An etymology without papers

Q: I’m an Italian-American who’s offended by Jersey Shore, especially the ethnic slur “guido.” But I’m writing about another slur that often comes up in discussions about the show—“wop.” I always thought it was an acronym for “without papers,” but some people insist it means “without passport.” Which is correct?

A. Neither.

You’ll find a lot of etymological bologna if you google the word “wop.” Supposedly it’s an acronym for “without papers” or “without passport” or “works on pavement.” Nope, nope, and nope.

“Wop,” which originated in the United States, has been a derogatory term for an Italian since 1908. But it’s not an acronym and it has nothing to do with immigration documents.

As we point out in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, immigration documents weren’t even required of newcomers until 1918.

The word comes from guappo, a word in Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects that means a swaggering thug. It’s ultimately derived from the Latin vappa, or “sour wine,” a word the Romans used figuratively for a worthless guy.

Many people mistakenly believe that “wop” originated at Ellis Island, where inspectors supposedly used stamps or chalk or placards to identify immigrants without proper papers.

Although chalk markings were used to identify those with health problems (G for goiter, H for heart, L for lameness, and so on), the symbols didn’t include WOP.

Despite the absence of evidence, we write in Origins of the Specious, this myth has persisted even among Italian-Americans, who should know better.

In his autobiography The Good Life, the singer Tony Bennett says many illiterate immigrants arrived without the right documents.

“The derogatory term ‘wop,’ an acronym for ‘With Out Papers,’ would be stamped on the forms of these unfortunates, and officials would call out, ‘We have another “wop.” Send him home.’ ”

Well, he didn’t get his Grammys for etymology.

By the way, we mentioned in our recent posting about “posh” that acronyms were rare before the 1930s. The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has said “etymologies of this sort—especially for older words— are almost always false.”

One final note. Although many other Italian-Americans agree with you about the use of “guido” on Jersey Shore, the term was around long before the TV show.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the March 24, 1985, issue of the Record of Hackensack, NJ: “Russo proudly calls himself a ‘Guido,’ a term used in local discos to describe a guy who is flashy, macho, and cool.”

The OED describes the term as “US slang (usu. derogatory)” and defines it this way:

“A person regarded as socially unsophisticated, esp. one whose attire and behaviour are viewed as typically lower-class and suburban; spec. an Italian-American man, esp. one who is aggressively masculine and vain regarding his appearance and possessions.”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Why capitalize the “I” in “Internet”?

Q: Please explain why “Internet” is capitalized in print publications. I know of no other means of communication that is: “radio,” “television,” “telephone,” etc.

A. Although many publications do capitalize the first letter of the word “Internet,” many others don’t.

For example, the New York Times capitalizes it, but the Times of London doesn’t.

From what we can gather, US publications tend to capitalize the word while British publications tend to lowercase it.

Dictionaries, on the other hand—in both the US and the UK—generally capitalize the word when used to describe the interconnected system of networks that links computers around the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word is usually capitalized when used to refer to the global network that evolved out of ARPANET, the old Pentagon network.

The earliest citations for the word in the OED are from the 1970s, when it referred to “a computer network consisting of or connecting a number of smaller networks, such as two or more local area networks connected by a shared communications protocol.”

In these early examples—from 1974 and 1978—and a third example from 1981, the word “internet” is lowercase.

In all the later OED examples referring to the global network, the first letter of the word “Internet” is capitalized.

And we, as you’ve probably noticed, capitalize it on our blog.

But why did people begin referring to the global network as “the Internet” in the 1980s?

In Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (1996), Katie Haffner and Matthew Lyon offer one possible explanation:

“Because this growing conglomeration of networks was able to communicate using the TCP/IP protocols, the collection of networks gradually came to be called the ‘Internet,’ borrowing the first word of ‘Internet Protocol.’ ”

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English language Usage

From outhouse to our house

Q: Are you familiar with the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the scene where Grandpa Potts is carried off in an outhouse while singing the song “Posh”?  One line of the lyrics says: “Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh.” Really?

A: We weren’t familiar with the 1969 movie or the outhouse scene, but we are now, thanks to the miracle of YouTube.

As for your other question, the answer is no, not really. “Posh” is not an acronym for “port out, starboard home.” Although this belief is widespread, it’s folk etymology.

The designation “port out, starboard home,” according to legend, indicated the best (that is, the coolest) accommodations on a steamship voyage from England to India and back in the days before air-conditioning.

The tickets of well-heeled passengers were supposedly stamped “P.O.S.H.,” but no such ticket has ever been found.

In fact, the origin of the adjective “posh,” meaning smart or fashionable, has never been pinned down.

A slang noun “posh,” meaning a dandy, appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though it’s now considered rare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The adjective “posh” first showed up during World War I, but it wasn’t until decades later that anyone suggested it was an acronym.

Indeed, acronyms were rare before the 1930s, according to the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, and “etymologies of this sort—especially for older words— are almost always false.”

Sheidlower made his remarks in The F-Word, a book whose subject is the source of several false etymologies (“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” “Fornication Under Consent of King,” and so on).

We’ll end with a quote from one of our favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse. In The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), Bertie Wooster has this to say about the noted nerve specialist Sir Roderick Glossop:

“Practically every posh family in the country has called him in at one time or another, and I suppose that, being in that position—I mean constantly having to sit on people’s heads while their nearest and dearest phone to the asylum to send round the wagon—does tend to make a chappie take what you might call a warped view of humanity.”

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Neologisms: winners and losers

Q: In your posting about “serendipity,” one of my favorite words, you say it was coined by Horace Walpole, an 18th-century man of letters. Did he come up with any other goodies?

A. Walpole (the 4th Earl of Orford) invented lots of new words, but his one big success as a neologist may have been an example of serendipity, a happy accident.

He also invented his share of duds, like “muckibus” (drunkenly sentimental), “greenth” (green vegetation), and “nabobical” (nabob-like). Mercifully, they died with him.

We’ve talked about presidential neologisms on the blog, but this gives us a chance to make a point about literary neologisms in general. Not every one is a winner.

For every “serendipity,” there’s a “melophonist,” an invention by William Makepeace Thackeray that didn’t make the cut. (It meant a singer.)

When people talk about neologisms, they always focus on the success stories. But nobody talks about the losers.

Take Shakespeare, for instance. He cranked out a veritable assembly line of neologisms, from the prosaic to the sublime.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with 1,626 new words and phrases, and it would be hard to speak or write without using some Shakespearean neologism:

“amazing,” “awesome,” “beguiling,” “bow-wow,” “courtship,” “dawn,” “deafening,” “dwindle,” “educate,” “employer,” “eyeball,” “shooting star,” “upstairs” … you get the idea.

But even Shakespeare had his off days.

Few of us have heard—much less used—“lewdster” (a lewd person), “pudency” (bashfulness), “sprag” (clever), “acture” (taking action), “credent” (trusting), “immoment” (trifling), “shunless” (unavoidable), or “fustilarian” (a fat, frowzy woman).

