding foreign accents or funny pronouncing squiggles. Of course, I’d like to have every dictionary bend to my will. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest!

A: Consider it off your chest! But we have to stick up for the dictionaries here.

In spelling words derived from foreign languages (mostly French), some dictionaries retain the accent marks and some do not, based on prevalent practices in common usage. Most of the time, alternative spellings are offered.

In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for instance, you’ll find “chateau, also château,” but later you’ll find “cliché, also cliche.”

The “also” means the second spelling is less common although both are correct. So the lexicographers at American Heritage think “cliché” is clinging to its accent (at least for now), but not “chateau.”

Over time, you can expect that most borrowings into English will become thoroughly Anglicized and lose their accent marks.

If you’d like a quick reference to the most frequently used accent (or “diacritical”) marks, we did a recent blog entry on the subject (go to the end of the post).

There are tables on the Internet that can show you how to type in accented letters on your PC or Mac. (Sometimes the fastest way to reproduce an accented word is to copy one from another document.)

As for the unusual-looking symbols that dictionaries use to give pronunciations of words, there’s a reason those are there, too.

The editors feel that these symbols provide a tidy, economical, and consistent system for advising readers how words are pronounced.

And it’s easy enough to tell how the symbols sound.

Just glance at the pronunciation key that appears in the lower-right corner of every right-hand page in American Heritage (or in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.).

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Etymology Usage

“Eight Elvises” and “100 Soup Cans”

Q: If it’s “Victoriana,” is it “Warholiana”? Or is it “Warholana”?

A: Our vote goes to “Warholiana.” It’s the usual term for Andy Warhol memorabilia.

The suffixes “-ana” and “-iana,” when added to proper names, form nouns meaning things associated with the original word.

“Warholiana” is the choice here because “Warholian” is the commonly used adjective.

And when an adjective ends in “-ian” (like “Warholian”) the noun for the memorabilia merely adds an “a” (“Warholiana”).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “-iana” is a form of the suffix “ana” that is “added to nouns whose adjectival suffix is, or would be, -ian.”

So a noun like “Africa,” with “African” as its adjective, has “Africana” as the word for things associated with it. We get “Americana” the same way.

But “Shakespeare,” with “Shakespearian” as its adjective, has “Shakespeariana.” Similarly, “Warhol” has the adjective “Warholian” and thus “Warholiana” for the stuff associated with him.

By the way, the memorable things associated with a person, place, or period aren’t necessarily physical items.

“Victoriana,” for instance, can mean artifacts or collectibles of the Victorian era. But it can also mean anecdotes, notable quotations, gossip, publications, fashions of the day, and so forth.

So, “Warholiana” might refer to Warhol’s paintings, prints, and films; gossip about Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Ultra Violet, and the rest of his retinue; coffee mugs and T-shirts with his image, and things he collected—his cookie jars, Fiesta ware, World’s Fair souvenirs, and so on.

Here’s an example: “The ‘Warholiana’ in the exhibition included the silkscreen painting ‘Eight Elvises,’ the underground film ‘Poor Little Rich Girl,’ and an obituary of Andy’s brother, John Warhola, from the New York Times.”

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Etymology Usage

When Pat was taken aback

Q: Pat was asked on WNYC about the origins of “taken aback” and she seemed taken aback. It’s an old sailing term. The sails are taken aback when the wind suddenly changes and blows them against the mast.

A: Several nautical listeners wrote us about “taken aback” after Pat’s appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show.

You’re correct in thinking that the expression began life as a nautical term. But before examining the history of the phrase, let’s begin at the beginning, with the word “aback.”

In its first incarnation, about a thousand years ago, “aback” was a simple adverb of motion.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it meant “in a direction backwards, to the rear, towards that which is behind,” or merely “back.”

It was also used figuratively, according to the OED, to mean “from the front, or scene of action, off, away, to a distance.”

The word was first recorded in the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), the earliest complete translation of the four Gospels into Old English.

The OED has two citations from the Gospels, with “aback” then written on bæc or on-bæc.

Since the Old English looks pretty bewildering, we’ll attempt a literal translation: “Go thou aback, devil!” (Matthew iv.10), and “Many of his learning-knights [i.e., disciples] turned aback, and went not with him” (John vi.66).

“Aback” became a nautical term in the 17th century, the OED says, when it was used to describe sails “laid back against the mast, with the wind bearing against their front surfaces.”

A ship with its sails in that condition was also described as “aback.”

Here are some examples from various nautical accounts:

“I braced my main topsails aback” (1697); “brace the foremost yards aback” (1762); “The Revenge was necessitated to throw her sails all aback” (1790); “We instantly hove all aback to diminish the violence of the shock” (1847).

It’s this use of “aback,” that led in the 18th century to the nautical term “taken aback.”

A ship is “taken aback,” the OED says, “when through a shift of wind or bad steerage, the wind comes in front of the square sails and lays them back against the masts, instantly staying the ship’s onward course.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1756): “If they luff up, they will be taken aback, and run the hazard of being dismasted.”

Before long, this evocative term for being stopped in one’s seafaring tracks made the leap from ship to shore.

Since the 19th century, the OED says, “to take aback” has meant “to surprise or discomfit by a sudden and unlooked-for check.”

Here are the first two citations for this sense:

“The boy, in sea phrase, was taken all aback” (from Thomas Hood’s Up the Rhine, 1840);

“I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life” (from Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation, 1842).

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Etymology Usage

Pompous circumstance

Q: Is there any difference between “pomposity” and “pompousness”? Different origins, shades of meaning, antiquity, geographical uses? Is one more pompous than the other?

A: We don’t see much, if any, difference in meaning between these two words, though “pomposity” seems to be a lot more popular than “pompousness.”

Here’s the Google scorecard: “pomposity,” 392,000 hits, versus “pompousness,” 79,600.

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has a separate entry for “pomposity,” but lists “pompousness” only within its entry for “pompous.”

Merriam-Webster’s defines “pomposity” as  “pompous demeanor, speech, or behavior” as well as “a pompous gesture, habit, or act.”

M-W doesn’t include a definition of “pompousness,” but the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the quality or condition of being pompous; pomposity.”

If you can detect a significant difference between these two words, you have a better nose than we do.

As for antiquity, both “pomposity” and “pompousness” entered English in the 15th century.

We adapted “pomposity” from the post-classical Latin pompositas (meaning pomp or bombast).

We got “pompousness” by tacking the suffix “-ness” onto “pompous,” which comes from the post-classical Latin pomposus (magnificent, grand, pompous).

Both “pomposity” and “pompousness” ultimately come from pompa, the classical Latin word for a ceremonial or solemn procession (and, yes, the source of “pomp”).

As far as geography goes, we suspect that you’ll find both “pomposity” and “pompousness” wherever stuffed shirts hang out. From our experience, that means everywhere.

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Etymology Usage

Is “arson fire” a crime against English?

Q: I hear many newscasters refer to a fire that’s purposely set as an “arson fire.” Isn’t that what “arson” by itself means?

A: In other words, is “arson fire” redundant? Well, yes and no.

In our opinion, it’s redundant most of the time, but occasionally it’s not.

The noun “arson” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the act of wilfully and maliciously setting fire to another man’s house, ship, forest, or similar property; or to one’s own, when insured, with intent to defraud the insurers.”

