Dead as a doornail

Q: I hope you may be able to provide me with some insight regarding the phrase “dead as a doornail.” I believe it first appeared in Shakespeare, but how might a doornail convey deadness?

A: Although Shakespeare does use “dead as a door nayle” in Henry VI, Part 2 (1594), William Langland used the expression hundreds of years earlier in Piers Plowman (1362): “Fey withouten fait is febelore then nought, / And ded as a dore-nayl.”

In case you’re wondering, doornails (or door-nails) are large-headed nails once used to strengthen or decorate doors. The Oxford English Dictionary says we don’t see much of them anymore except in alliterative phrases (like “dead as a doornail”).

What, you ask, does a doornail have to do with death? There are several theories.

One is that the knocker on ancient doors would strike the doornail in question (perhaps fatally?), but the OED says that there’s  “no evidence” this is the source of the expression.

Another suggestion is that nails are inanimate—that is, dead. And still another is that nails are considered dead once used because it’s hard to reuse them, though we’ve resuscitated a good number of those nails over the years.

Still another theory is that the expression refers to clinching (or clenching), the practice of securing a nail by hammering it through the wood and bending the sharp end flat. The doornails on old doors were clinched, thus difficult to reuse.

The technique is sometimes referred to as dead-nailing, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phase Origins, because a clinched nail cannot be easily removed.

Although this idea seems to make sense, we can’t find any OED citations in which clinching is referred to as dead-nailing. We’d have expected to see some sign of the connection in the 14th century, when Langland used the expression.

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The day’s eye

Q: I’m a big fan of Beverley Nichols. In one of his garden books (I can’t remember which), he suggests that the name “daisy” refers to the “day’s eye,” presumably the sun. This sounds too good to be true.

A: We’re also fans of Nichols’s garden books. In Sunlight on the Lawn (1956), the last of his three books about the gardens of Merry Hall, he writes: “The daisy—the ‘day’s eye’—is a token of virginity.”

His suggestion that “daisy” originated as “day’s eye” may sound too good to be true, but it’s perfectly sound. The Oxford English Dictionary says the Old English name of the flower, daeges eage, does indeed refer to the “day’s eye” or “eye of day.”

The OED explains that the common name for Bellis perennis, the European daisy, is an “allusion to the appearance of the flower, and to its closing the ray, so as to conceal the yellow disk, in the evening, and opening again in the morning.”

Here’s the dictionary’s description: “a familiar and favourite flower of the British Isles and Europe generally, having small flat flower-heads with yellow disk and white ray (often tinged with pink), which close in the evening; it grows abundantly on grassy hills, in meadows, by roadsides, etc., and blossoms nearly all the year round; many varieties are cultivated in gardens.”

Nichols is on less firm ground when he describes the flower as “a token of virginity.” He’s alluding here to another common English name for the daisy, the “Margaret flower.”

Over the years, the daisy has been linked to the maiden St. Margaret of Antioch as well as the not-so-maiden but reformed St. Margaret of Cortona. But the OED says the “Margaret flower” apparently got its name from the pearl sense of the Old French margarite or margerite, which meant both pearl and daisy. (In modern French, a daisy is a marguerite.)

We might add that the daisy is a favorite of ours too and grows prolifically in the meadows around our home in rural New England. “Daisy” is also the name of our four-month-old Golden Retriever puppy as well as a neighbor’s Jersey cow.

Interestingly, according to the OED, the identification of the flower with the name “Margaret” led to the “use of Daisy punningly as a pet-form of Margaret, although later currency as a personal name owes much to the 19th-cent. vogue for flower names as personal names.”

The earliest published reference for an Old English version of “daisy” (the flower) dates from around 1000, according to the OED. Here’s a Middle English citation from The Legend of a Good Woman (circa 1385), one of Chaucer’s longest poems: “Wele by reson men it calle may / The dayeseye, or ellis the eye of day.” (In modern English: “Well by reason men may call it the daisy, or else the eye of day.”)

In Word Origins and How We Know Them (2005), Anatoly Liberman wonders who coined this word: “A child discovering the world, Adam-like, creating naive and beautiful metaphors? Or a farmer who needed a new plant name and used the resources of his mother tongue?”

“Can we imagine a golden age when all words were as young and transparent as ‘day’s eye’?” Liberman writes. “If such an age existed, it was one of perfect harmony: things revealed their nature in words, and words captured the most salient features of things. Happy cave dwellers exchanged nosegays of day’s eyes, and no one needed lessons in etymology.”

Of course Liberman, who teaches linguistics, etymology, and folklore at the University of Minnesota, might find himself out of a job in such a world.

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Sold down the river

Q: I know that to sell someone down the river means to betray him, but what does a river have to do with it and why down rather than up?

A: The expression “to sell someone down the river”—along with a slightly later version, “to sell someone south”—originated in the days of American slavery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says these phrases meant “to sell (a slave), esp. one regarded as a troublemaker, to a plantation on the lower Mississippi, typically regarded as providing the harshest conditions for labour.”

The earliest incarnation of the expression, according to OED citations, was recorded in 1835, when a Missouri cabinet maker named Aaron S. Fry wrote in his journal:

“A negro man of Mr. Elies, having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

(The journal entry is reported in Harriet C. Frazier’s 2001 book Slavery & Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865.)

Suicide was not an uncommon reaction among slaves who were “sold down the river” or “sold south,” according to records from the period. In the words of Lucinda MacKethan, a scholar of African-American literature, “To go down the river, for a slave, is to watch one’s destiny take the darkest imaginable turn.”

The OED has another early citation, from an 1836 issue of the African Repository and Colonial Journal:

“Suppose it be enacted that after the year 1840 slavery shall cease to exist in Kentucky. What would follow? All who chose would sell their slaves down the river; the benevolent would free them, and send them away, or let them remain, as they thought best.”

After the Civil War, these slave-trade expressions adopted other meanings—to be cheated, betrayed, ruined, or delivered into some kind of servitude. Here are a few of the OED’s citations:

1921: “Its editors were chiefly concerned to prevent it from being ‘sold down the river’ ” (from Elmer Davis’s History of the New York Times, 1851-1921).

1927: “When Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents and purposes sold himself down the river” (from P. G. Wodehouse’s novel The Small Bachelor).

1942: “If the Casino should go down the river, it meant back to the press agent grind again” (from The Big Midget Murders, by Craig Rice, the pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).

In reference to prison, someone can be sent either “up the river” or “down the river.” Apparently the route to prison is a two-way stream.

The “up” version, the OED says, originally referred “to Sing Sing prison, situated up the Hudson River from the city of New York.” But later the phrase was used more generally to mean any prison.

Here’s one of the OED’s Sing Sing citations, from Charles Sutton’s history The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and Its Mysteries (1874): “ ‘Well, Colonel,’ he remarked, when the Colonel was brought before him, ‘here you are again. This time I think you stand a good chance for a trip up the river.’ ”

And moving from the Northeast to the Midwest, here’s a hard-boiled example from a 1946 issue of the Chicago Daily News: “I done it. Send me up the river. Give me the hot seat.”

The OED’s citations for “down the river” (meaning prison) begin in 1894 with this quotation from the Atlantic Reporter, a regional case-law publication: “The witness … has testified here that he heard the chief say that he had got H. H. Hollister, and was going to send him down the river, whether guilty or not.”

Another courtroom citation comes from a 1910 edition of the Southern Reporter: “Latham was guilty and, should he be a juror, he would send him down the river.”

More recent is this line from Jack Barnao’s novel LockeStep (1987): “You don’t send a bunch of Godfathers down the river for twenty years without making some serious enemies.”

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Etymology Usage

Reputation management

Q: I am writing a personal statement for a business school application and I have a question about this sentence: “Carlson’s reputation precedes it.” I think “it” is correct because “itself” would refer to the reputation, not the school, right? And the purpose of this statement is to say the reputation precedes the school.

A: We agree with you that “it” is the correct pronoun if you want to say the Carlson school’s reputation precedes the school. But we’re puzzled by exactly what that’s supposed to mean.

In common usage, someone is preceded by his reputation. That is, people have heard of him—for good or for ill—before actually meeting him. So we say things like “Your reputation precedes you” or “Lady Eustace’s reputation preceded her.”