Charles Dickens, too, was wildly inventive, and had his share of winners: “devil-may-care,” “sawbones” (for a doctor), “butter-fingers,” “boredom,” “rampage,” “flummox,” “tousled,” “kibosh” (as in “put the kibosh on”), “footlights,” and “dust-bin,” which is still the usual British term for a garbage can.

Yet he also came up with some clunkers, like “metropolitaneously” (in city-like fashion), “participled” (confounded), “ponging” (declaiming theatrically), and “pruney” (prim or affected).

It’s a shame that “pruney” didn’t survive. It had so much going for it—terse, evocative, exquisitely Dickensian—yet for some reason it was consigned to history’s dust-bin.

You might say that every word was a neologism once upon a time. Even “once upon a time” had to be introduced by somebody, and it was—by no less than Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages.

The OED defines a neologism as a word or phrase that’s “newly coined” or “new to the language.” And a neologist is “a person who coins or uses new words or phrases.”

So someone doesn’t have to invent a word out of the blue to be a neologist—just use it in writing before anybody else does.

In other words, our literary neologists didn’t necessarily cook up those new words. They just kept their ears open. Some of the words they recorded were immortal, some weren’t. We confess that we have a soft spot for the mortal ones.

If there’s ever a dictionary of failed literary neologisms, we’d like to nominate a few more candidates.

Let’s not forget John Milton’s “goosery” (silliness), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “pedoeuvre” (an action performed by the feet), Anthony Trollope’s “elsewards” (toward some other place), James Joyce’s “pelurious” (hairy), P. G. Wodehouse’s “oojah-cum-spiff” (all right). And finally, Graham Greene’s euphemism for a public toilet, “urinoir.”

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Idiot proof

Q: I realize this sounds idiotic, so feel free to ignore it. But after reading your posting about “idiom,” I keep thinking of a similarly spelled word, “idiot.” Any connection?

A: You’re right—there is a relationship here. And the connection isn’t as idiotic as it sounds.

As we said on the blog, “idiom” is ultimately derived from the Greek idioma, which in turn comes from idios (one’s own). So in the broadest sense an “idiom” is one’s own particular way of speaking.

But idios is also the parent of another Greek word, idiotes, which is the ultimate source of our word “idiot.”

The etymological link here isn’t as obvious, though, because in ancient Greece idiotes didn’t mean what our “idiot” means today.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Greek idiotes originally meant a private person.

“It was extended to the ordinary ‘common man,’ particularly a lay person without any specialized knowledge,” he writes, “and so came to be used rather patronizingly for an ‘ignorant person.’ It is this derogatory sense that has come down to English via Latin idiota and Old French idiot.”

English picked up the word from Anglo-Norman and Old French in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first evidence of the word in writing comes from the Wycliffe Bible of about 1384, in the plural form “idiotis.”

In the relevant passage, the apostles Peter and John are referred to as “men with oute lettris [without letters], and idiotis.”

At that time, the OED says, “idiot” meant “a person without learning; an ignorant, uneducated person; a simple or ordinary person.”

A new meaning in law and medicine developed around 1400, when “idiot” was used to mean someone profoundly disabled mentally or intellectually.

A less official (and highly subjective) usage developed in the late 1400s. The OED says that’s when people began using “idiot” to mean “a person who speaks or acts in what the speaker considers an irrational way, or with extreme stupidity or foolishness.”

Finally, to end on a kinder note, the Greek idios gave us yet another word. Combined with the Greek sugkrasis (mixture), it formed idiosugkrasis, the ancestor of our English word “idiosyncrasy.”

The original idiosugkrasis might be translated as one’s own mixture of traits or characteristics.

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

Is government the issue?

Q: I’m a reporter in the Midwest. The other day I did a story about local people in the military. I wanted to say the term “GI” is short for “government issue,” but the copy editor insisted it’s an abbreviation of “galvanized iron.” In the end, we took it out. Who’s right?

A: Both of you, depending on how the abbreviation is used. Here’s the story.

In the early 20th century, “GI” was a semiofficial US Army abbreviation for “galvanized iron.”

The term, dating back to 1907, was used in military inventories to describe iron cans, buckets, and so on, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

By 1917, however, “GI” began to take on a wider meaning.

In World War I, it was used to refer to all things Army, so military bricks became GI bricks and military Christmases became GI Christmases. Before long, we had GI soap and GI shoes and, eventually, plain old GIs.

A lot of people apparently felt this new usage needed a new family tree. So in the minds of many, “galvanized iron” became “government issue” or “general issue.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “GI” can be an abbreviation for all three, depending on how it’s used:

It stands for “galvanized iron” when used in a phrase like “GI can” (an iron trash can or a World War I German artillery shell). It’s short for “government issue” or “general issue” when referring to American soldiers or things associated with them.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also list all three as as the longer forms of “GI.”

The entry for “GI” in American Heritage sums up the etymology this way: “From abbreviation of galvanized iron (applied to trash cans, etc.), later reinterpreted as government issue.”

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 11, 2018.]

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Etymology Usage

Sackcloth and ashes

Q: In browsing The Devil’s Dictionary, I noticed that Ambrose Bierce’s entry on “Satan” describes the Prince of Darkness this way: “One of the Creator’s lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes.” What is “sashcloth and axes”?

A: The journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) was famous for his irreverent plays on words, and this one is a typical example.

When he wrote that the mistake was “repented in sashcloth and axes,” he was making a pun on the biblical phrase “sackcloth and ashes.”

“Sackcloth,” a word dating from the late 1300s, meant a coarse material from which rough sacks or bags were made, rather like our modern burlap.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, sackcloth was known as “the material of mourning or penitential garb … as the coarsest possible clothing, indicative of extreme poverty or humility.”

The phrase “in sackcloth and ashes” meant “clothed in sackcloth and having ashes sprinkled on the head as a sign of lamentation or abject penitence,” the OED says.

The phrase appears in the Tyndale Bible of 1526: “They had repented longe agon in sack cloth and asshes.”

In modern times, the phrase is sometimes used to mean that a person strongly regrets some past action and is now suffering the consequences.

A favorite author of ours, Anthony Trollope, often used the phrase this way. In the following passage from Phineas Finn, Lady Laura says she regrets her unfortunate marriage to Robert Kennedy:

“Of course I was wrong to marry him. I know that now, and I repent my sin in sackcloth and ashes.”

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Letting Gen. Hooker off the hook

Q: Please help! Is Fighting Joe Hooker, the Civil War general, responsible for the word “hooker”? I say he is (my source is Shelby Foote), but my girlfriend knows better (her source is Ann Landers) and she won’t budge.

A: Is Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a skirt-chasing Union commander who briefly led the Army of the Potomac, responsible for the word “hooker”?

Well, General Hooker’s hankering for prostitutes was so well known that he’s credited with inspiring the name of a red-light district in Washington, “Hooker’s Division.”

But, no, he didn’t give us the word “hooker.”

Shelby Foote was wrong when he wrote in volume two of The Civil War: A Narrative that “from this time on, the general’s surname entered the language as one of the many lowercase slang words for prostitute.”