Notice that “arson” is the crime—the act of setting a fire. It’s not the fire itself. For this reason, we think it’s sometimes legitimate to use “arson” as an adjective modifying “fire.”

“Arson fire” is not a redundancy along the lines of, say, “fatal slaying” or “major milestone.”

Every slaying is fatal, every milestone is major. But not every fire is arson, so it’s sometimes legitimate to modify “fire” with “arson.”

An insurer, for example, might say that a policy doesn’t cover “arson fire.” So it might cover other kinds of fires, but not those feloniously set.

And we see nothing wrong with a headline like “Man Dies in Arson Fire.” A simple “Man Dies in Fire” doesn’t tell you a crime was involved. And “Man Dies in Arson” isn’t correct—the fire killed him, not the crime.

But we agree that “arson fire” is often one word too many. In the following sentences, the words in brackets should be omitted:

“The [arson] fire was deliberately set” … “This is a case of arson [fire]” … “The inferno that destroyed the skyscraper was ruled [an] arson [fire].”

The noun “arson” came into English in the 1600s by way of Anglo-French. But its ultimate source is the Latin arsum, the past participle of ardere (to burn), the verb that also gave us “ardor” and “ardent.”

The first writer to use the word in English, according to OED citations, was Sir Matthew Hale, a Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in the 17th century.

Hale was author of a treatise on criminal law entitled Historia Placitorum Coronae (“The History of the Pleas of the Crown”). The word “arson” appears several times in the work, which has a chapter entitled “Of arson, or the wilful burning of houses.”

(The treatise was published around 1680, a few years  after the judge’s death in 1676.)

When used as an adjective, “arson” is what’s known as an attributive noun—that is, a noun used to modify another noun. We’ve often written about attributive nouns on the blog, including a posting last year.

For writers who are bothered by “arson fire,” there’s a possible (though rather clunky) alternative—“arsonous fire.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists “arsonous” as an adjectival form of “arson.” But “arsonous fire” isn’t often used.

“Arson fire” appears not only in news articles but in hundreds of books and other documents about fire safety management, insurance, and criminal law.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make it good English usage. You can’t beat legal writing for redundancy.

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Etymology Usage

Like Oswald in “Ghosts”

Q: My question is about the phrase “like Oswald in Ghosts.” I know it’s from Annie Hall and know it refers to the Ibsen play, but I would love to know how it came into our phrasebook and what the heck it means!

A: In a brief flashback scene in the film Annie Hall (1977), Alvy (played by Woody Allen) and his neurotic second wife, Robin (Janet Margolin), are in bed.

Robin, who is all intellect and little libido, is seldom in the mood. Tonight, it’s a headache. Here’s the exchange:

Robin: “My head is throbbing.”

Alvy: “Oh, you got a headache!”

Robin: “I have a headache.”

Alvy: “Bad?”

Robin: ‘Like Oswald in Ghosts.

The reference is to Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts, in which the lead character, Oswald, suffers from excruciating headaches brought on by the congenital venereal disease that’s slowly killing him.

Oswald’s last name, by the way is Alving.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Out the door and innuendo

Q: My roommate is from New Orleans and routinely says, “I want to get out the apartment” or “I wish they’d move out the way.” This grates on my ears, as I am certain “out” should be followed by “of.” He is otherwise a very articulate speaker, so I am inclined to believe this is a regional variation. I’d appreciate your insight.

A: “Out” is generally an adverb (“Get out!”), but sometimes it’s used prepositionally as a substitute for “out of.”

The “of” is optional, for example, in sentences like “The cat slipped out [of] the door” and “The flowerpot fell out [of] the window.”

(We’ve written about this “of”-putting business before on the blog.)

By the way, did you notice the words “window” and “door” that we used in the cat and flowerpot examples above?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has noticed these two words too.

Out is used much more often as an adverb than as a preposition,” Merriam-Webster’s says. “When used as a preposition, it seems most often to go with door or window.”

So unless doors or windows are involved, “out” and “out of” aren’t interchangeable, and as M-W puts it, “out” all by itself “sounds not quite part of the mainstream.”

When your friend in New Orleans uses prepositional phrases like “out the apartment” and “out the way,” he’s speaking in that out-of-the-mainstream fashion.

So is this a regional usage, as you suggest? Apparently it is.

Merriam-Webster’s uses an example from the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor: “The woman came out the bath house.”

And the Dictionary of American Regional English has many examples for the use of “out” meaning “out of,” mostly from the South and the Gulf region.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, DARE researchers recorded phrases like “out the bed,” “out the way,” “out the smokehouse,” “out the same eye,” “out the stable,” “out the pen,” “out the rain,” “out the cold,” “out the woods,” and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of “out” as a preposition meaning “out of” was formerly a poetic usage. Now, the OED says, it’s considered nonstandard or regional.

Among its poetic examples, the OED cites these lines from Tennyson’s Adeline (1830): “Thy roselips and full blue eyes / Take the heart from out my breast.”

Among its nonstandard examples, the OED quotes a short story, “Lassies Are Trained That Way” (1991), by the Scottish writer James Kelman:

“He spent too much time boozing down the pub. Too much time out the house.”

So “out the door” and “out the window” are standard English, but “out the house” would be labeled a regionalism in both the US and the UK.

We can’t end this item without repeating a Groucho Marx line that we quoted in our earlier posting on this subject:

“Love flies out the door when money comes innuendo.”

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Grammar Usage

Grammar in real time

Q: I recently attended a seminar for court stenographers. One section was entitled, “Realtime and You Is Not a Conflict.” Shouldn’t the verb be “are” and not “is”? I am required to attend these seminars to maintain my license, but perhaps the educators may need some education!

A: Not so fast. The educators know a thing or two.

This is one of those cases that seem to trump the rules of subject-verb agreement.

In fact, we suspect that the educators (or the organizers of the seminar) liked the title for just that reason—it gets one’s attention.

Here, “real time and you” is not a compound subject that takes a plural verb (as would be the case with “Real time and you are often in conflict”).

In this case, “real time and you” encompasses one idea and is considered a single entity. And when two or more subjects amount to a single thing, then the verb is singular.

So, it’s correct to say “Real time and you is not a conflict.” A similar sentence may make it easier for you to see: “Real time and you IS the subject of the seminar.”

Here are a few more examples in which two subjects joined by “and” express one idea and require a singular verb:

“Love and marriage is Jane Austen’s favorite theme” … “His chief supporter and best friend is his wife” … “Macaroni and cheese is a staple at the diner” … “Their separation and divorce was a catastrophe.”

Note that in all these cases, a compound subject that would normally be plural is instead singular when it’s equated with a singular thing, person, or idea (“theme” … “wife” … “staple” … “catastrophe”).

If those same subjects were NOT identified with a singular thing, they would be construed as plural:

“Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” … “His chief supporter and best friend were witnesses for the defense” … “Macaroni and cheese belong to different food groups” … “Their separation and divorce were followed by a reconciliation.”

In standard dictionaries, by the way, “real time” is still two words when used as a noun; the adjective is hyphenated: “real-time.”

But a Google search in real time finds that millions of people like to mush together the noun and adjective as “realtime.”   