It wouldn’t be idiomatic to say that the reputation of a school or cathedral or lake or other static inanimate thing precedes it. One could perhaps say the reputation of an invading army precedes it. And perhaps the reputation of a vintage wine given as a gift may precede it. But both the army and the wine are moving toward the people who’ve heard of them.

Maybe you meant to say that anyone with knowledge of business schools (or anyone in the business world) would be familiar with Carlson’s reputation. Or maybe you were referring to the reputation of the entrepreneur who gave the school its name.

The University of Minnesota School of Business was renamed the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management in 1986 after the founder of the Carlson Companies donated $25 million to the university.

Speaking of money, the word “reputation” has a financial background, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word entered English in the late 1300s by way of Anglo-Norman, but its roots are in Latin.

In classical Latin, the OED says, reputation referred to, among other things, consideration in drawing up a financial statement. In post-classical Latin, it could refer to a good name as well as a good balance sheet.

And, speaking of good names, who hasn’t at times felt the need of some “reputation managment,” the catchphrase for PR in the age of the Internet.

As for that sentence in your application, we’d recommend rewriting it. Then the admissions director at Carlson might shake your hand next fall and say, “Your reputation precedes you.”

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Etymology Usage

International studies

Q: Why are “foreign students” now called “international students”? Is political correctness to blame?

A: Students who study outside their home countries have been referred to as “foreign students” for nearly 300 years. But a somewhat newer term, “international students,” appears to be more popular on some campuses these days, if our cursory Google searches are any indication.

Spot checks show that a great many colleges and universities prefer “international students.” But some, like the University of Iowa, use both “foreign students” and “international students.” And some organizations and agencies (like the College Board and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs) use both too.

Overall, the “international” version seems to be far more popular, outnumbering the “foreign” phrase well over three-to-one in our Google searches.

Of the two phrases, it’s not surprising that “foreign students” is older, if only because the adjective “foreign” dates from the 1200s while “international” didn’t show up until 1780, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Our Google searches turned up quite a few 18th-century references to “foreign student” (or “students”).

The earliest we found is from a 1734 translation of Pierre Bayle’s The Dictionary Historical and Critical. An entry about a controversial German professor of divinity says, “He had most of the Foreign Students on his side.”

An encyclopedic book published in 1743, partially titled A Description of Holland, includes a reference to “foreign Students, who come hither from all Parts of Europe.”

And Charles Este’s A Journey in the Year 1793, Through Flanders, Brabant, and Germany, to Switzerland (1795), has this passage: “For general philosophy, for the belles lettres, for experimental science, for medicine, a foreign student may almost every where be better—and cannot any where be worse.”

The use of “international student” (or “students”) didn’t begin appearing until the 19th century, as far as we can tell.

Here’s a passage from an article in the Medical Times and Gazette, published in London in 1876:

“Advantage was taken of the presence in Paris … of the foreign and provincial deputies to make some preliminary arrangements towards the institution of an international students’ society—I fear, however, without much success.”

Why is “international student” preferred by many institutions of higher learning?

Perhaps, as you suggest, political correctness has something to do with it. Dictionaries list abnormal, improper, unnatural, and irrelevant among the senses of “foreign” while the more neutral “international” simply describes something involving two or more nations.

Or perhaps the longer and newer phrase is more appealing to academics and other lovers of officialese.

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Good golly, Miss Molly

Q: I was reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen when I came across the offensive British term “wog.” I always thought it was an acronym, but my dictionary says it’s probably short for “golliwog.” Can you tell me more?

A: Let’s begin with Officers and Gentlemen (1955), the second novel in Waugh’s World War II trilogy Sword of Honour. During a conversation after a dinner party, Colonel Tickeridge is asked about a brigadier thought to be dead.

“He was lost,” the colonel says. “Not dead. Far from it. He turned up in western Abyssinia leading a group of wogs. Wanted to go with them, of course, but the powers that be wouldn’t stand for that.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the slang term “wog” as a “vulgarly offensive name for a foreigner, esp. one of Arab extraction.”

In an etymology note, the OED says: “Origin uncertain: often said to be an acronym, but none of the many suggested etymologies is satisfactorily supported by the evidence.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say the term is chiefly British. American Heritage adds that it’s probably a clipped version of “golliwog.”

From our experience, British bigots are more inclusive in using the term than the OED suggests. Although we usually read or hear of Brits applying it to dark-skinned foreigners, especially those from the Middle East or the Far East, we’ve noticed it used for Italians, Spaniards, and Latin Americans as well.

If you read much 20th-century British literature, you’ve probably seen “wog” or variations of it. The first two citations in the OED, though, come from an Irish classic, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “She called him wogger. . . . She may have noticed that her wogger people were always going away.”

The OED’s first reference for “wog” itself comes from a 1929 British book on sea slang: “Wogs, lower class Babu shipping clerks on the Indian coast.”

And if you’ve spent much time in Britain or around British expatriates, you’ve probably heard the story that “wog” is an acronym— for “wily oriental gentleman” or “worthy oriental gentleman” or “we oriental gentlemen.”

No, “wog” isn’t an acronym, but it’s sometimes called a backronym, a false acronym created after the fact from an existing word. (There’s a word for almost everything!)

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we discuss the possibility that it might be a short version of “golliwog.”  Here’s an excerpt:

“Where does ‘wog’ really come from? We don’t know for sure, but some lexicographers have traced it to the Golliwogg, a black rag-doll character in the children’s stories of Florence Kate Upton. The American-born British author and artist, who wrote in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was widely successful but failed to protect her creation. The name soon became public property (spelled ‘golliwog’) and inspired dolls, toys, books, and many other products. A golliwog named Golly was featured on the Robertson & Sons jam and marmalade jars from 1910 until 2001. And the popularity of golliwogs may also have inspired a mid-twentieth-century revival of blackface minstrel shows in Britain. The Black and White Minstrel Show ran on BBC television from 1958 until 1978. A stage version of the variety show ran in London from 1960 to 1972, and traveling troupes performed it for another fifteen years.

“Good golly, Miss Molly! Where are the PC police when you need them?”

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Vice isn’t nice, but is it vicious?

Q: After reading your entry on pairing “vicious” with “circle” or “cycle,” I recall reading works from the 19th century and earlier in which “vicious” is used as the opposite of “virtuous.” For example, a womanizer might be described as “vicious.” Any idea when, how, or why this sense evolved to the more loaded current definition?

A: The adjective “vicious” did indeed mean pretty much the opposite of “virtuous” when it entered English in the early 14th century. In fact, that’s still among the word’s meanings in contemporary standard dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines it as, among other things, given to vice or immorality.

This sense of the adjective is understandable, since it’s ultimately derived from the Latin vitium (fault, defect, shortcoming), which has also given us the noun “vice.”

The earliest definition of “vicious” in the Oxford English Dictionary says it refers to habits or practices of “the nature of vice; contrary to moral principles; depraved, immoral, bad.”

By the late 14th century, the OED says, it was being used to describe immoral, depraved, or profligate people as well as those who fall short of “what is morally or practically commendable; reprehensible, blameworthy, mischievous.”

How, you ask, did the word take on its “more loaded current definition”? By “more loaded,” we assume you mean its sense of being violent, savage, or cruel.

The OED doesn’t explain this evolution, but we suspect that it had something to do with a sense of “vicious” that developed in the early 1700s, when people began using the word to refer to animals, especially horses, that were savage or dangerous.

In An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774), for example, Oliver Goldsmith writes that horses “naturally belonging to the country, are very small and vicious.”

Pretty soon, the usage was being extended to people, though only loosely at first. An 1814 citation in the OED describes Napoleon as having “a dusky grey eye, which would be called vicious in a horse.”

The OED doesn’t have a more violent human citation, but Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, has one in which the Australian poet Rex Ingamells refers to someone taking “a vicious swing at him with the pick.”

Ingamells, who died violently in a car crash in 1955, was a founder of the nationalist Jindyworobak literary movement in Australia.

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Etymology Usage

The long goodbye

Q: I have the habit of using “goodbye” in parting, but a lot of my friends say it should be used only when leaving someone for good. Am I using this correctly? I am from India and English is not my first language.