As we say in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, streetwalkers were called “hookers” back in the 1830s, when the young general-to-be was still at West Point.

In 1835, the New York Transcript reported a courtroom exchange in which a female defendant complained that a witness had “called me a hooker.”

The word may ultimately come from the 16th century, when to “hook in” customers meant to draw them in, as with a hook. In those days, a “hook” or “hooker” meant a thief or a pickpocket.

Over the centuries, “hook” has appeared in many other figures of speech, including “hook, line, and sinker” (what a gullible sucker is likely to swallow) and “by hook or by crook” (a medieval expression for “by means fair or foul”).

And in recent years, of course, the innocent expression “hook up” has taken on a salacious meaning—to have casual sex.

By the way, Ann Landers (led astray by one of her readers) was initially wrong about the origin of the word “hooker.” A lot of other readers wrote in to let her know that General Hooker was off the hook.

She set the record straight in an Aug. 20, 1994, column: “I didn’t realize there were so many scholars who were interested in hookers.”

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Etymology Usage

Are you agin us?

Q: In a 2009 posting (yes, I’m a little behind), you say “again” is only an adverb now, though it used to be a preposition as well. But surely the preposition is still with us in the dialect word “agin,” as in, “If you ain’t with us, you’re agin us!” Just a thought.

A: The word “agin” is described in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) as a dialectal or regional variant of the preposition “against.”

American Heritage labels “agin” as a “chiefly Upper Southern US” regionalism.

But there’s more to the story. In their speech, some people commonly pronounce the adverb “again” uh-GIN, so it sounds as if it were spelled “agin.”

This widespread pronunciation isn’t dialectal or regional, in the opinion of Merriam-Webster’s editors. They include it among the standard pronunciations of the word. (American Heritage does not; it lists only uh-GEN.)

So the chances are that when you hear someone say “agin,” it’s either a regional version of the preposition “against” (as in “You’re either for us or agin us!”), or it’s just the way that person pronounces the adverb “again” (as in “They’ve done it agin!”).

What you’re probably NOT hearing is a surviving remnant of the defunct preposition “again.”

As we said our 2009 posting, “again” was once used for both the preposition and the adverb. But the old preposition “again” was replaced several hundred years ago by “against.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says that since the early 16th century, “again” has been used only as an adverb and “against” as a preposition in standard English.

Thus the prepositional use of “again” is now labeled obsolete or dialectal in the OED, and “again” survives in standard English only as an adverb.

(“In Scots and north English where against was not adopted,” the OED says, “again still retains all its early constructions.”)

The OED has two entries for “agin,” and both are labeled “dialectal” variants.

In one entry, the meaning is “again” (the adverb), a usage dating from 1815. In the other, the meaning is “against” (the preposition), a usage dating from 1768 and termed “widespread.”

Here are a couple of 19th-century examples, first the adverb and then the preposition:

“Blame my skin if I hain’t gone en forgit dat name agin!” (from Mark Twain’s The American Claimant, 1892).

“I’m unpleasant to look at, and my name’s agin me” (from W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics to H.M.S. Pinafore, 1878).

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Etymology Usage

A mariner to the bitter end

Q: I am a professional mariner with two decades under traditional sail. Despite your doubts, I feel that the nautical use of “bitter end” must be the source of its common usage. In days of old, when a ship in danger of being blown ashore got to the bitter end, the holding power of the anchor could be increased no more. If the hook did not hold, one would likely be on the way to a watery grave.

A: We appreciate your belief that the nautical “bitter end” led to the everyday usage, but until further evidence turns up, we’ll stick with what we wrote in our posting last May.

There are two uses of the phrase, the nautical and the everyday, and it appears that the similarity between them is a matter of coincidence, or serendipity.

(1) Nautical use: As we said in our posting, 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. In the 17th century, we quoted one seafarer as calling this “the bitters end,” meaning the line had reached the end of the bitters. It’s true, as you say, that a ship in this position might be in great peril and might indeed meet a bitter end in the everyday sense of the word.

(2) Everyday use: As the OED says, this sense of the phrase means “to the last and direst extremity” or “to death itself.” But it was first recorded IN THIS SENSE in the 19th century in other than nautical contexts, and might instead have been a reference to biblical citations. In the final analysis, the OED says the expression’s “history is doubtful.”

So, as we said, until further written evidence—from old books, diaries, letters, ship logs, or whatnot—surfaces, we can’t say more than this.

You may be right that the first use of the phrase led to the second, but unfortunately there’s no solid evidence at the moment.

Lexicographers take a very scientific approach in tracing etymological histories, and speculation or intuition has to give way to written evidence.

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Etymology Linguistics Usage

Can an idiom make sense?

Q: I was taught that the meaning of an idiom cannot be derived from the meaning of its words. For instance, “kick the bucket,” which refers to dying, not to kicking or buckets. But many expressions are called idioms even though they make some literal sense (“to keep an eye on,” for example). Doesn’t an idiom have to be nonliteral?

A: Your definition of “idiom” is a bit narrow. An idiomatic expression isn’t always nonliteral.

Broadly speaking, an idiom is simply a peculiarity of language. It’s an expression or some characteristic of speech that’s peculiar to a language, a region, a dialect, or a group of people.

For example an idiom can be, as you say, an expression that can’t be interpreted literally (as in “it’s raining cats and dogs,” or “he reached for the stars”).

But it could also be a speech form that’s grammatically unusual or that just doesn’t parse (“I could care less,” “that dress isn’t you”).

An idiom could be a specialized language or vocabulary used among a particular group of people—like doctors or journalists. Or it could be a particular regional or dialectal speech pattern.

And “idiom” is sometimes used in reference to artistic forms of expression (as in “the idiom of Greek Revival architecture” or “the idiom of Abstract Expressionism”).

The word “idiom” came into English in the 16th century from the French idiome, but its ultimate source is the Greek idioma, meaning a peculiarity or a peculiar phraseology. The root of the word is the Greek idios (one’s own).

In classical Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, idioma meant a “special term or phrase used by an individual or group.”

In post-classical Latin (from the 7th to 13th centuries), idioma came to mean a language, a peculiarity, a special property, a dialect, or a spoken form of language, the OED says.

When “idiom” first came into English, in 1573, it meant the individuality or character of a language.

But today when we use “idiom” in the linguistic sense, we generally mean (and here we’re quoting one OED definition) “a form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc., used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the word used in this sense is from a sermon, delivered by John Donne sometime before 1631, that cites “amen” as an example of an idiom:

“There are certaine idioms, certaine formes of speech, certaine propositions, which the holy Ghost repeats severall times, upon several occasions in the Scriptures. … How often does our blessed Saviour repeat his Amen, Amen?” (We’ve expanded the  citation.)

Donne was right. “Amen” (which we’ve written about on our blog) is a pretty good example of a form of expression used in a distinct way.

The OED does include the more specific sense of “idiom” you’re asking about: “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.”

In other words, the nonliteral truth!

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Comp time

Q: I’m an accountant in the office of the NYC Comptroller. When I look up the word “comptroller” in my dictionary, it simply says, “Variant of controller.” Isn’t “comptroller” a word?