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Grammar Usage

Back to the future

Q: I’m among the masses who use “going to” and “will” interchangeably. I didn’t think much about it until a friend from China asked me for help on her ESL homework. What is the difference between these two usages?

A: The most common way of expressing a future action is by using “will” plus an infinitive (“I will study tomorrow”).

But there’s another way: “be going” plus an infinitive (“I am going to study tomorrow”).

This second method, the Oxford English Dictionary says, has been in use in one sense or another since the 1400s.

At first, according to the OED, it meant on the way to, preparing to, or tending to, but it’s now used as a more colloquial way of “expressing immediate or near futurity.”

Both methods are perfectly legitimate, though there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them.

The most obvious is that “will” is followed by a bare infinitive (like “study”) while “be going” is followed by “to” plus the infinitive.

Another obvious difference is that “will” stays the same through all conjugations (“I will … he will … they will study”), while “be going” does not (“I am going… he is going … they are going to study”).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language goes into considerable detail about “will” versus “be going.”

We’ll try to summarize, using our own examples (with apologies to the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum).

(1) As far as style goes, “be going” is “relatively informal,” while “will” is neutral. So “I’m going to call her” may sound more casual than “I will call her.”

(2) A wider variety of expression is possible with “be going” than with “will.” For example, “I may be going to study,” or (casting the future into the past) “I was going to study,” “I had been going to study,” and so on.

(3) There’s often more immediacy with “be going” than with “will.” A sentence like “You’re going to fall!” implies NOW! It conveys more urgency than “You will fall!”

(4) Sometimes “be going” implies a simple intention (“He’s not going to come”) while “will” implies willingness or volition (“He won’t come”).

There’s another question hidden in this discussion. We can express future time in English, but do we really have a future “tense” in the strict sense of the word? 

Grammarians have traditionally viewed “will” as the sign of the future tense in English.

But modern academic grammarians take another view. They believe that technically English has no future tense, only present and past.

These grammarians say the word “will” in a future construction is an auxiliary verb in the same category as “can,” “may,” “must,” and others.

Future actions, they say, are expressed by tweaking the infinitive or some form of the present tense with an auxiliary (“He will leave”), or with “be going” (“He is going to leave”), or with an adverb or adverbial phrase (“He leaves tomorrow,” “He’s leaving at 4”).

And sometimes, no tweaking is necessary. A sentence like “If he goes, I go” implies future action but uses only present-tense verbs.

Here’s what scholars of grammar are saying today about tense and future time.

In the Cambridge Grammar, Huddleston and Pullum write, “While there are numerous ways of indicating future time, there is no grammatical category that can be properly analysed as a future tense.”

In The Oxford English Grammar, Sidney Greenbaum writes, “Strictly speaking, English has only two tenses of the verb—present and past—if tense is defined as being shown by a verb inflection.”

Future time, Greenbaum says, is most commonly expressed in a verb phrase with “will” or “be going.”

These grammarians have a point. Clearly, if English had a true future tense, we wouldn’t need the auxiliary “will” to express it.

A verb (“know” for example) would have a future form with the inflection built in, so we could say (in effect) “I will know” with a single verb, like speakers of Spanish, Italian, and French.

The Spanish, for example, say it with sabré, the Italians with saprò, and the French with saurai.

But for most of us, the question whether English has a true future tense or merely has other means of expressing future action is largely academic.

The language hasn’t changed, only perhaps our way of looking at it.

For the sake of convenience and readability, here at The Grammarphobia Blog we’ll continue to describe “will” verb phrases as examples of the future tense.

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Q: The following sentence appeared in the New York Times: “Woe to he who seeks truth therein.” That “he” sounds wrong, but “him” sounds wrong too. If I were the copy editor, I’d say rewrite the whole sentence. What is your expert opinion?

A: We answered a similar question not long ago on the blog, but it’s a slow day so we’ll do this one too

The sentence in the Times should have read: “Woe to him who seeks truth therein.”

In fact, a search of the Times archive from 1851 to the present didn’t find the incorrect sentence.

The correct sentence does appear, however, in the online version of The Ethicist column published in the April 17, 2011, issue of the Times Sunday Magazine.

We didn’t read the column in the physical magazine, so we don’t know if the incorrect sentence appeared in print and was corrected online.

But getting back to that sentence, there are actually two clauses involved.

The principal clause is “Woe [be] to him” and the dependent clause (modifying “him”) is “who seeks truth therein.”

The sentence could have been recast with the nominative “he” if it had read: “He who seeks truth therein will not find it.” As it is, the sentence calls for a pronoun in the object case (“him”).

The correct sentence isn’t that weird. Think of the old proverb “Evil to him who evil thinks” (Honi soit qui mal y pense):

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Meet Pat today in Manhattan

She’ll be at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, at 6:30 p.m.

Pat will speak and answer questions about “How Words Evolve: A Darwinian Look at the English Language.” Admission is free.

Most of us don’t think of our language as a living creature. But like the beaks of finches or the wings of fruit flies, English words have evolved over time.

In her talk, Pat will discuss how new words are formed, how old ones change, and even how the dinosaurs among them become extinct.

It’s no accident that the title of her latest book—Origins of the Specious—has a Darwinian flavor!

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English language Etymology Linguistics Usage

Tricks our ears and tongues play on us

Q: I enjoyed your posting about Archie Fisher snow, but I’d like explanations of the various howlers: malapropisms, spoonerisms, mondegreens, and eggcorns.

Over the years, we’ve written on the blog about the tricks our ears and tongues play on us, and about the various species of bloopers that result.

But maybe it’s time to say something about the major ones in a single posting.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we devote a chapter (called “In High Dungeon: And Other Moat Points”) to these amusing accidents of nature.

Here’s a sampling from the book:

“We’re often more creative at abusing language than using it, and as you might expect we have names for the various species of abuse. Mixing up two similar-sounding words (like ‘synecdoche’ and ‘Schenectady’) is called a malapropism (from the French mal à propos, or inappropriate). The name was popularized by a character in The Rivals, an eighteenth-century play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Just about every time Mrs. Malaprop opens her mouth, she bobbles her words. She wants her niece, Lydia Languish, to marry for money instead of love, but Mrs. M complains that the reluctant young woman is ‘as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.’ She regrets that ‘my affluence over my niece is very small,’ but she praises the stubborn Lydia as ‘an object not altogether illegible.’ When her eloquence is called into question, Mrs. Malaprop exclaims: ‘Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!’

“If malapropisms tickle your fancy, then spoonerisms ought to tickle your funny bone. A spoonerism, a slip of the tongue in which parts of words are switched around, is a ‘different fettle of kitsch,’ as the essayist Roger Rosenblatt once put it. The term comes from William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), a scholar, dean, and warden at New College, Oxford. He was known for his slips of the tongue, though most of those attributed to him (like ‘It is kisstomary to cuss the bride’) are apocryphal. In fact, many of the spoonerisms I’ve come across weren’t slips at all but the deliberate work of punsters. One of my favorites is the songwriter Tom Waits’s quip, ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.’ Of course, we don’t have to search far to find legitimate slips of the tongue. Here’s one from our forty-third president: ‘If the terriers and bariffs are torn down, the economy will grow.’