A: Yes, you’re using the word correctly. Standard dictionaries say “goodbye” (also spelled “good-bye” or “good-by”) has two meanings: (1) a remark at parting; (2) the act of parting.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word (spelled “good-bye”) doesn’t include any evidence that the term was ever limited to a permanent leave-taking.

The OED says the word, which entered English in the 16th century, is a “contraction of the phrase God be with you (or ye).”

The dictionary speculates that the substitution of “good” for “God” may have been influenced by “such formulas of leave-taking as good day, good night, etc.”

The OED dismisses the idea, as some have suggested, that “goodbye” originated as “God buy you” (that is, God redeem you).

The earliest citation for “goodbye” in the OED is from a 1573 letter by the Elizabethan scholar Gabriel Harvey: “To requite your gallonde of godbwyes, I regive you a pottle of how-dyes.” (A “pottle” is half a “gallonde,” or gallon.)

Published references in the dictionary suggest that “goodbye” (spelled various ways) and “God be with you” coexisted until the early 1800s, when the clipped version became the dominant usage.

Here’s the longer expression in Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598) by Shakespeare: I thanke your worship, God be wy you.”

And here it is 70 years later in a 1668 entry from Samuel Pepys’s diary: To Mr. Wren to bid him ‘God be with you.’ ”

In case you’d like to read more, we’ve written several items on our blog that touch on “goodbye,” including postings in 2009 and 2011.

And now we’ll bid you a gallonde of godbwyes.

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Etymology Usage

Southern discomfort

Q: On the BBC news site, I came across this quote about people switching accounts from banks to credit unions: “It would have to be a number way north of 40,000 to make an appreciable difference.” What is the history of using “north” and “south” to mean higher or lower numerically? And what about using “south” for a deteriorating situation?

A: We wrote a blog entry a while back on the use of “north” to mean up and “south” to mean down geographically—that is, on a map—as well as the use of “uptown” and “downtown.” In the same geographic vein, we once wrote a post about “upstate.”

But we haven’t yet written about the use of “north” and “south” to mean higher or lower numerically, or “south” to mean a deteriorating situation. Now is our chance to fill in the gaps.

Not surprisingly, financial writers were the first to record these usages. For some reason, in these senses “south” was used half a century before “north.” The story begins with the phrase “headed (or going) south.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for this pessimistic expression is from a 1920 issue of the weekly Elgin (Illinois) Dairy Report: “Meat, grains and provisions generally, are like Douglas Fairbanks, headed south—in other words, going down.” (The reference is to a Douglas Fairbanks movie called Headin’ South.)

The phrase is also used figuratively to mean “in or into a worse condition or position,” the OED says.

Although the dictionary has a citation from the 1970s that suggests this figurative use, the first clear-cut example is from Robert B. Parker’s novel Stone Cold (2003): “But your marriage went south and you had a drinking problem.”

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that people began using “north” to mean higher, higher than, or in excess of, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1978 article in the Guardian Weekly: “Money supply growth for the past year has ended up quite a long way north of the target band—at 16¼ per cent.”

The movie producer Julia Phillips used the expression in her memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (1991): “So Spielberg tells me the budget’s going north.”

And a writer for the San Francisco Business Times used “north” in a similar way in 2001: “What’s your average deal size? It’s gone north of $250,000 per contract even as high as $300,000 per contract.”

Finally, this gives us a chance to put in a plug in for Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South. The title refers to the contrast between the industrial north and agricultural south of England.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

The more the merrier

Q: I’m an ESL teacher in Istanbul and my students are confused about this sentence in our exercise book: “The more money a person has, the more he or she can buy.” They think it is a sentence fragment, and after looking at it, so do I. Can you shed light on this? My students like grammatical explanations, and they love stumping their teacher.

A: What has caught your students’ attention is a common way of setting up a comparative sentence in English. In this case, the sentence is made up of two comparative clauses, each one beginning with the word “the.”

The example in that exercise book (“The more money a person has, the more he or she can buy”) is a complete sentence, not a sentence fragment. The word “the” at the beginning of each clause is an adverb and part of the adverbial phrase “the more.”

It might be easier to see what’s going on here if we use a simpler example: “The faster I work, the sooner I’m done.” This is grammatically similar to “I work the faster, I’m done the sooner.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adverbial “the” is used to precede a comparative adjective or adverb, with the two words forming an adverbial phrase that modifies a verb.

The usage isn’t as complicated as it sounds, and it’s easy to spot. Just look for sentences with pairs of clauses that start with “the more,” “the less,” “the better,” and so on.

This way of constructing comparative sentences has been a feature of English since the late 800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Citations in the OED include this passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598): “Though the camomill, the more it is troden on, the faster it growes: so youth the more it is wasted, the sooner it weares.”

What’s happening grammatically? The OED says these constructions indicate “proportional dependence between the notions expressed by two clauses, each having the + a comparative.”

The dependent (or subordinate) clause usually comes first, says the OED, using this example: “The more one has, the more one wants.”

In sentences like these, the OED adds, “the … the …” pairs can be defined as meaning “by how much … by so much …” or “in what degree … in that degree….”

So the OED example above (“The more one has, the more one wants”) can be reinterpreted as “In what degree one has more, in that degree one wants more.”

Another source, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has these examples: “The more you practice, the easier it becomes” and “The longer we stay, the more chance there is that we’ll be caught.”

The Cambridge Grammar calls sentences like these “correlative comparative constructions,” and says they can be arranged in two ways:

(1) More commonly, both clauses begin with a “the + comparative” phrase, and the subordinate clause comes first: “The older he gets, the more cynical he becomes.”

(2) But the clauses can be reversed, with the comparative in the main clause omitting “the”: “He becomes more cynical the older he gets.”

In adjectival comparatives, Cambridge says, the verb “be” is sometimes dropped. Here’s one of the examples given (we’ll put the omitted verb in brackets): “The harder the task [was], the more she relished it.”

We run across these elliptical usages in poetry as well as in catchphrases like “The hotter the oven the better the pie.” Even more compact are well-known expressions like “The sooner the better” and “The more the merrier.”

That last one is described by the OED as a proverb meaning “the more people or things there are, the better an occasion or situation will be.”

It was first recorded (as “ye mo ye myryer”) in a Middle English poem from the late 1300s. The lack of a verb hasn’t hurt it any, since it’s been rolling along merrily ever since.

We hope this answers your question. We’ve used more technical language than usual on the blog, but you say your students like grammatical explanations!

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Etymology Usage

Catharsis, anyone?

Q: Can something be “a catharsis” or is it always “cathartic.” Example:  “I draw because, more than anything, it is a catharsis.”

A: Something can be “a catharsis” or “catharsis” or “cathartic.” In fact, a bit of googling suggests that “it is a catharsis” is more popular than either “it is cathartic” or “it is catharsis.”

Here’s the Google scorecard: “it is a catharsis,” 898,000 hits; “it is cathartic,” 521,000; “it is catharsis,” 76,800.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines “catharsis” in the sense you’re using it as “any purification or purgation that brings about a spiritual renewal or a satisfying release from tension.”

The dictionary gives this usage example: “these drawings served as a catharsis, relieving him of his burden of terrible memories, at the same time releasing hidden creative forces.” (The quote is from Eva Michaelis-Stern, a Jewish activist who helped rescue thousands of children from Nazi Germany.)

English borrowed the word from Latin, but the ultimate source is the Greek katharsis (a cleansing or purging).

When the word entered English in the early 19th century, it referred to the purging of body fluids and waste, the original meaning of the Greek term.

But by the mid-19th century, it was being used in reference to the purging of emotions, an idea introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics (circa 335 BC), which refers to purging pity and fear in tragedy through catharsis.

We’ll end with a not-so-cathartic exchange between two characters in D. H. Lawrence’s play Touch and Go (1920):

Anabel: “But I don’t WANT to hate and fight with you any more. I don’t BELIEVE in it—not any more.”

Gerald: “It’s a cleansing process—like Aristotle’s Katharsis. We shall hate ourselves clean at last, I suppose.”