A: Yes, “comptroller” is a word, but most dictionaries list it as a variant of “controller,” an officer who audits accounts and oversees the finances of a corporation or government agency.

In fact, the word “comptroller” began life as an illegitimate spelling back in the 15th century. Like many misspellings, it entered English through the back door, with a little help from meddlesome scribes.

We discuss this in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

The first English version of the word, borrowed in the 1200s from a French dialect, was “countreroullour,” someone who kept a counter-roll— a duplicate set of financial records against which the original figures were checked.

Over the next few centuries, we say in Origins, the word appeared in various forms, such as “conterroller,” “ counteroller,” “countrollour, “controwler,” and finally “controller.”

All those spellings had one thing in common: The first part of the word had something to do with a counter, or duplicate, set of records.

The beginning was derived from the Latin contra, meaning opposite or against, as in a copy that you check an original against.

In those days, however, scribes loved to tinker with English spellings at every opportunity, and the tinkerers often screwed up.

In this case, some misinformed scribblers thought the first part of the word had to do with counting rather than countering. So they decided to emphasize the numerical angle by beginning the word with “compt,” like the verb “count” in French (compter) or Latin (computare).

In 1486 a new spelling appeared: “comptroller.”

Some scholars believe the scribes were trying to Frenchify the word to make their bosses— the official auditors of the day— seem classier. Others think the intent was to make English more like Latin.

Either way, the scriveners were mistaken.

To this day, the word “comptroller” reeks of officialdom. Think Comptroller General, Comptroller of the Currency, Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. And, of course, Comptroller of the City of New York.

Although you can find “controllers” and “comptrollers” in both government and business, the more bureaucratic-sounding word seems at home in the public sphere.

Both words are legit. But if we had a choice, we’d go for “controller” (pronounced con-TRO-ler). Simpler is better.

If you work for a comptroller, though, you don’t have a choice. Or, rather, the only choice you have is how to pronounce your boss’s job.

COMP-tro-ler or comp-TRO-ler?

Either one is OK.

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Etymology Usage

How intimate is Dear Mr. Smith?

Q: There’s a debate on an editors’ listserv about the use of “dear” in salutations for business letters. Is it too intimate to address a client as “Dear Mr. Smith”? And what is the history of this word in correspondence?

A: We’ve had a small flurry of questions about letter-writing lately, including one about indenting the salutation and the following paragraphs. Maybe the epistolary tradition is having a comeback!

There’s nothing wrong with using “dear” in letter salutations, even in business correspondence. The use of “dear” doesn’t necessarily imply an intimate or affectionate connection, as we’ll explain.

The adjective “dear” is an ancient word. It was recorded (as deoare) in Old English as far back as around 725, when it meant precious, valuable, or costly.

But it has even older cousins in other Germanic languages. The ancestor of them all is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic word that scholars have reconstructed as deurijaz (costly), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The word “dear” (or its Old English equivalents) was applied to people early on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest meaning was esteemed or valued, not loved, the OED says, “but the passage of the one notion into the other is too gradual to admit of their separation.”

In addressing one another, English speakers have been using “dear” since the Middle Ages. And then, as now, the word could be used either intimately or formally.

For example, the OED has citations for its use “in addressing a person, in affection or regard,” dating back to the 1300s or perhaps earlier (as in “Father dear,” or “my dear friend”).

But the “dear” that we use in letters (and, if we’re so inclined, in emails) can be regarded as either intimate, friendly, or formal, depending on the context.

The tradition of using “dear” in letters dates from the mid-15th century.

It was first recorded, according to OED citations, in a letter beginning “Right dere and welbeloved,” written in 1450 by Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI.

As the OED says, uses of “dear” in letters—as in “Dear Father,” “Dear John,” and so on—“are still affectionate and intimate, and made more so by prefixing My.”

But, Oxford continues, “Dear Sir (or Dear Mr. A.) has become since the 17th c. the ordinary polite form of addressing an equal.”

And not just equals.

Our handy copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin, recommends that letters to dignitaries include greetings like “Dear Governor Stately,” “Dear Mr. President,” “Dear Mayor Tuff,” and (to a corporate bigwig) “Dear Mr. Pious.”

Who would dare argue with Miss Manners?

By the way, people still occasionally use “dear” in the old sense of pricey, as in “This Hermès ‘Kelly’ bag is gorgeous, but at $10,000 it comes very dear.”

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Etymology Usage

We’re on deadline

Q: I was thumbing through my M-W 11 for the fun of it (I’m easily entertained) when I noticed  that the first definition of “deadline” in the dictionary is “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” Whoa! I thought a deadline was when something must be done. Why is that only the second definition?

A: The next time you thumb through your dictionary, take a moment to look at the explanatory notes at the beginning. This may not be the most entertaining part of the dictionary, but it has its attractions.

You’ll learn, for example, that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists its definitions in historical order, not in order of popularity.

We’ve written about “deadline” in our book Origins of the Specious. It’s in a section about old words that have lost their original meanings and are now used figuratively.

The original deadline, it turns out, was a four-foot-high fence that defined the no-man’s-land inside the walls around the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, GA, during the Civil War.

Any captive Union soldiers who crossed the deadline were shot.

The word first appeared in an inspection report written in August 1864 by a Confederate officer, Lieut. Col. D. T. Chandler: “A railing around the inside of the stockade and about 20 feet from it constitutes the ‘dead-line,’ beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.”

After the war ended in 1865, Capt. Henry Wirtz, the commandant of the camp, was tried and hanged for war crimes.

Not until the early 20th century did “deadline” come to mean a time limit. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is in the title of a play about the newspaper business, Deadline at Eleven (1920).

This usage may have been influenced by a somewhat earlier sense of the word: a guideline marked on the bed of a printing press.

These days, as we all know, journalists aren’t the only ones with deadlines to meet.

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage


Q: On one of Pat’s WNYC segments, she was asked about the pronunciation of “street” as SHTREET. She mentioned that you have a posting on the blog about this, but I wonder if the pronunciation may have been influenced by German.

A: You bring up a very interesting point.

In standard German, the letter combination “st” is pronounced SHT at the beginning of a syllable. You can hear this when a German speaker says a word like strahlen (to shine), or a compound like überstrahlen (to outshine).

The same thing is true, by the way, with the German “sp,” which sounds like SHP at the beginning of a syllable. You can hear this in words like sprechen (to speak) and besprechen (to discuss).

This shushing, as if an “h” had been inserted, wasn’t always part of standard German. It apparently developed as a regional pronunciation in Upper Saxony and spread to other German dialects several hundred years ago.

Like most language changes, this shift in pronunciation met resistance along the way. In fact, we found a 1935 article showing that the SHT and SHP pronunciations were being discouraged by German-language instructors as late as the mid-19th century.

The article, written by Charles T. Carr and published in the Modern Language Review, examined books on German intended for English audiences in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Several of the grammar books and readers said that “st” and “sp” should be pronounced just as written, and warned against the Upper Saxon pronunciations SHT and SHP.