“If you like rock music, you’ve probably misheard a lyric or two. There’s also a name for this one. A mondegreen is a misunderstanding in which a familiar song lyric, bit of poetry, or popular expression is misinterpreted or misheard. Many schoolchildren, for example, have begun the Pledge of Allegiance with ‘I led the pigeons to the flag,’ and sung in church about ‘Round John Virgin’ or ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.’ The term ‘mondegreen’ was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who’d misheard an old Scottish ballad when she was a child. What she heard was ‘They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, / And Lady Mondegreen.’ The real second line was ‘And laid him on the green.’ Rock songs are a rich source of mondegreens. Creedence Clearwater fans, perhaps under the influence of controlled substances, have heard ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’ instead of ‘There’s a bad moon on the rise.’ And many a Jimi Hendrix audience used to join in and sing ‘ ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of ‘while I kiss the sky.’ After a while, it became a running joke and even Hendrix joined in. He’d sometimes point to a guy onstage—his bassist, Noel Redding, for instance—while singing the mondegreen version.

“The linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term ‘eggcorn’ to describe another kind of blooper: mistaking a word or phrase for a similar-sounding one. The expression was inspired by a woman who used ‘egg corn’ for ‘acorn.’ Think of ‘duck tape’ (for ‘duct tape’) or ‘tough road to hoe’ (it’s ‘row,’ not ‘road’) or ‘tow the line’ (nope, ‘toe’).”

And now we’ll stop, before the subject gets deader than a doorknob.

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Grammar Usage

Which craft

Q: Can you explain to me what “in which” means in the phase “the way in which”? I find that just dropping “in which” or simply replacing it with “that” does the trick admirably.

A: The pronoun “that” has many uses. Among other things, it can be used to mean “in which,” “on which,” “with which,” or “by which.”

For example, the phrase “the way in which” means the same thing as “the way that.”

In these phrases, “in which” is grammatically equivalent to “that.” And, as you say, “way” often works by itself, without adding either “in which” or “that.”

So these sentences have the same meaning: “I didn’t like the way in which he expressed himself” … “I didn’t like the way that he expressed himself” … “I didn’t like the way he expressed himself.”

The sentence you choose here is a matter of preference. A writer is free to pick whatever best conveys the meaning and seems most compatible with what’s being written—its degree of formality and so on.

But with words other than “way,” there are times when “in which” is the natural usage. In none of these sentences, for instance, would you substitute “that” for “in which”:

“John was criticized for the manner in which he left his wife.”

“It was a tumor, in which case surgery was needed.”

“She likes to read German, in which she’s fluent.”

“Diamond-cutting is a task in which a steady hand is called for.”

“There were three accidents last week in which people were killed.”

“In which month is Veterans Day?”

“Fossiliferous stone is rock in which fossils are found.”

“His advice was to sell early, in which he was proved right.”

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Grammar Usage

You know not what you do

Q: “You not know” may sound like pidgin, but is it any less grammatical than “You know not”?

A: The word “not” can be knotty. The reason “you not know” isn’t grammatical is that in a negative statement, “not” generally follows a verb.

“Not” follows the primary verb if you use only one (as in “you know not” … “I was not” … “I wasn’t”).

“Not” follows the auxiliary or helping verb otherwise (“you do not know” … “you don’t know”… “you didn’t know” … “I haven’t been”).

A construction like “you know not” sounds a bit lofty or Elizabethan now, since the common tendency these days is to use the auxiliary “do.” Most of us would say, “You do not know” or “You don’t know.”

Similarly, unless we’re being poetic or highfalutin, we say things like “Don’t speak” and “Don’t go” instead of “Speak not” and “Go not.”

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Etymology Spelling Usage

No, it’s not spelled d-i-l-e-m-n-a

Q: You say in Origins of the Specious that “dilemma” is the proper spelling of the word for a situation with unpalatable choices. I’ve always spelled it “dilemna” and that’s the spelling in a Modern Library paperback of Robinson Crusoe that claims to follow the original 18th-century edition except for the long s’s. Any help?

A: The proper spelling of the word is and always has been “dilemma,” not “dilemna.”

Besides writing about the misspelling in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, wee discussed it in a 2008 blog posting.

The misspelling does turn up in print, though rarely. We’ve found two 1719 printings of Robinson Crusoe online that spell the word with an “n,” which has to mean that either Defoe or his printer made a mistake.

We think the error was the printer’s, because Defoe correctly spells “dilemma” in some of his earlier works.

For example, he used the word in An Essay Upon Projects (1697). Here’s the passage, in a section about unfortunate widows:

“ … the Poor Young Woman, it may be, has Three or Four Children, and is driven to a thousand shifts, while he lies in the Mint or Friars under the Dilemma of a Statute of Bankrupt; but if he Dies, then she is absolutely Undone, unless she has Friends to go to.”

And here it is again, in Defoe’s novel The Compleat Mendicant, or, Unhappy Beggar (1699):

“Being now deliver’d from this strange Dilemma, which, notwithstanding, had exhausted all my Stock; Moneyless, Friendless, and Disconsolate I wander from one place to another….”

Both of those quotations were copied from facsimile pages, as originally published, and available in the Early English Books Online database. We’ve left out Defoe’s italics and the long s’s that look like f’s.

The word appears only once, early on, in Volume 1 of Robinson Crusoe.

There were six authorized editions of the novel published in 1719 (we found only two of them), and at least some had “errata” that were later corrected.

The two early versions we found were both published in 1719 by W. Taylor in London, one labeled “third edition” and one “fourth edition.”

Here’s how the relevant passage reads in both of them:

“In this Dilemna, as I was very pensive, I stept into the Cabin, and sat me down, Xury having the Helm, when on a sudden the Boy cry’d out Master, Master, a Ship with a Sail … (again, we didn’t reproduce Defoe’s italics or those picturesque long s’s).

The spelling is corrected to “dilemma” in every later edition of the book that we’ve been able to find, from the 1790s onward.

Robinson Crusoe was wildly popular from the beginning, and those early authorized editions were followed by scores of others.

In some, publishers took great liberties, making cuts and changing Defoe’s wording, phraseology, paragraphing, and more.

But later, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, versions appeared that were advertised as authentic and based on the original texts. All of the them that we found used the correct “dilemma” spelling.

For example, “dilemma” was used in editions published in London in 1810 and 1815 that restored Defoe’s original wording (as quoted above).

Another edition, published in London in 1866 with antiquated spellings and capitalizations, uses “dilemma.” This edition claimed to be “edited after the original editions,” and the editor said it had been collated from the 1719 texts.

That 1866 edition is virtually identical to two others (London, 1882 and 1905), both claiming to have been taken from the 1719 texts and edited by the Victorian novelist Henry Kingsley.

In summary, all of those early versions said to be “edited after the original” used the correct spelling of “dilemma.”

We haven’t seen the Modern Library paperback. If, as you say, the editors used the incorrect spelling, we can only note that the editors of other “authentic” editions chose to use the correct spelling.

In case you’re interested, Michael Quinion has written about the “dilemma/dilemna” phenomenon on his website World Wide Words.

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Etymology Punctuation

With malice toward none

Q: On a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial in DC, I noticed that there were no commas in the Second Inaugural Address carved into the wall. There are dashes and periods, but no other punctuation. Did writers of the time not use commas?