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Etymology Grammar Usage

A slew of meanings

Q: I believe the phrase “a number of court filings” takes a plural verb, due to synesis, but would this also be true for “a slew of court filings”? My question is prompted by an Oct. 25, 2011, article in the LA Times about the bankrupt Dodgers.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of “slew” as meaning “a very large number of, a great amount of.” So there’s not much difference here between “slew” and “number.” Both are singular collective nouns.

This is the sentence from the LA Times that caught your attention: “As the bankruptcy case moves forward, a slew of court filings on Monday show that beating victim Bryan Stow will be central to the arguments and outcome in court.”

Is this use of “slew” correct?

While it’s certainly proper to use a singular verb (“shows”) here, many commentators on language find nothing wrong with using the plural (“show”).

A singular collective noun (like “slew”) at the head of a phrase ending in a plural (“a slew of court filings”) is often accompanied these days by a plural noun.

Linguists say that what’s at work here is “notional agreement,” sometimes called by the Greek term you use, “synesis,” meaning something like intelligence or reason.

We’ve written about notional agreement several times on our blog, including posts last September and July.

What it amounts to is agreement based on sense or meaning—that is, the meaning an expression has to the writer or speaker—rather than on form.

In one blog entry, we used these phrases as examples: “a wide range of colors” and “a bunch of the boys.” The meaning is clearly plural, although the collecting nouns (“range,” “bunch”) are singular in form. Someone using notional agreement would accompany these phrases with plural verbs.

In case you’re wondering, the use of “slew” to mean “a large number” originated in 19th-century America, according to the OED. It was an import, and came from the Irish word slua (or sluagh), meaning a crowd or multitude.

“Slew” in this sense was first recorded in Daniel Pierce Thompson’s novel The Green Mountain Boys (1839): “He has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance.”

This usage is not to be confused with another kind of “slew.” This one is a variant spelling of “slough” (a boggy or marshy area) that’s used in the US and Canada.

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Etymology Usage

Bouncing back

Q: I often hear/read people using “resiliency” where I would use “resilience.” What’s up with that?

A: Both “resilience” and “resiliency” are legitimate nouns, and they have been for hundreds of years.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “resiliency” as “resilience.”

As for “resilience,” the two dictionaries give these meanings: (1) The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune. (2) The property that enables a material to return to its original shape after being bent, stretched, or compressed.

We’re not surprised, however, that you’re running across a lot of “resiliency” these days.

There’s been a sharp rise in the usage since the 1970s, though it seems to have fallen off a bit in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which lets you track a word’s appearance in books over the years.

A regular Google search turned up 5.75 million hits for “resiliency.” That’s quite a lot, but small change compared with the 28.7 million hits for “resilience.”

A bit more googling left us with the impression that mental-health professionals are much more likely to use “resiliency” in sense #1 than the people who go to them for help. That’s not surprising, of course. Professionals of all sorts seem to prefer stuffier usages over common ones.

Both “resilience” and “resiliency,” as well as the adjective “resilient,” ultimately come from the Latin verb resilire (to jump back or rebound). All three words entered English in the 17th century (“resilience” is slightly older than the other two).

One last thought: resilire (the source of all this bouncing back) is related to the Latin verb salire (to jump or leap), which has given English the noun and verb “sally.” And now we’d better sally forth and check our mailbox for more questions.

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Etymology Usage

Do we get lucky or fortunate?

Q: During a pool tournament online, the commentator repeatedly used “fortunate” when I would have used “lucky.” Example: “He needs to get fortunate here.” To me, “fortunate” is a state of being and “lucky” is how you get to that state. Was the commentator just trying to sound intelligent?

A: One meaning of “fortunate” is “lucky,” and one meaning of “lucky” is “fortunate.” But that doesn’t mean they’re always interchangeable.

For instance, we often say that someone “got lucky.” But we’re less likely to say that he “got fortunate.” It’s not technically incorrect, just not a very common usage.

On the other hand, both “He was lucky” and “He was fortunate” are common usages and have identical meanings. The only difference is in their tone—“lucky” is less formal than “fortunate.”

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines these two adjectives when used to describe people.

Lucky: “Having, or attended by, good luck. In early use often, Fortunate, successful, prosperous. Now with narrower meaning: Favoured by chance; successful through causes other than one’s own action or merit.”

Fortunate: “Favoured by fortune; possessed of or receiving good fortune; lucky, prosperous.”

They’re very much alike, aren’t they? So why does English have two words for this?

Because, like “augur” and “bode” (which we wrote about recently on the blog), we got one from each of the two great language streams that make up English—the Germanic (“lucky”) and the Latinate (“fortunate”).

“Lucky” was first recorded around 1503, but the noun it’s derived from, “luck,” was around in the 1400s. The noun, meaning “fortune good or ill,” is from old Germanic sources and probably came into English as a gambling term, the OED suggests.

“Fortunate,” from the Latin fortunatus, was first recorded in English in the late 1300s.

Why do people “get lucky” more often than they “get fortunate”? We can’t tell. Perhaps it’s just the way those adjectives have diverged in their usage.

For whatever reason, “get lucky” seems more natural and idiomatic to more people. The Google score: “get lucky,” 10.4 million hits; “get fortunate,” 162,000 hits.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Are you coming or going?

Q: Your article about “bring” and “take” got me thinking about a similar pair. My dad (a former journalism professor) is always correcting people about “come” and “go.” If we’re going to the beach and want our friends to join us, do we say “Are you coming?” or “Are you going?” My dad says it should be “going.” Is there a rule about this?

A: We hate to interfere with parental authority, but we must disagree with your dad here. We vote for “Are you coming?” rather than “Are you going?” We’ll explain later, but first let’s talk about this business of coming and going.

The verbs “come” and “go” are similar to “bring” and “take,” which we discuss our Nov. 14, 2011, posting.

Like “bring,” the verb “come” usually indicates movement toward the speaker’s present whereabouts. And like “take,” the verb “go” usually indicates movement away from the speaker’s current location. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in using these two pairs.

In the example you give (“Are you coming/going?”), the implication is that this is an invitation to join you for a trip to the beach. “Are you coming” is another way of saying “Are you coming with us?”

People often use constructions like “We’re going to the movies. Do you want to come?” The meaning is “Do you want to come along?”—that is, join the group.

The destination in the second sentence is not the movie theater but the group itself, which in turn is en route to the movies. The friends come to join you, then you all go to the movies.

On the other hand, if the friends aren’t being invited to join you, then this would be appropriate: “We’re going to see Moneyball tonight. Are you going?”

As you can see, the choice of verbs here can sometimes be confusing. As a result, “one doesn’t know whether one’s coming or going,” an expression that showed up in the early 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example from The Hamlet of Stepney Green, a 1959 play by the British dramatist Bernard Kops: “What with one thing and another, I don’t know if I’m coming or going.”

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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

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Etymology Usage

Indian summer

Q: Why isn’t the word “summer” capitalized in “Indian summer.” My grammar book says a proper noun “names a particular person, place, or thing.” Isn’t Indian summer a particular time of year? Thanks for your help!

A: The names of seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter) are not considered proper nouns. This is a subject we’ve written about before on our blog.

But “Indian” is capitalized because it is a proper noun, so the phrase is properly written “Indian summer.”

We thought you might like to know more about this expression, which originated in late 18th-century America, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines “Indian summer” as “a period of unusually calm dry warm weather, often accompanied by a hazy atmosphere, occurring in late autumn in the northern United States and Canada; a similar period of unseasonably warm autumnal weather elsewhere.”

The phrase was first recorded in writing in the military journal of Ebenezer Denny, an officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars.

In an entry written near Presqu’ Isle, Maine, and dated Oct. 13, 1794, Major Denny wrote: “Pleasant weather. The Indian summer here. Frosty nights.”

From Denny’s journal entry, we can assume the phrase was already in use before he recorded it.

Why was this kind of fall called “Indian summer”? The OED says that “the origin of the expression is uncertain,” but adds that “it appears to have had nothing to do with the glowing autumnal tints of the foliage, with which it is sometimes associated.”

The dictionary speculates, however, that the term “Indian” may have been used here in the disparaging sense of suggesting something “substitute or ersatz.”