Yet for some reason the pronunciation not only thrived but is now standard German. Could this happen in English? Ours is a Germanic language, so this is certainly a legitimate question.

Already, as we said in our blog posting on the subject, many American speakers pronounce “st” as SHT and this is considered fairly common. Research has shown that this speech pattern is not regional but widely spread.

Nevertheless, we won’t go out on a limb and say this pronunciation is likely to become the standard, as it has in German. But we’ve observed a couple of interesting things about it.

First, for a lazy tongue it’s easier to say SHT than ST. That’s no doubt why people who’ve had a bit too much to drink tend to slur words like “street” as SHTREET and “spell” as SHPELL and “history” as HISH-try.

Second, one is apt to slur these words when speaking through clenched teeth, tough-guy style, as in gangster movies of the ’30s.

Did those Saxons of long ago speak with teeth clenched or jaws tensed, and is this how the pronunciation crept into German? Like you, no doubt, we’d love to know the answer!

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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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Taking aim at loopholes

Q: I saw this headline in the Orlando Sentinel the other day: “Time for Florida to close the Internet sales-tax loophole.” That got me to thinking. Why is a way to evade taxes called a “loophole”?

A: In the 1300s a “loupe,” later called a “loop hole,” was a small vertical slit in a castle wall for spotting enemies and shooting arrows at them.

The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from William Langland’s narrative poem Piers Plowman, written in the second half of the 14th century.

Here’s the citation in Middle English: “Eche chyne stoppe, þat no light leope yn at louer ne at loupe.” (Translation: “Let chain close every chink, so no light leaps in at louver or loophole.”

The word “loupe” probably came from a Middle Dutch word, lupen, meaning to lie in wait, watch, or peer, according to the OED.

The OED’s first citation for “loop hole” (later, “loop-hole” or “loophole”) is from William Garrard’s Art of Warre (1591): “That not one of the towne do so much as appeare at their defences or loop holes.”

In those days, an archer in a besieged town would shoot through a loophole in the defensive walls at the surrounding forces.

Today, of course, a loophole is usually an omission or ambiguity that gives you an opening to evade a legal provision.

This figurative sense of the word showed up in the 1600s, but we’ll cite an 1807 example from the writings of Thomas Jefferson:

“What loop-hole they will find in the case, when it comes to trial, we cannot foresee.”

And people have been taking aim at figurative loopholes ever since.

[Update, Feb. 2, 2014. A readers writes: “I am a military veteran. As such I’ve long been familiar with loopholes. You may be interested to know that the military still teaches this as an infantry tactic. It indicates a firing port that is usually deliberately formed in the wall of an edifice when fighting in an urban environment. This can be made between rooms, but the most common application is to allow the firer to shoot to the outside from inside the protection of a building.”]

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Etymology Pronunciation

Ode to schadenfreude

Q: During a recent appearance on WNYC, Pat committed one of her rare missteps: she pronounced the first syllable of “schadenfreude” as SHAY rather than SHAH.

A: Right you are. Pat did indeed misspeak on the air. The tongue and mind sometimes go their separate ways during a live radio broadcast.

We’ve written before on our blog about “schadenfreude.” The first syllable, as you point out, is pronounced like the “a” in “father.”

This is the only pronunciation given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word is a compound, from the German schaden (adversity) and freude (joy). The OED defines it as “malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the word in English is from On the Study of Words (1852), a collection of lectures by the philologist and Anglican clergyman Richard Chevenix Trench.

In the lectures, Trench points out a similar word in classical Greek: epikhairekakia. Aristotle uses the term in the Nicomachean Ethics to describe someone who takes pleasure in another’s ill fortune.

In discussing “schadenfreude,” Trench sounds more like a clergyman than a philologist:

“What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing.”

In our earlier posting about “schadenfreude,” we mentioned some of the more waggish takeoffs on the word.

An example is “blondenfreude,” for the glee we feel when a rich, powerful blonde gets her comeuppance.

We’d like to think that if Beethoven came back from the dead, he would compose an “Ode to Schadenfreude.”

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Wildlife preserve

Q: I make ­my own marmalade from oranges, lemon zest, and sugar. The other day I gave a jar of it to my aunt (an English teacher) and she told me that Mary Queen of Scots was responsible for the word “marmalade.” Is this true?

A: No, but a lot of people believe that Mary Queen of Scots was indirectly responsible for the name of this fruit preserve.

In fact, the actor Michael Caine fell for this story and mentioned it during a BBC interview a few years ago.

When Mary was ill, according to legend, her French-speaking attendants would bring her citrus preserves and say, “Ma’am est malade.

In some versions, the attendants said, “Marie est malade.” And sometimes the sufferer was Marie Antoinette.

The truth is that the word “marmalade” was around long before either Mary or Marie.

The first appearance of the word in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in a 1480 letter about a gift of oranges and marmalade, apparently sent to a student at Exeter.

So where does the word “marmalade” come from? It’s derived from marmelo, the Portuguese word for “quince,” which is what marmalade was originally made of.

“Close medieval trading relations between England and Portugal may account for the very early borrowing of the Portuguese word in English,” the OED says.

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Linguistics Usage

Is Google a linguistic hit?

Q: You repeatedly use Google frequency as an indicator of word value. On July 11, for example, you wrote that “insoluble” is more popular than “indissoluble” because it gets umpteen times as many hits. Why is Google now the language arbiter? Because it’s of linguistic value? Or because you (like most of us) find it’s easy?

A: By no means is Google a “language arbiter” or “an indicator of word value.” And we never say as much.

We consult Google for only one reason: it can provide evidence of written usage. If a particular usage gets a million-plus hits, this is certainly evidence that it’s in common use.

It’s possible for a language researcher to fine-tune a Google search and get some very interesting data.

For example, using the Google Ngram Viewer, you can research the use of a particular word or phrase in books (which, unlike the Internet as a whole, are edited).

You can then compare those results with the phrase’s frequency on the Internet as a whole. This would give you a rough idea of the phrase’s frequency in common usage as opposed to edited publications.

And Google Books is a very handy repository of searchable older (and sometimes newer) books.

We use it almost every day to find early examples of a usage or to expand on citations from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Google Timeline is another useful tool to find early examples of a usage, though it’s a bit clunky and you have to verify each citation before using it.

A recent search for the earliest appearance of the word “television,” for example, produced an inconceivable 1880 hit. Why?

It turns out that the word “television” and the date “1880” both appeared in a 1992 article in the Baltimore Sun about an upcoming biography of H. L. Mencken:

“He was born in 1880, when Geronimo was at his height, and he died after we had television and radio.”

Getting back to your question, does Google have linguistic value? In our opinion, it does.

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Muggy waters

Q: The weather forecast in Iowa City is for warm and muggy followed by the arrival  of … hot weather. We are wondering where the term “muggy” comes from.

A: There’s only one good thing we can say about “muggy”—it’s appropriate. It’s a dank and oppressive word for dank and oppressive weather.

The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary sums up “muggy” pretty well: “extremely humid; (unpleasantly) close and warm.”