A: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has plenty of punctuation—commas, semicolons, periods, and dashes.

At least it did when he wrote it. For example, here’s the concluding paragraph of the speech, as written:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

You can see images of Lincoln’s manuscript of the speech, in his own handwriting, at the Library of Congress website.

Of course, mid-19th-century prose had a lot more semicolons than we use today. When the speech is reproduced these days, the punctuation is usually somewhat simpler, with commas replacing the semicolons.

But the version engraved at the Lincoln Memorial is simpler still.

Both the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address are engraved at the site in their entirety. And, as is usual with public memorials, the engravers have done their best to make the writing unreadable.

The speeches are rendered in all capital letters, with paragraph indentations barely visible and punctuation reduced to a minimum. The website of the National Parks Service has an image of the speech as engraved.

See what we mean? The stone inscription certainly doesn’t invite readers in, to say the least. And that’s too bad.

The Second Inaugural is one of the most powerful and stirring speeches in our history. Lincoln delivered it on March 4, 1865, during the final days of the Civil War. Little over a month later, he was assassinated.

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Grammar Usage

‘We the people’ v. ‘us the people’

Q: Populists often stress democratic values by invoking the phrase “we the people,” but lately they’ve taken to using it not just as a subject but as an object as well. Thus: “We must never allow [insert villain] to trample on we the people!”

A: “We the people” is a subject; “us the people” is an object. Here’s how they look in sentences:

“We, the people, elect our leaders. Our leaders are elected by us, the people.”

In both of those noun phrases, “the people” is an appositive. It identifies or explains the preceding noun or pronoun by using a different term (like the name in “My son, John”).

We’ve written on the blog before about appositives, which are sometimes surrounded by commas, as in our examples above.

An appositive never changes the case (that is, subject or object) of the pronoun it follows. That’s why the entire phrase “we the people” is always a subject and “us the people” is always an object.

The words “we the people” resonate with Americans because they introduce the Preamble to the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

If ever a phrase deserved proper handling, it’s “we the people.”

It’s demeaned when misused as a grammatical object (as in, “Don’t trample on we the people!”).

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Etymology Usage

The fundamental things apply

Q: I recently ran into three uses of “principal” where it should have read “principle.” All were in distressingly unexpected contexts: a book on ethics by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, and an article about the resignation of Cathie Black as Schools Chancellor in NYC.

A: A lot of people have trouble keeping these two words straight.

A “principal” is a leading figure (the head of a school, for example) and plays a “principal” (that is, a leading) role. A “principle” is a rule or a standard.

Pat uses a time-honored memory aid in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I: “If you’re good at school, the principal is your p-a-l.”

You’re right that many educated people use “principal” to mean “principle” these days, but this isn’t a recent phenomenon.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references going as far back as the mid-16th century for the use of “principal” to mean a primary or fundamental point.

The earliest citation is from The Exposicion of Daniel the Prophete (1545), a work of biblical commentary by George Joye:

“Let euery diligent reder knowe hymselfe miche to haue profited, if he but the cheif principalls vnderstand, although it be but meanly.”

The OED notes that the use of “principal” in this sense “is common as a non-standard spelling of principle from the 20th cent. onwards.”

In standard English, though, a “principle” is still a rule. In other words, the fundamental things apply as time goes by.

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English language

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

Why an annoying person is a pill

Q: Why is an unpleasant person called a “pill”? For example, “So and so is a real pill.”

A: As you might suspect, this slang use of “pill” comes from medicine.

The word “pill” in its medical sense has been around since at least the late 1300s. It ultimately comes from the Latin pillula, which in classical times meant a little ball or pellet and in medieval times also meant a bullet.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the medicinal “pill” is from an English translation of a Latin medical text, Guido Lanfranc’s Science of Cirurgie. The OED dates the translation to sometime before 1400.

Here’s the quotation: “He schal ofte be purgid with pillis.” (The “th” in “with” was actually a runic letter called a thorn.)

The original meaning, according to the OED, was “a small compressed ball or globular mass containing a medicinal substance, intended to be taken by mouth and usually of a size convenient for swallowing whole.”

A note in the OED adds: “Pills were originally made by mixing the drug with an inert substance and rolling it into a spherical shape.”

In the mid-1500s people began using the word to mean any remedy or solution, especially an unpleasant one that had to be endured.

That meaning gave us the expression “bitter pill,” as in this quotation from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814): “Mrs. Rushworth will be very angry. It will be a bitter pill to her.”

Since the middle of the 19th century, writers have been using “pill” to refer to people who are hard to swallow for one reason or another.

A person might be called a “pill” for being unpleasant, foolish, boring, weak, or otherwise difficult to take.

The OED cites an example from Carry on, Jeeves! by P. G. Wodehouse: “What’s to be done? … That pill is coming to stay here.”

When Pat was growing up in Iowa the word was often used affectionately. If her grandparents said, “What a pill!” they might be referring to someone with a mischievous or irrepressible sense of humor.

However, we haven’t found this affectionate sense of the word in slang dictionaries.

“Pill” has had many other slang meanings over the centuries. Among things that have been described as “pills” are baseballs, basketballs, billiards, cigarettes, doctors, the testicles, and even (in an echo of medieval Latin) bullets.

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Etymology Usage

The incident room

Q: A story on the other day referred to more than 1,300 “incidences” of severe weather and damage. I sent the website a brief note that it should have been “incidents.” You may wish to address this on your site.

A: We think the confusion in using “incident” and “incidence” can be traced to two problems.

First, writers mix up “incidence” (singular) with “incidents” (plural) because they sound alike as spoken.

This is why journalists often put the wrong words into people’s mouths when quoting them, and consequently why the Internet is rife with misusages.

Second, people don’t understand the difference between the singulars, “incident” and “incidence.”

Both words entered English in the 15th century by way of French, but they’re ultimately derived from the Latin incidere (to fall into, fall upon, happen).

Over the years, the two words have shared several meanings, including the one in that weather story.

The adjective “incident,” also from the 15th century, is largely used today in technical and legal writing. For most of us, it may bring to mind a phrase familiar in crime fiction: “incident room.”

In modern usage, the nouns “incident” and “incidence” have different principal meanings, but the words overlap a lot, and seem to be growing more alike.

Let’s begin with their main senses in contemporary English.

An “incident” is a definite and separate occurrence—that is, an event of some kind, as in “I reported the incident to the police,” or “The commission reviewed three incidents of harassment.”

An “incidence” refers to the frequency or rate of an occurrence, as in “The incidence of measles has declined.”

The plural “incidences” is seen mostly in scientific writing, as in “This graph plots the incidences and risk factors for four diseases.”

However, “incidence” is often used to refer to an occurrence in a general way. An example in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) refers to someone who “did not expect criticism and was surprised by its incidence.”

And an example in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online uses the word in the plural to mean separate occurrences: “There have been quite a few incidences of bullying in the school this year.”

Obviously, the difference between “incident” and “incidence” is fuzzy and getting fuzzier.

Nevertheless, we would use “incident” for a specific occurrence of something and “incidence” for the rate or frequency of an occurrence.

So if we were writing that Accuweather story, we’d refer to more than 1,300 “incidents” of severe weather and damage.