So, “an “Indian summer” might have implied a pretend summer. In similar phrases, the OED says, the adjective “Indian” was used in those days to mean “something other than that normally denoted.”

The phrase “Indian corn,” for example, is an example of this “substitute or ersatz” notion at work, as we’ve discussed before on the blog.

To the early English settlers, the term “corn” meant grain in general: wheat, rye, barley, oats, and so on. They used the phrases “Indian corn” and “Indian grain” to mean maize, because to them it was substitute grain or the Indians’ version of grain.

Consequently, in phrases like “Indian bread,” “Indian cakes,” “Indian flour,” and “Indian pudding,” the adjective meant that the dish was made of ground maize (which we now call cornmeal) instead of flour.

Something to keep in mind if, like us, you use cornbread stuffing in your Thanksgiving turkey.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Is bringing hard to take?

Q: I come from Des Moines (like Pat), but I live in New York City now. What is it about New Yorkers? Why do they bring things that should be taken? I find this hard to take.

A: New Yorkers aren’t the only ones who stray from the traditional rules for using “bring” and “take.” In fact, people have been straying since at least as far back as Shakespeare’s day.

But let’s discuss the rules first before trying to explain why a lot of people ignore them. When it comes to choosing the right verb—“bring” or “take”—the key is your perspective. Which end of the journey are you speaking of?

Each of these notions—bringing and taking—implies both a starting point (that is, an origin) and an end point (a destination). In each case, someone or something is moving from one point to the other.

The basics are easy enough to grasp. Here’s how they work, on the simplest level.

(1) If the merchandise or the person is moving toward you (that is, you’re the destination), the appropriate verb is “bring.” Example: “I have something for you to read, so bring your glasses.”

(2) If the merchandise or the person is moving away from you (that is, you’re the point of origin), the appropriate verb is “take.” Example: “I’ve finished, so you can take my plate to the kitchen.”

Those examples are pretty clear, because in both situations you’re speaking from YOUR perspective—that is, you yourself are at the end point (as in #1) or the starting point (as in #2).

However, this won’t always be the case. And it’s these fuzzier areas that give people problems, as Pat writes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):

“There are gray areas where the bringing and the taking aren’t so clear. What if you’re the one toting the goods? Say you’re a dinner guest and you’re providing the wine. Do you bring it or do you take it? The answer depends on your perspective—on which end of the journey you’re talking about, the origin or the destination. ‘What shall I bring, white or red?’ you ask the host. ‘Bring red,’ he replies. (Both you and he are speaking of the wine from the point of view of its destination—the host.) Ten minutes later, you’re asking the wine merchant, ‘What should I take, a Burgundy or a Bordeaux?’ ‘Take this one,’ she says. (Both you and she are speaking of the wine from the point of view of its origin.)”

So the key to all of this is the speaker’s perspective or point of view, not simply which way things are moving.

Why, you ask, can’t New Yorkers keep “bring” and “take” straight? As we said, New Yorkers aren’t the only ones to stray from the traditional rules.

The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd ed., 1985) says, “The distinction between bring and take is one that today is honored in the breach almost as often as in the observance.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests that the rule books, not the rule breakers, may be partly to blame: “The problem, however, is not one of usage; it is of oversimplification on the part of the prescribers.”

The usage guide quotes the Longman Dictionary of the English Language (1984) as saying, “Either verb can be used where the point of view is irrelevant.”

M-W offers an example in which a woman notices clouds in the sky as she and her husband are about to go to an outdoor concert. “Don’t forget to bring the umbrella,” she says.

The use of “bring” here, M-W says, suggests that the woman “is already thinking of being at the concert and possibly needing the umbrella.”

“The notion of direction exists entirely in her head; it does not refer to her immediate external surroundings,” the usage guide says.

Merriam-Webster’s adds that the “direction implicit in bring (or take) in this instance is irrelevant” to the man or anyone else who may overhear the woman.

It offers two examples of this use of “bring” from Shakespeare. In Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99), for example, Dogberry tells Verges: “Go good partner, get you to Francis Seacoal; bid him bring his pen and inkhorn to the jail.”

However, many language authorities condemn this looser usage. The Harper usage guide describes it as “a debasement of our language.”

But M-W disagrees: “If it is such, the process of debasement has been going on for nearly 400 years, if not longer.”

Merriam-Webster’s also notes that in Elizabethan times the verb “bring” could mean to escort or accompany. In The Tempest (1612), for example, Shakespeare writes, “I’ll bring you to your ship.”

Although this sense of “bring” is now considered obsolete or dialectal, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has survived in several US regions.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has citations from New York, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Minnesota, and (yes) Iowa. Here’s a 1968 example from Louisiana: “I’ll go bring him home and then I’ll come back and get you.”

It’s possible that at least some of the bringing in New York that you find hard to take may be examples of this regional usage or instances in which M-W  would consider the choice of verbs irrelevant.

In other words, this “bring” and “take” business is a bit messier etymologically than most usage guides present it.

Nevertheless, we still follow the traditional distinction between “bring” and “take,” though Stewart (an ex-New Yorker) sometimes finds it hard to “take.”

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Is auguring the same as boding?

Q: I often hear that things “augur” or “bode” ill or well. So is there a difference between auguring and boding?

A: We can imagine these words in the name of a Dickensian law firm: Tulkinghorn, Sampson, Augur & Bode.

To answer your question, the verbs “augur” and “bode” here mean the same thing—to be an omen of—so they’re more or less interchangeable.

If something “augurs [or bodes] well,” it’s a good sign. But if something “augurs [or bodes] ill,” brace yourself.

Why does English have two words for the same thing? Because we got one from each of the two great language streams that make up the language—the Latinate (“augur”) and the Germanic (“bode”). Here are their stories.

In Latin, an augur was a religious official who interpreted portents and omens, then advised the government on matters of public business.

The Latin noun was the source of the French verb augurere (to foresee or predict), from which English acquired “augur” in 1549, both as a verb and as a noun (meaning a soothsayer).

When the verb was first recorded (sometimes spelled “inauger”), it meant “to induct into office or usher in with auguries; to inaugurate,” the OED says. (We touched on the “augur”/”inaugurate” connection in a posting a couple of years ago.)

In the early 1600s, “augur” was first used in the Roman sense—meaning “to divine, forebode, or anticipate,” the OED says. And by the late 18th century, it was used in speaking of things that promised to bring good or ill.

The first such usage is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in a letter of 1788: “One vote which augurs ill to the rights of the people.”

Now on to “bode,” a much older English word that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

In Old English, the verb bodian meant to announce, foretell, or predict, according to the OED. The earlier noun boda (messenger), was similar to words in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Icelandic, and Old Norse.

The word’s earliest meaning, in the late 900s or so, was “to announce beforehand, foretell, predict, prognosticate, presage,” the OED says. The modern spelling, “bode,” first appeared in the 1200s.

In the late 1300s, Oxford says, “bode” was first used in speaking of things rather than people, and meant “to give promise of, be indicative of, betoken, portend.”

Toward the end of the 17th century, the notion of “boding well” (or ill) was born. John Dryden’s play Aureng-Zebe (1676) includes the lines “Sir, give me leave to say, what ever now / The omen prove, it boded well to you.”

One final note. Don’t confuse “augur” with “auger,” a Germanic word for a tool that bores holes in things. The two words are unrelated.

In fact, the word for the tool used to begin with “n”—it was spelled “nauger.” But during the Middle English period, people mistook the phrase “a nauger” for “an auger,” and eventually the “n” was dropped.

A similar thing happened with “apron” (formerly “napron”), “adder” (once “nadder”), and other words. We’ve touched on this phenomenon in a post a couple of years ago.

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Grammar Usage

It’s all about ‘we the people’

Q: I’m trying to understand the implications of your post last May about “We the People.” In particular, can I use it as the object of a sentence for rhetorical impact if it’s in quotes? I’d like to use this sentence in a speech: “The US Constitution says our republic was ordained and established by quote We the People unquote.”

A: As we said in our blog item, the resonant and historically important phrase “we the people” is demeaned when it’s grammatically misused (as in, “Don’t trample on we the people!”).