“Muggy” probably has its origins in an obscure old verb, “mug,” meaning to drizzle or lightly rain.

The verb dates back to around 1400, the OED says, when it appeared in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated into modern terms, the citation reads: “Mist mugged on the moor.”

An equally obscure English noun, “mug,” dating from the early 1700s, means a mist or fog or drizzle as well as a dull, damp, or gloomy atmosphere.

Both forms of “mug,” the verb and the later noun, have their roots in early Scandinavian and are still heard as regionalisms in parts of Scotland and England.

The OED suggests that ultimately they came from the same Germanic root as “muck”—which also seems appropriate!

But getting back to “muggy,” it first showed up, according to OED citations, in the papers of White Kennett, a historian and bishop of Peterborough who lived from 1660 to 1728.

The bishop kept a manuscript collection of provincial words in which he wrote: “In Kent we call close cloudy hot weather, muggy weather.”

Before people used “muggy,” they might have used “muggish,” an adjective first recorded in 1655 and meaning damp and musty.

In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined “muggy” as meaning “moist; damp; mouldy.”

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Routing slips

Q: A question came up on the Leonard Lopate Show about the pronunciation of “route.” Pat said either ROOT or ROWT is correct. I beg to disagree. I am English. And, as any Englishman will tell you, there is only one proper pronunciation: ROOT.

A: The word “route” can be pronounced either ROOT or ROWT in the US.

This is true for both the noun, meaning a course or path, or the verb, meaning to send something by a specific course or path.

In Britain, though, only the first pronunciation is common for the noun and verb. But the British once had both versions too.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the second (ROWT) disappeared from standard British English sometime during the 19th century, “but is still widespread in North America.”

The noun “route” is very old, and was probably first recorded around 1225, the OED says.

It came into English by way of Anglo-Norman and Old French (rute or rote or route). But its ultimate source is the Latin rupta, which the OED says is short for the phrase via rupta (a broken way, or a road opened by force).

The Oxford editors, in commenting on the etymology of the word, also note that the Latin verb rumpere means to break, and rumpere viam means to open up a path.

Our word “routine” is a relative of “route.” And the English word “rut,” which originally meant the track left by a wheel, may have begun as a variant of “route,” according to etymologists.

The figurative sense of “rut,” meaning a narrow, dull, and habitual course or life or action, came along in the mid-19th century, the OED says.

The verb “route” is a relative newcomer, first showing up in the 1880s, according to published references in the dictionary.

The first citation in the OED is from an 1881 guide for stationmasters on the London & North Western Railway:

“To other passengers the old set of tickets, routed via Caledonian Railway, is to be issued.”

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Etymology Usage

Is capitalizing “I” an ego thing?

Q: I’m an American living in Norway. My Norwegian wife wonders why “I” is the only English pronoun that’s capitalized. Is this an ego thing?

A: English pronoun usages are interesting, to say the least! But there’s no egocentric reason why we capitalize the first-person pronoun “I.”

It’s written this way only because in a wilderness of letters, a small “i” might get lost or overlooked.

But this wasn’t always the case. In its earliest forms, the Old English pronoun was icih, or ich.

Citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show that as the word developed, it had a great many spellings, some starting with “h” or “y” in addition to “i,” but these were eventually shortened to a single, lowercase letter (i).

The capitalized “I” first showed up about 1250 in the northern and midland dialects of England, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers notes, however, that the capitalized form didn’t become established in the south of England “until the 1700s (although it appears sporadically before that time).”

Capitalizing the pronoun, Chambers explains, made it more distinct, thus “avoiding misreading handwritten manuscripts.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, offers an interesting historical note: “Essentially all the Indo-European languages share the same first person singular pronoun, although naturally it has diverged in form over the millennia.”

“French has je, for example, Italian io, Russian ja, and Greek ego,” Ayto continues. “The prehistoric German pronoun was eka, and this has produced German ich, Dutch ik, Swedish jag, Danish jeg, and English I. The affirmative answer aye ‘yes’ is probably ultimately the same word as I.”

And, as we’re sure you know, “I” is jeg in Norwegian.

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Etymology Usage

Mad Mentality

Q: In one of the scenes from Mad Men, purportedly set in a bar in 1964, some guy says, “Can I get a Dewar’s with water?” Now, I don’t remember people saying “Can I get” a drink back then. It sounds more 21st century to me.

A: It may sound 21st century to you, but people have been using “Can I get” that way since at least the late 19th century.

For example, an article in the June 20, 1880, issue of the Daily Arkansas Gazette includes this example of the usage:

“A footstep didn’t arouse the young lady. It was a voice that said: ‘Can I get a drink of water?’ Two arms and the chin of a tramp leaned on the fence.”

For a boozier example, a brief item in the Oct. 12, 1889, issue of the Knoxville Journal has this presumably fictional exchange:

“Traveler (from Kentucky): ‘Madam, can I get a drink here?’

“Lady of the House: ‘Certainly, there’s the well.’

“Traveler (with a courtly gesture): ‘Madam, you misunderstand me. I don’t want to wash my hands; I want a drink.’ ”

From what we can gather, the expression has been in steady use since then, so there’s nothing anachronistic about hearing it on Mad Men.

In case you’re interested, we wrote a blog item not long ago about a similar usage, “I’ll do a” (as in “I’ll do a Dewar’s with water”).

As you probably know, finding linguistic anachronisms in Mad Men has become something of an indoor sport among the show’s fans.

The linguist Ben Zimmer wrote an entertaining column on the subject a year ago in the New York Times Magazine.

Zimmer spoke with Matthew Weiner, the creator, executive producer, and head writer of the AMC show, who acknowledged that goofs do indeed slip into Mad Men.

For example, the character Joan used the saying “The medium is the message” in the first season, set in 1960, four years before Marshall McLuhan introduced it in print.

You’ll enjoy this YouTube video featuring Mad Men excerpts mentioned in Zimmer’s column.


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Etymology Usage

Home invasion

Q: I was wondering why newscasters (mostly) have begun using the term “home invasion.” Why isn’t it called a “break-in” any longer?

A: The phrase “home invasion” isn’t just another way of saying  “burglary” or “break-in.”

A “burglary” or a “break-in” refers to the act of entering a building with the intent to commit a crime. This crime can be committed when nobody’s home.

But in a “home invasion,” the house is occupied at the time. And often it involves the use of weapons and some kind of assault on the residents.

Several states have legally defined the crime of “home invasion,” though the definitions of the crime and its severity (first degree, second degree, and so on) vary.

The expression has been in use since 1973, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. It originated in the US and is chiefly used in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The OED defines “home invasion” as “an act of entering a private dwelling while it is occupied, with the intention of committing a crime (usually burglary, often while threatening the resident); the action or offence of doing this.”

In the US, Australia, and New Zealand, the dictionary adds, “home invasion is a legally defined offence. Entry need not be forced, and may even be under invitation, if the offender later remains on the premises when requested by the resident to leave.”

The OED’s first citation for the use of the term is from a 1973 article in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Wilmette police were seeking the robbers in an apparently unrelated home invasion that occurred early Thursday.”