For anyone needing a good rule of thumb, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has one:  “Wherever incidence appears where incident would fit, a switch is probably in order.”

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Etymology Usage

Is our writing lame?

Q: I’m surprised that you use the word “lame” in Origins of the Specious to mean bad. I taught a student with cerebral palsy and this use of “lame” seems insensitive to me. But perhaps it has nothing to do with actually being disabled.

A: You raise an interesting question. Is the use of “lame” in a figurative sense (as in “a lame argument” or “a lame excuse”) insensitive or politically incorrect?

We certainly didn’t intend to be insensitive when we used the word in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. (We called a false etymology of the name Fiat “pretty lame”).

But we’re glad you brought this up, since it gives us a chance to examine the word more closely.

The word “lame,” which is extremely old, was written as lama or loma when it was first recorded in Old English in the year 725.

As for its ancestry, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that there were corresponding words in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High and Middle High German, and Old Norse. And there’s a connection with Old Church Slavonic, in which lomiti meant to break.

When “lame” first came into English, the OED says, it meant “disabled or impaired in any way; weak, infirm; paralysed; unable to move.”

This meaning is now considered obsolete, but a similar sense developed around the year 1000.

The OED defines this later meaning as “disabled through injury to, or defect in, a limb; spec. disabled in the foot or leg, so as to walk haltingly or be unable to walk.”

The word was first used this way by the Benedictine abbot and scholar Aelfric in his Lives of Saints, and this is what the word still means today in its literal sense.

But a figurative usage emerged in the 1300s. The OED defines this figurative sense as meaning “imperfect or defective, unsatisfactory as wanting a part or parts. Said esp. of an argument, excuse, account, narrative, or the like.”

Chaucer was the first to use the word in an other-than-literal way. In his short poem A.B.C. (circa 1366), he used the phrase “in soule to be lame” (that is, to be lame in one’s soul).

Chaucer later wrote, in his long poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374): “Disblameth my yf ony word be lame. For as myn auctor seyde so sey I.”

(A modern version: “I pray you meekly not to blame me if any word might be lame, for just as my author said, I say the same.”)

The word has been used in this figurative way ever since. Here are a few of the examples cited in the OED.

“O most lame and impotent conclusion,” from Shakespeare’s Othello (before 1616).

“I will not contend much with him about the Proposition, which is lame to the ground,” from John  Canne’s A Necessitie of Separation From the Church of England (1634).

“Tables, or other Repertories … are oftentimes short, and give a lame account of the Subject sought for,” from Sir Matthew Hale’s Preface to H. Rolle’s Abridgment (1668).

“Our Argument … will be very lame and precarious,” from Richard Bentley’s A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris (1699).

“The Theory of Comets, which at present is very lame and defective,” from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726).

“Her account was so lame and imperfect, that Mrs. Mourtray lost all patience,” from Elizabeth Hervey’s novel  The Mourtray Family (1800).

“His grammatical construction is often lame and imperfect,” from William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets (1818).

You’ve heard the expression “lame duck” used to mean an officer-holder who’s been defeated in an election or can’t serve another  term. This American expression dates from the early 20th century.

For example, the OED cites an article that ran in the New York Evening Post in December 1910.

“Lame Duck Alley,” according to the article, was a name reporters gave to “a screened-off corridor in the White House offices, where statesmen who went down in the recent electoral combat may meet.”

But “lame duck” had been used earlier, in 18th-century England, to refer to someone defaulting on a debt. And a still earlier use of “lame” to mean “behind time” originated in Britain in the mid-1600s. For example, news or tidings that arrived “by the lame post” was late or outdated.

All these figurative meanings led to another, one that’s become ubiquitous in modern slang.

In this newest sense, the OED says, someone who’s “lame”  is “inept, naive, easily fooled; spec. unskilled in the fashionable behaviour of a particular group, socially inept.”

This usage was first recorded in 1942, according to the OED, which labels it “slang” and says it originated in the US.

One OED citation quotes the linguist William Labov, who wrote in his book Language in the Inner City (1972): “To be lame means to be outside of the central group and its culture.”

Another quotes an article from a London newspaper, the Sun: “This DJ is lame.”

To sum up, it would appear that in modern times, figurative uses of “lame” to mean (more or less) ineffectual or out of it are so common as to be routine.

Meanwhile, use of the word in its literal sense—that is, having difficulty in walking—seems to have declined. People who are literally lame don’t often describe themselves as such, and many resent the term.

At least this is the impression we’ve gotten after visiting several websites for people with disabilities.

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Etymology Spelling

Shtick figures

Q: “Shtick” or “schtick”? And why? Both words return about the same number of search results in Google, so I guess one is a variant of the other, with each being common enough to be considered correct. But which is “more” correct?

A: The two standard dictionaries we consult the most list those two spellings, “shtick” and “schtick,” plus one more, “shtik.”

All three of the spellings are considered standard English. But which, you ask, is “more” standard?

Well, “shtick” is the first spelling given in both references, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Each of the dictionaries adds the following words: “also schtick or shtik.”

In dictionaryese, an “also” spelling out of alphabetical order (like “schtick”) and others that follow (like “shtik”) are considered secondary or unequal variants—spellings that occur less often but are still considered standard.

So you could perhaps describe “shtick” as “more” standard than the other spellings, though we wouldn’t and neither would the lexicographers at the two dictionaries.

Why so many spellings? Because the English word is borrowed from Yiddish, which is written in Hebrew letters and has to transliterated into our alphabet.

In Yiddish, a “shtick” is a piece, a part of something, a bit of misconduct, a trick, or an attention-getting gimmick used by an entertainer.

In English, it usually refers to a comic routine, a characteristic activity, an attention-getting trait, or a special talent.

The Yiddish term is derived from the German stück (a piece of something or a play in the theatrical sense), which is descended from similar words in old Germanic languages. In fact, the Old English word for piece is stycce.

Leo Rosten, who spells the word shtik in his 1968 book The Joys of Yiddish, also includes the diminutive shtikl, the “more diminutive” shtikeleh, and the plural shtiklech.

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Who put the kibosh on us?

Q: Why do we put “the kibosh” on something? I haven’t been able to find a good explanation for this on the Web.

A: Well, we can tell you a thing or two about “kibosh,” but we can’t give you a definitive explanation of its origin.

The word is usually seen, as you point out, in the expression “put the kibosh on” (meaning to put an end to something, finish it off, or put a damper on it).

The usage first showed up, as far as we know, in London during the 1830s. The earliest example in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Nov. 30, 1834, issue of the News:

“Ah! said Smith, as he left the office, this here hact vos the work of the ‘Vigs,’ and now the Duke of Wellington as put the ‘Kibosh’ on ’em, vich they never would have got, if they hadn’t passed it; that’s vot’s floor’d ’em.”

The word appeared a short time later in Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836). The quotation, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“ ‘Hoo-roa,’ ejaculates a pot-boy in a parenthesis, ‘put the kye-bosh on her, Mary.’ ” (Later editions have “kye-bosk,” the OED notes.)

Other spellings turn up in later OED citations.

Here’s one from a definition given in an 1846 issue of Swell’s Night Guide: “Kybosh on, to put the, to turn the tables on any person, to put out of countenance.”

And Punch, in 1856, printed it this way: “To put the cibosh upon.”