But you’re not misusing the phrase in that sentence. By adding the words “quote” and “unquote,” it’s clear that you’re making a rhetorical allusion to the exact phrase used in the Preamble.

(We’ve written on the blog about this use of the words “quote” and “unquote.”)

In writing, of course, you could make the same point by using quotation marks and the original capitalization: “The Constitution says our republic was ordained and established by ‘We the People.’ ”

We quoted from the Preamble in our blog item last May, but let’s end this posting by doing it again:

“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.”

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Etymology Usage

Substitute teaching

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 20, 2021.]

Q: I’m wondering which of these is correct: “substitute A with B” or “substitute B for A”?

A: The sentences mean the same thing and both are accepted as standard English. But in our opinion, the “for” construction (as in “substitute B for A”) is preferable because it’s clearer. Here the preposition “for” means “in place of,” so you can easily tell which person or thing is being eliminated.

The “with” construction (as in “substitute A with B”), in which the verb “substitute” means “replace,” was once condemned by usage authorities but is now widely accepted. Here’s what Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has to say:

“In its oldest and still most common transitive sense, substitute means ‘to put or use in place of another.’ ” But MW adds that “substitute has also been used since the 17th century to mean ‘take the place of; replace,’ ” and despite criticism, it’s now “being used in this sense in standard writing on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The usage guide gives published examples that illustrate both senses of the verb: “substituted asceticism for beauty” and “substitute conjecture with facts.”

The British dictionary Lexico, among others, agrees, though it acknowledges the possibility of confusion: “Traditionally, the verb substitute is followed by for and means ‘put (someone or something) in place of another,’ as in she substituted the fake vase for the real one. From the late 17th century, substitute has also been used to mean ‘replace (someone or something) with someone or something else,’ as in she substituted the real vase with the fake one.”

As Lexico comments, “This can be confusing, since the two sentences shown above mean the same thing, yet the object of the verb and the object of the preposition have swapped positions. Despite the potential confusion, the second, newer use is well established … and is now generally regarded as part of standard English.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical usage, used to regard “substitute with” as incorrect but now treats it as standard. Oxford says that “substitute” as a transitive verb—that is, one with a direct object—can be accompanied by either “for” or “with.”

In “substitute for,” the dictionary says, the preposition points to “the person or thing being replaced.” And “substitute with” means “to fill the place of (a person or thing) with a replacement.”

That last use, in which “substitute” means “replace,” Oxford notes, “has been sometimes criticized … but is now generally regarded as part of normal standard English.” So the OED now accepts a sense of “substitute” that’s long been rejected by older and more conservative usage guides.

For instance, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2016) maintains its earlier view that “substitute” and “replace” are not interchangeable: “You substitute something for something else … but you replace something with something else.”

However, the newest edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, has accepted the shift.

The “substitute” entry in Fowler’s says that in its “normal uncontroversial sense” the verb is “construed with for” and means “to put (someone or something) in place of another.” But “beginning in the 17c., and running parallel to the normal sense, were transitive (often passive) uses in which the sense is ‘replace.’ ”  This sense of the verb, Fowler’s concludes, “has fully re-established itself.”

Now for some etymology. The English verb is derived from the Latin substituere, which meant to choose someone to fill another’s place. When the verb entered English in the 15th century, it mean to appoint someone to a role or position in place of another.

The first citation in the OED is from the Rolls of Parliament of Henry VI (February 1447) and refers to the appointing of schoolmasters: “Suche scole maistre … [he] may in his owne parich or place remove, and an other in his place substitute and sette.”

In the mid-16th century, people began using “substitute” for things as well as people. At first, it was used with such prepositional phrases as “in the place of,” “in one’s place,” “in one’s stead,” and so on. But it began appearing with “for” in the 17th century, as shown in the OED’s earliest example:

“Xylobalsamum is the Wood of the body, or of the branch, which the Shops sometimes substituted for the liquor” (The Valley of Varietie, by Henry Peacham, 1638).

However, a few decades later, transitive uses of the verb in the sense of “replace” began appearing. And the prepositions used with this sense, when was one needed, were “by” (late 17th century) and later “with” (mid-19th).

This is Oxford’s earliest citation for the “substitute with” usage: “I carried off a rabbit from the spit, and substituted it with the cat of my old aunt” (from The Barber of Paris, an 1839 translation of a French novel published by Charles Paul de Kock in 1826).

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Etymology Usage

Death sentences

Q: An NPR report on the death of the Indy driver Dan Wheldon while racing in Las Vegas last month said he “passed” rather than “died.” When did we begin to say the deceased “passed”? This seems rather quaint, but is it correct?

A: The subject of how we talk about death has been on our minds lately because we’ve been reading the collected letters of Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death (1963).

We had a posting a few years ago on the use of “pass” to mean “die,” but we’ll revive it here with an excerpt from the third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

As we wrote in the earlier posting, the verb “pass” passed into English in the early 13th century by way of England’s Norman rulers.

The English verb has been used in reference to dying since around the year 1230, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Many of the early published references cited in the OED use it in the verbal phrases “pass to God” or “pass to heaven.”  The verbal phrase “pass away,” which is more common today, dates from the 14th century.

The word “pass” has been used by itself since around 1340 as a verb meaning to die. The OED cites published references in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and many other writers.

Here’s an example from King Lear (1608): “Vex not his ghost, / O let him passe.” The OED says, however, that this use of “pass” alone for “die” is now primarily North American.

We too have noticed a resurgence of this usage in recent years (for example, “Uncle Julius passed a year ago”), and it’s not surprising. We’re very inventive about speaking of death without actually mentioning it.

Is the usage legit? Yes, especially in the US, but we prefer using plain old “die,” whch entered English in the early 12th century, when we mean “die.” This is what Pat has to say about it in Woe Is I:

“You’ve probably noticed that death is a favorite playground of clichés. This is too bad. In situations where people most need sincerity, what do they get? Denial. There’s no shame in saying somebody died, but the vocabulary of mortality avoids it. Think again before using expressions like passed away or passed on (sometimes reduced to just passed ), untimely end, cut down in his prime, called to his Maker, called away, great beyond, this mortal coil, bought the farm, hopped the twig (a variation on fell off his perch), kicked the bucket, gone to a better place, handed in his dinner pail, checked out, grim reaper, in the midst of life, irreparable loss, broke the mold, vale of tears, time heals all, words can’t express, tower of strength, or he looks like he’s sleeping.”

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Grammar Punctuation Usage

A cereal comma?

Q: I’ve noticed that the NY Times has changed its comma rule for punctuating words in a series. The paper now drops the comma before the last item. Example: “Cheerios, Fruit Loops and Rice Krispies.” This can be confusing. Any idea how the Times arrived at this decision?

A: As far as we know, this has always been the Times’s policy on commas. Like many newspapers, it doesn’t use a final comma before the last item in a series.

The paper’s most recent style guide (1999) says: “In general, do not use a comma before and or or in a series.” The Times’s policy was the same in the previous style guide (1976).

When the two of us worked for the Times, we naturally followed the rule. But we think, as you do, that the final serial comma (sometimes called the Oxford comma) is a good idea and aids in readability. We use it in our blog.

We’ve written postings in 2011 and 2010 on the subject. The latest one includes some speculation (not by us!) about why newspapers omit the serial comma.

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Are these Pink Floyd lyrics crazy?

Q: Your discussion of “bats in the belfry” reminded me of the Pink Floyd lyrics “Toys in the attic I am crazy, / Truly gone fishing. / They must have taken my marbles away.” Would you care to comment on any of these?

A: Like “bats in the belfry,” the expressions in that Pink Floyd song, “The Trial,” are references to being crazy.

If people say you have “toys in the attic,” you’ve “gone fishing,” or you’ve “lost your marbles,” they mean you’re bonkers.

The song was written by Roger Waters and Bob Ezrin for the 1979 album (and rock opera) The Wall.

Let’s look at these loony expressions one at a time, starting with “toys in the attic.”

Since the early 19th century, “attic” has been used as a slang word for the head. (Seems appropriate, no?) Green’s Dictionary of Slang records this whimsical couplet from 1803: “Cram not your attics / With dry mathematics.”