The phrase, as you’ve noticed, is becoming more widely used in the media these days.

For example, we found a news report from KFDM-TV in southeast Texas about armed men who broke into a home, locked the family in a laundry room, ransacked the house, and stole a car.

The report begins, “A home invasion has disturbed the peace in a West Beaumont neighborhood.” It ends with “If you have any information about the home invasion, call ….”

We hope this answers your question. And keep your door locked!

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Some initial thoughts

Q: I live in acronym-crazy NYC (SoHo, Dumbo, TriBeCa, and so on). But what about abbreviations that are pronounced as letters, not words (NYC, for example). I’ve coined a word for them: “abbrevonym.” I look forward to your response.

A: We also like “abbrevonym,” a word that’s been suggested now and then by language types. But unfortunately, there’s already a word for this: “initialism.”

An initialism is an abbreviation that’s spoken as letters, like “FBI,” “PTA,” “NAACP,” and “NCAA.” Here’s a more detailed definition, courtesy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.):

“An abbreviation consisting of the first letter or letters of words in a phrase (for example, IRS for Internal Revenue Service), syllables or components of a word (TNT for trinitrotoluene), or a combination of words and syllables (ESP for extrasensory perception) and pronounced by spelling out the letters one by one rather than as a solid word.”

An acronym, on the other hand, is usually defined as an abbreviation that’s spoken as a word, like “radar” ( for “radio detection and ranging”), “laser” (“light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation”), and “NATO” (“North Atlantic Treaty Organization”).

We had a posting on the blog a couple of years ago about acronyms and initialisms

The New York neighborhoods you mention are indeed examples of acronyms, because they’re spoken as words.

The craze for geographical acronyms in the city began with SoHo (for “south of Houston”), moved on to TriBeCa (“triangle below Canal”), and now includes such whimsies as NoHo (“north of Houston”), Dumbo (“down under Manhattan Bridge overpass”), NoLIta (“north of Little Italy”), and even NoMad (“north of Madison Square Park”). Some have suggested that last one should instead be known as SoMa (“south of Macy’s”).

We’ve also written about the “h” in “SoHo”—that is, why “Houston” is pronounced HEW-ston in Texas but HOW-ston in New York.

As for what to call an abbreviation spoken in letters, frankly we prefer “abbrevonym” to the boring “initialism.” Who knows? It could catch on. Until then, though, we’ll stick with the old stick-in-the-mud.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Has anyone lost their pit bull?

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

Q: A friend of mine (and I mean it) insists that “they/them/their” can be used in place of “he/she/him/her,” etc. For instance: “Has anyone lost their pit bull?” This sounds wrong to me. Can you help me persuade my friend that it’s wrong?

A: It sounds wrong to us too, though we’d be more concerned about that lost pit bull than about the questionable grammar.

Actually, this is a more complicated question than you think!

Granted, “they/them/their” are third-person plural pronouns. But many, many people use them in a singular sense, especially in reference to unspecified or indefinite people (as in “If someone calls, tell them I’m out”).

Furthermore, this usage, while considered a misusage for the last 200 years or so, has some history on its side. We’ve written about this several times in the past, including in the New York Times Magazine.

For centuries, we wrote, “they” was a universal pronoun. Writers as far back as Chaucer used “they” and company for singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and nobody seemed to mind.

We’ve also written about this subject in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, as well as on our blog in 2011 and 2008.

As we point out in Origins of the Specious, traditionalists find nothing wrong with using “he” to refer to an anybody or an everybody, male or female.

But this is a relatively recent usage, as these things go, and is considered inappropriate by modern linguists.

By the way, it wasn’t cooked up by a male sexist grammarian. If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book.

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Etymology Usage

Is “a lot of” sort of a sin?

Q: During a recent appearance on WNYC, Pat used two phrases that caused my wife and me some consternation: “a lot of” and “sort of.” Shouldn’t that have been “many” and “similar to” or “almost” or “possibly”?

A: Yes, Pat does say “sort of” and “a lot of” on the air, but we see nothing wrong with this.

On the radio show, she and Leonard Lopate are conversing, and consequently their style is informal or colloquial.

We wouldn’t use these phrases in the most formal writing (say, an article for a scholarly journal), but we’d use them in casual or informal writing (like this, for example) and of course in speech.

When the two of us speak, we use “sort of” in the sense of “rather” or “somewhat.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this adverbial use of the phrase as meaning “in a way or manner; to some extent or degree, somewhat; in some way, somehow.”

By the way, this usage isn’t a modern interloper. It dates back to the late 1700s.

Oxford describes the phrase as “colloquial,” a label that it defines elsewhere as meaning “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

The OED also says the phrase “sort of” has passed into use “as a parenthetic qualifier expressing hesitation, diffidence, or the like, on the speaker’s part.”

The phrase “a lot of” dates back to the late 1500s, says the OED, which defines it this way:

“A number of persons or things of the same kind, or associated in some way; a quantity or collection (of things); a party, set, or ‘crew’ (of persons); also, a quantity (of anything). Now only colloq., except with reference to articles of commerce, goods, live stock, and the like. Often with some degree of depreciation, either implied, or expressed by an epithet.”

Both “sort of” and “a lot of” are standard in spoken English. They are NOT grammatically incorrect or substandard. However, they’re informal in style and, like any other phrase, they shouldn’t be used monotonously.

We’ve had several items on the blog about “sort of” and “a lot of,” including postings in August, September, and November of 2008.

Here it might be helpful to insert a note about formal versus informal English. Never confuse the informal (or colloquial) with the ungrammatical!

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, the word “colloquial” is not a pejorative label, and “was probably a poor choice of term for describing ordinary everyday speech.”

For that reason, most standard dictionaries and usage guides now use the word “informal” instead. And informal English is not substandard or grammatically incorrect.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which now uses the label “informal” rather than “colloquial,” says:

“Speakers of standard varieties of the language use both formal discourse and informal or conversational discourse.”

The dictionary classifies both “sort of” and “a lot of” as “informal.”

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Grammar Usage

Only the lonely

Q: It drives me nuts that most people put “only” way up front in a sentence so it acts as an adverb and not as an adjective. Example: “I only want to ask you one question.” Translation: I have only one want, and I don’t care which of the collective you answers me.

A: A few years ago, a reader of the blog scolded Pat for misplacing an “only” during one of her appearances with Leonard Lopate on WNYC.

Pat agreed that “only” should generally be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), especially if there’s a chance of being misunderstood.

But in many cases, if not most, the placement of “only” won’t be misunderstood, she noted, and a sentence may sound better with “only” placed near the front.

Let’s take a look at your example: “I only want to ask you one question.”

Most people would understand that sentence to mean the speaker has only one question to ask. And most would probably feel that putting “only” before “one” would sound too formal.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) remarks in a usage note that “there are occasions when placement of only earlier in the sentence seems much more natural, and if the context is sufficiently clear, there is no chance of being misunderstood.”

Although Pat’s grammar and usage guide Woe Is I recommends putting “only” before the word or phrase being singled out, it notes that the “whole point of putting only in its place is to make yourself understood.”