The word, as we know, put down vigorous roots in America. Here’s an 1889 quotation from The New York World, cited in Green’s Dictionary:

“From the present aspect of affairs it would seem that Mike has effectually Put the kibosh on adverse public opinion.”

“Kibosh” has also been used as a verb. But its usual form is the noun—thanks, probably, to the persistence of the phrase “put the kibosh on.”

The OED’s entry for “kibosh” says “origin obscure,” but adds, “It has been stated to be Yiddish or Anglo-Hebraic.”

Green’s Dictionary mentions (but with a question mark) a possible origin in “Heb. or Yid. kabas, kabasten, to suppress.”

That’s the most popular theory of the origin of “kibosh,” and in the end it may prove to be right.

The ethnic tone of that first published usage might hold a clue.

If that newspaper was (rather disrespectfully) quoting a Jewish Londoner, perhaps “kibosh” did originate with Hebrew or Yiddish.

And perhaps Yiddish-speaking immigrants brought the word to America later in the century.

Then again, linguists have pointed out that the speech rendered in that London newspaper might have been characteristic of Cockney or another native dialect of the time, as well as Yiddish or German.

In fact, other theories have been proposed about  the origin of “kibosh.”

As Green’s notes, Jack London wrote in 1897 that “kibosh” meant “utter discomfiture” in the Chinook language.

It’s also been suggested that the Irish Gaelic phrase cie báis (“cap of death”) might be the origin.

The Gaelic pronunciation sounds very similar to the usual pronunciation of “kibosh”: kye-bosh (either syllable can be stressed).

Yet another theory is that it comes from a word in Middle High German, kiebe (carrion).

Someday we may know the answer!

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage

An ædifying history

Q: I enjoyed your recent discussion of the diaeresis and other diacritical marks. How about the archaic form “æ”? Is it pronounced with one sound or two? Where is it from? French? German? Is it useful or just cute? Can it be properly written as “ae”? Should we wax nostalgic for æroplanes?

A: When the letters “a” and “e” are printed as one squished-together symbol—“æ”—they form what is known as a digraph (a two-letter symbol) or a ligature.

This symbol represents a diphthong—one sound gliding into another within the same syllable. (We mentioned diphthongs in that blog entry about the diaeresis.)

Words once spelled with “æ” are rarely seen that way today because their spellings have been modernized. And that’s largely because pronunciations have changed and those diphthongs no longer exist.

You mentioned “æroplane,” which is one way that word was spelled in the Wright brothers’ day. It was also spelled as “aeroplane” and sometimes as “aëroplane.”

The “ær” at the beginning of “æroplane” would have rhymed with “payer.” The full word would have been pronounced something like AY-er-o-plain.

Those early spellings (“æroplane,” “aeroplane,” “aëroplane”) reflected the fact that the first syllable had an audible diphthong. Now that it doesn’t, we spell the word “airplane.”

Similarly, the word “æon,” meaning a long period of time, became “aeon” and now is usually spelled “eon.” The word “æsthetic” became “aesthetic” and is now often spelled “esthetic.”

There are scores of other examples. In some cases, the former “æ” words are now spelled with two separate letters (“ae”). But in most, only one letter has been retained, usually the “e.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, English has had two different kinds of “æ” in its history, one from Old English and one from Latin.

The Old English “æ” was not a diphthong. It represented the sound of “a simple vowel, intermediate between a and e,” the OED says. This symbol died out by about 1300, when it was replaced in new spellings by “a,” “e,” or “ee.”

But another “æ” symbol—the one we’re talking about here—was introduced in the 16th century, this time in spellings of English words derived from Latin or Greek.

The symbol was used where the original diphthong was spelled æ in Latin or ?? in Greek.

But here again, the “æ” symbol didn’t last long in English.

As the OED explains, it had only etymological value—that is, it showed a word’s classical ancestry. Once these words became “thoroughly English,” the OED says, so did their spellings.

We still see both “æ” and “ae” in Latin and Greek proper names: “Æneas” and “Aeneas”; “Æsop” and “Aesop”; “Cæsar” and “Caesar.”

But most often the “æ” became “ae” and finally just “e.” Thus the word once spelled “ædify” is now “edify,” and “æther” is now “ether.”

One final example. The word originally spelled “encyclopædia” became “encyclopaedia” and finally, in most modern spellings, “encyclopedia.”

But in this case, says the OED, the whiff of antiquity clings to the word:

“The spelling with æ has been preserved from becoming obsolete by the fact that many of the works so called have Latin titles.”

The most familiar of these living relics is the Encyclopædia Britannica.

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The roots of cahoots

Q: I can’t seem to find the origin of the phrase “in cahoots.” Any idea?

A: One reason you can’t find the origin of “in cahoots” is that the origin has never been definitively pinned down.

There are two theories.

The one favored by the Oxford English Dictionary is that English got the expression from the Scots, with a little help from the French.

The OED says the “cahoot” in the expression is “probably” from the French cahute, meaning a cabin or a poor hut.

The French word, with the French meaning, was adopted into Scots English in the 16th century, but “cahute” was short-lived in English and is now labeled obsolete.

The OED’s only two citations for the usage are from the 1500s (the earliest is a 1508 reference to a “foule cahute”).

The word (if indeed it’s the same one) reappeared as “cahoot” in early 19th-century America, where the phrase “in cahoot” meant in partnership or in league with.

The first known use of the term in this sense appeared in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle on June 20, 1827:

“I ha’nt read newspapers for nothing–Gin’ral Government and the ministration are going in cahoot to undermine and overrule the undertakings of the free People of Georgia.” (This early sighting was reported in 2016 by the linguist Ben Zimmer.)

The OED’s first citation comes from Chronicles of Pineville, a collection of sketches about backwoods Georgia by William T. Thompson from the early 1800s (specific date unknown): “I wouldn’t swar he wasn’t in cahoot with the devil.”

The dictionary’s next quotation is from Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar in Familiar Lectures (1829): “Hese in cohoot with me.” (Kirkham lists it among provincialisms to be avoided.)

And the next, with the usual spelling, is from the Congressional Globe, predecessor of the Congressional Record. It’s from a speech delivered by an Ohio congressman, Alexander Duncan, on the floor of the House in February 1839:

“Only think of this! A rank Abolition Whig from the North in ‘cahoot’ with a rank anti-Abolition Whig from the South.”

The word “cahoot” apparently continued to be used in the singular for a couple of generations.

The OED’s first citation for the plural “cahoots” is from a manuscript diary of G. K. Wilder (1862): “Mc wished me to go in cahoots in a store.” And “cahoots” it’s been ever since.

The OED’s etymology makes sense, because being in on a scheme with someone is like being holed up in the same small cabin—much as we might use “in the same boat.”

There’s only one problem with this explanation. Where was “cahute” or “cahoot” for that missing 250 years or so between 1553 and the early 1800s?

As it happens, there’s another theory about the source of “cahoot.”

The OED notes that others have suggested an origin in the French cohorte, the source of the English “cohort,” which originally meant a band of soldiers.

But apart from the resemblance between “cohort” and “cahoot,” we haven’t found any evidence that would connect the dots and support that theory.