Green’s says that “to have toys in the attic” means “to be eccentric, to be insane, to be simple, childlike.” The dictionary’s first citation is from John Sayles’s novel Union Dues (1977): “Another one with toys in the attic.”

But the expression is at least a couple of years older than that. “Toys in the Attic” was the title track on an album released by Aerosmith in 1975, and it’s about lunacy all right.

A less loony phrase, “gone fishing,” is sometimes used to mean out of it or not quite all there. We’ve been unable to document this usage in any standard slang reference books, but it’s alive and well on several Internet sites and in discussion groups.

The usage seems logical to us, since “gone fishing” is widely used as a whimsical way of saying “absent,” “temporarily closed,” or “on vacation.” If “gone fishing” can mean physically absent, why not mentally absent as well?

On to “marbles,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says is used colloquially to mean “mental faculties; brains; common sense.”

This sense of “marbles” originated in North America in the early 20th century, the OED says, noting that it usually appears in the phrases “to lose one’s marbles, to have (also not have) all one’s marbles, and variants.”

The OED’s first citation for the usage is from George Vere Hobart’s novel It’s Up to You (1902): “I see-sawed back and forth between Clara J. and the smoke-holder like a man who is shy some of his marbles.”

And since we never pass up a chance to quote P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a citation from his novel Cocktail Time (1958): “Do men who have got all their marbles go swimming in lakes with their clothes on?”

We’d better quit, while we still have a few marbles left.

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Grammar Usage

When passive isn’t wimpy

Q: As an academic I do a lot of writing and editing. Do you have an opinion on the use of active versus passive voice?

A: In general, the active voice is stronger and more direct. But don’t rule out the passive voice entirely. In some circumstances passive verbs are more effective. It all depends on what you’re writing.

We’re sure you’ve heard or read all the familiar arguments against the use of the passive. It’s often weaker or less forceful; it can sound wishy-washy; it omits the agent of an action and thus conceals the perpetrator, and so on.

In fact, many usage commentators issue blanket indictments against the passive voice. But they go too far.

Passive verbs can be used quite effectively by a skilled writer, and they have more forms than people think. Pat discusses the use of the passive voice in her book Words Fail Me. Here’s what she says in its favor:

“As for passive verbs, before condemning them I’ll offer a word or two in their defense. You might prefer them in situations like these:

“• When it’s not important to say who did something. (The merchandise was stowed in the cargo hold.)

“• When you’d rather not say who’s responsible. (My homework has been lost.)

“• When you don’t know whodunit. (Norman’s manuscript was stolen.)

“• When you want to delay the punch line. (Julia was done in by a spinach soufflé.)”

Pat covers much of the same ground in Woe Is I, where she says the passive voice is handy when you “want to place the one performing the action at the end of the sentence for emphasis or surprise.”

Here’s her example of this usage: “The gold medal in the five-hundred-meter one-man bobsled competition has been won by a six-year-old child!”

The passive is also appropriate, she writes, when it’s irrelevant who performed an action, as in these sentences: “Hermione has been arrested. Witherspoon is being treated for the gunshot wound.” There’s no need to know “who put the cuffs on Hermione, or who’s stitching up Witherspoon.”

So the choice of which voice to use—active or passive—should depend on what you’re writing and on your individual style. Certainly active verbs are more forceful most of the time. But not always. This is a judgment you have to make for yourself.

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Etymology Usage

Trust busting

Q: In one of the recent Republican debates, Rick Perry used “untrustworthy” instead of the appropriate “distrustful” or ”mistrustful.” Do we have another case of a Texas pol whose language is full of malapropisms, or is this unusual for him?

A: In the Oct. 11 campaign debate, Governor Perry said, “One of the reasons that I think Americans are so untrustworthy of what’s going on in Washington is because they never see a cut in spending.”

We won’t comment on Governor Perry’s grasp of English, beyond discussing the issue at hand—the mistaken use of “untrustworthy” to mean “distrustful” or “mistrustful.”

Someone who’s “untrustworthy” can’t be trusted. But someone who’s “mistrustful” or “distrustful” doesn’t trust someone else.

Understanding the difference is simply a matter of keeping one’s prefixes and suffixes straight.

The “un-” in the word “untrustworthy” means “not,” and the “-worthy” part means “deserving.” So an untrustworthy person or thing is not deserving of trust.

As for “distrustful” and “mistrustful,” the prefixes “dis-“ and “mis-“ are negatives and the suffix “-ful” means “full of” or “characterized by.” So if you’re distrustful or mistrustful, you don’t trust someone or something.

At the center of all these words is the noun “trust,” which has been around since the early 1200s and comes from Old Norse.

Derivatives that include “-worthy” (“trustworthy,” “trustworthiness,” “untrustworthy”) weren’t used until the 19th century.

“Untrustworthy,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, was first recorded in 1846 in Joseph Emerson Worcester’s A Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language.

The OED has a couple of citations for the adjective used in writing.

John Ruskin wrote in The Stones of Venice (1853): “Knowledge is not only very often unnecessary, but it is often untrustworthy.”

And Reginald Bosworth Smith wrote in Carthage and the Carthaginians (1878): “The Gauls, untrustworthy as ever—except when led by Hannibal—were drawn up on a hill to the left.”

Derivatives of “trust” that include the “-ful” suffix (“trustful,” “distrustful,” “mistrustful”) date back to the 1500s.

We’ll end with a 1529 example from Thomas More. In his Dialogue Concerning Heresies, he wonders “what wysedom were it nowe therein to shewe oure selfe so mystrustfull and waueryng ….. of god.”

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Grammar Usage


Q: I find the use of “and/or” annoying, but I’m not always certain which conjunction to use. Examples: “Hunting and fishing are prohibited” versus “Hunting or fishing is prohibited.” The first example suggests that someone can hunt or fish, but not do both. The second makes the reader guess which activity (hunting or fishing) is prohibited.

A: We don’t like the clunky “and/or” construction either. In a posting a few years ago, we wrote that there’s usually a more graceful way of saying this, even if it means adding an extra word or two.

Of the following two sentences, we wrote, we’d go with No. 2:

(1) “Would you like mustard and/or relish on your hot dog?”

(2) “Would you like mustard, relish, or both on your hot dog?”

To be fair, this use of “and/or” has a history. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a formula denoting that the items joined by it can be taken either together or as alternatives.”

The OED’s first citation is from an 1855 report in a law journal about “a full and complete cargo of sugar, molasses,  and/or other lawful produce.”

Although the usage is often seen in legal, academic, and bureaucratic writing, some of the OED citations touch on down-to-earth subjects.

The most recent one, for example, is from Nigella Lawson’s book How to Eat (1999): “Grate in a cooking apple and or a quince.” (The 2002 edition has “Grate into it a cooking apple or a quince.”)

Getting back to your question, one can think too much about this “and/or” business.

Yes, your first example (“Hunting and fishing are prohibited”) could in theory be read to mean it’s OK to hunt or fish, but not to do both. However, we can’t imagine anyone actually reading it that way.

As for your second example (“Hunting or fishing is prohibited”), it clearly means that either one—hunting or fishing—is prohibited. In other words, you can’t hunt, or fish, or hunt and fish.

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Punctuation Usage

A sign of the Times’s?

Q: On the Authors page of your website, you say Pat once “wrote the Times’s weekly columns on new video releases and paperback books.” Why do you add an “s” after the apostrophe in “Times’s”? I would think one “s” is enough.

A: The New York Times, like the Times of London, treats the “Times” in its name as a singular word. Thus when used as a possessive, the name “Times” is followed by an apostrophe plus another “s.”

Though this practice is a longstanding newspaper tradition, it’s not endorsed by standard guides on usage. So you’re right to question our use of the extra “s.” But in our opinion, this is a style issue that’s neither right nor wrong.

Within an entry about the use of apostrophes, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says: “Almost all singular words ending in s require a second s as well as the apostrophe to form the possessive: James’s; Chris’s; The Times’s.”

Elsewhere, in an entry about the use of the newspaper’s name, the manual says: “Note the possessive: The Times’s coverage.”

And in an entry about possessives in general, it says: “Ordinarily form a possessive by adding ’s to a singular noun (the boy’s boots; the girl’s coat), even if the noun already ends in an s (The Times’s article).”