In informal writing and conversation, the book says, “if no one’s likely to mistake your meaning it’s fine to put only where it seems most natural—usually in front of the verb.”

Your question got us wondering, however, why many language authorities are so insistent on the “proper” placement of “only,” even when there’s no chance of being misunderstood.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says this concern about “the misplaced only has been around for over two centuries.”

The first language maven to raise the issue was apparently Robert Lowth, the guy who popularized the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

In A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1763), Lowth writes: “Thus it is commonly said, ‘I only spake three words’: when the intention of the speaker manifestly requires, ‘I spake only three words.’ ”

Although many usage authorities have endorsed this view, many writers have ignored it.

“Who are the writers who misplace only?” Merriam-Webster’s asks, and then proceeds to answer its own question.

The miscreants include John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Tobias Smollett, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Ruskin, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, James Thurber, Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, Evelyn Waugh, and E. L. Doctorow.

We’ll let H. W. Fowler, the language maven’s language maven, have the final say on this:

“For He only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.”

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Etymology Usage

Heart-to-heart talk

Q: I’m bewildered by all those T-shirts that proclaim, “I ♥ ME.”  Why is “me” capitalized? And why isn’t it “myself”? I’m from Maine, and to me the message is “I love Maine.”

A: We can’t believe that you’re REALLY bewildered by the uppercase “ME” in that message.

Nobody with an Internet connection could be. We’ve been driven virtually deaf by now from all the capital letters that scream at us for emphasis in cyberspace.

Is there too much of it? Yes. Can we do anything about it? No, except perhaps to show a little restraint ourselves.

As for “I ♥ ME,” you can find it on hats, bags, compacts, valentines, stickers, cards, lighters, etc., in addition to T-shirts.

You can also find a lot of “I ♥ Maine” items. Most of them spell out “Maine” in upper- and lower-case letters, though some use all caps and others refer to the state as “ME.”

You may be interested in a posting we had a few years ago about the use of the word “heart” in place of the ♥ symbol. It turns out that the use of “heart” as a verb isn’t a modern phenomenon.

In fact, the first published reference for the verbing of “heart” dates from around 897, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Anglo-Saxon days, to “heart” meant to give heart to or inspire someone.

Last January the online OED added a draft entry on the colloquial use of “heart” as a verb meaning to love or be fond of.

The dictionary says the usage is of US origin, and adds, “Originally with reference to logos using the symbol of a heart to denote the verb ‘love.’ ”

The first OED citation for this sense of the word is from a Nov. 16, 1983, Associated Press article:

“From Berlin to the Urals, teen-agers wear T-shirts reading, ‘Elvis,’ ‘Always Stoned,’ and ‘I (heart) New York.’ ”

As for “me” versus “myself,” we’ve written about this business several times on the blog, beginning with a posting in 2006.

It would be OK to use either “me” or “myself” on the T-shirt you’ve asked about, though the shorter one is punchier and could do double-duty Down East.

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Indented servitude

Q: If you start an email with “Hi Sylvia,” do you indent the salutation?

A: No, you don’t generally indent a greeting in email or, for that matter, in snail mail.

And you don’t necessarily need to indent the first lines of the paragraphs that follow, either online or off.

We write all our email (and our blog posts) with the paragraphs beginning flush left and with a line of white space between paragraphs.

This seems to have become the usual convention of email writing. Generally paragraphs are flush left (that is, not indented), with space between them for greater readability.

But there’s no law against indenting if you want to. This is a style issue. Go with whatever suits your style.

As a general rule, you should indent either all or none of your paragraphs after the greeting. Consistency makes your email easier to read.

So if you indent the first paragraph after the greeting, then indent each successive one.

We also like to use a comma before the name in a greeting (“Hi, Sylvia”), though many people follow your practice and omit it. We explained this usage in a blog entry a while back.

Of course many people don’t use greetings in email. We think, however, that a greeting at the beginning of a message adds a human touch. Again, this is a style issue, and it’s your call.

You might want to look at a column we wrote for the New York Times magazine about email. It appeared in 2002, a couple of lifetimes ago in Internet time, so some of our advice may seem a bit old fogyish now.

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Etymology Usage

Yay, yea, and yeah

Q: There’s a debate in my home that’s getting tiresome: Is the word that means yippee and often precedes “team” spelled “yay,” “yea,” or “yeah”? There are conflicting answers on the Web, but I’ll trust you with the definitive answer.

A: This is something we’ve often wondered ourselves: How do you spell the joyous interjection that starts with a “y” and rhymes with “day”?

The answer is “yay.” That’s the word from the editors at the Oxford English Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

American Heritage says the interjection is “used as an exclamation of pleasure, approval, elation, or victory.” The OED describes it as a slang “exclamation of triumph, approval, or encouragement.”

The spelling evolved, American Heritage says, as an alteration of the old word “yea,” which goes back many centuries to the Old English gea or gæ.

The older “yea” is pronounced like “yay” but it’s not a mere interjection. It can be an adverb or a noun, according to American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

As an adverb, “yea” can mean “yes,” “aye,” “truly,” or “indeed.” And as a noun, it can mean either an affirmative statement or vote, or the person casting such a vote.

Example: “He hurried, yea, galloped to the poll to cast his yea vote, and as a result the yeas outnumbered the nays.”

The third member of the trio, “yeah,” is classified as an adverb meaning “yes.”

There are three common pronunciations of “yeah,” all of which include a diphthong (two vowels elided into a single syllable). The diphthong begins with a vowel sound like that in “pet” or “pat” or “pate,” followed by “uh.”

There’s some disagreement about the origin of “yeah.”

American Heritage says “yeah” developed as a variant of the old “yea,” but Merriam-Webster’s and the OED say it’s an alteration or casual pronunciation of “yes.”

Now for some chronology.

As we said, the old “yea” is by far the oldest of the three. The earliest form of the word was recorded in writing in the year 731, according to the OED, which makes it nearly 1,300 years old!

By comparison, “yay” and “yeah,” which appear to be American inventions, are practically brand-new.

The OED’s earliest citation for “yay” is from 1963, and its first example of “yeah” is from 1905 (Merriam-Webster’s has a slightly earlier date, 1902).

But we’ve found what look like 19th-century usages of both words. We’ll cite just one instance of each.

There are some jubilant examples of “yay” in Mary W. Watts’s introduction to her book Nathan Burke, a fictionalized biography of the Mexican war general.

Her introduction is dated 1908, but in it she records the cheers she heard at a military parade 40 years earlier as a child in Ohio: “Yay, Yay, Yay! Fighting Burke! Fighting Nat Burke! Yay, Yay, Yay!”

And we found many examples of “yeah” in an 1863 adventure novel by Edward Sylvester Ellis, On the Plains, which is set in the Black Hills.

Here’s a  brief bit of dialogue: “ ‘I’ve done you some good turns, hain’t I?’  ‘Yeah, and I’ve allers felt good’eal of gratertude fur it.’ ”

We found other uses as well, thanks to the miracle of digitization. Is it a boon to research? Yeah!

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