This leaves us a bit up in the air. But we’d like to think the OED is right, and imagine people “in cahoots” (old coots, perhaps?) as hiding out in a grimy hut and plotting together.

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 7, 2020.]

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

All right, this chick is toast!

Q: We were driving in Arizona when disaster struck. The engine of our classic Porsche 356 (a k a Holly) blew up. No injuries to us but Holly’s engine was toast! Which brings us to our question: Have you done research on this use of “toast”?

A: Yikes! Good luck finding a new engine. The 356 is a real classic, Porsche’s first production automobile.

As for your question, we probably have the actor Bill Murray to thank for phrases like “You’re toast” or “Oh no, we’re toast!”

When the movie Ghostbusters (1984) was filmed, Murray slightly altered the wording of the script, which was written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.

Playing the role of the ghostbusting parapsychologist Dr. Peter Venkman, Murray delivers the line as he’s preparing to fire his laser-like weapon at an androgynous apparition.

The line as written: “I’m gonna turn this guy into toast.”

The line as ad-libbed by Murray: “All right, this chick is toast.”

All this is explained in a note in the Oxford English Dictionary, which says the use of “toast” to mean “a person or thing that is defunct, dead, finished, in serious trouble, etc.,” originated with the movie.

“A considerable amount of the dialogue is ad-libbed,” the OED says, and Murray’s “toast” ad-lib is probably responsible for “the proleptic construction which has gained particular currency.”

A “proleptic” construction refers to something that hasn’t happened yet. For example, a talkative hit man, before pulling the trigger, says, “You’re history.” Or, an angry teen-ager, before storming away, says, “I’m out of here.”

In our opinion, Murray’s alteration made all the difference. There’s a huge semantic gulf between “I’m gonna turn you into toast” and “You’re toast.”

The OED’s next example of “toast” used in Murray’s sense of the word is from a quotation in the Omaha World-Herald (1985): “Shake, Fedya … because you’re toast!”

Carl Hiaasen wrote in his novel Skin Tight (1989): “I’m calling my banker in the Caymans and having him read the balance in my account. If it’s not heavier by twenty-five, you’re toast.”

And the 1994 script for the movie Clueless, written by Amy Heckerling, has another example: “You get your report card?” … “Yeah, I’m toast, you’ll never see me out of the house again.”

The OED also has a pair of “toast” citations that we might call “non-proleptic,” merely meaning that someone or something is … well … history.

In this kind of usage the damage isn’t merely anticipated—it’s already done (like what happened to your car).

Here’s an example from a 1991 issue of Sports Illustrated: “Soon their relationship was toast.”

And here’s the other, from a 2002 article in Mojo, a British music magazine: “Brian at that time was basically a hermit and, to put it mildly, toast.”

[Update: For more on Bill Murray and the  “toast” quote, see our later post.]

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Etymology Usage

Fascinator rhythm

Q: I grew up in England and moved to the US 30 years ago, but I never heard of the word “fascinator” until the recent royal nuptials. I’m curious to know if there’s any link between what is now, obviously, a piece of millinery whimsy atop a lady’s head and the notion of such headgear as being (somewhat) fascinating.

A: If you studied the crowds waiting outside Westminster Abbey for a glimpse of the royal couple, you probably saw lots of fascinators.

A fascinator, as we all know now, is a lady’s hat, but not just any kind of hat. It is (to quote you) “a piece of millinery whimsy.” And it is often over the top, if you’ll pardon the pun.

It’s generally concocted of things like feathers, flowers, beads, and lace, and it perches jauntily—rather like a bird—just above the forehead or off to one side.

Like many British women, Kate Middleton (now Catherine, Dutchess of Cambridge), has liked fascinators.

In fact, her liking for them has kicked off what the Wall Street Journal calls a “fascinator frenzy.”

If you have time, take a look at the Journal article, complete with a slideshow of (mostly) British ladies in their fascinators.

Since we associate fascinators with British women, it’s interesting that the word “fascinator” in the sense of headwear first appeared in 19th-century America.

Back then, though, a fascinator wasn’t as flashy as it is today.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the early “fascinator” as “a head shawl worn by women, either crocheted or made of a soft material.”

The term first showed up in print, the OED says, thanks to another Kate. In a letter written in 1878, the author Kate Douglas Wiggin recalled “Mother crocheting a fascinator.”

In another citation, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue for 1897 offered a “Ladies’ Fascinator, made of good quality Shetland yarn … colors, pink and white.”

The dictionary’s other citations for that early sense of “fascinator” extend into the 1960s, so it’s likely that the meaning of the old word was simply updated.

The OED doesn’t explain why those early head shawls were called fascinators, but we can guess.

Since they were often crocheted or made of lace, a lady could modestly cover her head and still peep out—shyly or provocatively—through the spaces in the material.

And an attentive gentleman could catch a glimpse of her shy or provocative eye. What could be more fascinating?

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Etymology Usage

Par for the course

Q: If people aren’t doing well—or feeling well—we say they’re “under par.” But shooting “under par” in golf is a positive thing, and not a negative. Any thoughts?

A: The term “par” comes from an identical word in Latin that means “equality” or “that which is equal.” (Think of “parity.”)

When it was first recorded in English, in 1601, “par” was a term in economics, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was short for “par of exchange,” a phrase that meant “the recognized value of the currency of one country in terms of that of another.”

Later, in the early 1700s, the term “par” acquired another financial meaning: “the face value of a share or other security as distinct from its market value,” the OED says.

So “at par” meant a price at face value; “above par” meant a price above that, or at a premium; “below par” meant at a discount.

Meanwhile, “par” acquired a more general meaning: “equality of value or standing; an equal footing, a level,” in the words of the OED.

And “on a par” meant equal or on the same level.

It’s not surprising that people in the late 1700s would begin using “par” in reference to health and well-being.

If you weren’t feeling quite up to scratch, you were feeling “under par,” and vice versa.

The OED’s first citation for this use of the word comes from a letter written in 1776 by Lady Hester Newdigate: “As to my Spirits they are rather above than below par.”

And since we never pass up a chance to quote P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a citation from his novel Quick Service (1940):

“Mrs. Chavender’s Pekinese, Patricia, had woken up that morning a little below par, and Sally was driving her and it to the veterinary surgeon in Lewe.”

(The OED replaced the Pekinese’s name with an ellipsis, but we think that anyone who’d drop “Patricia” must be dotty.)

When did golf enter the picture?

The term “par” was first used in the late 1880s to mean “the number of strokes which a scratch player should need for a hole or for a course,” the OED says.

The word “par” was also used as a noun meaning “a score of this number of stokes at a hole.”

Here’s the OED’s first recorded golfing use, from W. Simpson’s Art of Golf (1887): “He easily recalls how often he has done each hole in par figures.”

A more recent citation comes from the Times of London in 2000: “Westwood’s closing 71 took him to a total of 270, 14 under par.”

So when we say we’re feeling “a bit under par,” we’re not borrowing a golfing term. It was golfers who borrowed the word from common usage.

But we are using golf terminology when we say, “That’s par for the course.”

This figurative usage was first recorded in the 1940s, according to published references in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from short story in a 1947 issue of The Partisan Review:

“Nancy had married and moved to San Francisco and had had three children immediately. ‘Par for the course,’ said Seymour to Jasper.”

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