But the paper doesn’t extend this rule to other proper names that consist of technically plural words: “Sometimes a singular idea is expressed in words that are technically plural; in such a case, use the plural form of the possessive: United States’; General Motors’. Never United States’s, etc.”

Is this a double standard? Is the paper making an exception for itself?

For an answer we turned to The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.). In its rules on possessives, the style guide has a section about nouns that are plural in form but singular in meaning.

The Chicago Manual recommends adding only an apostrophe “when the name of a place or an organization or a publication (or the last element in the name) is a plural form ending in s, such as the United States, even though the entity is singular.”

The examples given are “the United States’ role in international law … Highland Hills’ late mayor … Callaway Gardens’ former curator … the National Academy of Sciences’ new policy.”

In a separate entry, the Chicago Manual discusses the use of apostrophes with italics (it recommends italicizing the names of publications). It gives these examples: “the Atlantic Monthly’s editor … the New York Times’ new fashion editor.”

So it appears that the newspaper does indeed have a double standard, allowing “Times” to be singular in its own name, but not “Motors” (in “General Motors”) or “States” (in “United States”).

But there’s some justification for this.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for many senses of the plural “times,”  including “the general state of affairs at a particular period.” This is the sense of the word that has appeared in the names of newspapers since 1788.

The Times of London, the first to use “Times” in its name, treats the word as a singular when referring to itself.

For example, a section called “Bricks and Mortar” is advertised as “The Times’s weekly property supplement.”

And recent news articles include such references as “before The Times’s revelations” … “not even The Times’s esteemed chief theatre critic” … “since the beginning of The Times’s campaign” … “The Times’s respected rugby correspondent” … “The Times’s profile of him.”

And the Financial Times has the same policy (“the Financial Times’s London office” … “the Financial Times’s analysis of health department figures”), though it modestly refrains from capitalizing “the.”

There’s one other point to be made here. If the possessive form changes in pronunciation (for example, from TIMES to TIMES-ez), then it’s usually spelled with an extra “s.”

The two of us worked at the New York Times for many years, and we know that the possessive form of the name is commonly pronounced with the extra syllable. But we don’t usually hear the extra “ez” in the possessive forms of “General Motors” and “United States.”

So we’ll stick with the extra “s” when we write the possessive form: “Times’s.” But those who choose to omit it may do so with a clean conscience.

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Etymology Grammar Usage

Pay day

Q: The “re-” prefix in “reimburse” indicates a repetition, but exactly what is being repeated? I don’t see “imbursement” in my dictionary.

A: The verb  “reimburse” is an interesting word. When you peel away the prefixes, you find a purse! But let’s put the purse aside for a moment and answer your question.

The term “imbursement” is indeed a word (a noun meaning a payment), but you won’t find it in contemporary standard dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the noun as rare and has only two citations, one from 1665 and the other from 1762.

Nevertheless, you’ll get more than 100,000 hits for “imbursement” in a Google search, though most seem to be from stuffed shirts whose mother tongue is bureaucratese.

As for “reimburse,” the prefix “re-” here means “back” or “again,” and the prefix “im-” means “in” or “into.”

Remove the first prefix and you have the rare verb “imburse,” which means to store up—literally, to put into a purse. Remove the second prefix and you have the purse.

In the 1500s, “burse” was another word for the much earlier “purse,” which had been around since Old English. And the similarity between “burse” and “purse” isn’t accidental.

English adopted “burse”—though briefly—from the French word bourse (a purse or wallet). The French got it from the medieval Latin bursa (a bag or purse), but the ultimate source was the Greek byrsa (leather, hide).

English really didn’t need “burse” since it had already acquired “purse” from the Latin bursa several centuries earlier.

But “burse” lived on in other English words: the two rarities “imburse” and “imbursement,” as well as “reimburse” and “reimbursement.” Most of them entered English in the 16th century.

How, you may wonder, did the “b” in bursa became a “p” in “purse”?

A possible influence, according to the OED, may have been the Germanic synonyms for “bag” that were spelled with “p”—pusa and posa in Old English, posi in Old Icelandic, phose in Middle High German, and so on.

Whatever the reason, here’s another spelling oddity. English kept two words—“purser” and “bursar”—that came from the same Latin word (bursarius) and have related meanings.

Finally, how did “bourse,” a French word for a purse, come to mean a stock exchange or money market in Europe and other parts of the world?

The usage, according to accounts in the OED, originated in Bruges or Antwerp, where a house in which merchants met to transact business bore the sign of a purse (or of three purses).

“Some say this was the arms of the former owners, the family Bursa or de la Bourse,” the OED adds.

London’s stock exchange was once called “the Burse,” and today the exchanges in many cities (notably Paris) are called “the Bourse.”

We’ll stop for today, since we’re getting bursitis (inflammation of a “bursa,” or synovial sac).

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Etymology Usage

The great deign

Q: On the recent 20th anniversary of Clarence Thomas’s joining the Supreme Court, I was reminded of his characterization of the Senate hearings as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” As an uppity black who dares to think for myself, I was scandalized that a Yale Law School graduate didn’t know the meaning of “deign.”

A: We don’t think anyone has ever written to us before about “deign,” probably because it’s only occasionally used these days. That’s a shame, because it’s a great old word and deserves to be preserved.

You’re right—it doesn’t mean dare. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it this way: “To think it worthy of oneself (to do something); to think fit, vouchsafe, condescend.”

In Justice Thomas’s defense, we might note that “deign” isn’t exactly a household word. (Many of the Google hits it fetches are misspellings of “design.”) On the other hand, anybody who uses an uncommon word should be sure he knows what it means.

When “deign” does legitimately appear it’s often used in a negative way, as in this example from the New York Times a couple of months ago:

“Celebrities and other well-heeled folks don’t usually deign to engage in such hoi-polloi amusements as Whac-a-Mole.”

Or as in this headline, from the Onion, about last spring’s royal nuptials: “Millions of People Prince William Would Never Deign To Speak To Captivated By Royal Wedding.”

In fact, there’s a certain dignity—whether royal or not—in deigning to do something.

The Latin ancestor of “deign” is dignare (to deem worthy or think fit), from dignus (worthy). And “deign” has several English relatives from the same Latin source: “dignity,” “dignify,” “disdain,” “indignant,” and a distant cousin, “dainty.”

The verb “deign” came into English from Old French in the early 1300s, according to citations in the OED. It can be found in English literature from Chaucer to Milton and beyond.

Here it is in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (from the 1590s): “And all those friends, that deine to follow mee.” And here it is in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Raphael, the sociable Spirit, that deign’d / To travel with Tobias.”

More recently, we like this citation (which we’ve expanded) from Matthew Arnold’s Mixed Essays (1879): “The grave and silent peasant whose very dog will hardly deign to bark at you.” In other words, the dog will barely dignify you with a bark!

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Grammar Punctuation Spelling Usage

Its/it’s: Grammar, punctuation, spelling?

Q: Over dinner, a friend said she had corrected a co-worker’s mistaken use of “its” where “it’s” was appropriate. She described this as a grammatical error, but our dinner party was evenly split over whether it was grammar or spelling. Any chance you can shed some light on this?

A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.

But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.

It also represents a failure to recognize that possessive pronouns don’t sport apostrophes.

So the problem is more than just a spelling goof in our opinion. That probably puts us into the grammar-error camp.

You might be interested in a blog entry we wrote last year about how the apostrophe came to be the mark of possession.

If any reader of the blog is confused by “its” and “it’s,” check out our 2007 posting about the “it” squad.

In the meantime, here’s an easy way to keep “its” and “it’s” straight: If you can substitute “it is” or “it has,” then “it’s” is right. Otherwise, choose “its.”

(The language blogger Jan Freeman argues that these “its”/“it’s” errors are merely typos, but comments from readers of our books, articles, and postings over the last 15 years suggest otherwise. Although a lot of the mistakes are undoubtedly typos, many, many people believe the presence of an apostrophe in “it’s” makes it a possessive. In fact, Pat’s first book, Woe Is I, was inspired by a publisher whose highly educated, adult children didn’t know the difference between these two words.)

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